ELKTON — Behind the Elkton Community Education Center and just down the hill is a reminder that Oregon territory was once home to an entirely different world.
With 12-foot high walls made of vertically standing logs and 150 by 200 feet around, Fort Umpqua is a replica of a fur trading post established in 1836 on the shores of the Umpqua River.
The post served as the southernmost of its kind for the Hudson’s Bay Company, an English fur trading company. The original location of the fort was just a mile down river on the opposite shore and stood from 1836 to 1851. But today’s re-creation on ECEC’s grounds allows visitors to see what the post would have looked like.
Last weekend, The Party of the Wallamet (The Hudson’s Bay spelling of the name) of the Northwest Brigade of the American Mountain Men brought that history to life, reenacting in period dress what it would have meant to be a fur trapper in Oregon in the 19th century.
“(The trappers) would go into California, and this is the route they would take,” explained Rick Tabor, the Booshway or captain of the group. “They would stop at Fort Umpqua to resupply and check in, leave whatever furs they had already caught along the way. That’s what we’re portraying is just a trapping party.”
Tabor sat in the shade of one of the two structures within the fort, holding a replica Northwest or trade gun as he explained the intent of the encampment.
His party of the American Mountain Men inhabited the fort Saturday and Sunday, sleeping over night right on the ground with the same equipment actual fur trappers from the 1800s would have used to demonstrate to the public how the camp may have actually looked and how the trappers lived.
“We’ve discovered that period camping is actually a lot more comfortable than the modern stuff, it’s just heavier,” Tabor said. “But I’d rather have a wool blanket than a sleeping bag.”
He walked over to a pile of furs and wool blankets on the ground in the fort. Gesturing to the make shift bed he said, “this is what I slept on last night.”
Just steps away, the men spread their goods on blankets in front of them on the ground where visitors could gaze upon beads, cooking equipment, furs and other items trappers would have had.
“What they’re portraying here is what they would have taken with them and some of the things they would have needed and some of the things they would have traded for,” explained Kris Hendricks, the education coordinator with ECEC.
This year was the men’s first encampment at Fort Umpqua, though they did assist in the construction of the fort, which was finished just last year. Because of its location and because the group specializes in the fur trade era of the Pacific Northwest, Tabor thought Fort Umpqua would be the perfect location for an encampment.
“Our group is all over the state, and this was a good place for all of our guys to come to,” Tabor added.
Now that the fort is finished and open to public, Marjory Hamann the executive director at ECEC, said the next step is to increase educational activities on site such as the one this weekend.
“It’s very exciting,” Hamann said. “Our replica of Fort Umpqua is designed to be an open door into history.”
Over the two-day event, the mountain men explained the stories and uses behind the items spread over their blankets, describing the way native Americans would buy guns from traders but remove the metal piece on the butt of the gun to create jewelry or other tools and to keep from burning themselves when hunting with the weapons on a hot day.
As part of the demonstration, the men planned to cook deer or elk meat and shoot the replica guns, but with the fire danger and an especially hot weekend, they decided to forego those activities. They even abstained from smoking tobacco pipes, which would have usually been included in such a re-creation.
Instead, the mountain men spent the time teaching visitors about history. Daniel Klug, the chief interpretive ranger for the Champoeg State Heritage Area and a member of the group, played the bagpipes for entertainment. Tabor explained that a fair number of Scots were involved in the Hudson’s Bay Company back in the day, and with them they brought the musical instrument that became part of the post’s lively history.
ECEC employees estimated at least 150 visitors came through the encampment during the weekend to learn about the history in their own backyard. But the intent of the event wasn’t just to show visitors one part of the fort’s history; it was to get them to understand how Oregon became what it is today.
“It’s about knowing what was the ... interaction between the native peoples that were here with the British folks from the Hudson’s Bay Company and the new Americans that were immigrating out from the East Coast,” Hamann said. “I find that I look at the landscape differently the more I understand that history.”