Fort Nez Percés

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Fort Nez Percés
Fur Trade Outpost
Fort Nez Perces 1818.jpg
Fort Nez Percés in 1818.
Constructed: 1818
Company built: North West Company
Location: Wallula, Washington
Continent: North America
Later Ownership: 1821, Hudson's Bay Company
Abandoned: 1857

Fort Nez Percés, sometimes also spelled Fort Nez Percé (with or without the accent), named after the Nez Perce people and later known as (Old) Fort Walla Walla, was a fortified British fur trading post on the Columbia River on the territory of modern-day Wallula, Washington. It was in operation from 1818 until 1857.

North West Company[edit]

Further information: North West Company
David Thompson navigated the entire length of the Columbia River in 1811. Map of the Columbia and its tributaries showing modern political boundaries
Fort Nez Perces was an important stop on the York Factory Express trade route, 1820s to 1840s. Modern political boundaries shown.

During David Thompson's 1811 voyage down the Columbia River he camped at the junction with the Snake River on July 9, 1811, and erected a pole and a notice claiming the country for Great Britain and stating the intention of the North West Company to build a trading post at the site.


The fort was founded several years later, in July 1818 by the North West Company under the direction of traders Donald MacKenzie[1] and Alexander Ross. They constructed the fort on the east bank of the Columbia River, half a mile north of the mouth of the Walla Walla River and a few miles below the mouth of the Snake River.

The location was chosen for its strategic geographic value. The nearby Walla Walla Valley had long been an important rendezvous point for parties working several peripheral fur districts. The 1815 decision to refocus the entire New Caledonia region southward to the Columbia River meant greatly increased traffic on the river. Furthermore, Donald MacKenzie intended to open up the Snake River country, adding another operation converging on the area where Fort Nez Percés was built. Essentially all company exports and supplies passed through the Columbia Gorge. The location of Fort Nez Percés at the eastern end of this trunk line to the ocean made it the most important post in the interior. In addition, increasing tensions from occupying the homelands of the local Native Americans necessitated a permanent fortified post. Finally, the area was significant to the Indians themselves. Not only was it a major meeting and trading ground, but it was where Lewis and Clark had first met the Columbia River indigenous peoples and had made an informal treaty of friendship.[2]

Ross became the first chief factor of the fort.[3] Fort Nez Percés was an important post on the York Factory Express trade route to London via Hudson Bay.

Fort description[edit]

The fort was built with a double palisade, unique among North West Company forts. The inner wall was 12 feet (3.7 m) high and made of sawed timber. The storehouse and dwellings were within. Trade was conducted via a small hole in the inner wall. The outer palisade was made of planks 20 feet (6.1 m) high and 6 inches (150 mm) thick, and topped with a range of balustrades. There were four towers at each of the fort's corners, and these each contained large water tanks for fighting fire. Soon after it was built, Alexander Ross said it was "the strongest and most complete fort west of the Rocky Mountains, and might be called the Gibraltar of the Columbia."[2]

Snake River expeditions[edit]

In September 1818 Donald MacKenzie left his new base at Fort Nez Percés to lead a large fur trapping party into the Snake River country. The operation was a major departure from the usual practice of the North West Company. MacKenzie spent the winter of 1818-19 shifting camps and trapping in a large region. His return to Fort Nez Percés in July 1819 with an unusually large and valuable catch won him praise and vindicated the establishment of Fort Nez Percés, which some company partners had been skeptical. The Snake country expeditions from Fort Nez Percés became an annual affair and regularly produced a large portion of company's entire fur export west of the Rocky Mountains.[2]

Hudson's Bay Company merger[edit]

Fur trading at Fort Nez Percés in 1841.
Fort Nez Percés in 1853.
Looking down on location of Fort Nez Percés, as seen in 2006.

In 1821, the escalating conflicts between the competing North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company resulted in a forced merger of the two. The Hudson's Bay Company took over all the North West Company's operations, and administered them as the Columbia District. Fort Nez Percés remained an important HBC fur trade post and base for beaver hunting expeditions, as well as an important stop on the twice annual York Factory Express trade route to London via Hudson Bay.

Shortly after a visit by the American Charles Wilkes' expedition (which lost one of two ships on Columbai River bar); the fort was destroyed by fire on October 5, 1841. It was subsequently rebuilt out of adobe bricks.[4]

The HBC's Sinclair settlement expedition from the Red River Colony passed through in 1841, one day before the fire. They helped save what they could, but they decided not to stay. Rather they traveled through the night because the large number of Indians in the area made it unsafe to camp.

The Fort, along with other HBC forts on the western end of the Oregon Trail route, including Fort Vancouver near its terminus in the Willamette Valley; all gave substantial and often desperately needed aid to the early American Oregon Trail pioneers.

United States[edit]

The fort found itself on U.S. soil in 1846 as a result of the Oregon Treaty, which ended the Oregon boundary dispute with Britain. The British lost the lands north of the Columbia River they had long controlled. The new border was established much further north at the 49th parallel. The treaty did allow Hudson's Bay Company navigation rights on the Columbia River to supply their fur posts, and clear titles to their trading post properties allowing them to be sold later if they wanted. HBC continued to operate the Fort Nez Perces for another decade. It was again burnt down at the beginning of the Yakima War in 1855. James Sinclair was among the casualties of the battle. The fort was rebuilt a second time, but was eventually abandoned in 1857 when the Hudson's Bay Company gave up its declining business in the then fully American Oregon Territory and relocated its headquarters in the Northwest from Fort Vancouver to Fort Victoria, in present day British Columbia.

U.S. Fort Walla Walla[edit]

The U.S. military erected a new Fort Walla Walla in 1858 at nearby Walla Walla, Washington.[5]


  1. ^ Donald MacKenzie; URL last accessed April 10, 2006.
  2. ^ a b c Meinig, D.W. (1995) [1968]. The Great Columbia Plain (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Classic edition ed.). University of Washington Press. pp. 61–63. ISBN 0-295-97485-0. 
  3. ^ University of Montana: Establishment of Fort Nez Percés; URL last accessed April 10, 2006.
  4. ^ Oregon Historical Society: Fort Nez Percé; URL last accessed April 10, 2006.
  5. ^ Topinka, Lyn: Wallula, Washington (archived link), English River Website, 2005. URL last accessed 2010-06-07.

Further reading[edit]

  • Stern, Th.: Chiefs and Chief Traders: Indian Relations at Fort Nez Percés, Oregon State University Press 1993. ISBN 0-87071-368-X.

Coordinates: 46°05′03″N 118°54′33″W / 46.08417°N 118.90917°W / 46.08417; -118.90917