Fort Vancouver
Historic Structures Report
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Volume II


History and location

Few solid facts have come to light concerning the Jail, also known as the prison or the guardhouse. Evidently, however, there was no building at Fort Vancouver specifically designated for the confinement of prisoners until the early 1840s.

During 1826, when the post was still located at its first site, the master of one of the Company's ships sent a seaman who had stolen rum and become insubordinate to Chief Factor John McLoughlin for disciplining. McLoughlin put the man in irons and proposed to keep him shackled until the captain saw fit to take him back on board. "Indeed," he explained, "we could not (as we have no prison) keep him in confinement unless we put him in Irons." [1]

There are several other reports of men being "prisoned" at Fort Vancouver prior to the 1840s, but apparently such persons were placed in irons rather than lodged in a jail specifically constructed for the confinement of transgressors against law or the rules of the Company. [2] Even in the case of the unfortunate Hawaiian employee who was detained for more than five months at the departmental headquarters from August 1837 to January 1838, the means of detention was irons that "were never by order, though sometimes by the humanity of the cook, at the risk of exchanging situations with him, taken off." [3]

The situation is made clear by the manner in which James Douglas, acting in the place of the absent Dr. McLoughlin, disposed of four mutineers from the Company's steamer Beaver who were sent to Fort Vancouver for punishment early in 1838. The men were at first placed in irons. Then, after a hearing at which they refused to return to duty, Douglas dismissed them from the service and ordered them returned in irons on the fall ship to England to face charges. After holding the mutineers a few days, Douglas sent two of them to Fort Nisqually and two to Fort George to be detained as prisoners until the sailing of the vessel, because there was no "convenient place" at the depot to confine them for such a long period. [4] It might be mentioned, incidentally, that Company officers and clerks who at that time broke the rules or otherwise incurred the displeasure of Dr. McLoughlin were not manacled but were confined to quarters in the Bachelors' Hall. [5]

It is not surprising, therefore, to find that no jail or prison is shown on the ground plan of Fort Vancouver drawn by George Foster Emmons on July 25, 1841 (Plate III, vol. I). But by the fall of 1844 there is positive evidence that such a structure was located within the pickets. Between September 24 and September 30 the depot and its nearby mills and farm buildings were threatened by a dangerous forest fire, and by the latter date Clerk Henry N. Peers had sketched a map of the fort and its surroundings showing the line reached by the conflagration. [6 ] This map distinctly depicts a small building in the same location as the structure that a year later Lieutenant Vavasour's plan identified as the "jail" (see Plates V and VI, vol. I; for a clearer copy of Peers's map see Plate XXV in Hussey, History of Fort Vancouver).

On October 1 two Hawaiians who had broken into the "depense" during the fire were given lashings at one of the guns in front of the Big House and then "put in confinement." [7] Although a jail was not specifically mentioned in connection with this sentence, it appears significant that nothing was said of irons. [8] It can be safely assumed that a jail was erected at Fort Vancouver between mid-1841 and September 1844.

No records have yet been found that explain why McLoughlin considered it necessary to have a prison after Fort Vancouver had gotten along for sixteen or more years without one. It is possible to speculate that he desired to have a secure place to hold the prime suspects and the witnesses to the murder of his son at Fort Stikine during April 1842. After it became evident that the Russians at Sitka would not prosecute even the men most deeply implicated, all men involved in the case were brought to Fort Vancouver, evidently in the late fall of 1843. McLoughlin sent fourteen of them and an interpreter overland to Canada, where they had arrived by mid-June 1844. [9]

After September 1844 references to the Jail become fairly frequent. Late in October of that year two men were brought to Fort Vancouver from Stikine, where they were accused of conspiring against the lives of the officers of that establishment. Dr. McLoughlin sent the men to Nisqually until they could be dispatched to York Factory in the spring, because, as he said, "we have no place here to keep them safely, as it would not do to keep them in a building without fire, and all our buildings being of wood, they might be malicious enough to set them on fire." [10 ] It seems clear, therefore, that the Jail contained no fireplace or stove.

On August 19, 1845, a Canadian who had attempted to desert for the second time was given thirteen lashes at the gun and "put in prison." Clerk Thomas Lowe recorded on August 30 that this man was "liberated this evening from jail," having found two friends to pledge £10 each that he would not desert again during the next year. [11]

On the evening of April 30, 1846, a party of Americans brought some "country made" whisky to the fort and sold it to "a great many " of the Company's employees. As a result several were unable to work the next day and were placed in irons. [12] Some months later, on August 19, an American who was attempting to jump the claim of a Company employee was arrested and brought before Chief Factor James Douglas, who was also a judge under the Oregon Provisional Government. The man refused to put up bail, so he was imprisoned in the fort until the next day, when security for his appearance at trial was provided. [13] On November 8 Isaac Labelle, a deserter from the firm's ranks, was returned from the Willamette Valley and "put in prison" until the next day, when he obtained bail. [14] Another employee was " imprisoned" on February 1, 1848, for "drunkeness and rioting." [15]

These examples will show that the Jail continued in active use well into the period of United States jurisdiction over the lower Columbia River region. When it ceased to be employed as a place of confinement is not evident, but one fact is abundantly clear: the structure itself continued to stand in its original location as long as the Hudson's Bay Company occupied Fort Vancouver. In the years between 1846 and 1860 the prison is shown on several maps and listed in several inventories and appraisals of the Company's property, but none of this evidence contributes to a knowledge of the structure's history except to indicate that it was still standing. [16]

The only reference of real significance is that contained in the report of a board of army officers who examined the buildings of Fort Vancouver on June 15, 1860, the day after the Company abandoned the post. This group prepared a ground plan (Plate XXX, vol. I) that shows a small structure, identified as number 20, occupying the same site as the Jail on Vavasour's map of 1845. An accompanying inventory contains the entry, "No. 20. Guard house, long since abandoned by the Company, in a ruinous condition--Material of no value." [17] The subsequent fate of the Jail is not known in detail, but it surely was torn down or was burned prior to 1866.

According to Vavasour's ground plan of 1845, the Jail stood about nineteen feet south of the north palisade wall and about nine to fifteen feet west of the Owyhee Church (the three versions of the Vavasour plan differ as to this measurement; see Plates VI, VII, VIII, vol. I). Or, to put it another way, it was close to the north stockade and only a few yards east of midway between the west and east ends of the fort.

The site of the Jail was partially excavated by National Park Service archeologists in 1950. The north wall of the Jail, as determined by the footings uncovered, was found actually to be about twenty-two feet south of the outermost line of north stockade posts, and the east Jail wall was about twenty-five to twenty-six feet west of the Owyhee Church. [18] The site of the Jail is now identified as Building No. 14 on the site plan of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2003