Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
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Volume II


History and location

One of the principal reasons for moving the Columbia District depot inland from Fort George to the site of the new Fort Vancouver during the winter of 1824-25 was to be in a location suitable for raising Indian corn and grain. Governor George Simpson was determined to reduce operating expenses west of the Rockies by, among other measures, eliminating practically all importation of food from Europe and greatly increasing the amount of grain, vegetables, and fruit grown in the country. In fact, he even envisioned producing enough "Beef Pork Fish Corn Butter &c &c" to develop an export trade in those items. "It has been said that Farming is no branch of the Fur Trade," he noted in his journal, "but I consider every pursuit tending to leighten [sic] the Expence of the Trade is a branch thereof." [1]

Coincident with the first blows of the axe that marked the start of construction at Fort Vancouver, sod was broken on the upper prairie adjoining the building site, and a field was laid out for potatoes and other vegetables. But evidently it was not until early in 1826 that McLoughlin planted two bushels of spring wheat, an act generally held to mark the beginning of wheat-growing in the present State of Washington. At the same time he planted two bushels of barley, one bushel of oats, some Indian corn, and a quart of timothy. These grains yielded well. After the harvest McLoughlin could tell the London directors that it would no longer be necessary to import Indian corn into the Columbia District, and he predicted that after 1828 the wheat grown at Fort Vancouver would supply all the flour needed in the Company's establishments west of the Rockies.

By saving and replanting the greater part of the grain yields, McLoughlin was able to make his forecast come true. The wheat crop of 1828 amounted to between 800 and 1,000 bushels, the kernels "full and plump, and making good flour." In November of that year, Governor Simpson was able to boast that "we have now a two years stock of Grain on hand, so that we shall not require either Flour or Grain from England in future." [2]

During the next decade the farm at Fort Vancouver was greatly expanded. By April 1836 McLoughlin could predict that the crop that year would include 4,000 bushels of wheat, 1,200 bushels of barley, and 1,000 bushels of oats despite a severe drought. [3] By that time, also, the production of grains at other posts, such as Nisqually and Colvile, had reduced the percentage of Vancouver's yield required for internal use, and it became possible to think of surpluses for reserve stocks and exports.

Another factor contributed to the supply of grain accumulating at Vancouver. About 1829 Chief Factor McLoughlin agreed to assist a few freemen and furloughed Company servants who wished to establish farms in the Willamette Valley, and soon his helping hand, in the form of seed, implements, and credit, was also extended to the American settlers who began drifting into the region during the next decade. This largesse virtually obligated the Hudson's Bay Company to purchase the wheat raised by these farmers, because only through the sale of their crops could they liquidate their debts, and there was no other market in Oregon.

By 1835 the amount of wheat raised by the Willamette settlers was reaching substantial proportions. Early in the next year McLoughlin told a friend that these farmers had "amongst them" about 3,000 bushels of wheat. [4] During 1836 the settlers produced 1,000 bushels beyond the amount needed for their own sustenance, and all of this surplus was bought by the Company. [5] The next year the Willamette farms were reported to be capable of exporting 5,500 bushels. [6]

In 1838 Chief Factor James Douglas, in charge at Fort Vancouver during McLoughlin's absence in Europe, told the London directors, "I am now buying up the crop of this season, to clear the market and leave nothing in store for casual visitors, a policy that ought not to be neglected." [7] In other words, the Company was buying up the surplus crops as one additional means of making Oregon unattractive and unprofitable for fur trade rivals.

As early as 1836 McLoughlin had anticipated that the resale of Willamette Valley wheat in foreign markets could be made a profitable branch of the Company's business. The grain could be bought at Fort Vancouver for fifty or sixty cents a bushel; in 1837 it was reported that the Russians at Sitka were paying $1.50 a bushel for California wheat. [8] There also appeared to be a promising market in the Hawaiian Islands where by 1838 the Company was already shipping farm produce. [9]

All of these factors combined to make the storage of grain at the depot a matter of major consideration. In March 1838 James Douglas informed Governor Simpson: "The prosperity of the general business, is so intimately connected with the agricultural operations, and depends, so much upon the possession of an ample and regular supply of Provisions, that it long since became a desederatum with us to secure independently of the rising crop, a full years provisions in advance, and it is now attained, as our barns contain a sufficient quantity of the more useful kinds of grains to meet the home and outward demand, at a reasonable calculation, for the next eighteen months." [10]

Evidently the storage conditions at that time, however, were something less than ideal. At least the Company's chaplain, the Reverend Mr. Herbert Beaver, wondered during the same month what advantage there was to "having so many thousand bushels in store (unthrashed)" when the grain, "after lying for several years in stack, not to reckon the quantity destroyed by vermin, becomes from dirt almost unfit for use." He recommended that the grain be thrashed and "kept in granaries." [11]

Chief Factor Douglas was well aware of these deficiencies, but there was not much he could do about them at the moment. It will be recalled from previous chapters that late 1837 and all of 1838 was a period of much construction at the depot, with such high priority buildings as the new Big House and the Bachelors' Quarters commanding the services of the available carpenters.

Seemingly it was not until very late in 1838 or very early in 1839 that Douglas was able to start construction of a proper granary within the pickets. The site selected was near the north stockade wall in the old, or western, half of the fort. Very probably this location had not been available until shortly before March 1838 when the old "great house" was demolished. [12]

On March 5, 1839, Douglas informed Governor Simpson: "We have also put up the shell of a two story building 50 x 40 feet, intended as a store house for grain." [13] Progress seems not to have been continuous, however, because not until October could Douglas announce that "we have since harvest completed the new Granary, which may contain about 18 thousand Bushels of Grain." [14]

This Wheat Store, as the building was also known, was not finished any too soon, for the demands upon Fort Vancouver's wheat supplies had already been much increased. On February 6, 1839, the Company leased the coastal strip of southeastern Alaska from the Russian American Company. As part of the payment for this important concession, it agreed to furnish the Russian settlements in Alaska with wheat, barley, peas, butter, beef, ham, and other supplies.

The amounts of wheat involved were substantial. In 1843, for instance, the Company expected to require 15,300 bushels for its own use in the Columbia District and for export to Alaska, and it intended to sell an additional 10,000 bushels in the Hawaiian Islands. To meet this total demand of 25,300 bushels it had in storage 7,300 bushels, and the production of its own farms would bring in 8,000 more. The balance of 10,000 bushels was to be obtained from the Willamette settlers. [15] Clearly the Granary was an important cog in what could be described as (considering the time and place) a large-scale agricultural and exporting enterprise.

Lieutenant Charles Wilkes of the United States Exploring Expedition was taken through the Granary by James Douglas in 1841. Unfortunately he had little to say about it other than that it contained wheat, flour, barley, and buckwheat. Oats, he reported, did not thrive at Fort Vancouver. [16]

About the time of Wilkes's visit, the following amounts of wheat, listed under the heading "Purchased from Settlers," were stored at the Fort Vancouver depot in addition to the grain produced on the Company's farms:

4529 Bushels Wheat
 349-1/2 Bushels Wheat from Catholic Mission
2500 Bushels Wheat P. S. Co. [Puget's Sound Agricultural Company, grown at Cowlitz Farm] [17]

Around June 1, 1845, the following items of "country produce," which may have been stored in the Granary, were on hand at the Fort Vancouver Depot: 460 barrels of fine flour, 121-100/112 hundredweight of fine flour, and 24,300 bushels of wheat. [18] A year later, in the spring of 1846, there were 18,429 bushels of wheat in store at Fort Vancouver, but counting the grain stored at the post's subestablishments, such as the Willamette Falls and Champoeg stations, the Company had 26,969 bushels of wheat on hand in the Columbia District depot. [19]

It can be seen from these figures that by mid-1845 the wheat in storage exceeded the capacity of the Granary as estimated by James Douglas. This embarrassing situation evidently first developed during 1844. As late as November 20 of that year Dr. McLoughlin optimistically informed the Governor and Committee that the Willamette settlers "will sell us this year 20,000 bushels of Wheat at least, and as they are extending their farms, they will have a great deal more next year." [20] But the crop must have been better than expected, and something of a glut developed. Seemingly the Company, its granaries full, had to refuse to accept more wheat before the end of November 1844. [21

By the middle of 1845 James Douglas foresaw the end of the time when the Company could buy all the settlers' wheat. "What are the poor farmers to do then?" he asked his friend Dr. W. F. Tolmie. [22]

As a matter of fact, that time had already arrived, although Douglas could not yet have known it. The curtailment in purchases finally came not so much as the result of abundant supplies as from a change in Company policy. On June 16, 1845, Governor Simpson informed McLoughlin, Douglas, and Peter Skene Ogden, who together were to form a Board of Management to direct Columbia District affairs during Outfit 1845, of the Company's belief that the produce of its own farms, together with the yield from the Puget's Sound Agricultural Company and the grain received from settlers in payment of past debts, would suffice to meet the service's own needs and the Russian contract and still leave a reserve to provision passing ships of the Royal Navy. Beyond that, said Simpson, a trade in wheat is not "an object deserving our attention." In other words, purchases from settlers were to be ended. [23]

McLoughlin replied to the London directors on November 20, 1845, that the district would "unavoidably" have 6,000 barrels of flour to send to market in the Hawaiian Islands during the next year, but that purchases of wheat had already been curtailed. "At present," he stated, "we purchase Wheat . . . only from a few good customers whom out of policy we cannot cast off." [24]

Lieutenant Neil M. Howison of the United States Navy noted by personal observation in 1846 that the granaries of Oregon were "surcharged with wheat" and that, despite an "abundant" harvest at Fort Vancouver, the managers of the Columbia District by November of that year had purchased about 12,000 bushels from settlers, "chiefly in payment of debts." [25] But fortunately for both the Company and the settlers, the hostilities between Americans and Mexicans in California somewhat increased the market for grain, and the arrival of the large emigration of 1847 quickly produced a scarcity of wheat. Close on the heels of these incidents came the California gold rush, which provided a ready market for all Oregon produce for several years. [26]

But the same bonanza lured away most of the depot servants, and by 1849 squatters had invaded the Company's fields. Thus after that date production on the Fort Vancouver farms dwindled rapidly. Statistics for the years following 1846 have not been analyzed because they lie outside the scope of this study, but it is safe to say that, allowing for fluctuations, the bins in the Fort Vancouver Granary became emptier and emptier as the Company's business on the lower Columbia gradually faded away during the 1850s.

But before those sad days arrived, the Wheat Store seemingly had a brief fling of official glory. Early in 1846 the House of Representatives of the Provisional Government of Oregon Territory passed an act providing for the collection of revenues. Among other and more usual forms of legal tender acceptable for the payment of taxes was "good merchantable wheat." Residents of Vancouver County--the region north of the Columbia River--who paid their taxes in wheat were required to deliver it to the Hudson's Bay Company warehouses at Cowlitz or Fort Vancouver. Very probably the building to which the wheat was to be brought at Vancouver was the Granary, although there seems to be no precise evidence upon this point. [27]

It might also be mentioned that the Oregon Provisional Government in 1845 made wheat orders on solvent merchants and treasury notes legal tender along with gold and silver for the payments of debts. Orders on merchants were merely certificates for stipulated amounts, which represented the value of wheat deposited in designated ware houses belonging to merchants. The orders issued by the Hudson's Bay Company were considered the most reliable and usually were redeemed at par. This use of wheat certificates as legal tender was ended on March 4, 1848, due to an increased supply of cash in Oregon, but for more than two years the Fort Vancouver Wheat Store served an important role in easing a severe economic crisis. [28]

A longtime resident of Fort Vancouver testified that in 1849 the Granary was still in fairly sound condition. The roof and the bins inside were "good," he said, but the exterior of the building had "opened in places by the settling of the foundation." [29] An arrival at the post in 1853 found the Wheat Store to be "large and well fitted up" and still two stories high. [30]

Beginning on April 15, 1856, the United States Army rented, among other structures, a "Granary & Sugar Store" from the Company at Fort Vancouver. [31] There is no certainty that this building was the Wheat Store within the pickets, but such probably was the case. How long this use continued is unknown.

As is attested by the 1860 photograph, the Granary was in reasonably good condition at that time, though evidences of sagging are plain (see Plate LXIII). The board of army officers that inspected the fort buildings on June 15 of that year, however, pronounced the structure "entirely unsuitable for public service." [32] Its subsequent fate is unknown, but it surely was either torn down or burned within several years after the post was turned over to the military authorities. [33]

The exact site of the Granary was determined in 1950 and 1952 when archeological excavations uncovered many of the footings. The building stood about twenty feet south of the northernmost palisade wall and about eighty-seven feet west of the New Office. Its location is today identified as Building No. 9 on the site plan of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003