Clark County's Lancaster House, oldest wood-frame mansion in Washington, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places on February 20, 1975.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 11/11/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21352

On February 20, 1975, Lancaster House near Ridgefield in Clark County is accepted for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). It was built in the early 1850s by Judge Columbia Lancaster (1803-1893), who later served as Washington Territory's first delegate to the United States Congress. When construction started in 1850 or 1851, the mansion was situated in Clark County, which was then part of the vast Oregon Territory that Congress had created in 1848. After Washington Territory was established in 1853, the new territory became its home. The Greek Revival edifice is believed to be the oldest surviving wood-frame mansion in Washington state. After years of vacancy and disrepair, in 1941 a long process of rehabilitation began. Eighty years later, Lancaster House still stands, one of the jewels of Plas Newydd Farm.

New Territories

Beginning in the 1830s, thousands of settlers from New England and the Midwest migrated to the Pacific Northwest. In 1834 the first permanent non-Native settlement was established in the Willamette River Valley. The United States and Great Britain both laid claim to the region, then part of what was known simply as "Oregon Country," a vast swath of land that started at the California border, extended north to as far as today's Prince George in central British Columbia, and east to the Continental Divide.

The region where these early arrivals settled in what are now Oregon and Washington lacked legal affiliation with either America or Britain. The settlers were almost all Americans citizens, and wanted to remain so, but the disputed land was under the flag of neither nation. They soon realized the need for a set of laws and some formal organization, and in 1843 a group of male settlers convened and formed the Oregon Provisional Government. The only law book in Oregon Country was from Iowa, and it was adopted almost entirely intact. The provisional government had little or no legal legitimacy, but served the settlers well enough for five years.

The 1846 Oregon Treaty between American and Great Britain made the land south of the 49th parallel an American possession, and in 1848 the U.S. Congress created Oregon Territory, which originally ran from the California border north to the new border with Canada. In 1849 the Oregon Territorial Legislature created Clark County, naming it in honor of William Clark (1770-1838) of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

In 1853 Congress more than halved Oregon Territory to create Washington Territory, with the boundary between the two largely defined by the Columbia River. Clark County now lay north of the river, in Washington Territory. (Note: For reasons unknown, the Washington Territorial Legislature began spelling it "Clarke," an error not officially cured, by legislative act, until 1925.)

How Columbia Lancaster Got His Name

In May 1792 Robert Gray, the captain of the fur-trading vessel Columbia Rediviva, succeeded in sailing his ship into the mouth of the dominant river of the Pacific Northwest, becoming the first non-Native mariner to do so and naming the river after his ship. In 1806 Clark, Meriwether Lewis (1774-1899), and their Corps of Discovery, coming from the east, traveled down much of the course of the Columbia River to reach the Pacific Ocean. The record of their expedition fixed the river's name -- and the region's potential -- in the public imagination.

Three years earlier, in 1803, Thomas Lancaster had been born into a prominent family in New Milford, Connecticut. While he was still a toddler, Meriwether Lewis visited the Lancaster home and told the family of the mighty river and the land through which it ran. Inspired by the explorer's description, they changed the first name of their young son from Thomas to "Columbia." One early history of Clark County claims that the child's parents believed their son would "earn fame and make a home [there] in years to come" (History of Clarke [sic] County, Washington Territory, 366). If the anecdote is true, they were right, but it would take several decades.

A Life of Accomplishment

When Columbia was 14 the family moved to Canfield, Ohio. He later was admitted to the bar after either reading law at an influential local firm or graduating from law school (sources vary). He relocated to Centreville, Michigan, where he built a successful legal practice. He was elected to the Michigan Territorial Legislature and actively promoted the territory's January 1837 admission to statehood. In August 1837 Lancaster returned briefly to Ohio and married Rosannah Jones (1817-1903).

In 1842 the couple and an infant daughter left by wagon train for Oregon Country, but had to abandon the trek when the daughter died and Rosannah became ill. Finally, on March 4, 1847, Columbia Lancaster, with his wife and a young son, set out again by wagon train. In September they arrived at Oregon City, the seat of the Oregon Provisional Government, located across the Willamette River from the southern limits of today's Portland. After nearly four decades, Columbia Lancaster had fulfilled his parents' prophecy.

Accomplished and experienced attorneys were rather thin on the ground in Oregon Country, and barely two months after arriving there Columbia Lancaster was making his mark. On November 23, 1847, George Abernethy (1807-1877), the first governor of Oregon's provisional government, appointed him chief justice of the Provisional Supreme Court of Oregon. He lost the seat to a presidential appointee when Oregon Territory was created the following year, but would be known as "Judge" Lancaster for the rest of his days.

Freed of his judicial duties, in 1848 Lancaster traveled to California to try his hand in the goldfields. While his success at mining apparently was negligible, he made a small fortune in legal fees paid by miners for his services in staking, validating, and defending their claims. He returned to Oregon City a more wealthy man, and in 1851 was elected to the Oregon Territorial Legislature as joint councilman for the counties of Clatsop, Lewis, Clark, and Pacific.

When Washington Territory was created in 1853, Judge Lancaster, with the strong backing of Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), a fellow Democrat, was elected the territory's first delegate to the U.S. Congress. He served with distinction, but would hold the position only until the next election, when another Democrat won the nomination. His elective public service was done, but Judge Lancaster remained a prominent and influential member of Washington Territory's early society.

Populating the Pacific Northwest

The federal Donation Land Claim Act, which by its express terms applied only to Oregon Territory, had been enacted in September 1850. Its clear purpose was to incentivize white American emigration to the Pacific Northwest, and it worked. The law legitimized existing 640-acre claims that had been provided for in 1843 by the Oregon Provisional Government. It further provided that 320-acre claims would be granted upon application to "every white settler or occupant of the public lands, American half-breed Indians included, above the age of eighteen years, being a citizen of the United States, or having made a declaration according to law, of his intention to become a citizen ... and who shall have resided upon and cultivated the same for four consecutive years" ("Donation Land Claim Act"). A married couple could claim 640 acres, one half to each spouse.

In order to be entitled to 320 acres (or 640 acres for a married couple), claimants had to have settled in Oregon Territory before December 1, 1850. For those who emigrated to Oregon Territory between December 1, 1850 and December 1, 1853, the grant of land was limited to 160 acres per individual and 320 acres for a married couple.

Between 1850 and 1855, some 30,000 men, women, and children arrived in Oregon and claims totaling 2.5 million acres were made. An 1853 act extended the law's operation to the newly formed Washington Territory, and in the ensuing years 985 claims were granted there for 290,215 acres.

The Homesite

Having arrived in Oregon Country in 1847, Columbia Lancaster and his wife qualified for 640 acres under the Donation Land Claims Act. In 1850 they moved from Oregon City to a site on the south bank of the Lewis River in Clark County, which was then still part of Oregon Territory. The land was north of what would become Ridgefield, whose first non-Native settler had arrived in 1839. It saw virtually no further growth until passage of the Donation Land Claims Act, and only slow growth after that. There is a record of the Lancasters obtaining 640 acres there in 1851, and although some sources say it was the first claim granted under the new law, a plat map from 1854 indicates that the claim was not perfected until 1854, and bore the number 215. It is possible, however, that the Lancasters were the first to apply for a patent land claim. The couple built a small house to live in while their permanent home was under construction, which appears to have taken several years and was not completed until 1854 or 1855.

The Lancaster House sat on a gently sloped site adjacent to cleared farmland and near a stand of tall timber, about 125 yards from the south bank of the Lewis River (identified on government maps of the time as the "Carapoodle River" ("Lewis River, Washington") or variations thereof. The home was less than two miles east of the river's confluence with the Columbia. Decades later the location proved disadvantageous when a railroad line was laid close by, and a railroad bridge built across the Lewis River very near to the house. The attendant noise compromised the use of the house as a residence, and may have played a role in its frequent changes of ownership in the early twentieth century. The house suffered from neglect for decades, and it was not until the 1950s that it was renovated.

Lancaster House

Virtually no accounts, much less contemporary drawings or plans, have survived to provide much information about the construction process of the Lancaster House, and all later descriptions were compiled after the original structure had been added to or otherwise modified. This much is known: The Lancaster House was built mostly of native materials, most likely with lumber harvested from the property. It was a two-story frame structure in Greek Revival style, the design said to have been inspired by government buildings Judge Lancaster had seen in Washington, D.C. Its height was a little over 24 feet above ground, with two stories and a cross-gable roof in the main wing. Equipment for making decorative wood components apparently had not yet reached Oregon Territory, so all the lathe-turned wood, including such details as interior banisters and newel posts, and the railing balusters of the front porch and balcony, were brought from the East by clipper ships sailing around Cape Horn. This may account in part for the lengthy construction period, which some estimates place at four years.

Later examination as part of the documentation for the property's nomination for listing on the NRHP revealed additional facts. The original house's front facade faced north. It had (and still has) a two-story portico, open on three sides, with four columns on the main floor supporting a full-width second-story balcony, and four on the balcony supporting the gable roof above. The original six steps up to the lower veranda were later reduced to three. The main entrance to the house is centered on the north facade and features a four-panel door with sidelights and a transom light, a configuration repeated on the balcony door above. The roof of the portico and that of the building's main wing form a cross gable.

The east wall of the main wing extends toward the rear, forming a second wing. Relatively unadorned on its east side, the west wall features a two-story portico that is a duplicate of the one facing north, its roof running contiguous and parallel to that over the main wing. The house is sheathed in five-inch clapboards. In the main wing the windows are tall, double-hung sashes with eight lights in each. The east and west sides of the building have four windows each, while the north wall has eight.

There is some evidence, based on the framing in the home's attic, that the house was constructed as a series of additions, with the main wing built first and the dual porticos added later. Over the years there have been interior changes, including hardwood floors, an imported marble fireplace, and built-in book cases. All have been done with fidelity to the structure's original design. The NRHP Nomination Form, quoting an unidentified newspaper, describe the home's furnishings as they were in 1895:

"On the floor of the parlor is a finely preserved carpet, of the oldest fashion. It is double width Brussels, with patterns in bright red fully six feet long. The carpet was bought as a wedding present for Mrs. Lancaster, and imported from London. The furniture, or most of it, is of old-fashioned mahogany, with hair cloth seats, and extremely quaint in design. All this furniture and carpet were brought across the plains by ox teams in 1849, and is all good for fifty years or more service" (NRHP Nomination Form, p. 3).

It is said that Judge Lancaster hosted Chief Umtuch of the Klickitat, and members of his tribe, on the home's grand front porch (but apparently not inside). This had to have been shortly after the home was completed, as Umtuch was killed under mysterious circumstances in 1855. An account attributed to the Lancasters' daughter said, "The chief was an impressive sight dressed entirely in white, and the judge put on his quilted smoking jacket and fez to present a formidable appearance" (NRHP Nomination Form, p. 7). It is also reported that Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) was a guest of the Lancasters when he visited Vancouver Barracks (the former Fort Vancouver) in 1879 after serving two terms as president.

Declining Fortunes

Columbia and Rosannah Lancaster lived in their Ridgefield home until 1883, farming and raising cattle. When the judge's health began failing in 1883, they moved to nearby Vancouver to the south. There he would die a decade later; his wife would survive him by another decade. After their move, the record of the home's ownership became increasingly murky.

Aaron Lindsley (1817-1891), a Presbyterian minister and missionary from Portland, bought the house from the Lancasters, and he both lived there and used it for church retreats, naming it Lindsley Hall. While one source says that he stayed until approximately 1910, this is not possible -- the minister died in August 1891 after being thrown from a runaway carriage when it struck a log near Ridgefield.

The property, which by then included about 1,000 acres, apparently was distributed to Lindsley's family members, who eventually sold their shares to different people. At one point the Woodland Bank owned the property, followed in approximately 1910 by a woman named Lettie Tooze. Tooze later sold it to Alice Wineman, then later bought it back, but by 1917, under unclear circumstances, the home and remaining property were placed in the hands of the Clark County sheriff to sell.

During World War I and the throughout the Great Depression the house sat vacant, "the fireplaces ... boarded up and the doors locked, but the transients from the passing freight trains broke in to camp in the house. There is evidence on the floors and walls that suggests they made cooking fires on the oak floors" ("History of Place"). Up until 1941 the property again changed hands several times, with the land leased out for cattle farming but the house sitting vacant and deteriorating.

Plas Newydd Farm

The mid-twentieth century history of the Lancaster property is every bit as interesting as its origin story. In November 1941, less than a month before Pearl Harbor brought American into World War II as a combatant, Aubrey Niel Morgan (1904-1985) and his wife, Constance Cutter Morgan (1913-1995), bought two struggling farms that included the original Lancaster land and house. They named the consolidated properties Plas Newydd ("new place" in Welsh), after a historic house in Aubrey's native Wales. A biographical sketch of Constance Morgan states the couple bought the property during the war as a possible retreat for Aubrey's Welsh relatives should Britain be successfully invaded by the Nazis.

The Morgans came from prominent backgrounds. Aubrey was a former British diplomat who served as controller of British Information Services in the United States during World War II. He was a patron of the arts and a brother-in-law of the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh (1902-1974), who was married to Anne Morrow, Constance's older sister. The women's father, Dwight Whitney Morrow (1873-1931), was a U.S. senator and, later, the ambassador to Mexico during the administration of Calvin Coolidge (1972-1933). Constance earned a masters degree in literature from Columbia University, and in the 1950s served as chair of the Board of Trustees of Smith College, America's leading university for women.

After the war ended, the Morgans moved to Plas Newydd Farm, raising a splendid herd of dairy cattle and marketing timber taken from the property's huge Douglas firs. But they were there for only two years before being called back, reluctantly, to Washington, D.C., where Aubrey would serve as personal assistant and counselor on Anglo-American relations for the British ambassador to the United States. They, with their four children, returned to their farm in 1952 and lived there the rest of their days.

Renaissance

After the Morgans bought the property the start of rehabilitation had to be deferred until war's end. From 1946 to 1948, during their temporary stay, minor repairs were made, but much more was needed. When the family returned for good in 1952, the major repairs and renovations began. From 1952 to 1953, the Morgans hired John Yeon (1910-1994), a gifted Portland architect, to guide the renovation.

First the house was moved 100 yards up the slope from its original site, both to alleviate the noise of the railroad and to improve the view. It took about 10 days to set up for the move and less than an hour to actually relocate the house up the hill using wheels and jacks. Originally supported only by boulders, the house now rested on a new concrete foundation with a full basement. The interior was replastered, the floors refinished, and the fireplaces repaired. To provide space for the Morgans' growing children and a large collection of books, Yeon designed an extension that was added to the south end of the house, and it meticulously mirrored the design of the original structure. 

The Legacy

The historical significance of the Lancaster house was found to be twofold by the NRHP. It was both "the principal residence of a character important in the early political history of Washington Territory" and an example of "a fairly large, complex work of architecture constructed with mostly native materials under the quite primitive conditions prevailing at the time" (NRHP Nomination Form, p. 8). The skill of John Yeon, and the dedication of the Morgans to maintain the home's integrity, are also acknowledged: "Although the building was moved a short distance and enlarged, very little destruction of original work took place. The decorative exterior details all remain unaltered, and the form and lines of the structure maintain a similar balance and unity" (NRHP Nomination Form, p. 3)

Their legacy and dedication have been preserved and carried forward by three generations of Morgans. In 2021, Plas Newydd was owned and administered by direct descendants of Aubrey and Constance Morgan. No longer a working farm, its twenty-first century activities are summarized on the property's website:

"Plas Newydd ... has been in our family since 1941. In that time things change; we have seen three generations of management, we have seen 3 hundred-year floods, we are no longer a dairy, and we are no longer a ranch, but we have remained a tree farm since 1948. Today we also provide cattle grazing leases, and soon, mitigation and conservation credits. One thing that has not changed in all that time is our commitment to thoughtful stewardship" ("The Farm and Family").


Sources:

F. Alley and J. P. Munro-Fraser, History of Clarke County, Washington Territory (Portland, Oregon: The Washington Publishing Company, 1885; "Lancaster House," National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, National Archives website accessed October 17, 2021 (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/75612097?&sp=%7B%22q%22%3A%22%5C%22national%20register %20of%20historic%20places%5C%22%20%2375001843%22%7D&sr=0); "History of Place," Plas Newydd Farm website accessed October 20, 2021 (https://pnfarm.com/history/); "The Farm & Family," Plas Newydd Farm website accessed November 9, 2021 (https://pnfarm.com/farm-family/); "Judge Lancaster Columbia House," Clark County Community Planning website accessed October 13, 2021 (https://clark.wa.gov/community-planning/judge-lancaster-columbia-house); Martin Middlewood, "Clark County History: Columbia Lancaster," The Columbian website accessed October 22, 2021 (https://www.columbian.com/news/2021/may/02/clark-county-history-columbia-lancaster/); William G. Robbins, "Oregon Donation Land Law," Oregon Encyclopedia website accessed October 22, 2021 (https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/oregon_donation_land_act/#.YXRe-aRlDmg); "Lewis River, Washington," Columbia River Images website accessed October 22, 2021 (http://columbiariverimages.com/Regions/Places/lewis_river.html); "Judge Columbia Lancaster House," Emporis website accessed November 6, 2021 (https://www.emporis.com/buildings/269685/judge-columbia-lancaster-house-ridgefield-wa-usa); "Officers Row: Ulysses S. Grant House," City of Vancouver website accessed November 8, 2021 (https://www.cityofvancouver.us/ourcity/page/officers-row); "Constance Cutter Morrow Morgan," Findagrave.com website accessed November 8, 2021 (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/78027291/constance-cutter-morgan); "Aubrey Niel Morgan," Findagrave.com website accessed November 8, 2021 (https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/2380838:60541)/


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