Of the Keizertimes

That 15-star flag set to fly at the corner of River and Chemawa roads this week is only part of a historical celebration this weekend.

No one in Keizer, or anywhere else for that matter, made a unilateral decision to sell the Louisiana Purchase back to France or otherwise exorcise 35 states from the union.

It is, however, the flag that flew everywhere flags flew back when the first European settlement in the Willamette Valley was built around 1812 – and growing evidence suggests it was in southwest Keizer, where Wallace House Park sits.

A program at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 9 will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the settlement, which is believed to have consisted of exactly one house, that served as a trading post for John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company.

“We’re bringing to life some of the history not everyone necessarily knows about and appreciates,” said Mark Caillier, a city councilor who is key in coordinating the event.

It includes free chili and cornbread, unveiling of a kiosk explaining the local history, speeches from local dignitaries, a presentation by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, historical displays and a flag raising, complete with a hip hip hurrah! (There was no Pledge of Allegiance at the time.)

The public is welcome, but parking will be extremely limited, so organizers encourage attendees to walk, bike or carpool to the event if possible.

While there were more than 15 states by 1812, the flag was not revised between 1795, after Vermont and Kentucky joined the original 13 colonies. Its next revision was a few years later, in 1818, when the union had 20 states.

A camp will depict what life looked like around the time of the Wallace House.

The house is long gone, but Jerry McGee, a former city councilor who has extensively researched local history, said the house most likely looked like other fur posts of the era: A log building about 40 by 15 feet, with a gable roof covered with parchment, with quarters for officers and workers. It would have had room to sleep 18 men.

McGee said Astor got acquainted with officers of the Hudson’s Bay Fur Company and North West Fur Company, learning about their trade while stuck on an ice-bound ship shortly after the American Revolution. He then put into practice what he had learned, quickly becoming the wealthiest man in the fledgling new nation.

He financed a fur expedition to the Northwest in 1810, starting the American Fur Company. The group, which included a man named William Wallace, built Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River and sent parties inland to establish outposts. Wallace House was one of those. They came to this particular area in part because of unusually good relationships with bands of the Kalapuya, a Native American tribe who served as essential trading partners – and had plenty of fur.

“They thought it was smarter to trade with the Indians (than trap),” McGee said. “It was going to take them too long to make a showing is what it amounted to.”

The high bluff at what is now the park also was high enough to dodge the temperamental Willamette River, which was especially prone to flooding. Tree-less meadows also made it easier for the traders to build – and later for agricultural explorers to establish farms. The abundance of deer and elk became essential food stuffs that could be sent downriver to the larger fort.

The house was the third non-native structure to be built in Oregon, according to John B. Scott of the Willamette Heritage Center. Only Fort Clatsop, built by Lewis and Clark, and Fort Astor predate it.

The story of the Wallace House was lost to time, as was the house itself: The company was sold as soon as news of the war broke in Oregon. Its successor was a structure just upstream from Champoeg State Park. Unused, the building simply rotted away in time.

Diaries of fur traders and a map by Nathaniel Wyeth marked the spot, and retired attorney Donald Upjohn revived interest when he shared his research at the Keizer Rotary club some 10 years ago.
Seeing just the right spot marked in a National Geographic article about the Northwest fur trade convinced McGee this was no urban legend.

“It did just disappear,” McGee said. ‘You wonder how many significant things like that did.”