Friends of Fort Vancouver Tells the Rich Story of a Historic and Culture Site through Programs and Retail

By Amanda Keith posted 10-18-2017 10:53 AM


View of the reconstructed Fort Vancouver taken in the Heritage Garden. Photo Credit: Friends of Fort Vancouver

On the north bank of the Columbia River across from Portland, OR, stands Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Vancouver, WA. This National Park Service (NPS) site is located between two urban areas and weaves together several historical and cultural narratives that represent the origin of the Pacific Northwest.

Established in 1824, Fort Vancouver was a fur trading post built by the London-based Hudson's Bay Company. The historic site not only interprets Hudson Bay Company’s activities, but the military history that began with the arrival of the U.S. Army in 1849. The site was the end of the Oregon Trail, the command center for the American Indian Wars of the Northwest and, in the 20th century, aviation history at the adjacent Pearson Air Field took center stage. Underlying the Euro-American heritage of 200 years is the legacy of Native American culture and trade that occurred in and around the area.

Telling this multi-faceted story requires a creative approach and one that the Friends of Fort Vancouver has helped with as an NPS partner since 2014.

The Friends of Fort Vancouver help support and promote a variety of educational programs and events to enhance the visitor experience. The group works to involve the surrounding communities as active participants, donors and volunteers. Behind the scenes, the Friends help sponsor workshops for the costumers and for the 19th century blacksmiths and carpenters who volunteer within the reconstructed fort. They also assist with Civil War, WWI and WWII re-enactment events which keep volunteers engaged and help broaden the visitors’ perception of the 232-acre site.

At the Visitor Center, the Friends sponsor reading events that explain the site’s significance as a settlement of the Oregon Trail, its military and aviation history, and its significance as a gathering place for Columbia River tribes for over 10,000 years. The Friends also help provide administrative services for NPS Lantern Tours of the Fort and the Barracks.

The Friends support the NPS Lantern Tours which offer a unique way to view many of the resources of the site at night, by candle lantern. Photo Credit: Friends of Fort Vancouver

“Like many public lands and national parks, we feel the Fort Vancouver Historic Site is one of the best kept secrets of the region,” said Mary Rose, Executive Director of the Friends Group. “It’s not only what you see and experience above the ground, but it is also the archaeological heritage that lies just below your feet.”

One of the Friends’ favorite sponsorships is the NPS Kids Dig! program. Children gather onsite in the summer to work with leading archaeologists from nearby universities and interns to learn about the wonders of artifacts and the stories that they tell.

As they cross through the layers of time, they may discover an Ipana toothpaste tube from the CCC camp of the 1930’s, a Spode china shard from the Hudson’s Bay Company village and, digging deeper, they may discover even older spear points and fishing gear of American Indians who lived here.

The Kids Dig! program introduces kids aged 8-12 to the fascinating world of archaeology at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

For the Friends Group, while it may be challenging to interpret the many different aspects of the park, they feel it’s important to the visitors.

“This site was a center for intercultural and international trade and played an important role in the Indian Wars and both World Wars,” Mary Rose explained. “While we run the risk of overwhelming visitors, we also find that we can’t limit our programs to focus on just one era. By doing that, we end up excluding someone’s interests in coming to the site.”

She then explained that, in partnership with the park, her nonprofit serves to direct visitors based on their interests. “Each person’s visit becomes very personal because there’s something for everyone here,” she said.

According to the park’s Superintendent, Tracy Fortmann, the nonprofit partnership brings “a valued perspective,” providing innovative approaches that help the park reach new audiences.

“They wholeheartedly support the mission and efforts of this urban national park,” Fortmann said, while adding that the nonprofit’s special events, frequent presentations and their ability to support the park’s volunteer initiatives, new exhibits and pilot programs has helped the park enhance the visitor experience.

Operating a Joint National Park Service / US Forest Service Visitor Center

The Friends of Fort Vancouver also operates the bookstore gift shop in the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center to generate funds for the park. The Visitor Center is located at the entrance of the park and provides interpretive services while the gift shop sells vintage and new books, crafts and items that celebrate the site’s significance. The shop also serves as a mini art gallery featuring contemporary Native American art, jewelry and blankets.

Recently, the Friends began offering U.S. Forest Service items as well. Rose explained that the forest service regional office for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest had relocated to Vancouver, WA in an effort to educate visitors on their way to the forest and to Mount St Helens. The USFS regional office is located in one of the recently restored Barracks buildings on the site.

She said that the multi-agency use of the Visitor Center is working very well, with both park service and forest service onsite, ready to answer visitors’ questions and that the shop is well-stocked with maps and retail items for those heading to the forest.

The Friends operate the bookstore giftshop in the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center, jointly utilized by the NPS and the USFS. Photo Credit: NPS

Bridging Both History and Culture for Today’s Visitor

Rose said there is more the Friends would like to do to interpret the different aspects of the park and connect it with those living in the nearby metro areas.

“We focus on education and interpretation but we’d like to broaden what that means to make meaningful connections for people,” she said.

For instance, Rose said that the Friends work to promote the presence of Native American culture in both programs and in the gift shop. Native Americans were relocated to reservations with the Treaty of 1855 to open the way for American settlement throughout the Pacific Northwest. Through art, books and community participation, the Friends hope to broaden a deeper understanding of the significance of native cultures in the region.

“There were dozens of Native American tribes and bands that lived and traded in this area. We want to make sure their stories are told and that there are ways for people to learn about their cultures and their traditions.”

While visitors to the historic site may come for a specific interest in the 19th century, the Friends hope to provide ways for them to learn about new aspects of the site and continue to grow their interest.

To learn more about Friends of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, visit their website at