Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
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Volume I



It has been stated, upon what authority is unknown, that when Fort Vancouver was moved from the bluff down onto the plain in 1829, bastions or blockhouses were placed at the corners of the new stockade but that they were dismantled before 1841. [1] If such was the case the removal must have been early, since John Kirk Townsend, who arrived at the post in 1834, later reported that the establishment had no bastions. [2] At the time of his visit in 1841, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes noted that Vancouver differed "from all the other forts [of the Hudson's Bay Company in the Pacific Northwest] in having no bastions, galleries, or loop-holes. [3]

Experience had taught the authorities at Fort Vancouver that they had little to fear from the neighboring Indians. Even before 1830, when the surrounding natives were numerous, there had been no serious threats to the post. Beginning in 1830 and 1831 a series of epidemics so drastically reduced the Indian population along the lower Columbia that the possibility of an armed assault became practically non-existent. The necessary privacy for the fort's inhabitants and protection from pilfering could be assured by a stockade alone.

But by the early 1840's, as American settlers began to drift into the Oregon Country in significant numbers and as the boundary dispute between the United States and Great Britain waxed warmer, the Company's officers began to see the newcomers as a threat to Fort Vancouver. Governor George Simpson expressed a fear that the undisciplined and ungoverned Americans would plunder the post if they grew desperate for supplies. Chief Factor McLoughlin and his companions at Vancouver shared this view, and their worries were fanned by occasional rumors that disgruntled or super-patriotic settlers might attempt to burn the fort. [4] Yet year after year passed with no steps being taken to strengthen Fort Vancouver.

Then, on the afternoon of July 15, 1844, Her Majesty's Sloop of War Modeste appeared off the post and dropped anchor. From her cannon roared a seven-gun salute to Fort Vancouver. Much to the chagrin of the Company's employees, the honor could not be returned because, as one clerk noted in his diary, "the Fort had not the means" of returning it. [5] In other words, there were no cannon mounted for action.

In human affairs major events are often triggered by minor incidents. That the fort was unable to return salutes from the firm's own vessels was one thing; inability to give a proper greeting to the warship sent to protect British interests in Oregon was quite another. In due time orders were given to construct a blockhouse. Thomas Lowe, a clerk, noted in his diary on February 7, 1845, that "A Bastion is to be built in the N. W. Corner of the Fort, in order to be able to salute vessels as well as to protect the place in case of attack." [6]

Very little is known concerning the progress of construction. On February 27 Lowe recorded that a carpenter and several men were at work erecting "the octagonal Bastion in the N. W. corner of the Fort." [7] A month later, on March 27, the Company's vessel, Vancouver, anchored off the post and fired a salute of seven guns which was returned from the fort. [8] It seems reasonable to assume that the bastion was at least sufficiently completed by that date for guns to be mounted in it.

The spring of 1845 was a time of tension between the Company's officers and certain settlers, some of whom were attempting to establish claims on lands near the fort which the firm had long considered part of its establishment. The construction of the blockhouse was interpreted by such persons as evidence that the Hudson's Bay Company was preparing to block further settlement by force. "In the Month of January [sic] last," McLoughlin wrote to Governor Simpson on March 20, 1845, "some Americans seeing us repair our pickets erect a bastion, our Blacksmiths making small Axes for the Indian Trade spread a report among their Countrymen that we were fortifying the Fort and making Axes to set the Indians against the Americans." [9]

This flurry of excitement passed away, however, and the new blockhouse quickly was accepted as a routine feature of the establishment. The three-pound cannons mounted in the octagonal cap were fired to salute arriving Company vessels, warships, and prominent persons; and they cheered departing fur brigades on their way. Queen Victoria's birthday on May 24 was celebrated, in 1846 at least, by a royal salute of 21 guns fired from the bastion at noon. [10]

The blockhouse continued to stand at least until June, 1860, when a board of United States Army officers examined it and found it to be "in a ruinous condition." [11] It is presumed that the structure was destroyed by fire shortly thereafter, since archeological excavations in 1947 revealed charred foundation timbers and other evidence of an intensely hot conflagration. [12]

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003