Saturday, September 18, 2021
Sept. 18, 2021

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New walking tour at Vancouver Barracks examines American frontier life in the 1880s

By , Columbian Editor
Published:
7 Photos
Guests listen to National Park Service curator Meagan Huff talk about the work immigrants performed at Vancouver Barracks in the 1880s. The former Infantry Barracks in the background now serves as headquarters of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Guests listen to National Park Service curator Meagan Huff talk about the work immigrants performed at Vancouver Barracks in the 1880s. The former Infantry Barracks in the background now serves as headquarters of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. (Joshua Hart/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

After the Hudson’s Bay fur traders left Fort Vancouver, and long before the Doughboys of World War I arrived, Vancouver Barracks was an Army post in transition.

The changes that took place and the people who lived, worked, served and were imprisoned there in the 1880s are the subject of a new self-guided walking tour through the East Barracks portion of the site.

Between now and Aug. 28, visitors can take a self-guided tour by following the map available at go.nps.gov/vancouver1880s and following the signs.

On Saturday, National Park Service curator Meagan Huff led a walking tour.

She said the 1880s were a time of transition in the United States. It was the last decade before the American Frontier was declared closed, and before Washington became a state on Nov. 11, 1889. The Civil War had ended, and the United States, a nation of agriculture, was becoming the land of heavy industry. In the Pacific Northwest, the long-disputed boundary with Canada had finally been set. The Indian Wars had been mostly fought.

Huff put the transition in context for the soldiers, indigenous people, servants and immigrants who called Vancouver Barracks home.

For the soldiers, Vancouver became a glamour assignment. After the Civil War had virtually emptied the barracks as troops were called east, the Army returned to and invested in Vancouver. On Officers Row, the Marshall House was built. Indoor plumbing was installed in the barracks. And, to give soldiers a better recreational opportunity than drinking, the post canteen, the first of its kind, was established. Soldiers could play billiards, write letters and drink coffee. Soon, the idea spread to other Army posts. It became known as the Post Exchange, or PX, and today the AAFES Exchange is still a major part of military life.

Native Americans had a much different experience. For some, such as the Tukudika band of Mountain Shoshone, Vancouver Barracks served as a prison. After being removed from their ancestral land in present-day Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, men, women and children were marched to the barracks guardhouse and held. From the cellhouse windows, they could see the parade ground, where soldiers mustered and marched; the flagpole; and the commander’s headquarters in the Grant House.

It’s a hard story to hear today. But in the 1880s, U.S. policy was “all about enforcing American dominance and control in this area,” Huff noted, with the 1880s also marking a policy shift between establishing native reservations and forced cultural assimilation.

Servants and immigrants also had a different experience. Starting in the old Hudson’s Bay Company days, workers arrived in Vancouver from around the Pacific Rim. The 1880 census, for example, found 13 Chinese men working on Officers Row, mostly as cooks or in other service roles. The 1880s was also a time of white uprising against Chinese people living in Tacoma and Seattle, with Vancouver troops being sent twice to Puget Sound to help keep the peace.

“The (Chinese) men who lived here and worked here did this against this kind of backdrop,” Huff noted. Many stayed anyway.

Immigrants from other nations were represented among the troops and those who served them. In 1880, for example, 58 percent of Vancouver Barracks troops were immigrants, from places such as Bavaria and Ireland. Near the present-day Clark Public Utilities building, a cadre of Irish women offered laundry services.

In 1889, the barracks hosted a distinguished visitor: the legendary Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, who visited Department of the Columbia commander Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, who was both an old friend and adversary. Chief Joseph spent a few days staying at the Marshall House (although it wasn’t known by that name then), and the men took the ferry to Portland, where they visited the traveling Gettsyburg Cyclorama, in which Gibbon pointed himself out on the gigantic circular mural of the battle. Chief Joseph reportedly was appalled by the mural’s brutality.

“We do not live in a boring country,” Huff said. Saturday’s tour of the East Barracks confirmed it.

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