Backstory for Campfires and Candlelight

As part of this year's 30th Annual Campfires & Candlelight special event, we've added the following information to orient interested visitors with the backstory of the specific historical event that the park staff and volunteers are helping recreate--the Hudson's Bay Company's relief response to the wreck of the U.S. Navy's U.S. Schooner Shark at the mouth of the Columbia River in September 1846.

The following information is excerpted from publications by our park historian, Greg Shine, that can be found here and here.

What is the basic story of the U.S.S. Shark in the Pacific Northwest, and how does it connect to Fort Vancouver?

In 1846, under orders from the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, Commander Sloat of the Pacific Squadron detailed Lt. Neil M. Howison and the U.S. Schooner Shark to the Columbia River for a two-month examination and investigation of the situation in Oregon.

On the evening of July 24, 1846, the Shark, commanded by Howison, reached Fort Vancouver, where he was greeted by the British Royal Navy's Captain Thomas Baillie and the Hudson's Bay Company's Chief Factor James Douglas. Howison wrote that "I found H.B.M. sloop-of-war 'Modeste' Captain Baillie, who immediately sent on board his compliments and the offer of his services."

For the next 30 days, Howison and his crew explored the area's rivers, lands, and settlements, while using Fort Vancouver as a base of operations. Several interactions between the crew of the Shark and fort personnel are noted in the historical record.

On the morning of August 23, the Shark left Fort Vancouver, and on September 10, it attempted to cross the Columbia River bar into the Pacific Ocean. Following dramatic efforts to cross, the ship was wrecked on the Clatsop Spit, located at the southern side of the river's mouth. Although no crew members were lost in the evacuation, all of the ship's papers, property and many valuables were. The survivors reached safety at Clatsop Beach.

"Cast on the shore as we were," Howison wrote, "with nothing besides the clothes we stood in, and those thoroughly saturated, no time was to be lost in seeking new supplies. I left the crew, indifferently sheltered, at Astoria, and…pushed up the river to Vancouver, whither news of our disaster had preceded us, and elicited the sympathy of and prompt attentions of the factors of the Hudson's Bay Company and of Captain Baillie and the officers of her Britannic Majesty's ship 'Modeste.'"

What was the Shark's mission in the Pacific Northwest?

In 1839, the Shark joined the U.S. Navy's Pacific Squadron to and traveled to the Pacific Ocean. (Incidentally, en route it was the first U.S. naval vessel to pass through the Straits of Magellan from east to west.)

In April 1846, Commodore Sloat ordered the Shark to Honolulu for repairs and provisions before sailing to the Columbia River. Howison's orders were to sail to the Willamette Valley and:

"determine the disposition of the residents of those friendly to United States compared to those friendly to Great Britain, and the extent, character, and tendency of emigration from the United States and from other quarters, and the condition and prosperity of the territory. He was to forward journals of their observations in which he would notice settlements and establishments, forts and trading houses, the soil, climate, and productions."

Howison further explained that "[t]he officers were also directed to seek all the information respecting the country which their respective opportunities might afford." Sloat directed Howison to complete his mission and depart the Columbia River by September 1, 1846.

During their stay in the vicinity of Fort Vancouver, what did the crew of the Shark do?

In order to achieve his mission, Howison divided his command to garner the most information possible. "[M]y explorations were necessarily limited," Howison wrote, "making the best use of our time. Many interesting portions of the country were still unvisited..." Although any complete accounting of his travels was destroyed in the wreck of the Shark, his report provides insight into his activities and those of his command.

On July 26, after grounding the Shark while attempting to enter the Willamette River, Howison recalled that he "sent off in a boat the first lieutenant and some other officers to visit Oregon City, and the neighboring American settlers." Later, he sent Lt. Schenck "up the Columbia River as high as the Dalles, to find out what settlements had been made along its banks, and more particularly to endeavor to gain some information of the large emigration which was expected…"

Howison also visited Oregon City on at least two occasions. "From the city the governor [George Abernethy] accompanied me for a week's ride through the Willhammette valley," he wrote. He also visited "the Twality plains and returned again by the city and river."

In a letter printed in the September 3 issue of the Oregon Spectator, M. M. McCarver wrote that, "[w]hile on a visit to the upper Willammette Settlement with the officers of the U.S. Schooner Shark, we were shown a field of wheat at gen. Gilliam's, from which two crops had been cut from the same sowing.

Thomas Lowe, a young HBC clerk at Fort Vancouver, recorded Howison's return to the fort in his journal on August 11, 1846. He noted that Howison returned with Governor Abernethy accompanying him, noting that he "has been absent for some time on a trip to the Wallamette."

On August 20, Howison sold the launch from the wrecked U.S.S. Peacock to a Mr. Shelly, "who designs to have her repaired and employed for a pilot boat at the mouth of the Columbia." After the Peacock's wreck at the mouth of the Columbia in 1841, its launch had been entrusted to Dr. McLoughlin by Capt. Wilkes and "[m]any applications had been made for her by American emigrants, but Dr. McLaughlin did not feel authorized to deliver her to any other than a United States officer."

When did the fort learn of the wreck of the Shark, and what was the fort's response?

The fort learned about the wreck of the U.S. Schooner Shark on the morning of September 13, 1846. Immediately, both Captain Baillie and Chief Factor Douglas began mobilizing relief efforts. The Modeste's pinnace was sent downriver on the morning of September 14, under the command of Midshipman J. Montgomerie, with clothing and provisions, including "such articles as are not likely to be obtained at Clatsop" and coffee, tea, tobacco, and bread."

Howison noted that "[t]hese gentlemen had unitedly loaded a launch with such articles of clothing and necessary provisions as we were most likely to need, and added a gratuitous offering of a bag of coffee and 80 pounds of tobacco." Douglas and Ogden also made their resources at Astoria available, urging Howison to "apply to Mr. Peers for any articles of food or clothing you may want, and they will be at your service if he has them in store."

By this time, Howison had resolved to return to Fort Vancouver to seek aid, and upon his trip upriver he met the pinnace sailing downriver about 25 miles below the fort. Passing the pinnace, Howison continued to the fort, arriving late at night on September 14. At the fort, Howison's "wants of every kind were immediately supplied by the Hudson's Bay Company and although cash was at Oregon city…the company furnished all my requisitions, whether for cash or clothing…"

Howison spent the next several months attempting to salvage the Shark and awaiting repairs to the Cadboro, which he chartered at the fort from the Company. Howison and crew departed the Columbia River successfully aboard the Cadboro on January 18, 1847, arriving safely in San Francisco nine days later.


What interactions did the officers and crew of the Shark have with the Hudson's Bay Company staff at Fort Vancouver? Did they get along?

When the Shark arrived at Fort Vancouver on the night of July 24, it seems to have been a surprise to the HBC. Lowe wrote that the Shark arrived "quite unexpectedly, having not been expected to come here at all." Despite the surprise, the Shark was welcomed. According to Howison, when the Shark arrived Captain Baillie "sent on board his compliments and the offer of his services. The next morning, Mr. Douglass…called on me with polite offers of supplies, &c," reported Howison.

Howison also reported that the HBC strongly supported the U.S. Navy's presence in the area, and desired that it be on a more permanent basis:

The company's agents expressed to me their fervent hopes that the United States would keep a vessel of war in the river, or promptly send out commissioners to define the bounds of right and property under treaty. They have been excessively annoyed by some of our countrymen who, with but little judgment and less delicacy, are in the habit of infringing upon their lands, and construing the law to bear them out in doing so."

Confidentially, though, the HBC was concerned by the effect of his visit. This lead the HBC's Board of Management at Fort Vancouver, comprised of James Douglas, Peter Skene Ogden, and John Work, to report their concerns to the HBC's governing body:

Before the arrival of the "Shark" the Americans with very few exceptions were settled in the Willamette and other districts to the Southward of the Columbia River, and …they never showed much inclination to take lands on the north side…. The case was reversed when Captain Howison in the very unreserved communications he made to his Countrymen told them that the United States would never accept of any boundary short of 49 [degrees] and that this settlement at Fort Vancouver and all the Country South of that line would certainly become United States property. This opinion resting on the authority of a person in whom they had confidence and falling in with their own prepossessions on the subject produced an electric effect in the settlements, which put the whole host of Yankee speculators and deputations in motion all rushing towards "Vancouver" to be in time for a snatch at the loaves and fishes, not a morsel of which was to be left for us, the rightful owners, as they made no secret of their intentions to take possession of every acre of land in this neighborhood in defiance of any rights thereto, on the part of the Hudson's Bay Company."

Regarding their public interactions, though, evidence indicates that the officers and crew of the U.S. Schooner Shark had a very cordial – yet cautious – relationship with the H.B.C. and Royal Navy officers and staff.

Dining & Social Interaction

Evidence supports both formal and informal social interaction between the Shark and the fort. The officers of the Shark, including Lt. Howison, dined with the fort's gentlemen on several occasions. On July 25, 1846, Lowe describes a "splendid cold dinner laid out at which 35 of us sat down, including the officers of the Shark." On July 28, 1846, Lowe noted that "[s]everal of the Officers of the Shark dined with us today." On August 11, 1846, Howison returned to the fort with Governor Abernethy, who remained for at least two days. Although not recorded in Lowe's journal, it may be assumed that Howison and Abernethy dined in the gentlemen's mess, in keeping with the fort's protocol.

Recreation & Sport

The HBC put on organized horse races on at least two occasions while the Shark was in the area. Wildly popular, these events resulted in "an immense concourse of spectators," with all hands from the fort, the Modeste, and the local Indian population in attendance. Peter Skene Ogden (who, along with James Douglas, was one of the fort's two chief factors) served as judge, and prizes were awarded. On July 25, 1846, Thomas Lowe describes a day of organized horse races with judges, prizes, and "spectators, among whom were most of the officers of the Shark."

Afterwards, a "splendid cold dinner laid out at which 35 of us sat down, including the officers of the Shark." On August 22, 1846, Lowe describes another day of horse racing. "Several of the officers of the Shark also rode. Four of the prizes were gained by the Modeste, one by the Shark, and one by the fort."


Prior to the wreck of the Shark, the HBC had come to the aid of the Shark at least once before. When the Shark grounded at the mouth of the Willamette River, Lowe reported that, "a scow and bateau were sent down to get the vessel off."

On at least one occasion, the crew of the Shark assisted the HBC and Royal Navy in suppressing a dangerous structural fire at the fort. Lowe records that, on August 18, 1846, "[a] fire broke out this forenoon in the camp, by which one house was burned and two others torn down to prevent it from spreading. Men were sent both from the Modeste and Shark with buckets to assist in extinguishing the flames."


In addition to the wreck of the Shark, what issues were the most popular in the summer of 1846--especially August and early September?

Land Claims

The issue of land claims was a major discussion topic in August and September of 1846–especially for lands north of the Columbia River. Howison provided an excellent summary of the issue in his report to Congress:

"[P]ersons wishing to hold land under the provisional government…were required to mark out its limits, and have it recorded by a person selected to keep a book of all such entries. Lands thus marked out were called "claims"; and in compliance with this requirement, the Hudson's Bay Company had entered all their landed property in the names of their officers and clerks; they have omitted no means or forms necessary to secure them in their possessions. Fort Vancouver is surrounded by 18 English "claims"; viz: nine miles on the river and two back…"

On August 8, 1846, Thomas Lowe and others spent the day building homes on their land claims. Lowe wrote "[e]mployed all day building a small House on my claim, in order to fulfill the conditions of the Oregan Land Law, which requires that in order to hold a claim, some improvement must be made. Mr. Grahame and others were employed in a like manner erecting houses on their respective Claims."

Lowe further noted a rise in Americans attempting to homestead on claimed land–or claim jump–in early August 1846. "We have been obliged to take these precautions as 6 or 7 Americans are Prowling about in the woods, in order to jump such claims near the Fort as are not properly registered or improved upon."

As further evidence, a major incident involving claim jumping and the validity of land claims occurred on the afternoon of August 8, 1846. According to Lowe,

"In the afternoon a party of these Americans were found erecting a house on Mr. Grahame's claim, and on his warning them off the ground, one of them named McNamee told him that he intended to take the claim, as he had been examining the Recorders Books at the Wallamatte Falls, wherein Mr. Grahame's claim was mentioned as lying immediately behind Mr. Lane's claim instead of behind Mr. Douglas's. Mr. G. then showed him the Recorder's Certificate to prove that there was no mistake, but McNamee would not be dissuaded from his attempt, and Mr. Grahame was obliged to procure a warrant from Mr. Douglas (who is Judge of the County) for his apprehension, and proceed with a party of men to take him. Neither he nor his party offered any resistance, and they were quietly brought to the Fort, and examined by Mr. Douglas. Mr. Douglas offered to receive bail for his appearance at the first Court held in the County, but he refused and was in consequence imprisoned."

The following day, August 9, 1846, Lowe reported that "[t]wo Americans came to Mr. Douglas this morning and offered to bail McNamee out, which was accepted, and they gave security for $500 each. He was consequently immediately released." It is likely that the location of McNamee's confinement was the fort's jail, as it was the only jail in the immediate area.

In its subsequent edition following this incident, the Oregon Spectator ran an editorial that, perhaps surprisingly, seemed to support the HBC's claims. This article was published in the issue of August 20, and most probably was an item of intense discussion:

"We understand that a number of individuals from this side of the Columbia, have recently made so bold as to take claims in the immediate vicinity of Vancouver. And we learn that in one instance, this procedure has caused an altercation between one of the claimants and the authorities at Vancouver, which is likely to terminate in a lawsuit. We are opposed to anything like claim-jumping or intruding on the claim of any individual who has complied with the conditions of the law, in having it recorded and improvement made thereon within a certain limited time, yet we cannot see with some, that the offence of dispossessing an individual of his claim who has failed to comply with the conditions required by the statute, is any more heinous in its nature, barely from the fact that it is on the north side of the Columbia or near Fort Vancouver, when it is not intruding on grounds occupied by the Hudsons Bay Company."

This incident was of such high importance that Howison included it in his report to Congress.

"In a case where an American was confined one night in the fort for this sort of pertinacity, and refusing to give security that he would forbear in future such forcible entry upon the land, he instituted an action for damages for false imprisonment; but as no notice of suit had been served on the committing magistrate, and as I expostulated with the man on the subject, I believe he gave over the idea."

According to Howison, this incident and several others "arose from a belief that the Hudson's Bay Company would be soon turned out of the country by the terms of the anticipated treaty, and many were led to this offensive course by a desire to succeed to those advantages which could not be conveyed away by the retiring company."


Resolution of the Oregon Question

In August and September 1846, a major issue of discussion continued to be the resolution of the Oregon Boundary issue. As the Oregon Spectator described:

"Oregon is the principal topic of inquiry and conversation throughout Europe and America. No political subject has involved and elicited so much public interest and discussion within the last twenty years, both in Europe and America, as the settlement of the Oregon question….The public newspapers are literally filled with discussions on the Oregon question."

Howison noted the interest upon his arrival. "At this time we had not heard of the settlement of the boundary question, and intense excitement prevailed among all classes of residents on this important subject."

News from the eastern states took particularly long to reach Oregon, often eight to nine months. As an example, the Oregon Spectator featured the text of John Quincy Adams' speech of January 2, 1846 in the House of Representatives in its edition of August 20, 1846.

Visiting ships brought most news, in the form of personal knowledge, letters, and newspapers from other cities. The Shark was no exception – it brought updates very germane to the Oregon question. In its edition of August 6, the Oregon Spectator printed pertinent news provided by the Shark's crew:

"We learn by this arrival that up to the end of March, no decisive action had taken place between the government of the United States and Great Britain with regard to Oregon. The Senate of the U. States were still debating the resolution passed by the lower house, to give to Great Britain the necessary notice to a termination of the convention of 1818, admitting the right of joint occupation. There was no doubt the resolution would pass, but so amended as to leave it discretionary with the president to give the notice or not as might seem to him expedient….No preparations were making in the U. States for a result other than peaceful to the settlement of the question. The English papers to nearly the same date with our own are moderate and pacific on the subject."

By September 3, 1846, citizens of the Oregon Country had learned that the Notice Bill – this bill calling for the United States to give the required one-year notice of termination of the 1818 agreement to Great Britain – had achieved final passage. Prior to this information, brought overland by Lt. Woodworth of the U.S. Navy, there was only the understanding of the bill having passed the House of Representatives.

Prior to the arrival of the Shark and the subsequent news brought by Lt. Woodworth, speculation abounded as to the vote of the Senate and the potential of veto by President Polk, and talk of war with Great Britain increased in earnest. It was precisely during this period of time that conventional wisdom shifted and the prospect of war with Great Britain appeared unlikely. According to the Oregon Spectator:

"[t]he general opinion expressed in newspapers was, that if the U.S. Senate should also pass the Notice Bill, and no satisfactory compromise upon the subject of the northern boundary line of Oregon could be effected, war between the two nations would be the inevitable result….The succeeding arrival of news from the U. States considerably abated the belligerent and warlike feeling engendered by the former intelligence, by assuring them that neither the Senate nor Mr. Polk would be inflexibly determined upon claiming the whole of Oregon, but on the contrary, would undoubtedly be inclined to negotiate for a final and amicable settlement of the controversy, and determine on the 49th degree of parallel, as the line of mutual compromise."

Unbeknownst to the population of the Oregon Country, the U.S. Senate ratified a treaty on June 15, 1846 that established the international boundary at the 49th parallel. It also provided for Britain to continue navigational rights to the Columbia River until the expiration of its charter in 1863.

Although the population of the Oregon Country did not learn of the treaty until approximately November 1, 1846, it presents an opportunity for context–and irony--in setting the scene for Campfires and Candlelight visitors.

Incidentally, David McLoughlin--the son of former Chief factor John McLoughlin--is credited with first bringing this information to Oregon in November of 1846, in the form of an article from the Polynesian dated August 29, 1846. He shared it with the fort and his father in Oregon City, who, in turn, shared it with the Oregon Spectator. The Spectator published it in a special publication in early November 1846. The long-awaited treaty establishing the boundary between the U.S. and Canada was signed in Washington D.C. on June 15, 1846.


American Immigration and the Oregon Trail

The year 1846 represented the sixth year of a significant immigration of American citizens via the Oregon Trail. In the previous year, 1845, the 5,000 immigrants doubled the number of Americans in the Oregon Territory. The immigration of 1845 was the last to utilize Fort Vancouver as the primary point of termination, for two overland routes opened in 1846.

The Barlow Road In 1845, as a plethora of immigrants waited at the Dalles for the limited number of watercraft available to ferry them to Fort Vancouver over the remaining miles of their journey, several–including Joel Palmer and Sam Barlow--adventured overland around Mount Hood and down Laurel Hill to Oregon City. Barlow recognized and seized the opportunity for constructing a wagon road for subsequent American immigrants that avoided water travel on the Columbia River.

In an official act, the Provisional Government granted Barlow the authority to collect a toll along the Mount Hood Road, thereby making it the first toll road in the Oregon Territory.

An Act authorizing Samuel K. Barlow to lay out and construct a road across the Cascade Mountains, and for other purposes….Sec 3, That it shall be lawful for said Barlow and his associates…to collect toll from all white persons …that may pass to or from the Willamette Valley, for the space of two years, commencing on the first day of January A.D. 1846…at the following rates, to wit:

  • For each wagon…5 dollars
  • Each head of horses, mules or asses whether loose, geared, or saddled,…10 cents
  • Each head of horned cattle whether loose, geared , or saddled…10 cents

Approved, Oregon City, Dec 18, 1845, Geo. Abernethy, Governor (Oregon Spectator, 20 August 1846).

On July 9, 1846, in an article entitled "The Mount Hood Road", the Spectator reported on the road's progress:

"We are happy to learn from Capt. Barlow, who has just returned from the Cascade mountains, where he has been constructing a road to admit the passage of wagons direct from the dalls to this place, that the road is now complete, and that the wagons which were left in the mountains last fall, are on the way, and will reach this place in the course of two days. We have not room in this number to say more of this laudable enterprise," (Oregon Spectator, 9 July 1846).

On September 3, 1846, just ten days before the night we are portraying, the Spectator announced that immigrants were beginning to arrive in earnest, and Sam Barlow was en route to escort them overland:

"Some fifteen or sixteen emigrants have arrived, having performed the last part of their journey with pack-horses. They state that between 300 and 400 waggons must be near the Dalls at this time and nothing extraordinary preventing, they will probably arrive at Oregon City about the 25th instant. Mr. Barlow has gone to meet them in order to conduct them safely over his road," (Oregon Spectator, 3 September 1846).

Southern Route (Scott-Applegate Route) Although not successfully utilized by the date we are portraying, exploration of the Southern Route had begun in earnest, and was an item of note in the press.

Due to in-fighting, squabbles, and desertion, a party led by Levi Scott turned back shortly after leaving the Willamette Valley in spring of 1846. Recognizing the "vast importance of obtaining an easy and safe road to the Willamette Valley, by a southern route, and thus avoiding the numerous and heart-breaking difficulties of the Columbia", the Spectator reported that they were "cheered with intelligence, that another party from Champoeg county is forming, and will soon be prepared to start, under the command of an able and experienced pilot. This pilot was Jesse Applegate. Utilizing information gleaned by Peter Skene Ogden, Applegate and a party of fourteen men departed Polk County on June 22, 1846 in search of a southern route.


Manifest Destiny

The phrase, which means obvious (or undeniable) fate, is believed to have been coined by New York journalist John O'Sullivan in 1845, when he wrote that "it was the nation's manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us."

O'Sullivan's article first appeared in the July/August 1845 of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review and thus would have been known to the Oregon Country population by September 1846.

War with Mexico

The fort first heard of the U.S. war with Mexico on Tuesday, August 25, when two Americans arrived at the fort and brought news that, "Mexico and the United States are at war."

California's Bear Flag Revolt

The California Republic was proclaimed on June 10, 1846 when John C. Frémont and his men in Sonoma declared independence from Mexico. The rebellion itself started on June 14, 1846.

Texas Annexation

On December 29, 1845, Texas was admitted as the 28th U.S. state. It became the first and, to date, only internationally recognized independent, sovereign state directly admitted to the United States as a constituent state of the Union.

The effect of Texas annexation on the Oregon Country was important, as Oregon, like Texas, lay partially in the way of U.S. expansion to the Pacific under the guiding concept of Manifest Destiny.

The Oregon Spectator printed a story from the Dublin Nation that summed the sentiment of many in the Oregon Territory:

The fact is, the accession of Texas has given a new value to Oregon. Oregon was once a remote and almost detached corner of the American empire. Now the want of Oregon, or slicing it away, would put the Union out of shape. It is all wanted to square the American territory" (Oregon Spectator, 20 August 1846).

Growing Role of the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Victoria

On September 10, 1846, all of the furs gathered at Fort Vancouver were sent to Victoria for "re-shipment to England." This marked a major and tangible example of the important transition of power between the two sites.

Dr. John McLoughlin in Oregon City

Dr. & Mrs. McLoughlin left the fort for their new home in Oregon City in January 1846. The McLoughlins' subsequent business, political, and social activities in Oregon City continued to be a topic of interest and discussion throughout the area.

Irish Potato Famine

The famine continued from 1845 until 1851, and in the five years from 1846, over a million deaths and some two million refugees are attributed to the Great Hunger and much the same number of people immigrated to Great Britain, the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Last updated: September 12, 2013

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