Oysterville's 150th Birthday: The Fort North of Oysterville

Oysterville raised an informal militia in 1863, erecting a fort and marshaling weapons like this Jager Rifle, to counter a threat from England, France or American Indians - no one is quite sure which.

According to Melitta Savage Lambing, there were big doin's in Oysterville, Washington Territory, in September 1863.

"The folks are working on the fort. They will commence one on the other point as soon as they get this one done which they think will be in about two months. They expect war with Engerland (sic) and France soon."

Melitta was writing to her husband, Isaac, who was in Bannack City, Mont., seeking his fortune at the big gold strike there. Though the young mother of three small children did not indicate that she was nervous about impending trouble, she did say, "I wish that you could be home with us this winter but you cannot do that so you must write often."

Unfortunately, in the surviving letters from Melitta to Isaac there is no other mention of the fort or the expectation of war. And, the snippet of information is more than a little frustrating for those Oysterville history buffs who have long believed that an entirely different "threat" prompted the men of Oysterville to busy themselves erecting a log fort.

In his book, "Oysterville, Roads to Grandpa's Village," Willard Espy (who got the story from his father, Harry, who in turn, got it from his father, R.H.) told the tale this way:

"In the 1850s, reports of Indian uprisings, sent spasms of apprehension through Washington Territory. Forts rose in the forests almost as fast as high-rise apartments shoot up today in Manhattan. Even Oysterville, perhaps more to be in fashion than through true worry, organized a militia. Grandpa (R.H. Espy) was elected commander, with the rank of Major.

"Finding that the available ordnance was limited to a dozen dubious jager rifles and a few shotguns, grandpa dispatched an urgent plea back east for modern weapons. He also ordered his men to construct a fort north of the village. It did not occur to anyone to set up a picket stockade around the fort, and for the next few weeks, the Siwashes spent much of their time at the edge of the clearing, exchanging ribald comments among themselves while the white men sweated; though for hard cash the reds did occasionally lend a hand with the fitting of one log to another.

"By the time the walls were in place, it was generally agreed that the Siwashes had never represented a danger. Besides, an exceptionally good run of oyster tides was due, and not to utilize them would have been criminal negligence. So the militiamen never got around to putting a roof on the fort. Instead, they returned to their oystering.

"A few months later, the weapons grandpa had ordered - rifles as good as most fired later in the Civil War - reached Oysterville. The settlers, having enough guns already for their hunting needs, sold the government issue to the Indians. And ... that's how grandpa became a Major."

An interesting footnote to the story of the fort is that, in addition to the rifles, a cannon was ordered by the militia. The town kept the cannon and it was fired off at every worthy celebration such as the fourth of July and the annual Sailing Regatta. Apparently, on the eve before one such occasion, the partying began early and a group of the celebrants decided to fire off the cannon at midnight. Disastrously, they used an over abundance of black powder and blew the cannon to smithereens. Whether or not anyone was hurt has never been mentioned.

However, not too many years ago, an Oysterville resident found a sizeable piece of the old cannon barrel and, for fun, mounted it on his pick-up. Or so I've heard.

Whether or not the discrepancies in the fort stories will ever be resolved may depend upon the next journal entry or correspondence that turns up from those early Oysterville days. I hope I'm around when it does.

Editor's Note: Sydney Stevens is the great-granddaughter of R.H. Espy who, with his partner I.A. Clark, founded Oysterville in 1854. Members of the Espy family have lived continuously in Oysterville since that time and, through the years have amassed an interesting collection of anecdotes and memories. We offer them here as a salute to Oysterville's Sesquicentennial year.

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