Fort Vancouver National Historic Site re-enactment revisits tense time

Campfires & Candlelight program examines when England, U.S. were at odds

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter



If You Go

What: Campfires & Candlelight living-history event.

When: 4 to 10 p.m. Sept. 9.

Where: Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, 1001 E. Fifth St.

Admission: Free.

In 1845, tensions between American settlers and Great Britain along this stretch of the Columbia River had the English wondering about the possibility of a war.

That is the setup for this year’s Campfires & Candlelight program at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. In addition to re-enacting one particular night from the past, the annual event always opens at 4 p.m. with a full cast of costumed volunteers who interpret 120 years of Southwest Washington history.

This year’s centerpiece, which begins when the fort’s gates open at 5 p.m., reflects the night of Sept. 9, 1845. There is a power struggle between England and the United States.

These days, the two nations “think of each other as great friends,” said Meagan Huff, a National Park Service assistant curator. That relationship bloomed in the 20th century, she said.

“In the 19th century, (today’s) great friend was not our friend.”

In both Washington, D.C., and London, leaders were concerned that their national interests in the Pacific Northwest were in jeopardy. With American residents already living under a provisional government in Oregon, members of the British cabinet were expressing alarm at the situation on the Columbia River.

In April 1845, British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel directed his military to send a couple of army officers on a scouting mission. Henry Warre and Mervin Vavasour were ordered to assess Hudson’s Bay Company facilities from a military point of view, in case war broke out and those fur-trading posts had to become part of a British defensive network.

Those tensions will be part of the discussion when the gates of the replica stockade open at 5 p.m. Going back 172 years, costumed volunteers will discuss the most important topic of the day: the international dispute between Great Britain and the United States over their claims to the Pacific Northwest, where Fort Vancouver was the center of British fur-trading operations in the region.

Henry Warre and Mervin Vavasour arrived at the fort on Aug. 25. In the guise of gentlemen scientists and sportsmen, they started to surreptitiously map the fort’s defenses, inventory its armaments and assess its tactical capabilities.

In early September, just as Fort Vancouver’s chief factors were entering into a partnership with Oregon’s territorial government, the British frigate HMS America arrived at Port Discovery with Lt. William Peel aboard.

The son of the prime minister arrived at Fort Vancouver on Sept. 8, 1845, the day before the events portrayed in Campfires and Candlelight.

With Warre and Vavasour already here analyzing the fort’s defensive capabilities, Peel became the second prong in the British effort to determine the feasibility of war against the United States.

“By bringing this moment in Northwest history to life, we are hoping to remind visitors of a critical time when the international boundary was not yet settled,” said Bob Cromwell, chief of interpretation at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

The event will begin at 4 p.m., with a time line of history that starts along East Fifth Street and a large World War II encampment hosted by Living History Group Northwest.

As visitors make their way toward the reconstructed Fort Vancouver, they will walk back in time. Other encampments will highlight the site’s history of World War I, the black U.S. Army units known as Buffalo Soldiers, the Oregon Trail, and the workers village occupied by employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1830s and ’40s.

The Vancouver Community Concert Band will play music from historic periods.