The other night I got to hop off a bus and walk right into the year 1857. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d have the opportunity to write. And yet, there I was, in a world of candlelight and campfires, square dancing and samplers, blacksmiths and bartering.
Even more fascinating, I got to be a mere specter in this place. The people of 1857 did not see me. They didn’t even sense me. In fact, I had to move out of the way a few times to avoid being trampled by them. And I had been warned that they were going to live their lives as they always did. If they had to throw a bucket of slop out the door and I happened to be in the way, well… too bad for me.
And so, there I was, an invisible fly on the wall at Fort Nisqually. Eavesdropping and observing. What a fascinating night that was.
I happened to walk in during the preparations for the wedding of Letitia Work and fort clerk Edward Huggins. People came from miles around. Gentlemen and their wives, settlers, trappers, laborers, and cooks. All had a role in this event, whether it be a supporting one or a participating one. For many of them, their work continued on, but they were at least treated to a nice plate of food from the reception. Others came especially for the ceremony, wearing all their finery, and took the opportunity to discuss the news of the day with people they rarely had the opportunity to see. I was fascinated to note that politics were divisive and stressful even back then.
I got to wander through the forge, the factor’s house, the sale shop and the kitchen, and in and around the fort grounds, listening to over a hundred people who were going about their 1857 business in a world where there are no cell phones or electricity or social media. What an amazing experience.
The good news is, this time travel opportunity is available to you, too, as Fort Nisqually hosts these candlelight tours in early October each year. If you are in the Tacoma area, I highly recommend that you mark your calendars for next year, as the destination is 1859. You might even see me there, in ghost form.
Nestled within what seems like forest primeval, but is actually Port Defiance Park in the City of Tacoma, is a fascinating fort that will take you back to the year 1855. Although only two of the buildings are original, the Granary and the Factor’s House, and it doesn’t look like much from outside the gates, once you enter you feel like you’re in another world.
The fort used to be located 15 miles south in what is now DuPont. It was moved to Tacoma in 1933, but the curators have done an amazing job to make this Hudson’s Bay Company fort historically accurate.
According to their website, Fort Nisqually was the first European settlement on Puget Sound. It thrived on the fur trade, and later on it produced crops and livestock for export. The Europeans and the Native Americans got on well. They worked together and intermarried. It wasn’t until the fort found itself on American soil and revenue agents and tax collectors started bugging them that things became hostile.
I absolutely love living history museums, and this is one of the best I’ve seen in quite some time. The interpreters in period clothing were very friendly and taught us a great deal about life in the fort, and there were some fascinating displays as well. There was even clothing that you could try on.
We had the opportunity to feel some actual beaver pelts, and from that I could finally see what all the fuss was about. It was amazing. And something I didn’t know was that top hats made from beaver at the time did not include the skin. It was the fur alone, made into a soft felt, that was used. It could last practically forever, so these hats were often passed down from father to son.
Despite the fact that it stopped being an actual working fort in 1869, there is a certain vibrance to the place. They still plant crops and raise chickens. They hold workshops to teach such things as butchering and curing, 19th century clothing construction, beekeeping, and basketry. They have summer camps. They have several events throughout the year, such as Queen Victoria’s Birthday, Brigade Encampment, Harvest Home, a Candlelight Tour and a Christmas Regale.
I am thrilled that I now know about this place, because I’m sure I’ll be back many times. I’ll leave you with some pictures from our visit.