Doug Wilson at Fort Vancouver re: Hawaiians in the Fur Trade

Doug Wilson at Fort Vancouver re: Hawaiians in the Fur Trade
Interview by Sara Kolbet
Date: 4/4/05
1 Disc, 16 Tracks, 37:02

TRACK 1 – 0:33


TRACK 2 – 1:07


TRACK 3 – 1:17


TRACK 4 – 0:32

SARA: Introduce yourself.

DOUG: I’m Doug Wilson. I’m an archaeologist at the Vancouver Historic Reserve and I’m an Associate Professor at Portland State University. I’m Doug Wilson. I’m an archaeologist at the Vancouver Historic Reserve and I’m an Associate Professor at Portland State University.

SARA: Why was Fort Vancouver built?

DOUG: Fort Vancouver was established actually in 1825, actually on the ridge above us. And it was established by the HBC and they were interested in beaver trapping and basically this was their headquarters and supply depot and was a central place for their beaver pelts to be stored and then shipped off to England.

SARA: How are Hawaiians involved in the history of Fort Vancouver?

DOUG: Hawaiians were used as labor primarily and early on there were already Hawaiians in the Pacific Northwest when the HBC got here, but they brought in relatively large numbers of native Hawaiians to work in agricultural fields, there was a lumber mill here, as well as working as boatmen. So there was a large Hawaiian community here, so many that in the 1850s they identified the village out to the west of us as Kanaka Village, and Kanaka is a Polynesian term for native Hawaiian.

SARA: Why did Hawaiians get hired for this?

DOUG: Native Hawaiians were hired because there was kind of a labor shortage in the Pacific Northwest, plus they were not afraid of heights generally and were excellent on some of the sailing ships, so they were sometimes hired on the fleets going up and down the coast as well as the whaling fleets, and were very valuable, useful workers.

SARA: Can you talk about Fort Vancouver and the relationship between America and Britain?

DOUG: When Fort Vancouver was here, this was basically disputed territory, and the US and Great Britain had come to an agreement that they would not determine who actually owned the land for about twenty years, so when HBC was here this was kind of a no man’s land, though they really controlled it because they were the largest company and most of the Euro-American people that were here were working for the company or acting on behalf of the company.

SARA: What happened to Fort Vancouver?

DOUG: This particular fort was moved off the bluff down here in 1829 and really became the core of HBC operations in the Pacific Northwest. It went all the way to 1860, was actually eleven years after the boundary between the US and Great Britain had been determined. They stayed here because they could make so much money off the retail trade. They were actually selling things to the Americans and settlers coming over the Oregon Trail. So they stayed all the way to 1860. By then the American tariffs were kind of putting them out of business, plus there were a lot of other stores being developed then.

SARA: What was it like to be a Kanaka Villager?

DOUG: Really the heart of the community here was the HBC village, which was about 200 yards to the west of us. And there were about 50-60 houses have been reported and probably upwards of 600-1000 people when the brigades would come in and really swell the population. But it was the largest settlement between San Francisco and Sitka Alaska in the 1830s and 1840s. And it really was an amazing multi-cultural settlement. There were people from all over the world. Europeans, obviously. French Canadians. Iroquois Indians from back east, Cree. All the diversity of Native American northwest tribes that worked for, married into people who worked for the company, and then there were native Hawaiians. And native Hawaiians were a fairly large proportion of the population of the village and were an important element of that multi-cultural village.

SARA: What did they do everyday?

DOUG: A variety of things. Most of the HBC people were oriented to trading for furs and getting furs but here at Fort Vancouver it was a little different. They were very interested in growing agricultural products so they could support the 30 or 40 subsidiary posts in the Pacific Northwest. Plus they were trading agricultural goods to the Russians in Alaska, and Hawaii and Mexican California. In addition to that they had a bunch of different, they really expanded what they were doing here. They had a lumber mill just up the river that did many thousand of board timber that was exported out, and native Hawaiians were a very big part of running that lumber mill. Really the first lumber mill in the Pacific Northwest. There was also a grist mill, a boat docks down by the river, and a salmon packing facility. There was a salmon packing facility which they called the salmon store. And there they were catching fish or purchasing fish from Native Americans and pickling it, shipping it off various places especially to Hawaii. And it’s an interesting connection between lomi lomi salmon, a traditional Hawaiian dish, and the salmon they were pickling at the packing office, probably a direct connection between those two.

SARA: You mentioned the fort moved. Where are we?

DOUG: When the HBC first got here they established…when the HBC first got here they established their fort on the bluffs above us, near where the school for the blind is, and they did that because they weren’t sure if the local tribes were going to be friendly to them, but also because they didn’t know if the terrace where we are now was flood-free or if it flooded every year. After about four years they made this their headquarters for the entire region and they moved it down to the plain here. It was called Fort Plain, it was the plain area. And it was ideal for agriculture, it was close to the river, which was their transportation corridor, and this really became the heart of culture in the Pacific Northwest for the next twenty years.

SARA: Lewis & Clark were here on this spot?

DOUG: So when Lewis and Clark floated down the Columbia River they passed right by here. In fact, we have some accounts that they got out and walked around the prairie area that was here. But when they got here this was one of the highest density populations of Native Americans in the entire North America, and for probably thousands of years Native Americans had come to the Portland/Vancouver basin and traded for fish or intermarried or interacted with one another seasonally when the salmon was running and it was a very important area where different cultures would come and trade and discuss things and interact and so in a sense the sorts of things HBC was doing at Fort Vancouver was being done here amongst the native Americans for thousands of years before.

SARA: What were the relations among Hawaiians, the people we worked for, and Native Americans?

DOUG: As far as we know the three groups got along really well. The people in the multi-cultural village were relatively, living in relative harmony. Obviously there was some racism, certainly among the American settlers toward the native Hawaiian people and we have some of the accounts from the quartermaster who cast aspersions on the ‘Kanaka house’ that was right next to his house. But I think while the HBC was here the different races and ethnicities really got along, and we know that when HBC left a big population of Hawaiians went north to Canada but some stayed here and intermarried with native American groups and in many of the reservations around here you can, amongst the native American groups you can find people with native ancestry.

SARA: What have you done to the Kanaka Village site?

TRACK 7 – 10:11

DOUG: So archaeologists have been looking at Kanaka Village for many years. Probably the first archaeologist who was here, Lewis Kaywood, did excavations in the pond area. The pond was directly associated with the village area and looked at some of the artifacts there. The biggest excavation was done in the 1960s by a group out of Bryn Mawr and uncovered four different house sites. In the last few years we’ve been doing an additional survey out there and have uncovered probably another five house sites and have done some significant excavations at one of them and then re-examined the three of the four they had looked at before and we’re studying the types of artifacts that the people in the village were using as tools or breaking their pottery and their glassware and things of that sort, and gathering some of the bones from the foods they were eating, both fish and wild foods as well as domesticated animals, and through that we’re hoping to get a better idea of who these people were, and what they were doing and how they were living in the village.

SARA: Reconstructing Fort Vancouver?

DOUG: Since the 1960s the National Park Service has been reconstructing Fort Vancouver and they started in the stockade area. But it’s important to note that the stockade area is where the chief factor, John McLoughlin, lived, and the chief gentlemen and their families. But really the heart of the site was out in the village and so some of our more recent efforts have been geared to trying to reconstruct some of the elements of the village so that we have both sides of the story, where the elites and all the trading activity went and where they were storing the furs in this palisaded fort, but also this multicultural village out to the west of it which was such an important part of the community.

SARA: Where is Fort Vancouver now?

DOUG: Fort Vancouver is a major transportation location, so we have a National Park here in a major urban area. And just to the south of us major railroad line and there’s a major state highway. Directly to the west of us is an interstate highway and then we’re in the middle of Vancouver Washington which right now is the fourth largest city in Washington and is probably well on its way to being third and second as the population here grows.


And there’s an aircraft now. We’re in the flight path.

SARA: Why did Hawaiians go north with HBC?

DOUG: So when Fort Vancouver stopped its operations here there were still quite a few native Hawaiians living here. Some stayed in the vicinity but quite a few went with the company up to Victoria, fort Victoria then. And probably the main reason for doing that is that’s where the jobs were so they were following the company. You could go with the company or lose your job.

SARA: Have you had contact with any descendants.

DOUG: We periodically have people who come in and say my descendants worked at Fort Vancouver. Sometimes they are of European descent, sometimes of Native American descent and sometimes they are very proud to say they’re Native Hawaiian.

SARA: Do they participate in activities?

DOUG: We try to encourage descendants to participate in the activities at the fort. We have a very strong living history program. We have the archaeological activities that we do and we have volunteer program with the library. But some people choose to volunteer at the fort and others just like to come and visit and learn about where their ancestors worked and how they lived.

SARA: Hawaiian coral in the magazine. Could you explain?

DOUG: Our excavations last summer were at a place called the powder magazine, which was the only brick structure inside the stockade. And what’s the interesting connection with Hawaii with the powder magazine is the mortar with the bricks and the stone foundation of the building were all made with ground-up coral from Hawaii. And it’s very exciting just in the last week we’ve had an expert in coral come down from Washington State university Vancouver and he’s been looking at our coral and is going to give us some ideas on which particular island it came from and maybe how it was mined and how it got over here, so we’re very excited about that. But it’s great as an archaeologist we’re out digging in the middle of the Pacific Northwest and you pull out a chunk of coral from Hawaii. It really hammers home the fact that we had a much greater connection with Hawaii in the past in the Pacific Northwest than perhaps we do now. Now we go to Hawaii as a matter of taking a vacation. Then it was more a part of the whole trading system.

SARA: What else do you do here?

DOUG: Obviously we have an excavation program that’s geared to the different projects that the historic reserve is doing. For example, we excavated the powder magazine and we’ll probably do a reconstruction of that building. We’re also very interested in teaching and we have a field school every year through Portland State University where we teach the methods of archaeology and field schools are pretty typical for an archeological program but ours is fairly unique in that we have the students learn some of the techniques of interpretation and because this is a national park we have the students interpret what they’re doing to the public, which is terrifying. Most students get into archaeology because they figure all the people you’re going to have to deal with are dead, but here we interact with the visiting public. And there’s a lot of interest by the public about what archaeologists do and a lot of misconceptions out there that we can change. For example, we don’t dig dinosaurs, we dig up the historic past.

SARA: Why is Fort Vancouver so important?

DOUG: The village area and fort Vancouver was really critically important to the history of the pacific northwest and the multi-cultural village with all the different groups of people that lived there was really quite unique and certainly from a native Hawaiian perspective it’s really a Mecca of where the first Hawaiians came to the pacific northwest out of Hawaii and so it’s really part of that whole process of people expanding their horizons as part of the global change that was going on in the mid-19th century. And certainly for Hawaiians it’s a signature of a very dramatic change in Hawaiian history as well as a dramatic change in the history of the Pacific Northwest here at fort Vancouver.

SARA: Conflict between Britain and America?

DOUG: The early in the history, before HBC got here, some of the first fur traders out here were Americans and John Jacob Astor came out here with an expedition that came over land and also by sea and they established Astoria in Oregon out at the mouth of the Columbia River. And right about that time, 1811, right as they were getting it established the war of 1812 broke out and there was actually a British schooner that was on its way to take over the fort and before they did that, the Astorians sold out to the Northwest Company which was an other British Company that had just started working in the Pacific Northwest, so this was really on the ends of the world for Europeans and east coast Americans. So that’s how the British really got a strong foothold on the Pacific Northwest. By 1821 the Northwest Company and HBC merged together and as a consequence of that a few years later, four years later they decided to move their base up the river to Fort Vancouver.

SARA: Years of operation?

DOUG: Fort Vancouver was established in 1825. They moved down to the present fort site where we have the national park in 1829 and then it really stayed here through 1860.

SARA: How many Hawaiians worked for the company?

DOUG: That’s a good question. I’d have to look that up. There were probably around 100 Hawaiians working for the company around the peak.

SARA: Is there any way of telling what they thought about their jobs?

DOUG: Unfortunately for many people living in the village, including the native Hawaiians, we really don’t know much about what they thought. Most of them were illiterate and they didn’t write down their feelings about their bosses or their neighbors or things of that sort. So in essence we really have to rely on the archaeological record to fill out the story of people who lived in the village and it’s really through those tangible things they left behind, their tools, their beads, parts of clothing, sorts of foods they were eating, that we can learn who those people were.

SARA: Do you have much of the story yet?

DOUG: In the next few years. We’ve already got quite a story already with some of the previous work, but certainly in the next few years, we’ve got a couple of doctoral dissertations that are being worked on and we should have a much clearer view of what the village was like and hopefully we’ll have some reconstructions out in the village for people to really take a look at.

DOUG: So as part of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, one of the things they’re putting in is the confluence project which is a number of art pieces along the Columbia River in Washington and Oregon. We’ve got one of those confluence pieces here which is actually going to be one of the larger ones. It’s a land bridge which is going to go from the village and cross the highway to Old Apple Tree Park, which was a part of the village. The old apple tree is possibly the oldest apple tree in the Pacific Northwest; it was planted in 1826. And this land bridge is going to really celebrate what was here in the Portland Vancouver basin before Lewis and Clark got here, made contact. And it’s really going to be an amazing piece. They’re going to make it in the shape of a Klickitat basket and will have a number of features that really tell the story of the Native American story here.

SARA: Where is it going to go?

DOUG: Right from the southern area of the village on park service property, cross the highway and land in old apple Tree Park and from there you can get out to the waterfront. So it’s really going to connect the water with the village.

SARA: Anything else to say?

DOUG: Come to Fort Vancouver.

SARA: One more intro…

DOUG: My name is Doug Wilson. I’m an archaeologist at Fort Vancouver and I’m an associate professor at Portland State University.




DOUG: We’re in the heart of the village. We’re on the eastern edge. We’ve just walked up a north-south road and there’s actually a fence line we’ve reconstructed on the east side that was the boundary of the village. And you can actually see the fort site from here. I like to bring people out here because this is the way people would usually have seen Fort Vancouver, would have been from the village not from the parking lot and the pathway that they normally come into the stockade. There would have been a number of houses out here. 40 to 50, maybe as much as 60 structures out here at one time. And there was, we’re actually just to the north of a major east-west road. And you can see there’s a couple of borders we’ve set up that are the borders of some of the house sites we’ve set up archaeologically. So we’ve got a couple of those delineated in approximately their correct size. And you can see how small the houses were and they were living very differently from the way people were living inside the fort itself.

SARA: Was there a layout?

DOUG: We know that there was a major east-west road that really cut the village in half and then there was this north-south road on the eastern side of the village and we do have a couple of maps that show this. And the north-south road really ran all the way up to what’s Fifth Street now, which they used to call upper mill road, a historic road, and just up from that was the Catholic mission. And just to the south of us was a major westward trailing road which was called lower mill road which went into the main gate of fort Vancouver. So we had one road that was going up to church and one road going up to work. Typical. There was a pond to the south of us that was a defining feature, and there were a few buildings around that. There was a hospital there and then there were probably some gardens and places where they kept animals too here in the village. So the houses were kind of spread out and everybody set up their own space. They were responsible for building their houses on their own, though the company provided some mill ends for them to work with. But it was id of after work you’d take some time off and build your house.

SARA: Anything else about the layout?

DOUG: Just, some of these houses directly to the south of us were excavated in the 1960s and we revisited them in the last few years. And directly to the north of us we found a house site that was not shown on any of the maps and really came up with some spectacular finds. Some interesting pottery, a camp knife, lots of bone debris. We actually found the hearth site where they had been doing their cooking. Really an amazing house site.

TRACK 16 – 0:43


TRACK 17 – 0:36

SARA: What might make you think there’s education in the village?

DOUG: We’re looking at some slates that were excavated from some of the village sites and one of them has some incised lines and ABC scratched into it so we know that at least for some of the villagers there was some education going on and we know from the historical record that some village children were being taught by members of the gentleman class at fort Vancouver. And actually by 1845 there wren a pair of schoolhouses that had been constructed.