Rotting and crumbling, Fort Vancouver burned to the ground in 1866. When the British pulled out in 1860, they left the fort in American hands. Never fans of the British, the American military neglected its maintenance. Very likely, the derelict fort stood out as an eyesore next to the well-maintained Vancouver Barracks. Whether the fire was set by accident or on purpose remains a mystery.
In time, the community forgot the exact site of the fort. Then in 1921, after 15 years of searching, C Street resident Felix Robinson, a civil engineer just reassigned to Fort Lewis, was clearing out old papers in his office. He found a yellowed bit of tracing linen bearing the name Lt. Col. Benjamin L.E. Bonneville, who commanded the fort from 1853 to 1855. The rediscovered map was Bonneville’s site survey and revealed the fort’s location.
As the mid-1920s drew near and the 100th anniversary of the fort approached, enthusiasm increased for restoring the fort. In March 1925, the front page of The Columbian displayed a photo of four men examining restoration plans for the stockade. One was Glenn Ranck, a 1917 founding member and then president of the Fort Vancouver Historical Society (now the Clark County Historical Society).
Archaeological digging between 1947 and 1952 determined where a reconstructed fort would stand, and artifacts gave some inkling of the lives Hudson’s Bay Company employees led there. Stockade and building reconstruction started in the early 1970s and continues today. But, at the time, archaeologists didn’t realize they were investigating the fort’s second location. (The original site was near the Washington State School for the Deaf, and recent diggings have uncovered parts of it.)
Known as “Mr. History” locally, Ranck relished promoting Vancouver’s early days, writing articles for The Columbian and The Oregonian, whipping up excitement for the fort’s centennial celebration in 1925. Sometimes he published the same pieces in both newspapers.
After the 1925 centennial celebration, he reported an astounding bit of news: The flag that once flew on the Hudson’s Bay Company flagpole had been found — the same one that had been raised over the fort in 1825 and lowered when the fur company left for Canada, then replaced by the Stars and Stripes.
According to an Oregonian article by Ranck, the flag had headed north with Hudson’s Bay Company employees and hung from flagpoles at Fort Victoria and Fort Stikine in Alaska before it returned to its old home. The flag became a prized possession of Vancouver’s historical society, and the group raised the flag once again over the fort site on March 19, 1926. The importance of the date, the flag and the flagpole lurk in the fort’s inauguration.
The flagpole rose over the stockade even before its dedication. After sunrise on March 16, 1825, with HBC employees and Native Americans watching, Gov. George Simpson hosted a ceremony. That date was recognized because 100 years before, Simpson wrote in his journal that he had baptized the flagstaff that day by breaking a bottle of rum against the flagpole and loudly declaring, “I nearby name this establishment Fort Vancouver.” Naming the fort after navigator George Vancouver reinforced the English claim on the area.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.