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

A close up of a painting showing two two-story wooden buildings built side by side. To the south of the buildings is the Fort Vancouver stockade and an entrance into it.
This close up from a painting by Richard Schlect shows the schoolhouses as they may have appeared ca. 1844. Just to the south of the schoolhouses is the path to the north entrance into the Fort Vancouver stockade.

NPS Photo

The first school at Fort Vancouver started 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, likely referring to students from the Fort Vancouver Village west of the fort.

The students at the Fort Vancouver school were Indigenous children from local tribes and Métis children with Indigenous and European heritage. Some students were children who had been orphaned due to the devastating malaria epidemics of the 1830s. Schools like the one at Fort Vancouver were also present at other Hudson's Bay Company posts. The Company used these schools as a justification for their monopoly on the fur trade, arguing that their presence in North America was "civilizing" Indigenous peoples.

The Location of the School

The school was most likely first housed in a building inside the stockade. By about 1837, the school was moved to the new Kitchen behind the Chaplain's or Priest's house (also known as the Owyhee Church building because it was later used as a church for the fort's Hawaiian laborers on Sundays). In 1844 construction began on two new schoolhouses on the slope just to the north of the fort. It is uncertain whether they were ever used as schoolhouses. After the establishment of the US Army's Vancouver Barracks nearby in 1849, the Army rented the schoolhouses from the Hudson's Bay Company to use as barracks and storehouses.

Teaching at Fort Vancouver

Besides traditional subjects like writing and arithmetic, the 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 considered important.

The first teacher employed at Fort Vancouver 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 sons of Hudson's Bay Company officers, including McLoughlin's son David, and was later expanded to include any interested children. One child who was sent to study at Fort Vancouver with John Ball was Louis Labonté, the 14-year-old son of a fur trader father and a Clatsop mother. Labonté later stated that he "recalled little about what was learned, but he did remember that Dr. McLoughlin had taken him by the hand to school, treated him kindly, and told him he would provide him with books and pens." 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 at 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 against 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. He had been assisted at the school by Hudson's Bay Company Seaman John Fisher Robinson, who had taken on the title of "schoolmaster." Beaver's departure in 1838 coincided with the discovery that Robinson had been abusing students at the school. Robinson was tried and punished at Fort Vancouver and sent back to London. Following this incident, students at the Fort Vancouver school were segregated by sex and the curriculum placed a heavier emphasis on morality. Several parents removed their children from the fort school and enrolled them at the nearby American Methodist Mission school.

The next teacher at Fort Vancouver, at least for male students, was Hudson's Bay Company employee George Holland, who was in the position until 1843. Martha Cable Roberts, the wife of clerk George B. Roberts, managed the fort's school beginning in 1844. Clerk Thomas Lowe wrote in his journal 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 [per year], 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 is perhaps where this class convened.

Around this time, Chief Factor James Douglas and other men of the fort's "gentleman class" raised the idea of creating a more formal school at Fort Vancouver, as well as hiring a male schoolmaster and female governess to teach the students. In 1844, two large schoolhouses were constructed north of the fort. In 1846, Richard and Anna Covington were brought from England to serve as schoolteachers. However, in 1846, the Oregon Treaty transformed the area where Fort Vancouver stood into American territory, and the future of the Hudson's Bay Company south of the Canadian border went into sharp decline. It is unknown if these schoolhouses were ever used for their intended purpose. By 1849, the US Army had established Vancouver Barracks just north of the schoolhouses, and rented them from the Hudson's Bay Company to use as storehouses.

Students at Fort Vancouver

All the children at the Fort Vancouver school were Indigenous or Métis; some came from families that lived and worked around Fort Vancouver, while others came from further away and were boarded at the fort. One of the primary goals of the Fort Vancouver school was to provide a place where the children of fur traders could receive a traditional Western education, with the goal of easing their assimilation into Canadian society and culture. Separating children from their Indigenous or Métis mothers and sending them to school was seen as a way to prevent them from being "corrupted" by Indigenous culture and ways of learning and teaching. Students at the Fort Vancouver school were punished for speaking Indigenous languages and were forced to speak English only, even though Chinuk Wawa was used as a common language throughout the Northwest, and especially in the fur trade.

By receiving an education based on English principles, Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) officers hoped their Métis sons would go on to be successful fur trade employees. Boys were sometimes sent to Europe or to HBC schools elsewhere in North America. These boys struggled to fit in to a society that felt foreign, far away from their families. In part to spare them from embarrassment and discomfort, and in part to spare their fathers the expense of educating them abroad, schools like the one at Fort Vancouver were established. But even close to home, these boys were subject to racism and prejudice, even when they were the sons of high-ranking HBC officers.

At the Fort Vancouver school, the sons of HBC "servants" (the working class) found their lessons in reading, writing, and arithmetic mixed with working in the fields and gardens surrounding the fort. James Douglas reported that the students did activities like "weeding the garden, planting potatoes after the plough, pulling up potatoe [sic] flowers, and gathering pease [sic] in harvest."

In British and Canadian society, girls were traditionally educated in the home by their mothers or live-in teachers. However, the HBC did not consider Indigenous and Métis mothers to be capable or suitable teachers. Fur traders wanted their Métis daughters to become as close to being "white gentlewomen" as possible, which they hoped would help them marry a successful fur trader and secure their economic future. Like their male counterparts, Métis girls found themselves in a "middle space" between Western and Indigenous societies, just with a different set of gendered expectations. As Dr. John McLoughlin wrote about his daughter Eloisa, " object is not to give [my daughter] a splendid Education but a good one - at least a good Education for a Girl."

At first, school at Fort Vancouver mixed together boys and girls of different classes, religions, and ethnicities. This style of schooling contradicted popular ideas about class in Britain at the time. Chief Factor Dr. John McLoughlin assumed that boys from the upper class would go on to higher education, and saw no problem with educating children together. This began to change with the arrival of Herbert Beaver, who was a fierce advocate of enforcing class divides and promoting Anglicanism over Catholicism. However, many students had already experienced this mixing of classes at school. Additionally, early students at the fort received instruction from American teachers, and came to embrace American ideas about class mobility and an egalitarian society.

The students at the Fort Vancouver school gained skills in literacy and basic math, and learned to farm and do household work. These skills prepared them for a future in what would become the United States of America. At the same time, education at the fort encouraged, or forced, Métis and Indigenous children to assimilate into Western culture. Historian Juliet Pollard wrote:

"Whatever its academic shortcomings...the majority of children who attended the Fort Vancouver School were instructed in manual labour skills necessary for pioneering in the Pacific Northwest. [Dr. John] McLoughlin had anticipated that the economic future of Oregon would be largely in foodstuffs and the stress he placed on agricultural training for the boys and domestic instruction for the girls allowed many of the fur trade children to successfully integrate with their American neighbors later in life."

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.


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Pollard, Juliet Thelma. The Making of the Metis in the Pacific Northwest Fur Trade Children: Race, Class and Gender. PhD. dissertation. University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1990.

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.

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Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

Last updated: June 14, 2022