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Review

Exploring Fort Vancouver

By Theresa Langford, Douglas C. Wilson (eds)

November 4, 2013

Review By Stanley Copp

This fine volume is truly a “must” for those with more than a passing interest in the origins of the multi-ethnic area of the Pacific Northwest Coast, from the Aboriginal inhabitants to the eighteenth and nineteenth century Russian, American, British-French-Canadian, and even Spanish colonial powers, and their impacts on the formation of the far western coasts of Canada and the United States. Academics and the general public interested in the fur trade history of this region can locate a plethora of books and articles, but finding publications dealing with its archaeological record is much more difficult. Archaeological excavations have been conducted for decades on fur trade posts, but little information has made it into the popular press. This volume is a start towards correcting this imbalance.

The book consists of seven chapters written by academics working on-site and/or serving the U.S. National Park Service in the Pacific Northwest. It begins with the historical background and the founding, over the winter of 1824-25, of Fort Vancouver by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC); charts the post-1848 decline and the HBC fort’s transformation into the US military base Fort Vancouver, which in 1879 was renamed Barracks Vancouver; continues with the site’s reinvention as the base of the World War I Spruce Production Division, its emergence as a regional centre of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Depression, and its transformation into a training and administrative headquarters for the US Army during World War II.

The major theme of ethno-cultural identity is assisted by large and clearly visible photographs of artifacts illustrating discussions of the various historical identities of fort personnel and proximate populations. No less than ten non-Aboriginal and thirty-seven Aboriginal ethnic groups worked in, or near, the fort during the fur trade period (p. 10). Of particular interest is the identification and discussion of gender and other stratifications within the nineteenth century colonial and multi-cultural society and their transformation by Victorian politico-social-economic ideals.

Another interesting theme is technological change in fur trade and military fort periods, from stone tools to the lingering homemade medieval technologies of the HBC, to imported products of nineteenth century industrialism, to early mass-produced objects. Examples range from hand-forged items produced by HBC blacksmiths, to nineteenth century innovations like stamped metal nails, to modern wire nails. Other artifacts embedded with social meanings include glass beads, ceramics, and other items imported from Europe and Asia.

Nineteenth and early twentieth century globalization is a theme one might not expect in a populist volume. The book considers, for example, a mid-nineteenth century teacup and saucer excavated at the HBC fort. Portraying the British East India Company and the Sino-British Opium Wars, the cup and saucer symbolize contemporary syncretic acculturative movements in which tea consumption was both a refreshment and a statement of political-economic and social status.

The ability of artifacts to elicit excitement and awe for specialists and laypersons alike is exemplified in the book’s examination of health practices and moral issues. An ethno and historical-archaeological approach provides a fascinating, but all too short, discussion of diet and disease from the fur trade era, when treatments for disease were startlingly primitive to twenty-first century eyes, to the establishment of base hospitals during World Wars I and II. An image of early nineteenth century surgical instruments, including saws and drills for amputations and trephinations, accompanies a text that also considers the epidemics that nearly exterminated Aboriginal populations on the Pacific coast.

The final chapters summarize and explain why, after more than six decades of archaeological investigations, Fort Vancouver’s history is significant for an understanding of the past, present, and future of the region. For someone with more than a passing acquaintance with fur trade archaeology in British Columbia – including several years directing archaeology field schools at Fort Langley – this volume re-kindled a desire to re-read the historical treatises I first encountered decades ago and to find recent and sometimes obscure works noted in the Bibliography.

Printed on high quality paper with numerous maps, illustrations, and colour photographs, this volume is far more than just “eye candy,” and the text is an interesting amalgam of popular and academic historical themes. As the early nineteenth century fur traders might have said in the then-common Chinook jargon: this is one skookum book!

Exploring Fort Vancouver
Douglas C. Wilson and Theresa E. Langford, editors
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011  128 pp., 134 illustrations, 3 maps, $24.95