Step into the past at Fort Vancouver (with video)

National historic site's monthly open house tours offer an array of artifacts

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter



Program Schedule

Saturday: “The McLoughlin Family in the Northwest” — Dr. John McLoughlin was chief factor of Fort Vancouver from 1825-45. Learn about his family’s role in Northwest history, and see historic family heirlooms.

April 13: “The Women of Vancouver Barracks” — Learn about the women who lived at the Army post, from laundresses to officers’ wives, through items they owned.

May 11: “Fur Trade Families at Fort Vancouver” — See what it was it like to raise a family and be a child at Fort Vancouver in the early 19th century through archaeological artifacts.

June 8: “Health and Hygiene in 19th Century Vancouver” — Apothecary bottles and patent-medicine bottles show how the residents of Fort Vancouver and Vancouver Barracks tried to stay healthy, and how approaches to health and sanitation (including chamber pots) transformed during the 19th century.

July 13: “Public Archaeology Field School” — Fort Vancouver has been the location of public archaeology field schools, in partnership with Portland State University and Washington State University Vancouver, since 2001. See artifacts from past years’ excavations, and visit this year’s school to talk to student archaeologists.

Aug. 10: “Faith at Fort Vancouver” — Learn about the beliefs of Fort Vancouver residents through religious objects, such as crucifixes and rosaries, they left behind.

Sept. 14: “1845” — Discover what life was like at Fort Vancouver in 1845 through the museum collection as well as its biggest living-history event of the year, “Campfires and Candlelight.”

Oct. 12: “Spruce Mill Soldiers” — Photos and artifacts tell the story of the Vancouver complex, built during World War I to mill wood for warplanes, and its soldiers.

If you go

What: Museum Collection Open House series.

Where: Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, 1501 E. Evergreen Blvd; meet inside the stockade’s gate.

When: Tours at noon and 2 p.m. on the second Saturday of the month, March through October.

Cost: $3; free for ages 15 and younger.

Restrictions: 15 people per tour; children should be older than 10.

Register: 360-816-6255 or; remaining spots can be reserved inside the gate on the day of the event.

Two footprints illustrate the faraway places and different eras that overlap at Fort Vancouver.

Actually, it's a pair of paw prints that were formed some 2,000 years ago in the Roman province of Britannia when a cat stepped on an unfired clay brick. The cat left impressions in the wet clay that were preserved when the brick came out of the kiln.

After being salvaged from a Roman ruin in what is now England, the brick was recycled and eventually made its way to Fort Vancouver as ship's ballast.

Now the brick will be on display Saturday at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site -- along with the paw prints from that cat.

"We call it our 'Celtic kitty,'" said Meagan Huff, a Park Service museum technician at Fort Vancouver.

Huff will lead this year's Museum Collection Open House tours on the second Saturday of the month, March through October.

The Open House program will offer behind-the-scenes tours through the park's curation facility. This year's tours will feature archaeological artifacts from the Hudson's Bay

Company's Fort Vancouver, which stood from 1826 to 1860, and artifacts from Vancouver Barracks, built in 1849 and occupied by the U.S. Army until 2012.

Each program will be built around a historical theme, with Saturday's display focusing on Dr. John McLoughlin, the Hudson's Bay Company's first chief factor here, and his family.

The Roman brick really isn't linked to McLoughlin. But the 2,000-year-old artifact has been in the spotlight lately, so this is a chance to put the brick on display, Huff said.

A story about the brick was published recently in The Atlantic magazine. Several local broadcast outlets followed with stories, and Archaeology magazine and a German online news site have contacted Fort Vancouver about their own stories.

When The Columbian wrote about the brick in 2009, a historian explained how its dimensions — 7.5 inches long by 6 inches wide — match the bricks that were made in the Roman province of Britannia.

Karl Gurcke, a National Park Service historian and an expert on brickmaking, said it wasn't unusual for British builders to recycle ancient building materials over the centuries. The style of brick was so distinctive, Gurcke said, that British manufacturers started to turn out replicas of the Roman masonry.

But the Fort Vancouver brick isn't a replica, Gurcke told The Columbian. It was recovered during the excavation of Kanaka Village, which housed workers at the fort until about 1853. English brickmakers started making their reproductions in 1886.

"Seeing something from so far away and from so long ago is fascinating," Huff said.

The next-oldest artifact representing the settlement's European roots actually does come with a date: a small silver coin stamped "1562" bearing the image of Queen Elizabeth I.

"We have absolutely no idea how it got here," Huff said.

The Saturday tour will show several generations of McLoughlin family members through different photographic technologies that include ambrotype and daguerreotype images. There also will be personal possessions of John McLoughlin and his wife, Marguerite.

Other personal possessions will be part of future tours, including "The Women of Vancouver Barracks" on April 13. It will feature a bodice worn by Isabelle Haughey, who lived on Officers Row during the 1880s.

"Her stepfather was an Army officer," Huff said.

"You can see somebody wore this," Huff said as she unbuttoned the garment and examined its interior. "It's not a museum piece."

Those are just a few of the 2 million archaeological and historic artifacts in the Fort Vancouver collection.

"We have hidden secrets in our collection that we don't want to be hidden," said Tessa Langford, curator at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

Fort officials hope to have a better showcase for some of their treasures after the recently acquired Vancouver Barracks properties are folded in to the historic site.

"We hope to have a museum facility when the barracks buildings are rehabilitated," Langford said.

The Saturday tours will last about 30 minutes. After people pay the fort's standard admission fees, there is no additional tour charge.