Fort Okanogan was the first American outpost in what is now the state of Washington. Established in 1811 by representatives of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company, the “fort” was a modest affair, initially consisting of only one small building at the confluence of the Okanogan and Columbia Rivers. The Canadian North West Company acquired it in 1814, expanded it, and later sold it to the British Hudson’s Bay Company. The British replaced the complex with a second one, built about a mile away, in the 1830s. Today a small state park overlooks the second location. Only the wind and a simple highway historical sign mark the site of the original Fort Okanogan, which proved to be a temporary beachhead in an area that would not become part of the United States for 35 years.
Nor’Westers and Astorians
The fur trade was the opening wedge for white colonization in the future state of Washington. European and American ships began exploring the Northwest coast and trading for furs with the local inhabitants in the 1790s. Traders followed closely on the heels of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery, the first non-Indians to travel through the area on an overland route from the east. In 1810, just five years after Lewis and Clark began to explore the lower Columbia River, the Montreal-based North West Company established a fur trading post -- called Spokane House -- on a tributary of the river. Located near the present city of Spokane, this was the first longterm white settlement in the Northwest. Since Canada was a British colony at the time, it flew the British flag.
The first trader to reach the Okanogan country in Eastern Washington was David Thompson (1770-1875), head of the Columbia Department for the North West Company. In early June 1811, Thompson led a party of seven other “Nor’Westers” on a voyage from Spokane House down the Columbia to its mouth at the Pacific Ocean. Thompson hoped to beat his rivals from the Pacific Fur Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company in staking a claim to the rich fur resources along the way.
The Nor’Westers reached the main stem of the Columbia on June 19. Local Indians assured them that it was “only the Voyage of a Summer Moon” to paddle to the mouth of the river and back again (Johansen, 86). The Canadians spent two weeks at an Indian fishing village above Kettle Falls, building a canoe for the rest of the journey, then set off on July 3. They arrived at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers six days later. They stopped long enough to erect a sign claiming the surrounding land for Great Britain and the “N.W. Company of Merchants from Canada” (Thompson, 152).
The next day, Thompson learned that he had lost the race to the coast: Indians told him an American ship had sailed in nearly four months earlier.
John Jacob Astor (1763–1848), a New York merchant who had made a fortune in the fur trade with China, sent both a ship and an overland party to establish a presence in the Northwest. The ship -- the Tonquin -- left New York in September 1810. It arrived at the mouth of the Columbia six months later, on March 22, 1811. The men on board quickly built a trading post, named Fort Astoria, on the south bank, where the modern city of Astoria, Oregon, is now located. The group that traveled overland did not reach the coast until the following spring.
The Astorians were preparing for their first trading expedition up the Columbia in mid-July 1811 when Thompson and his Nor'Westers hauled their canoe on shore at Astoria -- to the considerable surprise of the Astorians. However, the two groups quickly made a tacit agreement not to interfere with each other’s trade. Both regarded the Hudson’s Bay Company as the greater competitive threat. The Nor’Westers rested at the fort for one week. When they left, on July 22, David Stuart, a partner in the Pacific Fur Company, and eight other Astorians went with them.
The travel-hardened Nor’Westers soon outpaced the Astorians. The two groups parted company at Celilo Falls. Thompson and the Nor’westers pushed ahead, arriving at Spokane House on August 13. Stuart and the Astorians didn’t reach the confluence of the Columbia and the Okanogan River until September 1. The arduous trip, against the current and rapids of an undammed river, had taken 42 days -- something more than “the Voyage of a Summer Moon.”
Alexander Ross, a member of Stuart’s party, recorded some of the hardships in his journal. “To say that there is not a worse path under the sun would perhaps be going a step too far, but to say that, for difficulty and danger, few could equal it would be saying but the truth,” he wrote, describing a tortuous portage around the Cascades of the Columbia. “Certainly nothing could be more discouraging than our present situation -- obstacles on every side; by land, by water, and from the Indians -- all hostile alike” (Ross, 122).
The Astorians chose a site on the Okanogan River, near its confluence with the Columbia, and quickly built a small outpost, starting with one house made of driftwood. They grandiosely named it Fort Okanogan. What the structure lacked in material comforts it made up in location. It was strategically situated in the middle of a well-established Indian trail that led from present day Oregon north to the Fraser River in Canada, with easy access to two important waterways. Streams in the area were thick with beaver, the pelts of which were highly valued in the fashion centers of Europe, China, and the United States.
While the rest of the party dispersed, Ross stayed behind. He kept a small store of trade goods in a cellar beneath the house. During the following winter, he traded merchandise worth about $160 for beaver pelts valued at more than $10,000.
Furs and War
Despite the lucrative trade at Fort Okanogan, the Pacific Fur Company faced numerous financial and personnel problems, all of which were exacerbated by the beginning of war between the United States and Britain in 1812. Because of the uncertainties created by the war, Astor did not send a ship from New York to re-supply Astoria that year. In October 1813 word reached Astoria that a British frigate was en route to attack American possessions in the Northwest. The combination of a military threat and a dwindling supply of trade goods convinced the Astorians to sell “the whole of their Establishments Furs and present Stock ... on the Columbia and Thompson Rivers” -- including Fort Okanogan -- to the Canadians (Johansen, 105).
The Nor’Westers took possession of Fort Okanogan in April 1814 and immediately began expanding it. By 1816, the outpost resembled an actual fort. A 15-foot-high stockade enclosed half-a-dozen structures, including a four-room headquarters building with a dining hall, two large houses for traders and trappers, a storehouse, and a blacksmith shop. The stockade was equipped with two blockhouses, with loopholes for muskets on the upper levels and light cannon on the lower floor.
The Canadians continued to face fierce competition from the British after they bought out the Americans. Over the years, the trade wars weakened both the North West Company and the rival Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1821, the two merged. Hudson’s Bay took over all the Canadian company’s operations in the Northwest, including Fort Okanogan, and the fort changed hands once again.
Reign of the British
For the next two decades, Fort Okanogan served as an important base camp for trading expeditions up the Okanogan and Similkameen Rivers into what is now British Columbia. Furs gathered from all over "New Caledonia” (which encompassed most of northwestern Canada) were shipped down the Okanogan to the fort, for transfer to boats for passage down the Columbia to Hudson’s Bay headquarters at Fort Vancouver (where the modern city of Vancouver, Washington, is today).
The original site was abandoned in the early 1830s and a larger fort built on the Columbia about a mile away. The landing area at the first location, on the Okanogan, was too shallow and the banks too steep to accommodate the increased traffic in furs. In winter, the steep climb up to the fort was often muddy, making it difficult to handle heavy goods. Dust and mosquitoes made life miserable in the summer. The new location offered a good beach with a gentle incline to the fort.
By the 1840s, however, the fur trade was on the wane. Beaver hats fell out of fashion. Furthermore, the best of the beaver streams had been stripped clean (“trapped out,” in the parlance of the traders). For a while, Fort Okanogan served as a key transfer point for a new trade, in buffalo hides, shipped from the Great Plains and across the Rockies to the Okanogan and Columbia rivers. When that trade dwindled, the fort declined again. “Okanogan is falling off and as a mere place of trade will not soon pay the wages of a clerk and two men,” a Hudson’s Bay report noted (quoted in “Fort Okanogan,” Ghost Towns USA website).
In 1846, the settlement of a decades-old boundary dispute between Great Britain and the United States put Fort Okanogan firmly within American territory for the first time. The Hudson’s Bay Company received permission to continue commercial enterprises at the fort. However, the company gradually phased out operations because of the declining volume of trade, abandoning the site altogether in 1860. The fort, stripped of everything of value, was left to the elements.
Fort Okanogan State Park
In 1959, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission acquired about 45 acres of land on a bluff near the location of the second Fort Okanogan and within sight of the first one. By that time, the last physical remnants of both forts had decayed and vanished. Archeological excavations were carried out for several years after the state acquired the property. However, in 1967, the sites were flooded by the reservoir created by Wells Dam, about 20 miles downstream.
Fort Okanogan State Park today includes a day-use area and interpretive center overlooking the reservoir, called Lake Pateros after the name of a nearby town. (The town, in turn, was named by one of its early settlers after the village in the Philippines where he had grown up.)
From the interpretive center, visitors can see two flagpoles in the distance. The poles mark the locations of the two forts -- the most visible sign of what was once an important link in a complex network of international trade and politics.