The lucrative fur trade in the Pacific Northwest led the Hudson’s Bay Company to establish Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River in the vast Oregon Territory.
By the close of the eighteenth century, British explorers Captain James Cook and Captain George Vancouver, plus American fur trader Captain Robert Gray had explored the coast of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia and discovered the rich profits to be made in furs from the region. The fur trade extended up the Columbia River into the Oregon Territory, a vast Pacific Northwest area.
Great Britain and the newly independent United States had agreed to share occupancy of the region, but eventual boundaries between the two countries’ claims had yet to be set.
McLoughlin Becomes Chief Factor at Fort Vancouver
The Hudson’s Bay Company, already well established in Canada, soon controlled the fur trade of the Columbia District, which included all the valleys of the Columbia River and its tributaries. To establish British presence and better capture the interior trade, the company moved its headquarters in 1825 from Fort George at the mouth of the Columbia to Fort Vancouver on the river’s north shore 100 miles inland.
Dr. John McLoughlin, trained as a physician in his homeland of Canada, became chief factor for Fort Vancouver and its operations. The company traded with the local natives for beaver and other furs and also employed its own trappers. At the time, beaver fur was in demand for manufacturing fashionable top hats for London gentlemen.
To make the fort self-supporting, McLoughlin established the Oregon Territory’s first large-scale farm to supply all of Fort Vancouver’s fruits and vegetables. Medicinal herbs were grown for the fort’s pharmacy. The farms also supplied other Hudson’s Bay Company forts in the Oregon Territory, and surpluses were sold to Russian fur trappers operating in Alaska.
British officials, American missionaries, seamen and visiting botanists were guests at McLoughlin’s elegant dining table over the course of the fort’s operation. The fort also included a flour mill, small saw mill and carpentry and blacksmith shops.
Competition from Americans
In the 1830s American settlers began arriving over the Oregon Trail in search of fertile land and a new life. McLoughlin was cordial to these rivals for the Oregon Territory. Many arrived at Fort Vancouver nearly starved from their arduous cross-country journey. McLoughlin fed them and offered them seeds and plant cuttings to help with starting their own farms. At the fort store, they could buy tools and clothing.
McLoughlin pointed settlers to the fertile Willamette Valley on the south of the Columbia River in present-day Oregon.
Boundary Set at the 49th Parallel
The Hudson’s Bay Company had built on the Columbia’s north shore hoping that the future boundary settlement between Great Britain and the United States would be along that river, leaving the fort in Canadian hands. The decision, however, that finally came in 1846 set the boundary at the 49th parallel – the current border between British Columbia and Washington State. Fort Vancouver was now on U.S. land.
The fort continued to trade with settlers and the natives for a time, but by 1860 it was closed. McLoughlin had taken out a claim on land in present-day Oregon City at Willamette Falls on the Willamette River. After Fort Vancouver’s closure, he became an American Citizen and moved to his Oregon City land. He is known in Oregon as the “Father of Oregon.”
Reconstructions of the Fort Vancouver structures have been built and furnished on the original site in Vancouver, Washington. The Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is operated by the U.S. National Park Service and is open to the public.
- Oregon: This Storied Land, by William G. Robbins, Oregon Historical Society Press, Portland, OR, 2005.
- Astoria, by Washington Irving, Clatsop Edition, Binfords & Mort, Publishers, Portland, OR, 1967.
- Before the Covered Wagon, by Phillip H. Parish, Metropolitan Press, Portland, OR, 1931.
- Oregon Historical Society, 1200 SW Park Avenue, Portland, OR 97205.
- Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, U.S. National Park Service