In 1792, American trading captain Robert Gray discovered the great Columbia River on his journey to become the first American to sail around the world. Gray claimed the river and its huge drainage area for the United States, naming the river after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva (Columbus Lives Again). After Gray’s discovery, Vancouver sent William Broughton out to explore the upriver territory for England; Broughton asserted that Gray hadn’t found the true channel and claimed the river for His Royal Majesty, the King.
After Broughton’s claim, the United States and Great Britain were unable to come to terms on the ownership of Oregon Country, a fur- and lumber-rich land that included the Northwest Coast of North America. In 1818, the two powers agreed to share the land until a long-term arrangement could be reached, but seven years later the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company moved its headquarters from Fort George, at the mouth of the Columbia, to Fort Vancouver, 100 miles inland, in hopes of solidifying the British claim to the region.
Fort Vancouver became the Pacific Northwest’s commercial and cultural center for fur trading from Utah to Hawaii; shops, fields, pastures, and mills made the fort a self-sufficient, bustling pioneer community. The most famous Columbia River explorers were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Northwesterners won’t be surprised to hear that Lewis and Clark recorded 31 consecutive days of rain during their visit to the region! The region’s historic brush with the Corps of Discovery piqued American interest in what was then called “Oregon Country.”
The floodgates opened in 1843, when the Applegate Wagon Train, the largest wagon train ever assembled anywhere, left Independence, Missouri. Under the leadership of Dr. Marcus Whitman and guided by mountain man Bill Sublette, the pioneers made it all the way to the Columbia and Willamette Rivers by September of that year. It had taken six long months to travel the 2,000 miles, but they had shown that the “Oregon Trail” route was feasible. Thousands of Americans seeking open vistas and economic opportunity would follow in the next two decades. The march west along the Oregon Trail is regarded as the greatest peacetime migration in America’s history.
The Columbia River Gorge lay near the end of the journey for emigrants heading west and posed the last major obstacle along the way. The narrow confines of the gorge forced them to dismantle their wagons and load them onto log rafts to float down the river as far as the Cascades, which they portaged before continuing by raft to the area of present-day Portland. Treacherous rapids, strong currents, and high winds caused the death of many people almost within sight of the promised land. Completion of the Barlow Road in 1846—a toll route that avoided the gorge by heading south around the south shoulder of Mt. Hood—provided a safer alternative to the Willamette Valley. It cost pioneers an exorbitant $5 a wagon and $0.10 a head for livestock to use the road.
These droves of pioneering Americans would happily pay the fee, though, as they were drawn to Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley farmland, a migration that eventually led to the division of the territory along the 49th parallel in 1846—a boundary that put Britain’s Fort Vancouver squarely on American soil. By 1860 all of Fort Vancouver was in the hands of the U.S. Army. Decay and fire had destroyed all of the remaining structures by 1866. The Army constructed new buildings on the slope behind the fort at Vancouver Barracks, including officers’ quarters, barracks and other facilities.
© Ericka Chickowski from Moon Washington, 8th edition