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The Photographic Record of the Boundary Survey - Fort Colville & Fort Shepherd

Surfing the internet and researching "Fort Colville" is at first glance somewhat confusing, as there are references to three such forts. They all existed in close proximaty along the Columbia River, and all three were operational at the same time during the course of the 49th parallel survey. To add to the confusion, Colville also appears to have been spelled "Colvile", named after Gen. Colvile of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), without the double "lls" in the last syllable. Although the three Fort Colvilles were some 25-30 miles distant from the 49th parallel, they played an important role in the boundary survey as a convenient source of provisions and as winter headquarters where both U.S. and British Boundary Commission officers and their teams could relax and enjoy normal social and cultural amenities in this otherwise remote wilderness.

View historic maps of Kettle Falls and the Fort Colvilles. (Map 1 Link) (Map 2 Link)

The Boundary Commission Barracks at Fort Colville

The photograph at the top of this page and shown below, depicts the British Boundary Commission "Fort Colville" barracks constructed in 1860 by Col. Hawkins in preparation for the migration of all survey supplies and resources from Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island to Fort Colville. The barracks were situated on the riverside a mile or so north of the HBC trading post, at the present location of Marcus, Washington. A ferry was also installed at that point from which the surveyors could easily cross the Columbia River to access the river banks of the Kettle River and the 49th parallel. At the conclusion of the survey, the barracks were purchased by a local merchant, Marcus Oppenheimer, and a townsite and community prospered there in the following decades as an important railroad centre, serving Grand Forks and the Boundary District as well as the Washington State Inland Empire. The townsite has been submerged under Lake Roosevelt since the 1940s. This photograph is a digital composite of two individual prints that can be viewed online in the Victoria and Albert Museum Archive.

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Old Fort Colville

Old Fort Colville (old being the first of three) was a Hudson's Bay Company fur trading post built in 1825 along what was then called the York Factory Express route following the Columbia River. Boundary Commission photographers wintered near there at their barracks and left behind a remarkable series of photographs depicting the natural surroundings, the fort itself and its inhabitants. (Link)

The Hudson's Bay annual fur brigades of the time used the Columbia River much like truckers use the Interstate 5 highway today, and the bumps in the road, so to speak, were the occasional rapids and waterfalls along the course of the river. The falls at Fort Colville (Kettle Falls) were a fearsome obstacle where strong river torrents plummeted ferociously downward 20 perpendicular feet, eroding the river bedrock over time, into concave circular depressions resembling "kettles". River portages were a normal, though very demanding routine at the falls, and weary fur traders would likely have found the flat expansive lowlands along the riverside an attractive place for a temporary respite from their travels. And indeed, it was only a matter of time before Hudson's Bay Company Officials would themselves recognize the potential of Kettle Falls as an excellent site for a permanent settlement and trading post.

The Old Fort Colville compound was staked out on the east side of the Columbia River on these benchlands by Governor George Simpson of the Hudson's Bay Company himself, on April 14, 1825, and after a slow start, a hired contractor and his crew of carpenters were able to complete the first few inhabitable structures within the compound by the following year, using locally sawn timbers and planks. The first group of residents arrived at Kettle Falls on April 3, 1826, bringing with them, horses, 3 pigs, 3 young cows and a quantity of seed potatoes and tools to commence farming.

According to Benjamin MacDonald's narrative (below), his father Archibald MacDonald was in charge of the Colville trading post in 1835-36, where he continued cultivation around the fort, growing grain and potatoes, acquiring horses, and raising cattle and sheep. He constructed a sawmill and grist mill nearby and generally created a self-sufficient agricultural community, which in turn supplied other HBC establishments across the interior frontier with meat, vegetable produce and locally milled flour. Native Americans were also obviously welcome here at the Hudson's Bay Company post to trade furs, although their interest in Kettle Falls pre-existed the arrival of the voyageurs and fur brigades, for its exceptional salmon fishery.

Archibald's nephew, Angus MacDonald was in charge at Fort Colville when the Boundary Commissioners arrived in 1859. He succeeded his uncle at this post in 1852 at which time he was promoted to the position of Chief Trader and made a shareholder in the Company. Though he spent his entire life on the frontier, Angus McDonald was also a student and a thinker, especially well informed in the classics and philosophy. Well liked and fair in his association with local Native American fur traders and general population, he married Catherine, the sister of the Nez Perce Indian chief, "Eagle of the Light" and fathered 13 children, including Christina (of later Christina Lake fame).

Colonel Charles Wilson R.E. documented a Fort Colville encounter with the MacDonalds in his journal: "We had a rather amusing scene here the other day which would have caused "civilized" people to open their eyes; the departure of  (Angus) MacDonald, the Hudson's Bay officer here, and his family on a hunting expedition. They went off mounted by twos and threes; Mrs. MacDonald, a French half-breed, leading, perched high up on a curious saddle used by women here, one of her younger daughters behind her and the baby swinging in its Indian cradle from the pommel. Next came Miss Christine who is about 17, with her gaily beaded leggings and moccasins and gaudy shawl flying in the wind, she had a younger sister behind her and in front, a small brother perched like a young monkey on the high pommel.  Next came the boys two and two on horseback and last, MacDonald himself on his buffalo runner, surrounded by a crowd of Indians and half-breeds, to which add some 40 or 50 pack horses and spare animals rushing wildly about with the shots and cries of their attendants and you have a fine scene of excitement and confusion. I was invited to join them and offered a buffalo robe in the common lodge where we all live together, but unfortunately I could not leave this place or I should have liked very much to have gone with them."

Old Fort Colville outlasted all other HBC forts south of the border after the Oregon Treaty of 1846. It was finally abandoned when the United States purchased all remaining Hudson's Bay Company assets south of the border in 1871 and the remains of the fort, and indeed the Kettle Falls themselves, are now also submerged under Lake Roosevelt.

The MacDonalds left a lasting mark in the local history of the Pacific Northwest ... a number of their personal narratives recounting their experiences were recorded by local historians and are included in the literature of the Pacific Northwest Historical Society. Two extracted stories are posted below:

The Narrative of Benjamin MacDonald, a cousin to Angus MacDonald. (Link)

The Christina MacDonald Narrative (Link)

All you might ever want to know about the history of Old Fort Colville itself is covered in the following excellent two part article by J. Orin Oliphant: (Part 01 Link) (Part 02 Link)

View a selection of these and other Boundary Commission photographs of the MacDonalds and neigbouring Native Americans, from various online archival sources. (Link)

The American Military Fort Colville (Harney Depot)

Unlike the generally amicable relationship between Hudson's Bay Company traders at their posts and Pacific Northwest Native Americans, the relationship between Americans and aboriginal tribes was not always so. There were a number of massacres inflicted by both sides, and a number of outright wars, such as the Cayuse war of 1847 and the Yakima War of 1855-1858 which occurred just prior to the arrival of the Boundary Commissions. The latter war was triggered not long after the creation of Washington Territory, by measures initiated by Governor Stevens to require tribes of the Yakima Nation to sign treaties which required them to give up their lands and relocate themselves to reservations. Resulting hostilities subsequently permeated the whole interior region, including the northern territories along the 49th parallel. To maintain order, General Harney was commissioned to take charge of a military garrison at another "new" Fort Colville, a few miles east of Kettle Falls, above the current city of Colville, Washington. The fort, initially called Harney Depot, was hurriedly constructed in time to accommodate the arrival of Archibald Campbell and the officers of the U.S. component of the Boundary Commission, from where the U.S. military monitored and escorted the Americans during the course of their boundary survey. In time, General Harney appears to have been recalled from Harney Depot for his previous mishandling of the San Juan Island dispute at Vancouver Island, and the troops were transferred east in 1862 to fight the American Civil War. But the military fort itself remained functional until 1882.


Fort Shepherd at the Pond d'Oreille

In many respects, the historic Oregon Treaty of 1846 favoured Americans. Most notably, they gained all of the disputed territory south of the 49th parallel to the current border between Washington State and Oregon. HBC traders were still permitted to ship furs from Fort Langley down the Columbia via Fort Colville, but their shipments would now be subject to customs duties. With the imminent closure of Fort Colville south of the border, a pre-emptive replacement was constructed by the HBC in 1859 about two miles north of the 49th parallel along the Columbia River, almost immediately across the river from the mouth of the Pend d'Oreille River. Built under the supervision of Angus Macdonald, the new post was a component of a new strategy to realign the route and traffic of the fur brigades across the southern BC interior to the west coast, all along British territory.

Although the fort itself was well built and offered comfortable accommodation, it was destined to fail, partly because of its poorly chosen location which had little surrounding space for future settlement, and partly from unfortunate timing, as the Hudson's Bay Company fur trade itself was in the early stages of decline. Nonetheless a customs house was located north of the post and a ferry constructed across the Columbia River to access the recent gold mining activity along the Pend d'Oreille. The Pacific Northwest Boundary Commission surveyors located temporary astronomical survey stations on both sides of the Columbia River here in 1860 to determine latitude, the U.S. on the west bank, the British on the east, near the current Waneta bridge. Fort Shepherd itself ceased operations 10 years later and was destroyed by fire in 1872.

Fortunately the survey photographers left us a small number of images of Fort Shepherd and the Pend O'Reille River. (Link)


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