Fort event explores history of correspondence

Day looks at importance of written word, how it influenced daily life

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 
photoJohn McLoughlin Jr. used "cross-writing" in penning this letter from Paris in 1832.

()

If you go

• What: “Written Word” activities and exhibit. Free.

• Where: Fort Vancouver Visitor Center, 1501 Evergreen Blvd.

• When: Noon to 3 p.m. Sunday. (Center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)

If you could send only one letter home a year, what would you tell your family?

That is one of the questions -- and opportunities -- on tap Sunday at an exploration of 180 years of the written word at Fort Vancouver.

“It’s a neat topic to look at through time,” said Cassie Anderson, park ranger at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. “Through most of history, most people couldn’t write. In our park history, we see that.”

When the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Vancouver as its regional headquarters, “The upper-tier folks were literate. You can watch that change through the decades,” said Anderson, the site’s historic programs coordinator.

Examples of the spread of literacy will be part of the event, along with historical re-enactments and hands-on activities for families.

The event will be from noon to 3 p.m. at the Visitor Center, 1501 Evergreen Blvd., across the street from the east end of Officers Row.

“We have original Hudson’s Bay letters in our collection, and they will be on exhibit Sunday,” Anderson said.

One eye-catching example of 180-year-old correspondence came from John McLoughlin Jr., son of Fort Vancouver’s chief factor. It’s done in a style called cross-writing. After filling the page, he turned the paper 90 degrees and wrote at a right angle to the earlier lines.

“It’s hard to read; you have to try to make the eye focus on the right lines,” Anderson said.

It’s possible that John Jr. wrote that way to save paper.

“Paper was scarce, and the letter was folded into its own envelope,” she said. “They didn’t want to use another piece of paper for an envelope.”

It also could have been a bit of a personal flair, Anderson said.

The letter was written in 1832, when John McLoughlin Jr. was living in France with an uncle who was a physician.

“He joined Dr. David McLoughlin in Paris in 1829 to try his hand at medicine,” said Meagan Huff, National Park Service museum technician. He wrote the letter to his cousin, John Fraser, who was the son of Simon Fraser.

“In this letter, he discusses the 1830 July Revolution in France, which he witnessed,” Huff said.

More recent correspondence will be represented by letters from employees, soldiers, and families of Fort Vancouver and Vancouver Barracks. There also will be some familiar sights, with vintage postcards featuring Vancouver Barracks, Mount Hood and the first span of the Interstate 5 Bridge.

The exhibit also will explore the role of correspondence over the last couple of centuries. Conversation in the 19th century was often severely restricted by what was deemed socially acceptable, Anderson said. Writing was how the literate could express their true feelings … although not necessarily swiftly.

That “one letter a year” premise was how the mail schedule worked here 180 years ago.

“You could send mail one time a year. There was one ship leaving every fall for Europe,” Anderson said. “No matter how many letters you wrote, there was only one shipment.”

Visitors will be able to try their hand at that sort of correspondence. Costumed interpreters dressed as Hudson’s Bay Company clerks will assist those who want to try dipping a pen in ink -- and will help them keep the lines straight.

Performances include a short scene about a real Hudson’s Bay Company letter that was never delivered, and a scene that illustrates the U.S. Army experience at Vancouver Barracks.

There will be a craft table for kids, including Valentine activities.

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.