At Clark County Historical Museum, a history of employment

New exhibit shows how county labor has evolved

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter



If you go

• What: “Labor: A Working History”

• When: Thursday (5 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. lecture)

• Where: Clark County Historical Museum, 1511 Main St.

• Admission: $4 adults; $3 seniors/students; $2 children; $10 families. Free for Historical Society members; military veterans; active-duty military families with ID.

• Information:

A local labor force that has been evolving since international trade in the 1820s is part of a new exhibit at the Clark County Historical Museum.

The exhibit opens Thursday in conjunction with a lecture on labor and civil rights by University of Washington professor Michael Honey.

The new exhibit — "Labor: A Working History" — will trace Clark County's work and workers, beginning in the 19th century with Hawaiians and members of Indian tribes. In 1824, the Hudson's Bay Company designated Fort Vancouver as the headquarters and agricultural supply depot for its extensive fur-trading operation.

The region's first corporation had two dozen trading posts, six ships, and more than 600 employees. Indians throughout this trade network supplied crucial furs, and Hawaiian labor became critical to the enterprise.

In trading with China, Hudson's Bay Company ships stopped in the Hawaiian Islands, the 19th-century commercial hub of the Pacific. Recognizing a potential workforce, the company opened an Oahu office in 1829 to recruit or impress Hawaiians into service. Often indebted to the company for trade goods, Hawaiians were contracted for three years as workers at Fort Vancouver.

Sometimes exploited and unable to afford to return to their native Hawaii, the men worked on fur brigades, as sailors, loggers, guides and cooks. Hawaiian workers often married Indian women, motivating them to renew their contracts and stay here.

The women also worked for the company -- processing salmon, working on the farm or manufacturing candles and other goods for the stores. In "Kanaka Village" outside the fort, up to 600 Hawaiian, Indian, French-Canadian, Scottish, Irish, and Métis (mixed native and European heritage) workers and their families made their homes.

The exhibit shows how labor issues changed through the 20th century, highlighting the effects of the world wars on workers' unions and the internal struggles of organized labor groups. It also shows how inflation and automation have cost labor unions much of the power they once held.

Honey teaches labor, African-American and civil rights at the University of Washington's Tacoma campus. He has performed his "Links on the Chain" program of labor and civil rights songs with singers who include Pete Seeger.

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558;;