School at Fort Vancouver

Drawing a rectangular wooden building.
This drawing shows what the Owyhee Church building at Fort Vancouver looked like. The Owyhee Church served as both a house of worship and a schoolhouse.

NPS Photo

The first school at Fort Vancouver was begun in 1832 at the request of the fort's Chief Factor, Dr. John McLoughlin, who hired John Ball to teach McLoughlin's son and some of the other boys at the fort. By 1836 there were about 60 students attending school, a third of them girls, who were the sons and daughters of both Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) officers and working class employees. Children from other HBC posts in the area also attended, and were fed and housed at Fort Vancouver. Some visitors also noted that "neighborhood" children were included. It is not clear if this refers to the fort's nearby employee village or to local homesteads.

The Location of the School

The school was most likely first housed in the Owyhee Church building inside the stockade (also used as the church for the fort's Hawaiian laborers on Sundays). By 1844 the school had outgrown its quarters and construction began on two new schoolhouses on the slope just to the north of the fort. It was many years, though, before they were finished. It is uncertain whether they were actually ever used as schoolhouses. There is one account that states that an "excellent seminary" existed on one of the plains around the fort in 1849, and that Mrs. Richard Covington was the teacher. But another visitor noted that after McLoughlin left in 1846, interest in the schools waned and the schoolhouses fell into disuse. Either way, it appears that after the US Army established their post nearby, they rented the two large structures as a barracks and storehouse.

Teaching at Fort Vancouver

Besides traditional subjects like writing and arithmetic, curriculum at Fort Vancouver included manual labor in the fields or garden for the boys, and sewing and other domestic duties for the girls. Religious instruction was also seen as important.

The first teacher employed at Fort Vancouver to was John Ball. Ball, born in New Hampshire in 1794, arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 1832 with Nathaniel Wyeth's cross-country expedition. Wyeth had intended to establish American mercantile posts to compete with the Hudson's Bay Company forts. However, after the arduous 1832 journey, the weary travelers were forced to accept the hospitality of Dr. McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver when they arrived in October. McLoughlin enlisted Ball's services as a teacher of the fort's boys, who he wrote were "docile and attentive, and...made good progress." The class included 6 boys, including McLoughlin's son David. Ball remained at the fort through the winter, but in the spring, armed with seeds and tools loaned to him by McLoughlin, Ball left the fort to start a farm in French Prairie.

After Ball's departure, Solomon Smith took over the school. The twenty-three year old Smith had also arrived in the Northwest with the Wyeth expedition, and, like Ball, had originally come from New Hampshire. At Fort Vancouver, Smith met Celiast, a Clatsop woman who was married to the fort's baker, Basil Poirier, and the mother of three children. Smith and Celiast formed a romantic attachment and, citing a previous marriage of Poirier's, her marriage was annulled. Now free to marry Smith, Celiast adopted the name "Helen" and the couple moved to French Prairie in 1834. Together, they continued to teach school, and are known as the first schoolteachers in what would become the state of Oregon.

With the fort's second schoolteacher gone, in 1834 McLoughlin employed Cyrus Shepherd to continue the post's school. Shepherd had arrived earlier that year with the missionaries Jason and Daniel Lee. Shepherd's tenure at the fort was short-lived; in 1835 he became the first teacher of the Lees' Indian Mission School.

The next teacher at Fort Vancouver was one of its clerks, George B. Roberts, who had come to Fort Vancouver from England in 1831. McLoughlin also enlisted newly arrived American missionaries to act as tutors at the fort, including Eliza Spalding and Narcissa Whitman, who he asked to provide music lessons for his children. However, in 1836, the Hudson's Bay Company assigned Reverend Herbert Beaver to act as the Church of England chaplain at the fort.

Upon his arrival, McLoughlin decreed that Beaver was to take charge of the school with "a strict injunction...not to interfere with the religious instruction of the Roman Catholic children." However, shortly after this, several letters document Beaver's insistence that he be allowed to reform the curriculum of the fort's school based on Church of England standards, along with McLoughlin's refusal. Beaver also insisted that Eliza Spalding and Narcissa Whitman discontinue their lessons at the fort. McLoughlin responded by offering evening lessons for Roman Catholic children, which raised an objection from Beaver. When Beaver confronted McLoughlin, asking him to decide who would have authority over the fort's school, McLoughlin said that he would, and released Beaver from his teaching responsibilities. In his report to the Hudson's Bay Company, dated November 1836, McLoughlin wrote:

"A few days after Mr. Beaver arrived here, the charge of the School as a matter of course was made over to him, fully satisfied in my own mind...there would be no departure from its former general principles...for the promotion of moral and religious knowledge without reference to sectarian tenets, intended to benefit all denominations of Christians by guarding with scrupulous attention agains the introduction of all subjects having a tendency to produce discussion or exasperate prejudice.

These general principles did not coincide with Mr. Beavers [sic] view, he insisted upon the necessity of teaching exclusively the Doctrines of the Church of England...Perceiving his scruples which I could not reasonably oppose and sensible of the impolicy of yielding a point involving results of a most serious nature, I released him from the charge...Persons ignorant of the state of feeling among the Catholics who form the majority of the Companys [sic] servants here may think my conduct unnecessarily cautious, but it is quite certain that the slightest departure from this moderate system will defeat the object of the institution by causing an almost general desertion of the scholars."

Beaver was relieved of his position at Fort Vancouver two years later. After his departure, George B. Roberts may have resumed instruction, likely with the involvement of Dr. McLoughlin.

Roberts returned to England in 1843, where he married his cousin, Martha Cable Roberts. The Roberts' returned to Fort Vancouver in 1844, and now it was Martha who took over the fort's school. In his journal, clerk Thomas Lowe wrote on September 10, 1844 that "Mrs. Roberts has consented to open a School for the children of the Fort, and has got 10 pupils, which is all that we can muster here at present. The Fee will be about £5 p[er] annum, and until the children increase, the school is to be kept in her own house." It is likely that the Roberts' lived in the fort's Bachelor's Hall, and that this is where the class convened.

Catholic Schools

The other schools in the vicinity of the fort were begun by the Catholic St. James Mission. In 1856, Father Brouillet opened an academy for boys at the Mission and hired a local layperson, Mr. Kinsela, as the instructor. In December of that year, five nuns from the Sisters of Providence religious community of Montreal arrived in Vancouver, including Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart. The Sisters expanded the academy for boys in April 1857, opening the Providence Academy for "white children," with seven pupils reporting for classes on the first day. Sometime in 1865, Bishop Blanchet officially established the Holy Angels College for boys – an extension of the earlier school begun by Brouillet – and placed Father Junger as its director, Father Paul Mans as assistant, and Father St. Onge and Mr. J.B. Boulet as teachers.

A two-story structure was constructed for the College in the northwestern area of the Mission property. The Sisters of Providence moved Providence Academy to its current location on East Evergreen Boulevard in Vancouver in 1873. The Holy Angel's College for boys was closed in April 1887, when the US Army – after a lengthy land claim battle – forcefully removed all of the Catholic clergy, sisters, and school children from the property and took possession of all the Mission structures.

Education at Fort Vancouver Today

Today, the tradition of Fort Vancouver's role in education continues with two living history schools, which form the core of our youth volunteer training program. For more information, including goals, curriculum, and application requirements, please visit the schools' website here.


Friedman, Ralph. Tracking Down Oregon. Caldwell, Ohio: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1997.

Peterson del Mar, David. John Ball. Oregon Encylopedia. Accessed online here.

Roberts, George B. Letters to Mrs. F. F. Victor. Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 63, Nos. 2 & 3, 1962.

Roberts, George B. The Round Hand of George B. Roberts: The Cowlitz Farm Journal, 1847-51. Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 63, Nos. 2 & 3, 1962.

Satterfield, Archie. Fort Vancouver. Government Printing Office, 2001.

Last updated: September 14, 2018