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A Look Back at Vancouver History

On March 19, 1825, voyageurs of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the great British fur trading concern, under the leadership of Governor Geo. Simpson and Chief Factor John McLoughlin broke a bottle of rum on a flagstaff and hoisted the Union Jack in the breeze.

There was nothing very unique or original in the process. The same thing had been done in dozens of out-flung places here the might English lion had stretched its paws. Trees from which to make the flagstaffs were plentiful. There was always a supply of extra flags on hand. And as for rum, the Hudson’s Bay people seemed to have monopoly on this phase of the exploration business.

But as it so often happens, big events were to grow out of the modest beginning. For the infant that was awakened by the tinkling of the broken rum flask was destined to take a dominant role in the melodrama that started with a toast to the king of England and ended in three cheers for the stars and stripes.

The object of this christening ceremony was what was afterwards to become the city of Vancouver, the oldest permanent settlement in the state of Washington.

In his official report to London, Governor Simpson said: “At sunrise I mustered all the people to place the flagstaff of the new establishment and in the presence of the gentlemen, servants, chiefs, and Indians, I baptized it, by breaking a bottle of rum on the flag-staff and repeating the following words in a loud voice: – ‘In behalf of the Honorable Hudson’s Bay Company, I hereby name this establishment Fort Vancouver! God Save King George the Fourth!’ The object of naming it after that distinguished navigator, Captain Vancouver, is to identify our claim to the soil and trade with his discovery of the rive and coast on behalf of Great Britain.”

So Fort Vancouver was founded with a double purpose; first, to serve as a trading post for the Hudson’s Bay company; second, to establish Great Britain’s claim on the Northwest territory.

It was fortunate for the United States, paradoxical though it may seem that England did establish this foothold in the wilderness. From its very inception, Fort Vancouver became a haven for American settlers. Emigrants to this territory first came to Fort Vancouver; from there they branched out in every direction.

A history of early Vancouver is a history of John McLoughlin, its chief factor for two decades. The “great white eagle,” invested with autocratic powers, stern, just and merciful, reigned supreme until he was forced to resign because of his friendliness with the Americans. During that period, thanks to McLoughlin’s humanity, American settlers were never in want of succor and it was largely because of this kindly sympathy they were able to establish a permanent hold on the Oregon country and claim it for the United States when the Treaty of Joint Occupation was ended in 1846.

Although the appellation “Fort” was largely a misnomer and the Hudson’s Bay establishment was in reality but a peaceful trading post, those early British took no chances of parting with their scalps and erected a rude stockade, 20 feet high, entirely surrounded by a ditch twelve feet wide and eight feet deep. This most was filled with water and spanned by a bridge, which was carefully taken up at nightfall until it became apparent that the Indians would do no harm.

It was in this forest castle that much of the early history of Washington began. It was here that John McLoughlin kindly received emigrant parties from the east, or visiting chieftains from the near by tribes. And on Christmas Eve in the large banquet hall the chief factor would break his long standing custom and regale his guests with the famous Hudson’s Bay rum – probably some of the same beverage with which the post was christened.

From these headquarters radiated the pathways of civilization throughout the Northwest. Orders to establish new posts and for direction of existing ones emanated in Fort Vancouver. The Hudson’s Bay company, branching out in all directions, especially towards the north and east, controlled the destinies of such places a Spokane, Walla Walla, Fort Simpson and Victoria. The Reverend Marcus Whitman left Fort Vancouver to establish his mission east of the mountains. The Reverend Jason Lee, the first minister to preach a sermon at Fort Vancouver, left from there in 1834 to form a settlement in the Willamette valley. Michael T. Simmons and his party, who founded Tumwater near Olympia in 1845, used Fort Vancouver as the base of operations.

Those early days, with the travail of hewing out a town in the wilderness, were lonely and hard ones. The appearance of a sailing vessel bearing news and supplies from “home” was the signal for a holiday and a period of celebration. One of those memorable days occurred in the spring of 1826. Among the party that landed from the boat was a young man by the name of Aemillius M. Simpson.

Saluting Chief Factor McLoughlin, he handed him a small package containing apple-seeds, which his sweetheart had given him at a farewell banquet in London with instructions to have them planted in the Northwest wilderness. McLoughlin laughed heartily at the story and the next day planted the “love-seeds” not far from the riverbank. A tree sprang up and is still standing today. It is located in the present military reservation and a fence has been built around it by the military authorities. This romantic story was told by Dr. McLoughlin himself and was recorded in the journals of Mrs. Marcus Whitman.

Up until 1842, conditions at Fort Vancouver were peaceful and prosperous. Although Dr. McLoughlin assisted the emigrants to make permanent settlements, he used his influence to establish them south of the Columbia River. A rough census taken in 1839 showed only 151 Americans in the entire territory and of these only a few were located north of the Columbia.

But by this time legends of the Oregon country “rolling in milk and honey” had reached the east and a wholesale immigration followed. Between 1842 and 1845 several thousand settlers had reached the Columbia River. Most of them stopped at Fort Vancouver to enjoy the hospitality of McLoughlin. Despite the strict injunctions from headquarters to discourage American settlers, McLoughlin did not have the heart to refuse assistance. He provided shelter and food, loaned money from his own personal fund and in short, earned for himself the title of the “Father of Oregon.”

This was too bitter a dose for the Hudson’s Bay officials. They reprimanded McLoughlin for his leniency. He sent them a spirited reply defending his actions and after a lengthy correspondence in which the Hudson’s Bay governor commanded McLoughlin to no longer assist needy immigrants, or help any other immigrants, Dr. McLoughlin replied: “Gentlemen, if such is your order, I will serve no longer.”

So passed John McLoughlin from Vancouver’s history. His resignation, given in 1845 took effect in 1846. His successor as chief factor was Peter Skene Ogden, a zealous redcoat. He industriously followed the company’s orders to exclude Americans from the north of the Columbia.

It was on Christmas day, 1845 that Amos and Esther Short and their eight children landed at Fort Vancouver. That was before McLoughlin had left and the little trading post was still hospitable to travelers. A short time later, after having in the meantime explored a portion of the Willamette Valley for a suitable farm, the Shorts came back and located a donation land claim in the wilderness near the fort. Thus the city of Vancouver really began, although to the Shorts this tract of land was just a place to raise potatoes, and to the British a claim to be looked on with suspicion and resentment.

Its eastern boundary, marked by a balm of Gilead tree on the banks of the Columbia River, was one day to become Main Street. Then nothing but forests existed except near the western boundary of the square mile claim where level bottomland afforded an opportunity to raise crops.

Hardly before the British were aware of their neighbors, the Shorts had erected a log cabin. The Hudson’s Bay officials although they had no legal right to evict settlers from this territory, said the eastern boundary of the Short farm encroached on their property. They had become so accustomed to having their word taken as law that these cocky Americans dumb-founded them. Since Fort Vancouver was founded, no American settler had dared to take a land claim in that vicinity. And now the Shorts had calmly moved in – closely following McLoughlin’s ejection because of his friendliness with the Americans.

Naturally there was trouble. The first fracas came while the father was away. Esther Short and her children were loaded on a boat by the British and taken across the river where they were told to stay. A good joke, that! As if these pioneers who had braved all the dangers of a cross-continent journey could be discouraged by a little incident of this nature.

They came back immediately. But so did the British. Catching the family unaware, they loaded them on a scow without a single oar and cast them adrift on the Columbia. That wasn’t so good, the Shorts had to admit, but they were all the more determined to stand by their guns. And when they returned to their farm the second time, they did just exactly that. Amos thereafter kept his rifle handy.

When the Hudson’s Bay men came down again, he took the four or five men who were working for him and went forth to meet the British in what has been called the “Battle of Vancouver Homestead.” Short ordered his enemies to keep off his land but they disregarded his warnings and shooting followed. Two men were killed, Short was in legal battles after that to save his life, but he won. A territorial judge is reported to have told him. “The only trouble I find with you, Short, is that you didn’t shoot more of them.”

But while the father was away at court another expedition of Hudson’s Bay men, under the leadership of Francis Facette, and adventurous French-Canadian, was sent to tear down the rail fences the Shorts had so laboriously erected. Like a modern Joan of Arc going forth to battle, Esther Short met the Britishers. Strong and sturdy that she was, she struck Facette with the open palm of her hand and the French-Canadian found himself on the ground. The would-be raiders went back convinced that here was too brave a mother to be evicted. The Shorts were not bothered by the British after that as the boundary treaty had been signed and the Hudson’s Bay headquarters were moved to Victoria although they still retained possession of the holdings in Vancouver.

In 1853 Amos Short was drowned near the Columbia River bay while returning from California where he had taken a shipment of potatoes. Thereafter the intrepid mother carried out the work of founding a city alone. Meantime more land was being cleared and more settlers were coming. In 1855 Mrs. Short platted the city of Vancouver, donated Esther Short Park and also a long strip of waterfront to be the city’s perpetually. There she died in 1855, leaving what was to become one of the leading cities in Southwestern Washington as her monument.

Thus was the inception of the city of Vancouver. The very factor that made it the oldest settlement in the state – the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay headquarters – prevented its development until comparatively recent times. Until the trading company finally abandoned its attempts to preserve a wilderness favorable to the propagation of fur-bearing animals and to hold the territory for England little could be done to develop a real city. Even after the Hudson’s Bay people had left, the title to much of the land was in dispute. The military authorities, who laid out Vancouver Barracks just north of old Fort Vancouver, claimed a large part of the territory as their reservation, and development was held up pending the settlement of that issue.

Just as Vancouver was the cradle of the Pacific Northwest, so was it the “cradle” of some of the great military figures in history. Colonel W. W. Loring, who was named as the first commander at Vancouver Barracks, enlisted with the Confederates during the Civil War where he became a major general. After the close of the war he plied his talents abroad becoming commander in chief of the Egyptian army, such as it was.

Colonel B. L. Bonneville later a brigadier general and made famous by Washington Irving, was really the founder of the present reservation. It was he who made the first survey and laid out the plans and specifications. Bonneville was here from 1851 until 1855 and during that time two young men each of whose fame was to exceed his, were under his command.

In 1927 a historical marker was erected near the spot where a man who was later to become president of the United States cultivated potatoes. That man was Ulysses S. Grant who came to Vancouver in 1852 as a first lieutenant. A first lieutenant’s pay wasn’t anything to brag about and as at that time tubers were almost worth their weight in gold. Grant conceived the idea of going into the production and export business. Unfortunately the river went on a rampage and washed his potato crop into the Pacific Ocean. Grant was there until 1853 when he was transferred to a post in California.

Dashing Phil Sheridan, himself, was the other young man stationed at the fort under Bonneville. Sheridan then was only a second lieutenant but he showed the spirit that later made him famous by commanding a detachment of relief troops that rescued some settlers from the Indians near the Cascades, fifty miles up the river.

G. B. McClellan, a captain then, but later the commander-in-chief of the northern armies in the Civil War, surveyed and laid out a military road between Vancouver and Olympia. This was really the beginning of the pacific highway and was intended to connect the Puget Sound district with Columbia River region.

It was also at Vancouver that Lieutenant-General Winfield Scott, W. T. Sherman, Alfred Pleasanton, E. O. C. Ford, John E. Wood, George Crook, O. O. Howard, Nelson A. Miles, John Gibbon, Elwell S. Otis and Frederick Funston served the flag.

General W. S. Harney, whose name struck terror among the Indians, was in command from 1857 to 1859 when the last vestments of the Hudson’s Bay authority disappeared with the purchase of that company’s land and buildings by the United States government. For a quarter of a century the great British concern and held sway. During that time it had seen the founding of a pioneer settlement in what was afterwards to become the state of Washington; it had controlled the destinies of a vast territory. It had succored, through John McLoughlin, the pioneer American immigrants, and now, its period of usefulness over; it gave way to the Stars and Stripes.