Army Sutlers at Fort Vancouver

A hand-written order for goods from the sutler at Fort Vancouver
Sutlers made out order lists for goods to be sent to ports like San Francisco. These order lists were handwritten and resemble inflated grocery lists. The order shown here includes 4 ounces of peppermint, one pound of bicarbonate of soda, and one pound of camphor, all medicinal items that would have been in scarce supply and high demand in the wilderness.

Copy from Fort Vancouver Archives & Reference Collection. Courtesy of Carl A. Croch Library, Cornell University

by Emily Stuckman

Sutlers at Fort Vancouver stocked a variety of goods and operated much like a general store. They supplied soldiers and settlers with cloth, food, medicines, shoes, and many other articles necessary for life on the frontier.

Most Army forts and encampments in the mid 1800s had a sutler store somewhere near the barracks. Though they were attached to the Army, the sutler store might be the only store in an isolated community and so civilians also purchased goods there. The sutlers at Fort Vancouver in the 1850s and 1860s sold goods to trappers and settlers as well as soldiers at the Barracks. Sutlers were civilians but operated under the jurisdiction of the Army and were subject to price fixing regulations to keep them from overcharging.

Sutlers also set up dining areas and sold hot dinners to soldiers and civilians. The use of the sutler store as a meeting place likely fostered better relationships between the community and the U.S. Army barracks.

Conflict arose between the sutlers and Army officers at Fort Vancouver over the issue of alcohol. At various times, Army officials tried to enforce a ban on selling alcohol to enlisted men. Evidence from archaeological digs suggests that sutlers either ignored these bans or simply sold alcohol secretly. Alcohol sales were likely a large part of the sutler’s profit, so it is not difficult to see why he would be reluctant to give up selling it.

Image of the inside of a pit or trench dug by archaeologists
These remnants of a post from the sutler store stockade wall were found during a recent archaeological dig.  This thick wooden post was part of a solid wall around the sutler store, the only building at the time with this level of protection.  The sutler needed a wall around his store to prevent theft from both soldiers and community members.

NPS Photo

copy of a shipping receipt used by a sutler at Fort Vancouver
Goods were strictly accounted for during shipping. This shipping receipt is from Folger and Tubbs, a San Francisco merchant company where Elijah Camp purchased many goods for the sutler store. Many goods were shipped from San Francisco, already a major port city, to the Pacific Northwest.

Copy from Fort Vancouver Archives & Records Collection. Courtesy of Carl A. Croch Library, Cornell University

Last updated: February 28, 2015

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

612 E Reserve St
Vancouver , WA 98661


(360) 816-6230

Contact Us