Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
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Volume II


History and location

The building known by 1845 as the "Priests' House" was situated immediately south of the Owyhee Church in the northeastern quadrant of the fort enclosure as it existed after the enlargement of about 1836. In this position it lay about forty feet directly west of the Big House and about forty-eight feet east of the New Office. These three structures--the New Office, the Priests' House, and the Big House--were all approximately on the same line, and together they formed the north boundary of the eastern segment of the fort courtyard.

The footings of the Priests' House were uncovered during archeological excavations in 1948. It was then determined that the north end of the structure lay about fifty-three feet south of the northernmost line of the north stockade wall. [1] The location of the Priests' House is now designated Building No. 16 on the site plan of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

The historical record appears to be silent concerning the origin of this structure. Because it was in the eastern half of the fort, which was not enclosed until about 1836, it undoubtedly was not erected prior to that date. But construction must have followed soon thereafter. The Emmons ground plan of mid-1841 identifies the later Priests' House as the "Chaplains' or Governors temporary residence" (Plate III, vol. I). As far as is known the only time the "Governor," as McLaughlin was frequently termed, could have occupied the Priests' House was during the winter of 1837-38, when the Big House was being reconstructed on its new site. This new "Commander's residence," as Emmons termed it, was completed and occupied by March 19, 1838.

It seems probable, then, that the Priests' House was erected not very long before the winter of 1837-38. Its first use, seemingly, was as a temporary residence for Chief Factor John McLoughlin and his family. Perhaps other officers were housed there also, because quarters seem to have been at a premium during this period of rather extensive building activity.

The next occupants of the "Governors temporary residence" are not known for certain. They may have been the unhappy Reverend Herbert Beaver and his snobbish wife, Jane. Ever since their arrival at Fort Vancouver during September 1836 this Anglican chaplain and his consort had complained bitterly about their lodgings. Almost surely, however, the small house they shared during most of their stay with one or more of the Company's gentlemen was not the later Priests' House. The description of the parsonage does not match that of the latter structure. [2] Furthermore, as has been discussed, the Priests' House seems to have been occupied by others.

But after the new Big House had been completed and after Chief Factor McLoughlin had left the depot in March 1838 to go on furlough, there is a slight possibility that James Douglas may have attempted to alleviate the Beavers' discomfort by moving them into the at least partially vacated "Governors temporary residence." If such was the case, the chaplain and his wife did not achieve their wish of having a house to themselves, because on October 8, 1838, by which time the Beavers had decided to return to England on the vessel sailing early in November, Douglas stated that if the clergyman had been patient six weeks longer he would have been able to "withdraw Mr. McLeod, the only person who has this summer occasionally occupied one end of Mr. Beavers dwelling, and the whole house would then have been in his possession." [3] The general tone of Douglas's remarks, however, would tend to indicate that until the Beavers left Fort Vancouver they continued to inhabit the same parsonage that had caused them so much despair in the past.

The only reason for believing that the Beavers may have inhabited the later Priests' House before their departure is a highly uncertain one. On November 24, 1838, Fathers Francois Norbert Blanchet and Modeste Demers, the first Catholic priests to be stationed permanently in the Oregon Country, arrived at Fort Vancouver after a harrowing overland journey from Canada. As Father Blanchet later recorded, the priests were warmly welcomed by James Douglas and "were lodged in the room which Mr. Beaver and lady had left three weeks before far England." [4] These words by no means can be considered as evidence that the Beavers had lived in the later Priests' House, because it is not known which building was assigned to Fathers Blanchet and Demers upon their arrival. Yet the possibility that the name "Priests' House" originated with this first assignment of quarters cannot be entirely overlooked. [5]

As a matter of fact, it is not known when the Roman Catholic priests were assigned the former "Governors temporary residence" as their lodgings when at the fort. It may not have been until after Dr. McLoughlin returned from Europe in the fall of 1839. The use of the name "Chaplains' or Governors temporary residence" for the structure by Emmons in 1841 may or may not indicate that the Catholic clergymen were then residing there when at Vancouver. The only certainty seems to be that by August 22, 1845, the name "Priests house" was in common usage about the post, a fact demonstrating that the Catholic fathers had been domiciled in the building for some time. [6]

The story of the origins of the Catholic missions in the Oregon Country and of the work conducted by Fathers Blanchet and Demers and by the reinforcements that arrived periodically during the next decade is much too complicated a subject to be covered in this study. Suffice it to state that the first priests were transported across the mountains by the Company with the understanding that their principal mission was to be at Cowlitz Farm north of the Columbia and that they would not establish themselves south of the river in the Willamette Valley.

Although the Catholic missionaries were given a church and a residence within the pickets at Fort Vancouver, though they ministered to the Catholic servants of the Company, and although they were some times referred to as "chaplains," they were not employees of the Hudson's Bay Company. They were not regularly appointed chaplains in the sense that the Reverend Mr. Beaver had been. They were fed and housed by the Company while at the firm's posts, but their chief financial support came from the Association for the Propagation of the Faith in Canada and in Europe and from contributions from abroad and from the settlers of Oregon. At the recommendation of Governor Simpson, the Council for the Northern Department in 1842 voted to make an allowance of L100 to the "Catholic Mission" on the Columbia, and this appropriation was made annually for a number of years there after. But the priests were not required to render any specific service in return, and they were free to preach to the Indians or to the Company's employees as they saw f it. [7]

Almost immediately after their arrival at Fort Vancouver Fathers Blanchet and Demers began to minister to the Catholic employees at the depot and to their families. But before the end of December Blanchet left to begin a mission in the Willamette Valley, confident that Dr. McLoughlin would succeed in getting the Company's restrictions in that respect eased. During the spring of 1839 he went off again to open the mission at the Cowlitz. While there he learned that a Protestant missionary was on his way to Fort Nisqually to work among the Indians, so he quickly dispatched a native to call Father Demers from Vancouver in order to "plant the true seed in the hearts of the Indians" at Nisqually. [8]

Thus was established a pattern of operations that was followed by priests in subsequent years--periodic residences at Fort Vancouver interrupted by long journeys to carry their religious message to Company employees at the distant outposts and to the Indians. During the next several years there were long intervals, particularly during the summers, when there were no priests at the depot. [9]

For a year Fathers Blanchet and Demers considered Fort Vancouver their "chief residence," because there were no structures suitable for permanent occupancy at Cowlitz. [10] But on October 9, 1839, James Douglas informed the priests that the Company no longer objected to the establishment of a Catholic mission on the Willamette. The very next day the two men left for their "winter quarters," Demers to the Cowlitz and Blanchet to the Willamette). [11] Soon thereafter Father Blanchet came to regard the Catholic Mission at St. Paul in the Willamette Valley as his "ordinary residence," and because he was the leader of the delegation, that place was regarded as headquarters for the priests possibly until 1846 when a church was opened at Oregon City or possibly until 1847 when Blanchet, by then an archbishop, fixed upon the latter structure as his procathedral. [12]

Meanwhile, the Company's French-Canadian servants at Fort Vancouver and their families had been complaining that the long absences of the priests from the depot resulted in their "not being served at all." [13] The arrival of two young secular priests, Antoine Langlois and Jean Baptiste Bolduc, by sea from Canada during September 1842 enabled Father Blanchet to remedy this situation somewhat. Thereafter a missionary was frequently in residence at Fort Vancouver, though still not continuously.

Probably the missionaries were living in the Priests' House by that date. Ordinarily they took their meals in their own residence, the food being brought from the Big House kitchen. Only occasionally did they eat with the Company's gentlemen in the mess hall. They were attended by a servant assigned especially to serve them. [14]

During the absences of the priests, and evidently sometimes while they were present, visitors and possibly even employees were housed in their residence. It is known, for instance, that during the summer of 1841 visiting Lt. George Foster Emmons of the United States Exploring Expedition was transferred by Dr. McLoughlin from the Bachelors' Quarters to the "Chaplains' or Governors temporary residence" in order to make him more comfortable. [15] Perhaps, as has been discussed in the chapter on the Bachelors' Quarters, the structure with the French windows and the bunks in which Lt. Charles Wilkes was lodged earlier during that same year was the Priests' House. [16] It is also possible that the private sitting room and the two bedrooms in which the British officers Warre and Vavasour spent the winter of 1845-46 were in this same structure. [17] And it may well be imagined that the Roman Catholic clergymen, including the well-known Father Peter DeSmet, S. J., who paused occasionally at Fort Vancouver as they went about their labors in the Pacific Northwest, found welcome shelter in the Priests' House.

On May 31, 1846, a new, Company-built Roman Catholic church situated outside the pickets of Fort Vancouver was dedicated. During that same year a small vestry for the priest was completed near this place of worship, but for one reason or another the clergymen occupied it only rarely, if at all, down to about 1850 or 1851.

Information concerning the living quarters of the Catholic missionaries between 1846 and about 1851 is vague and contradictory. Seemingly the Priests' House was still employed for this purpose, particularly through 1848, but less frequently than before. The missionaries sometimes lived in a small house they had purchased in the nearby village; occasionally they accepted hospitality in the homes of their parishioners, or, often, they occupied rooms in the Big House. In June 1848 the Protestant minister, the Reverend George H. Atkinson, found that the Catholic priest had "a part of Mr. Ogden's House," while Kanaka William had "one in the rear." [18] Unfortunately, it is not known where Chief Factor Peter Skene Ogden was living at that time. Either he was sharing the Big House with Chief Factor Douglas or, as seems possible from Atkinson's remark that William lived "in the rear," he was occupying the Priests' House. [19] According to at least one witness, the Catholic priests lived largely outside the stockade after 1848 and only visited in the fort for a few days at a time when invited to do so by the Company's officers. [20]

By 1849 the Priests' House was described by an army officer as "Quarters for sub-agents," indicating that it was being used at least mainly as a residence for subordinate officers of the Company. [21] James Allan Grahame, a clerk who was appointed a chief trader in 1854, was living in the building in January 1854 and probably continued to occupy that structure even after he was placed in charge of the post during 1858. The day after the Company abandoned Fort Vancouver on June 14, 1860, a board of army officers described the former Priests' House as a "Dwelling-house, formerly occupied by Mr. Graham, in a ruinous condition." [22] The subsequent fate of the structure is unknown, but within five years it had disappeared with the rest of the fort buildings. [23]

Priests in residence, Outfit 1845. In 1855 Archbishop Blanchet testified that Father Jean Nobili, S. J., was placed in charge of the mission at Fort Vancouver on September 19, 1844, and continued in charge until June 1845. He was then replaced by Father Peter DeVos, S. J., who remained in charge until May 1847. [24] Independent sources confirm this statement, although there were a few short gaps in Father DeVos's residence, and other priests occasionally officiated in the Catholic chapel within the stockade.

When Father Pierre Jean DeSmet returned to Fort Vancouver on May 17, 1845, after a visit to the Flatheads and Pend d'Oreilles, he found Father Nobili there and reported that the priest had been at the mission for eight months studying the native languages as well as ministering to both the Company's employees and the Indians. [25] Jean Nobili was an Italian and a member of the Society of Jesus. He had been recruited for Oregon by Father DeSmet during the latter's trip to Europe in 1843 and had arrived at Vancouver in the brig Infatigable on August 6, 1844. [26]

Father Nobili remained at Fort Vancouver until about June 25, 1845, because he officiated at a baptism on that date. [27] Prior to his departure he conducted the "first Laymen's Retreat given in the Pacific Northwest" for about fifty Canadians and Catholic Indians belonging to the interior brigade. [28]

Father Peter DeVos, S. J., was a Belgian whom DeSmet had found in the midwest and persuaded to join the mission beyond the Rockies. [29] Church records show that he reached Fort Vancouver from the Willamette Valley as early as June 13 to relieve Father Nobili and that, except for a short trip to Fort George and at least two others to the Willamette Valley, he remained at the depot quite steadily through the end of Outfit 1845 on May 31, 1846, after which date his activities are not of immediate interest for the purposes of this study. [30]

During the outfit other priests occasionally officiated in the Catholic chapel at Fort Vancouver. Father Antoine Langlois, a secular priest from Canada who, as has been seen, reached Oregon by sea in 1842, arrived at the depot from Cowlitz on September 6, 1845. The next day he officiated in the church and on September 14 and 15 he per formed two baptisms and a marriage. [31] On May 5, 1846, Father Michael Accolti, S. J., baptized an infant girl, the daughter of Charles Baron, the depot carpenter. Two days later he left for Oregon City. [32] Several other priests were "comers and goers" during the year, but only Fathers Nobili and DeVos can be considered residents.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003