Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

History | Living History Demonstrations

 

Description

Fort Vancouver was the administrative headquarters and main supply depot for the Hudson's Bay Company's fur trading operations in the immense Columbia Department. Under the leadership of John McLoughlin, the fort became the center of political, cultural, and commercial activities in the Pacific Northwest. When American immigrants arrived in the Oregon Country during the 1830s and 1840s, Fort Vancouver provided them with essential supplies to begin their new settlements.

In 1996, the 366-acre Vancouver National Historic Reserve was established to protect adjacent, historically significant historical areas. It includes Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, as well as Vancouver Barracks, Officers' Row, Pearson Field, The Water Resources Education Center, and portions of the Columbia River waterfront. The General O.O. Howard House serves as the visitor center for the Reserve, and is staffed by National Park Service personnel.

 

Site Information

Hours:  March 1 to October 31: 9:00am to 5:00pm daily November 1 to February 28, 2001: 9:00am to 4:00pm daily Closed on November 23 and December 24-25.

Directions:
From I-5, take the Mill Plain exit and head east. Turn south onto Fort Vancouver Way. At the traffic circle, go east on Evergreen Boulevard and follow signs to the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center. The reconstructed fort site is south of the visitor center - follow the parkroad which connects the visitor center parking lot to the fort parking lot.

From I-205, go west on Highway 14 about six miles, then take I-5 north. From I-5, take the Mill Plain exit and head east. Turn south onto Fort Vancouver Way. At the traffic circle, go east on Evergreen Boulevard and follow signs to the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center. The reconstructed fort site is south of the visitor center - follow the park road which connects the visitor center parking lot to the fort parking lot.

Fees:  
Family - $5 - 7 Days
Individual - $3 - 7 Days

Weather:  Cool and rainy fall, winter, and spring. Warm, mostly dry summers.

 

History

"The head post and the most important of these English establishments is the settlement founded by Dr. John McLoughlin. Fort Vancouver has become the center of a flourishing commerce, for to this point come wares from all other forts in this territory and from this fort trains and groups of porters also depart to distribute merchandise to all inland stations."
Eugene Duflot de Mofras,1841

Welcome to Fort Vancouver, an important, unexpected, and surprising place. It was established on the sloping bank of the Columbia River to serve as the British Hudson's Bay Company's main depot west of the Rocky Mountains. The simple plan of the company was to collect all the fur bearing animals from an area that now encompasses British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and Idaho - the immense Columbia Department of the Hudson's Bay Company. Eventually this meant building about two dozen trading posts, utilizing six ships, and employing 600 men during peak seasons. Large groups of company trappers scoured the area for furs and established relationships with dozens of different Native groups speaking dozens of different languages. However, Fort Vancouver's activities went far beyond administering this fur trade.

"And behold the Vancouver farm, stretching up and down the river-- 3,000 acres, fenced into beautiful fields- - sprinkled with dairy houses, and herdsmen and shepherds' cottages! A busy place is this. The blacksmith is repairing ploughshares, harrow teeth, chains, and mill irons; the tinman is making cups for the Indians, and camp kettles, &c.; the wheelright is making wagons, and the wood parts of ploughs and harrows, the carpenter is repairing houses and building new ones; the cooper is making barrels for pickling salmon and packing furs; the clerks are posting books, and preparing the annual returns to the board in London; the salesmen are receiving beaver and dealing out goods."
Thomas Jefferson Farnham, 1839

Farnham was correct. Fort Vancouver was a busy and extensive place. It boasted thousands of acres of crops and thousands of head of livestock. Nearly a million board feet of lumber were sawn at their sawmill, and the gristmill ground wheat into flour night and day. Small shops churned out barrels, iron goods such as traps and axes, ship's biscuit and other provisions, and leather. Boats and ships were built at the shipyard in the riverside complex. Upwards of two hundred employees lived with their families in a village near the fort, with a church, schoolhouses, and hospital nearby. As such a large, well-stocked settlement it attracted the attention of many travelers and visitors.

"We are now in Vancouver, the New York of the Pacific Ocean."
Narcissa Whitman, 1836

The arrival of American missionaries in the Northwest signaled a change in the future of the area. Methodist missionaries established stations in the Willamette Valley and the Whitman Mission was begun east of the Cascade mountains at Waillatpu. These missionaries received extensive aid from the Hudson's Bay Company. Impressed with the opportunities found in the Oregon Country, as witnessed at Fort Vancouver, their letters and reports home led to increased American interest in the region. Starting in the early 1840s, a small trickle of immigrants quickly became a steady stream and turned the balance in favor of the United States. For many immigrants, their survival rested upon the generosity of the British company. The Treaty of Oregon in 1846 put the land south of the 49th parallel in American possession but also assured the Hudson's Bay Company of its rights to continue its operation at posts in the area. Secure United States control of the area did not happen until the arrival of the U.S. Army in 1849 however.

"I am now encamped with my command, in the vicinity of Fort Vancouver. The Co. have quite an extensive establishment situated in the most beautiful little prairie you can imagine. I hope our Government has come to some terms with the H.B. Co. by which we will come into possession of their property."
Brevet Major John S. Hatheway, U.S. Army, 1849

The army established their camp near the stockade of the British fort and began to build the post that would eventually become Vancouver Barracks. The fortunes of the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver had begun to fade. They moved their headquarters to Fort Victoria and operations declined. Increasing encroachment by settlers and the U.S. Army chipped away the company lands. Fences, buildings, and the cemetery were destroyed as they expanded their land holdings. In 1860, the Hudson's Bay Company finally left the area and the rest of the buildings and stockade disappeared over time. Fortunately, however, the important role that this British post played in the development of the Northwest was not forgotten. Today, you can visit and learn of this important, surprising, and unexpected place of our heritage.

 

Living History Demonstrations

Blacksmith Shop
The art of blacksmithing comes to life Thursday through Monday in Fort Vancouver's blacksmith shop. Staff and volunteer blacksmiths share their knowledge with visitors while producing a variety of metal items using traditional forging methods.

Historically, Fort Vancouver's blacksmith shop was the largest metal working enterprise in the Oregon Country. Four full-time blacksmiths and several helpers produced equipment and hardware to supply two dozen forts in the Columbia Department and items to trade with Native Americans. Later, smiths produced tools and items which helped American settlers establish themselves in the Oregon territory. Axes, plows, hoes, beaver traps, wagon parts, nails, door latches and other metal items were manufactured using forges fired with British coal.

 

The Kitchen
Experience the sights and mouthwatering smells of a 19th century kitchen. On summer weekends, interpreters in period clothing prepare traditional recipes using a wood heated oven and hearth.

The kitchen at Fort Vancouver was traditionally a very busy place. Two kitchen stewards and several helpers busily prepared meals for the 25 or more people living inside the fort palisade. Most food was produced by the Hudson's Bay Company's agricultural enterprise. The Company raised several thousand head of livestock, cultivated 1,500 acres of field crops such as potatoes, wheat and barley, and maintained an orchard and kitchen garden.

 

Carpenter Shop
The sound of hammering and the smell of freshly-sawn wood once again fill the Carpenter Shop on Tuesdays and Wednesdays throughout the summer. Carpenters in period clothing share 1840's carpentry techniques and history with visitors.

In 1845, five carpenters and several laborers worked in the shop, producing simple "country made" furniture, windows, doors, coffins, ox yolks, and other necessities fashioned from the locally abundant timber. Surplus goods were sold to newly arriving American settlers. Carpenters were also kept busy constructing new buildings and dismantling old ones, with only hand tools to fit the joints and muscle power to lift massive beams.

 

Bakehouse
The Bakehouse at Fort Vancouver employed two or three men year round, who were kept busy supplying the daily rations of biscuit ("sea biscuits" or "hard tack") for the labor force at Fort Vancouver. The Bakehouse also produced biscuit for exportation to sites that did not have baking ovens, and much of the supply for the Company's ships. Demonstrations in the reconstructed Bakehouse occur on special event days.

On Fridays in the spring, a special hands-on program is also available for school classes of 15-30 students. In this program, students spend an hour in the Bakehouse learning about and participating in various duties associated with a Hudson's Bay Company baker of 1845. While wearing period clothing, students make dough and roll out sea biscuits, place the biscuits inside and remove them from a (non-heated) Bakehouse oven, and clean laundry with washboards and buckets. The hands-on program is completely full for this spring, and reservations are no longer being taken. However, if you are interested in participating during 2001, reservations are on a first-come first-served basis beginning in September.

 

1845 Period Garden
Stroll through the 1845 period garden and admire the produce, ornamental shrubs, and flowers grown from heritage seeds. Staff and several dedicated volunteers tend today's plantings with loving care.

Fort Vancouver's original garden was the equal of many English manor gardens. Within its five acres grew an astounding array of carefully tended greenery, both edible and ornamental. Hudson's Bay Company laborers traditionally grew many varieties of tomatoes, onions, lettuce, potatoes, and herbs. Most produce ended up on the mess hall table where the upper class dined in elegance. Even rare delicacies such as oranges, lemons and figs were grown in hothouses. Such importance was attached to the garden that Chief Factor John McLoughlin sent the fort's gardener, Scotsman William Bruce, to the Cheswick Estate in England for training in the finer points of horticulture.

 

 

 

For Additional Information Contact:

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site
612 E. Reserve St.
Vancouver, WA 98661-3897
(800) 832-3599

 

For more information visit the National Park Service website