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The Village at Fort Vancouver: A Multicultural Experiment

When the Japanese castaways arrived at Fort Vancouver in the summer of 1834, they encountered the settlement at the fort, one of the first multicultural centers in North America, known simply as“The Village.” Despite the systemic racial inequality, it thrived as people all over the world, and around the region, converged to start a new life in the Pacific Northwest.

With the arrival of any Hudson's Bay Company ship, the villagers became excited, awaiting for news from abroad or the latest supply shipment coming from London.

On this particular day in June 1834, the villagers probably stopped whatever they were doing when the company ship the Lama fired her canons to announce her arrival. Unfortunately, at the time, lacking any completed bastions in which to house a cannon, the fort itself could not return salute.

As the crew of the Lama touched shore, the men both on board and those on shore began the preparations to unload the cargo. For the Japanese, as they made their way down the gangplank, onto the docks and up a curved road, they took in the scenery of the hustle and bustle of village life around them.

On the right-hand side of the road, there was a pond and surrounding it were various workshops and storage warehouses close to the water and easily accessible for the ships at dock. Sounds of hammers hitting metal came out of the workshops that housed the coopers, boatwrights, or tinsmiths.

To the north, the village was made up of houses as diverse as their occupants. When the millwright Crate saw it, he wrote

Some dwellings were built in ‘Canadian style’ (2 or 4-inch planks); some were built in ‘American cottage fashion’ (framed and weatherboarded); some were of squared timbers; a very few were of logs; and a number were “edged slabs” from Company’s sawmill (the slabs applied with flat side out).

It would be difficult to know who was more astonished, the Japanese who for the first time witnessed such diversity, or the villagers who probably never encountered someone from so far as Asia. Rumours no doubt had spread that they were castaways from China since Japan was closed to much of the world.

Otokichi and the other Japanese would have witnessed for the first time the possibility of people living in a culturally diverse society, unlike anything they had ever seen in Japan, where foreigners were rarely seen and only heard about in stories.

In the village, there were the Iroquois and French-speaking voyageurs from eastern Canada, the Scots from the northern islands of Orkney and the Hebrides, the Kanaka from the Hawaiian Islands, and the members of numerous local tribes, including the people of the Upper Chinook, Chehalis, and Cowlitz. Then there were those, particularly the children, with mixed ethnicities Metis, or “halfbreeds” as they were derogatorily known, who formed their own unique culture and language.

Those who lived outside the stockade were part of the “lesser” servant class, which consisted of four categories with the title of gentlemen at top, followed by tradesmen, voyageurs, and then finally labourers at the bottom. In the latter category were the cooks, the housekeepers, farm hands, and sailors, in which the Japanese would have belonged.

Japanese society, too, at the time was based on a strict caste system, but unlike the British, the peasant was ranked above the merchant and tradesmen. In fact, the Japanese peasant was only one tier below the samurai. As the backbone of rice production, the peasants in family units who owned and cultivated their own land were revered, but it was the daimyo or the feudal lord who collected the taxes and enjoyed its wealth without having to lift a single finger.

Though some peasant families amassed great wealth, it would be the rise of the merchants with their monopolies and distribution networks that would make them the envy of all, including the samurai who held a prestigious rank but little material wealth to show it.

At the village, if it were a work day (with only Sundays off), the villagers would invariably be working in the fields that surrounded the fort or on constructing the fort itself. After all, work had just started to enlarge the fort twice its size—to build the palisades to extend two wall lengths to form a rectangle originally a square measuring 318 feet by 320 feet.

But regardless if there was work or not, the workers probably put their tools down, or came out from their small huts to see the visitors from a faraway land that they could only imagine. And when they talked amongst themselves gossiping about the visitors, different languages could be heard: Iroquois, Cree, French, Gaelic, French, Chinook, and Hawaiian, and pidgin languages made up of a combination of two languages adopted from both parents.

Despite Hudson's Bay Company's Governor-in-Chief George Simpson’s aversion to mixed marriages, he could not deny the richness and benefits of such a community as he wrote of one experience while on a bateau: “You have the prettiest congregation of nations, the nicest confusion of tongues, that has ever taken place since the days of the tower of Babel.”

Through time though, the HBC realized that it was in fact these mixed marriages with women of the Cowlitz, Chinook, and Chehalis tribes, among others, that formed the stable work force the company needed to build its legacy in the Pacific Northwest. The men adopted tribal traditions of marriage, provided for their families both in life and in the event of their death, and saw to the education of their children. It was not the lone men looking for fleeting adventure and fame that built up Hudson's Bay Company, but rather it was the family men who were more likely to stay on with the company, who after finishing their contracts would happily re-sign for another three years.

The party continued up the road to the fort, surrounded on all sides by crop fields, until they came to the fort’s southern wall made up of unskinned logs of Douglas Fir trees—18 feet tall and sharpened to a point at the top. To prevent the curios Indigenous people from looking inside, smaller poles were put in between each of the main pickets. With such a humid and wet environment, the posts lasted four or five years and then replaced, so when the Japanese sailors arrived in 1834, most of the original posts put up in the spring of 1829 would have already decayed and warped or sagged from all the moisture.

Labourers were probably out raising new posts that were cut from farther out east as the nearby forests had already been cut down. The posts were dragged by oxen to the Columbia, rafted downstream, and then hauled up to the fort by oxen to the fort. It would not do for visitors to see a section of a wall to suddenly fall over from a strong wind—an embarrassment to Chief Factor John McLoughlin who needed to show to everyone that he had everything under control.

At the gate, there was a small door cut into it to allow the group to enter. Inside to the Japanese, this would have been the inner domain of the local daimyo, the feudal lord. Though not as impressive as Nagoya Castle in Owari Domain, which included Otokichi’s hometown of Mihama, with its imposing “fan sloping” stone wall bases and labyrinthine passages to the sanctum of the main castle gate and courtyard, it would be their first exposure in the inner workings of the British power, part of the western world that they undoubtedly were taught to fear.

Yet now in person, they may have sensed the mundane nature of this enemy of the Shogun. Indeed, were they not fed, clothed and given accommodation on the ship Lama? This western enclave seemed also to fear attacks from enemies from without, and the village itself with the women and children could very well be a village in Japan. If they had any fear when they first made contact with the British, it would have undoubtedly turned to curiosity or even gratitude as they crossed the threshold and into the fort proper.

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