Since glass Trade Beads are one of my passions/addictions, my recent visit to the Fort Vancouver National Historic Reserve Site was exciting in light of the history preserved there. Located on the northern bank of the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington, near Portland, Oregon, it was established as a joint outpost for British and Americans in 1824. Fort Vancouver, named for Captain George Vancouver, is a wonderful resource to learn and research the history of the Fur Trade in the early days of North America. It is known as the premiere historical archaeology site in the Pacific Northwest.
The Hudson’s Bay Company located at Fort Vancouver served as the headquarters of the fur trading activity in the Oregon Country. Where there was fur trading going on there were glass beads traded and my purpose for visiting the Reserve was to see some beads and learn some information about what was found at this historic site. And of course, beads are one of the most common trade goods found at the Vancouver National Historic Reserve. Glass beads are often the most prevalent historic artifacts found in historic sites in the Pacific Northwest. Beads were manufactured in Europe or Asia – especially Bohemia (now called the Czech Republic), Italy, and China – and imported by the Hudson’s Bay Company and other Fur Trading companies. They were extremely popular with Native American, French-Canadian, and Métis peoples for use in decorating personal items. Historic information tells us that beads were used as “cash” and prestige items among the natives of the Columbia River area and all across North America in the late 1700’s to the mid 1800’s. The Fort Vancouver collection has more than 250,000 total beads! They provide a fairly definitive proof of occupation of pre-1820, and certainly no later than 1830. This is exciting to a crazy bead collector like me.
The Hudson’s Bay Company imported thousands of beads annually to Fort Vancouver, and many of these found their way into the archaeological record due to spillage or breakage. The beautiful Cornaline d’Allepo bead was so widely desired and traded by the Hudson’s Bay Company that the bead name became “Hudson’s Bay White Hearts”. Fort Vancouver’s bead collection is so comprehensive that it was used to create a typology, a system of classification for identifying 19th century trade beads in the Pacific Northwest. There are about 150 different types of glass beads identified in the collection.
We met a blacksmith, Eugene Carroll, at the Blacksmith shop at Fort Vancouver who took us to the Indian Trade Shop and told us about the site of the original Indian Trading Post where people came to trade for guns, powder, food, blankets, and beads with just about anything else they might need in those days. The original Shop was burned to the ground and Archaeologists have found beads lying in the soil arranged in straight lines – indication of where the space between floorboards had been. We really had a good time there and found the re-enactors and educators to be so open and willing to share whatever information they had about that era of history. You can bet we’re going back soon.