By Gary Fuller Reese. With supporting documents. Tacoma Public Library. Second Edition. August, 1984.


Fort Steilacoom served as a center of United States Military power and activity on Puget Sound from 1849 to 1868 and has since served the territory and state of Washington as a public institution specializing in treatment of mental disorders.

Portions of the land once occupied by the farm attached to the hospital have been assigned to other purposes and include golf courses, playing fields, and a large county park. Part of the land that was once the Fort Steilacoom Military Reservation is now the campus of Pierce College.

For too many years the general impression the public has had of the Fort was that it was just "there" for a short period of time and it then passed into history somewhat unlamented. In the recent past, however, copies of reports of the Inspector General of the United States Army who visited the Fort in 1854 and 1868 have shown that the fort was considered vital to the national interests of the United States. Copies of these reports are included in this document.

The fort or military personnel at the Fort provided many services to the local community beyond that of just maintaining a military center. These services ranged from the military black-smith assisting in local metal working projects to pumping money into the local economy as soldiers and the quartermaster spent money locally for the necessaries of life in the town of Steilacoom and elsewhere in the Puget Sound Country.

When the Oregon Country was first being explored and settled, it was claimed by a number of nations including the United States, Great Britain, Spain and Russia. After a period of time Spanish and Russian claims were extinguished leaving the two English speaking powers to vie for control of the area. To avoid an immediate confrontation the two powers decided to jointly occupy Oregon which in effect gave each nation the opportunity to further develop claims.

In this context the Hudson's Bay Company developed a series of trading posts on the Columbia River, on the Fraser River and on Puget Sound. There was a well conceived attempt on the part of the British to strengthen their claims by using a subsidiary of the Hudson's Bay Company, the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, as agent to attract settlers loyal to the British government.

The first attempt at attracting these settlers occurred in 1841 when a party was recruited in present Manitoba. A number of  farming establishments were located by members of this party in the present area of Pierce County, Washington. One of these farms was located on the site of what is now known as Fort Steilacoom. For several reasons the attempt by the Manitobans to succeed at farming failed and most left the area. It must be assumed that with this failure the British government became less enthusiastic about possibly going to war with the United States over a territory which could not support an agricultural community.

A second attempt was made to obtain success at the site of Fort Steilacoom when Joseph Thomas Heath, an Englishman, leased a tract of land from the Hudson's Bay Company for a farm. For a number of years Heath farmed on the site of the fort but his success was considered indifferent.

When Heath died during the winter of 1848-1849, the Hudson's Bay Company proved willing to lease the property to the United States government for the erection of Fort Steilacoom. It is again contended that if Heath had been successful, the Hudson's Bay Company would not have willingly released control of the land.

In a larger connection, the failure of the Puget Sound Agricultural Company to secure continued profits from its establishments on Puget Sound led the British to conclude that conflict with the United States was not worth the effort. Later when Fort Steilacoom was founded it played a vital role in maintaining the presence and power of the government of the United States in the Puget Sound Country. 

There is some evidence that on the part of the British the forty-ninth parallel boundary was still negotiable even after it was agreed upon. Certainly a demonstration that the British were not wholly serious can be shown in their inability to set the Boundary Commission to work until the late 1850s.

Governor James Douglas in a letter to Governor Isaac I. Stevens in 1858 could not guarantee that the British government under Douglas' control was able to capture Northern Indians who had killed a government official in Washington Territory.

Fort Steilacoom served as a headquarters and center of supply during the confrontation between the United States and the British over the boundaries between the holdings of the two countries in the San Juan Islands in 1859 but fortunately for both countries the boundary problems were solved some years later peacefully.

While no battles were fought at or near the Fort, while no major decisions were made which effected the general history of the state and territory, or the region or the nation, while it served mainly as the supply depot and station for troops, it was important to the retention of the Puget Sound Country by the United States.

Charles Prosch, an early newspaper editor wrote many years later that

"There was probably no military station in the United States at which the officers enjoyed garrison life so much as at Fort Steilacoom. All were loud in praise of the climate and surroundings, which they pronounced superior to those of any of the states or territories elsewhere.

"As evidence of their sincerity, it may be stated that after being stationed at Fort Steilacoom a few months, the officers became so strongly attached to it that it was not uncommon for them to shed tears when ordered to other garrisons.

"Lieutenant (August V.) Kautz has repeatedly informed the writer of such scenes. It was one of the hardships of military life that the officers were liable at any moment to be called away from stations the most delightful and ordered to theirs the most repulsive."

With four of the buildings of the fort still standing, with a great interest being expressed by several local historical societies including one whose goal is to "save" and refurbish the buildings of the Fort, with the pioneer cemetery still on the site, and with the public ownership of the property much should, can and is being done to preserve, protect, restore and properly interpret this historic fort.

Gary Fuller Reese, Tacoma Public Library.

The History of the Fort
Hudson's Bay Company on Puget Sound
Red River Settlers
Joseph Thomas Heath arrives
United States Control
Founding of Fort Steilacoom
Indian War of 1855-56
End of the War West of the Cascades
Conflicts with civilian authorities
Officer's life at Fort Steilacoom
Lives of the enlisted men
Garrison life
A sample of life at the Fort
Relations with Hudson's Bay Company
Reconstruction of the Fort
Steptoe's defeat in Eastern Washington
Puget Sound Pig War
The coming of the Civil War
Continued need for the Fort
Fort Steilacoom abandoned

Introduction to the documents section
The Tolmie Journal. Founding of Fort Nisqually from the Journals of William Fraser Tolmie.
Journal of Occurances at Fort Nisqually. May, 1833
Account of John Flett, A Red River Settler.
Letter to the Earl of Aberdeen from Sir George 
Simpson, November 24, 1841 about the Red River Settlers
Life on Puget Sound in the 1840s. Joseph Thomas Heath
Heath Farm became Fort, Hospital Site
Indian Attack on Fort Nisqually from the Nisqually Journal. May, 1849
Joseph Lane's Report to the War Department on conditions in the Puget Sound Country
Extracts of Report of J. Quinn Thornton to Governor Joseph Lane as reported to the Secretary of War and the Governors comments.
Report of William P. Bryant on the trial of the Murderers of Mr. L. Wallace.
Military History of Oregon, 1849-1859
Founding of Fort Steilacoom from the Nisqually Journal
Position and distribution of the Troops in the Third or Pacific Division... 1851.
Position and distribution of the Troops in the Third Pacific Division... 1852.
United States Army in Washington Territory
Report of Assistant Quartermaster at Fort Steilacoom, June 3,1851.
Steilacoom notes by Lieutenant William Petit Trowbridge.
Steeb's Description of the Fort, 1856.
Kautz Diary of his early days at the Fort,1853.
Ezra Meeker's reaction to the White River Massacre and the flight to Fort Steilacoom.
Report of Silas Casey Regarding locations of Military Establishments.
Growth of the United States Military Power in the Pacific Northwest to the Civil War
The Leschi Case from the Kautz Diary.
Story of a Historic Fort.
A note on the name Steilacoom.
General E. P. Alexander's Fort Steilacoom Notes.
Bruce Catton's Comments on relationships between Confederate and Union Officers.
Random Notes on the Role of Fort Steilacoom.
Herbert Hunt's description of Fort Steilacoom.
Clinton A. Snowden's comments about Fort Steilacoom.
Colonel Joseph Mansfield's inspections of the Fort, 1854 and 1858.
Mansfield's 1854 Inspection of the Fort.
Report of the inspection of Fort Steilacoom 14 to the 19th of December 1858.
Colonel Mansfield comments about deserters.
Colonel Mansfield's visit from the Kautz Diary.
Notes from the cover of the Inspection Report.
Officers mentioned by Colonel Mansfield.
Biographical Sketch of Colonel Mansfield.
Fort Steilacoom in 1854.
Fort Steilacoom Reservation forwarded with Mansfield's 1858 Report.
Fort Steilacoom After Reconstruction.
Fort Steilacoom Before Reconstruction.