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Wash. artifacts show history of old fort

Archaeologists are using broken pottery, bullets and buttons found over the past 60 years — more than 2 million in all — to piece together the history of a 19th century fort along the Columbia River.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Archaeologists are using broken pottery, bullets and buttons found over the past 60 years to piece together the history of a 19th century fort along the Columbia River. 

Some 2 million artifacts have been dug up at Fort Vancouver, which from 1829 to 1866 served as a hub for fur and mercantile trade and military activity in the West.

The salvaged pieces have been stored in a replica fur store on the southern edge of a replica fort.  Scientists are cataloguing the items, and hope to learn the history of the fort and the thousands who lived there.

Elaine Dorset, a Portland State University anthropology graduate student, has been working at the site for two years. She's examining microscopic pieces of long-decayed plants in a formal garden that lay north of the fort.

A replica garden similar to the famous plot of vegetables, herbs, fruit trees and flowers that once thrived there could be built by determining what plants grew in the area.

Similar work is being done throughout the fort.

Importance of gunpowder
Heidi Pierson is finishing a study of the powder magazine, the only brick building at the fort, with a goal to rebuild an accurate replica.

Beginning in about 1832, Hudson's Bay Co. stored gunpowder for the entire Pacific Northwest in the magazine, which housed powder kegs that arrived by ship. The spring 1844 inventory lists more than 14,000 pounds of gunpowder in 158 barrels and kegs.

Others will study the fort's sales shop, "basically the Wal-Mart of its day," said Doug Wilson, a Portland State professor and the Vancouver National Historic Reserve archaeologist.

"It was the only store in town. It sold a variety to everyone in the area: people in the village, missionaries, people on the Oregon trail," Wilson said. "If you go to any settler's house site in the area from the 1840s and 1850s, it'll probably have artifacts from this place because it dominated the trade."

Officials want to build classrooms in the shop, and store some curator materials.

Wilson said a book, "Treasures of the Fort," is to be published this year celebrating the 60th anniversary of archaeology at the site.

Louis Caywood began the first digs in 1947 in an open field between Pearson Field and downtown Vancouver. He found and staked out the exact location of the original fort.

Building a replica
Construction of a replica fort and buildings got under way in 1960 and continues today.

Since Caywood, there have been digs by Britain's Royal Engineers and the Oregon Archaeological Society as well as amateurs, professors and the National Park Service.

Expansive projects, such as construction of state Highway 14 or reconstruction of the Vancouver Barracks, brought archaeological digs that produced hundreds of pieces of the past.

"Besides the fort, they've found many aspects of Kanaka Village (the workers' town) and a whole hospital complex, as well as the wharf," said Wilson.

"We have a significant backlog that has never been catalogued," he said.

The latest digs have been in the Kanaka Town area west of the fort. With some 600 workers living there, residents included Scots and English, Iroquois, Crees, Metis, Chinook, French Canadians, Hawaiians and Russians.

Scholars have determined that 32 languages were spoken in the town, creating a unique multicultural community, Wilson said.

Some artifacts also have come from the Department of Transportation or universities, he said, and researchers are still studying and classifying items found in the 1970s.

And there's still plenty of work to be done, Wilson said.

"There is potential for a lot more artifacts," he said. "The I-5 crossing project, the West Barracks work, all will provide a lot more."