Fort Yamhill will be uncovered, studied

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Fort Yamhill will be uncovered, studied Published: August 13, 2005

By DAN DE CARBONEL Of The Statesman Journal


GRAND RONDE - Layers of dirt and acres of brush and trees are slowly giving way to history on a slope in Polk County. The remains of Fort Yamhill, an Army post located in the hills northeast of Grand Ronde, are carefully being uncovered, studied and prepared for public viewing.

"We're rediscovering the fort," said Eric Timmons, an Oregon Parks and Recreation Department ranger. "We're rediscovering its history."

Next year, the public will be able to walk the same parade grounds once commanded by Lt. Philip Sheridan in the 1850s before his service in the Civil War. The 55-acre Fort Yamhill State Heritage Site is scheduled to open to the public next spring with walking trails, fences marking the fort's original boundaries and a flagpole on the parade grounds.

This summer, archaeology students continue to survey and dig around the areas where officers' quarters, barracks and other components of the fort once stood. The project is an effort by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department and the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.

Its aim is to preserve the period of Oregon history for generations. Oregon State University anthropology professor Dave Brauner is leading the dig at the former barracks and officers' quarters. Elsewhere on the site, teams from youth conservation groups and inmate work crews have cleared away brush and timber that has grown in the past 100 years or so.

Among the big finds so far are the company barracks in the middle of a grove of trees that grew in the past 70 years. Odds and ends that have been found include pieces of china, buttons and chamber pots.

"Nobody knew these buildings were here," Brauner said. "There was a lot of speculation, but we were quite surprised to find these foundations here. We're pleasantly surprised to see how good of shape they are in."

Their work is guided by three maps of the fort made in 1856, 1858, and 1864. The problem Brauner and Timmons are finding is that the maps have discrepancies.

"We're trying to 'ground-truth' the historic maps and pinpoint where the principal buildings are," Brauner said. "We're establishing the corners and getting the orientation right."

The fort was established in 1856 to watch the tribes that had been relocated from other parts of Oregon to the Grand Ronde valley. The garrison was used to keep the Native Americans on the reservation and the white settlers from the valley off the tribal property.

"There was some worry that the valley settlers would encroach on the land," Timmons said.

Joel Palmer of Yamhill County was responsible for the Army arriving to provide security for the Native Americans, said Khani Schultz, of the Tribes of the Grand Ronde Cultural Resources Department, one of the project's partners.

"Palmer brought the Army here, and there is the thinking that if the Indians had a friend in the valley, it was Joel Palmer," she said.

At its peak, Fort Yamhill housed two or three companies for a total of about 250 men. Two similar outposts were created: Fort Hoskins in Benton County, which Brauner has spent years digging through, and Fort Umpqua in Southern Oregon.

Fort Yamhill was abandoned and disassembled in 1866. The buildings were auctioned off and the land sold to private interests. Schultz said the lack of knowledge of the period is primarily because good relations between the Army and the tribes meant a lack of conflict. The long fence that encircled the site was 3 or 4 feet tall and primarily used to establish boundaries and keep animals out, Timmons said.

"This was a pretty peaceful place," Timmons said.

The time period also was overshadowed by the growing tensions back east as North and South prepared for the Civil War. As conflict loomed, the soldiers at Fort Yamhill were eager to move back east and south and the regular U.S. Army troops were replaced by volunteer units from California.

The eight years the fort operated has drawn attention mostly because the command of then-Lt. Philip Sheridan, who would go on to successfully lead Union forces in the Civil War, most notably in the Shenandoah Valley campaign.

After the war, he led U.S. efforts in the Southern Plains to move Native Americans onto the reservations. Having Sheridan's name has provided the fort some recognition, Timmons said.

A home still on the site was built using the shell of one of fort's former officers' quarters. There is a 50 percent chance Sheridan lived there during his time at the fort. The home's heritage was the subject of an episode of the PBS program "History Detectives" last year.

Turner historical home rebuilder Gregg Olson is attempting to shore up the 100-by-60-foot home in order to maintain its historical and structural integrity. The goal is to move the former officers' quarters back to its original foundation about 300 yards up the hill. Olson is peeling back the layers of the home's construction. Because it was once officers' quarters, there are extensive records of its construction and remodel.

"Every remodel has been very different," Olson said as he examined the home's foundation.

He can determine the period when joists were cut by examining the marks left by the saw. Olson is focused on shoring up the building to keep weather damage to a minimum. No money to renovate or move the building has been allocated.

The Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation acquired the initial plot of land in 1989 and an additional property around the site has been purchased by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde to aid in the park's development. The tribes are active in the park's development, assisting with cultural history to ensure the visitors receive a full understanding of the area and the era.

"We want this park to tell Oregon's history from both sides," Schultz said. "There is no state park in this area that does that."

Timmons said that the park will develop over time to fill in a missing piece of the Oregon history for many state residents who are unaware of antebellum Oregon. Plans to restore the officers' quarters and build a museum to show some of the artifacts recovered from the site do not have funding.

Timmons hopes that a voluntary organization to assist in park improvements will be organized once the park has opened.

"We want to interpret the park without destroying the archaeological value," he said.

Plans call for outlines of the foundations to be visible to park visitors, but the actual foundations will be protected.

"We don't want them walking into special areas."

Brauner said the area has been logged and was a popular stopping point for travelers on their way to the Coast. Until the 1920s, the road between Salem and the coast went over the coastal hills and passed by the main gate of the fort. Travelers would stop and pick through the remnants of the fort for souvenirs. Other pieces had been absorbed into the community.

The blockhouse, a heavily reinforced defensive structure, was moved to Dayton, where a renovated version remains today. Loggers have pulled lumber out of the area, but Brauner suspects they took care in their operations.

"There must have been some care taken here in removing logs," he said. "The (loggers) knew what was here."

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