Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
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Volume I


History and location

The residence of the chief factor in charge of Fort Vancouver was known by a variety of names. Company employees most often called it the "Big House." [1] Although the manager was never properly authorized to employ the title of "governor," he was frequently referred to as such. Thus his home was quite commonly referred to as the "governor's house" or "governor's mansion," even as late as 1860. [2] Others called the structure the "principal house" or the "great house." [3] The "common hall," the "commander's residence," the "manager's residence," and "Ty-ee house" (after an Indian word for "chief") were additional names applied to the building. [4] Sometimes the residence was referred to by the name of the man who lived in it, as "McLoughlin's house," the" Doctor's house," "Mr. Ogden's residence," and so forth.

Regardless of its name, the manager's house throughout the entire existence of the post was, for its time and place, an imposing structure. Anna Maria Pittman, who first saw it in May, 1837, described it as "very handsome." [5] In 1853, Dr. H. A. Tuzo found it to be "commodious and elegant." [6]

Hitherto the history of this structure has been obscure. The large house with its "half semicircle double stairway" described by a visitor of 1836 would appear to match the manager's house shown in an 1860 photograph (see plate XXIX), leading to the possibility that they were one and the same building. However, the location of the Big House in 1836, opposite "the main gate entrance" according to W. H. Gray, does not agree very well with the location as shown on the Emmons ground plan of 1841 and all subsequent maps of the fort. And that later location certainly does not fit the position of the "governor's mansion" described by John Kirk Townsend in 1834 as "in the middle" of a quadrangle lined by the fort structures. [7]

Fortunately recent research has clarified this matter. It can now be stated with assurance that there were two successive manager's residences at Fort Vancouver between 1829 and 1860 and that they stood at different locations.

When Fort Vancouver was moved from atop the bluff down onto the river plain during the winter of 1828-1829, the Company's officers as usual paid more attention to providing shelter for the trade goods, provisions, and furs than to housing the employees, including themselves. By the middle of March, 1829, construction of the new post was well under way. [8] Work had then progressed far enough for the American trapper, Jedediah Smith, to observe that the stockade was about 300 feet square. [9] Yet a visitor arriving as late as September 6 of that year could find no roof under which to sleep. All the "gentlemen" -- the chief factors, chief traders, and clerks -- he recorded, were still housed in lodges or tents. [10]

Not until October 9 was Chief Trader John Warren Dease able to note in his diary: "began to put up the Posts of the Big House." [11] But this residence for Chief Factor McLoughlin was not, as might be supposed, a new structure. It had been a part of the old fort on the hill and had been disassembled for reconstruction at the new site. [12]

This so-called "Doctor's new house" was pronounced "ready to enter" on November 2, 1829. [13] In point of fact, however, it was still incomplete. During the year all available men were occupied in the Indian trade on the lower Columbia to prevent the business falling into the hands of American traders who visited the river in two vessels. "In consequence of being so much employed with opposition we have not got on so fast with our buildings as was expected," McLoughlin complained in the spring of 1830. [14] A series of epidemics in succeeding years continued to keep the labor force low, so that in 1836 the Doctor told the Company's directors that it "will appear perhaps extraordinary but nevertheless a fact that we have not been able to finish the house I dwell in along with the other officers of the Establishment." [15]

Indeed, this first Big House was never completed. It was described as "still unfinished" when the construction of its replacement was ordered during the winter of 1837-1838. [16] The new manager's residence was occupied by March 19, 1838, and by that time the old structure moved from "Fort Hill" had been demolished. [17]

Thus far no maps or ground plans have been found which show the location of this first Big House of 1829-1838, but undoubtedly it was within the confines of the 318 feet by 320 feet original fort enclosure (ABED on the "Summary Sheet Archeological Excavations, Fort Vancouver National Monument"). When John Kirk Townsend reached Fort Vancouver in September, 1834, he noted that there were ten or twelve buildings "arranged together in quadrilateral form" within the stockade, "the house occupied by the doctor [McLoughlin] being in the middle." [18] Another visitor of the same year mentioned the "mansion-house, opening from the court." [19]

W. H. Gray, who reached Vancouver with the Whitman party of missionaries in the fall of 1836, found three cannons centered in front of the chief factor's residence, "all pointing to the main gate entrance." [20] Although the stockaded area perhaps had been doubled in size by 1836, the main gate at that time almost certainly was the entrance to the original fort about midway along the south wall (line DE) of the 318 feet by 320 feet enclosure.

These clues, meager as they are, point to the probability that the first Big House stood in the north portion of the original fort enclosure (ABED) and was centered opposite the gate which was midway along the south wall. The structure was near Well No. 1 and probably its site was later occupied by parts of the beef store and wheat store. Archeological explorations may, in the end, reveal the exact location.

From the few surviving descriptions, the first manager's residence must have been very similar in appearance to its successor. Anna Maria Pittman noted after her arrival at the fort in May, 1837, that McLoughlin's dwelling was "a very handsome one story house, with a piazza clear across, with a winding stairs on each side." The structure, she noted, stood "high from the ground." [21] Perhaps a more accurate picture of the entrance was given by W. H. Gray, who first saw the building in the fall of 1836. In front of the governor's house, he later recalled, was "a half semicircle double stairway, leading to the main hall up a flight of some ten steps." He remembered that the mansion was built in the usual Canadian style. From this fact it can be assumed that its heavy timbers probably were left exposed. The roof was covered with boards. [22]

Almost nothing is known of the interior arrangement of the first Big House. Evidently the front door gave entry to a central hall. "On the right" of this hall, which may also have been the dining room or "common hall," was a room used by Dr. McLoughlin as his private office and sitting room. [23] Divine service was held on Sundays and at other times in the "messroon" in McLoughlin's house, and in 1836 the chaplain, the Rev. Mr. Herbert Beaver, complained of interruptions arising "from the occupancy of part of the same building by several families who do not attend me." From this fact it can be deduced that, as at many other Company posts, the living quarters were entered from the central dining hall. [24]

These "living quarters" were the rooms occupied by the officers -- the chief factors and the chief traders -- and their families. The "junior class" gentlemen, the clerks, were housed elsewhere within the pickets. [25] McLoughlin often made rooms in the Big House available to visitors, both officers of the Company and properly accredited foreign travelers. [26]

As little is known about the interior finish and furnishings as about the room arrangement. Speaking of all the residences and "houses" in 1836, W. H. Gray later remembered that the "partitions were all upright boards planed, and the cracks battened," while the floors were "mostly" of rough boards except in the officers and governor's house, where they were planed. [27]

Perhaps at that time there were not even carpets in McLoughlin's quarters, since Gray said that there were none on the floors of the parsonage" "and none in the country to put upon them, except the common flag mats the Indians manufacture." [28] As early as 1836, however, the chief factor's sitting room contained that greatest of frontier rarities, a sofa. [29]

According to W. H. Gray, the stockade was being enlarged at the time of his arrival during September, 1836. [30] It evidently was Dr. McLoughlin's intention to erect a second Big House in the new, eastern section of the enclosure, but the project seems to have kept being postponed. In the opinion of Clerk Francis Ermatinger, at least, the Doctor might have delayed indefinitely "had not the men who were called to prop up the old House, still unfinished, caused an alarm by telling the family that it would soon be down upon them." This report spurred McLoughlin to action, and, in the words of Ermatinger, the chief factor "had the resolution" during the winter of 1837-1838 "to finish a good and commodious house." [31] This new Big House was in use by March 19, 1838. [32]

Years later W. H. Gray testified that the second manager's residence was among the structures erected in the new part of the fort after 1836. [33] The first known map which shows the Big House in that location is the Emmons ground plan of 1841 (see plate III). All known subsequent maps of the fort to June 15, 1860, continue to show the building in that location (for examples, see plates VII and XXX).

This position for the 1838-1860 chief factor's residence is amply confirmed by archeological excavations in 1948, 1950, 1952, and 1971. [34] Footings uncovered during these operations definitely fixed the locations of the four corners of this structure. [35]

As the residence and personal office of the fort's chief factor for many years, as well as the location of the gentlemen's dining room, the Big House was long the center of business, social, and political activity for much of the Oregon Country. Even after the establishment of the Provisional Government and the opening of American mercantile establishments in the Willamette Valley during the early 1840's had substantially reduced Hudson's Bay Company influence south of the Columbia, the Big House continued to play a role in public affairs. On June 1, 1846, for instance, the election for Vancouver County officers under the Provisional Government was held "in the Hall in the Big House." [36]

But merely to summarize the events which took place in the manager's residence from 1838 to the 1850's would practically amount to the writing of a history of Fort Vancouver, a project quite beyond the scope of this report. We shall, therefore, confine ourselves to mentioning a random series of occurrences which illustrate the uses of the structure, convey some idea of the quality of life within its walls, or throw light upon the physical structure itself.

The use of the dining hall in the Big House for religious services has been treated in detail elsewhere. [37] It is worth noting, however, that the Rev. Mr. Herbert Beaver found the new mess room "more commodious" for his congregation than the old one, since it admitted "of more decent arrangements for conducting public worship, at which the unseemly dinner table is dispensed with." He reported that the "noises and interruptions," with which his services had been plagued in the first Big House were no longer a problem. "But still," he complained, "is the above-mentioned nuisance liable to occur in the place." [38] From these words one can conclude that at least some of the family quarters were still entered through the dining hall.

With the arrival of Catholic priests at Fort Vancouver during November, 1838, the Catholic services were quickly transferred to another building. In general, Protestant religious observances continued to be held in the Big House, with one of the chief factors or clerks presiding after the departure of Chaplain Beaver toward the end of 1838. As late as 1849 the mess room, then often called "Vancouver Hall," was still being used for this purpose. Sermons were occasionally preached by visiting ministers and missionaries. [39]

The dining hall was frequently the scene of hospitality extended to prominent visitors and to many who were not so prominent. Lieutenant Charles Wilkes and other officers of the United States Exploring Expedition spent a considerable amount of time at Fort Vancouver during the summer of 1841. On the day of their arrival, towards sunset, wrote Wilkes, "tea-time arrived, and we obeyed the summons of the bell, when we were introduced to several of the gentlemen of the establishment: we met in a large hall, with a long table spread with [an] abundance of good fare. Dr. M'Laughlin took the head of the table, with myself on his right, Messrs. Douglass [H.B.C] and Drayton [U.S.N] on his left, and the others apparently according to their rank. I mention this, as every one appears to have a relative rank, privilege, and station assigned him, and military etiquette prevails." [40]

On December 1, 1845, a large dinner party was given at the fort for the officers of H. M. S. Modeste. "Sat down to dinner at half past 5, and in the evening had a dance in the second Hall which was kept up till one o'clock in the morning," recorded Clerk Thomas Lowe. [41]

On March 25 of the next year there was another gala occasion connected with important visitors. Lieutenants Henry J. Warre and Mervin Vavasour of the British Army were about to set off overland for Canada with the Company's express. "We took our last dinner in the Hall and drank the stirrup Cup after which we were accompanied to the beach by all the Gentlemen of the Establishment," wrote Warre in his diary. [42] He threw further light on the festivities in another document. "The gentlemen in charge of the Fort," he said, "also gave a grand dinner in the large dining hall at which many civil speeches were made." [43]

This picture of the Big House as the center of hospitality and good cheer is strengthened by the testimony of Dr. H. A. Tuzo. He later said that when he arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1853 to take up his duties as post surgeon, he found the dwelling of the officer in charge equipped "with extensive cellars beneath for storage of wines and spirits." [44]

Celebration of holidays, not only for the post's "gentlemen" but for all the servants and their families, centered about the manager's residence. The following quotations from the diary of Thomas Lowe illustrate this point:

[December 25, 1844]. Christmas. . . . Holyday to all hands. . . . Divine Service in the Church, forenoon and afternoon. Had a card party in Dr. McLoughlin's room in the evening, and a Supper afterwards.

[December 26, 1844]. A holyday also. Another card party, and a dance in Bachelor's Hall.

[January 1, 1845]. We had a ball in the evening up stairs, which was kept up till 2 o'clock next morning. Men comparatively quiet. [45]

[December 31, 1845]. Singing, dancing, and all kinds of fun carried on to a late or rather early hour in Bachelor's Hall, ushering in the New Year. Several of the Junior Officers from the "Modeste" and a number of the other visitors were with us.

[January 1, 1846]. Visited all the ladies in the Fort to wish them a Happy New Year and many returns. A dance in the evening in the large Mess Hall, at which all the ladies were present.

[January 2, 1846]. A holyday still. . . . Another ball this evening at which all the ladies of the Establishment and all the officers of the "Modeste" who could be spared were present. . . . Broke up dancing at midnight and sat down to supper. Adjourned afterwards to Bachelor's Hall where we continued singing and enjoying ourselves until 4 in the morning. [46]

[January 1, 1847]. Had a very excellent dinner at Fort, but none of the Officers of the "Modeste" were present. . . . In the evening we had a splendid ball up in the Hall, which went off remarkably well, and was kept up until 3 o'clock in the morning, after which we sat down to supper. Most of the Officers of the "Modeste" were at the Ball, and all the Ladies of the Fort. [47]

Other types of social functions at the Big House are illustrated by the following excerpts from Lowe's journals:

[March 29, 1845]. Mr. [Chief Trader] [Richard] Grant was married this afternoon to Mrs. [Eleanor] Kittson in the Hall, at which we all were present. [48]

[October 24, 1845]. A card party and supper up stairs in celebration of Cecilia Douglas' eleventh birthday. [49]

[January 7, 1849]. A band of the sailors came up this afternoon from the Modeste and forming into line before the Big House struck up God save the Queen and Rule Brittannia accompanied in the music by the Sergeant of marines playing on the fife. They were taken up stairs by Mr. Douglas and got something to drink. [50]

[January 12 1850]. Another dance to night, in the Second Hall. . . [51]

From these quotations certain hypotheses may be hazarded. The main dining room seems to have been meant when the "large Mess Hall," "the large dining hall," or simply "the Hall" were referred to. Lowe sometimes referred to events in this room as being "up in the Hall," and he said Douglas took the sailors "up stairs" to what must have been this same hall for a drink.

On the other hand, he twice referred to dances in the "Second Hall," which seems to have been a different room from the mess hall. He also mentioned a ball and a card party given "up stairs." It is obvious that one would have had to go up the front stairs to get from the yard to the mess hall, and probably a person living in the separate building that was the clerks' quarters would have said a ball was given "up in the Hall"; but a dance or a card party given "up stairs" was probably given on the second floor of the Big House. One might even venture a guess that this possible room on the second floor was the "Second Hall," but such an assumption is far beyond what can be demonstrated by solid evidence.

It will also be noted that Lowe mentioned the Bachelors' Hall in connection with a dance and with singing after a ball. Seemingly, but not certainly, this was a different room from the Second Hall; Lowe provides no solid clues as to whether it was or was not in the manager's residence.

Lowe's mention of Chief Factor James Douglas and his daughter Cecilia calls attention once again to the fact that more than one family resided in the Big House. Lieutenant George Foster Emmons found during the summer of 1841 that "Dr. McLaughlin & Mr. Douglass" inhabited the "commander's residence." [52] Evidently this arrangement was continuous from the time the mansion was first inhabited in 1838 until January 17, 1846, when Mrs. McLoughlin "and all her household" left Fort Vancouver to take up residence in the house Dr. McLoughlin had prepared for them in Oregon City. [53] Even while the Doctor had been in Europe on furlough during 1838 and 1839 Mrs. McLoughlin and her family had continued to occupy their usual quarters in the Big House. [54]

Even with only the McLoughlin and Douglas families in residence, the Big House must have been crowded. The Doctor and his wife, Marguerite Wadin McKay McLoughlin, had only one child living at Fort Vancouver in late 1845, and this residence by then was only spasmodic. This child was twenty-four-year-old David McLoughlin, who was then serving as a Company clerk at Willamette Falls. [55] Whether he actually lived with his parents in their quarters during his rather frequent visits is not known, but it is probable that he did so. "I am now alone with my father and mother," he had written to a relative from Fort Vancouver in 1843 after the death of his older brother. [56]

But there were other family members who kept the Doctor's bedrooms occupied. Mrs. McLoughlin's granddaughter, Catherine Ermatinger, and presumably, her infant daughter, Frances Maria, paid frequent and sometimes lengthy visits from their home at Willamette Falls. [57] In addition Dr. McLoughlin's grown son, Joseph, and step-son, Thomas McKay, occasionally visited the fort, sometimes with still other relatives, but whether any of these latter guests lodged at the Big House is not revealed by available sources. [58]

Chief Factor James Douglas and his wife, Amelia Connolly Douglas, on the other hand, had a houseful of children of their own by the end of 1845. Apple of her father's eye was eleven year-old Cecilia, born on October 23, 1834. [59] Then came six-year-old Jane, born in 1839. She was followed by four-year-old Agnes, born in 1841. Last came little Alice, born in 1844. A fifth girl, Margaret, made her appearance during 1846. [60]

It is possible, though not probable, that others of the fort's "gentlemen" lived in the manager's house with the august chief factors for varying periods. Clerk George B. Roberts, for instance, told a historian decades later that he "roomed in the same building" and messed at the same table with Douglas and McLoughlin "for years." [61] Be this as it may, it is known that he lived in the Bachelors Quarters with the other clerks for at least part of his long sojourn at Fort Vancouver, and when in May, 1844, he returned from furlough in England with a British bride he was given a house of his own. [62]

Regardless of whether there were other permanent residents, there certainly were occasions when visitors were housed in the mansion. It seems to have been the usual practice to put up female guests there, particularly those with some status or evidence of gentility. [63] This custom caused the intolerant and intemperate Reverend Mr. Beaver a good deal of anguish, since he persisted in maintaining that fur-trade marriages were no marriages at all. "I see the principal house in your establishment made a common receptacle for every mistress of an officer in the service who may take a fancy to visit the Fort," he complained to the Governor and Committee on October 2, 1838. [64]

The historical record throws some light upon changes in the physical structure of the second Big House over the years. On May 26, 1845, Clerk Thomas Lowe noted in his journal: "Baron [Charles Diamare dit Baron, carpenter] with a number of men employed taking down the old gallery in front of the Big House, in order to erect a new one." [65] Evidently it was some time before the repairs were completed. Not until September 2, 1846, did Lowe report further progress. "Several men employed making a verandah in front of the Big House," he wrote. [66]

Meanwhile, on August 27, 1846, he had noted that "Baron and a party of men began shingling the Big House." [67] This entry points to the probability that prior to mid-1846 the manager's residence was roofed with planks. [68]

Rather strangely, a witness during the 1860's reported that by 1849 the portico was once more in need of repair. He also remembered that the foundations of the residence had sagged sufficiently to create openings in the outer walls and to cause the doors and windows to drag. [69] If such was the case, rehabilitation must have been undertaken, since a United States army officer who inspected the building during the fall of 1849 reported it to be a "very comfortable dwelling house." [70]

After the departure of Dr. John McLoughlin from Fort Vancouver early in January, 1846 -- he was on furlough pending retirement from the Company's service -- the management of the Columbia Department and Fort Vancouver was taken over by Chief Factors Peter Skene Ogden and James Douglas. The latter officer continued to live in the Big House until he moved to Vancouver Island during May, 1849. Ogden was much in the field during this period, but he probably moved his family into the Big House soon after McLoughlin's departure. At any rate, he and his family seem to have been the principal, or even sole, occupants by October 1, 1849. [71]

All of the succeeding Fort Vancouver managers, with their families, seem to have lived in the governor's house except, perhaps, Chief Trader James Allan Grahame, who was in charge of the post from about June, 1858, until the Company left in 1860. Grahame, who had served as a clerk at the fort for many years, was living in the old "priests' house" in January, 1854, and he probably continued to occupy that structure even after he succeeded to the manager's position. [72]

Perhaps by 1858 the Big House was already showing signs of the decay which by 1860 made it uninhabitable. When the Company left, the building was so dilapidated that the ground could be seen through a "large decayed spot in the floor." [73] Archeologists in recent years have found the west footings of the manager's residence to be in a burned condition, indicating that the structure probably was at least partly destroyed by fire after the army assumed control. [74]

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003