Fort Colvile, located near Kettle Falls, was established by the British Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) in 1825 when it moved its upper Columbia Basin fur-trading operations to this new location from Spokane House (established in 1810). The new post was christened Fort Colvile, after HBC official Andrew Colvile. Over the years the post grew, eventually comprising the store, warehouses, shops, stockades and a bastion, dwellings, and out buildings, as well as large land holdings for agriculture and livestock pasture. As a major way point for travelers in the Inland Northwest, Fort Colvile received many visitors, who are the main sources of information for what the post looked like. These accounts are indispensable, for hardly a trace of the place was left after a 1910 fire burned down what was left after 85 years. The post had gone into decline after the 1846 settlement of the American/Canadian border dispute, which left Fort Colvile in U.S. hands. Soon, the American military had established its own Fort Colville, with a slightly different spelling, leaving the old British-Canadian post to enter a long spiral of decay. The Hudson's Bay Company ended its occupation of Fort Colvile on June 8, 1871. The site was inundated by Lake Roosevelt in the early 1950s, following the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam.
Fort Colvile: The Early Years
John Work (1792?-1861), the man in charge of the establishment of Fort Colvile, did not leave a good account of the post’s appearance. Initial construction appears to have been tentative, due to fears that a boundary settlement would leave the location in American hands. In July 1827, HBC Governor George Simpson (1792-1860) wrote to chief factor John Warren Dease: “We regret that you have not gone on with the Buildings and improvements at Fort Colvile, and beg that they may be continued ..." (Lewis 1925). Not until 1829 is there a relatively specific description of the scene at Kettle Falls. In that year, American fur-trader Joshua Pilcher (1790-1843) wrote to then-Secretary of War J. H. Eaton concerning his recent visit to Fort Colvile:
“This post is on the main Columbia River, about thirty miles below the mouth of Clark’s fork, and on the south side of the river ... . A proprietor of the company, a couple of clerks, and about 25 men are stationary at this post. It consisted, when I saw it, of log houses for the accommodation of the company, and for storehouses for the merchandise and furs. A stockade was begun before I left there ... . About 60 or 70 acres of ground were under cultivation, and the crops were fine and abundant ... the wheat was ground at the post on hand mills, though a windmill was erecting, and a plentiful supply of flour obtained” (Oliphant 1925a).
David Chance states that a stockade was ordered built in 1830, due to tensions between the fort and several Indian groups. The one mentioned by Pilcher may have been an earlier and tentative effort. The windmill spoken of in Pilcher’s account was short-lived, and in 1830 a French-Canadian named Lapierre built the area’s first grist mill at a location on the Colville River now known as Meyers Falls (early settlers called the Colville River “Mill Creek”). According to historian William S. Lewis, this mill was rebuilt in the early 1840s by chief factor Archibald McDonald (1771-1841). Lewis also mentions that, at about the same time, McDonald rebuilt a sawmill that had originally been installed between 1826 and 1829. Writes Lewis, “The original roof boards of the old fort buildings, of mill sawn lumber, and lumber for company boats, bateaux, and other purposes, came from this mill” (Lewis 1918). The existence of this mill has been questioned by Chance, for it seems most likely that the lumber for the post was prepared in a whip-saw pit.
In his book People of the Falls, Chance, drawing upon years of research, describes what Fort Colvile probably looked like around 1830:
“On going in through the front gate, which faced the Columbia, a person found himself in a confined courtyard surrounded by the principal buildings of the fort, all of them a story and a half high ... . The inside pickets divided the fort into four segments, of which the front court was but one. Around it were a warehouse, the store, the chief trader’s house or Hall, a range of officer’s quarters, a dwelling, and the Indian Hall” (Chance, People of the Falls).
Between the years 1832 and 1835, Nathaniel Wyeth (1802-1856) spent time in the Oregon country trying to establish a fur-trading and fishing enterprise. Although hardship forced him to eventually abandon his attempts, his extensive travels allowed him to return east and become one of the great boosters of the American Northwest. His recollections, along with those of Hall Jackson Kelly (1790-1874), were used as testimony in a U.S. House of Representatives report. These accounts were a key element in convincing the United States government to encourage and support settlement in Oregon. In the course of his travels, Mr. Wyeth visited Fort Colvile, and this short description appears in the House Report:
“Above this [Fort Okanogan] there are no posts, I believe, except Fort Colville, which is on the South Side of the River ... . When I was at this point, its picketed walls were down and repairing; its defenses appeared no other than those commonly used against Indians; a chief trader and about 15 men were then posted at this place” (Wyeth 1839).
Fort Colvile received its first visit by a Christian missionary in May 1836. Samuel Parker (1806-1886), sent by the Presbyterian-directed American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), held the first formal religious service that had ever occurred at the post. As usual, post employees were hospitable, as were local Indians. Parker was impressed with the facility and the surrounding farms, later commenting in a narrative of his journeys: “This establishment is built for defense and is well stockade, but so friendly have the natives always been, that no wars have ever occurred among them. It is occupied by some half dozen men with Indian families, and is well supplied with the useful animals and fowls common to farming establishments. The winter and summer grains, together with garden vegetables, are cultivated with success and in profusion” (Parker 1990).
In the fall of 1838, Fort Colvile was visited by another Protestant evangelist. Elkanah Walker (1805-1887) had recently established a mission among the Spokane Indians on Tshimakain Creek. He was particularly complimentary of the company farms, which at the time were producing 1,500 bushels of wheat and 7,000 bushels of potatoes. Walker’s description of the post itself was brief: “The area of the fort is twice as large as any I have seen this side of the Mts. It is built with sticks of timber set up, supported by braces. In and about the fort are quite a number of dwelling houses, three or four large stables [and] store-houses for grain” (Oliphant 1925a).
Henry Harmon Spalding (1803-1874), missionary to the Nez Perce Tribe and an associate of Walker’s, also visited Fort Colvile in 1837. Spalding’s account was related by New York journalist Thomas J. Farnham (1804-1848), who apparently was shown a letter from Spalding while at Fort Vancouver awaiting the arrival of the latest express from London: “It stands on a small plain of 2,000 or 3,000 acres, said to be the only tillable land on the Columbia, above Vancouver. There are one or two barns, a black-smith shop, a good flouring mill, several houses for laborers, and good buildings for the gentlemen in charge. Mr. [Archibald] McDonald raises this year , about 3,500 bushels of different grains ... . This post furnishes supplies of provisions for a great many forts north, south, and west” (Farnham, 1983).
Wilkes Expedition Visitors
Several years later, in 1841, Lt. Robert E. Johnson stopped at Fort Colvile while serving with the well-known Wilkes Expedition. The purpose of that undertaking, commanded by Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), was to garner prestige and gather scientific data in the northern Pacific and the American Northwest. While in the Puget Sound area, Wilkes dispatched Lieutenant Johnson to proceed inland and investigate the area of the Columbia Plateau. One of the primary stops on his journey was Fort Colvile, where his party spent three days. He was struck by the scale of agricultural efforts; 130 acres were under cultivation. Lieutenant Johnson reported that “the whole of the northern posts depend upon Colville for supplies of provisions” (Wilkes 1845). Here is Lieutenant Johnson’s short description of the post:
“There are two entrances to the fort, from one of which a road leads to the flour-mill; from the other there is a path extending along the bank of the river. Fort Colville, like all the other posts of the Hudson Bay Company, is surrounded by high pickets, with bastions, forming a formidable defensive work against the Indians. Within the pickets all the dwellings and store-houses of the Company are enclosed” (Wilkes 1845).
One of those who accompanied Lieutenant Johnson was naturalist Dr. Charles Pickering, who was appointed to a position with the Wilkes Expedition in 1838. Dr. Pickering's extensive travels and contacts with many native peoples of the Pacific Northwest enabled him to publish, in 1848, The Races of Man and their Geographical Distribution, part of which deals with his experiences in the Inland Northwest. Although Dr. Pickering spent several days at Fort Colvile, his description of the post is even more cursory than that of Johnson: “Colville is almost a village, containing an outside row of buildings for the accommodation of the Whites and half-breeds in the service of the Company; while the peculiar local circumstances at the head of the 'Kettle Falls' permit the establishment of a farm” (Barry 1929).
A Pretty Little Valley
Governor George Simpson, during his around-the-world trip of 1841-1842, revisited the site of the post he had ordered built. He was pleased by the scene that greeted him upon first coming within sight of Fort Colvile, assuring him that his original instructions had been followed well:
“On reaching the summit of a hill, we obtained a fine view of the pretty little valley in which Colville is situated. In a prairie of three or four miles in length, with the Columbia River at one end, and a small lake in the center, we descried the now novel scene of a large farm, barns, stables, etc.; fields of wheat under the hand of the reaper, maize, potatoes, etc., etc., and herds of cattle grazing ... . A grist mill, which is driven by water, is attached to the establishment ... ” (Oliphant 1925a).
Inspections and Descriptions
In 1845, the American-British boundary dispute was coming to a head again. With war a possibility, Great Britain sent two lieutenants from the Royal Engineers to inspect the Inland Northwest in order to make recommendations to the military concerning defense. Lt. Henry Warre and Lt. Mervin Vavasour (1821-1856), disguising their true intentions, visited Fort Colvile in August, 1845. They had come cross country from eastern Canada and would finish their tour at Fort Vancouver, where Lt. Vavasour issued his report to his superiors, dated March 1, 1846. It contains short descriptions of numerous forts and trading posts through which the men had passed, including this report of Fort Colvile, in which we see the stockade once again in need of repair: “Fort Colville is similar in construction to those on the east side of the Rocky Mountains, surrounded by a picket fence of 60 yards wide and having one blockhouse or tower. At the time of my visit the pickets were nearly all blown down. It is on the left bank of the Columbia River, on a rising ground, on a sandy plain surrounded by sand hills, 400 yards from the river bank at the head of an impassable rapid called the Chaudiere Falls, around which it is necessary to carry the boats, baggage etc., making what is usually termed a portage” (Vavasour, 1912).
Lieutenant Vavasour also sketched an incomplete map of Fort Colvile’s basic plan, which is reproduced in David Chance’s People of the Falls. It shows the main complex of buildings, including storehouses and dwellings, surrounded by pickets 15 feet high. It also shows an adjacent group of farm facilities, including barn, cow house, and piggery, all enclosed by a six-foot log fence, creating a protected yard for horses.
After the Treaty
The treaty of 1846 peacefully settled the Canadian boundary dispute between the United States and Great Britain. One result of the ensuing debate over property rights and values was a detailed inventory of the structures and facilities existing then at Fort Colvile. Included in this list, reprinted in Oliphant’s article Old Fort Colville, are storehouses, dwellings, the Indian hall, and specialized buildings such as a kitchen, a blacksmith’s shop, a carpenter’s shop, meat house, and bakehouse. Livestock and fowl, including pigeons, were kept in barns or separate houses. A bastion, a feature of several existing photographs, watched over the fort.
The main complex was further protected by the surrounding 14-foot-high stockade, which apparently had been repaired since Lt. Vavasour’s visit the previous year. Twenty buildings are listed in the inventory. Cultivated fields totaled 340 acres at the main post and 30 acres at the company farm maintained at White Mud, located about 10 miles to the east. Mention is also made of the grist mill at Meyers Falls. All this remained in the hands of the Hudson's Bay Company following American recognition of British possessory rights.
In the late 1840s, the Hudson's Bay Company began building a new grist mill to replace the old one, which had been installed in 1830 and repaired numerous times. The enterprise was plagued by high costs due to exorbitant prices for river transportation of materials from Fort Vancouver and by a shortage of skilled workers brought on by the discovery of gold in California. Alexander C. Anderson (1814-1884), chief factor at Fort Colvile from 1848-1852, recalled the project in testimony given at hearings held in 1865 to determine the disposition of HBC property:
“The new mill was commenced either in the winter of 1845 or the spring of 1846 by my predecessor, Chief Factor Lewis [John Lee Lewes] (1791-ca.1860). On my arrival there in the autumn of 1848, I found the work still incomplete, and it was only by great exertion that I succeeded in completing it about 18 months afterwards ... Meanwhile the old mill which had been built many years previously was kept as far as possible in repair, in order to carry on the necessary grinding” (Oliphant 1925a).
At the same hearings, former clerk Thomas Lowe recalled Fort Colvile in the years shortly after his arrival there in 1847. He spoke of “extensive farming operations” and the grist mill from which flour was supplied to “the interior posts in the Districts of New Caledonia and Thompson’s River, as also Fort Nez Perces and stations in the Snake Country.” In addition to completion of the new mill, Lowe mentions other improvements undertaken during Alexander Anderson’s term as chief factor. “In 1849,” he said, “several important additions had been made, especially by the erection of stockades as a further protection against the native tribes who had recently been at war with the American Government” (Oliphant 1925a). So once again the work was necessary to maintain the stockade.
Despite this preoccupation with the post’s safety, there is no record of any assault, by Indians or Americans, on Fort Colvile. By the time Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818-1862) visited, in 1853, most of the stockade walls were down again.
Washington Territory Times
Washington Territory was created on March 2, 1853. That year Isaac Stevens was sent west to assume the governorship. For five years Governor Stevens traveled extensively, attending to his mission of preparing the Northwest for American settlement. This task including surveying possible routes for a transcontinental railroad and removing area tribes onto reservations where they would not interfere with the increasing stream of white settlers. The results of the work of Governor Stevens and his associates were published in a voluminous report which has, over the years, been used as an important research tool in Northwest historical studies. Unfortunately, that document makes only passing reference to Fort Colvile. It includes this account written by George Gibbs (1815-1873) of his visit to the HBC post:
“The buildings consist of a dwelling house, three or four store-houses, and some smaller buildings, used as blacksmith shops, etc., all of one story and constructed of squared logs. The whole was once surrounded by a stockade, forming a square of about 70 yards on each side. This has been removed, except on the north side, where it encloses a narrow yard containing offices. One bastion remains. About 30 yards in the rear of this square are the cattle yards, hay sheds, etc., enclosing a space of 40 by 60 yards, roughly fenced in, and the sheds covered with bark. On the left of the front are seven huts, occupied by the lower employees of the company. They are of rude construction, and much decayed. On the right of the square, in the rear, at a distance of a few hundred yards, are three more buildings, used for storing produce” (U.S. War Department 1855).
Gibbs also reports on agricultural efforts. The grist mill, he writes, is “three miles off" and in “good order”:
“Here formerly the flour for the northern posts was ground from wheat raised on the Company’s farms. The mill is still used by the farmers of the Colvile valley, and by the Spokane Indians, who bring here their wheat from a distance of 70 miles. The farm at this point was once pretty extensive, but only a small portion is cultivated at present” (U.S. War Department 1855).
This statement indicates the Hudson's Bay Company's declining importance as many former employees began farming independently and American farmers moved into the area. It also reveals that area tribes were extensively involved in growing their own food as early as 1853.
Remembering Fort Colvile
Angus McDonald had been appointed chief factor at Fort Colvile in 1852. His son Duncan McDonald, one of several sons, spent much of his childhood there. Duncan’s recollections appear in a 1929 article from an unidentified local newspaper, possibly the Spokesman-Review, after he was interviewed by historian William S. Lewis. The article is mostly composed of Indian tales and anecdotes but also contains a description of the post that is fairly precise, considering a time lapse of 60 years or so:
“My first recollections of the old Hudson’s Bay Company trading post at Fort Colville date from about 1856. The stockade was built of good sized logs, sharpened at the end driven into the ground ... There were a number of family houses of the employees about the fort on the ground west, near the river ... . In the northwest of the stockade enclosing Fort Colville, there was a three-room building. One room was occupied by the clerks, the middle one by visitors from a distance, offered quarters at the fort, and farthest (west) room by the postmaster or trader ... . Within the fort stockade there were half a dozen houses -- a big barn, a corral of heavy logs, a flour house, and a grain house. There was a three-room building -- one room for the milk, another for the pack saddles and the third for parfleches and appichimous. There was a bakery and a pigeon house ... . There was a tank shed and a big water tank on a cart with four wooden wheels” (Lewis n.d.).
This article also contains an old photograph of the fort buildings, dated 1888. When compared with the map sketched by Lt. Vavasour in 1845, several structures can be identified, including the central dwelling house, a row of stores, and the protective bastion. It is clear from this photograph that by 1888 most of the surrounding stockade had been removed.
"Mc's Old Pile of Logs"
The influence of HBC Fort Colvile continued to wane, especially after the U.S. Army established a post only 10 miles away. The small town adjacent to the latter fort, Pinkney City, was named after the American commander Maj. Pinkney Lugenbeel (1819-1886). The focus of social life shifted from the old fur-trading post to the newer quarters of the American military fort. An 1863 letter reprinted in the Spokesman-Review vividly suggests this process: “The new fort down in the valley and the town of Pinkney have grown up and are the aristocratic places instead of Mc’s [Angus McDonald] old ‘pile of logs’” (Spokesman-Review 1958).
In 1865, the United States government and the Hudson's Bay Company began the long process of negotiating a settlement concerning compensation to be paid in exchange for extinction of the company’s possessory rights. The paperwork generated by this process contained several detailed accounts of Fort Colvile’s appearance at the time. In its memorial to the United States, dated April 8, 1865, the Hudson's Bay Company claimed that its property, at Fort Colvile and in the Puget Sound area, was worth almost four million dollars. This petition provided a description of the company’s holdings at Fort Colvile:
“The post at Colvile, consisting of dwelling houses, servants’ houses, shop stores, outbuildings, stables, barns, yards, stockades and bastions, flouring mills, and appurtenances ... three hundred and fifty acres of land occupied and used and cultivated as farm land, and about five miles square of land occupied and used for pasturage of their cattle and horses ... the White Mud farm ... with a house, barn and stable, store and outbuildings ...” (Oliphant 1925b).
Later that year, chief factor Angus McDonald submitted his account, most likely exaggerated, of the property at Fort Colvile. He claimed that except for the old dilapidated grist mill, all of the post buildings had been repaired by him since 1852, although he admitted that a number of small servant houses, outside of the main complex, had been “allowed to disappear.” McDonald goes on to describe a large main dwelling and several smaller residences, all with “large quartz rock chimneys.” Of utilitarian buildings described are storehouses, bake house, blacksmith and carpentry shops, barns, and animal houses. Concerning the fort’s defenses, McDonald had this to say: “Outside is a heavy square timber bastion, two stories high, boarded roof with port holes ... . The half of the stockades still remain” (Oliphant 1925b). Speaking of the Hudson's Bay Company structures at White Mud farm, McDonald reported that all but one had been dismantled by white settlers.
The United States sent a commission of experts to examine the Fort Colvile property in 1866. The result was a report, dated August 8, 1866, containing extensive detailed descriptions of the old post buildings, which Oliphant, in his article Old Fort Colville, declares “are too long for reproduction here.” He does include the report’s itemized depiction of the grist mill at Meyers Falls. Corrections pointed out to Oliphant by early pioneer J. A. Meyers are contained in brackets:
“About four miles south of the fort, and upon the stream called Mill Creek, is the Hudson’s Bay Company mill. It has once been a strong building, about 30 by 40 feet [35 x 50] and 20 feet high; it has been strongly framed, and the walls made of squared timber, grooved into posts in the usual manner. The machinery was driven by a breast wheel sixteen [seventeen] feet in diameter with 30-inch [40-inch] buckets, and consisted of one pair of stones, three feet [forty inches] in diameter ... . The whole structure seems to be entirely rotten, and has not been used for some years, nor can it be until entirely rebuilt [run until September, 1872]” (Oliphant 1925b).
The End of Fort Colvile
The Hudson's Bay Company ended its Fort Colvile occupation on June 8, 1871. By 1877, the last trader, Angus McDonald, had left the farm he claimed as a homestead, but much of the land remained in the hands of his son Donald, who farmed in the area until 1907. Meanwhile, the neglected buildings decayed. Nevertheless, a Seattle newspaper reported in 1904, that the remaining structures seemed relatively sound, considering their age:
“The block house is on what is now the 160-acre farm of Don McDonald, son of Angus McDonald, last factor of the Hudson Bay Company in command at Fort Colville. Mr. McDonald sees to it that the old building is not mutilated by the relic seekers who dismantled the American post, nor permitted to fall into decay. To him is due the present state of preservation” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer 1904).
About this same time the remnants of the post were visited by the authors of an early history of North Central Washington. Their account may be the last detailed description of the old Fort Colvile before it burned. Donald McDonald, son of Angus, was still farming the land. He graciously gave the two men a tour of the site, where only six recognizable buildings remained standing. Of these, the “main building or officer’ quarters” was in the best state of repair, due to its late-construction date of 1863. This one-and-one-half story, front-gabled residence featured two massive stone chimneys and clapboard siding. Also pointed out to the visitors were a store house, a fur house, the clerk’s house, and a semi-subterranean room referred to, probably mistakenly, as the powder magazine.
The bastion was described as “the oldest structure at the fort ... . It is constructed of ten-inch tamarack and has stood the test of time well. It is about ten feet square” (An Illustrated History of Stevens, Ferry, Okanogan and Chelan Counties, 1904). The stockade was down, but remnants of the logs that composed it were still visible. All that was left of the other structures, such as employee’s quarters, brewery, whip-saw mill, and windmill, were faint traces.
In 1907, Donald McDonald moved to Montana, but he retained ownership of the land on which Fort Colvile was located, and stored some of his possessions in the main quarters. On July 7, 1910, fire swept through the little group of buildings, taking everything with it, even the fences. Consumed in the flames were “books more than 100 years old” and “contained within the confines of its walls curios of almost inestimable value” (Spokesman-Review, 1910).
On the same day, the old church of the nearby St. Paul’s Mission also burned down, leading some to conclude that both fires were started by an arsonist. Others believed that brush fires were to blame. Thus, there was little left of Fort Colvile when the waters of Lake Roosevelt covered the site in the early 1950s.
During periods of drawdown, some archaeological work has been conducted at the location. Nevertheless, the continuous action of flowing water and accumulated silt ensures that this site is not likely to be better documented than it is now. When last visited by this author, in the mid-1990s, only bits and pieces were noted, and the broken stem of an ancient glass goblet.