Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
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Volume I


History and location

Obviously, there must have been a kitchen associated with the first Big House located in the 1829-c. 1836 square fort, but no definite record of this structure has come to light. [1] The first kitchen at Fort Vancouver of which there is any detailed knowledge was that connected with the second Big House which, as has been seen, was built during the winter of 1837-1838 in the new section enclosed when the fort was expanded to the eastward.

The new kitchen must have been completed about the same time as the second Big House, that is by about March 19, 1838. But no known records prior to July, 1841, provide an adequate indication of its size and location. The Emmons ground plan of that date shows a large structure identified as "No. 2," the "Commander's Kitchen and servants quarters," situated directly north cf the Big House and connected with the latter by a passage of some type. According to the Emmons map the kitchen was the same length as the Big House, that is 70 feet, although it was not quite as deep, and it butted against the north palisade wall (see plate III). [2]

As has been seen, the Emmons diagram is not to be relied upon for the exact dimensions of particular structures. Also, the representation of so many buildings as immediately adjoining the stockade walls is not confirmed by archeological findings or by later maps. Nevertheless, Emmons's ground plan provides a highly valuable view of the general locations and the number of the fort structures.

Even if there were no confirming evidence, Emmons's representation of the kitchen as a separate structure from the manager's residence, placed in the rear of the latter but joined to it by a passageway, could be accepted without question. Such a location was in accordance with the prevailing practice at Company posts across the entire continent. The dread of fire seems to have been the chief reason for this isolation of the cooking facilities. [3]

Emmons was observing another widespread Company practice when he noted that the servants' living quarters were in the kitchen building. In 1840, for example, the wife of the chief factor at York Factory described her home in a letter. Among the features she mentioned were the "men servants rooms off the kitchen." [4] Writing of Fort Qu'Appelle in 1867, Isaac Cowie stated: "Behind and connected by a short passage with the 'big house' was another building, divided by log partitions into a kitchen and cook's bedroom, and into a nursery for Mr. McDonald's children and their nurse." [5] Similar testimony is available concerning other posts. Incidentally the cooking -- and much of the house work -- was largely performed by men at Hudson's Bay Company posts. [6]

The information provided by Emmons concerning the kitchen is confirmed and refined by the very accurate ground plan of Fort Vancouver drawn by Lieutenant Vavasour late in 1845 (plate VII). This map places the kitchen about eight feet north of the Big House and about 13 feet south of the north stockade wall. Since, as shall be seen, the kitchen was 24 feet wide from north to south, the distance between the north wall of the Big House and the north palisade should have been 45 feet according to Vavasour. Remarkably enough, this figure coincides almost exactly with the findings of the archeologists.

The Vavasour plan further shows that the east wall of the kitchen was in line with the east wall of the Big House. The west kitchen wall, on the other hand, was inset about 10 feet from an extension of the west wall of the Big House.

The kitchen shown on the Emmons and Vavasour plans continued to stand at least until the spring of 1847. It is listed in the inventory of 1846-1847 and can be surely identified by comparing the size there given with that indicated on the Vavasour map. [7]

By 1854, however, this kitchen had disappeared. The Plan of Survey of the Fort Vancouver Military Reservation made under the direction of Colonel B. L. E. Bonneville in that year shows the buildings within the Hudson's Bay Company's stockade with evident care (plate XIX). Where the kitchen of Emmons and Vavasour had stood there was only empty space on the 1854 map.

The fate of the kitchen is still uncertain. Dugald Mactavish, who was at Vancouver as chief factor from Outfit 1853 through Outfit 1857, later testified that the 60 x 24-foot kitchen was "pulled down" sometime between 1846 and 1858. [8] Another witness confused the issue by remembering that a building, which he thought was the kitchen, burned down in the fall or winter of 1852. This structure, he said, was rebuilt. [9]

It has already been seen in Chapter VIII, however, that it was not the kitchen which burned on November 23, 1852, but a wash house, part of which had been used "lately" as a cookhouse or kitchen. [10] The fact that a portion of the wash house was being used for the preparation of meals may indicate that Mactavish was correct and that the old kitchen had already been demolished by November, 1852.

At any rate, by the time Colonel Bonneville completed his survey of the Fort Vancouver Military Reservation in 1854 a new kitchen had been erected. It stood adjacent to the northeast corner of the Big House and thus lay immediately northeast of that structure. Although not labeled on the Bonneville map or on at least two later military reservation surveys on which it appears, the identity of this new structure as a kitchen is clearly established by the ground plan (see plate XXX) and inventory of Hudson's Bay Company structures drawn up by a board of army officers on June 15, 1860. Building no. 4 on that plan is named "Kitchen (Governor's house)" in the accompanying report by the board. [11]

By the time the new cookhouse was built, Fort Vancouver was well into the period of its economic decline. Expenses of the common mess had been severely curtailed, a condition which seems to be reflected in the small size of the new kitchen as compared with the old. By June, 1860, the building was "entirely out of repair," but it seems to have served its function as long as the Company remained at the post. Then it undoubtedly soon shared the destruction which was the fate of the other buildings after their occupation by the army.

The Fort Vancouver kitchen was presided over by a series of cooks and stewards, few of whom served for any considerable length of time. At intervals, sometimes of several years, the rolls of fort employees list no persons designated as "cook," leading to the assumption that there were periods when laborers or even voyageurs were pressed into service in the kitchen.

That something of the sort took place is shown by the sudden listing of a veteran Hawaiian employee named Jack Ropeyarn as cook at an annual salary of £22 on the roll for Outfit 1846 (the period June 1, 1846, to May 31, 1847). The previous year, and for a number of outfits before that, he had been carried as a laborer at £17 a year. After Outfit 1847 Ropeyarn disappears from the lists of servants at the post, and no cook can be found on the rolls from that time until the post was abandoned in 1860. But one can safely assume that the manager and his family did not personally prepare the meals for the gentlemen's mess. [12]

Perhaps one reason it was so difficult to keep cooks at Fort Vancouver was the fact that, at least during the early years, the cook was also supposed to be the manservant to the "gentlemen" of the establishment. In 1829, for instance, he was required to bring them water for washing and shaving, to brush their shoes, to make the beds and sweep the rooms of the bachelors, and to perform other assorted tasks. [13]

Most visitors to Fort Vancouver spoke in glowing terms of the plentiful and varied food served from the post kitchen. Narcissa Whitman, Thomas Jefferson Farnham, and Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, among others, described the "abundance of good fare" they enjoyed at the fort. The roast duck, boiled pork, fresh salmon, numerous vegetables, melons, puddings, pies, and many other dishes served in "course after course" made a distinct and favorable impression. [14]

Miss Anna Maria Pittman, in 1837, was quite overwhelmed in fact. She wrote in her diary: "Our first course was soup, next boiled salmon, then roasted ducks, then such a roast turkey as I never saw or ate. It was a monster, it was like cutting slices of pork, then wheat pancakes, after that bread and butter and cheese all of their own make, and excellent too." [15] Evidently Clerk George B. Roberts was correct when he remembered years later that "We often had a bountiful table in those days." [16]

But given the frequent changes of cooks, many of whom must have been quite unskilled, there undoubtedly were periods when the food left something to be desired. The Reverend Mr. Herbert Beaver was hypercritical of conditions at Fort Vancouver, and most of his complaints can be discounted. He may have had a valid point at the time, however, when he wrote on March 19, 1838: "We have seldom anything good to eat, and when we have, it is generally so badly cooked, as to be uneatable." [17]

Sharing the commissary department with the cook was the steward. Occasionally there was a second steward, listed simply as "Steward" or sometimes as "Mess Steward." There is no direct evidence that the steward lived or even conducted his major business in the kitchen, but such almost certainly was the case. At York Factory a corresponding functionary seems to have been termed the butler, and the "butler's table" evidently was in the kitchen. [18]

It should be noted, however, that there was a storeroom or larder called the "dépense," for the holding, sorting, and dispensing of rations and other foodstuffs, evidently those for fairly immediate consumption. There is no indication as to where the dépense was located. It is not described as a separate building in any known source, yet it was sometimes spoken of almost as if it were. The dépense may have been under the supervision of the steward, though for Outfits 1846 through 1848 there was a "Depense Keeper" in addition to one or two stewards. [19] In 1829 Dr. McLoughlin placed the fort surgeon in charge of issuing the provisions for the mess hall, but how long this arrangement lasted is not known. [20]

One of the best-known stewards at Fort Vancouver was William Burris, a Londoner who appeared on the post rolls as cook for Outfit 1839 at £27 per annum. The next year he was listed as a steward, but he went home to England on the Company's vessel Vancouver during the fall of 1840. He returned on the same ship during Outfit 1842 and took up his former position as steward at £30 a year. He continued to serve until the last day of 1844 when he retired to a claim he had purchased in the Willamette Valley. [21] According to George B. Roberts, Burris had a European wife, an extremely rare circumstance at Fort Vancouver at the time. Unfortunately, once free from the Company's discipline he lost control of himself and eventually killed his wife and children. [22]

During Outfit 1845 (June 1, 1845, to May 31, 1846), the period to which Fort Vancouver is to be restored, the steward was Edward Spencer. He was carried on the Vancouver rolls in 1843 as an apprentice with six years of service. His salary was £17 a year, close to the minimum for the Columbia Department. He undoubtedly was of part Indian blood, since his birthplace was listed as "native" or "Rupert's Land." He must have been a man of ability, because by 1845 he had been promoted to steward at a salary of £25. For the three succeeding outfits his title was "Dépense Keeper," and by 1849 he was an interpreter and was placed in charge of Fort George at the mouth of the Columbia River. Two years later he bore the rank of postmaster and ran the Company's establishment at Coweeman. [23]

In addition to Edward Spencer, the only person known to have been connected with the culinary department during Outfit 1845 was Joseph Thibeault. About 23 years old at that time, Thibeault was a French-Canadian from Montreal who was serving as a "middle man," the lowest rank of boatman or voyageur. The records show that for the year he received, in addition to his salary £17, a gratuity of three shillings for acting as "Mess Steward." [24] No cook is listed on the rolls for 1845, but the post gardener, William Bruce, may have assisted in the kitchen since it seems to have been his habit to frequent that strategic location and, as we have seen, to be on hand when Chief Factor McLoughlin called for his snuff. [25]

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003