Hudson's Bay Company builds Fort Nisqually in spring 1833.

  • By David B. Williams
  • Posted 3/19/2020
  • Essay 20999
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In the spring of 1833, the Hudson's Bay Company begins work on Fort Nisqually. The HBC crew uses cedar to build houses, a store, and protective walls. They also farm the surrounding lands, planting vegetables, but their main interest is furs. To acquire beaver, otter, and other mammal pelts they trade guns, blankets, and clothing with Coast Salish people, who arrive from the outer coast, the Columbia River, and throughout Puget Sound. Later, as the fur supply dwindles, the Hudson's Bay Company establishes the Puget Sound Agricultural Company. The PSAC and Fort Nisqually will remain until 1869, when the land is sold to the U.S. Government and homesteaded by a former HBC employee, who became an American citizen.

Into the 'Weighty Rain'

On November 18, 1824, 40 or so men paddled from Fort George, or Astoria, Oregon, north across the Columbia River to about modern-day Ilwaco, Washington. A diverse crew, they consisted of Englishmen, Americans, Iroquois, Scotsmen, French-Canadians, and Hawaiians. All were employees of the Hudson's Bay Company, which had recently merged with its rival the North West Company. The paddlers were part of the HBC's goal of expanding its presence in British-claimed land in western North America.

From the north shore, the men portaged to Shoalwater Bay, which took a bit over a day, hoisted the sails in their batteaus (shallow-draft, flat bottomed craft) and continued north to another portage to Gray's Harbor. (HBC clerk John Work referred to Shoalwater and Gray's as Greys Bay and Chihalis Bay, respectively.) Along the way, they killed ducks and geese as "kettle for the men" (Journal of John Work). They then entered the Chehalis River and battled up it and the Black River, typically getting drenched by what Work called "weighty rain" (Journal of John Work). On December 5, 1824, the HBC crew became the first known, non-Native people to reach Puget Sound from the south; they were also the first such group to enter Puget Sound since George Vancouver in 1792.

They then sailed north for 12 days, reached their goal in Canada, turned around, and passed south out of Puget Sound on Christmas Day (Perhaps their most interesting encounter was with a "shapeless animal with long toes joined together in the middle, it seems to be in a torpid state and scarcely to move, it is covered with a crust or hard skin of reddish colour" (Journal of John Work). We call that fish a seastar.

Building Fort Nisqually

The HBC would not return for another nine years, but this time it came to stay. A few years earlier, the company had established Fort Vancouver on the north side of the Columbia River and Fort Langley, near the mouth of the Fraser River, and now had plans to move into Puget Sound. As part of its goal of laying claim to the territory, the HBC had begun to establish a new travel route connecting its forts. It went up the Cowlitz River from its confluence with the Columbia River to about current day Toledo, roughly 30 miles, and continued overland to the mouth of the Nisqually River. This new route would become the Cowlitz Trail, one of the primary travel routes into Puget Sound.

Work on Fort Nisqually began in the spring of 1833. The location was alongside Seguallitchew Creek, in an open space about 12 miles east of modern day Olympia, in what is modern day Dupont. "The most conspicuous object was a store half finished, next a rude hut of cedar boards, lastly a number of Indian lodges constructed of mats hung on poles," wrote William Fraser Tolmie about the fort, on May 30, 1833 (Diary of Dr. W. F. Tolmie). A 21-year old Scotsman and new recruit for the HBC, Tolmie had recently arrived from Fort Vancouver along with HBC Chief Trader Archibald McDonald, four Hawaiian, or Kanaka, paddlers, oxen, horses, potatoes, and garden seeds. (The HBC regularly employed many Kanakas; 18 of the 37 men at Fort Vancouver in 1825 were Kanaka. They did all variety of jobs.) Nearby was a clearing "sowed with Onions, Carrots, Turnips and Cabbage ... [and] some rows of potatoes," wrote Tolmie (Diary of Dr. W. F. Tolmie).

An ardent botanist, he also noted that out on the flat prairies surrounding the incipient fort that "Oak there holds undisputed sway" (Diary of Dr. W. F. Tolmie). Although Tolmie could not have known, he was seeing an unusual ecosystem in Puget Sound, and Washington state. These oaks were Oregon white or Garry oak, Quercus garryana, named several years later by David Douglas, in honor of Nicholas Garry, deputy governor of the HBC. They are the lone species of oak native to the state and grow only in relatively dry, well-drained soils of prairies, such as around Nisqually and Whidbey Island.

The acorns were a prominent food source for Indigenous people, who canoed down to the Nisqually plains and collected hundreds of bushels of acorns, which they roasted, ate raw, and used for bread making. Because plants such as Douglas fir had the potential to outcompete the oaks, they had to be actively managed, which required fires to destroy the fir seedlings. Annual blazes also prevented the growth of undesirable grasses and shrubs, and facilitated the growth of another key prairie plant, camas, an onion-like plant with edible bulbs.

Throughout the summer, workers continued to erect buildings and by September 1833, the HBC employees had houses, a store with a chimney and space for trading, and sheds. They were made with squared cedar logs and reed thatching on the roof tops. For protection, the men built a cedar log wall, which would would eventually enclose the fort. And, for food, in addition to hunting, the HBC men had cattle and gardens.

Fur-Trading Center, Briefly

The primary concern of the HBC men was obtaining otter and beaver furs. They were quite successful. Edward Huggins and William Tolmie, who kept the HBC's daily Journal of Occurrences, which tracked events at the new fort, noted regular trading of pelts, primarily beaver, to Indigenous people from across the region. These included people designated as Snohomish, Chinook (mouth of Columbia), Portage (either Chehalis or Cowlitz), Klallam (Strait of Juan de Fuca), Puyallup, Snoqualmie, Deschutes (river that empties into Eld Inlet), Snohomish, Nisqually, Duwamish, Skagit, Twana (Hood Canal), and Makah (outer coast). They arrived by horse and canoe.

To increase their potential to acquire furs, the HBC men sent "two Indians ... to advertise [to] the tribes along the coast of the approach of goods" (Journal of Occurrences). In 1834, the HBC acquired 1,450 beavers, 700 muskrats, 190 raccoons, 340 river otters, 46 bears, and 80 minks (Early Fur Returns). In return, the suppliers received fabric, blankets, ammunition, guns, tobacco, and clothing.

Otter and beaver populations could not survive this onslaught. By 1839, the HBC at Fort Nisqually had established the Puget Sound Agricultural Company as a result of the sagging numbers of pelts traded to the fort. Not only did the HBC suffer from the killing of beaver, so did salmon. Beavers are incredible stream engineers. Their dams create wetlands, help to regulate stream flows, attenuate the effects of droughts and floods, increase the retention of sediments and organics, and lead to a diverse mosaic of vegetation types, all of which benefit salmon. The rapid depletion of beaver populations throughout Puget Sound was the first step in long-term ecosystem changes still making it hard for salmon to thrive.

Another profound change resulted from Fort Nisqually, writes Alexandra Harmon, professor of American Indian studies at the University of Washington, in Indians in the Making: Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities around Puget Sound. In contrast to how George Vancouver had little interaction with Puget Sound's Native residents, the fort compelled outsider and resident to live and work together. This required both groups to develop "ways of dealing with each other" (Indians in the Making). Harmon found that for the most part, the new ways "usually worked to all parties' perceived advantage," in part because the HBC had come primarily to make money and not to acquire land (Indians in the Making).

Harmon added that the British were not a benign presence. Many of their employees had negative stereotypes of Native people and exploitation was common. But HBC men respected the trading and hunting skills of the people who visited the forts and recognized that their own survival depended on good relations with the Indigenous people. Harmon further noted that the Coast Salish benefited from the HBC via the new consumer items and from having a neutral location -- the Fort and its surroundings -- where long-term enemies could meet and get to know each other with a reduced threat of warfare.

Puget Sound Agriculture Company

In 1843, William Tolmie returned to Puget Sound to take over control of the Puget Sound Agricultural Company and Fort Nisqually, which was more or less subsumed by the operations of the PSAC. The PSAC had primarily become a ranching concern with 2,280 horned Spanish cattle and 5,872 sheep on the surrounding lands in 1845 (Early History). Then, in 1846, England and the United States signed the Oregon Treaty, which established the international border at the 49th parallel, and Puget Sound was no longer under British authority. But that did not stop trade. "Business will of course go on as usual, as the treaty will not take effect on us for many years to come," wrote Fort Vancouver's Chief Factors James Douglas and Peter Skene Ogden to Tolmie on November 4, 1846 (Transmission of Intelligence).

Two years later, the HBC bought the first load of woods cut at a sawmill in Washington. The mill was operated by a group led by the families of Michael Simmons and George Washington Bush, who had traveled together from Missouri. They had become the first U.S. citizens in Washington in November 1845.

As more and more Americans moved into the region, the HBC found it harder and harder to maintain much of a presence. Many of those new Americans felt that the land should be theirs and not a foreign interloper's, despite the two decades of British use of the land, as well as the thousands of years of Native habitation. To meet their goals the Americans simply took claim to the land, sometimes through ignorance of reality and sometimes through less savory means. "Emboldened by their politicians' lies, armed settlers appropriated the Company's land, seized property and vessels, and sealed up HBC warehouses. The Company's shipping routes would be blockaded, its livestock killed or stolen, fencing plundered, and prime farmlands occupied by squatters," wrote Jerry Ramsey in the introduction to William F. Tolmie at Fort Nisqually: Letters, 1850-1853.

Tolmie stayed at Nisqually until 1859, and the HBC/PSAC limped along for another decade, until they sold their land to the United States Government. The site was taken over by Edward Huggins, a former HBC employee who had become a U.S. citizen.  


T.C. Elliott, "Journal of John Work, November and December 1824," The Washington Historical Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 3, July 1912, pp. 201, 212; Edmond S. Meany, Ed, "Diary of Dr. W.F. Tolmie," The Washington Historical Quarterly Vol. 23, No. 3, July 1932, pp. 224, 226; Clarence Bagley (ed), "Journal of Occurrences at Nisqually House," The Washington State Historical Quarterly Vol. 6, No. 3, July 1915, pp. 191; Richard G. Beidleman, "Early Fur Returns from the Pacific Northwest," Journal of Mammalogy Vol. 39, No. 1, Feb. 1958, pp. 146; Alexandra Harmon, Indians in the Making: Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities around Puget Sound, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 15; Clarence B. Bagley, "Transmission of Intelligence in Early Days in Oregon," The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society Vol. 12, No. 4, December 1912, pp. 356; John S. Galbraith, "The Early History of the Puget's Sound Agricultural Company, 1838-43," Oregon Historical Quarterly Vol. 55, No. 3, September 1954, pp. 245; Steve A. Anderson, Ed. William F. Tolmie at Fort Nisqually: Letters, 1850-1853," (Pullman, WA, Washington State University Press, 2019), pp. 9; Adapted from David B. Williams, Homewaters: Natural and Cultural History in Puget Sound, (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2021).

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