History of Fort Vancouver explored in new documentary

Oregon Public Broadcasting unveils documentary focused on rich history of national historic site and its role in shaping the Pacific Northwest

In the early 1800s, Fort Vancouver served as the western headquarters for the British trading empire Hudson’s Bay Company.

The extension of the British royal government encouraged employees to intermarry with native people, creating over time an incredibly diverse population behind the walls of the fort. More than 30 tribes were represented, in addition to Metis people, British, Scottish, French Irish, Orkney Islanders, Hawaiians and many others. The multicultural environment gave birth to a language, Chinuk Wawa, that spread throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Stormy skies are seen over Fort Vancouver. Photo by “Fort Vancouver” producer Beth Harrington
Stormy skies are seen over Fort Vancouver. Photo by “Fort Vancouver” producer Beth Harrington

That’s just one of dozens of historical facts that make up the latest documentary by Oregon Public Broadcasting, “Fort Vancouver,” which is available for viewing online at opg.org/fortvancouver and will air on OPB TV at 9 p.m. May 21.

The Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is today operated by the National Park Service, which began excavating and reconstructing the fort in 1947. Each year, more than a million visitors walk through the gates.

The documentary seeks to tell of the rich history of the fort and how it shaped the Pacific Northwest in the 30-minute documentary.

That includes stories of American immigrants traveling to Fort Vancouver on the Oregon Trail in large numbers.

“The director or chief factor of the Fort, John McLoughlin, was told to discourage American settlement in the area,” OPB wrote in a press release. “A sympathetic man, he offered the thousands of beleaguered newcomers credit for goods upon their arrival. In doing so, he incurred the wrath of his superiors and was ultimately forced out of his position. In 1846, Great Britain ceded control of the region to the United States, marking the beginning of the end of Fort Vancouver. After a difficult period of coexisting with the U.S. Army, the Fort was abandoned by the Hudson’s Bay Company and mysteriously burned to the ground in 1866.”

The documentary features the following experts and cultural representatives:

  • Tracy Fortmann, National Park Service superintendent, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site
  • Doug Wilson, archaeologist, National Park Service Pacific West Region
  • Bob Cromwell, National Park Service chief of interpretation, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site
  • Mike Iyall, member, tribal council, Cowlitz Indian Tribe
  • Tanna Engdahl, spiritual leader, Cowlitz Indian Tribe
  • Tony Johnson, chairman, Chinook Indian Nation
  • Dave Harrelson, Cultural Resources Department manager, Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde
  • Cheryl Kennedy, chairperson, Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde
  • Amy Kapuanani Antonio-Claussen, Ke Kekui Foundation

The community is invited to attend a public screening of “Fort Vancouver” at the Kiggins Theatre in Vancouver at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 16. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public and will include a question and answer session with Producer Beth Harrington and national park staff. All ages are welcome.

“Fort Vancouver” is available to watch online now at opg.org/fortvancouver and it airs on OPB TV Monday, May 21, at 9 p.m. The program is written and produced by Harrington and edited by Dan Evans. For more information about “Fort Vancouver,” along with images, visit opb.org/fortvancouver.

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