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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County history: Vancouver sits atop conflicting claims

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: June 1, 2024, 6:12am

The land the city of Vancouver now rests on has a contentious past. Supposedly, its first owner was Ermatinger, a Hudson’s Bay Company employee who traveled to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) and never returned. Then came Job McNamee, who grabbed the land in the absence of the original owner. The Bay Company ran him off. The same year, claim-jumper number two, Henry Williamson, arrived at Fort Vancouver.

While the previous temporary landowners failed to register their claims, Williamson rode to Oregon City, Ore., and spent $5 to properly record his claim. The following year, he left his land in the care of a man called Alderman so he could return to Indiana and marry. Back home, he found his bride-to-be was deceased. His return to the fort in 1847 was equally catastrophic. Yet another claim-jumper, Amos Short, now possessed Williamson’s land.

To solidify his ownership claim, Williamson joined forces with William Fellowes, who had built a cabin on his land. (The site lies near the waterfront east of today’s Interstate 5 Bridge.) They decided to lay out a town and hired a recently arrived young Scottish surveyor, Peter Crawford, to plat it.

Crawford’s survey, conducted in May and June 1848, started at a Balm of Gilead tree, which stood at Main Street’s end on the banks of the Columbia River until 1909. It was called the Witness Tree and became a legitimate landmark for property disputes. Fellowes, a member of the Crawford crew, served as “axman,” meaning he cut the trees and set stakes to identify the boundaries for the survey. Fort Vancouver’s Kanaka village was the survey’s eastern edge and Eighth Street formed the northern boundary.

Williamson named his site Vancouver City and again rode to Oregon City to record the land survey. When California gold was discovered at Sutter’s Creek in 1849, he left the future town behind for glittery rocks, leaving Fellowes in care of the land. Like the land’s first owner, Williamson never returned.

Bitten by the gold bug, Fellowes also skedaddled, absenting himself for years and leaving a man named Kellogg in charge. Kellogg passed the guardianship of the land to Dr. David Gardner, a Hudson’s Bay Company representative. Irritated with the Short family, the fur company sent the doctor and two Hawaiians to confront them. During an argument over the property, Amos Short shot Gardner. Short, claiming self-defense, was declared not guilty.

Short hired a surveyor, Israel Mitchell, to plat a town with a map. Mitchell resurveyed the Williamson plats without disturbing any stakes or boundaries. Crawford instructed Mitchell to follow his original platting, leaving the block and lot numbers identical. The second map wasn’t recorded because the recently passed Donation Land Claim Act forbade claims on a new townsite. But the town was renamed Columbia City.

Returning from California, Short drowned in 1853 as the ship Vandalia sank at the Columbia River’s mouth. His claim passed to his wife, Esther, who died in 1862, leaving it to the city. By then, the U.S. Army and the Catholic Church also had overlapping claims on the same land.

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Columbian freelance contributor