All Over The Map: Fort Vancouver ruled when Washington was ‘a few miles of pine swamp’

Aug 21, 2020, 9:48 AM | Updated: 11:56 am

It was sad news a few days ago when it was reported that a 194-year old apple tree had died near Fort Vancouver along the Columbia River.

However, that tree’s demise is a good excuse to point out that 2025 – just a few short years from now — will mark the bicentennial of the original dedication of the fort by officials from the Hudson’s Bay Company.

It was on March 19, 1825 when those officials from the royally chartered fur and trading giant pulled up stakes across the Columbia and down river at what’s now Astoria – where an earlier failed fur trading operation had begun in 1811.

This was in the time when the British government knew they would eventually negotiate a border between British and American interests to split the old Oregon Country – which had been home to Natives for a millennia, of course. The Brits thought they would get legal possession of everything north of the Columbia, and so Hudson’s Bay management decided that setting up new headquarters on the north bank made more sense in the long-term.

Led by the iconic figure John McLoughlin – the Hudson’s Bay leader nicknamed the “White-Headed Eagle” – the traders picked a spot near where the Willamette River enters the Columbia. Here they mapped out a rectangle measuring 750 by 500 feet, with a surrounding fence made of 20-foot timbers. Buildings, including some of the first in the Pacific Northwest to include features such as milled lumber and glass windows, would be added to the fort gradually over the next several years.

The name for the outpost was chosen to not-so-subtly tie commercials interests to Captain George Vancouver’s efforts exploring and claiming the river for Great Britain 30 years earlier. The site of Fort Vancouver is believed to be the farthest point reached by Lieutenant William Broughton, whom Captain Vancouver had dispatched in 1792 to explore the river (after Vancouver had earlier sailed right past the mouth and failed to notice it).

It was just a year later, in 1826, when that famous apple tree was planted, using seeds brought from London. Fort Vancouver was just a year old.

As that tree got taller and more robust over the next 20 years, so, too, did Fort Vancouver grow, becoming the hub of activity for the region. Pretty much every historical figure of that era who came to the Oregon Country stopped at Fort Vancouver at some point during their journey.

The Hudson’s Bay Company part of the story would be plenty on its own, but Fort Vancouver has a couple of other important chapters.

That debate over the border was punted a few times by the diplomats in London and Washington, D.C. This meant that the old Oregon Country – mostly what’s now Washington, Oregon, and Idaho – was jointly occupied by Americans and British for about 30 years. During this time, more and more American settlers arrived in what’s now Washington – land that some Brits had once considered theirs – to the point where Americans outnumbered the British and likely helped sway those distant negotiations about the border.

Some historians say there was a sense that the British – specifically, the ones far away in Britain – didn’t fully appreciate the difference that lay between the Columbia River and the 49th parallel as the border – essentially, what’s now Washington – and that they didn’t really know what they were giving up by agreeing to extending the boundary already in place in the central United States.

As an academic history book published in Canada in the 1940s put it, “The British statesmen took little interest in what one described as ‘a few miles of pine swamp.'”

Ouch. This, of course, was many years before “Say WA” and other attempts to lure tourists and investors to this now beloved “pine swamp.”

When the border was finally settled by the Treaty of 1846 at the 49th parallel, once again, Hudson’s Bay Company had to move their headquarters north. It was in anticipation of this that they founded Fort Victoria – what’s now the city of Victoria – on Vancouver Island.

And it’s also around this time in 1849 when one of the most interesting periods of Fort Vancouver history began. In June of that year, the U.S. Army arrived and set up what came to be called Columbia Barracks (after first being called “Camp Vancouver”). This was an army base right next to the old Hudson’s Bay fort complex. It’s interesting, because the Hudson’s Bay people were still there — the 1846 treaty gave them that right – and not everyone had moved to Fort Victoria.

What followed was a decade or so composing much of the 1850s, when the American military and the British traders were, at times, uneasy neighbors. It started off cordially, but descended every now and then into petty disputes as the American presence grew and Hudson’s Bay ramped down. At one point, even the diplomats in London and Washington, D.C. got involved to try and get their people at faraway Fort Vancouver to simmer down.

Finally, in 1860, the Hudson’s Bay people packed up the last bits of their property and decamped for Fort Victoria. Within a few years, nearby settlers in the growing city of Vancouver – which was temporarily named Columbia City for awhile – had helped themselves to lumber and carted away other pieces of the old Hudson’s Bay buildings. By 1865 or so, what little evidence of the old fort that was left had collapsed and then was burned down in an intentional fire to clear the land.

The U.S. Army maintained a large presence at Fort Vancouver throughout the 19th century during the Civil War, Indian Wars, and Spanish-American War, then in the 20th century during World War I and World War II. Some notable military figures stationed at Fort Vancouver (or its other iterations – Columbia Barracks, Vancouver Barracks) include Ulysses S. Grant; Phillip Sheridan; George Pickett; and George C. Marshall.

It was in the late 1940s when much of property was declared surplus and readied for transfer to the National Park Service.

Not long after that, an archaeology project got underway to locate the site of the original buildings. The current Fort Vancouver National Historic Site opened to the public in 1961; throughout the 1960s and 1970s replicas of the original walls and buildings were constructed to re-create much of the old Hudson’s Bay-era fort. The U.S. Army maintained a reserve presence at their facility – known then as the Vancouver Barracks – until 2011.

Whatever you call it, the 200th anniversary of this unique resource is right around the corner, historically speaking, and 2025 will be yet another great excuse to commemorate the Evergreen State’s history.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Fort Vancouver ruled when Washington was ‘a few miles of pine swamp’