Only a few visitors and scattered historical documents called the rough dwellings outside Fort Vancouver “Kanaka Village.” Instead, those living there in the Hudson’s Bay Company days called the grouping of houses “the village.”
It’s unclear how Kanaka, a word meaning Hawaiian native, was added to village or when. Perhaps it was the skin-color-conscious visiting Americans seeing the variety of skin tones among Hawaiians, Metis and Native inhabitants who named it so. No matter how it arose, the name stuck.
Hawaiian contributions to the history of America remain unacknowledged. In the Pacific Northwest, they served as sailors and laborers for the Northwest Company, the Astor expedition, the Russian American Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Wythe expedition and the Puget Sound Agricultural Company.
The first woman and first Hawaiian to set foot on America’s northwest coast was Winee, the servant of the ship captain’s 16-year-old bride. Both traveled on a British merchant ship sailing under an Austrian flag. Winee, whose name is likely a derivative of wahine, the Hawaiian word for woman, died at sea in 1788.
Hawaiians served as missionaries for the Methodists and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. For these organizations, they served as builders, blacksmiths, farmworkers and kitchen help. Hawaiians set foot every place on the West Coast, from present-day Alaska to California.
At Fort Vancouver, Hawaiians, primarily men, were a significant part of the Hudson’s Bay Company workforce. Some had worked for the Northwest Company; the Hudson’s Bay Company gained them when the two firms merged. Contracts with the company for Hawaiians ran from one to three years. At first, Hudson’s Bay paid only trinkets, food, clothing and shelter. Weekly rations varied over the years, but in 1841, each week an employee received a bushel of potatoes, 21 pounds of salted salmon, and occasionally other meats.
But Hawaiians soon learned the value of money and the company paid them 10 pounds a year while others received 17. For Hudson’s Bay, Hawaiians operated the sawmill northeast of Fort Vancouver. George Simpson noted in 1829, “about half” of the Hudson’s Bay Company shipboard crews were “Sandwich Islanders,” what the Hawaiian Islands were called back then.
In 1832, about 20 or so houses made up the village, giving employees their own community. A visitor in 1834 noted the “fastidious cleanliness” and saw women “sweeping the streets and scrubbing the door-sills” as often as in a city. The artist, Paul Kane, wrote in 1846 about the “Babel of languages” he heard there. About the same time, another visitor noted the prevalence of the “fictitious language” of Chinook trading jargon.
The houses varied in construction because each employee built his own. Yet there seemed a rough pattern of pathways among the homes. Many were set with posts in the ground with slabs of wood placed in notches of the posts and covered with cedar bark. Some buildings, as one visitor recalled, were “hewn of logs.” Although the different construction was personal, it’s possible the style changed as village inhabitants came and went.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.