Western Trips

Western Trips

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Fort Vancouver / Hudsons Bay Company

fort vancouver stockade
Bastion at Fort Vancouver
Fort Vancouver and the Hudson's Bay Company is arguably the most significant story about the very beginnings of commerce in the Pacific Northwest. For many years, Fort Vancouver was the headquarters of the British presence in what is now the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

If your vacation or short trip plans take you to the Portland Oregon area, a visit to Fort Vancouver is a must stop. It's a beautiful site to visit and explains much of the very beginnings of settlement in the Pacific Northwest.

The British Stronghold in the Pacific Northwest

In a real sense the Hudson's Bay Company represented the British interests in the Pacific Northwest. The fur trapping company was the point of the spear as opposed to the British military. Fort Vancouver functioned as the main supply base and administration site in the American northwest for the Hudson's Bay Company which itself was headquartered in London England.

hudson bay company counting house at fort vancouver
Hudson's Bay Company Counting House
The British and the Americans both had trappers in the northwest for some time and an arrangement was made to allow trappers from both sides to share the region. The Hudson's Bay Company took a big step to solidify their hold by establishing Fort Vancouver. Fort Vancouver replaced Fort George which was at the mouth of the Columbia River at present day Astoria Oregon. Fort George had originally been called Fort Astoria when John Jacob Astor's fur company briefly occupied the fort. The Astoria fort and equipment were sold to the Hudson's Bay Company by Astor. Not long after they established Fort George, the Hudson's Bay Company decided to relocate further inland along the Columbia River. The new Fort Vancouver is in present day Vancouver Washington just across the Columbia River from Portland Oregon.

An interesting historic side note regards a man who served as Chief Factor at Fort Vancouver, John McLaughlin, who is credited as the founder of what is today Oregon City, Oregon on the Willamette River just a few south of Portland. McLaughlin had a fine reputation at the fort and was known to give aid to pioneers and trappers who arrived there in need. John McLaughlin also offered Oregon Trail pioneers food and medical aid which was against the official policies of the Hudson's Bay Company. Eventually, McLaughlin left Fort Vancouver and settled in Oregon City and built a sawmill on the east side of the Willamette Falls.

See our Western Trips article and photos of Oregon City.

hudsons bay company counting house
Counting House exterior
The Trappers Head Out

Beaver hats were very popular. The Hudson's bay Company sent out brigades which included perhaps 50 to 100. These included men, women and children. The earliest of trappers used the same methods as the Indians. This was breaking into a beaver lodge and simply taking the animals. Not soon afterwards, this gave way to the baited steel traps. After spending about a year away from the fort, the trappers prepared to journey back to Fort Vancouver.

Their arrival back at the fort was a time of celebration. The trappers and their boats arrived via the Columbia River with their pelts and wore some of their most colorful clothes. Their arrival was in the atmosphere of a festival.

The American Takeover

All stories of the famous Oregon Trail depict how thousands upon thousands of pioneers traveled this 2,000 mile route from Missouri to Oregon. Officially, the Oregon trail began in Independence Missouri and ended at Oregon City Oregon. American influence obviously grew in Oregon as more and more settlers arrived. As a direct result, the region was divided between the British and the Americans in 1946 at the 49th parallel. This division placed Fort Vancouver on American soil. The Hudson's Bay Company continued to operate at the fort for years afterward. At the same time in 1849 the U.S. Army established an outpost at the fort. The army named the fort Columbia Barracks and then renamed it Vancouver Barracks. The fur trade was declining for the Hudson's Bay Company and the U.S. was involved in various Indian Wars in the vicinity and throughout the west.  It wasn't until 1860 that they abandoned the fort altogether to the Americans. Six years later a fire destroyed all of the original fort.

fort vancouver fur warehouse
Fort Vancouver fur warehouse
The fort continued to be used by the U.S. Army through World War One and World War Two.During the First World War it was the home of the Spruce Division and in World War Two was the staging area for the Seattle port of embarkation.

Two additional Western Trips articles you'll find interesting are A Visit to Sutters Fort in Sacramento California and the Six Month Journey on the Oregon Trail.

Fort Vancouver Today

An excavation of the old site of Fort Vancouver took place beginning in 1947. According to National Park Service information, some two million artifacts were discovered at the excavation site. During the years during and after the excavation there were those who desired to keep the area an archeological site. In  1954, the area was was officially designated a site to preserve the history of the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1965 Congress gave the go ahead for a complete reconstruction. 

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site today is a reconstruction of the old Hudson's Bay fort as it would have appeared in the early 1800's. The reconstructed buildings within the Fort's walls are on their original sites. Adjacent to the fort is Pearson Field which today is operated as a city owned small aircraft field but does have the distinction of being the oldest operating airfield in the United States.

fort vancouver blacksmith shop
Fort Vancouver Nat'l Historic Site Blacksmith shop
Visiting Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is easily accessible and makes a great addition to your Oregon western trip planner. The site is just across the Columbia River from Portland Oregon in Vancouver Washington. The two cities are connected by the Interstate 5 bridge. When on Interstate 5, turn off at the Mill Plain Blvd exit and follow the signs to the fort's Visitor Center which is on East Evergreen Blvd. At the Visitors Center you can obtain detailed maps which can be used for your walking tour. The Visitors Center is located on a hill just north of the fort. The walking tour map information contains details of each of the site's structures. 

The Fort Vancouver National Historic Site Visitors Center showcases interesting exhibits and offers visitors the opportunity to view several short films by request. It's one of the best sites to learn about the settlement of the Pacific Northwest.

(Photos from author's private collection)

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