Fort Vancouver
Cultural Landscape Report
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Fort Vancouver was established in the winter of 1824-25, a significant event in the international geo-political schemes of Great Britain in the early nineteenth century, as three great powers attempted to establish or maintain control of the northwest coast. Although not initially intended as such, it became the chief administrative headquarters of the Columbia Department of the Hudson's Bay Company; within a decade it became the hub of all Company activities west of the Rocky Mountains, including international trade, for which the foundations were laid during the years 1824-28. During this historic period Company officials began to realize the agricultural potential of the site, and laid the foundation of what would become a vast farming enterprise. It was also during this period that the first of many famous botanists and explorers began to visit the post, receiving assistance and aid at this outpost of civilization, which furthered their significant contributions to the prolific body of nineteenth century scientific research in many fields. In these years at Fort Vancouver, the first wheat was grown in Washington state; the first commercial salmon industry was established; the first flour in the state was milled, and many other early industries were started. Under the supervision of Chief Factor John McLoughlin, the first of many new Company posts were erected in the Pacific Northwest, eventually extending its dominion as far as Alaska.

Administrative and Political Context

The Columbia Department of the old North West Company appears never to have been very profitable--in fact, between at least 1818 and 1821 the department incurred losses. [4] After the merger with the Hudson's Bay Company, the Company's Governor and Committee in London considered abandoning the district about which it knew little, other than it produced only continuing deficits. [5] Two principal considerations, however, balanced against abandonment. First, it served as a geographic buffer for the proven riches of the neighboring, profitable New Caledonia trade, against Americans plying the Pacific coastal trade. Second, the Company's occupation of the area south of the 49th parallel, through its fur-trading posts, was perceived as a means of strengthening British claims of land north of the main branch of the Columbia River in the unresolved boundary dispute with the United States. By the spring of 1823 London had decided to continue operations in the Columbia district "for the present."

Between 1822 and 1824 the Company instituted a series of measures designed to improve the profits in the Columbia. Among them was the opening of an interior supply route from York Factory across the Rockies and down the Peace River to supply New Caledonia, rather than rely on Fort George at the mouth of the Columbia River as a supply depot, as the North West Company had done. Others included provisioning posts from London, rather than using the intermediary firm in Boston that the North West Company had engaged, and to ship furs directly to London rather than rely on the same Boston firm to ship directly from the Columbia to Chinese markets. A policy of reappointing chief factors to the same post, rather than the previous practice of frequent transfers, was instituted, increasing the department's efficiency. The size of the trading outfits and the amount of supplies shipped from London were reduced. Operations were expanded into the Snake River country, south and east of the Columbia, an area neglected by the merged company until 1823, when the first brigade in several years was sent to the Snake country from Spokane House, and returned with over four thousand beaver pelts. During this period London asked for reports from the chief factors on the Columbia District's natural resources with an eye towards profits of products in addition to furs, and also assessments of establishing a coastal trade, both for collecting furs and purchasing provisions in California. [6]

It was also during this period--in July of 1822--that George Simpson wrote to London that he thought imported provisions could be reduced if the Columbia posts could produce some of their own food. [7] This scheme, one of many Simpson committed to paper--not all of which bore fruition--dovetailed with the events and issues that led to the founding of Fort Vancouver two years later.

As discussed previously, it was not until the summer of 1824 that Great Britain and the United States suspended boundary negotiations. This left the ultimate settlement of the dispute in doubt, resulting in the Hudson's Bay Company's determination to exploit the trade potential in the Pacific Northwest and to reinforce Great Britain's claim to the territory in dispute--the area between the 49th parallel and the lower Columbia River. It has already been noted that the Company had close connections with the British Foreign Office. In December of 1825 Hudson's Bay Company Governor J.H. Pelly wrote to George Canning, the British Foreign Office secretary, "In compliance with a wish expressed by you at our last interview, Governor Simpson, when at the Columbia, abandoned Fort George on the South side of the River and formed a new Establishment on the North side." [8] One of the principal reasons for founding the new "Establishment--" Fort Vancouver--was a political strategy to keep territory north of the Columbia River under British dominion.

After Simpson's appointment as governor of the Northern Department in 1821, he embarked on a series of tasks to consolidate and reform operations east of the Rocky Mountains; with new policies and organization well underway by the end of 1823, he began to consider visiting the Columbia to assess it. In July of 1824 the Northern Department council appointed Chief Trader James McMillan to accompany Simpson to the Columbia, and also assigned Chief Factor John McLoughlin to the Columbia district. McMillan, a former North West Company employee, had spent most of his time in the Pacific Northwest, and was able to offer Simpson information regarding it. McLoughlin, also a former North West Company partner, had been in charge of a Company post west of Lake Superior, where he had been successful in driving back American competition. [9]

McLoughlin left for the Columbia from York Factory in August of 1824; Simpson and McMillan followed three weeks later. In September the parties joined near the Athabaska River, and continued on to Fort George at the mouth of the Columbia, arriving on November 8.

In 1824, the Columbia Department included four principal fur-trading posts: Fort George, by international treaty property of the United States government, but in practice, occupied by the Hudson's Bay Company; Fort Nez Perces (Walla Walla), at the junction of the Columbia and the Walla Walla River; Spokane House, from which the Snake River brigades sallied forth, and to which two smaller posts were attached--Flathead Post and Kootenai House; Thompson's River (Kamloops), near the junction of the north and south branches of Thompson River, and its subsidiary post, Fort Okanogan. [10]

George Simpson's visit to the Columbia resulted in significant and far-reaching changes in the operations of the Company's westernmost district. His first-hand observations, combined with his understanding of the international situation and trade potential of the region resulted in a preeminent British presence in the Pacific Northwest. Included in the changes he instituted during this first trip west was expanding operations into the Snake Country, and south towards California, before a settlement of the boundary issue should close the rich fur-bearing region to the British, and rigorous economies, including reductions in staff and in all operations of the fur business. One of his goals was to reduce the reliance of the posts on imported foods, and it was during this trip that he determined to develop an agricultural program which would not only supply the needs of the posts, but which would become a profitable branch of the trade, where produce would be exported.

Another decision was to merge the New Caledonia and Columbia departments into one administrative unit which would be supplied by a new depot, and at least in terms of supply and provisioning, the merger occurred in 1825. [11] The location of the new depot was to be at the mouth of the Fraser River, from which Simpson mistakenly believed the rivers would supply easy access to both districts and the coast.

In 1825, he established Fort Colvile, a new post north of Spokane House, abandoning the latter, and in the fall of 1824, soon after his arrival at the mouth of the Columbia River, he ordered the abandonment of Fort George and the construction of a new depot on the north side of the Columbia, in territory it was still possible the British might hold.

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Last Updated: 27-Oct-2003