I. The First Overland Expeditions to the Northwest Coast
The earliest overland explorations of the northwest did not reach the Puget Sound region. At the opening of the nineteenth century, trappers in the employ of the Northwest Fur Company had reached what is now British Columbia and eastern Washington in their search of fur-bearing animals. A prominent member of this company, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, had already passed over the Rocky Mountains and reached the Pacific Ocean on July 22, 1793. He was the first white man to cross the continent. Mackenzie's exploit gave to Great Britain a prior claim by right of exploration to that part of the country lying directly south of the Russian possessions. (Snowden, 1909, I, 229-230).
The claim of the United States to the territory south of the 49th parallel was greatly strengthened by the Lewis and Clark expedition, "an evolution from the mind of Thomas Jefferson." (Meany, 1909, 49). John Ledyard, the Connecticut Yankee, who had accompanied Cook to the northwest coast in 1778, influenced Jefferson to see the importance of a western expedition to the Pacific Ocean which would "advance the geographical knowledge of our continent." Congress approved of Jefferson's plan in the winter of 1802, appropriating $2900 for the expenses of the expedition.
"A thorough examination of the north side of the Columbia River in southern Washington was made in the autumn of 1805, and by November 7 the party behold the broad estuary into which Gray had sailed thirteen years earlier." (Snowden, 1909, I, 295). On their return trip up the river, in the spring of 1806, Mount Rainier was seen by Lewis and Clark from the south bank of the Columbia near the site of Portland. (Smith, "The Great Mountain of the Northwest," page 4).
II. The First Possessors of the Land
Of the three great fur companies active in the Oregon country, only one made settlements in the vicinity of Mount Rainier. The Northwest Fur Company was the first to reach the coast, Alexander Mackenzie having penetrated British Columbia in 1793. In what is now eastern Washington, David Thompson of the same company established the Spokane House as early as 1810. The next year a keen competition developed between the Canadian Northwest Company and the Pacific Fur Company, a group of Americans at Astoria. The contest was terminated only when Astoria was purchased by the former company, November 12, 1813, and renamed Fort George. A branch of the Astorian post, established in the Okanogan in 1811, was rebuilt by the Northwest men in 1816. In 1818 Fort Nez Perce, later Walla Walla, was erected. In 1821 the Hudson's Bay Company and the Northwest Company amalgamated. Dr. John McLoughlin, as chief factor, began his work with wonderful foresight and indomitable energy. For George and Spokane House were abandoned and three new posts were established: Fort Vancouver (1825); Fort Colville at Kettle Falls (1825-26); and Fort Nisqually (1833) at the head of Puget Sound, with Mount Rainier towering above it.
Fort Nisqually, or Nisqually House, was the first permanent settlement established on Puget Sound in the vicinity of Mount Rainier, and it is especially interesting as the place from which the first approach to Mount Rainier was made by Dr. William Fraser Tolmie, the last of August, 1833. (See topic, "Early Ascents of Mount Rainier.")
A hasty examination of the region was made by John Work as early as 1824. Fort Langly was founded in 1827 near the mouth of the Fraser River (explored by Simon Fraser in 1808). Communication at first was made between Fort Vancouver and Fort Langly by water. Sailing vessels, however, were not always available and the land route up the Cowlitz River to the head of Puget Sound gradually came into use. It became necessary to establish a half-way station, and early in 1853 Archibald McDonald made a thorough exploration of the country. He began to erect the first buildings in May, and Dr. Tolmie was put in charge until the arrival of chief trader Heron. Tolmie remained at Nisqually House until October.
There were not many fur-bearing animals on the streams flowing from Mount Rainier, so Nisqually never became very important as a fur-trading center. Furs, of course, were the chief object of the Hudson's Bay Company, but the needs of its own trappers and the demands of the Russians in Alaska and of the Hawaiian Islands for foodstuffs caused the company to seriously consider entering into agricultural pursuits. In 1836, the Puget Sound Agricultural Company was organized as a subsidiary company, and from that time on Fort Nisqually became more important as an agricultural enterprise than as a fur-trading post.
The P.S.A.C. continued in business until 1869, almost twenty-five years after the United States had obtained complete title to the region south of the 49th parallel. The treaty of 1846 promised protection to the possessions of the Hudson's Bay Company and the Puget Sound Agricultural Company. Difficulties arose when incoming American settlers coveted the fine lands.
Dr. William F. Tolmie had become superintendent of the P.S.A.C. in 1843, remaining at Nisqually until 1859, when he moved to Victoria, B. C. There he continued to manage the affairs of both the Hudson's Bay Company and the Puget Sound Agricultural Company at Nisqually. The property was finally sold in 1869.
Fort Nisqually was a place of importance even to early American settlers, for here was the only establishment where they could obtain supplies. Captain Charles Wilkes made it his headquarters in 1841, while making his careful survey for the United States Government of the Puget Sound region. Theodore Winthrop, author of "Canoe and Saddle," stopped there in 1853. These and other early travelers describe the fort as well as the great mountain that overshadowed it. (Meany, p. 76)