Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
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Volume I


History and location

In 1841 Lieutenant Wilkes of the United States Exploring Expedition noted that the water in "the well" at Fort Vancouver rose and fell with the level of the Columbia River. [1] By implication these words would seem to indicate that there was only one well within the pickets at that time. This impression is confirmed by the ground plan of the fort drawn by Lieutenant Emmons of the same party. According to this drawing the only well indicated was situated in the northwest section of the fort, west of the granary and south of the large storehouse (No. 18) which stood along the north wall. [2]

This well was of considerable interest to the American explorers. The expedition's geologist, James Dwight Dana, noted that in digging a well at Fort Vancouver, the excavators first encountered two or three feet of soil, then 30 feet of gravel, and then "light quicksand" too "mobile" for further digging. He assumed that water from the river percolated laterally through the sand to supply the well. [3] Wilkes observed that the inhabitants of the post used river water in preference to well water, though they did not "consider the latter as unwholesome." [4]

When this well of 1841 is next shown on a map -- that drawn by Lieutenant Vavasour late in 1845 -- it appears to have shifted position, being much closer to the north stockade wall than indicated by Emmons (see plates VI and VII). The location given by Vavasour was confirmed by archeological excavations in 1952. [5]

This discrepancy brings up a question. Did Emmons, who freely admitted that he could not vouch for his ground plan being correct in every particular, make an error in showing the position of the 1841 well, or was the 1841 well abandoned and another dug farther to the north when the Beef Store was apparently built over the old site between 1841 and September, 1844? [6] Future archeological surveys should provide a definite answer.

An entry in Clerk Thomas Lowe's journal for February 27, 1845, probably would also throw light on the matter if we could be sure of its exact meaning. "The men," wrote Lowe, "are busily employed in sinking the old well near the granary, and in digging another one in the opposite end of the Fort, near the new Bake House." [7] Unfortunately, the words "near the granary" could apply with equal appropriateness to the well shown by Emmons and to that on Vavasour s plan.

At any rate, it is apparent that a well in the northwest quarter of the stockade enclosure underwent some type of renovation during February, 1845. This was seemingly the well shown by Vavasour since one reconstructed in February probably would not have been replaced by the end of the year. This well, indicated on the Vavasour plan as being just north of the Beef Store and about 45 feet west of the granary, is termed "Well No. 1" in the balance of this report.

Lowe's words also pinpoint the date of the second well shown on Vavasour's plan. This feature appears as a small circle about midway between the northeast corner of the Bachelors' Quarters and the southwest angle of the bakery, near the northeast stockade corner (see plates VI and VII). This well is termed "Well No. 2" in this report. Its remains were found during archeological excavations in 1952 only slightly removed from the location as given by Vavasour (see plate I). [8]

This round, boulder-lined well has been left uncovered and now is a primary interpretive feature at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. [9] It is the only visible surviving original structure of the old fur-trading post. The water level in this well fluctuates with that of the Columbia River exactly as it did during the Hudson's Bay Company period. [10]

Although it seems quite clear that there were only two wells in the fort enclosure at the end of 1845, there is some evidence that a third may have been constructed at a later date. During 1854 a board of Army officers examined the improvements on the Fort Vancouver Military Reservation and made a fairly complete list of the Company's buildings. [11] This document noted that the firm's structures included three wells. There is no proof that the third well was within the palisade -- there seems to have been at least one in the nearby village [12] -- but photographs of 1860 show what appears to be a fire-fighting apparatus in the courtyard near the bell tower, and this device may have been placed over a well (see plates XXVII and XXVIII).

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003