Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
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Volume II


Reminiscences by visitors to Fort Vancouver prior to 1848 sometimes state that the post contained one or more bastions in addition to that at the northwest corner of the stockade. [1] Several of these records are quite convincing. On November 27, 1847, for instance, an emigrant named Loren B. Hastings arrived at Vancouver, and he remained there overnight. In his diary he mentioned seeing "bastions built at the corners containing cannon." [2]

It seems almost certain, however, that such statements were made in error, probably as the result of confusing conditions at other posts with those at Fort Vancouver. Lieutenant Mervin Vavasour, an officer in the Royal Engineers, visited the post during the latter half of 1845 and the opening months of 1846. His trained eye surveyed the fort from a military point of view, and he noted only one block house--that at the northwest angle. [3]

Vavasour and his companion, Lt. Henry J. Warre, were on the West Coast to plan British defensive works for use in the event the boundary dispute over the Oregon Country should lead to war with the United States. The officers believed Fort Vancouver was poorly located for military purposes, because it was commanded by the high ground to the north. But if the post had to be used in an emergency, the simplest way to strengthen it, recommended Vavasour, would be to dig a ditch around it, throwing the earth against the pickets. The stockade should be provided with loopholes and an interior "banquette"; small traverses should be placed behind the gates. Also "another small Block house" should be erected at the southeast corner of the palisade to flank the south and east sides. [4]

As far as is known, no action was taken to implement these suggestions. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 ended the immediate crisis, and Fort Vancouver found itself situated within the boundaries of the United States. But it is quite likely that the Company's officers knew of Vavasour's recommendation concerning a second bastion and recalled it to their minds when the next emergency arose.

That crisis was not long in arriving. Late in November 1847 the Cayuse Indians massacred Dr. Marcus Whitman and a number of other persons at the Whitman mission on the Walla Walla River. Almost immediately the Oregon Provisional Government raised a force to proceed against the murderers. The Americans experienced some difficulty in equipping their troops for the Cayuse War, as the ensuing contest with the Indians came to be called; and despite the fact that the Hudson's Bay Company agreed to sell the volunteers supplies to the amount of $1800 on the personal security of prominent citizens, there were rumors that the Provisional Government intended to "levy contributions" on the firm, whose warehouses at Vancouver were believed to be bulging with food, arms, ammunition, clothing, and other necessities for a campaign.

Then, under the date of December 29, 1847, the officers at Fort Vancouver received alarming intelligence from the Company's agent at Oregon City. It was "commonly reported," he said, that the volunteers would help themselves to what they needed when passing Fort Vancouver whether they had the means to pay or not. [5]

Chief Factor James Douglas, then in charge of Fort Vancouver, informed Governor George Abernethy of the Provisional Government that "instant measures" were being taken for the protection of the Company's property. "I trust," he wrote on December 31 "this explanation will satisfactorily account for any unusual precautions observed in the present arrangements of this establishment." [6]

Despite assurances by the Governor that there was no intention of demanding contributions from the Hudson's Bay Company, Douglas continued to feel vulnerable. A number of the fort's most reliable employees were absent with Peter Skene Ogden on a mission of mercy to rescue the survivors of the Whitman massacre, who were being held by the Indians. The remaining force was composed mostly of Hawaiians, and two-thirds of them were laid up with the measles. [7]

Among other defensive measures, Douglas set men to preparing timbers for a new blockhouse. Nothing is known of this structure beyond what one of the clerks, Thomas Lowe, wrote in his journal on January 24, 1848. "A Bastion has been put up to day in front of the Fort," he said, "which the men have been working at for some time past, and they have put the two long eighteen pounders in the lower part, but there will be little or no room to work them properly." [8]

The next day "all the spare hands" were "employed about the Bastion," Lowe noted. [9] Thereafter mention of this structure ceases in the records thus far available, except for occasional references by later visitors to bastions or blockhouses at diagonal corners of the stockade or, more specifically, at the northwest and southeast angles. [10] Unfortunately, no known map or picture of Fort Vancouver depicts this second bastion. Because it does not appear on the rather detailed maps of the military reservation prepared by army authorities at Vancouver Barracks between 1850 and 1860, the second bastion probably was not a long-lived structure.

Lowe's casual statement that a bastion was erected "in front of the Fort" is of little help in precisely locating the new defensive work. The "front" of the establishment was the south side, facing the river. In 1854 Gov. Isaac I. Stevens of Washington Territory said that the post was defended by bastions at the northwest and south east corners. [11] It will be recalled that Lieutenant Vavasour in 1846 had recommended the erection of a blockhouse at the southeast angle. Therefore, it seems logical to expect that James Douglas built his new defensive work at that location, but such a conclusion must be tentative until additional evidence, documentary or archeological, is discovered.

During the 1952 archeological excavations at Fort Vancouver the remains of three parallel timbers, roughly six to eight inches square, were found paralleling the inside of the south palisade wall at the south east stockade corner. Mr. Caywood speculated that they might have been the remains of a small blockhouse, but it was not possible at that time to extend the trenches to determine if the timbers actually formed the foundations of such a structure. [12]


Obviously, the second bastion should not be part of a project to restore Fort Vancouver to its appearance in 1845-46. However, knowledge that such a structure existed--a fact long in doubt--should be of assistance in interpreting the results of the additional archeological studies conducted as part of the restoration project.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003