Off beat: Go with the flow? Columbia sure did

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A weathered Vancouver grave marker provides some interesting information about a Northwest founding father.

Too bad the marker doesn’t include what might be the most interesting information: his first name.

According to the inscription, the distinguished departed is Judge C. Lancaster.

His first name was Columbia. (Actually, that was his second first name; more on that later.)

But if there ever was a man whose name determined his destiny, it had to be Columbia Lancaster.

The Columbian has done several stories this summer on local cemeteries, from historical, holiday and archaeological perspectives. During one of those assignments, the can’t-miss-it monument in Vancouver’s Old City Cemetery sparked some curiosity about who’s buried there, anyway.

The Clark County Genealogical Society has a cemetery map that offers some answers … and prompts even more questions.

When Lewis and Clark returned to the East Coast after the journey that took them through this area, the brochure explains, one of the explorers persuaded Benjamin Lancaster to name his son after the river that took them west.

But the Lancasters’ son was born in Connecticut on Aug. 26, 1803; Lewis and Clark didn’t even hit the trail until 1804, and didn’t return to St. Louis until September 1806 — when the boy was 3 years old.

The genealogical society provided more information, explaining that the tyke’s first first name was Thomas, and his parents changed it.

Who knows how it influenced his life, but Lancaster eventually headed west — a bit at a time.

Vancouver re-enactor Tom Laidlaw, whose stable of living-history roles includes Lancaster, pointed out some highlights of Columbia’s long career as a public figure. That includes several years in Michigan, a state split into two chunks by the Great Lakes.

“He had something to do with the dispute that gave Michigan the Upper Peninsula,” Laidlaw said.

Then Lancaster and his young family headed off on the Oregon Trail in 1847 and settled in Clark County.

In 1854, Lancaster was elected the first Washington Territory delegate to Congress. While there, according to a biography, he negotiated the purchase of all the Hudson’s Bay Company property within the United States.

And in 1862, the Legislature created a board of regents for the University of Washington, with Lancaster one of the nine men appointed.

— Tom Vogt

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.