So, what if history got it wrong?
After last week’s rollicking Fort Umpqua Days celebration, I take a long look at our sturdy reconstructed fort on the Umpqua River in Elkton, Oregon, and I recall a question from one of the customers who came by my book-selling booth during the event.
“Is Fort Umpqua in your books?”
I had to say no, but it might have been–if I could have reconciled sources.
My issue arose from the date Fort Umpqua fell. History has an answer, but it seems a little murky to me.
For starters I’d like to quote Stephen Dow Beckham in his Land of the Umpqua, a fine presentation of local history published in 1986. On this subject of Fort Umpqua’s demise he writes on page 58:
The fort burned on November 15, 1851, while the commander or chief trader, Johnson E. King was at Fort Vancouver. King had just brought in his annual load of furs and was ready to leave with fresh supplies for the Umpqua when word of the disaster came by letter. The company kept up three more years of trade in southwestern Oregon, presumably working out of an outbuilding at the site; then it terminated operations. [My bold.]
Beckham sources his statement with a letter in the HBC archives written December 20, 1851, by a John Ballenden to Archibald Barclay. Ballenden was an HBC officer briefly posted at Fort Vancouver to help wrap up Company affairs there after the boundary settlement that gave the United States the land. Barclay was an HBC Secretary in London.
But what if history got this wrong?
My experience in researching these early periods has shown me that history can be difficult to pin down. Even contemporary accounts don’t always agree.
That word presumably in the above quote gives me pause. Did assumptions lead to wrong conclusions?
A couple of things have come together to make me question this.
What did Martha know?
I have access to an account that disagrees with accepted history. It comes from Florence McNabb, the granddaughter of Martha Maupin, whose story I tell in A Place of Her Own. Florence wrote a 75-page manuscript of Maupin family history which I used extensively in writing Martha’s story. But I didn’t use one of Florence’s vignettes because it disagreed with history. To give a timeframe for this, Martha and Garrett moved from Lane County to Douglas County in December 1864 and rented a cabin on the Henderer place near Elkton until sometime after Garrett’s death in 1866, well after the supposed demise of Fort Umpqua.
Yet Florence writes:
It was while they were still on the Henderer place that there was an Indian scare and all of the families were told to come to the Umpqua Fort. The fort was built on the banks of the river in the summer of 1836 and was the early trading post of the Hudson Bay Co. It was well built with logs standing on end to form a stockade with several log cabins inside. Originally the land owned by the Hudson Bay Co. comprised 640 acres and several dozens of stock. . . .
On this occasion the families remained in the stockade and the well-armed men went to their respective homes to tend to their livestock. The Indians never did attack but they could be seen early in the mornings and again in the evenings. . . .
After about a week, shut up with children and short tempered mothers, they decided to return to their own homes, coming back to the fort to spend the night. . . . One lady remarked that she would rather fight Indians than to spend another night with that bunch.
“This was told to me by my mother,” Florence wrote, “who had heard it from Martha Maupin.” Yes, Martha.
Now, that could have made an interesting scene in my book, but I didn’t want to go against history.
A new thought began to stir, arising out of my own recent research into the history of Fort Vancouver, the British Hudson’s Bay Company headquarters of the Fort Umpqua outpost. Prior to my presentation at Fort Vancouver this summer of my new book The Shifting Winds I went back into the two huge volumes that describe research the preservation team did in order to reconstruct an authentic replica of this British headquarters.
I was amazed at the continual construction going on during the years the British maintained Fort Vancouver. The first Fort Vancouver was built in 1824-1825 on the hill above the Columbia river bottom. When the British changed their minds about that location in 1829, they just picked it up and moved it a few miles closer to the river. When that new fortress proved to be too small they just moved the walls over, added to them, and doubled the size.
When the first home of the commander began to crumble due to decaying roof and walls, they tore it down and built a new one in a better spot within the walls.
This is the commander’s house, the Big House—no small cabin to be thrown up in a few afternoons.
And the interior was exquisite.
Other buildings were routinely torn down and replaced. And those picket walls kept moving—a little bit here, a little bit there.
It seems the British Hudson’s Bay Company men would rebuild at the drop of a tall beaver hat.
Why not Fort Umpqua?
So if tiny Fort Umpqua burned down and the Hudson’s Bay Company still had business to conduct on the site, why wouldn’t they follow custom and rebuild that? Ballenden’s letter to Barclay, the author Beckham’s source above, was written a month after the fire and would not reflect Company decisions afterward. My family’s story (told by Martha herself, no less, although received secondhand) suggests a fort still stood when they sought refuge sometime between 1864 and 1866.
Accepted history also tells us that the historic 1861 flood took away the burnt remains of Fort Umpqua, leaving nothing. Is this fact or conjecture? Is it possible that a more substantial fort stood against those flood waters, one that the Hudson’s Bay Company had rebuilt and maintained after the 1851 fire? Up north, when the British finally left their Fort Vancouver headquarters to the Americans, the walls and buildings disintegrated in this wet, rainy land without continual maintenance. We have photos and reports to substantiate that. Was this the more likely end to Fort Umpqua also, as new American owners no longer needed this former British outpost?
Unraveling the story threads
Small tidbits of information—notes in letters and journals—often guided the team that reconstructed the elaborate Fort Vancouver headquarters. If I had believed in Florence’s tidbit, I could have brought the Fort Umpqua outpost into my story and had one more tense scene for Martha. And I could have smiled and told my customer, “Yes, yes, it’s in this one.”
Beckham, Stephen Dow. Land of the Umpqua: A History of Douglas County, Oregon. Roseburg, OR: Douglas County Commissioners, 1986.
McNabb, Florence Maupin. The Maupin Family. Undated, unpublished manuscript.