Friday, October 29, 2010

A short history of Fort Okanogan

In his article, "Fur Trade Forts in Washington," (Washington Historical Quarterly, now Pacific Northwest Quarterly), historian O.B. Sperlin tells us that "during the same summer of 1811 a small party under David Stuart built Okanogan Post, the third establishment in Washington."
The first post in modern day Washington State was Spokane House, built in early 1811 by the men employed by the North West Company's explorer David Thompson.
The second post was was Fort George (Astoria), at the mouth of the Columbia River by the Pacific Fur Company in summer 1811.
The above David Stuart was an employee of the Pacific Fur Company, and he pushed upriver as far as the Northwesters' Spokane House.
He then returned downriver to establish the third establishment in modern day Washington State, called Okanogan Post.
This post was on the southeast bank of the Okanogan River one-half a mile from its junction with the Columbia, and consisted of a small (16x20 feet) dwelling, and storage.
Over the next three years, more buildings were added to this site.
Clerk Alexander Ross spent the winter of 1811-12 alone at the Okanogan post trading for some "1,550 beavers, besides other peltries, worth in the Canton market, 2,250 pounds sterling."

When summer of 1812 came, the Pacific Fur Company men built a new fort on the Spokane River close to David Thompson's house.
Then the War of 1812 caused the Americans to worry for their safety in this territory, and they decided to abandon their posts.
In spite of that, it was not until November 1813 that the Northwesters' took over the Pacific Fur Company forts in Washington Territory (and according to this article, the Americans of the Pacific Fur Company forced the Northwesters to take over their forts by gunpoint!)

To continue Fort Okanogan's story: So in November 1813, the men of the North West Company took over the fur trade and buildings of Fort Okanogan.
The first improvement the Northwesters' made was the rebuilding of Fort Okanogan post under Ross Cox in 1816.
The location of the new post was one and a half mile southeast of the old fort, across the peninsula and on the banks of the main stream of the Columbia.
By September 1816, Cox had completed a new dwelling, two houses for his men, and a large storehouse for furs and trading goods.
These houses were for the most part built of timber, but some buildings used adobe mud.
The buildings were surrounded by palisades fifteen feet high and the two bastions on opposite corners had light four-pounders (large gun or cannon) and loopholes for musketry.

From Jean Webber's article in Okanagan History, 1993, "Fur Trading Posts in the Okanagan and Similkameen," we have the following information:
Fort Okanogan was established in 1811 by David Stuart and Alexander Ross of the American Pacific fur Company.
The post was situated on the Okanogan River one half mile upstream from the river's confluence with the Columbia.
When the War of 1812 broke out, the North West Company took advantage of the situation to persuade the Americans at Fort Astoria (Fort George) to sell out its interests.
In 1816, the Northwesters' replaced the original buildings with a stockaded group of well constructed buildings.
She quotes from Ross Cox's book, "The Adventures on the Columbia:"
"By the month of September, we had erected a new dwelling house for the person in charge, containing four excellent rooms and a large dining hall, two good houses for the men and a spacious store for the furs and merchandise, to which was attached a shop for trading with the natives.
"The whole was surrounded by strong palisades fifteen feet high and flanked by two bastions.
"Each bastion had in its lower story a light brass four-pounder, and in the upper story loop-holes were left for the use of musketry."

From 1812 onwards, the Northwesters in the Thompson's River at Kamloops brought their furs on pack animals down the Okanagan valley and River, to Fort Okanogan.
At Fort Okanogan the furs were loaded onto boats or bateaux for the trip downriver to Fort George (Astoria), their headquarters at the mouth of the Columbia River.

If you are interested in finding out how Fort Okanogan (the earlier fort, I assume) might have been laid out, Jean Webber's article has a drawing of the post based on information gained from the archaelogical digs.
For Americans, this information is also found at the Okanogan County Museum.
Jean Webber goes on to tell us that after 1821, Fort Okanagan was relocated on the bank of the Columbia River, several miles to the south-east of the original post.
This fort was located at the "upper crossing" of the Columbia -- a crossing that could be used when the river waters were high.
The lower crossing downriver was used for swimming animals across the Columbia, or for pack trails or cattle drives.
The Fort Okanogan Interpretive Centre near Brewster, Washington, also has an old map of the fort.
It shows the latter Fort Okanogan sitting on the point of land between the Columbia River which flows in from the northwest, and the Okanogan River flowing in from the west.
Northwest of the fort is a range of hills running across the entire peninsula, labelled "Rocks and Hills," with the information there are rattlesnakes north of the hills.
Across the rivers (the Okanogan and the Columbia) from the fort, the map tells us there are Plains that contain Rattlesnakes.
But the point of land on which the fort stands -- called in this map, "Oakinagan Point," is "All Prairie ground and no Rattlesnakes."
Note the various spellings of Okanagan -- Canadians use Okanagan, Americans Okinogan, and the fur traders have many different spellings.
As I have said before, Alexander Caulfield Anderson always used "Okinagan," and he pronounced the word "O-kee-na-gan."

As you have seen from the above-mentioned map, this is Rattlesnake Country.
James, Alexander Anderson's son, had a few rattlesnakes stories, one of which I have already told you.
This second one has nothing really to do with Fort Okanogan, but it is definitely a rattlesnake story.
Mr. E. Bullock Webster, who had a ranch at Keremeos [in B.C. northwest of Fort Okanogan] in 1901, told this story to a mature James Anderson:
"He explained that during the dormant season the scorpions shared the dens of rattlesnakes, and in the springtime when the sun began to attain power, the snakes come out to the mouths of their dens in horrid coiling masses, the scorpions running over them and on apparently quite friendly terms.
"Mr. Webster described several of these dens in the rocky defiles of the mountains of Similkameen very graphically.
"One, which from all accounts received from Indians, seems to be the headquarters of the rattlesnakes in the vicinity, is situated in an ideal inferno, a wei[r]d defile that would have appealed to the imagination of Dore.
"It appears that Indians from superstitious motives do not kill snakes and from the same motives do not go near their dens.
"Mr. Webster, however, induced an old Indian to conduct him to the vicinity of the great den, which he did, but would not go nearer than about two hundred yards...
"Mr. Webster entered the horrid place alone.
"He said it was indescribably weird, the entrance to the den proper being partly stopped up with bunch grass, apparently carried there by the snakes presumably for protection against the cold.
"It was too late in the season, however, the snakes having all left for summer quarters and all that was to be seen were some skins that had been shed and a dead snake...."

I don't know about the scorpions mentioned in this story -- but it appears that Natives and fur traders alike had a dread of snakes, especially rattlesnakes.
I have a few rattlesnake stories to tell you when I get to Fort Colvile.
I think that Natives everywhere had a sense of humor and enjoyed startling or worrying the fur traders.
Certainly young James Anderson was startled!

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