I LOVE history. When I get a chance to go to a history museum – or simply a destination with an intriguing backstory – I’m a happy camper.
When I discovered that Fort Nisqually, a quick 2.5 hour drive from P-Town, is actually a living history museum, I was all in.
Here are five reasons to consider a visit to Fort Nisqually:
# 1. History, Plain and Simple
For those of us, residents and visitors alike, who hope to establish a “sense of place” about our beloved Pacific Northwest, knowing its history is an integral piece of the process. Much of the area’s history concerns the Native Americans who called the Northwest home long before Europeans set foot here.
But Europeans played a major role, once they arrived. A visit to Fort Nisqually will give you a good grounding in what life was like for these early settlers. Established in 1833, the fort was, in fact, the first European settlement on the Puget Sound. As with other forts in the Northwest, it was owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Fort Nisqually, in its present location, was constructed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the 1930s. Two of the buildings – the Granary and the factor’s house – were moved and reassembled at the site and are the two oldest buildings in the state of Washington, constructed in 1850 and 1854, respectively. (They were moved from their original site in Dupont, Washington).
The current fort is intended to reflect how Fort Nisqually looked in 1855. It’s imbued with dozens of stories and factoids about daily life in the mid-1850s at a Pacific Northwest outpost.
# 2. Now Add ‘Living’ to History
Grab a “Self-Guided Tour” pamphlet from the visitors center and you’re ready for your history lesson. As you circumnavigate the grounds – we did the clockwise approach – you’ll be instructed and informed by living history interpreters.
Each weekend, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the fort features “Crafts of the Past” – think blacksmithing, spinning, quilting, leatherworking, and wood turning.
The weekend I visited, the “Craft of the Past” was puppetry and, more specifically, a Punch and Judy show. True confessions: I have a thing for puppets. Especially ones that are “out there” and appeal to both kids and adults as Punch and Judy do. These rowdy shows trace their roots to 17th century England – and were surely a part of life at Hudson’s Bay (a British enterprise) outposts. It was a great show and both kids and adults were howling.
# 3. The Brigade Encampment – and More
Beyond the weekly summer “Crafts of the Past” offerings, Fort Nisqually hosts an array of living history demonstrations and events.
In late July each year, Fort Nisqually hosts the Brigade Encampment. I had the good fortune to be at the fort for this very special event. Dozens of reenactors descend on the fort on this weekend and portray life as it was at the fort in 1855.
And they know their stuff! For example, I had an extensive conversation with the fort’s Chief Factor William Fraser Tolmie (Rich Repp in real life). He played his role as chief factor (essentially the CEO of the fort) with amazing dexterity and historical knowledge.
The Brigade Encampment commemorates the annual arrival of fur trappers and traders. You’ll witness the caravan as it arrives at the fort, complete with a bagpiper. A variety of activities are planned throughout the day including spirited contests between trappers and traders, lessons in period crafts and skills, performances and more.
Other events include Harvest Home (each September) which highlights the end of the harvest with traditional music, dance, cider-pressing, and games, and the Candlelight Tour (Oct. 6 and 7), billed as “a magical evening tour of the fort by candle light.”
# 4. Its Beautiful Setting
The fort is part of Point Defiance Park, Tacoma’s amazingly stunning 760 acre nature preserve. And it is drop-dead gorgeous. The drive to the fort is breath-taking. You WILL want to take your time and perhaps plan a picnic in this oasis.
# 5. There’s a Zoo Too!
If history isn’t your thing – or you’re staying overnight and have time to take in ALL that Point Defiance Park offers – don’t miss the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, the Northwest’s only combined zoo and aquarium. Stay in Tacoma and make a vacation of it.
Although I’ve lived in the Portland area all of my life, I had never heard of Fort Nisqually. Having taking the time to immerse myself in its history, I now have a better sense of this place called the Pacific Northwest.
If you go, you will too.
Marie Sherlock is an award-winning, Portland-based travel writer. Follow her on twitter @SherlockTravels.