Dig at fort is right on the button

Discovery at archaeological field school thought to be link to time of transition at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter



Portland State University senior Rebecca Tait of Portland holds a button Friday she found during the archaeological summer field school in Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. The artifact is believed to be a cuff button from a soldier in the 1st U.S. Artillery, which arrived in 1849. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian)

Kids Dig!

 The Kids Dig! program introduces children 8 through 12 to the world of archaeology. They can excavate a mock site with the help of student archaeologists. The final sessions are at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday, July 22, inside the reconstructed Fort Vancouver. Space is limited to 20 children. Reserve spots by calling 360-816-6250.

Go to https://go.usa.gov/xNpe4 for information.

Button, button, who lost the button?

It might have been one of the first American soldiers to arrive at Fort Vancouver.

And that would make the uniform button an intriguing part of Fort Vancouver’s transition from a Hudson’s Bay Company center to the first U.S. Army post in the Northwest.

Rebecca Tait uncovered the brass artifact Wednesday while excavating at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Tait is part of this year’s summer field school, which gives college students hands-on experience at archaeological sites.

The crew is excavating on the north side of East Fifth Street, near the military post exchange store and just across the street from the reconstructed Fort Vancouver stockade.

Students were digging about a foot below ground level when Tait found the button, which features a capital letter “A.”

“It was face-up,” said Tait, a Portland State University student.

When it was removed from the soil and turned over, the little metal loop on the back that was used to sew the button onto the uniform “was completely intact,” she said.

The button was in a productive layer of artifacts that went down about 2 inches. The 100 or so artifacts included a piece of pipe bowl, a sliver of bottle glass, a hand-painted fragment of a dish and the rusty remnant of an iron nail: all familiar finds at Fort Vancouver, but not much that advances the research.

The brass button is literally another story. The story it tells documents the U.S. Army’s arrival in 1849, said Doug Wilson, National Park Service archaeologist.

“The ‘A’ means it was an artilleryman,” said Wilson, the project’s principal investigator.

On May 13, 1849, two companies of the 1st U.S. Artillery under the command of Maj. John Hatheway arrived at Fort Vancouver.

“We know through records that the Army rented a building here from the Hudson’s Bay Company,” Wilson said. “So that ‘A’ is a clue to the first American soldiers here.

“That’s the moment of transition from the fur trade to American immigration,” Wilson said. “You rarely get that kind of tie.”

“That’s pretty amazing,” said Tait, a geography student from Portland who is interested in archaeology.

“It was probably a cuff button,” added park service archaeologist Beth Horton. “Those were the ones that soldiers were most likely to lose” during their daily duties.

On Friday, Kimberli Fitzgerald uncovered another brass find, a container lid measuring about three-quarters of an inch by about 1 1/2 inches.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said Fitzgerald, a Portland State student from Hillsboro, Ore.

They don’t know yet what was in the container, but as research continues, “We try to understand how people lived and worked on this site,” Fitzgerald said.

The annual field school is held in partnership with Washington State University Vancouver and Portland State University.

The field school runs through July 28. Members of the public can drop in from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays, and learn about the research. However, the dig will be shut down this Tuesday because the students will be at a different site.

Summer lectures

The summer archaeology field school includes other events, including a lecture series. All events are free and open to the public.

The final two lectures are at 7 p.m. at the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center, 1501 E. Evergreen Blvd., opposite the east end of Officers Row.

Thursday — Fort Apache Pasts, Presents, Futures: John R. Welch (associate archaeology professor at Simon Fraser University) will discuss relationships among the Apache people, soldiers, bureaucrats and advocates for cultural perpetuation, economic development and historic preservation at the Arizona heritage site.

July 27 — Smudge Pits, Clay Pots, and Ball Courts: Understanding the Relationship Between People and Things: James Skibo (Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Illinois State University) will describe relationships between people and things by exploring clay cooking pots, ball courts from the American Southwest and fur-trade-era smudge pits in Michigan.