The Many Fort Walla Wallas
“Where is Fort Walla Walla?” The answer depends on when you ask. Or more precisely which time period you ask about.
Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Walla Walla
During the Whitmans’ time any reference to Fort Walla Walla would have been to a Hudson’s Bay Company fort located at the confluence of the Walla Walla and Columbia Rivers, approximately 25 miles west of the mission.
The fort was originally founded by the North West Company in 1818. The name Fort Walla Walla dates to after the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) acquired the North West Company in 1821. The new owners renamed the fur trading post near the mouth of the Walla Walla River from Fort Nez Perces to Fort Walla Walla.
Trouble brewing since the tragedy at Marcus and Narcissa Whitman’s mission between people of the Homeland Tribes and Euro-American settlement boiled over in 1855. Hudson’s Bay Company abandoned the post when the U.S. Army advised area settlers to leave because of potential hostilities. It was perhaps a wise move; the Battle of Frenchtown took place that year in an area near the site of Whitman’s mission.
The US Army Builds Two Temporary Fort Walla Wallas
In autumn of 1856, the Army began a permanent presence in the area. The first military Fort Walla Walla was constructed about seven miles east of the current downtown and included a blockhouse and stockade. The area provided adequate timber, grass, and water for soldiers and their horses. The location was abandoned a month later between October 17-27, 1856. Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens conducted treaty negotiations near the center of modern Walla Walla, but progress proved impossible. As Stevens left for The Dalles, his party was attacked a few miles south of the temporary fort. Lt. Col. Edward Steptoe rode to Stevens’ rescue. After a brief skirmish, Steptoe hoped to build a blockhouse and stockade at the site.
The second military Fort Walla Walla was another temporary structure located near what is now the heart of downtown, already under way by late October, 1856. This complex of log buildings served as quarters for the soldiers as they built a permanent fort and occupied it in 1858.
The Third US Army Fort Walla Walla
The third military Fort Walla Walla was built adjoining ‘Steptoeville,’ a community that had grown up around the second fort. The new fort was more extensive and included an approximately square section military reservation. Along with officers’ quarters and troop barracks, it included stables, blacksmith's shop, granary, and a saw mill. Fifteen of the original structures (built 1857-1906) remain. Through its history, the post was home to dragoon, infantry, and cavalry companies, including the famous ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ from 1902-1904.
The post was involved in a number of actions, including the Battle of Steptoe Butte and the Wright Expedition in 1858, and two decades later during the Nez Perce War and Bannock-Paiute War. Except for a small contingent, Fort soldiers were recalled to the East at the outset of the Civil War. During those years the remaining troops were augmented by Oregon, Washington, and California militia companies. Congress attempted to abandon the post in 1865. The legislation stated the post was in Oregon, but since 1853 the post was actually in Washington Territory, precluding the action. The fort remained active until its official abandonment in 1910. It had a brief revival during World War I, before being turned over to the Veterans Bureau.
What's Still Here
Today the area occupied by the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort Walla Walla lies under the waters of the Columbia River. A sign along Highway 12 notes the spot. A plaque in downtown Walla Walla commemorates the location of the 2nd US Army Fort Walla Walla.
Original buildings from the third US Army Fort Walla can still be found on the grounds of the VA medical center. In addition to the VA hospital, the former military reservation now includes private residential areas, an amphitheater, a city park, a military cemetery and Fort Walla Walla Museum. In the cemetery are headstones dating to the Fort’s early days, including a few belonging to civilians and Indian people buried there. The fort buildings and cemetery are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Article adapted from "Fort Walla Walla Sesquicentennial" by Paul Franzmann, Communications Director, Fort Walla Walla Museum. Published in The Dispatch (the Fort Walla Walla Museum newsletter), 2008.