The Cultural Landscape of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site: U.S. Army, 1861-1916

Black and white photo of Vancouver Barracks with open fields and some buildings.
This photo shows the Vancouver Barracks Arsenal Guardhouse during high water in the 1880s.

National Archives and Records Administration

Excerpted from Vancouver National Historic Reserve Cultural Landscape Report. For more information on this report, email us.

Administrative and Political Context

By 1860 the final blow was dealt to the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) as to any claim the British government had at Fort Vancouver, and the U.S. Army exerted full control over the area, except for St. James Mission. The Department of the Columbia was established in 1865 under the command of the Division of hte Pacific; the new department was headquartered at the Vancouver Barracks and was responsible for Oregon, Washington, and Idaho territories.

Officially renamed Vancouver Barracks in 1879, the first half of this historic period was marked by new law enforcement and policies established by the U.S. government. From 1860 until the mid 1880s soldiers assigned to Vancouver Barracks were primarily involved in rounding up and escorting “rebellious” Indians to reservations established by the U.S. government. Many skirmishes and wars with differing Indian tribes flared up during this period. One historian wrote:

The history of the first Oregon Calvary from 1862 to 1865 is the history of Indian raids upon the mining and new farming settlement, of scouting and fighting by several companies . . . they were called upon to guard roads, escort trains, pursue robber bands to their strongholds, avenge murders and to make exploration of the country, much of what is still unknown.

Despite ongoing concern about marauding Indians and the safety of settlers coming west along the emigrants’ trail, the Pacific Northwest seemed distant and far removed from the larger and bloodier battle of the Civil War taking place on American soil nearly a continent away. Fort Vancouver fostered the careers of many young officers who became famous in the Civil War; however, the soldiers who remained stationed at Fort Vancouver had little contact with the war.

The Modoc War in the southern Oregon was the first in a series of conflicts with the Indians involving Fort Vancouver. The Modoc Peoples’ refusal to move to a reservation in 1867 resulted in the death of Major General Canby, who was killed during a peace mission to the Modoc tribe. In another instance involving the Nez Percé, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a treaty in 1873 that conceded a small amount of land in Wallowa to the tribe. This treaty was established due to the fact that the U.S. had taken over a large portion of the tribe’s land a few years before when gold was discovered in the area. The policy however was reversed two years later, and subsequently a tribal member was arrested for refusing to enter the reservation. This event sparked an attack on the settlers in the Salmon River Country by the Nez Percé, and eventually a war between the tribe and the U.S. government broke out in 1877. By August of that year, although U.S. regiments suffered heavy casualties, the Nez Percé, led by Chief Joseph, eventually surrendered and were held at Fort Vancouver until they were moved to a reservation near Lewiston, Idaho, in April 1878.

In 1887 the Holy Angels College was evicted from the military reserve. The post Commander, Colonel Thomas Anderson said the following:

The spell was at last broken by the post commander ejecting the teachers and pupils of the so-called Holy Angels College, tearing down the fences around its enclosure, and taking possession of Heaven’s half acre itself. This trespass on the mission grounds left its representatives no alternative but to ask for an injunction from the courts. To secure this they had to bring suit, and in so doing had to set forth in detail their title for the property.

A few years later the Supreme Court presented their ruling that the church was legally entitled to only about one-half an acre instead of the 640 originally claimed. Although the Catholic Church continued to pursue the matter for another decade, essentially the ruling ended a nearly fifty-year dispute with the U.S. government.

Westward expansion and settlement during this period prompted greater military activity and presence throughout the continent, but particularly in this furthest of U.S. outposts. America’s influence expanded overseas during this period, and the surge in American military presence increased to reflect both national and international interests.
Orange card with two black and white images of a rectangular building.
This stereoscope of the Vancouver Barracks Guardhouse is now in the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site museum collection.

NPS Photo

Site Description

As the U.S. Army firmly occupied the site, it effectively erased evidence of prior HBC activity and established an infrastructure responding to military order and function. As the military post increased its responsibilities, numerous site developments were made during this period to accommodate the additional activities and soldiers.

The site was organized hierarchically, from officer housing on the upper river terrace facing the Parade Ground; with the terrain sweeping south to enlisted soldier housing (Barracks) and ordnances, and then sloping downward to transitional, working space at the lower river plain. Officers’ Row log houses were re-built as a line of permanent two-story officer residences. Additionally, early barracks buildings and other military structures were constructed. Roads were built internally within the Military Reserve, loosely following former key routes but laid out in a more orthogonal form. As the City of Vancouver sprang up around the military reserve, connections were established between the site and the new city, but were controlled through a series of sentry posts.

The Parade Ground was extended westward during this period to match the expansion of Officers’ Row. Prior to the outbreak of the Spanish American War of 1898, troops alternated through the barracks with greater frequency, and officers took greater part in activities such as parades, receptions, dances, and sporting events.

One of the most influential changes to the site during this period was the introduction of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway. Completed in 1908, the “North Bank” of the Columbia rail line created a link between Portland and Vancouver. The line traversed the southern portion of the military reservation in its run east to Spokane. A spur line extended along an arc from the mainline past the Quartermaster’s Depot, and terminated south of E 5th Street. Later the railway connected with other major railways as it continued on towards the Midwest, to the Twin Cities, and eventually to the East Coast. The railroad essentially put an end to the frontier era of the Northwest, and it increased the prominence of Vancouver not only as a center for shipping, but also as a prominent location to reside and work. As a result, the City of Vancouver witnessed a surge in population throughout the city’s expansion to the north, south, and east of the military reserve. Along the Columbia River, a newly constructed Port of Vancouver was established in the area that was formally the HBC lower plain farm.
Image of the landscape changes from 1861-1916
Map showing the site as it appeared in the U.S. Army period, 1861 to 1916.

NPS Photo

Landscape Characteristics

Natural Systems and Vegetation

By the late 1860s, the natural vegetation of the site was significantly altered and reflected the change in ownership by the U.S. Army, as well as rapid development of the City of Vancouver. This period is especially notable for its landscape transition from farmlands, pastures, wetlands, and forest systems to urban development and formal landscape plantings.

The introduction of the railroad changed the face of the Fort Vancouver landscape permanently. The construction of the railroad on an elevated berm across the southern portion of the site effectively created a physical and visual barrier between the site and the Columbia River. The rail line also severed the flood plain and its corresponding hydrology, and greatly impacted the site’s natural systems and vegetation.

Due to the added influx of people arriving in the west by faster means of transport, the City of Vancouver experienced intense population growth. By 1908 Vancouver had expanded north, south, and west of the military barracks, resulting in a tremendous amount of forest razed to allow for the city’s development.

Nearly all of the gardens, orchards, fields, and grazing lands associated with the HBC era were removed by this period, although vegetable gardens were maintained south of Upper Mill Road (now 5th Street) in the vicinity of the former HBC gardens. The extensive scale of farming and agricultural practices was significantly diminished during this period.

While natural systems, native vegetation, and agricultural lands were greatly impacted during this period, ornamental vegetation took hold within the Reserve. In the 1880s an allee of native bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) trees was planted along both sides of Grant Avenue (currently known as Evergreen Boulevard) fronting Officers’ Row. This tree-lined boulevard created a strong visual separation between Officers’ Row and the Parade Ground, as well as a dramatic entrance to Vancouver Barracks.

The Parade Ground, a large rectangular open space consisting of manicured lawn and isolated trees (Douglas fir, Oregon oak, and other nonnative species), was a prominent landscape feature during this period and subsequent historic periods. The Parade Ground nearly doubled in size during this era, expanding eastward to match the extension of Officers’ Row. This open space was an important stage for hosting both civic and military exercises and events.

European-style garden sensibilities were reflected in the ornamental foundation plantings, hedges, vines, arbors, and other garden features established in association with Officers’ Row. Several nonnative trees were planted around the officers’ residences. While less elaborate than the Officer Row plantings, hedges, trees and foundation plantings were also established with the development of the Barracks buildings.

The south part of the military reserve maintained its open character while converting from agricultural fields and pastures to a military skirmish range. Several trees were planted in an allee along the north-south road to the waterfront dock. Trees were also planted in clusters in the area south of the Parade Ground.

Spatial Organization

Military activity and the site’s primary function as a major Pacific Northwest military post predominated the land use during this period. Additionally, city development began to fill in around the reserve boundary, and a strong interface was established between the military and civic. Increasingly, forests and agricultural fields gave way to this encroaching urban development.

In 1903 the military granted access to the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway along the southern portion of the reserve. With its arrival in 1908, the face of the landscape was irrevocably changed. This led to the increased importance of Vancouver as an industrial and shipping center, spurring a jump in population during this period. This period marked the end of the frontier era for the Pacific Northwest, and the beginning of an industrial era. Much of the lower plains area, once used for pasture and agriculture, was built up along the railroad berm above the floodplain to service the railway. This berm essentially severed the historic relationship of the site to the Columbia River.


By 1860 the principal routes that led from the military reserve were still primary arterial roads. Upper Mill Road, while maintaining an east-west alignment, shifted southward to the old Quartermaster’s Depot and aligned with 5th Street in Vancouver. The back roads extended beyond the military reserve to the Back Plains and Mill Plains. On the west side of the Parade Ground, a loop road was put in place behind the quarters and offices. With the expansion of the Parade Ground, the old road that bounded the east perimeter bisected the Parade Ground in two sections. On the west end of Upper Mill road, the informal paths became roads. A new road originating from the intersection between Upper Mill Road and the army road, what later would become part of McLoughlin Road, traveled north on the east edge of St. James Mission.

Buildings, Clusters and Small-scale Features

By the latter portion of the 19th century, the buildings, projects, and improvements that occurred in this period were quite numerous and were most likely developed in response to troops returning from the Civil War as well as the Army’s expansion. As officers and troops were reassigned back to Vancouver Barracks, funds were made available to build additional facilities on the post. The primary groups of buildings constructed during this historic period primarily related to increased regimen housing, agrarian structures, and auxiliary buildings needed for support services.

At the northern end of the territory, Officers’ Row underwent significant improvements as many of the existing log structures were demolished in order to create larger and more contemporary residences for the officers. On the Parade Ground, a low fence enclosure was built around the perimeter. In 1864 a new guardhouse was added to the Parade Ground, as well as other features such as sentry posts, flagpole, and bandstand.

By 1869 numerous structures had been built on the Ordinance Reserve, which included a small blacksmith and carpenter’s workshop and several living quarters. Behind the Barracks, additional laundry buildings and an artillery shed were constructed. Additionally, a guardhouse was erected, and a large residence for officers was built northeast of the hospital.

Within the confines of the St. James Mission, Holy Angels College was constructed in 1866. Several smaller buildings were added, including a bakery, a laundry, a carpenter’s shop, a store, and housing for orphaned boys and girls.

In 1879, new buildings for the department of the Columbia headquarters were constructed south of Grant Avenue and just west of McLoughlin Road. They consisted of double office quarters and large residences for the commander.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, there was the decision to increase the size of development to accommodate army housing at Vancouver Barracks. This action resulted in the last wave of major construction north of Grant Avenue (today known as Evergreen Boulevard). Between 1903 and 1907 double barracks were constructed to house more than 188 soldiers; these U-shaped buildings were constructed on an east-west alignment south of the Parade Ground. In 1906 an artillery guardhouse and a new stable for 134 horses and mules were built on the North of Upper Mill Road (today known as E 5th Street).

By 1914 the west edge of the site contained additional buildings for soldiers that included a gymnasium, a school, library, and Post Exchange. A hospital was also constructed. The south end of the site contained the Quartermaster’s yard with its new storehouses, workshop, offices, a general store, and bakery.

Last updated: April 6, 2018