In Vancouver, Wash., Fort Vancouver National Historic Site offers fall and winter tours by lantern to re-enact a typical night among the fur traders of the 1830s and '40s.
VANCOUVER, Wash. — It was a December night, around the mid-1800s from the look of it, in a cozy candlelit parlor. I was eavesdropping on a teatime conversation between James Douglas, Fort Vancouver’s bow-tied chief trader, and Narcissa Whitman, another famed pioneer of the era. The topic: “country marriages.”
That was the euphemism of the day for pairings between local Native American women and the fort’s male employees, brought to the edge of a wild continent on contract with the fur-trading Hudson’s Bay Co.
These “marriages” — made without chapel or pastor — often lasted only as long as the man’s posting at the fort, after which he might return to his original wife and family, closer to the Atlantic.
I think I heard a “tut-tut” or two from Narcissa.
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Time travel? Of a sort. A re-enactment, actually, by costumed volunteers at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, during one of the fort’s recent lantern tours.
The guided tours, offered twice monthly October through February, offer an atmospheric look at life after sundown on a typical winter night during the fort’s heyday, in the 1830s and ’40s. Visitors carry glass-paned candle lanterns.
Look around you at modern-day Seattle and Portland and know this: A fashion trend helped start it all.
The high demand in early-19th-century London for top hats made from beaver pelts had much to do with bringing British fur traders to this corner of the continent. From 1825 to 1849, Fort Vancouver was the headquarters and supply depot for traders and trappers who fanned out across a region that today takes in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Idaho.
The reconstructed fort, on the original site near the banks of the Columbia River, is worth a visit for the story it tells of the rough-and-tumble birth of European culture in the Pacific Northwest.
National Park Service rangers manage the fort with a happy obsession for authenticity, down to using a steel striker and flint to spark a flame for the tour’s candles.
“See where our society flows from this,” urged guide Luda Leksunkin as she lit lanterns in the fort’s bakehouse, where our group of visitors gathered on cold wooden benches under a low, whitewashed ceiling to listen to a dulcimer played by a musician in period garb. “Nighttime is the best time to come here,” she said, because you forget about nearby cars, planes, trains and other modern fixtures outside the walls.
That counts, because these days this remnant of history is hemmed in by Interstate 5, busy Highway 14, a main east-west railroad line, an airfield and the towers of the Columbia’s Interstate Bridge.
All grew from this.
Into the shadows
But the modern world melted away as our guide led us out into the fort’s grassy courtyard, lit only by our flickering lanterns. A distant city glare outlined the spiky top of the dark wooden palisade.
Stops on the tour included the trading post, with a musty smell like a grandmother’s attic. Shelves held traps, china, blankets, clothing and more. “Two cotton shirts cost one beaver pelt,” Leksunkin said. Beaver pelts were the currency for all.
In the Blacksmith Shop, we watched smiths yank on a handle like a steam train’s whistle to pump a ceiling-hung bellows that made their fire roar. Then they pounded (“clang! clang! clang!”) glowing metal into the shape of an ax head.
Everything of iron and steel for the fort’s use was made here, except nails, which were manufactured in England by child labor, thus making them cheap enough to ship around Cape Horn. But to order goods from the mother country took many months.
“This was as far as you could get from England by ship (in those days),” volunteer blacksmith Craig Webster told us. “This was the farthest reach of the British Empire.”
Not until 1846 did Britain and the United States set today’s border between the Northwestern U.S. and Canada, putting the fort on Yankee soil. Washingtonians who visit the fort get a reminder: But for eager Oregon Trail settlers who swarmed westward in the 1840s to stake claim to this region, we might be singing “O Canada” at the start of Husky games.
Webster shared tricks of the trade as he deftly swapped glowing bars of iron in and out of hot coals. One rule: Heat no more than three bars at once.
“You’ve heard the expression ‘too many irons in the fire’? This is where that comes from. If you had too many, they would burn up.”
Fellow smithy Rashelle Hams asked for a volunteer to demonstrate a beaver trap made in the shop. “No, I don’t want to be a beaver!” wailed one youngster with a well-developed sense of survival. But a young girl stepped up and used a stick to poke at a trap until it snapped shut with an alarming “CLACK!”
At Fort Vancouver, that sound meant money in the bank.
Out of fashion
By shadowy candlelight, our group trooped into the fort’s kitchen, where we were as quiet as pictures on the wall as re-enactors carried on a typical 1840s conversation over evening chores. The topic: Has your family resisted the latest malaria outbreak? (It was a problem back then.)
In chief factor John McLoughlin’s stately home, we dropped in on that teatime chat in Douglas’ quarters. One of his tea partners worked on needlepoint.
Before returning to the bakehouse for hot cider served by men in top hats and frock coats, the tour wound up in the fort’s fur warehouse. Besides bales of beaver pelts lining a wall, fox skins, wolverine furs and more dangled from the ceiling as if icicles from eaves.
Leksunkin told us that American pressure eventually forced the fort’s closure — that and another fashion trend: Silk hats became the new rage in London. Traders turned toward China.
By 1866, Fort Vancouver’s original buildings had burned or decayed, and this specialized world on the banks of the Columbia — a place that represented British territorial interests, yet made American settlement possible, for the hospitality and assistance it gave to all — was only something to be vaguely recalled, perhaps best by the gauzy glow of lantern light.
Northwest beavers were much happier.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or firstname.lastname@example.org