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To delve into the history of Fort Vancouver, or Vancouver Barracks as it is known today, is to recall that time when the far northwest of the United States was in the making, when there was no definite boundary between England, Spain, Russia and the American nation in this part of the American continent and when all of these great nations, with the addition of France and little Portugal, to boot, were claimants to the Columbia River and the wildernesses which it held tributary.
The first white men to descry the mouth of the Columbia from the sea were, no doubt, the Spaniards, for Heceta, in 1775, and Bodega and Arteaga in the same year and, again, in 1779, made brief excursions into the river. In 1792 Captain Robert Gray, of Boston, with the good ship ” Columbia,” ascended the stream for twenty-five miles and claimed possession of it for the United States. He named the river for his vessel. Several months after Gray had been on the stream the English nation, as represented by Captain Cook’s lieutenant, ascended the stream for over a hundred miles, making careful record of his trip. The three great nations Spain, England, and the United States had each valid claims. Portugal, Russia and France were early eliminated from the struggle for possession which was thereupon fought determinedly by the first three countries.
In 1819 by the Florida treaty with Spain that country ceded to the United States all of her claims north of the 42nd degree of latitude and so, here, Spain gracefully stepped out of the ring.
The close of the War of 1812 with Great Britain saw that power in possession of the disputed country, but the Treaty of Ghent, 1815, provided that each nation should restore what it had taken from the other by force. Thereupon the United States resumed possession of the fort at the mouth of the Columbia, which it had formerly maintained. In 1818 was signed the Joint Occupation Treaty between the two countries, by which it was provided that the northwest coast of America should be open to citizens of both powers for the period of ten years. Finally, in 1846, was signed the agreement between Great Britain and the United States by which the northern boundary of the Northwest was fixed at the line of 49 degrees, where it rests today. The United States received about 750 miles of the river and England about 650 miles. While there was much diplomatic jockeying and juggling and while the two nations came perilously close to a resort to arms, the question, on the whole, was settled with great amicableness and the decision once arrived at was accepted with entire good nature by each party to the contract.
Now let us ask why was it that the Northwest of those days was considered so great a prize that six of the World Powers should contend for its possession? The domain, though a princely one, was not a necessity to a young nation our own which had illimitable leagues of arable soil still untilled. It was remote from all of the powers of Europe. The answer to our question is to be found in the one word, furs. The Northwest was a treasure house through virtue of the furbearing animals, which it contained.
As early as 1806 a trading station was established in the valley of the Columbia River by The Northwest Fur Company, an English corporation. In 1810 the Pacific Fur Company, which was to found the fortunes of John Jacob Astor, was organized by that gentleman in New York and, in 1811, the first of Astor’s ships arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River to erect the trading post of Astoria, whose fortunes have been so entertainingly told by Washington Irving in the book of that name. The Hudson Bay Company had also made entrance to this rich field.
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During the War of 1812 the Pacific Fur Company retired from its positions in the Columbia valley and the Hudson Bay Company absorbed its English rival, the Northwest Fur Company. The English built a strong fort at Astoria, which they called Fort George. But several years after the conclusion of the war between England and America, the Pacific Fur Company resumed possession of its posts in the Columbia, with the backing of the United States government, under the authority of the Treaty of Ghent and the Hudson Bay Company, and though events proved that it could maintain an amicable joint household with Astor’s corporation at Astoria, began to look about for a site for headquarters of its own. Since the Columbia River at that time seemed destined to become the dividing line between English and American possessions, a site was chosen on the north side of the river, about 120 miles above its mouth. Here a strong post was established in 1825 and named Vancouver, in honor of the British mariner. The site was not deemed as suitable for the purposes of a fort as a situation a short distance away, so a second Fort Vancouver was built on the last chosen spot. This is the Fort Vancouver of the present day, and the site of the city of Vancouver, Washington.
The new post was made the Pacific headquarters for the Hudson Bay Company and became a great mart of trade from California to Alaska and for innumerable little stations in the Rocky Mountains and the hinterland thereof. The fort, itself, was an imposing structure with a picket wall twenty feet high, buttressed with massive timbers inside. It enclosed a parallelogram five hundred feet by seven hundred feet and contained forty buildings, including a governor’s residence of generous proportions. The lands outside of the fort proper were cultivated and were exceedingly productive. The employees of the company were comfortably housed and formed a happy community, and to the point came red men in various garbs, hunters, trappers and woodsmen, a picturesque throng in craft of all description.
This is a sketch of the post in 1846, the year in which, through the treaty between England and America, it became a possession of the United States. In 1849 a company of United States Artillery, under Captain J. H. Hathaway, took possession of the place in the name of the republic and the stars and stripes waved where the lion of St. George had held the breeze. It is an interesting commentary of the times to remember that to reach their destination Captain Hathaway and his soldiers were obliged to sail around Cape Horn in a sailing vessel, the voyage consuming many months. In the spring of 1850 a company of mounted rifles arrived at the post overland from Fort Leavenworth.
An additional interest is given Fort Vancouver by knowing that at various periods prior to the Civil War Grant, Sheridan, McClellan, Hooker, and other of the famous United States leaders of the Civil War were stationed here. It was in a campaign against the Indians not far distant from Fort Vancouver that General Sheridan fought his first battle.