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Travelling Back to the Days of Pioneers at Fort Nisqually

Jennifer Wing

Before the first pioneers trekked through the Wild West to reach Puget Sound, there was already a thriving business here shipping goods to customers across the globe.

In 1832, Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Nisqually, the very first European settlement in Puget Sound.

Today, a detailed replica of the fort, called the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum, stands at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park.

Jerry Ramsey, a volunteer, stands tall in his white shirt, black jacket and pants with a fancy gold pinstripe. But what really sets him apart is his towering top hat made out of felted beaver fur.

Credit Jennifer Wing
Jerry Ramsey

“The purpose of coming here was to make this hat, which was very, very, very popular in Europe. It was the epitome of male fashion to have a hat like this,” said Ramsey.

Ramsey is portraying William MacNeil, the captain of the steam ship Beaver. He is part of the cast of characters at Fort Nisqually who dress up in period clothes and show thousands of visitors every year what life was like in the mid 1800s.

This place was never a military site; it was all about making money for Hudson’s Bay Company. Its tall wooden towers helped keep an eye on potential robbers. Workers, mostly Native Americans and Hawaiians, lived in the small, dark cabins and slept in beds your average modern 12-year-old can’t fit into.

Today the fort is a place where people learn to spin wool, carve wood, and cook without electricity. John Salicco shows visitors how to make a banjo from scratch.

Salicco says he enjoys the break from the modern world.

“If you know your roots, it’s like now you know the neighborhood. And I think history gives you that founding that lets you feel rooted,” he said. 

The most striking building inside the fort is a pretty white house with fine china and brocade drapes. It’s where the big boss lived. The house’s dining room was “the center of the whole universe at Fort Nisqually,” says Ramsey.

This is where business would have taken place,” he said.

Credit Jennifer Wing
Inside the general store.

Across the lawn, there are still a few velvety beaver pelts on display in the general store as a reminder of why the fort was originally built.

“You may touch that, you may feel that. You can wrap that over your shoulder and pretend you are about to buy it,’” said Ramsey.

For a large part of the 1800s, the beaver built the fortune of Hudson’s Bay Company. An area just south of where Joint Base Lewis-McChord sits today was an ideal location for a trading post.

Pretty soon Fort Nisqually grew into an enormous agribusiness shipping wool, meat, and furs from Asia to London. It had thousands of cattle and sheep grazing on prairies that went right into the foothills of the Cascades. In fact, a handful of historians say the first cattle drive didn’t happen anywhere near the state of Texas.

“I believe it was from a place right near Vacaville, California to Nisqually,” Ramsey said. “Almost 3,000 head of cattle mixed with sheep in that heard came across Grants Pass, over the Sisque Mountains and swam across the Columbia River to start those herds.”

The original Fort Nisqually closed its doors in 1869. Then in 1933, the two remaining buildings on the original site were moved 17 miles north to its current location in Tacoma where a full replica of the settlement was recreated as a part of the public works programs during the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, the black top hat that started it all remained quite fashionable even as beavers were hunted almost to extinction.  President Abraham Lincoln kept the trend going strong. But instead of beaver fur, his top hat was made of silk, which was more affordable and available.

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