Sketch map of Pacific coast of North America, based on maps of the 1830s and 1850s
On March 19th, 1825, Sir George Simpson presided over the birth of Hudson's Bay Company's newest post at point Belle Vue on the north bank of the Columbia River, some 100 miles (160 km.) upstream from its mouth. The occasion was marked by Simpson smashing a bottle of rum against the new post's flagstaff and proclaiming: "In behalf of the Honourable Hudson's Bay Company I hereby name this establishment Fort Vancouver. God Save King George the Fourth!"
For the next quarter century Fort Vancouver would serve as the headquarters of the immense Columbia Department - 700,000 square miles (1.8 million square km.) stretching from Russian Alaska to Mexican California and from the Rockies to the Pacific. The region around Fort Vancouver itself was not only rich in furs but also in arable land, a fact that would enhance its prosperity yet, in the end, prove the undoing of the fur trade as well as HBC's presence.
In 1818 The United States and Great Britain had agreed to a joint occupation of what was known as the Oregon Country. That is to say, neither had sovereignty over the region and both were to be allowed to operate at will, each agreeing not to interfere with the other. The agreement, renewed in 1827, was a tacit understanding that a boundary would have to be negotiated at some point. Hudson's Bay Company - as the only British institution in the area apart from the occasional Royal Navy vessel - ended up spearheading Britain's claims to the area. It was with this in mind that Simpson's journal reveals his reasoning behind the choosing to name the new post in honour of explorer Captain George Vancouver: " ... to identify our claim to the soil and the trade with his discovery of the river and coast on behalf of Great Britain."
HBC's own arrival in the area was relatively recent, the direct result of the 1821 merger with the North West Company (NWC). The Columbia Department had originally been explored and developed by the Nor' Westers. The NWC's Fort George, on the south bank of the river near the modern-day city of Astoria, was originally selected for the HQ. But the Belle Vue site, further upstream, far removed from the notorious tides and sandbars of the Columbia's mouth and surrounded by excellent farmland, proved a more promising location. After four years on a bluff overlooking the river, the post was moved to the floodplain, above the highwater mark.
McLoughlin Welcomes the Americans, Fort Vancouver, 1834 by Charles Comfort, 1935
From the start Fort Vancouver was a post like no other. Her list of managers reads like a "Who's Who" of the Pacific Northwest: three of the five - James Douglas, Dr. John McLoughlin, and Peter Skene Ogden - occupy prominent positions in the history of HBC as well as the west. Douglas would be a founder of British Columbia, and its 2nd premier; McLoughlin would come to be recognized as "The Father of Oregon"; and Ogden - the scourge of the Snake River country - would be the first European to explore parts of Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. Between them the three would direct operations at Fort Vancouver for 26 years.
The post's Pacific Coast location meant it was normally supplied by sea. Ships travelled by way of Cape Horn and Hawaii before making crossing the bar and navigating upstream to Fort Vancouver. From there smaller boats, and eventually horse and mule trains, brought goods into, and furs out of, the interior. The overland route by canoe from Hudson Bay and over the Rockies - primarily by way of the Athabaska Pass - was not practical for this routine commerce.
Fort Vancouver became the hub of HBC's agricultural enterprises. George Simpson was keen to expand HBC's interest beyond the fur trade alone, and in the Pacific Northwest he saw great potential for agriculture. Self-sufficiency in foodstuffs would reduce HBC's own operating costs by reducing the amount of costly food imports. As the "civilian" population of the Oregon Country grew - settlers, missionaries, prospectors and professionals - Fort Vancouver's agricultural industries also expanded to include orchards, grain, food crops, dairying and the raising of cattle and pigs for meat. Surpluses were sold for profit, with markets being found as far away as Russian Alaska, Hawaii and Tokyo. The Puget Sound Agricultural Company, a de facto subsidiary of HBC, was set up in 1838 to take over the agricultural business.
Sketch of Fort Vancouver, ca. 1853, by G. Sohon
At its height Fort Vancouver served as the administrative head of a network comprising 24 posts, 6 ships, and over 600 employees. Senior Company staff and their families lived in dormitories and barracks within the palisade, while beyond it to the west grew up what became known as the "village". Home to the lower ranks and their families as well as numerous others, Fort Vancouver was unique in having such a residential district. By the 1840s this settlement was home to an ethnically diverse population, 40% of whom were Hawaiians working as labourers. English, Scots, Irish, French-Canadians, Iroquois, Métis and Hawaiians mingled with over 30 different local American First Nations. The working languages of the Fort were Canadian French and Chinook Jargon - a patois of Chinook liberally laced with English, French and Hawaiian words. By the 1850s as the fur trade decreased other commercial pursuits such as tanneries, shipyards, distilleries, smithies, sawmills and grist mills grew in importance and supplemented the agricultural industries already established. The number of Hawaiians working on contract increased to the point that the village became known as Kanaka Village - from the Hawaiian word for person.
American interest in the region began after explorers Lewis and Clark had reached the mouth of the Columbia in 1805, but picked up in the late 1830s with the establishment of the Oregon Trail overland from St. Louis. From the Trail's western terminus at The Dalles emigrants could take passage on an HBC boat downriver to Fort Vancouver. Dr. John McLoughlin, Chief Factor and post Manager at the time, welcomed the newcomers, and incurred the wrath of George Simpson by extending them credit. By so doing he endeared himself to them and made many firm friends.
Hudson's Bay Fort, Fort Vancouver, Columbia River, 1843-1847 by Mr. Kashnor, 1927-1928
But the influx of settlers changed things forever. In 1846 the new international boundary was agreed at the 49th parallel, Britain abandoning its claim to the lower Columbia basin in the face of an increasing American population. All of HBC's holdings in Washington, Oregon and Idaho ended up on the American side. Although agreements guaranteed HBC's right to trade and promised compensation for its lost assets, Vancouver's importance to the Company began to decline. In 1849 the Pacific HQ was relocated to the bustling settlement at Fort Victoria. That same year the U.S. Army arrived at Fort Vancouver and built the Vancouver Barracks. The presence of the Army gave a temporary boost to HBC, which was happy to have new customers for its goods. But by 1850 a Quartermaster's Depot had been built, obviating the need to do much business with HBC. Tensions arose between the two over property and land and in 1860 HBC abandoned the site, much of which was subsequently occupied by the U.S. Army.
Today the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is operated by the U.S. National Park Service and is one of the most important historical sites in the country. The subject of extensive archaeological research since 1948, it has yielded the largest recovered collection of 19th century Hudson's Bay Company artefacts in the world, representing everyday life as well as the fur trade. As reconstructed the fort represents the post in its heyday during the 1840s.