Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
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Volume II


History and location

The cooper's Shop was not within the stockade at Fort Vancouver during Outfit 1845 and hence, strictly speaking, should not be included in this study. However, it was situated so close to the palisade and it played such an important role in the economy of the Columbia District that it appears to require at least a brief treatment.

Even before the exportation of salmon and agricultural products from the Columbia region was envisioned, the fur trade on the Pacific Slope had need for coopers. The North West Company maintained a cooper's shop at Fort George at least as early as 1818. [1] Salmon, a principal food at the establishments west of the Rockies, was a seasonal resource, and in order to preserve it for use when the fresh fish was not available, it had to be dried, smoked, or salted. Salting required barrels and many of them.

As early as 1822 the Governor and Committee of the Hudson's Bay Company began to explore the possibilities of exporting other products besides furs from the Columbia. During the next several years barrels of cured salmon were sent from Fort George to London on an experimental basis, but these pioneering efforts were not a success. [2] As has been seen, however, Governor Simpson's visit of 1824-25 revived interest in developing an export trade in fish, beef, pork, and other "country produce." By 1827 Chief Factor McLoughlin was suggesting that a trade in salmon and timber might be developed with the Hawaiian Islands, California, and other areas. Implementation of this program soon followed, and centers for producing salted salmon were organized on the Columbia River and at Fort Langley on the Fraser River. Nearly 300 barrels were prepared for export at Fort Langley alone in 1830. The Russian contract in 1839 greatly increased the demand for barrels, because large quantities of flour, salt beef, salt pork, and other products had to be prepared for shipment to Sitka.

By Outfit 1845, then, Fort Vancouver and several other posts in the Columbia District were producing barrels in large numbers and in a variety of sizes and shapes. Some of these containers have been described in previous chapters, but it is revealing to observe a sampling of the types of cooper's products and their uses listed in the Fort Vancouver inventories of "Country Made" articles and "Country Produce" for 1845 and 1846. There were, for instance, oak kegs in one-gallon, two-gallon, and eight-gallon sizes; barrels of apples; tierces of salt beef weighing 300 pounds each; barrels of salt beef; hundredweights of biscuit (packed in barrels); barrels of flour; barrels and tierces of salt pork; barrels of salt salmon; barrels of salt; and kegs of salt butter. [3] It can be assumed that the coopers also fabricated a variety of pails, buckets, and other wooden containers for use at the western establishments.

If the words of American trapper Jedediah Smith are interpreted literally, it appears that the Cooper's Shop was located inside the stockade of the first Fort Vancouver, the one that stood on the brow of the hill overlooking the river plain from 1825 to 1829. [4] But after the depot was moved closer to the Columbia in 1828-29 the location of the Cooper's Shop becomes clouded in uncertainty. Purser William A. Slacum, who visited Fort Vancouver in 1837, stated very distinctly that "within the pickets, there are thirty-four buildings . including . . . workshops for carpenters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, coopers, tinners, &c." [5] Although the detailed ground plan and building inventory prepared by Lt. George Foster Emmons on July 25, 1841, failed to indicate a workshop for coopering inside the fort, Emmons specifically said in his journal that "independent of this [the stockade]" and near the river were several buildings, among which was listed a "coopers shop." [6]

It would appear, then, that by 1841 the Cooper's Shop had been moved down near the Hospital and Salmon Store close to the north bank of the Columbia River. The ground plan of Fort Vancouver drawn by Lieutenant M. Vavasour late in 1845 identifies all the structures shown within the stockade, and it likewise fails to list a Cooper's Shop (Plates VI, VII, VIII, vol. I). In fact, starting in 1841 (except for the words of Duflot de Mofras mentioned in fn. 6), no available evidence gives any indication that the coopers worked inside the fort.

There is, however, a solid basis for believing that the Cooper's Shop continued to remain outside the stockade. The original version of the map drawn by Richard Covington in 1846 or perhaps a short time later, as reproduced in Plate XIII, volume I of this study, shows a "Cooper's Shop" a short distance north of the Hospital and east of the pond down near the riverbank. If the map was accurate, this building seems to have had a square floor plan. No other legend indicating a workshop for coopers appears on this version of the map.

When preparing the third volume of Dr. John McLoughlin's official correspondence for publication shortly before 1944, the Hudson's Bay Record Society seems to have decided that the original Covington plan would not reproduce well, and thus the map was redrawn. Several details not visible on the reproduction of the original are clearly indicated on this redrawn version. The "Cooper's Shop" near the river remains, but an additional "Cooper's Shed" is plainly marked. This latter structure was shown as being oblong in shape, and it was located directly east of the southeast corner of the stockade. [8] Seemingly, then, by 1846 there were two buildings at the depot given over to the work of the coopers, and they both were outside the pickets.

But this situation may have ended by late 1846. The 1846-47 inventory of Company improvements at Fort Vancouver listed only one shop for coopers. Under the heading "Workshops" is found "1 Coopers Shop, 70 x 30 feet." [9] From the dimensions it seems reasonable to assume that this "Coopers Shop" was the "Cooper's Shed" of the Covington map and not Covington's square "Cooper's Shop" down by the river. If this hypothesis is correct, the Cooper's Shop by late 1846 or early 1847 was situated just outside the southeast corner of the stockade. Support for such an assumption appears to be found in the sworn testimony of Dr. H. A. Tuzo, who said that when he arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1853 there was "a large cooper's shop" outside the stockade on the east. [10]

Thus the Cooper's Shop seems quite definitely to have been situated close to the southeast palisade corner from about 1846 until at least 1853. Actually it probably was moved to this location at an unknown date between 1841 and 1846.

This workshop evidently was not a new building. Beginning with the Eld and Agate views of Fort Vancouver in 1841 (Plates IV and LIII, vol. I), a number of drawings and maps show three buildings extending eastward in a line from the southeast stockade corner. [11] In most of the pictures and plans the structure nearest the stockade is shown as a rather large, oblong building that could easily be the "Cooper's Shop, 70 x 30 feet" mentioned in the 1846-47 inventory (see, for example, Plates V, IX, XIII-XIV, and XIX, vol. I). The other two buildings apparently were small dwellings. By 1860 at least one additional small structure stood near them (see Plate XXX, vol. I).

During Outfit 1845 there were four coopers at the Fort Vancouver depot who served for the full year, while a fifth, James Rendall, a man with twenty-three years of service with the Company, went "home" in the Cowlitz during the fall of 1845. The four who remained through the outfit were Henry Collie, who had served thirteen years but whose pay was only L17 per annum; Marie Haguet, a native of France and a relative newcomer with only five years of service but who received L25; Robert Johnstone, who had twelve years of service, a wage of L25, and a gratuity of five shillings; and Spunyarn, a Hawaiian who had served sixteen years and who received L20. [12]

By Outfit 1851 Spunyarn was the only full-rated cooper remaining at Fort Vancouver. By that date he was being paid L30 a year. Two apprentice coopers, Thomas Como and Alexander Oroheeay, assisted him, but the latter was discharged on February 24, 1852. [13]

During the next business year, Outfit 1852, Spunyarn was the sole cooper carried on the Fort Vancouver rolls. But this faithful servant died, evidently during 1853, and then there were none. If the Abstract of Servants' Accounts of the Oregon Department accurately reflected the situation, coopering had been discontinued at Fort Vancouver by Outfit 1854. [14]

It is quite probable that the end of coopering at the former depot resulted before too long in the demise of the Cooper Shop also. The careful survey of the Fort Vancouver Military Reservation made under the direction of Capt. George Thom shows only open ground where the old Cooper's Shop had stood, though three smaller structures are depicted in the same general area (Plate XXIV, vol. I). The ground plan prepared by a board of army officers on June 15, 1860, does show a structure on the site of the Cooper Shop, but apparently it was a much smaller building (Plate XXX, vol. I). At any rate, there could not have been much left of the Cooper's Shop if it was still in existence, because the same board in its appraisal of the Fort Vancouver buildings mentioned with ill-concealed disdain four "hovels, outside of and near the southeast corner of the pickets, in a dilapidated condition." [15] With this curt notation the history of the Cooper's Shop comes to an end.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003