After my mom, my cousin and I visited the Tacoma Museum of Glass, we got back on the road and continued on our way to Portland. We weren’t sure if we would have enough time for our second destination – Fort Vancouver, a National Historic Site in Vancouver, Washington. The traffic gods were with us, and we made it there an hour before they closed! I had been there before, so I knew that an hour would be enough time to visit.
When we got to the Fort, we stopped by the Visitor’s Center to check out the souvenirs (I had to get a few postcards!) and of course, we needed to get a stamp for my National Parks Passport! And then, we headed over to the site of the Fort.
Fort Vancouver was founded during the winter of 1824-1825 by the Hudson’s Bay Company. If you are close to the Canadian border, like I am, you have probably heard the radio commercials for the Canadian department store, The Bay. Same company. The Hudson’s Bay Company began as a fur trading venture by England into Canada. In 1670. Yes, you read that correctly. The Hudson’s Bay Company is the oldest commercial corporation in North America, and one of the oldest businesses in the world! When the Hudson’s Bay Company began operations in North America, it served as the de facto government in the areas where it did business, and at one time, it was the largest landowner in the world.
Fort Vancouver was set up to protect the interests of the Hudson’s Bay Company along the Columbia River and to serve as a hub for their fur trading operations in the West. The fort served as a collection point for the beaver hides that trappers in the West were bringing in. The site also offered fertile soil along the river, while lying just outside of the flood plain. The intention was for the fort to be self-sufficient, producing all of its own food and most other provisions, as goods were very expensive to ship.
The fort was built with substantial palisades; the walls were 750 feet by 450 feet, and 20 feet high. Inside there were homes, and a school, library, chapel, pharmacy, blacksmith shop, warehouses and a manufacturing facility. Outside the wall were more homes, an orchard, gardens, a shipyard, distillery, tannery, sawmill and a dairy. At its height, Fort Vancouver oversaw 34 outposts and about 600 employees.
The beginning of the end of Fort Vancouver under the ownership of the Hudson’s Bay Company came in 1846. That year, the United States and Canada signed the Oregon Treaty, which set the border between the two companies at the 49th parallel – right up near my home! Although the treaty ensured that the Hudson’s Bay Company would be allowed to continue operations at Fort Vancouver, the treaty and the number of Americans moving into the area effectively stifled the fur trade there. At that point, beaver trapping had continued a such a high volume for so long that beavers were nearing the point of extinction. The Hudson’s Bay Company abandoned the fort in 1860 and moved north; the U.S. Army immediately took over the fort.
The Army had already had barracks right next to Fort Vancouver, but they built more barracks. During this era, the Indian Wars were happening in the West and Civil War heavies Ulysses S. Grant and Philip Sheridan were stationed there. The Vancouver Barracks continue to house troops through World War I and World War II, and even continued to serve as home to the Army Reserve and Washington National Guard until it finally closed as an active military installation in 2011.
The buildings that are inside the fort now are reconstructions of the original buildings from the periodic of occupation by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Archeological digs at the site showed historians where the original buildings were and the size of the structures, so the reconstructions were built directly over the historical structures. We had the opportunity to wander around at our leisure – some of the buildings are open and you can go inside, but others are only open during special events.
The friendly ranger explained that there are two other sites in Oregon City, Oregon, the Barclay House and the McLoughlin House, which were the homes of two employees of the Hudson Bay Company in their retirement. We didn’t have a chance to go there on this trip, but one day I’m going to make it over there to check them out too!