A Fine Fort Umpqua Welcome

Folks showed up with happy faces for the return of Fort Umpqua Days after two years off. One of my favorite things about presenting my books at these events is all the stories I hear. People are curious about my books, of course, which delve into the area’s fascinating history. But so many people have stories of their own that they’re eager to tell. I love hearing these. I came away from this two-day event, head full of so many individual histories. My thanks to all who shared a bit of their worlds.

Here I am at my booth on this lovely afternoon. ~ Photo by Robin Loznak.

I also love the costumes many people wear for the occasion–the reenactors as well as the actors who perform in the nightly pageant, portraying stories of the era. I was happy to see reenactors Karen “Many Voices” Haas and her husband, Patrick, back again. I met Karen at the last Fort Umpqua Days in 2019 and featured her in a post back then. The two are shown in the previous post. We had a good visit yesterday. They stopped by my booth, looking quite fine, as if they had walked right out of the past.

Robin took a few more photos at the event (shown below). I’ll let his pictures speak for themselves.

And one more favorite Robin Loznak photo from a past Fort Umpqua Days moment:

BOOM!!!

Historic Words and Fibers

History resonates in every Fort Umpqua Days celebration as people come from many places to share a glance back to the early days of Elkton, Oregon. The reconstructed British Hudson’s Bay Company fort provides a centerpiece for the gathering. This year a number of reenactors came to give the fort even more authenticity.

Reenactor Karen “Many Voices” Haas spinning

In the above photo reenactor Karen Haas, who describes herself as a weaver of words and fibers, spins yarn on a drop spindle while wearing period dress, such as you might have seen in the days of the original Fort Umpqua.

This is the period of my two published books, A Place of Her Own and The Shifting Winds. But the drop spindle is a device so ancient that I describe a character using one in an upcoming book that goes back roughly 3,500 years. I was glad to watch Karen spin with a drop spindle so I could see how she made it spin. This will help me describe how my ancient character spins with hers. More than one of my characters can be called weavers of story and thread. I think they share an affinity with Karen “Many Voices” Haas.

I had a chance to visit with Karen Sunday afternoon when she stopped at my booth where I was selling my books. After I closed up shop I went down to the fort with my daughter Carisa to see some of the reenactors, and there was Karen outside a Hudson’s Bay Company tent (it must have been an HBC tent because they were waving an HBC flag). And she was spinning. We recognized each other and it took me a moment to realize what exactly she was doing. But there it was. She was working a drop spindle. Every once in a while she would put the spindle against her billowy skirt and stroke her hand across it to keep it turning. Then she would reach up again and make sure the yarn was coming out in an even thread. An amazing process. So ancient. So elegant in its simplicity, yet no doubt requiring considerable skill and practice.

With that we wrapped up another Fort Umpqua Days enjoying a delightful glimpse into our past. Thanks to Karen for showing us one significant thread of that story.

Back to the Fort

It’s time for Fort Umpqua Days again. It happens every Labor Day weekend in Elkton, Oregon. So step into the past there on Saturday and Sunday, August 31 and September 1, and have some fun. There will be music, food, crafts, books (I’ll be there with mine), and of course the reconstructed fort.

Cannon at Fort Umpqua. Photo by Robin Loznak.

Hold your ears. Mountain men will be there with their black powder rifles. And others from bygone days. Even cannons maybe. Folks at the reconstructed fort will offer some rich history of the area with the realism of places restored to their former charm. If you check out this restoration of the fort’s store (below) you may find someone with a story about the Hudson’s Bay Company that built the original fort during the heyday of the fur trade in Oregon back in the 19th century. They might tell you that this was the company’s southernmost outpost. And they might explain how the trade worked and what some of those items on the shelves are, and the pelts on the wall.

Store in the Fort

It all happens just west of Elkton at ECEC at 15850 Hwy 38 and down the hill at the fort. I’ll be in one of the vendor booths near the butterfly pavilion with my books that fit right into that past, stories of pioneers and the fur trade in the mid-19th century, A Place of Her Own and The Shifting Winds. I hope you’ll stop by.

COMMENT

Fort Umpqua Post Script

So, what if history got it wrong?

After last week’s rollicking Fort Umpqua Days celebration, I take a long look at our sturdy reconstructed fort on the Umpqua River in Elkton, Oregon, and I recall a question from one of the customers who came by my book-selling booth during the event.

“Is Fort Umpqua in your books?”

I had to say no, but it might have been–if I could have reconciled sources.

Fort Umpqua Gate

Muddied waters

My issue arose from the date Fort Umpqua fell. History has an answer, but it seems a little murky to me.

For starters I’d like to quote Stephen Dow Beckham in his Land of the Umpqua, a fine presentation of local history published in 1986. On this subject of Fort Umpqua’s demise he writes on page 58:

The fort burned on November 15, 1851, while the commander or chief trader, Johnson E. King was at Fort Vancouver. King had just brought in his annual load of furs and was ready to leave with fresh supplies for the Umpqua when word of the disaster came by letter. The company kept up three more years of trade in southwestern Oregon, presumably working out of an outbuilding at the site; then it terminated operations. [My bold.]

Beckham sources his statement with a letter in the HBC archives written December 20, 1851, by a John Ballenden to Archibald Barclay. Ballenden was an HBC officer briefly posted at Fort Vancouver to help wrap up Company affairs there after the boundary settlement that gave the United States the land. Barclay was an HBC Secretary in London.

But what if history got this wrong?

Ft.Ump.gardens-2 (2)My experience in researching these early periods has shown me that history can be difficult to pin down. Even contemporary accounts don’t always agree.

That word presumably in the above quote gives me pause. Did assumptions lead to wrong conclusions?

A couple of things have come together to make me question this.

What did Martha know?

I have access to an account that disagrees with accepted history. It comes from Florence McNabb, the granddaughter of Martha Maupin, whose story I tell in A Place of Her Own. Florence wrote a 75-page manuscript of Maupin family history which I used extensively in writing Martha’s story. But I didn’t use one of Florence’s vignettes because it disagreed with history. To give a timeframe for this, Martha and Garrett moved from Lane County to Douglas County in December 1864 and rented a cabin on the Henderer place near Elkton until sometime after Garrett’s death in 1866, well after the supposed demise of Fort Umpqua.

Yet Florence writes:

It was while they were still on the Henderer place that there was an Indian scare and all of the families were told to come to the Umpqua Fort. The fort was built on the banks of the river in the summer of 1836 and was the early trading post of the Hudson Bay Co. It was well built with logs standing on end to form a stockade with several log cabins inside. 434-fort-umpqua-interiorOriginally the land owned by the Hudson Bay Co. comprised 640 acres and several dozens of stock. . . .

On this occasion the families remained in the stockade and the well-armed men went to their respective homes to tend to their livestock. The Indians never did attack but they could be seen early in the mornings and again in the evenings. . . .

After about a week, shut up with children and short tempered mothers, they decided to return to their own homes, coming back to the fort to spend the night. . . . One lady remarked that she would rather fight Indians than to spend another night with that bunch.

“This was told to me by my mother,” Florence wrote, “who had heard it from Martha Maupin.” Yes, Martha.

Now, that could have made an interesting scene in my book, but I didn’t want to go against history.

British habits

ShiftingWinds_EcoverA new thought began to stir, arising out of my own recent research into the history of Fort Vancouver, the British Hudson’s Bay Company headquarters of the Fort Umpqua outpost. Prior to my presentation at Fort Vancouver this summer of my new book The Shifting Winds I went back into the two huge volumes that describe research the preservation team did in order to reconstruct an authentic replica of this British headquarters.

Ft.Vanc.Report (2)I was amazed at the continual construction going on during the years the British maintained Fort Vancouver. The first Fort Vancouver was built in 1824-1825 on the hill above the Columbia river bottom. When the British changed their minds about that location in 1829, they just picked it up and moved it a few miles closer to the river. When that new fortress proved to be too small they just moved the walls over, added to them, and doubled the size.

When the first home of the commander began to crumble due to decaying roof and walls, they tore it down and built a new one in a better spot within the walls.

Fort Vancouver Big HouseThis is the commander’s house, the Big House—no small cabin to be thrown up in a few afternoons.

613.Ft.Vanc.McLoughlin Sitting RoomAnd the interior was exquisite.

Ft.Vanc.stockadeOther buildings were routinely torn down and replaced. And those picket walls kept moving—a little bit here, a little bit there.

alan-cropIt seems the British Hudson’s Bay Company men would rebuild at the drop of a tall beaver hat.

Why not Fort Umpqua?

So if tiny Fort Umpqua burned down and the Hudson’s Bay Company still had business to conduct on the site, why wouldn’t they follow custom and rebuild that? Ballenden’s letter to Barclay, the author Beckham’s source above, was written a month after the fire and would not reflect Company decisions afterward. My family’s story (told by Martha herself, no less, although received secondhand) suggests a fort still stood when they sought refuge sometime between 1864 and 1866.

Accepted history also tells us that the historic 1861 flood took away the burnt remains of Fort Umpqua, leaving nothing. Is this fact or conjecture? Is it possible that a more substantial fort stood against those flood waters, one that the Hudson’s Bay Company had rebuilt and maintained after the 1851 fire? Up north, when the British finally left their Fort Vancouver headquarters to the Americans, the walls and buildings disintegrated in this wet, rainy land without continual maintenance. We have photos and reports to substantiate that. Was this the more likely end to Fort Umpqua also, as new American owners no longer needed this former British outpost?

Unraveling the story threads

Book cover - A Place of Her OwnSmall tidbits of information—notes in letters and journals—often guided the team that reconstructed the elaborate Fort Vancouver headquarters. If I had believed in Florence’s tidbit, I could have brought the Fort Umpqua outpost into my story and had one more tense scene for Martha. And I could have smiled and told my customer, “Yes, yes, it’s in this one.”

Just saying.

Beckham, Stephen Dow. Land of the Umpqua: A History of Douglas County, Oregon. Roseburg, OR: Douglas County Commissioners, 1986.
McNabb, Florence Maupin. The Maupin Family. Undated, unpublished manuscript.

COMMENT

Reviving Fort Umpqua

Tomorrow the people of Elkton will bring the old Fort Umpqua back to life with a flourish in their annual Fort Umpqua Days celebration. Folks from around the state and beyond will join in the fun, whether history buffs, reenactors, the simply curious, or those just looking for a good time or a good buy. Welcome to the party.

Ft.Ump.Inside 69Activities in the palisade walls will run from 10 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon on both Saturday and Sunday, September 3 and 4. While things are happening down at the fort, a lively market behind the ECEC library will offer crafts, books, and other items for sale. I’ll be there both days with my books set in the fur trade and pioneer era, and my friend Lynn Ash will join me with her books Saturday.

Ft.Ump.Inside 63Something new this year: The second building reconstructed at the fort, shown above, now has furnishings displaying living quarters where the Hudson’s Bay Company men lived. The rustic but comfy interior gives an idea of the kinds of gear they had–the typical Hudson’s Bay Company blanket, animal-skin rug, moccasins.

Ft.Ump.Inside 67The simple table setting illustrates the difference between the simplicity of life here in the southernmost outpost of the Company and the finery back at headquarters.

Ft.Ump.Inside 66No Spode china here, like that enjoyed by the senior officers at Fort Vancouver.

This project in Elkton has been a work in progress for several years, and as I mentioned in a previous post or two the reconstructed fort found its home a little downriver from the original.

When history buffs, modern mountain men, academics, and reenactors began contemplating the project, they discovered that the original site was not available. So this location down the hill from the Elkton Community Education Center was offered as an alternative.

If you drive south from Elkton on Highway 138 you’ll see a historical marker on your right which points out the original location of the fort across the river. The setting has many similarities, and the new site was selected.

Ft.Ump.Inside 77After the palisade walls went up, volunteers constructed the first building, the Company store and storehouse. Come inside and you’ll find the treasure that brought the British Hudson’s Bay Company into the region.

Ft.Ump.Inside 73The beaver pelt.

Ft.Ump.Inside 71There’s a touching table where you can stroke your fingers over the furs and feel how soft they are.

The sad news for the beaver was that his soft inner fur could be made into exquisite felt for the popular hats of the day.

That made the pelts extremely valuable and trappers combed the creeks of the wilderness to find them. Competition grew fierce between the British traders and the American mountain men, and rumors of war stirred as Britain and the United States shared the Oregon Country while London and Washington tried to come to terms on a boundary.

Ft.Ump.Inside 75Trappers, both white and Native American, could trade their furs for goods here in the Company store. Or today you can ask a knowledgeable young helper your questions about the history of the fort and the fur trade. Tomorrow and Sunday they’ll be dressed for the part in period costume, adding to your sense of stepping back in time.

Following the activities at the fort and market each day, the traditional historic pageant will be performed at the amphitheater, both nights. That’s always fun too as we play with history. I have the pleasure of serving on the writing team for that. Others did the lion’s share this time, but I had fun doing my little bit.

For more information on daily activities see the Fort Umpqua Days website.

COMMENT

Fort Umpqua Farming

Visitors to the fort during Fort Umpqua Days this coming weekend will be drawn back in history through several activities for children that commemorate the fort’s importance as a historic agricultural site. These children will water the garden, make cornhusk dolls, grind corn, and sort beans from the fort’s gardens of heritage vegetables. And they’ll make apple cider from fruit out of the fort’s heritage orchard.

Ft.Ump.orchard signAs usual they’ll have plenty of 1800s games to play. And after they try samples of tasty food that workers at the original fort might have eaten, they can lead their parents out to take a look at the large gardens and orchards surrounding the reconstructed fort.

My books, The Shifting Winds and A Place of Her Own, tap into this same era, so the celebration has special meaning for me. I won’t get down to the fort during the day between 10 am and 5 pm because I’ll be up near the butterfly pavilion selling books in my booth, offering my own look at these intriguing times. On Saturday my writer friend Lynn Ash will join me to sell her travel memoirs, The Route from Cultus Lake and Vagabonda, describing her own pioneer spirit as she goes camping solo around the country.

Ft.Ump.gardens-1 (2)Like the Fort Vancouver headquarters for the Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade operation in the West, Fort Umpqua was a trading post, not a military fort, although both forts had tall picketed walls for protection. And the people who worked there had to sustain themselves in this wilderness.

The Oregon Country in the 1800s lay far from suppliers in eastern North America and Britain, so the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Dr. John McLoughlin, Chief Factor of this western region, placed self sufficiency high in the order of business. He chose a broad plain north of the Columbia River for the Company headquarters site of Fort Vancouver because he needed a fertile place to grow food to feed employees.

So it’s not strange that when he proposed a site for an outpost in the Umpqua region he wanted a place that could grow orchards and gardens for food.

Ft.Ump.gardens-2 (2)Company trappers in the Umpqua had been using a couple of temporary sites, and in 1832 McLoughlin assigned the French Canadian Jean Baptiste Gagnier to supply those. But McLoughlin sought a more permanent outpost. Gagnier selected a site, but McLoughlin, wanting a second opinion, sent his son-in-law William Glen Rae down to be sure the place had enough suitable land for growing vegetables.

Gagnier had in fact found a lovely open meadow with the fine treelined Umpqua River on one side and scattered oaks and swaths of fir forest crowning the hills on the other. The rich bottomland soil would grow fine vegetables and fruits from orchards and possibly vineyards.

Ft.Ump.orchardRae proceeded with the fort, dubbed Fort Umpqua, and the Company maintained this post for fifteen years, from its construction in 1836 until 1854, their southernmost outpost in the entire Oregon Country.

Once the United States acquired the area after the 1846 boundary settlement with Britain, the British cut back on business south of the new border, but they kept a trader at the site until 1854. The fort burned in 1851, but they stayed on, working out of some kind of structure for three more years. By that time the meadow thrived as an agricultural center.

Of course, all this happened a short distance upriver from the Fort Umpqua structures and plantings you see today. More on that in my next blog post. But that small factoid does nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the annual Fort Umpqua Days at ECEC, happening this next Saturday and Sunday, September 3 and 4.

Beckham, Stephen Dow. Land of the Umpqua: A History of Douglas County, Oregon. Roseburg, OR: Douglas County Commissioners, 1986.

COMMENT

HBC Outpost Ready for Celebration

the fort 2 (2)Nestled on the bank of Oregon’s Umpqua River, this replica of the British Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Umpqua will come to life in a couple of weeks for the annual Fort Umpqua Days celebration at Elkton. The event will run all day Saturday and Sunday, September 3 and 4, and I’ll have a booth there to sell my books.

Fort Vancouver Big HouseJust last month I stepped into the historic past of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s western headquarters at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, touring the commander’s house, shown at left, among other structures there. So I see this Umpqua outpost with new perspective.

I’ve attended Fort Umpqua Days celebrations every year since I returned to the family farm near Elkton in 2009, joined the writing team for the event’s pageants, and had a booth the last two years there to sell my first book A Place of Her Own. Still, I feel a difference this year after my event at Fort Vancouver in July where I presented my new book The Shifting Winds, which has many scenes at that HBC headquarters.

Before the Fort Vancouver event I wrote a series of posts for this blog called “The TRUE Shifting Winds,” giving an overview of history leading to the days of my book and the fort’s part in it. Fort Umpqua doesn’t appear in the story, but for me the enhanced sense of Hudson’s Bay Company history wraps Fort Umpqua into the fold.

622.John McLoughlin Daguerreotype - creditDr. John McLoughlin, shown at right, commanded the efforts of the British HBC fur trading empire in the Oregon Country and had been at Fort Vancouver only a year or so when he decided to push south through the Umpqua basin with brigades of trappers.

Those expeditions into the southern region became annual events–and rather colorful. Author John A. Hussey quotes Editor Alice Bay Maloney in describing them:

At the head of the brigade rode the leader, a chief trader [or clerk] of the Hudson’s Bay Company, astride a strong limbed Nez Perce horse and armed to the teeth with the best weapons of the day. Directly behind him rode his Indian wife gaily attired in the finest London broadcloth, with a wide-brimmed, feather-trimmed hat atop her wealth of long, shining black hair…. All the men were clad in deerskin….

Hussey adds a description of the brigade by an unnamed priest who wasn’t quite as impressed: “‘The brigade,’ he wrote, ‘is a hideous assemblage of persons of both sexes, devoid of principles and morals,’ and possessed of ‘revolting exteriors.'”

In any case it was during one of these expeditions that members of the brigade selected a site on the Umpqua River they thought would be a good outpost for trade with the local tribes. McLoughlin, concerned about competition from American trappers, wanted to clear the area of beaver and establish a strong foothold.

434.fort umpqua interiorThe Hudson’s Bay Company built Fort Umpqua in 1836, and it served the Company well for more than a decade, even after the boundary settlement between Britain and the United States gave the land to the U.S. in 1846.

The photo at left shows the interior of the reconstructed Fort Umpqua with the HBC flag flying again.

In the next two weeks I’ll write a few more posts about the Hudson’s Bay Company trade in the Oregon Country and about the reconstruction of their southern outpost as the Fort Umpqua Days celebration nears.

Hussey, John A. Champoeg: Place of Transition. Portland, OR: Oregon Historical Society, 1967.
Maloney, Alice Bay (ed.). Fur Brigade to the Bonaventura, John Works California Expedition, 1832-1833 … San Francisco, CA, 1945.

COMMENT

Book Event Explores a Living Past

Story and tangible history came together when the Friends of Fort Vancouver and the National Park Service hosted me for a book event at the remarkable re-creation of the historic Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, Fort Vancouver.

Fort Event Big GunThe event highlighted the actual reconstructed fort with a tour led by Dr. Robert Cromwell, Chief Ranger and Archaeologist, speaking behind the big gun here. Two large cannons stand in front of the elegant Big House, home of the fort’s commander in the days of my book, The Shifting Winds. During the tour I offered a few words on certain scenes from the book which took place at the fort in 1842 and 1843. I’m in the white hat. Photo by Robin Loznak.

The tour brought us into the fort’s living history, and Dr. Cromwell was great. I love this place that makes the past live. I feel a deep connection because my first visit here years ago inspired me to write The Shifting Winds, and making the past live is what I try to do with my historical novels.

Fort Event FlowersDr. Cromwell talked about the impression the house would have made on its 19th century visitors, such a grand structure with its expensive white paint and the big guns facing the front gate, although he noted the guns were spiked so couldn’t fire.

Nevertheless, the effect was no doubt intended to show the power of this British fur trading company that essentially ruled over Oregon at the time of my story.

I took the picture at left to show the grapevines draped over the Big House veranda on this July day and the bright flowers in front. You can also see part of the arbor in the top photo. On my previous visit in March the canes were bare, and no flowers yet bloomed. Now huge clusters of grapes hang from these lush vines.

Photos taken of the original Big House in 1860 let researchers know that grapevines twined around metal trellises on the veranda that extends across the entire front of the house.

Fort Vancouver Big House (2)The thumbnail at right shows the house during my March visit before the greenery leafed out. Quite a change, and probably effective for the south-facing house. In winter when they needed more light the leafless vines let the sun come in, but in summer the leaves provided cooling shade.

Our tour proceeded inside the house so the group could see additional settings of the story and learn more about the fort. Then we moved on to the Indian Trade Store and the Fur Store warehouse to get an idea of the real purpose of this fort. The Hudson’s Bay Company officers and employees may have appreciated the protection of the picketed stockade, but the fort never served as a military post for them. The Company came for the furs, particularly beaver, purely a business venture. But it could be a cutthroat business as they competed against the Americans, who also held an interest in the territory.

Fort Event Ranger & meThe tour ended up at the New Office, above, the closest thing to the setting where my character Alan Radford would have worked. The clerk Alan lived and worked in the Old Office, which hasn’t been reconstructed yet. While Dr. Cromwell looked on, I talked about the scene where Alan invites protagonist Jennie to see his workplace during the Christmas Ball at the fort. Through a bit of byplay between these characters, I slip a little information into the story that gives the reader an idea how the fort functioned and how very isolated they were in this wilderness. Photo by Robin Loznak.

Fort Event Lecture 5 (2)My lecture at the Visitor Center featured photos related to the story, this one showing Fort Hall, another reconstructed fort that became a landmark on the Oregon Trail. My thanks to Ranger and Guide Emily Orvis for setting up the AV tech equipment so it all rolled smoothly, and thanks to my son-in-law Robin Loznak for handling the individual photos while I talked. This shot of me was taken by Benjamin Capps with my camera.

Fort Event Mary & meAfter my talk, Mary Rose, Executive Director of the Friends of Fort Vancouver, surprised me with a bag of thoughtful gifts, from a lovely turtle pin that memorializes the Native American label for the fort area as the “place of the mud turtles,” to Jacobsen sea salt from Oregon’s cold waters at Netarts Bay, to a Russian nesting doll acknowledging Vancouver’s many Russian immigrants, a little stuffed beaver representing the target of the 19th century fur traders, and a 100th anniversary pin commemorating the 100-year birthday of the National Park Service that maintains the site. What a delightful gesture! Photo by Benjamin Capps.

Fort Event Signing 4I arrived early, well before planned activities, which worked out. Tourists were stopping by and several bought my books, even some that hadn’t come for the event, and they were pleased to get personalized signed copies. My thanks to Sales Assistant Madya Panfilio for her enthusiasm in recommending my work. Official signing came after the lecture. Photo at left by Robin Loznak.

Mary Rose also asked me to sign additional books, which are available in the Visitor Center Bookstore.

Mary was the one who arranged my presentation at Fort Vancouver. When she learned about my book The Shifting Winds, she immediately became interested. She read the book, appreciated the accuracy and the story, and discussions led to Saturday’s presentation.

Many thanks to Mary for organizing such a wonderful event. She and the staff at the Visitor Center and the fort did a terrific job. Thanks to them all.

As my grandson Alex said, “They rolled out the red carpet for you, Grandma.” Yes, they did.

Everyone made it a wonderful day and I am most grateful.

COMMENT

The TRUE Shifting Winds ~ 6: Making the Past Live

My presentation in the Visitor Center at Fort Vancouver is just two days away, Saturday, July 16, and with this post I will close out the “TRUE Shifting Winds” series. The event starts at 2 pm, when I’ll give a talk while showing photos related to my book and the fort. I’ll do a couple of short readings from the book, selected from scenes at the fort, and after some Q&A, sign books.

The Visitor Center bookstore will have copies of The Shifting Winds for sale, and also my first book, A Place of Her Own, the story of my own great-great grandmother who came west over the Oregon Trail.

Following the signing I’ll invite attendees to go down to the fort where I’ll lead a tour of places that appear in The Shifting Winds, accompanied by Mary Rose, Executive Director of the Friends of Fort Vancouver. There’s a small fee to get into this National Park Service site, or if you have your own pass, that will work too. If you’re in the vicinity I hope you’ll join us for this walk into the past.

A Reconstructed Fort

Making the past live. Isn’t that what historical novelists do? Make the past live? We try. So we have something in common with those who worked so hard to bring structures and their contents back to life at Fort Vancouver. Even staff members put on the garb and help draw visitors back to an earlier time. And the rangers tell the old stories, like bards.

Fort Vancouver Big House (2)We historical novelists tell the old stories through the eyes of our fictional and sometimes historic characters. For my part I’ll refer you to my book, The Shifting Winds, with its scenes in the Big House shown above, the Old Office, and the Bachelor’s Quarters, as well as the fort grounds and the dark orchard behind the stockade on a cold night.

Here in my post I offer photos taken on my recent visit to the fort—for illustration—with a little text and tidbits of history to enliven them.

The Big House

Ft.Vanc.Big House Front (3)The preservation team didn’t have blueprints for the house. They knew what the outside looked like from pictures, but for the inside their only clues were snippets of descriptions and comparisons with managers’ houses at other HBC forts, plus the remains found by archeologists–footings, the base of the chimney, evidence of a cellar which probably held the oft mentioned wine and spirits served in the Mess Hall.

Ft.Vanc.Dining longGentlemen of the fort ate in the dining room in the Big House, generally called the Mess Hall, making this the center of business as well as social life. Everyone welcomed the arrival of visitors who brought news from other places, breaking the monotony of this isolated post. Many guests–distinguished and not–enjoyed the fine fare, even including soft loaf bread from the fort bakery, along with vegetables from the gardens, game from the hills, fish from the river, and eventually beef when herds grew large enough.

Fort Vancouver Kitchen (2)The well-stocked kitchen stood behind the house, connected by a passageway but separate for fire safety.

Gentlemen maintained careful military etiquette as to rank, although Chief Factor McLoughlin could use his discretion to make allowances for some, especially Americans, whose rank might be obscure. The officers of the fort offered the finest hospitality to keep visitors there as long as possible, although some of the gentlemen in the Bachelor’s Quarters, or even the office, might have to give up their rooms to house the guests.

613.Ft.Vanc.McLoughlin Sitting RoomThe McLoughlin sitting room, shown above, would be the place where Mrs. McLoughlin took her meals, sometimes with family and friends. Female guests with some status stayed in the Big House, like protagonist Jennie in my story, and she would have eaten her meals here with Mrs. McLoughlin. Only if the doctor missed mealtime in the Mess Hall might he join them. Update: The reconstructed house also has a small dining room for the women on the east side, which would have provided another option for them, but they would not eat in the Mess Hall with the men. That was strictly a male sanctuary.

Most of the women, like Marguerite McLoughlin were at least half Native American. Her mother was Cree. The women wore European dress, but with moccasins and deerskin leggings for riding gentleman fashion, that is, astride.

People who saw the McLoughlin’s together often commented on the fondness they showed for each other, although some had trouble accepting fur trade marriages. One man made such a fuss, McLoughlin struck him with his gold-headed cane, later apologizing for his outburst. Soon afterward McLoughlin insisted on a civil marriage, and when he later returned to his Catholic faith, the couple was married again in a Catholic ceremony–by then thoroughly wed.

Johnson in his book John McLoughlin comments: “The deference that Mr. McLoughlin showed to his wife in public was the envy of all American wives, who lost no time in citing him to their husbands as an example worthy of emulation.”

Ft.Vanc.Douglas Sitting RoomMcLoughlin’s second-in-command, James Douglas, lived in the other half of the Big House at the time. The rich red of this room is based on a later detailed study conducted to determine the actual colors of rooms at the fort. Researchers perused books on the subject, visited other forts and inspected bits of painted wood and brick dug up by archeologists on the individual building sites.

In their 2003 report they explain that this red was found on the east side of the building historically considered the side where the Douglas family lived. So the Douglas sitting room was painted red, a color gaining new popularity at the time.

Beige painted scraps were found on the opposite side, leading to the painting of the McLoughlin sitting room beige, a more conservative color, perhaps reflecting the doctor’s preference. The most common color found was green toward the back of the house, and that was interpreted as an appropriate color for the Mess Hall, the largest room on the main floor. Chair rails were common with the top sometimes painted the same as the bottom, sometimes not. Ceilings were usually white.

Ft.Vanc.McL BedroomBedrooms tended to be in soft, pale colors.

Ft.Vanc.McL OfficeDr. McLoughlin’s personal office, shown above, could be accessed from the McLoughlin sitting room, continuing the same rug design and wall color. His office can also be accessed from the main entryway of the house, on your left as you step in the door. A steep staircase rises directly ahead of the front door.

Some question arose as to the location of the ballroom cited in a number of writings of the time. One remarked: “had a ball in evening upstairs.” Could that have been the Mess Hall, up the long curving outdoor staircase to the veranda? Or would it be upstairs in the ample space between the main floor and the structure’s high roof? The Mess Hall could be the location of parties. Or perhaps a large hall in the long Bachelor’s Quarters.

Hussey in his report seems to lean toward the second story, despite the apparent lack of windows, and I happily adopted the site for the Christmas Ball. Unfortunately that room isn’t open to the public. Still, I had no trouble imagining it. Who needs much description of a vast room when you have candlelight and violin music and swirling dancers in grand ball gowns and dress coats and sparkling eyes?

The Bachelor’s Quarters

This long structure hasn’t been reconstructed yet, so I’ll let my character Jake give you a word picture for that from the pages of The Shifting Winds:

ShiftingWinds cover jpegJake glanced around the stark little room a Company officer had been compelled to give up for him. Company gentlemen might dress well, but they didn’t live so well. A small bed, a simple chest of drawers, a tiny table with a box for a chair, one trunk. That was it for furnishings. A few mementos hung on the walls—tomahawks, feathers, carvings, a couple of paintings.

Like most of the fort buildings, the Bachelor’s Quarters were constructed in the Canadian post-on-sill fashion with sills of heavy, square-sawn timbers lying horizontally between upright grooved posts. Not a bit of paint on the unlined walls. But they did have glass windows.

He peered through the glass at the Big House where they were holding tonight’s party.

The Office

As noted in my last post, only the New Office has been reconstructed, although the Old Office may yet be built because it still stood on the fort grounds in 1845, even after they completed the new. The clerks couldn’t move into the new one because the captain of a visiting ship had taken up residence there.

Fort Vancouver New Office seen from Big HouseThe New Office can be seen now from the veranda of the Big House, but another building would have partially blocked the view.

The office was the domain of my character, the handsome clerk Alan Radford. I have a scene there when he invites protagonist Jennie to see where he works, offering her a glimpse of his life. He might have worked at a desk like the one, below left, part of the furnishings in the reconstructed New Office. Another brief word picture from The Shifting Winds:

Ft.Vanc.Second Office high desk (2)“So,” Alan said with a sweeping gesture to embrace the room, “my quarters, my place of work, and the hub of business at Fort Vancouver. What do you think?”

Caught up in his enthusiasm, she laughed. “It looks very . . . businesslike.”

Stark, but neat and orderly, the room had only two tall desks surrounded with several tall stools, the desks piled with books and ledgers and paper tidily stacked, ink bottles and rulers and pens beside them. . . .

Alan took her arm and led her to one of the desks. Laying a hand on the desktop, he gave her a warm smile. “My desk. I spend a lot of time here.” He lifted a large black book and handed it to her. “Journals. We have to keep daily journals of everything that happens around here—what the men are doing, what the weather is like, who comes and goes.” He raised his brows, eyes alight. “You yourself will be in here, my dear. . . . You know, we almost have to see into the future here when we make our indents.”

“What are indents?”

“Our requests for supplies. The whole process takes so long that—well . . . here it is the end of 1842, and the lists we make now are for the year 1846.”

“Really? Why?”

His eyes smiled, and he swept one arm wide, his voice suddenly charged with drama. “It pleases me you want hear of my travails, m’lady.”

She laughed at his pretense and went along with it. “Kind sir, I want to know everything about you.”

“Ooh. That’s rich. Are you quite sure, m’lady, that you want to know it all?”

More Glimpses of the Past

Ft.Vanc.From VerandaFrom the front door of the Big House you can look out on the working Blacksmith Shop at left and the well-stocked Indian Trade Store, straight ahead. Interiors below.

Ft.Vanc.the BlacksmithFt.Vanc.Store

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As noted in the previous post the Indian Trade Store was moved to this location sometime after my story. At the time of my story it was located across the grounds to the west. Update: Or maybe not. During the Saturday tour with Dr. Bob Cromwell, Chief Ranger and Archeologist, Dr. Cromwell said that the Indian Trade Store had already moved to this new location by the time of my story. Hussey puts the changeover as “sometime between July 1841 and December 1844.” With my story landing right in the middle I had interpreted the location to be as it was in 1841. The reconstruction, set at 1845, could easily locate it for their purposes.

Ft.Vanc.WarehouseThe Fur Store, shown above, stands on that spot today. Update: The Fur Store may have already been in this location at the time of my story (see above).

These are some of the places we’ll see on Saturday when we tour the post, getting a glimpse into a past where people from my book walked, while stepping on ground where a historic character from the book actually trod, the fascinating Dr. John McLoughlin. And so through the creation of story and re-creation of this wonderful fort we endeavor to make the past live.

Thank you for joining me here. If you can, I hope you’ll join me at the fort.

Sources:

Fisher, Janet. The Shifting Winds. Guilford, CT, Helena, MT: TwoDot, Globe Pequot Press, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
Hussey, John A. Historical Structures Report Historical Data, Vol. I and II. Denver Service Center, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1972, 1976.
Johnson, Robert C. John McLoughlin: “Father of Oregon.” Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1958.
Langford, Theresa, Scott Langford, and David K. Hansen. Paint at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site: Historical and Archaeological References for Interpretation and Reconstruction. Vancouver, WA: Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, 2003.

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The TRUE Shifting Winds ~ 5: Digging Up the Past

I first visited Fort Vancouver some years ago to research a short segment for one of my early attempts at an Oregon Trail novel, and the place put me right back in time. I was so inspired by the authentic reproduction of this historic fort I knew I had to write another book with more scenes set there. That became The Shifting Winds, which I’m honored to be presenting at the fort this Saturday, July 16, at 2 pm.

In this post I want to talk about how this wonderful reconstruction came to be.

Archaeology and Record Keepers

The British Hudson’s Bay Company chose a location on the north bank of the Columbia River for their western headquarters in the Oregon Country because they felt optimistic about Britain holding land on that side of the river once London and Washington agreed on a boundary between the two nations. But in 1824 when Dr. John McLoughlin and his boss Governor George Simpson selected the site, enough uncertainty hung over the region that they didn’t want to make a huge investment.

Also unsure of the friendliness of the local tribes, they erected the first palisade walls about a mile inland, creating a simple fur trading post on a bluff about a mile from the river with bastions on at least two corners, ready to defend themselves against attack.

Several events came together to change their perspective. First, the joint occupancy treaty of 1818 between the British and the United States was extended indefinitely in 1827. The Native Americans proved to be agreeable traders, and the distance from the river proved to be a bloody nuisance.

Ft.Vanc.stockadeSo in 1828 they pulled up stakes, literally, and moved the whole thing a mile closer to the river to the spot where the reconstructed fort lies today.

Christened in 1829, the new fort would serve the Company for many years. But it didn’t remain static. It kept changing over time like a living, breathing organism that sloughs off old skin while growing new. The fort walls kept moving.

The fort doubled in size by 1836. Apparently the officers found their space too small. They would expand again, moving the south wall farther out—and the east wall—again.

Buildings changed. The first Big House in the original west half began to sag until someone described its condition as so dilapidated it was ready to fall down around them. They rebuilt a new Big House in the east half where you can see it reconstructed today.

So why the reconstruction? Why did the original disappear? And why the constant change?

In short, wood rots—especially in a place where rain soaks the land for more than half the year. And little critters move in to feed on wood fiber.

Constant maintenance was required, and sometimes they just tore down buildings and constructed new. They continually replaced rotting pickets in the stockade and repaired leaky roofs. When the British finally lost the land on which the fort stood—as you must know they did—the Hudson’s Bay Company was allowed to stay on for a while, but they soon began moving the bulk of their business to Fort Victoria. London and Washington had finally agreed on a border in 1846, drawing the line along the 49th parallel, well north of Fort Vancouver, although giving the British Victoria along with the entirety of Vancouver Island.

By 1860 the Company abandoned the fort and the United States Army assumed control. But they found most of the buildings unsuitable for their purposes and in dilapidated condition. In a few years rot and fire destroyed what was left.

Ft.Vanc.Report (2)Yet some historians did not forget. And in the 1940s the National Park Service began exploring the possibility of reconstruction. If they were going to do it they wanted to do it right.

On my first visit to the reconstructed fort in the 1980s a curator there loaned me these two large volumes of a “Historic Structures Report” by John A. Hussey and the historic preservation team. The volumes described the detailed research that went into this re-creation, a wealth of information. When I called about returning the volumes, the curator told me that if I continued to find them useful I should keep them because they had plenty of copies. What a boon to my research!

Now of course the report is online, offering a glimpse of the magnitude of the project. But I have spent many hours poring over the printed books.

Ft.Vanc.Dining 2 (2)As early as 1947 National Park Service archeologists dug into the soil to find footings of buildings and remains of those moving walls at their various locations. They found tools, pottery, even Spode china on the site of the Big House–something in blue on white, perhaps to match these on display in the Big House dining hall, or Mess Hall, like the one at right. Meanwhile, researchers looked into records. The Hudson’s Bay Company, still a functioning business in the UK, generously opened their remarkable archives for this study. The British had kept detailed records.

Researchers were also given access to similar HBC posts, now in Canada, and those were studied and photographed for comparison. The Company tended to follow similar plans from one fort to another, so those helped in decisions about the finer points.

Books written in the day offered observations of the fort. Libraries across the United States and Canada held useful tidbits. Many fort visitors wrote about their impressions, sometimes drawing detailed sketches and maps. These were often dated and helped show the constant rearrangements going on over the fort’s life. Researchers scrutinized maps, drawings, every descriptive statement they could find. Much of that went into this report, along with bits of story that add flavor.

Warre Lithograph-1The above lithograph was based on a water color by Henry J. Warre painted during his 1845 visit. My thanks to Meagan Huff, assistant curator at the fort, for sending me this copy from the National Park Service collection. She pointed out a change the artists in London made to Warre’s original. Perhaps wanting the image more colorful they replaced the original figures in the foreground with Native Americans, but in Plains tribe dress, not realizing that these tribes did not frequent the area.

Warre water color (2)Warre gave us the characters at left. Perhaps shepherds? Or voyageurs?

Because the fort changed so much from year to year, the preservation team needed to pick a date, and they decided to reconstruct to the year 1845. That’s close to the date of my novel, which has scenes at the fort in 1842 and 1843. So as I read the report I had to make careful distinctions between the 1845 fort I saw and the 1842 fort I would describe.

For instance, in one scene Dr. McLoughlin and my fictional clerk Alan walk across the grounds from the Big House to the Indian Trade Store in the western courtyard. Today you’ll find that store on the east side, almost straight across from the Big House, a short walk. But in 1842 that store was over in the western side where the Fur Store stands today. A longer stroll.

Perhaps the most conspicuous difference would be the bastion you can see in Warre’s 1845 image above. There was no bastion in 1842, so you won’t find reference to a bastion in the book. But I have shown it in blog and Facebook posts because it looks so fort-like. Fort Vancouver was more trading post and supply depot than fortress. Caution required walls but not big guns.

Ft.Vanc.Bastion 3.15.16 (2)The bastion went up in 1844, not because of danger, but because of protocol. Hussey relays the story in the report. A ship sailed up the Columbia in 1844 and offered a  7-gun salute. But the fort couldn’t answer the salute because they had no cannons mounted for action. Although they’d put up bastions on the old fort, they hadn’t bothered with a bastion in the new fort, things being so peaceful.

But not to be able to answer a salute—well, that just wouldn’t do. So they built one. And given the troublesome nature of some of the pesky Americans coming into the country it seemed a good idea anyway.

Another change was the New Office, built in 1845 to replace the Old Office. The Old Office was one of the oldest buildings of the fort, the first thing constructed, given its function so vital to the fort’s purpose. That Old Office still served the fort in 1845, because the new one offered temporary living quarters for a ship captain who stayed on for a while, adding excitement for the gentlemen with his many parties in the new structure. This New Office, or “Counting House” as it was sometimes called, has been reconstructed. The Old Office has not, although perhaps one day it will be. It stood close by its replacement at least until 1847 when the good captain departed. The old building with its dark exterior shows clearly in a water color sketch drawn in 1846 or 1847.

The fort required considerable bookkeeping. Clerks like my fictional Alan Radford generally entered service through apprenticeship, nearly all of them from Britain. Because of the many applicants, family connections helped. These clerks were usually well educated and knew some accounting beforehand. The Company wanted reliable, loyal clerks working in the office, men who would be discreet and keep Company business confidential. These accounting clerks held one of the better paid jobs for gentlemen at the fort.

I took particular interest in the office, given that Alan is a major player in my book. Other buildings of special interest to me were the Big House where Jennie stays during her visit for the Christmas Ball and where the ball takes place, and the Bachelor’s Quarters where American mountain man Jake Johnston stays, having joined the party for his own reasons. Accountants like Alan lived in the office, but most clerks lived in the Bachelor’s Quarters, a long building divided into multiple rooms or apartments. And when gentlemen came to visit, the clerks often got bumped to accommodate the visitors.

However, Alan appeared none too pleased when McLoughlin allowed Jake a room in the Bachelor’s Quarters. When Jennie asked Jake what was wrong with Alan, Jake grinned.

“Well,” he said, “it’s only gentlemen who are allowed to stay inside the fort, and I don’t think Radford considers me a gentleman.”

She wasn’t sure Jake was a gentleman either, but she was surprised at the rigidity.

The Bachelor’s Quarters have not been reconstructed yet either, but the report offers excellent detail.

Fisher, Janet. The Shifting Winds. Guilford, CT, Helena, MT: TwoDot, Globe Pequot Press, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
Hussey, John A. Historical Structures Report Historical Data, Vol. I and II. Denver Service Center, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1972, 1976.

Next: Making the Past Live

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