By Eilene Lyon
Old Fort Walla Walla
After the Lewis and Clark expedition, fur traders began traveling throughout the Pacific Northwest. The Canadian North West Co. established a fort at the mouth of the Walla Walla River, on the Columbia, and called it Fort Nez Perces (present-day Wallula). When the company merged with Hudson’s Bay Co. in 1818, the name changed to Fort Walla Walla.
A section of the Nez Perce Trail became part of the Oregon Trail through this area. Missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were the first to bring wagons to the Walla Walla Valley, establishing their mission at Waillatpu, about 20 miles east of the fort. Their murders in 1847 put a damper on settlement in eastern Washington (the area was still not formally U. S. territory at the time). Indians burned old Fort Walla Walla in 1855.
The Military Fort
Washington Territorial governor, Isaac I. Stevens, met with leaders of many inland Northwest tribes in 1855 at the Walla Walla Council and signed a treaty that temporarily halted hostilities and established sovereign lands, including three reservations: Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Yakama.
Gov. Stevens was only giving lip service to the tribes, however. His clear purpose was to encourage settlement on the best lands in eastern Washington (including present-day Idaho and Montana). The military established Fort Walla Walla in the valley near the Council grounds in 1856, partly to ensure the treaty would be enforced, though it hadn’t been ratified by Congress.
Two temporary forts were built by Col. Edward J. Steptoe, and he constructed the permanent one in 1858. After Congress ratified the treaty in 1859, early-day settlers established a town near the fort, also called Walla Walla. The first settlers were cattle ranchers, but the rich soil soon encouraged farmers to begin planting crops.
Some historians believe that if this fort had never been built, the gold miners, farmers, and others, would have lagged by decades. The Native Americans would have retained control over the inland Northwest much longer and possibly armed conflicts could have been avoided.
That is mere speculation, of course.
Fort Walla Walla Museum
This museum, located west of the fort grounds, hosts a variety of permanent and rotating exhibitions in several buildings. They tell not only the history of the fort, but of the surrounding agricultural area. There is also a collection of old buildings: settler cabins, a doctor’s office, a blacksmith shop, etc.
Though the buildings are well-suited to living history demonstrations, these are only held sporadically and are not a regular feature of a visit to the museum, unfortunately.
One cabin on the grounds is among the first built in Walla Walla. Ransom Clark made his claim on the way back home to Portland from the Colville mines in 1855. The outbreak of hostilities led the government to order all the settlers to leave the area, but they did not forfeit their claims. Clark returned in 1859 with his two young sons, set up a tent, and began planting trees.
Clark returned to Portland to get his wife, leaving his son Charles with Robert Horton. It was soon after that Charles received word that his father had died. At first he did not believe the news, but it was true. His widowed mother, pregnant at the time, came out to spend part of the summer with them. Her brother, Billy Millican, and Robert Horton built the cabin that became the family home.
Neighbors encouraged Mrs. Clark to sell her claim, but she decided to prove up on it instead. The land remained in the family a long time, and they preserved the cabin and later donated it to the museum.
The remaining structures from the military fort are not part of the museum, but are located nearby at the Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center. I drove over and walked around the parade grounds in the center of the property, trying to envision the old military establishment as it had been in the 1860s.
Because of this fort, the United States rapidly wrested control of the inland Northwest from the tribes who had lived there for millennia. Thankfully, the museum does present their side of the story, too.
Feature Image: Fort Walla Walla in 1862 (Wikimedia Commons)
Lyman, W. D. 1918. Lyman’s History of Old Walla Walla County Vol. 1. The S. J. Clark Publishing Company, Chicago, p. 110-11, 455-56.