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In this monthly series, we’ll explore the history of the Catholic Church in the Pacific Northwest from pioneer beginnings to the present day. The series will highlight important places of faith in the Northwest, the “holy ground” where the seeds of faith have been planted in our midst. -- Corinna Laughlin

Part 4, December 8, 2019


The 1850 granary of Fort Nisqually, one of the oldest buildings in Washington State. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Hudson’s Bay Company established forts all over the Pacific Northwest, choosing strategic locations in order to control the fur trade. Vancouver came first in 1824; in 1827 Fort Langley was established on the Fraser River in what is now British Columbia. In 1832, the Company established Fort Nisqually midway between the two existing forts. The site (in present-day DuPont, Washington) was chosen for its strategic location, with ready access to the Sound and to rivers, as well as for its farming potential. Fort Nisqually was one of the Company’s first attempts at large-scale farming to provide food for Company employees in other locations, especially in Alaska. By June of 1833, the work was well underway: “A good deal of stir about the little establishment this afternoon,” wrote Edward Huggins, a Company clerk, in his journal. “Canoes arriving by sea - dosens of horses & riders by land – two ploughs at work on an endless plain & a ship riding at anchor before the camp is a scene I venture to say not very common in the Indian country far less at a new Settlement.”

There were many challenges—“the country looks pleasing enough to the eye but the plains… are very dry & Steril & especially so at this season of the year,” wrote Huggins. And without fences, it was difficult to convince the cattle to behave. In August of 1833, one of the Company men had to be “dispatched after the oxen who again show an inclination to return to Fort Vancouver,” an adventure that took two days.

By the time Fathers Blanchet and Demers arrived in the Northwest five years later, Fort Nisqually was a thriving trading post where native peoples of more than twenty different tribes regularly brought beaver and other pelts to trade for guns and ammunition, rum, molasses, and blankets. In April, 1838, while Blanchet was in the midst of the mission at Cowlitz, a Methodist missionary named D. Leslie arrived. He was, he told them, on his way to Nisqually to establish a mission among the Indians.

Blanchet wasted no time. He immediately dispatched a messenger to Vancouver, instructing Father Demers to head to Nisqually immediately, “in order to plant the true seed in the hearts of the Indians there.” Demers did just that, arriving at Nisqually within six days, in “cold and continuous rain” which gave him a bad cold which persisted for some weeks.

Demers’ short mission in Nisqually was a resounding success. While he concentrated his efforts on the native peoples, representing 22 different nations, he also spent time among the “Canadians,” and at the end of Demers’ ten-day visit, Helene Kitson, wife of the supervisor of Fort Nisqually, presented herself for Baptism. Blanchet later reported, triumphantly: “After having given orders to build a chapel, and said mass outside of the fort, [Demers] parted with them, blessing the Lord for the success of his mission among the whites and Indians, and reached Cowlitz on Monday, the 30th., with the conviction that his mission at Nesqualy had left a very feeble chance for a Methodist mission there. Brother Wilson, whom minister Leslie had left orders with to build a house, on a certain piece of land, must have been greatly despondent at being witness to all he had seen.”

Father Modeste Demers (1809-1871) gave the first Catholic mission at Fort Nisqually in 1839. Photo from oregonencyclopedia.org.
In August, Father Blanchet himself repaired to Nisqually for a second mission, teaching the whites (who numbered about 36) inside the walls of the Fort, and the natives (up to 300) outside. He left an evocative description of the experience: “Instructions out of the fort were given, first in a large tent, and afterwards in the open air, under the shade of a tree. All were looking at a large Catholic Ladder, hung up on a pole, the points being shown with a long stick. Among the remarks made by some of the chiefs was that of Tslalakom: ‘That man Noah had more children than the first man Adam.’ It was a beautiful sight in the evening to look from the inside gallery of the fort on the Indian camp with its numerous bright fires, and to listen to the harangues of the chiefs on the subject which had been explained to them.” By the time Blanchet departed, men, women, and children were able to make the sign of the cross and sing hymns in Chinook jargon. His spiritual rejoicing at their receptivity to the Gospel was joined with a considerably less spiritual delight at having vanquished his Protestant rivals: “Poor Bro. Wilson who, from a sailor boy had become a preacher, was looking at this Catholic demonstration at the hands of the Indians, with no small astonishment.”

The mutual resentment between Catholics and Methodists is, to a certain extent, understandable. An early Methodist missionary named Herbert Beaver had been instrumental in the Hudson’s Bay Company withdrawing permission for the priests to minister in Willamette, where their presence had been requested in the first place. And Blanchet had fanned the flames by insisting on rebaptizing and remarrying people who had been baptized and married by the Methodists.

The Catholics had a powerful friend in Chief Factor John McLoughlin, who advocated on their behalf in London (he would be received into the Catholic Church by Father Blanchet in 1842).

In October, eleven months after their arrival in the Northwest, the priests received word that there was no longer any bar to their ministry in the Willamette Valley. Within days, both had departed from Fort Nesqually. Blanchet went to Oregon and it was decided that Demers would set up a more permanent home at Cowlitz, the most populous and promising of their mission sites.

Among the articles the priests had brought with them on their long journey from Canada were two bells, weighing fifty and eighty pounds. Blanchet took the larger bell to Willamette. Demers loaded the other bell into a canoe and headed for Cowlitz. The day after his arrival, Demers wrote, he had “the bell blessed and place in a position 40 feet above the ground. I considered it an honor to ring the first Angelus myself. A consecrated bell was heard for the first time in the valley of the Cowlitz as well as in the whole extent of this vast country.”

Fort Nisqually was not abandoned. At least annually, Blanchet or Demers (or, in subsequent years, one of the other missionaries who came to assist them) would visit, give a mission lasting 10-15 days, and celebrate Baptisms and marriages. And in 1850, when a new Catholic diocese was established in the area, it was given the name Nesqualy.

Corinna Laughlin, Pastoral Assistant for Liturgy

Wilfred P. Schoenberg, SJ, A History of the Catholic Church in the Pacific Northwest
· Archbishop F. N. Blanchet, Historical Sketches of the Church in Oregon during the Past Forty Years (1878)


The actual site of Fort Nisqually is located on the Home Course Golf Course in DuPont, Washington, and is not accessible to the public. Just a few miles away is the Billy Frank, Jr./Nisqually Wildlife Refuge where you can walk, hike, explore, and look for American Bitterns along the Nisqually River.
Fort Nisqually was reconstructed at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma in the 1930s, one of many WPA projects in the Northwest. Remarkably, two 1850s buildings from the original fort survived, and were relocated here at that time: the granary and the blockhouse. The granary is one of the oldest buildings in Washington State. You can also talk to historical reenactors, explore exhibits, and see some reconstructed Fort gardens.




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