Washington Territorial Legislature incorporates the City of Vancouver on January 23, 1857.

  • By John J. Caldbick
  • Posted 8/17/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9115
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On January 23, 1857, the Washington Territorial Legislature passes an act incorporating the City of Vancouver, a Clark County settlement of just over 918 acres located on the north bank of the Columbia River, 90 miles east  of the Pacific Coast. It is the territory's second incorporated city, following only Steilacoom in Pierce County, which gained that status in 1854. The Vancouver legislation sets the boundaries of the city and establishes the office of mayor, a seven-member "common council," and  other official positions. Over the next 150 years Vancouver will grow to a population of more than 164,000 (2009) and will become the fourth largest city in the state.

Part British, Part American

The history of what was to become the City of Vancouver cannot be disentangled from the histories of the British Hudson's Bay Company, the U.S. Army, and Clark County itself.  Non-native settlement of the area began in 1825, when Hudson's Bay established a presence on the north bank of the Columbia River. It named its outpost Fort Vancouver in honor of British Royal Navy Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798), an early explorer of the northwest Pacific Coast. The fort was to serve for more than two decades as headquarters for all Hudson’s Bay Company operations west of the Rockies.

Although the company actively discouraged settlement by Americans, this was to prove a losing battle, and the United States incrementally but steadily exercised more control over the region. The Oregon Provisional Government established the District of Vancouver in 1844, later changing its name to Vancouver County. The 1846 Oregon Treaty established the 49th parallel far to the north as the dividing line between British holdings and the United States, while purporting to preserve the Hudson's Bay Company's rights and holdings south of that line. In 1848, the U.S. Congress created the Oregon Territory, which then included what later became Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and western Montana.

Up for Grabs, by Any Name

Despite the Oregon Treaty's promises, the Hudson's Bay Company's fortunes and influence waned rapidly after the U.S. Army arrived in 1849 and established Columbia Barracks (later renamed Vancouver Barracks). The small settlement that grew up around the west side of the barracks, which was distinct from Hudson Bay's Fort Vancouver, came to be known as the City of Columbia. Also in 1849, the territorial government changed the region's name yet again, from Vancouver County to Clarke County, a misspelled tribute to explorer William Clark (1770-1838) that was not officially corrected until 1926.

The passage of the federal Donation Land Claims law in 1850, which granted title to certain whites and Indians of mixed blood after four years occupancy on the land, led to a major influx of settlers. Pressure increased to divide the huge Oregon Territory, and in 1853 President Millard Fillmore (1800-1874) signed the act creating Washington Territory from the lands that lay north of the Columbia River. Two years later, in 1855, Washington's Territorial Legislature changed the name of Clarke County's largest community from Columbia to Vancouver, which it has remained ever since.   

New City, Old Roots

When the Territorial Legislature incorporated Vancouver in 1857, it explicitly hearkened back to one of the community's earliest American settlers in setting the boundaries of the "new" city:

"Commencing at the southwest corner of the military reservation at Vancouver, in the county of Clarke; thence westerly along the south line of Mrs. Esther Short's land claim to the southwest corner of said claim; thence north three fourths of a mile; thence east to the west line of the military reservation, and thence southerly along said line thirty chains; thence east fifty chains; thence south to the Columbia river; thence west along the meanders of said river, to the place of beginning" (Real Property Statutes of Washington).

Esther Short had arrived in the region in 1844 with her husband and children. Her husband drowned in 1853, but Esther went on to  help build the city of Vancouver. She opened a restaurant  the year of her husband's death, and in 1854 she opened the city’s first hotel, the Pacific House on S Main and 2nd streets.  In 1855 she donated Esther Short Park and a long strip of waterfront for the city’s use. The park is reputed to be the oldest public square in the state.

In 1858 Vancouver elected its first mayor, Levi Farnsworth, a shipbuilder from Vermont, and soon became the county's main trading center. By 1867, a Pacific Coast business directory listed seven general merchandise stores, livery stables, and other businesses in the city. The coming of industry took a little longer. In 1871, the Hidden Brick Company opened for business, a few early lumber mills appeared in the following years, and companies manufacturing wood products began to spring up. Agriculture, particularly prune growing, developed in the late 1870s and early 1890s. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, Vancouver could claim five sawmills, two sash and door factories, a box factory, three brickyards, and a brewery. In the modern age, its economy has been buoyed by an influx of high-tech businesses.

Hudson's Bay Calls it Quits

The Hudson's Bay Company was not around to see this progress. As the American presence grew, the company's steadily shrank. In 1845, Fort Vancouver had 1,200 acres under cultivation and thousands of head of livestock; by 1860, that had been reduced to barely 70 acres and only a few cattle and horses. Arriving settlers simply fenced off and claimed sections of the company's land, ignoring any treaty rights the company may have had.

The declining fur trade and the hostility of the local military and government left the company with little incentive and no effective way to protect its holdings. In May and June of 1860, the Hudson's Bay Company gave up, removing its last equipment and personnel from Fort Vancouver to Victoria, finally ceding its remaining land to the U.S. Army. Vancouver was now a fully American city, free to grow and prosper as the westward tide of population and progress surged on.


"History of Vancouver: An Overview of Vancouver's History," City of Vancouver website accessed August 13, 2009 (http://www.cityofvancouver.us/history.asp); "City of Vancouver: History of Annexation," City of Vancouver website accessed August 12, 2009 (http://www.ci.vancouver.wa.us/upload/images/Planning/AnnexHistory11-17-04scw.pdf); "Christening Ceremony," The Columbian website accessed August 12, 2009 (http://retro.columbian.com/history/Vancouver/vanc.cfm); "Cities and Towns, State of Washington Dates of Incorporation, Disincorporation, and Changes of Classification," Municipal Service and Research Center of Washington (MRSC) website accessed August 12, 2009 (http://www.mrsc.org/library/inctable.aspx); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Washington Territory and Washington State, Founding of" (by Junius Rochester) and "Vancouver, George (1758-1798)"  (by Junius Rochester), and  "Vancouver – Thumbnail History (by Pat Jollota and the HistoryLink Staff) and "Clark County -- Thumbnail History" (by William S. Hanable) http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed August 14, 2009); "Millard Fillmore," United States Senate website accessed August 14, 2009 (http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/VP_Millard_Fillmore.htm); "Vancouver Uncovered," Clark County Historical Museum website accessed August 12, 2009 (http://www.cchmuseum.org/MuseumText.pdf); "Clark County," Clark County Department of Assessment and Geographic Information System website accessed August 12, 2009 (http://gis.clark.wa.gov/applications/gishome/publications/assets/docs/43-append.pdf); "History of Fort Vancouver, 1846-1869: A Brief Outline," National Park Service website accessed August 15, 2009 (http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/fova/hussey/chap4.htm); "Fort Vancouver: Transition, 1847-1860," National Park Service website accessed August 15, 2009 (http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/fova/clr/clr2-3.htm); T. O. Abbott, Real Property Statutes of Washington Territory from 1843 to 1889 (Olympia: State Printing and Publishing Company, 1892), 795.

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