Fort Vancouver’s past fascinates Shine

Historian, chief ranger works with team to tell the stories in the digital age

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter




• Download a copy of “Revealing Our Past: A History of Nineteenth Century Vancouver Barracks through 25 Objects” on the National Parks Service website.

• A blog with a behind-the-scenes look at the Fort.

As a boy, Greg Shine saw places where history was made loudly and abruptly, punctuated by artillery barrages and infantry charges.

Now Shine examines the past from another perspective, as historian and chief ranger at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

“This wasn’t a fort with cannons on the walls,” Shine said.

It’s a place where history was shaped through decades of cultural ebb and flow. It’s a place where history can be interpreted through a child’s doll as well as a soldier’s revolver.

“This site is somewhat unique,” Shine said. “This is a crossroad of cultures. You can’t study American history and not connect with this region — and this site in particular: the Hudson’s Bay era, the Oregon Trail era, the U.S. military.”

During all those eras, Fort Vancouver (and its subsequent names as a U.S. military post) was a seat of power. Its administrators oversaw a huge territory.

But Fort Vancouver’s role in history isn’t just a summary of things that happened here, Shine said. It’s also reflected by the people who came here.

“We talk about Fort Vancouver as a proving ground, whether it was the military or the fur trade,” Shine said. “Hudson’s Bay Company people were here because they were chosen for their skill sets — able to work in remote areas.”

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As chief factor, John McLoughlin ran the fort from 1825 to 1845.

“He had the skills to operate an efficient business when communication (with London) takes a year,” Shine said. “James Douglas worked here under McLoughlin; he’s heralded as the first governor of British Columbia.”

It was the same story after the U.S. Army arrived in 1849, Shine said. Given the distance from the next level of command, military officers posted here had to be self-starters, Shine said.

“Those who were here were flexible, and that served them well in their careers,” Shine said.

Rufus Ingalls is a good example. Although Ingalls was overshadowed by his friend Ulysses S. Grant, the supply officer found his niche here.

“His experience here suited his role as a quartermaster, providing supplies in unprecedented numbers for soldiers in the Union army,” Shine said. “Supply was a major concern in the Civil War, and he did meet those demands.”

That cultural crossroad included French-Canadians, Hawaiian laborers known as Kanakas and members of more than 30 Indian tribes. The cultural crossover influenced Army officers who served here.

“Civil War generals would correspond in Chinook jargon,” Shine said. Fluency in the trading dialect was a mark of distinction among career Army officers.

Many of those officers were part of the era that formed Shine’s early interest in history.

“My first exposure to history was military,” the Indiana native said. “I did the ‘cannon-ball circuit’ as a kid: Antietam, Gettysburg … famous battlefield parks.”

However, “Battle sites occupy a very small window in the world,” Shine said.

Fort Vancouver’s history unfolds over generations.

Representing any historic site is a challenge, particularly in a field where story-telling resources can’t keep pace with everyday technology. According to a National Park Service report, its interpretive media — including wayside signs and brochures — are 20 years out of date. And 78 percent of park visitors rely solely on those sources, getting no face-to-face interpretive information from park personnel.

But Shine and a team from Washington State University Vancouver developed a digital-age approach to opening up Fort Vancouver’s past. The project has resulted in national honors for Shine and Brett Oppegaard, an assistant professor at Washington State University Vancouver.

Shine and Oppegaard were awarded the 2013 John Wesley Powell Prize on behalf of the team that worked on the “Kanaka Village” project. The award is presented by the Society for History in the Federal Government.

Oppegaard called Shine “the historical hub of all information related to the project.”

“None of us were historians. We’re all digital media scholars,” Oppegaard, a former Columbian reporter, said. Shine was their link to the stories, as well as items in the Fort Vancouver museum collection.

“When we started it in 2009, he put together a list of the coolest stories we could tell,” Oppegaard said.

Fort Vancouver’s artifact collection has 2 million items, Oppegaard added, and Shine “knew off the top of his head” what might help the Kanaka Village story.

Shine is a candidate for more national honors after winning the Park Service’s Pacific Northwest 2013 Freeman Tilden Award for an educational or interpretive project.

Revealing Our Past: A History of Nineteenth Century Vancouver Barracks through 25 Objects” was done through Portland State University, where Shine is an adjunct history professor.

The digital book “is a first in the national park system,” Christine Lehnertz, NPS regional director, said in a news release. She said the project reflects cutting-edge creativity and originality.

In 2008, Shine was part of a “History Detectives” episode. The PBS show explored the link between the USS Shark, which was wrecked in 1846 after leaving Fort Vancouver, and Cannon Beach, Ore.

After it aired, Shine got a call from a relative of the Shark’s commander, and he came by for a visit.

“A living connection to 1840s naval history was here,” Shine said.

“Those are stories that make a site like this so attractive to me, so many layers to it across history,” Shine said. “Here, families continue to pop up.

“Here, there is no end to learning about the site.”

Greg Shine