Social Activities at Vancouver Barracks - Bands and Music

by Katie Wynia

Outdoor concerts were popular in the past just like today. Families living at the fort and people from the nearby growing communities traveled to the Parade Ground bandstand. Spectators watched the band on benches under trees. You can see the same oak and fir trees people sat near in the 1870s on the Parade Ground today.

As regiments came and went, so too did the different military bands. However, when most of the 21st Infantry left to fight the Nez Perce, the band stayed behind. They were unable to continue their usual social role in the area. The Vancouver Independent newspaper printed a letter from a woman in 1877 stating: “The band has to do guard duty and of course there is but little music and only discontented women who are as anxious as we.” The quiet was “becoming monotonous.”

Newspapers advertised concerts, including one in 1870s that listed the “Sleigh Polka” on the program of the 23rd Infantry band. In 1878 the band played “The Nez Perce Gallop,” a reminder of the troops’ earlier actions. In an ironic twist, Nez Perce prisoners incarcerated at the post guard house may have heard this song that celebrates of the takeover of their homelands.

People could make their own music as well. This harmonica was found during archaeological excavations. You might play an instrument to pass the time or to entertain your friends. More evidence of music at Fort Vancouver is a fragment of a lyre insignia from a band member’s uniform. Perhaps it broke in a rush to get to practice.

Music accompanied other activities. A parade might be scheduled before a baseball game and a dance held afterward. Numerous balls and hops drew people from Vancouver and Portland, requiring a band to provide the music. Community bands in Vancouver like the Blue Ribbon Band helped the military bands keep up with demand.

Last updated: February 28, 2015

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