Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
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Volume I


History and location

W. H. Gray later said that when he arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1836 the "main gate" was directly in line with the cannons mounted in front of the manager's residence. [1] Assuming that the Big house of 1836 was not that completed in the eastern section of the stockade enclosure during the winter of 1837-1838 but one located in the old or western portion of the fort, one can be reasonably certain that from 1829 until the post was doubled in size about 1834-1839, the principal and perhaps only gate was situated at about the center of the south or front 320-foot wall. [2]

This gate remained in this same location when the enlargement of 1834-1839 took place, as is demonstrated by the fact that the southwest gate shown on the Emmons ground plan of 1841 is situated east of the southwest stockade corner at a distance of approximately one-quarter of the length of the doubled south wall (see plate III).

By the time Captain Edward Belcher of the Royal Navy visited Fort Vancouver during August, 1839, the original fort had been doubled in size, and Belcher noted that there were three gates in the stockade walls. [3] Two years later Captain Charles Wilkes of the United States Exploring Expedition was more specific. "There are two large entrance gates to the 'fort' for wagons and carts," he recorded, "and one in the rear leading to the granaries and garden." [4] The Emmons plan (plate III) and the Henry Eld pencil sketch (plate IV), both dating from 1841, throw light upon the location of these entrances. Two were in the south or front wall; one was in the north or rear wall.

From the ground plan drawn by Lieutenant Vavasour in 1845 (plate VII) and from the view sketched by Lieutenant Henry J. Warre at about the same time (plate IX) it is apparent that the number and relative positions of the gates remained unchanged between at least 1841 and late 1845, though by the latter date the fort enclosure had been expanded on the west and on the east to its ultimate width of about 732 feet. The Covington map of Fort Vancouver, dating apparently from late 1846, continues to show what seem to be the same three gates (see plate XIII). [5]

Neither the Emmons map nor the Vavasour plan is sufficiently accurate to permit a precise location of the gates by scaling off distances. But these drawings constitute nearly the sum total of the historical evidence available for locating the gates as they existed in late 1845, the approximate date to which the fort is to be restored. When these maps are analyzed in the light of archeological findings, however, the results are more useful. They may be summarized as follows:

1. Southwest gate (west gate in front wall). On the Emmons plan of 1841 this gate is shown as being a quarter of the total wall length, or about 159.5 feet, east of the southwest stockade corner (point D on plate I). The Vavasour map locates this gate about 190 feet east of the 1845 southwest corner (about four feet north of point J). Since excavations have shown that point J was about 36 feet west of point D, the two maps are very nearly in agreement. The Vavasour map indicates that this gate was 12 to 15 feet wide, but these figures seem high in view of what is known about the widths of other gates at Fort Vancouver (see plates VI and VII).

Excavations in 1952 revealed no positive evidence of the west gate in the inner of the two south palisade walls. This inner wall, as has been seen, evidently marked the stockade line at the time Vavasour drew his map in 1845.

In the outer wall, about six feet farther south, however, the search was more successful. A gate opening definitely was located. It was about 205 to 214 feet east of the southwest corner (point J) as nearly as can be measured from available maps of the excavation. It is evident, then, that when the outer south wall was built sometime after 1845, the gate was shifted a few feet to the east. [6]

This outer wall opening was marked by the remains of two large posts, each about 13 inches in diameter and sunk 4-1/2 feet in the ground. The centers of the posts were 10 feet apart, making the gate opening 8.9 feet wide. [7]

The southwest gate seemingly was known as the "business gate" during the 1840's at least. [8] It appears that this gate, as built sometime after 1845 in the outer wall, remained in the position revealed by the 1952 excavations until at least 1859. An exit from the post at that point seems to be shown on a map of the military reservation at Fort Vancouver drawn in that year (see plate XXIV). However, a ground plan of the Hudson's Bay Company fort made by a board of Army officers on June 15, 1860, clearly shows the southwest gate in a new position about 110 feet west of the former one and near the powder magazine (see plate XXX).

2. Southeast gate (east gate in front wall). According to Vavasour's ground plan, the eastern gate in the south palisade was about 205 to 208 feet west of the 1845 southeast stockade corner (which was about six feet north of point L). [9] The same map shows the gate as being ten or twelve feet wide but this measurement probably is only a rough approximation. No archeological excavations have been conducted in the vicinity of the southeast gate, so it has not yet been possible to check Vavasour's location with actual remains. [10]

A rather interesting fact develops when the location of this gate is plotted on the Summary Sheet Archeological Excavations (plate I) from the Vavasour measurements. This action places the eastern post of the gate directly south of the west wall of the Indian Trade Shop as located by archeological evidence. Such a position agrees exactly with the position of this gate as shown on the Covington map of 1846 (plate XIII). It does not agree, however, with the Vavasour plan, which shows the Indian Shop west wall as being about 25 feet east of the gate. This fact may have some hearing upon when the new Indian Trade Shop was constructed; then again it may simply be one more indication that Vavasour was not as careful a surveyor as he might have been.

It has already been pointed out that the location of the southeast gate as shown on the Vavasour and Covington plans apparently changed between late 1846 and 1854. The Bonneville map of the latter year, supported by the survey of the military reservation made at the direction of General W. S. Haney in 1859 and the ground plan made by a board of Army officers in 1860, indicates that the gate was shifted to the westward (see plates XIX, XXIV, XXX). As closely as can be determined from these maps, the new location was about 335 feet west of the extreme southeast stockade corner (point L). This information may be of interest in interpreting the results of future archeological excavations, but it need not concern those planning the restoration of Fort Vancouver to its appearance in 1845-1846.

3. North gate. Vavasour's ground plan of late 1845 places the gate in the north wall at a point about 205 to 208 feet west of the northeast stockade corner at that time (point K). One version of the same map shows the opening to be about 15 or 16 feet wide; another shows it as about 12 feet wide (see plates VI and VII). Archeologist John D. Combes, after an examination of "all of the available maps, sketches, pictures, etc.," preparatory to renewed excavations in 1966 concluded that the gate was about 210 feet west of the northeast corner. [11]

These calculations were put to the test in 1966 when archeologists had an opportunity to dig along the entire length of the north wall. At a point 212 feet west of the northeast corner the archeologist uncovered a pile of large river-rounded stones starting at two feet and continuing down to four feet below the present ground surface. Twelve feet farther west along the line of the stockade a second and similar pile was found. There was no evidence of stockade posts between the two heaps of stones. The area near the stone piles showed a much higher concentration of large nails than was usual elsewhere along the wall.

In the opinion of Mr. Combes, "The evidence looks very good for this being the actual location of the north gate. The rock piles appear to be reinforcements for the vertical posts that supported the heavy gates." [12]

Even though no remains of the gate posts themselves were found, it seems inescapable that the rock piles were associated with the gate structure. If the centers of the boulder heaps marked the centers of the gate posts and if the posts were about 13 inches in diameter as were those of the southwest gate, the width of the north gate would have been about 11 feet. [13]

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003