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Frenchtown: Washington State's Historical Connection to First Nations and Francophone History

Prince's Cabin - Near Walla Walla, Washington

My travels have taken me to Washington State, where I have been participating in the Modern Languages Conference in Seattle. Given my present proximity to Vancouver, I began investigating what Franco-American or French-Canadian history existed on this side of the border - and to my surprise, the connected histories of First Nations Native Americans and Canadians are most palpable in a community near Walla Walla. The Frenchtown Historic Site lies on the ancestral lands of the Cayeuse and Walla Walla tribes, some 320 miles (515 kilometres) southeast of Seattle, and 233 miles (375 kilometres) east of Portland, Oregon.

According to historical record, a fort had been built near Walla Walla named Fort Nez Percés (The Fort of Pierced Noses) in 1818. The term "Nez Percé" is an exonym - a word used to describe a community that is not used by the community itself. The French-Canadian fur traders would be the first to come into contact with this tribe - who were known in their own language as the Nimíipuu meaning "the people." Those of the Nimíipuu adorned their noses with a Wampum shell - harvested from local waters with a combination of white and purple tones.

The fort had originally been established by la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest, or The Northwest Company - a fur-trading company headquartered in Montréal. It became so successful that those working for the Hudson's Bay Company - the most-well known of the North American trading companies - would break out into fights with members of the Northwest Company - both for their economic success, and also for their otherness, as many workers were French-Canadians, Métis (at the time, known pejoratively as 'half-breeds'), and of varying First Nations tribal affiliations. given their propensity to argue and break out into skirmishes, British oversight required that The Northwest Company and the Hudson's Bay Company merge in 1821.

In a report given to The United States Government in the year of Canadian Confederation, those working in this area, and in the area surrounding Vancouver, were described as follows:

Excerpt from "Evidence for the United States in the matter of the claim of the Hudson's Bay Company pending before the British and American Joint Commission for the Settlement of the Claims of the Hudson's Bay and Puget' s Sound Agricultural Companies," Washington DC, 1867.

By the 1860s, very little of the original fur trading posts and forts were left standing. As trade began to decline, the then-British oversight did not see it fit to maintain many of the outposts in the area of what is now Washington State and British Columbia. Testimony of what once existed in these areas is given in an interview from the same text. The original question asked the worker to enumerate what buildings he could remember belonging to The Hudson's Bay Company in this general area before he left his post in 1860:

Although many of the buildings were ordered to be taken down, some have remained because of the suspension of efforts to clear the land. One such building remains in Washington State.

The small cabin known as "The Prince's Cabin" is characteristic of the building styles used by the Hudson's Bay Company and The Northwest Company. Evidence from 1844 already mentions the cabin in a letter sent by Narcissa Whitman. Both Narcissa and her husband Marcus were some of the first American-identifying settlers to the area, following the Oregon Trail westward from New York. They had opened a Presbyterian mission some two miles from the Frenchtown site, where the cabin can be visited today.

The cabin - though of French-Canadian construction - was likely given as a gift to the First Nations tribal leaders and traders in the area. In fur trade culture, "the prince" was often a term used to describe the trading partner's younger brother, and in the case of this cabin, the "Prince" would have been a younger brother of the Cayeuse nation headman named Hiyumtipin.

How do we know that this cabin is indeed French-Canadian in its construction?

According to the historians and preservationists involved with The Frenchtown Historic Site, "The Prince’s cabin displays prominent characteristics of homes of French-Canadian/ Métis design of the 1830s. These features include the cabin’s size (16’ x 24’), original hinges, door, and interior paint color, as well as the design of the interior wall. Its hand-hewn, squared log construction uses the angled dovetail joint typical of French Canadian construction (as opposed to the saddle joint commonly found in western cabins). This joint is characterized by the 45˚ downward slant of the topmost cut surface, a technique which preserved the wood by shedding water away from the heart of the joint." You can read more about the construction and preservation efforts of the cabin here.

If only I had more time on this visit to actually visit! If you are interested in a virtual tour, be sure to watch the following video clip shared by The Frenchtown Historic Site:

I hope to someday make a journey to this site to learn more about the entangled histories of fur traders, tradespeople, and the Indigenous First Nations communities that were present in the West several centuries ago, and how their stories continue to thrive through preservation efforts.

- Claire-Marie Brisson

11 January 2020


The Frenchtown Historic Site

​Hours: Dawn to dusk, daily.

Fees: Free and open to the public.

Amenties: Walking trail, signage, parking, pit toilet.

Location: 8364 Old Highway 12, Walla Walla, WA

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