Tales from the Grubby End: Looking at the rich history of the Willamette Post
The fur trading headquarters was abuzz with activity in the early 1800s
Two hundred years ago, the North West Company, a Canadian outfit, founded a small fur trade facility at a spot three miles south of Newberg known as the Willamette Post. It was located less than a quarter mile from the south shore of the Willamette River.
To see the actual ground, cross the Highway 219 bridge toward St. Paul and look for a large historical marker on the left beside the road.
Only three Euro-American settlements in the Pacific Northwest are older: Fort Astoria (established March 1811) near the mouth of the Columbia River; Fort Okanogan (September 1811), located on the upper Columbia in Washington between the towns of Brewster and Bridgeport; and the Wallace House (c. 1812) near Salem.
The Willamette Post was a going concern, with some periods of inactivity, until the early days of the town of Champoeg in the 1830s.
If Newberg had nothing more than the Willamette Post no Hoover-Minthorn House, no A-dec, no George Fox University, no wine industry, no Quakers this tiny pioneer settlement would be enough to put us on the map and keep us there.
The nascent beginnings for the post are somewhat complicated so here goes my attempt to piece together what happened.
The idea for such a facility to help trappers sell their beaver pelts in exchange for supplies for the next hunt happened a year earlier on the east bank of the Willamette several miles north of Salem. This was the aforementioned Wallace House.
It was built by a group of employees of the Pacific Fur Company, a North West rival. Pacific was owned by Americas first millionaire, John Jacob Astor (1763-1848). The construction and operation of the house came under the direction of company clerks William Wallace and J.C. Halsey.
Pacific Fur also owned forts Astoria and Okanogan.
Astors Pacific Fur, out of concern its investments would be lost to the strong British presence in the Pacific Northwest during the War of 1812, sold both of these forts to the British-owned North West Company on Oct. 16, 1813.
The new owners, headquartered in Montreal, Canada, immediately changed the name of Fort Astoria to the more British-sounding Fort George. They kept Okanogan open, phased out the Wallace facility (closed by 1814) and began construction of a replacement, our very own Willamette Post.
Under the charge of North West clerk William Henry, it was built sometime around December 1813. Constructed were a dwelling house for company employees and two huts for Native Americans of the Nipissing tribe employed as hunters.
During the ensuing years, the house, known alternately as the Chief Traders House, the Henry House, or Fort Kalapuya, also served as a place for trading with the local Kalapuyan Indians.
The Nipissing were among North Americas finest trappers, brought west from the region of Lake Nipissing near Ontario, Canada. They were members of the Algonkin Indian family.
In addition to acting as a depot for hunting expeditions, the Willamette Post also gathered large stores of game for shipment to the always food-deprived residents of Fort George.
By order of British law, the North West Company and the Hudsons Bay Company merged in 1821 and began operating under the name of the latter.
By the late 1820s the Willamette Post was still intact as French-Indian families began to settle around Champoeg and in a small community that would become known as St. Paul.
By the decade of the 1830s, the post and surrounding property began transitioning to new owners and new usage: farming
Pierre Bellique, a French Canadian fur trapper turned farmer, and his wife Genevieve, lived here. Etienne Lucier settled near Bellique. The two would become the first true non-native farmers in the history of the Oregon country.
Later, Joshua George Eberhard, Ken Austins grandfather, bought 720 acres of the historic property. This happened sometime around 1860. Austin is co-founder and co-owner of Newbergs dental manufacturing company, A-dec Inc.
Eberhard moved into what remained of the Henry House. It was a 12-foot-square dwelling that stood one and a half stories high and was outfitted with glass windows and clapboard walls.
When the Willamette River flood of 1861 hit, it washed away everything in its path, including the town of Champoeg and most of what remained of the old post. From the Henry House, Joshua managed to save the fireplace mantle.
In a new house he built on higher ground in the late 1860s, Joshua installed the mantle. Today, the Eberhard House survives intact, although it has been expanded over time to accommodate growing families. It is still in its original location: Old Champoeg Road, one-half mile east of Highway 219.
The mantle is there, although the bottom sections on both sides are replacement boards, necessary repairs due to heat over time eating away the originals.
For many years, Joshuas broadax stayed close to the fireplace. When it was stolen, it was replaced with a look-alike.