Fort Vancouver, as the colonial “Capital” of the Pacific Northwest in the 1820s-1840s, supported a multi-ethnic village of 600-1,000 occupants. A number of the villagers were Hawaiian men who worked in the agricultural fields and sawmills of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) operations. Identification of Hawaiian residences and activities has been an important element of studies of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Vancouver, Washington, since the 1960s.
Kauanui (2007:154) calls for a “broad research agenda that accounts for Hawaiian movements in their respective contexts of conditions, periods, reasons, and desires, to allow us to better account for Hawaiian presence on the North American continent.” Her call is to counter attempts to minimize or alter modern Hawaiian cultural identity and to better define the Hawaiian diaspora history. Research on fur trade Hawaiians dispels the notion that Hawaiian history is limited to Hawaii and allows us to better contextualize the broader issues of fur trade identity and social transition in the Pacific Northwest associated with indigenous, fur trade, and American immigrant eras (e.g., Philips 2008; Klimko 2004).
This paper discusses Native Hawaiians at Fort Vancouver, and explores the material evidence of their lives. In it, I raise questions regarding the identity of Hawaiians as revealed in the material culture and documentary record of the Fort Vancouver village. Further, I present the rationale for an expanded exploration of the village to better define the uses of the landscape to augment other ongoing studies of architecture, ceramics, tobacco pipes, glass vessels, and other archeological data.
Hawaiians at Fort Vancouver
“We had eight Sandwich Islanders amongst the crews, who afforded great amusement by a sort of pantomimic dance accompanied by singing. The whole thing was exceedingly grotesque and ridiculous, and elicited peals of laughter from the audience . . . The next day the men were stupid from the effects of drink, but quite good-tempered and obedient; in fact, the fights of the previous evening seemed to be a sort of final settlement of all old grudges and disputes” Paul Kane July 2-3, 1847 (Kane 1859: 258-259).
Paul Kane’s 1847 description of a fur brigade regale, two nights out of Fort Vancouver, punctuates a curious fact of the colonial period of the Pacific Northwest: Native Hawaiians were present in significant numbers. In the party that Kane accompanied, Hawaiians made up over 10% of the voyageurs. Rogers’ (1993) analysis suggests that the population of Hawaiians at Fort Vancouver ranged as high as 138 in 1844, approximately 30% of the population (see also Towner 1984). Hussey (1976:305) suggests that 50-60 lived permanently in the Fort Vancouver Village, with many others distributed at the mills, farms, and other posts and stations of the Department. Beechert and Beechert (2005) suggest the total number of Native Hawaiians on the Columbia River was between 300 and 400.
Kane’s description, above, also indicates that Hawaiians were part of the voyageur fur brigades and that they retained and, at times, publically displayed the hula. This raises some interesting questions regarding identity and ethnicity within the culture of the fur trade engagé, or fur trade worker, in the Pacific Northwest.
Fort Vancouver (1825-1860) was the HBC headquarters, supply depot, and cultural heart of the Columbia Department, which stretched across the Pacific Northwest from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and from Mexican California to Russian Alaska (Erigero 1992; Hussey 1957; Wilson and Langford 2011). The fort and village population was the largest concentration of colonial people between New Archangel and Yerba Buena prior to the wave of American immigrants that came over the Oregon Trail in the mid-1840s. At its height in the 1830s and 1840s, the village population approached 1,000 people.
The large numbers of engagés at Fort Vancouver reflected the need to supply the many fur trade posts and fur brigades of the Department, but also reflected the diverse economy of the post. Besides being specialists in blacksmithing, coopering, tinning, and carpentry, significant numbers of personnel were utilized in growing wheat and other crops on the hundreds of acres under cultivation at the post and outlying farms; the raising of thousands of head of cattle, sheep, and pigs; and the salting of salmon at the fort’s salmon store. Likewise, a grist mill and lumber mill were established about five miles up the river, with wood products exported as far away as South America.
Descriptions of the village suggest that there were between 40 and 60 houses, built in a variety of architectural styles, with outbuildings, corrals, fenced gardens, roads, trails, and other features (Hussey 1976: 217-218; Thomas and Hibbs 1984: 45-47; Mullaley 2011). The HBC Riverside Complex, to the south of the village, included a salmon storehouse, boat works, tannery, cooperage, piggeries, stables, and a hospital (Erigero 1992:157-162).
Company management, and most likely other people at the fort, treated Hawaiians as a distinctive class or “other.” Many Hawaiians exhibited body and facial tattooing, and all spoke a language that was unintelligible to the other people living in the village. Physical separation of the Hawaiian houses from others at Fort Vancouver is suggested by William F. Crate, the millwright, who testified that there were streets for Hawaiians, French-Canadians, and Englishmen and Americans (Hussey 1957). Unlike contracts with members of other ethnic groups, many of the labor contracts between the HBC and Hawaiians specified that Hawaiian workers were to be returned to Hawaii at the expiration of their contracts. Another piece of evidence for the differential treatment of Hawaiians is the hiring of William Kaulehelehe, a Hawaiian Methodist preacher, who was brought in to minister to the Hawaiians of the village in 1845, and to help restrain the “corruptions” of the Hawaiians, including drinking, fighting, and gambling (Beechert and Beechert 2005:10; Hussey 1976:305-307).
It appears that most of the Hawaiians hired by the HBC were of the Hawaiian commoner class (maka'ainana). That there are some difficulties in assessing exactly what Hawaiian occupations were in the fur trade is illustrated in the outfit records for 1845, where most of the identifiable Hawaiians at the Vancouver Depot (Fort Vancouver) were identified solely as “laborer,” exceptions being “Spunyarn,” who was a cooper, and William Kaulehelehe, the Hawaiian preacher, who was referred to as a “teacher” (HBC Archives: B.223/d/162). Hawaiians primarily served as canoe middlemen (paddlers, but not bowmen or sternmen), sailors, farmers, and woodworkers (Rogers 1993; Towner 1984; Hussey 1957; Beechert and Beechert 2005). Some specialized as shepherds, sawyers, cooks, coopers, and woodcutters/stokers (for the Beaver steamship).
In addition to Hawaiians, the village was the home of a surprisingly diverse community of Fort Vancouver’s working class employees and their families, including French Canadians, Scots, English, Métis, and Native Americans representing tribes from across the North American continent (Erigero 1992; Hussey 1957; Thomas and Hibbs 1984). Seasonally, trapping parties (called “Brigades”) would deliver furs to the fort and to refit, which would swell the population of the village.
Many people of the fur trade spoke languages that were not intelligible to their comrades and exhibited unique racial and ethnic qualities. George Simpson (1847:107-108) called his bateau-load of people on the lower Columbia “the prettiest congress of nations, the nicest confusion of tongues, that has ever taken place since the days of the Tower of Babel.” To confuse things further, it is clear that, like the other inhabitants of the village, some Hawaiians took American Indian wives and raised multiethnic families (Towner 1984; Rogers 1993; Warner and Munnick 1972).
Some American Indian wives were married to and formed families with Hawaiian men and many of the American Indian wives came to the village with their American Indian slaves. Even after Great Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, slavery persisted in the village. For example, in 1838, James Douglas wrote to Simpson and the Committee:
“I am most anxious to second your views, for suppressing the traffic of slaves, and have taken some steps towards the attainment of that object. I regret, however, that the state of feeling among the Natives of this river, precludes every prospect of the immediate extinction of slavery . . .” (Rich 1941: Appendix A).
Douglas set an escaped slave boy free who then served the Company as a free laborer.
“These proceedings, so clearly destructive of the principle of slavery, would have roused a spirit of resistance, in any people, who know the value of liberty; but I am sorry that the effect has been scarcely felt here, and I fear that all my efforts have virtually failed in rooting out the practical evil, even within the precincts of this settlement” (Rich 1941: 238).
His letter indicates that the fur trade families with slaves were very resistant to ending this particular tradition.
Because of the ethnic diversity, including the gendered ethnic diversity present in the village, combined with the lack of a documentary record written from a Hawaiian, or for that matter, any villager’s perspective, historical archeology is a critical set of methods to better understand the lives of the village inhabitants.