Fort Vancouver, by the time it was established in 1825, was entering an ancient industry, a system of trading goods for furs that has been practiced at least since the Norse crossed the Atlantic almost a thousand years ago. For several hundred years, the furs were prized as insulating additions to clothing or as sleeping blankets. Eventually, the European market realized the potential of the soft underhair of beaver fur, which made some of the finest felt for manufacturing "beaver hats", durable men's hats that became an expensive and coveted commodity. So popular were these hats by the early seventeenth century, they became family heirlooms passed intergenerationally. The demand for beaver furs increased exponentially for many decades, and forced trapping companies to continually expand their territories. What had begun and thrived in the Eastern portions of Canada eventually spread westward, covering most of the northern part of the continent: an enormous swath from the coast, around Hudson's Bay in the Canadian Shield, through the Athabasca drainage, across the Rocky Mountains, and eventually vertically along the Pacific Coast. This range provided the winter cold that developed thick coats on the fur-bearing animals, and the waterways that served both as habitat for the animals and as transportation avenues for the trappers.
The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) was a London-based fur trading company, which had been granted a royal charter in 1670 that gave it exclusive British trapping rights over all the lands that drained into Hudson's Bay. It's North American headquarters were at York Factory, on the edge of the bay itself, and this placement coupled with the enforced monopoly provided a relatively secure, successful enterprise. In 1821 the Hudson's Bay Company was forced into a coalition with the North West Company, its closest rival in the beginnings of a self-destructive trapping and trading competition. This merger produced an almost unstoppable force that within a few years had spread the HBC to the Pacific Coast.
In 1825, when Fort Vancouver was first established, Great Britain and the United States were still vying for control over the areas west of the Rocky Mountains. Political jurisdiction was uncertain, and the HBC had moved quickly to take advantage of the potentially fur-rich lands from American competitors, including John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company. Though both countries maintained a presence there, their ambivalence about ending a system of joint occupation reflected their doubts about profit realizations. This uncertain status was to continue for many years, and to haunt any long-term plans the HBC made for their posts in the area. At the time Dr. John McLoughlin (who would become the first Chief Factor, or head of Fort Vancouver) came to the Pacific Northwest, his headquarters were at Fort George at the mouth of the Columbia River, legally an American post as well as being on the south side of the Columbia River, a vulnerable land claim in a political climate which rumoured the Columbia would be the southern boundary of British territory. McLoughlin's first assignment, as administrator of the area, was to select the site, on the north side of the river, for a new headquarters.
The headquarters would oversee the immense Columbia Department of the HBC, and control an area of 700,000 square miles (1,800,000 square kilometers) that stretched from Russian Alaska to Mexican California, and from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The posts in this area were difficult to reach, by either of two options: sailing from London around Cape Horn, then to the Columbia via the Hawaiian Islands, or the yearly brigade overland from York Factory which crossed by a combination of canoe and snowshoe or horse, a journey over 2,000 miles that took three months. The two major concerns when choosing a location, then, were ease of shipping and agricultural potential. George Simpson, the Governor for the Company's North American operations, had long supported an agricultural scheme that would enhance the self-sufficiency of the posts and decrease the cost of importing food and related products.
The new site was on the north bank of the Columbia, slightly upstream from the mouth of the Willamette River on the opposite side. The fort itself, after an initial, arduous four years on a nearby bluff, would be built on a plain with easy access to the water, but just beyond the flood plain. The surrounding environment was broad areas of prairie and trees, sloping upward to dense fir forests; it was known as Jolie Prairie or Belle Vue Point because of its intense natural beauty. McLoughlin's superiors were well pleased with the choice, not only for its situation, but most importantly for its rich pasture and amenable climate.
The HBC, drawing on their years of experience in Eastern Canada, was ambitious to create and maintain a monopoly, overcoming its competitors before they had gotten enough of a toehold to draw upon the financial reserves of the Company. The HBC was accused of practicing a "fur desert" policy in many areas within their territory, especially around the Snake River; its trappers were instructed to bring in the highest possible number of furs, ignoring sustainable practices which were incorporated elsewhere, in order to leave no animals for the American companies trapping in the same area. Many creative trading practices were used when American ships were in the vicinity of to maintain favored status with the Natives bringing in furs to trade. This highly ambitious scheme, to immediately outcompete all others, led the Company to establish an immense network throughout the region, eventually utilizing two dozen posts, six ships, and about 600 male employees during peak seasons. Fort Vancouver was the administrative headquarters and the principal supply deport for this entire system, as well as the collection point for furs being shipped to London.
Fort Vancouver grew to become a center of intense activity and influence. Every year two supply ships (or frequently only one) would arrive with British goods for trade or internal use, and goods and raw materials from the Hawaiian Islands such as coral for mortar manufacture. Each summer after the cold season had been spent trapping, incredible amounts of furs would come in, both from organized employee brigades and from freelance European and Native trappers. As the desire for and possibilities of increased self-sufficiency grew, so did the site's industries and practices. The agricultural enterprise expanded to cover almost 30 miles along the Columbia River and 10 miles north from the riverbank, and included grazing areas, large-scale cropping, ornamental gardens, and orchards, employing more persons than any other activity at the fort. Sawmills, gristmills, and dairies were built, both for materials for use at the fort and its subsidiary posts, and to produce a surplus to trade in the Hawaiian Islands and supply the Russian-American Company. Many trades flourished at the post, including blacksmithing, carpentry, cooperage, and baking, expanding the physical size of the post as they did the amount of goods that could be internally supplied. A riverside complex developed on the bank of the Columbia, directly south of the employee village; here were areas for shipbuilding, a salmon store, tanneries, and a hospital built during the peak of malaria epidemics. As the post became more of a permanent presence, a separate church and schoolhouses were added.
Historically the fur trade, as an industry, offered opportunities to a wide range of peoples with varying degrees of ties to organized companies. The economic attraction could be great, but the trade also provided a route for those who wanted to be far from home, whether pushed by wanderlust - the fur trade was a glamorous occupation to those who were not members and this life of adventure called many an unsuspecting young man - or escaping from trouble, usually in the form of unpaid debts. Sometimes multiple generations of families joined the trade, for occupations are limited when one is raised in the land of frontier posts and sporadic communication.
Some of the officers of the HBC were English or Scottish, but British persons were actually a minority at most fur trading posts, as were Europeans in general. The largest percentage of the officers and employees were from the lands in Lower Canada, a region comparable to the boundaries of modern Québec. The trappers that hailed from this area, of French and sometimes Scottish heritage, were known as voyageurs, short and muscular men who were considered to be ideally physically-suited to the long hours in the canoes or on portage, times when the canoes were carried between waterways. Quite literally the backbone of the trade, these voyageurs were a very visible presence both out on brigade and at the forts when they returned for the annual encampment. Their chosen occupation was not a comfortable one - their rough appearance was said to reflect their lifestyle - but they often widely proclaimed their love for it. They had their own customs and code of honor above and beyond the expectations of the Company, which were reinforced by group camaraderie. Recognizable by colorful handwoven sashes and an inexhaustable supply of chansons, paddling songs to keep rhythm and to help time fly, voyageurs formed the strong transportation system of the companies, moving freight and personnel across the continent.
Company policy concerning Native groups was variable for many years; the HBC had realized from the beginning that peaceful and sustained relations with Natives were required for successful and secure trading networks, and had attempted to keep to fair trading practices and as little interference in tribal affairs as possible. A stickier question was that of European-Native alliances, which became more frequent as the amount of posts and territory increased. Official Company opinion was divided long after the alliances had become a standard practice in the field, and this is reflected in the contradictory policies, both outwardly stated and more covert, that existed. As the Company realized the benefits of Native wives for their employees, they began to support the practice of marriage au façon du pays, or "in the fashion of the country". However, the company policy for many years was to send retiring men back to Eastern Canada, not allowing settlement which could compete with the supply of furs. The overall result was that most employees, whether officers or those of the lower ranks, took wives that were fully or partly Native, with varying degrees of commitment. Some men took multiple wives or attempted to abandon their families when they left the trade and went back east; the Company often enforced the responsibilities of the marriage and required exiting employees to provide financially for their families. Others formed faithful, lifetime unions that survived transfers and retirement from the Company; after the Company relented the forced transportation of employees back East, it became quite common for a couple to settle in suitable areas near posts or Native reservations.
Native women seemed to adapt to the lifestyle of the voyageurs more readily than British women, and beyond providing companionship, they brought irreplaceable skills and knowledge that helped to ensure their husbands survival. They provided familial alliance with their tribe for the husband, a commodity not to be underestimated in the competitive and dangerous areas in which they trapped. While on brigade, the wives and children of voyageurs cleaned and tanned skins removed from the traps, repaired clothing and mocassins, harvested and cooked food, and sometimes hunted or protected the camp with their husband's musket. They were as integral to the success of the brigade as were the voyageurs themselves. Native wives provided similar domestic and economic benefits to husbands of higher rank, or those that chose to stay at the post for other work.
As the amount of fur trade marriages increased, they created a syncretic culture known as Métis, a population of mixed heritage that became one of the largest in the fur trade. Some of the children of these unions joined their mother's tribe, others followed the occupations of their fathers, becoming voyageurs, clerks, or other junior officers, or wives of Company employees.
A site of the magnitude of Fort Vancouver, and one that offered economic opportunities not just in trade but in its needs for manpower as well, attracted a diversity of people like no other site. As was true for the trade overall, British men were a minority at this site, though there were some from England, Scotland, Ireland, and the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Sometimes they came from further afield: at different times the site hosted a Frenchman, a Portuguese, and three shipwrecked Japanese sailors that had been rescued from the Makah Indians. Much of the population of Fort Vancouver was from regions of Canada; the primary language at Fort Vancouver was Canadian French. In addition to the local Chinookan-speaking population, representatives from many Native tribes came with the fur trade routes and congregated around the post for trade, employment, and security. As malaria epidemics worsened, they came for medical care and surety of burial. The Catholic Church Records of baptisms, marriages, and burials, one of the primary documents for interpreting the historic population of the fort site, records Natives from the following tribes:
Cascades, Clallam, Klickitat, Spokane,
Californian, Cowlitz, Mowatwos, Tillamook, Carrier, Grande Dalles, Nisqually, Tsnoomus, Chaudieres, Iroquois, Rogue, Umpqua, Chehalis, Kalapuya, Shasta, Walla Walla, Chinook, Kholtl, and Snohomish.
In addition to these groups, during the 1840s about 40% of the site's laborers were Hawaiian. As the English vessels stopped in the Sandwich Islands, now the Hawaiian Islands, to take on stores of food, water, and goods like rum and coral, Natives were offered (or sometimes forced into) short-term, renewable contracts with the Company; they boarded ship (in fact, they gained a reputation as skillful aboard because, unlike most sailors of the day, they could swim) and joined the workforce at Fort Vancouver. The employee village, just southwest of the stockaded fort proper, came to be known as Kanaka Village because of the large population of Hawaiians residing there, though it was home to all the diverse employees of the Company.
The common languages were either Canadian French or Chinook Jargon, a trade language based on Chinook but incorporating elements from English, French, and Hawaiian. In the early years of the fort, English was used infrequently, with visiting missionaries or the remnants of unsuccessful American fur trading ventures.
The HBC, from the earliest days, had supported the existence of a diverse workforce, one of the beliefs being that the lack of a common language would prevent mutiny or organized demands. Whether or not this held true in the later years, as the workforce diversified even further through intermarriage and the use of jargon spread, the challenges of administering over, and keeping the peace between, such different groups in this region remained. Dr. John McLoughlin, the Chief Factor of Fort Vancouver and in practice the head of the entire Columbia Department, ruled over this conglomeration for almost twenty years. His administrative style was characterized as just and firm, but occasionally given to outbursts of temper when aroused. The Company's dual system was described as: respect the natives, treat them fairly, and make no effort to change their beliefs or way of life; but respond with vigor if they harmed property or personnel.
Though in practice this policy seems idealistic, it formed the foundation on which the Company entered and settled new territories, and on which they based their treatment of trading partners. The employees, on the other hand, were under stricter expectations of behavior and were treated according to their rank in the Company. Fort Vancouver, as were most of the fur trading posts, was characterized by an extreme class system, separated spatially as well as socially. Non-European ethnicities, for the most part, were in the lower ranks of both prestige and pay, and lived in the employee village. British or Canadian men, usually with Métisse wives, had officer positions with substantially greater salaries and lived inside the fort palisade with higher levels of comfort and material goods. However, added to this description is the fact that the class system, at least for the non-laborer (a group that includes the higher ranks, such as Chief Factor or Chief Trader, and the lower ranks like clerks and apprentice clerks) in the fur trade, was more fluid than those of Europe, or even eastern North America. The trade offered advancement opportunities to a wide variety of men, and secondarily to their wives, based more on work ethic and applied skills than ethnicity.
The Fort Vancouver system, including not only the employees and free traders but also the surrounding population of Native groups, existed in relative stability during most of the tenure of the Hudson's Bay Company. As stated before, initially minimal European settlement was allowed in the surrounding areas, and McLoughlin's policies, in the absence of formal government, were legally binding for British subjects. The challenge to the Company's monopoly, both economic and over the physical lands, came from an unexpected quarter: American settlers, not fur traders. Although the "Bostonmen" had only nominal success in fur trading within the Columbia Department, they had returned to the States with tantalizing descriptions of the areas west of the Rocky Mountains, especially the rich agricultural lands of the Willamette Valley. American immigration, finally fueled by the emotions of Manifest Destiny, started as a trickle that grew exponentially each year as word spread of the possibilities and new routes were opened. Since the land claim question was still not decided, McLoughlin and his Company could not legally stop the influx of immigrants; as Fort Vancouver was the original terminus of the Oregon Trail, the immigrants arrived at the fort, usually in dire need of supplies. McLoughlin, acting as his company's representative but many months away from instructions by his superiors, was faced with an economic and moral dilemma: for the sake of the fur trade he could not encourage American settlement, nor did he feel he could he refuse the immigrants support in the form of food, medical supplies, and other essentials. At the same time, McLoughlin saw one possibility of salvaging his Company's monopoly, and that was by bringing the settlers into the trade, taking in their agricultural and livestock harvests and supplying them with goods. The result was a compromise where McLoughlin helped the settlers materially, often on shaky credit, while striving to maintain the influence and control that the HBC had previously enjoyed. The settlers responded in a similarly confused way: many praised his aid and personal morality, others spread unsubstantiated tales of McLoughlin's anti-immigration tactics. Whatever their reaction to McLoughlin personally, all wanted the power of the Company diminished, if not completely gone, and Fort Vancouver was the prime symbol of the continued British presence.
In 1846 the land claim question was at long last settled by the governments of Great Britain and the United States, setting the boundary at the 49th parallel, but leaving the Straits of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, and the Columbia River as freely accessible to both nations. British subjects were to retain former land claims, most important to French-Canadian settlers in the Willamette Valley and to McLoughlin himself who claimed the town of Oregon City, including those lands under the claim of the Puget's Sound Agricultural Company, a subsidiary of the Hudson's Bay Company which helped to supply the contract with the Russian-American Company. However, things were not as secure as the boundary treaty may have implied. In 1849 the U.S. Army established the post of Columbia (later Vancouver) Barracks, just up the slope from Fort Vancouver. As the fort's trade declined, American immigrants grew to outnumber French-Canadian settlers in the Willamette Valley, and British political power waned with the creation of a Provisional Government for the Oregon Country, the army rented buildings and stores in Kanaka Village from the HBC. For a decade all groups coexisted in the village and the environs of the fort. In 1860 the Company, which had transferred its headquarters to Fort Victoria in 1849, decided to abandon Fort Vancouver and the Hudson's Bay Company presence moved north.
Fort Vancouver's intense effect on regional history and population is reflected in its status as a national historic site. The staff today, 175 years after its founding, are dedicated to sharing the histories and legacies of its peoples.