Monday, May 5, 2014

Portland, OR - It's All About the Beaver

Today we visited Fort Vancouver, a British outpost for the Hudson Bay Company which is now an American National Historic Site. Actually it is not a fort as we think of forts designed to protect the people inside or to house an army to protect those living outside. Nope, this fort was designed to protect the valuable fur pelts which the fur trappers brought back each spring until these pelts were shipped to England. Millions of dollars of pelts were stored here waiting for ships to take them overseas to England. It also protected the trading goods that the British used to trade with the Indians for their pelts. I was amazed at all the languages spoken in the fort: there were British, Scottish, Russian, French and Irish fur trappers, there were Iroquois and Cree guides, there were Hawaiian workers and many who spoke a language of their own combining the language of their parents or others.

There were clerks, blacksmiths, woodworkers, trappers, coopers, cooks, farmers and over this all was John McLaughlin, the Company’s factor or the man in charge, who ran this for with an iron hand and lived in the fanciest home in the fort.


Sunday was the only day off and everyone worked hard the other 6 days. Unfortunately, the most common thing served at meals was hardtack, a biscuit made with flour and water, baked and allowed to ‘harden.’ It could last almost forever and, I think that it could have been used for disc golf. No, that’s not what I served Gary for lunch - it’s actually an example of hardtack they the museum has for you to examine.
At one point, McLaughlin wanted to put on a show and built a tower and put some cannon in it. They were never shot but they did look good and were designed to impose fear in anyone who might want to attack and could act as a deterrent to anyone who might want to steal any of the furs. Interestingly, this cannon is pointed right at the blacksmith’s forge.
While visiting the fort we learned all about beaver trapping and hat making. Well, not all, but I sure did learn a lot that I did not know. Now, I knew that beaver hats were the fashion among men of importance and that there were many men who went out into the wilds to trap the beaver, bring them back to the Hudson Bay Company in Oregon, where they were sold to hatmakers and made into the beaver hats. Pretty rudimentary. Not much depth here. But now I know much more.

Here’s the process. Back in the teens (the 1800 teens) both Britain and America were vying for control of what was called the Oregon territory. Finally they came to a truce in 1818 and agreed to share the territory. But the British Hudson Bay Company, the giant fur trading organization, moved its headquarters to Vancouver (now across the Columbia River from Portland) to consolidate its hold on the territory. Each fall they sent out brigades of fur trappers, with wives and children, sometimes totalling 50 - 200 people, with the orders to ‘clear cut’ all the beaver in the area firstly so they’d have the pelts but also so that no one else (America) would get the pelts. The trappers would set their steel traps in the shallow icy water since beaver could smell them if they stood on shore. Next morning they returned, skinned their catch and reset the trap. In the spring they returned to Vancouver with their catch where the Company would weigh, sort, grade and pay them.

Then the Company got to work. They picked off the coarse hairs, tossed them and then shaved off the tender underfur, piled up enough to make 1/2 a hat and twanged a bow string over it. This made the microscopic hairs glom on to each other and this was called a ‘batt.’ Yep, that’s the process. Twanging strings. 2 batts make a hat and when moistened could be formed into a round hood. After 6 - 8 hours of boiling which made the batts tight, the hatmaker could form a hat. There you have it. How to make a beaver hat.

In the 1830’s beaver hats went out of fashion, replaced by silk hats. Oops. But about this same time, American settlers began to pour into this area, lured by the promise of good land. The Hudson Bay Company told McLaughlin not to trade with them, not to help them and to isolate them. He did none of this and, when the British and Americans agreed to a boundary in 1846, he retired, moved to the Oregon side and became an American citizen.

Meanwhile the Americans had established a presence in Vancouver and began to build and bring in more and more soldiers. They built some homes for the officers which were replaced later by some quite elegant homes which are still being used. This is Officer’s Row and we were able to tour the Marshall House where General Marshall lived when he was here.

Petty fancy house but it seemed that Marshall wore his golf shoes with cleats in the house on the wooden floors. Note the cleat marks. Now, who in their right mind would wear cleats in the house - oh, yeah, when it is a rental house.
Here’s the Grant House. Funny, Grant never lived in this house but our guide told us that he was reprimanded many time there for his many infractions. He was not happy when the house was called the Grant House.
There were also some smaller and less imposing homes on the Officer’s Row. But, on the whole they were big, imposing and extremely well-cared for (at least now).
When the army finally left this area, they left the homes and many became quite derelict. Finally the town of Vancouver recognized their value, bought them, rehabilitated them and many are used now for offices, restaurants and other businesses. The Marshall house is refurnished in period furniture and it is open for tours.

Back home for lunch, showers and the 45-minute drive down to Oregon City where we were having dinner.

One of the best things about visiting in Portland is that I got to meet up with a friend of mine from High School, Linda. (I have been told that I shouldn’t say ‘old’ friend since that implies that this person is old. Thus I will say this person is a friend from High school and I’ll let you do the math and make your own inferences.) We were in the same Girl Scout troop back in Fort Dodge, IA and were good friends with 3 others in the troop: 2 valedictorians and one salutatorian. Linda and I sometimes referred to ourselves as ‘the dumb ones.’ But we haven’t see each other since we drove home together after a winter semester of my senior year.

Thus, when I decided to visit Portland, I called her to confirm that she still lived here and we planned to meet for dinner tonight. Gary and I drove out to Linda’s and Terri’s home in Clackamas County, which they told us is the ‘horsiest’ county in the US. More horses per capita than any other county in the US. And, they too have horses and actually chose this place because it has a barn, a pasture, a pond, a place to build an arena and a nice house for them, too.
After lots of catching up (and that might have taken forever since it’s been 40 years) we talked about our current lives and Gary and I said we were going to travel through the Columbia Gorge tomorrow. That brought on lots of suggestions and a plan was devised. I wrote down what Linda and Terri recommended, added one or two other items and tomorrow, we know where we are going to go.


  1. FYI--The valedictorian and salutatorian are planning to attend the 50th reunion--not to mention the president of the student council--aka, your husband! We won't talk about the other class year valedictorian--I prefer to think about the salutatorian--aka, my husband. I was checking for memorabilia for the reunion and found a listing of the top graduates--I'll send it in an email to refresh your memory.

  2. Hi, Glad to know that lots of people I know are coming. I got your e-mail about the class lists. Note how close Gary and I are on the list. I always knew he was smarter than I was - and - he was the SBP.