Starting in the late 1600’s, the Hudson Bay Company was commissioned by King Charles II to explore, administer, and find ways to exploit much of North America. Their domain was defined to be the entire drainage basin of the Hudson Bay (most of eastern and central present-day Canada) but they eventually grew and stretched out beyond the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean. They were the big bosses throughout the northlands and they had the full backing of the most powerful ocean-going military in the world.
In the Pacific Northwest, which they called their, “Columbia District,” the regional headquarters of the Hudson Bay Company was Fort Vancouver at present-day Vancouver, Washington.
During our visit to Washington State, we toured the modern-day reconstruction of Fort Vancouver and it was obvious that the men of the Hudson Bay Company had been the masters of their domain and they hadn’t been afraid to show it.
As trappers and traders approached the fort back in the early 1800s, they would have first come upon the fort’s kitchen garden – between 5 and 8 acres of land planted with everything that could possibly grow in the Pacific Northwest. It took that much land under cultivation to sustain the fort because they were so remotely located that they could not rely on ocean-going or overland supply routes.
Their gardens featured onions and corn and cardoons, oats, various lettuces, currants and hops, limes, and much more. They even had a couple of quince trees – I thought southerners were the only folks obstinate enough to figure out a way to eat quince.
Nowadays, the Fort Vancouver kitchen gardens are confined to an area of about a half-acre right in front of the main gate of the palisade. The National Park Service gardeners tend a lovely demonstration garden in which they grow samples of period plants, largely for visiting students and kids to view living vegetables, trees, and vines that were once used for food, decoration, and medication.
A buddy of mine nudged me as we walked through the gardens and asked, “Would National Park Gardener for Fort Vancouver be a dream job, or what?”
One of the most interesting crops in the garden is the tobacco. The gardener told us that they grew tobacco not to smoke, but rather to wrap packages for transport back to the Old World. They were growing tobacco specifically for the natural insecticidal properties of the nicotine. But we figure that some fraction of the crop was smoked up too.
Leaving the demonstration gardens, you enter the main gate of the 8 some-odd acre palisade and you are transported back 200 years to the heyday of the Hudson Bay Company’s Columbia District.
Today the inside of the fort is sparse, but in the early 19th century there would have been many buildings inside the palisade – mostly warehouses and barracks. Today’s reconstruction of the fort has a Counting House, a jail and a kitchen, a bastion mounted with canon, a kitchen, metalworker, carpenter, and doctor. The historic landmark frequently has Park employees in period dress manning the various buildings to give live demonstrations and answer questions.
The Counting House, where transactions were made, has a huge cast iron safe in the front room. There is a window right behind that safe looking right out over the jail.
One can just imagine some poor malefactor sweltering in the jail, shackled to the back wall, knowing that the Counting House lockbox was just out of reach. Or perhaps, having served his sentence he steps out of the jailhouse door into the sunlight and the first thing he sees is the Counting House safe with unimaginable wealth just on the other side of that window.
The most impressive of the buildings in the fort is the large, two-story Factor’s house, where the head honcho and family lived and where he and his highest-ranked subordinates ate and smoked and plotted business into the night.
The Factor house dominates the corner of the property, with a double curved, raised staircase leading down from the long front porch. The porch is shaded by mature grape vines draped across the font, like a living Venetian blind.
We joked that this must have been a favorite spot for the Factor to stand and bark out announcements and orders from the porch overlooking the locals below him. Undoubtedly, anyone speaking from that perch would demand attention, what with the grandiose house as a backdrop, and canon to his left and right.
Inside, the aroma of woodsmoke from the kitchen lingered (they must have had a demonstration recently) in the formal dining room, study, and drawing room – each preserved in minute detail, from gilt-edged China on the hand-hewn table, to the color of the paint on the drawing room walls.
In addition to being a National Park, Fort Vancouver and the surrounding area is an active archaeological site complete with an archaeology lab (disguised inside a period building.) It is here that archaeologists and students pore over buttons and coins and beads and other detritus from the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is through the efforts of these archaeologists that we know details that allow for a precise reproduction of the fort. Details like lines of beads that got away and fell between floorboards marking the orientation of buildings. The archaeologists have also found paint chips preserved behind floorboards revealing the colors that rooms were painted.
The archaeologists do not spend all of their time poring over lines of trading beads in the dirt. While we were there they were leading a group of young Scouts in archaeology experiments and exercises in the shade of a building.
They apparently have a great working relationship with student and Scout groups because another group of students from a nearby technical school has put together a three-dimensional virtual reality tour of the various buildings of the fort. You can check out their impressive virtual tour at www.nps.gov/fova/learn/photosmultimedia/fortvancouvervirtualreality.htm
Originally published in the Enterprise-Journal Newspaper