Fort Dalles History

Fort Dalles History

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Fort Dalles Surgeon’s Quarters , circa 1950

Fort Dalles Museum, in The Dalles, Oregon, is housed in the Surgeon’s Quarters, the only remaining officer’s house of the 1856 Fort Dalles military complex. The Fort Dalles Museum is one of Oregon’s oldest history museums having opened its doors in 1905.

Dr. Joseph Bullock Brown is the best known surgeon who served at Fort Dalles. he was stationed at Fort Dalles from April of 1856 to July of 1859.

Camp Drum

When established in 1850 as Camp Drum, this was the only U.S. Army fort on the Oregon Trail between Fort Laramie and Fort Vancouver. The land between the Cascade Mountains and the Rockies was considered, at least by the military, to be “Indian Country.” Settlement was discouraged, despite the new Donation Land Law which granted free land to emigrants with scant regard to the native peoples already inhabiting it. Army policy was to patrol the “Emigrant Road,” sending settlers on their way to the Willamette Valley as expeditiously as possible, down the Columbia River or south along the Barlow Road around Mt. Hood.

The Columbia River for thousands of years served as a highway through the Cascade Mountains. With impassible rapids to the east, and the great gorge of the Columbia to the west, the area of The Dalles was a natural stopping place for Native Americans. Later travelers used it too: Lewis and Clark camped here on their way to the Pacific in 1805, and again on their return in 1806; fur traders stopped during the ’10′s and ’20′s; explorers, botanists, artists, writers and adventurers all knew the “grand dalles” of the Columbia. The name was bestowed by hardy French-Canadian trappers and boatmen – the legendary voyageurs, back-bone of both the British and American fur companies. In France, “dalles” are flat rocks, flagstones, or paving stones, but by the beginning of the 19th century, French Canada was generations removed from France. To the voyageurs, “dalles” meant a place where water, confined by rocks, forces its tumultuous way through canyons, forming chutes and rapids. The Grand Dalles referred to the great rapids east of the present town, inundated by the backwaters of The Dalles Dam in 1957.

Volunteer Militia

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Company G, 3rd Battalion One prepares for the Spanish war. photo, 1898.

Volunteer militia, responding to the attack (the 1847 massacre by Cayuse Indians of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and others at the  mission at Walla Walla), occupied the local mission buildings in 1848 and ’49, calling them “Fort Wascopam,” or “Fort Lee” after their commanding officer. The Northwest’s first U. S. Army troops stopped briefly on their way from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Vancouver in 1849, and some returned early in 1850 to found a small post. With the help of hired Oregon Trail emigrants, they constructed a log barracks and several frame buildings utilizing some old whip-sawed lumber from the abandoned mission. A real “hardship post,” the houses had dirt floors and no ceilings; they were leaky, drafty and miserably uncomfortable.

The post was chronically undermanned, usually home to a few dozen men.

Fort Dalles

In 1853 the 10-mile square required by the government for self-sufficient Oregon Trail forts was shrunk to a mile square. C/O Bvt. Maj. (Brevet Major) Benjamin Alvord took the precaution of changing “Camp Drum” to “Fort Drum,” even though the facility was never stockaded or fortified, to ensure its square mile. Shortly afterward it became Fort Dalles. The newly available waterfront land allowed civilian development, and the town began to expand.

The formation of Wasco County in 1854, plus the discovery of gold near Colville to the north, brought more white traffic into the area and increased the incidents of violence. Maj. Granville O. Haller, using regular and volunteer troops, captured and executed some Indians who committed atrocities against wagon trains, but the military was greatly outnumbered east of the mountains. An attempt was made in 1855, with treaties signed near Walla Walla and The Dalles, to avert all-out war and to confine the Indians to reservations in return for guaranteed hunting and fishing rights. But it became obvious that conditions were deteriorating and that the old fort buildings were no longer adequate to handle the inevitable expansion of hostilities: the Yakima Indian War.

The arrival, early in 1856, of Col. George Wright with several divisions of the reorganized 9th Infantry, began Fort Dalles’ busiest period. Determined to enforce treaty compliance, Wright moved north after being delayed by a raid at the Cascades in which both the military outpost and civilian settlement came under attack by Klickitat Indians. Fort Dalles was now headquarters for a regiment, the main military depot for all goods and supplies destined for soon-to-be Forts Simcoe and Walla Walla to the north and east.

Surgeon’s Quarters

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Abandoned buildings of Fort Dalles, circa 1890.

The Surgeon’s Quarters, smallest and least costly of the four officers houses, is the only fort Dalles building still standing except for the little Gardner’s Cottage which was located near the present-day The Dalles High School and was relocated to the Fort Dalles Museum grounds. The Surgeon’s Quarters cost a little less than $5,000 in 1856. The largest, Col Wright’s house, which Scholl called “the finest house in all Oregon” cost $22,000, though amazed emigrants and townsfolk referred to it as “the $100,000 house.”

Government inspectors were unimpressed by the fort’s distinctive buildings and promptly forbade any further expense. Wright and Jordan were criticized for the ornate design and potential cost of upkeep. They pointed out that, with the scarcity of material and labor, all frontier construction was costly; furthermore much of the expense actually maintained forts at the Cascades, Simcoe and Walla Walla. Protest proved futile. Jordan was not even allowed to construct water storage. One unfortunate flaw, shared by the lovely buildings, was bad mortar in the chimneys. By the end of 1867, the three larger residences had burned to the ground.

For additional information: Military & Supply Forts on the Oregon Trail