Bastion

Source: Hussey, John A. Historic Structures Report: Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Volume I. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1972.

History
It has been stated, upon what authority is unknown, that when Fort Vancouver was moved from the bluff down onto the plain in 1829, bastions or blockhouses were placed at the corners of the new stockade but that they were dismantled before 1841. If such was the case the removal must have been early, since John Kirk Townsend, who arrived at the post in 1834, later reported that the establishment had no bastions. At the time of his visit in 1841, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes noted that Vancouver differed "from all the other forts [of the Hudson's Bay Company in the Pacific Northwest] in having no bastions, galleries, or loop-holes.

Experience had taught the authorities at Fort Vancouver that they had little to fear from the neighboring Indians. Even before 1830, when the surrounding natives were numerous, there had been no serious threats to the post. Beginning in 1830 and 1831 a series of epidemics so drastically reduced the Indian population along the lower Columbia that the possibility of an armed assault became practically non-existent. The necessary privacy for the fort's inhabitants and protection from pilfering could be assured by a stockade alone.
But by the early 1840's, as American settlers began to drift into the Oregon Country in significant numbers and as the boundary dispute between the United States and Great Britain waxed warmer, the Company's officers began to see the newcomers as a threat to Fort Vancouver. Governor George Simpson expressed a fear that the undisciplined and ungoverned Americans would plunder the post if they grew desperate for supplies. Chief Factor McLoughlin and his companions at Vancouver shared this view, and their worries were fanned by occasional rumors that disgruntled or super-patriotic settlers might attempt to burn the fort. Yet year after year passed with no steps being taken to strengthen Fort Vancouver.

Then, on the afternoon of July 15, 1844, Her Majesty's Sloop of War Modeste appeared off the post and dropped anchor. From her cannon roared a seven-gun salute to Fort Vancouver. Much to the chagrin of the Company's employees, the honor could not be returned because, as one clerk noted in his diary, "the Fort had not the means" of returning it. In other words, there were no cannon mounted for action.

In human affairs major events are often triggered by minor incidents. That the fort was unable to return salutes from the firm's own vessels was one thing; inability to give a proper greeting to the warship sent to protect British interests in Oregon was quite another. In due time orders were given to construct a blockhouse. Thomas Lowe, a clerk, noted in his diary on February 7, 1845, that "A Bastion is to be built in the N. W. Corner of the Fort, in order to be able to salute vessels as well as to protect the place in case of attack."

Very little is known concerning the progress of construction. On February 27 Lowe recorded that a carpenter and several men were at work erecting "the octagonal Bastion in the N. W. corner of the Fort." A month later, on March 27, the Company's vessel, Vancouver, anchored off the post and fired a salute of seven guns which was returned from the fort. It seems reasonable to assume that the bastion was at least sufficiently completed by that date for guns to be mounted in it.

The spring of 1845 was a time of tension between the Company's officers and certain settlers, some of whom were attempting to establish claims on lands near the fort which the firm had long considered part of its establishment. The construction of the blockhouse was interpreted by such persons as evidence that the Hudson's Bay Company was preparing to block further settlement by force. "In the Month of January [sic] last," McLoughlin wrote to Governor Simpson on March 20, 1845, "some Americans seeing us repair our pickets erect a bastion, our Blacksmiths making small Axes for the Indian Trade spread a report among their Countrymen that we were fortifying the Fort and making Axes to set the Indians against the Americans."

This flurry of excitement passed away, however, and the new blockhouse quickly was accepted as a routine feature of the establishment. The three-pound cannons mounted in the octagonal cap were fired to salute arriving Company vessels, warships, and prominent persons; and they cheered departing fur brigades on their way. Queen Victoria's birthday on May 24 was celebrated, in 1846 at least, by a royal salute of 21 guns fired from the bastion at noon.

The blockhouse continued to stand at least until June, 1860, when a board of United States Army officers examined it and found it to be "in a ruinous condition." It is presumed that the structure was destroyed by fire shortly thereafter, since archeological excavations in 1947 revealed charred foundation timbers and other evidence of an intensely hot conflagration.
 
Construction Details

As far as is known, there exists only one general description of the bastion. Lieutenant Mervin Vavasour of the Royal Engineers, presumably a trained observer, reported to his superiors in Canada on March 1, 1846, that the defensive structure at the northwest angle of the stockade was a three-storied blockhouse, 20 feet square. The two lower stories, he continued, were loopholed; the "upper" was an octagonal cap containing eight 3-pound iron guns.

A photograph of Fort Vancouver in 1860 confirms the general accuracy of Vavasour's description. With this picture and two drawings made by George Gibbs in 1851 it can be ascertained that each of the eight faces of the cap contained one rectangular gun port.

During the excavations of 1947 the foundation timbers of the bastion were discovered still in place. Each of the four blockhouse lower story walls rested on two 8" x 8" Douglas fir timbers placed side by side, the distance between them being from one to five inches. The overall outside dimensions of the foundations proved to be about 20 feet 6 inches on each side. Although six of the timbers were severely charred and the remaining two were so badly rotted that little was left of them, the archeologists apparently were able to determine that the timbers had been squared by sawing and not with broadaxes or adzes.

The 1860 photograph clearly reveals that the bastion was constructed in the usual "French-Canadian" style so generally employed at Hudson's Bay Company posts. The lower two-story portion, 20 feet square, evidently was formed by laying sills of heavy timbers, joined at the four corners by interlocking joints, upon the foundation timbers. Into these sills at each corner and midway on each side were mortised heavy upright timbers, each seemingly about 20 feet high. These uprights were grooved on the appropriate edges to receive the tenons of the timbers forming the walls. They were joined together at the top by plates, which were also heavy timbers interlocked at the corners.

No picture has been found which shows the door to the bastion, but it must have been located at or very near to the south end of the east wall. This was the only substantial portion of the blockhouse protected by the stockade pickets. Archeological evidence throws little light upon this point, but Mr. Caywood reported that a door in that locality was probable since "no great amount of rotted timber showed in that section." This door undoubtedly would have been of heavy construction -- probably of two thickness of plank -- and framed in the usual French-Canadian manner.

Once the framework for the two-story base had been completed, the walls were closed in by heavy, horizontally lying timbers, the tenoned ends of which fitted into the grooves in the upright frame members. As nearly as can be determined from the one available photograph, these "filler" timbers were about one foot in exposed height. They probably were of the same thickness. Since Fort Vancouver
had an operating sawmill in 1845, it is quite possible that all the blockhouse timbers were sawed.

There is no known description of the construction methods employed in erecting the Fort Vancouver bastion. In 1933 and 1934, when Fort Nisqually was being reconstructed at Tacoma, Washington, however, a study was made of the Hudson's Bay Company's building techniques. "Gray haired pioneers" who as children had played around Fort Nisqually were interviewed, and from one of them was received a description of the original bastions at that post. His words, while referring specifically to Fort Nisqually, contain certain information which probably would apply equally as well to the blockhouse at Fort Vancouver.

He wrote:
Heavy fir logs were adzed to timbers 10 by 14 inches square with tenons on the ends. These tenons were mortised into grooves in heavy upright corner posts and pinned with oak dowels. Oak pegs three feet long were driven down through holes bored in the horizontal timbers, making a very strong construction.

The one available photograph of the Fort Vancouver Bastion does not permit a determination as to whether there was visible chinking between the horizontal timbers. It seems most probable, however, that these timbers were sawed and that their squared edges, at least when originally installed, fitted together quite tightly. Such certainly seems to have been the case with the Fort Langley blockhouse.

It seems to have been Company practice in such cases, at least in regions of relatively mild climate, not to bevel the edges of the timbers to provide holding space for visible chinking. Rather, the small cracks between the timbers were caulked, principally to keep out moisture.

As has been seen, Lieutenant Vavasour wrote in 1845 that the two lower stories of the bastion "were loopholed." No available picture of the structure clearly shows the nature of these loop holes. Those at Hudson's Bay Company posts on the Pacific Slope were of two types: small, separate ports such as those at Fort Rupert; or long, thin horizontal slits such as those at Fort Victoria and Fort Nanaimo.

Since no small loopholes are discernable in the 1860 photograph and since what may be horizontal slits seem to be visible in that picture, it is probable that the loopholes at Fort Vancouver were of the latter type. The slits probably were located at the lower edge of the timber which was about 4-1/2 to 5 feet above the floor level of each story.

Beyond what can be determined from the extant photographs of the bastions at Fort Vancouver, Fort Victoria, and Fort Nanaimo, little is known of the construction details of the octagonal cap. The only surviving octagonal Hudson's Bay Company bastion -- that at Nanaimo, British Columbia -- appears to have had several unique architectural features.

Also, to the date of this writing [1972], no architect or historian of the National Park Service has been able to gain admission to the building in order to examine its structural details.

The exact arrangement of the supporting beams for the cap is among the unknown items. The upright, grooved corner posts were shaped to conform to the angle formed by the intersecting walls of the octagon. The exact configuration of these posts is not known, but that used in the reconstruction of the Fort Victoria bastion by Dr. Herbert P. Plasterer, of Victoria, B. C., in the 1960's probably is not far wrong. The following sketch (not to scale) shows the general cross-section of an upright (shaded member) with the horizontal timbers (not shaded) tenoned into it.

The gun ports, one on each face of the octagon, appear to have been slightly higher than they were wide, perhaps 2-1/2 feet by 3 feet. Each port opened directly above the first horizontal timber over the heavy sill. Each was framed by side uprights which may or may not have risen from the sill (the photograph appears to show that they did, but it seems impossible to be sure).

Shutters covered each gun port. As is clearly shown by the 1860 photograph, these shutters were hinged at the top and opened outward from the bottom. Undoubtedly they operated in the same manner as those at Fort Nanaimo, where the "heavy wooden shutters" are said to have been "raised from within by ropes." It must be admitted, however, that no ropes or chains are visible in the 1860 photograph. Probably the shutters swung on long strap hinges similar to those over the lower tier of ports at Fort Nanaimo. And each must have had an iron ring centered two or three inches above the bottom edge as was the case at Nanaimo.

From the 1860 photograph it appears that the guns may have protruded through round holes or ports in the shutters, somewhat as did the armament in the Fort Victoria bastion. Unfortunately the picture is not sufficiently clear to permit certainly on this point.

It also appears from the photograph that there was a long rifle slit or loophole above each gun port as was the case at Fort Victoria and Fort Nanaimo. These openings seemingly came at the bottom edge of the second timber above each gun port.

The roof was shingled, with boards at the eight hips. There was no outward flair at the eaves such as was found at some posts, Fort Victoria and Nanaimo for example.

An ornament graced the peak of the roof. Such decorations were almost universal on bastions, fish stores, and other small peaked-roofed structures at Hudson's Bay Company posts in the West. The Coode water color of 1846-1847 indicates that at that time the ornament on the Fort Vancouver bastion was simply a round ball. Similar features are shown in later photographs oaf Fort Rupert and Fort St. James.

The 1860 photograph of the bastion at Fort Vancouver shows a somewhat different ornament at the peak. As nearly as can be made out, it then consisted of a ball surmounted by a short rod, on top of which was another object, possibly a weather vane in the shape of a beaver. It seems evident that this feature was added after the period to which the fort is to be restored.

If the situation at Fort Vancouver was the same as at Fort Nanaimo, the base of the ornament formed a center block into which all of the rafters were toed. A hip rafter went to this center block from each angle of the octagonal cap. In addition, there was a rafter at the center of each wall of the cap, and a jack rafter on each side of this center rafter. In other words, the rafters divided the roof over each wall into four segments.

The bastion cap at Nanaimo is now lined and coiled with a single thickness of planks, but there is no reason to assume that this practice was followed at Fort Vancouver. Evidently it was not Company practice to place a layer of logs or dirt in the ceiling of the cap to form a protective barrier from fire.

At Fort Langley the bastions had, according to the post, journal, "a lower and upper flooring." It seems probable that even the ground floor at Fort Vancouver, therefore, had a wooden floor.

At Fort Nanaimo, the stairs to the second floor are "tight up against the wall, very narrow and steep." The stairway to the cap has been described as "more like a ship's stair." It "leads from about a third of the way across the floor space [of the second story] and reaches the top floor away from the wall so as to just leave access room." Both stairs now have hand rails, but it is not certain that the rails were part of the original construction.

It was common practice at Company posts, particularly in present-day British Columbia, to equip the bastions with "arm chests" and stands for "large muskets" or musketoons. Whether there was similar equipment at Fort Vancouver is not known.

Last updated: December 12, 2017

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