In today’s post counting down to the book launch of The Shifting Winds, we’ll visit the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver, a thriving center of British civilization in the wilderness of the Oregon Country in the nineteenth century. When the story begins, this fort has been the center of the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest for seventeen years, having been established in 1825. Today, the city of Vancouver, Washington, has grown up around the site, and with archeological investigation and in-depth study of early drawings and descriptions, an elaborate reconstruction project has brought back the palisade walls and many of the buildings, offering a glimpse into the fort’s glory days. It’s now a National Historic Site maintained by the National Park Service.
National Park Service photo by Troy Wayrynen
The above photo provides an artistic portrayal of a finely crafted lantern with the fort bastion behind. This fort was no rustic outpost. The commander’s residence, an elegant two-story house which he shared with his second in command, looked like a mansion to protagonist Jennie Haviland. The house included a public sitting room and formal dining hall for gentlemen, where substantial meals were served, sometimes with wine, but no “spiritous liquors.” Within the palisade walls the company was a self-sufficient establishment with workshops for carpenters, blacksmiths, coopers and others, as well as a school house, a chapel, a brick and stone powder house, and more. Outside, farming activities required more employees than the fur enterprise.
National Park Service photo by Troy Wayrynen
In the above photo taken at the beautifully reconstructed site, you can see some of the gardens typical of the fort’s past, and behind the gardens, the palisade walls with bastion at the corner. The large hip-roofed building on the far left with the chimney is the Big House where Dr. John McLoughlin lived as Chief Factor of the fort.
When the Company sent Dr. McLoughlin out to the Oregon Country, he selected this site for the Company’s western headquarters because he found a broad fertile plain there and he intended to grow things while conducting the fur trade. Grain, fruits, and vegetables flourished on this land, as well as livestock. He also wanted a site on the north side of the Columbia River because the British had recently made an offer to the United States to resolve a contentious boundary dispute, agreeing to set the boundary between the two nations along the Columbia. That would have essentially given today’s Washington State to the British. I guess we all know that offer was not accepted.
The Company initially built the fort a short distance inland from the final location, but after four years they moved it closer to the river and gradually developed the remarkable establishment it became.
National Park Service photo
The Company employed many people, and while some lived inside the fort walls, many more lived in a village just outside. Some of the reconstructed buildings of the village are shown in the above photo.
When Jennie visits the fort in our story, she’s curious about the houses outside the walls and asks her escort Alan Radford about them. He tells her they’re the workmen’s cabins, and she asks, “‘Do you live in one of these cabins?”
“Oh no. I live inside the fort. The gentlemen live inside.’
“‘Oh.’ She puzzled over that. ‘How do you decide?’
“‘Yes. How do you decide who’s a gentleman?’
“‘Well, the officers and clerks are gentlemen, and the common workers are not. It’s simple enough.’”
Jennie finds that surprising but focuses on the fort as the wagon carries them inside. She’s amazed. “‘It’s like a small city right here inside the walls.’
“Lights glittered around her now, twinkling from the many windows of the fort buildings—glass windows, real glass windows. And the buildings! There were real frame buildings. Not simple little crude log cabins like those at Willamette Falls. . . . The frame house directly in front of her . . . had proper white weatherboarded walls, a proper shingled hip roof, shutters beside the tall glass windows, and a wide veranda that crossed the entire front, with a gracefully curved staircase forming a half circle from the veranda to the ground.”
Jennie has been invited to stay in that house, the Big House, as the guest of Dr. and Mrs. McLoughlin, but discussion ensues about where American mountain man Jake Johnston will stay. He has traveled with their party from Willamette Falls for his own reasons. With sudden decisiveness, Dr. McLoughlin says Jake will stay in the Bachelor’s Quarters next to the Big House. But Alan doesn’t appear to like that decision. When he begrudgingly leaves to make arrangements, Jennie quietly asks Jake what’s wrong.
Jake’s response: “‘With Radford? Well, it’s only gentlemen who are allowed to stay inside the fort, and I don’t think Radford considers me a gentleman.’ Jake grinned at her, and her brows rose. She wasn’t sure Jake was a gentleman either, but she was surprised at the rigidity.”
NEXT: Dr. John McLoughlin