Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
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Volume II


History and location

The Blacksmith's Shop presents one of the most difficult historical problems relating to the physical structure of Fort Vancouver. There had, of course, been a smithy at the Columbia depot ever since the old Astorian William Cannon, or William Canning as his name appears in the Company's records, set up his bellows and anvil under a tree in late 1824 or early 1825 and pounded out nails and other hardware used during the construction of the new post. [1]

When the fort was moved down onto the river plain early in 1829, the smithy went with it and was situated within the pickets. Its exact location is not known, but recent archeological excavations have uncovered metal scrap and other evidence that hopefully will enable the establishment of the site within quite narrow limits.

The Blacksmith's Shop that concerns us for reconstruction purposes, however, was an entirely different building from the smithy of 1829. It first appears as a located structure in the records of the Wilkes expedition of 1841. The Emmons ground plan, drawn on July 25 of that year, shows the "Blacksmiths shop--4 furnaces" situated in the extreme southeastern corner of the fort enclosure as it existed at that time (see Plate III, vol. I). Obviously, this smithy had been built between the time the stockade was enlarged to the east about 1836 and the date of Emmons's visit. [2]

According to Emmons, this smithy was directly east of the Missionary Store and southeast of the Bachelors' Quarters. He showed the smithy as being close against the east and south stockade walls, with room for no other buildings in the southeastern corner of the fort. Yet the two drawings of Fort Vancouver sketched by members of the Wilkes party, one by Eld (Plate IV, vol. I) and the other attributed to Agate (Plate LIII, vol. I), very clearly show two structures in the southeastern angle and east of the Missionary Store. Because the drawings could have been made, at most, only a little more than a month later than the map, this writer is unable to account for this major discrepancy.

The next available ground plan of Fort Vancouver, the so-called "Line of Fire" map drawn by Henry N. Peers shortly after the great conflagration during September 1844, shows the Blacksmith's Shop though it is unidentified, in approximately the same position as depicted by Emmons (Plate V, vol. I). By that time the east stockade wall had been moved to the east about fifty-six feet from its position in 1841. Yet the "Line of Fire" map shows no other building than the Blacksmith's Shop between the old Missionary Store and the southeast stockade corner. In other words, the two structures appearing in the Eld and Agate sketches were not both depicted by Peers on his quite detailed and accurate, if extremely small-scale, diagram.

Not until the ground plan drawn by Lieutenant Vavasour late in 1845 are two structures shown in the extreme southeast corner on any known map of the fort. That plan places the "Smith's Shop" on about the same spot as did Emmons, and directly east of it is a second building identified as the "Iron Store" (see Plates VI, VII, VIII, vol. I). In shape-- their longer walls ran north and south--they correspond well with the two buildings shown in the southeast corner by the Eld and Agate sketches, but both the Emmons and the "Line of Fire" maps seem to indicate that only one of these structures, the Blacksmith's Shop, existed prior to 1845.

Thus the question of why the two 1841 sketches depicted two structures in the southeast corner is brought no nearer to solution by later data. And there remains still another problem. It is probable, but not absolutely certain, that the Blacksmith's Shop of 1845 was the same structure as that (No. 10) shown on the Emmons map. The sizes appear to be similar, but the locations in relation to the Bachelors' Quarters and the south palisade are slightly different. After a study of the available data it is the opinion of this writer that the discrepancies were due to the conditions under which Emmons was forced to prepare his plan and that the Blacksmith's Shop of 1841 was the same building as that plotted by Vavasour. The location of this Blacksmith's Shop, which was that of the 1845-46 period chosen for reconstruction, is today identified as Building No. 22 on the site plan of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

After 1845 the continued existence of the smithy in its same location is demonstrated by a number of maps and pictures. The board of army officers that appraised the fort buildings on June 15, 1860, the day after the Company abandoned the post, found the "Blacksmith shop" to be still standing in its old position but "long since abandoned" and in a ruinous condition (see Plate XXX, vol. I). [3] Evidently it disappeared soon thereafter with the rest of the fort buildings.

One other question connected with the history of the Blacksmith's Shop also remains unanswered. Lieutenant Vavasour's fellow officer, Henry J. Warre, kept a journal while he was at Fort Vancouver during the winter of 1845-46, and from it he later wrote a narrative in which he said: "Within the stockade were several dwelling houses, a kitchen, oven, blacksmith's house and shop, and cooperage." [4] Here is a clear statement that at least one of the depot blacksmiths lived inside the palisades, either in a separate dwelling or in quarters that were a part of the smithy.

Such could have been the fact, but this writer has not yet found any supporting evidence for Warre's assertion. The uses of all the structures inside the fort are reasonably well recorded, and no quarters for blacksmiths are mentioned. Also, a blacksmith shop containing four forges would have been a crowded, noisy, dirty place, scarcely a suitable location for lodgings, even if they were in a garret. The Blacksmith's Shop inventories list no articles associated with domestic use.

There does remain the possibility, however, that one or more of the smiths could have lived in a loft over the adjoining lion Store. This location would have been more suitable, but no evidence supporting such a possibility has been found. For the present, the question of whether one or more blacksmiths lived within the pickets must remain unanswered. [5]

Blacksmith Shop operations. Though the Blacksmith's Shop was an essential feature in the depot operation--so necessary in fact that there were two blacksmith's shops at Fort Vancouver--there evidently was nothing so unusual about its functions or design as to stimulate lengthy comment from visitors. Seemingly a blacksmith's shop was a blacksmith's shop the world over. Thus the written record concerning the work of the smithy is rather scanty.

H. H. Spalding, who first visited Fort Vancouver during the fall of 1836 with the Whitman party, noted that there were then "8 or 10 blacksmiths constantly at work" at the depot. [6] In October 1838 James Douglas told the London directors that there were nine "tradesmen and others" engaged at the "Forge." [7] Because the employee rolls for Outfit 1838 listed only four blacksmiths under the headings "Fort Vancouver Depot" and "General Charges," it can be assumed that the remaining five men at the smithy were largely ordinary laborers or voyageurs assigned to assist at the forges. [8] In fact, as will be seen by the list of smiths appended to this chapter, the identities of two of these men are known.

This condition undoubtedly still prevailed during 1845-46, the period of immediate consideration for purposes of this report. Clerk George B. Roberts, though he did not specify any date, seems to have been speaking of the mid-1840s when he later said that there were eight men in the Blacksmith Shop. [9] Yet the district statements for Outfit 1845 listed only four blacksmiths. [10] Obviously these four skilled tradesmen, whose annual salaries ranged between £30 and £35, were being assisted by about four "middlemen," or laborers. How these eight or more workmen were distributed between the two depot blacksmith shops is not recorded.

Strangely enough, there exists a better description of the second smithy, which was situated several miles upstream at the sawmill, than there does of the main Blacksmith's Shop within the fort. In 1841 Lt. Charles Wilkes visited the sawmill, which he later described in his Narrative. Then he continued:

They have a large smith's shop here, which, besides doing the work of the mill, makes all the axes and hatchets used by the trappers. The iron and steel are imported: the tools are manufactured at a much less price than those imported, and are more to be depended on. A trapper's success, in fact, depends upon his axe; and on this being lost or broken, he necessarily relinquishes his labours, and returns unsuccessful. Fifty of them, it is said, can be manufactured in a day, and twenty-five are accounted an ordinary day's work. They are eagerly sought after by the Indians, who are very particular that the axe should have a certain shape, somewhat like a tomahawk. [11]

Wilkes was in error when he stated that "all" the axes and hatchets used by the trappers were made at the sawmill forge, at least if he meant to imply that all the hatchets used in the Indian trade were manufactured there. Fourteen parts of trade axes in various stages of manufacture were found by archeologists who excavated the site of the blacksmith shop within the pickets during 1947 and 1952. From these parts it was possible to reconstruct the process by which the axes were made and to determine that these tools came in at least four sizes: 2 inches, 1-3/4 inches, 1-1/2 inches, and 1-1/4 inches in width. [12]

Both archeological findings and the historical record prove quite conclusively that the Blacksmith's Shop on the site of Building No. 22 was indeed the principal depot smithy. Here were made not only axes, but a vast variety of iron and steel objects needed for the conduct of the trade throughout the Columbia District. These articles ranged from large bolts, eyes, straps, and other ironwork required for the repair and building of ships and barges down to the most delicate parts for beaver traps and for gun repair. Nails in a great variety of sizes and types were made at the fort, as were hinges, door pulls, hasps, and other hardware needed for building construction.

Narcissa Whitman in 1836 reported that the fort's blacksmiths were "all" employed in making the farming utensils needed for the missions to be established in Oregon by the American Board. [13] A visitor during the early 1840s found that the farming implements available at Fort Vancouver were "very reasonable" and that the "best Cary ploughs can be had to order from an excellent blacksmith at the place at 31-1/4 cents per pound." [14] Among the "country made" articles found in the depot Sale Shop and warehouse inventories during the mid-1840s were such items as axes of a variety of shapes and sizes, garden hoes, "hunters knives," beaver traps, canoe adzes, swingletree irons, crooked knives, drawing knives, horseshoes, and fish spears. [15]

It should be borne in mind, however, that by no means all of the nails, beaver traps, hardware, plows, and other iron and steel objects employed by the Company in its own Columbia operations or sold in its shops were made at Fort Vancouver. Requisitions and inventories, some of which have been quoted earlier in this report, clearly demonstrate that large quantities of finished ironware and steelware were imported from England along with the sheet and bar metal from which to manufacture many of the same items locally. Also, there were blacksmith shops at other principal posts throughout the district that manufactured many iron and steel articles used in the interior and on the Northwest Coast.

Whether such items were ordered from London or fabricated "in the country" seems to have depended in large part upon comparative costs. For instance, when making out the Columbia District requisition for Outfit 1846, Chief Factor McLoughlin on March 20, 1843, included a request for "50 beaver Traps with springs," ex plaining, "We have ordered 50 of these traps with springs on trial, and if the springs answer our purpose and are cheaper than we can make them here, we shall order all we require from England." [16]

Only occasionally did the operations of the Vancouver blacksmith shops become a matter of general concern on the part of the Company's upper management. Shipping coal from England for the Columbia District forges was expensive because it was bulky and occupied space that might better have been devoted to more profitable goods. In 1839 the London directors informed McLoughlin that they intended to.send "no Coals" in 1841 and evidently urged the Columbia superintendent to find another source of fuel for his forges. In desperation McLoughlin answered on November 20, 1840, pointing out that coal found on Vancouver Island and on the Cowlitz River had already been tried and found wanting and that in 1826-27 he had made charcoal from the available local woods but that it would not answer the purpose. "You will see the absolute necessity there is that you send us coals by the Vessel to sail from London in 1841," he urged, "as I need not state the ruinous consequences which will result if we are deprived of Coals to manufacture &c. the Iron Works for the Trade." [17]

The Governor and Committee relented and agreed to continue the coal shipments in 1841 and 1842, but they told McLoughlin that they were inclined to think he had not made his charcoal correctly, "as the best iron of Sweden and Norway is produced and worked by charcoal made from fir." [18] Governor George Simpson must have shared this opinion, because while he was at Sitka late in 1841 he arranged for the Russian American Company to send two charcoal burners to Fort Vancouver for a year to instruct "our people" in the proper method of preparing charcoal. [19] One Russian actually reached the Columbia depot during the next spring, but Dr. McLoughlin reported, seemingly with some scorn, that the visitor's efforts had been unsuccessful because he had found "the wood of this place, does not answer to make Coals so well as that at Sitika [sic]" and that it would cost as much to manufacture unsatisfactory charcoal at Fort Vancouver as to import good coal. [20] As far as this writer has examined the records, at least, this exchange marked the end of the charcoal experiment, and the importation of "seacoal" continued.

The last blacksmith to be listed as such on the Fort Vancouver rolls was David Smith, who served during Outfit 1852. [21] By the summer of 1857 Chief Factor Dugald Mactavish, then in charge of Fort Vancouver, had to advise W. F. Tolmie at Nisqually to obtain his beaver traps from Victoria. "I have had some springs made but they are not the thing," he added. "There are in fact few black smiths in the Country who understand how to temper them." [22] Evidently the representatives of the Company south of the 49th parallel had been reduced to shopping around among nearby American blacksmiths for beaver traps!

The Fort Vancouver blacksmiths, 1845-46. The Columbia District personnel rolls for Outfit 1845 list only four blacksmiths at the Fort Vancouver depot. They were George Aitken, Joseph Ovide Beauchamp, George Folster (b), and Thomas Scott. [23]

George Aitken seems to have been the chief blacksmith, if salaries were any indication. He received £35 per annum, whereas the other three smiths were paid only £30. He had served the Company about ten years by 1845. [24] His family status at that time is unknown to this writer.

Joseph Ovide Beauchamp had only been in the service three years in 1845. [25] He could write, or at least sign his name. On May 12, 1845, he married Margherita (Marguerite) Dechestes (of the Shastas) at Fort Vancouver in a ceremony conducted by Father Jean Nobili, S. J. She died on December 17, 1847, "aged about 20 years." [26]

George Folster, the second of his name in the Company's service, was a veteran by 1845, having then been employed about sixteen years. He first appeared on the Fort Vancouver rolls for Outfit 1830 at a salary of £30 per annum, and he remained at the depot evidently through Outfit 1832. [27] Apparently he was then transferred to Fort McLoughlin on the Northwest Coast, for W. F. Tolmie found "Folster" to be blacksmith there early in 1834. Tolmie described him as "an ingenious Orkneyman." [28] Back at Fort Vancouver during Outfit 1835, Folster evidently served well for in 1838 his annual salary was raised to £40--quite high for a tradesman. But somehow or other he must have fallen from grace, for in Outfit 1842 his salary was reduced to a low £20. By 1845 he had worked back up only to the £30 level. [29]

Something is known of Folster's domestic arrangements. On August 15, 1844, Father Modeste Demers buried in the Fort Vancouver cemetery a woman named Helene, "aged about 24 years, having lived with George Folster." On March 20, 1847, Alexandre Dundass Folster, "natural son of George Folster and of Waskopam woman, aged 1 month," was baptized at Fort Vancouver; and on October 30, 1849, William, aged about two weeks, "son of Georges Folster and of Marguerite of the Dalles [evidently the same Wascompam woman]," was baptized. [30] Folster died at Vancouver during 1850. [31]

Thomas Scott had been in the Company's service about four years by Outfit 1845. His family status has not yet been ascertained.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003