Submitted by Emily Molina, SHMA Liaison to the Friends of the Steilacoom Library.
On February 14, more than 40 people attended the Friends of the Steilacoom Library presentation on Fort Nisqually. Lane Sample, an educator at the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum for over 19 years, started by clarifying that the “Fort” was not a military outpost but the local “office” of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). HBC needed a fur trading post located centrally between Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River and Fort Langley on the Fraser River, in what is now British Columbia. Established in 1833, it was “Puget Sound’s first globally connected settlement.”
Originally located in a region of Dupont now known as the Home Course golf course, close to the Sequalitchew Creek, it was later moved to an area closer to Centre Drive. Over the years the emphasis changed from fur trading to farming and dairying.
Dr. William Fraser Tolmie would oversee the operation from 1840-1859. As HBC interests declined, and the rise of competing shops and stores in Steilacoom, the fort became known as the Puget Sound Agricultural Company (PSAC). In 1869, the same year that Fort Steilacoom was closed, Fort Nisqually was sold to the US government.
Lane illustrated life during these times by talking about Letitia Work Huggins, a métis (“a person of mixed indigenous and Euro-American ancestry” ? Wikipedia). Letitia’s father was a fur trader and her mother was part French Canadian and part Indian. She married Edward Huggins, the acting head of the Fort after Tolmie’s departure, and lived in the Factor’s House. In spite of having eight children, she become the Fort’s cook and was the first woman there to be paid for her work. Interestingly, Tolmie and Huggins were each married to one of John Work’s daughters, Jane Work Tolmie, and Letitia Work Huggins.
Thankfully, there were some very good early record keepers. According to Sample, there were over 507 mentions in the “Journal of Occurrences” between February of 1846 through September of 1859 that included the names: Steilacoom, Steilacoom City, Fort Steilacoom, and Port Steilacoom.
Records indicate Dr. Tolmie making trips to Steilacoom to purchase such items as seven-foot wagon wheels, at $25 a pair. Other entries describe the purchase of goods from Fort Nisqually by folks from Port Steilacoom, as well as beef contracts between Fort Nisqually and Fort Steilacoom. “As acrimonious as the Americans and the British were about some things, when it came to daily life, they were constantly doing business together,” says Sample.
The Edward Huggins family were the last to live at Fort Nisqually. In 1906 it was sold to the Dupont Company. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that the buildings were razed and restored in their current location at Point Defiance Park, in Tacoma by workers from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The Factor’s House and the Granary are the only two original buildings. Nothing remains at their early locations, but a historical sign.
At the end of her talk, Lane played a guessing game with historical items, some of which nobody could figure out. They included a froe (a tool used to make shingles from cedar bark, and a dibble stick (a stake used to poke holes in the ground for planting seeds). These items can be seen and handled at the Fort’s Museum.
Visit the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum which offers a variety of tours, education programs, and camps. There are special seasonal events like the Candlelight Tour, and a variety of Heritage skills classes. If you’re lucky, you just might run into Lane Sample while you’re there!
Friends of the Steilacoom Library sponsor these free events in partnership with the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association.
Join us on Friday, March 13, 3 p.m. for: Pioneer Memories, Future Dreams: Eliza Jane Meeker