Fort Colvile

A Hidden Gem in the Columbia Basin

Two global fur trade companies became one through a forced merger, a deal that would have a lasting effect on the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest.

On March 26, 1821 two giant companies merged. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), founded on May 2, 1670, bought out its largest upstart rival in the fur trading business, the North West Company. This merger had lasting effects on the fur trade in the Inland Northwest. The HBC closed the Spokane House, located at the junction of the Spokane and Little Spokane Rivers, and established Fort Colvile in 1825, named after Andrew Colvile, a director of the company.

The new location was chosen by Governor George Simpson for its location near the Columbia River. Simpson wanted to maximize the profits in the region and the new location made it easy to move trade items from the Columbia River to the broad inland northwest. Defense was another advantage, the fort was located on rising land encircled by impregnable forest and the Columbia River above it. The site also offered better farming and fishing, allowing the post to support itself instead of relying on expensive imports of food. According to Governor Simpson, “an excellent farm can be made at this place where as much grain and potatoes may be raised as would feed all the natives of the Columbia and a sufficient number of Cattle and Hogs…”

Fort Colvile was intended to be self-sufficient. John Warren Dease wrote, “Seeds of different kinds were sown in good time in fact as early as the Season would admit of, every thing came up well with the exception of Indian Com and Wheat . . . 24 bushels of Potatoes were planted and were thriving well, but unfortunately a kind of ground mice got among them and had destroyed more than half.”

Fort Colvile became a profitable post. Simpson soon reported "We are glad to learn that Fort Colvile promises to become such a useful Post, both in point of returns and provisions…" By 1837 the company’s farms were producing around 5,000 bushels of grain, the livestock brought from Fort Vancouver continued to prosper, and the fort was a prime agricultural supplier in the interior Pacific Northwest.

In a letter written by John Pitchler describes the prosperity of Fort Colvile in 1829, “A proprietor of the company, a couple of clerks, and about 25 men are stationary at this post. It consisted, when I say it, of log houses for the accommodation of the company, and for storehouses for the merchandise and furs. A stockade was begun before I left there. Some swivels, in addition to common firearms, were all the defenses which I saw. About 60 or 70 acres of ground were under cultivation, and the crops were fine and abundant. Wheat, barley, oats, Indian corn, Irish potatoes, peas and garden vegetables of every description, grow well and were equal in the quality in the product to any in thus country. The wheat was ground at the post on hand mills thought a windmill was erecting, and a plentiful supply of flour obtained. Of domestic animals there were cattle, hogs and horses; the post being well supplied with its own bacon, butter, milk, etc.”

In Sir George Simpson’s notes of his travels during 1841-42, we find that a "grist mill, which is driven by water, is attached to the establishment."

By the 1840s the fur trade was in decline, yet Fort Colvile remained open. Not until the Oregon Treaty of 1846 did the fort finally fall under American jurisdiction, but the fort stayed in business. Only in 1871 did the Hudson’s Bay Company abandon the post.

Angus McDonald, the last chief factor of Fort Colvile, continued to occupy the buildings. McDonald homesteaded the fort for a couple years despite efforts to get rid of him. Angus and his son Donald had farms at the old fort until 1907 when Donald moved to Montana.

The old buildings of the fort were destroyed in a fire in 1910, but the structural outlines and some old farming plots can still be seen today when the waters of Lake Roosevelt fall during the spring draw down.