The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 2, Numbers 1, Pages 2-11
Winter, 1977

Fort Walla Walla Excavations, 1975

By Lawrence Hussey

Lawrence Hussey teaches history and archeology at Big Bend Community College.

The ground was wet from the rain the night before, threatening clouds raced by overhead, and occasionally we still felt drops of rain. Joy Laughlin, Director of the Fort Walla Walla Museum, and I were examining an area of flat land, covered here and there by weeds and low-growing brush. We were south of an old dump area formerly used by the soldiers stationed at Fort Walla Walla. As Joy searched the ground he would now and then point out objects that caught his attention. "Here's an example of what I was talking about," he said. I look at the object closely, "A .45-70 case; the Army stopped using those back in the 1890's!" Moments later he picked up another object and handed it to me. A small bottle about three inches tall without markings. I turned the bottle sideways to view the seam which ended just above the shoulder, this type we later learned was manufactured between the 1860's and 1880's. Another surface find proved to be a broken fragment of the lower portion of a saucer. Beautiful, light cream-colored, semi-porcelain with an oriental hand-painted design, it once must have been a treasured piece of dinnerware. "This is the way it is after every heavy rain," Joy said.

The day before I had received a message from Jim Schick, the News Director of local radio station KUJ. He told me that he and Art Modine, Director of the U.S. Veterans Hospital in Walla Walla, were concerned about people carrying off exposed artifacts from the dump area located within a National Historic Site. I notified Mr. Laughlin and made an appointment to meet him at the site the following morning. During our conversation that Friday he too voiced concern about people carrying off artifacts that were exposed after every rainfall.

"This is not the half of it," Joy said, "Come, let me show you something over in the actual dump site." As we approached a small incline over which the fort refuse had originally been dumped, I tried to get an idea of the extent of the old dump area.(1)

After we neared the edge of the hill he pointed out to me several large holes dug into the side of the hill. "Bottle hunters," he said, "they've been working this site for years." We spent the next hour walking over the site viewing surface artifacts and increasingly resenting bottle hunters. In their effort to find bottles to sell they had overlooked the real treasure to be found. Scattered in the tailings from their holes we found the evidence from which history is made. The arm of a doll which, a hundred years ago, may have been the joy of some soldier's little girl and may have even shared her sorrow when daddy went to fight in one of the Indian wars. In the same dirt pile was a bullet, a .38-55. It, and several others like it, would play a role in our tentative reconstruction of army life at the fort. Here and there were also pieces of Quartermaster Department (QMD) china, metal rings from the saddle of some cavalry man's horse, and even the shoes they wore - both man and horse. Some artifacts suggested the differences in the lives of enlisted men and officers.

By this time I was beginning to feel the full value of the site in terms of what it might tell us about the men of a romantic era in our history. It began to rain more heavily as Joy and I started for the car. Hurrying away, I felt that in this junk pile might be the opportunity to investigate and rediscover the lives of those who served at Fort Walla Walla in Washington Territory.

The following week I had a long talk with our Dean of Instruction, Dr. Weyland DeWitt, about the possibility of our school, Walla Walla Community College, doing some archaeological work at the site. He suggested we clear our project with Washington State University. A call to the Washington Archaeological Research Center (WARC) at Pullman put me in touch with the Assistant Director, Pete Rice. He agreed that if our school would fund the excavations, he would send us two archaeologists to assist us in the project. One month later we had permission to excavate from the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation in Olympia and from the City of Walla Walla which owns the property. We were now ready. We hoped to transform this pile of yesterday's junk into an account of the life of the past; that's what we told each other, anyway.

From written accounts it was possible to reconstruct some of the region's early history. Not much is known of the Walla Walla Valley before the beginning of the nineteenth century, but about that time two things happened that were to have far-reaching consequences. In 1804 Lewis and Clark passed the valley on their way to the Pacific and at about the same time a group of obsidian-using Indians moved east into the valley. Lewis and Clark would help give support to the new nation's claim to the Northwest and the obsidian-using Indians, the Cayuse, would enter the history books because of an event which would occur on a cold November day in 1847 - the Whitman Massacre.

Between 1804 and 1847 the Northwest saw the coming of John Jacob Astor and his string of trading posts all the way to Astoria. The Hudson's Bay Company (H.B.C.) came from the north and east into our valleys. At the same time settlers from the East came in ever increasing numbers. In 1818 the Northwest Fur Company, an American company, built a fort near the mouth of the Walla Walla River where it flows into the Columbia. Donald McKenzie, who built the fort, chose the name Fort Nez Perce. Three years later, the fort was sold to the H.B.C. who renamed it Fort Walla Walla.

In 1836 missionaries, the Whitmans and the Spauldings, came to the valley. Spaulding was only passing through on his way north, but Whitman stayed and built a mission among the Cayuse Indians about twenty-five miles up the valley from the H.B.C.'s fort at the confluence of Mill Creek and the Walla Walla River. Whitman worked among the Cayuse from 1836 until 1847. During that time he saw his mission and all the rest of the land below the forty-ninth parallel become a part of America. But on the last of November in 1847, Indians attacked the mission and killed Dr. and Mrs. Whitman along with a number of others. Most of the people living at the mission escaped with their lives, but people from the Willamette Valley wanted revenge for the massacre. In the following year they came to the valley hunting for the Cayuse.

The next decade was one of alternating periods of peace and hostility in the Walla Walla Valley. First it was volunteers searching for Whitman's attackers; then came the Oregon Militia in 1855-56; finally in 1857 the U.S. Cavalry and Colonel Steptoe arrived.

During the hostilities, in 1855, the Hudson's Bay Company Fort Walla Walla was abandoned and subsequently destroyed by Indians. It was Colonel Steptoe who chose the site for the new Fort Walla Walla. He made an excellent choice: a flat-topped hill just south of the river, with a commanding view of the valley and sources of water, grass, and timber close by. There, in 1858, he built the new fort, in the heart of Indian territory, just twenty-eight miles east of the old fort.

The city of Walla Walla dates from the founding of this fort. Wheat farmers, horse and cattle ranchers, and trappers settled nearby under the protection of the fort. A farming community gradually developed and by 1880 Walla Walla had grown to become the largest town in what is now the state of Washington. In that year Walla Walla had a population (3,588) larger than Seattle (3,533), three times the size of Tacoma (1,098), and ten times the size of Spokane (350).

Steptoe's Fort Walla Walla was in full use from 1858 until 1865 when, after the Civil War, Congress reduced the size of the Army. It was maintained by a skeleton force for the next eight years and reactivated in 1873 to take part in the local Indian Wars of the 1870's. Fort Walla Walla continued in use until 1910 when it was finally abandoned. In 1916 the enlisted men's barracks burned down. Later, in 1922, the old fort was converted into a hospital and today it continues as a U.S. Veterans Administration facility. Many of the original buildings are still in use. Nine buildings originally belonging to the fort, however, have either burned down or been moved and excavation of these sites is included in our future plans.

Before the troops left in 1910 the army removed a lot of materiel and disposed of considerable excess gear and just plain junk by burying it in the dump. Sewing machines, harnesses, stable gear, broken sabers, outdated rifles - all were taken to the dump and buried.

Drawing by Adrian Munnick of a
student at the Fort Walla Walla Site.

By late March we were ready to begin excavations. We would use ten of our own students who would dig for spring and summer quarters. We had two archaeologists from Washington State University, Tim Riordan and Dale Crose, to help at the site. And as Assistant Director I chose the most qualified man I could find, 'Bob' Munnick who had previous archaeological experience in addition to degrees in geology and paleontology.

We dug numerous test pits trying to survey the extent of the dump, but our main effort was made in three adjacent trenches totaling seventeen and a half feet wide and forty feet long across the width of the main dumping area. Excavation was concentrated in the central section of the long dump ravine because we hoped to find artifacts dating to the 1880's or 1890's. Surveyors from Walla Walla Community College engineering classes established a five foot square grid system over the entire eastern half of the dump area for a distance of more than 800 feet. In the next twenty weeks we would learn a lot about an old cavalry fort of which we became quite fond.

Historically we know that Fort Walla Walla was occupied by U.S. Military forces from 1858 until 1910. Since our excavations took in only fill dirt we could safely use the year 1858 as the earliest possible date for any artifacts. In the area of our exploratory trenches the Army dumped its trash from the top of a relatively steep ravine. Horizontal stratigraphy, therefore, did not have much bearing on the relative age of the artifacts because the trash rolled randomly down the hill.

Among the most common artifacts recovered from the site were cartridges, Over four hundred of them. Their various calibers, bullet weights, primer types, and headstamps (3) provide ample evidence of a long period of occupancy at the fort. The smallest example found was a .22 caliber case and the largest a .48 caliber lead slug. The firearms included calibers of .45, .30-30, .30-06, and .30-40. These could all be dated by their headstamp with only one exception, the earliest manufactured .45-70s.(4) The cartridge cases recovered so far date between 1873 and 1910, the closing of the fort.

Among other items found of a metallic nature were uniform buttons, emblems or insignias, coins, and one dog tag. Nearly a thousand military uniform buttons were found. These too can be dated, though not as closely as bullet casings.(5) The oldest Positively identified item recovered from the excavation so far is a button with a spread-eagle design with a shield on the eagle's breast and, on the shield, the letter 'D'.(6) The button sample is composed primarily of small cuff-buttons and larger coat-buttons worn by both officers and enlisted men. The officer's buttons were gold plated, the enlisted men wore buttons with a brass coloring.

Insignias recovered were of three types: the letters 'U.S.’ joined with an attaching pin on the back; the letters 'U.S.’ on a dollar-sized, gold plated, metal background; and "crossed-saber" pins. The crossed-sabers are similar to those worn by modern day soldiers and are about one and a half inches high by three inches wide with an alphabetic designation for troop above the cross and a numerical designation below signifying the calvary unit. The first of many crossed-saber emblems found was from the First Cavalry, the oldest cavalry unit in the Army, organized in 1833.

Hat Badge and Tassle-Tip.

Six coins were found at the site. It must have been easy for a soldier to lose a coin on the floor, to have it swept up and thrown into the trash can with the dirt and dust. We hoped that some coins would be gold, but we found only pennies and trade tokens. Three of the pennies were "Indianheads" dated 1902,1903, and 1907. The fourth was a "Lincoln" penny dated 1910. Two nickel-size tokens were found bearing the words, "Fort McKinley - Good for Five Cents in Trade."

One enlisted man's dog-tag was found during the dig. It belonged to a soldier in one of the few "all-black" units in the cavalry. A letter to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. told us that: "War Department records indicate that Pvt. Glenn L. Oscar enlisted December 15, 1907 and was separated from service February 16, 1908." He was a member of the 14th Cavalry which served at Fort Walla Walla from December 6, 1905 until December 31,1908.

Of the lithic (stone) and vitreous (glass, pottery and brick) artifacts recovered, the natural stone items are limited to slate and the sand used in mortar. The mortar is of the usual lime-sand type found in the vicinity. While fire-bricks were found at the site, no heat-resistant mortar has been identified. The lime is whiter and of better quality than the small amounts of locally kilned lime and it made a stronger mortar. The sand is composed of relatively angular basalt fragments and appears to be identical with many local sands.

The bricks recovered are of only two types: (1) fire bricks with the names "Brown" and "Stourbridge" stamped on them, (2) a soft, light red brick, occasionally with small white inclusions. The second type is identical to bricks known to have been produced at a dozen or so brickyards (none of which are now in operation) within a twenty-mile radius of the site in the last half of the nineteenth century.

The other vitreous products fall into six main classes, some of which are represented by only a few examples: (1) plumbing, (2) ceramic hardware, (3) cooking utensils, (4) tableware, (5) bottles, and (6) miscellaneous.

The plumbing products consist of drain tiles similar in composition to the locally produced bricks and of broken, glazed plumbing appliances such as toilets. All of these appliances are of heavy construction with a thick, smooth glaze over a plain white, unornamented body. No marks indicate the manufacturer's name or location.

Ceramic hardware includes door knobs and insulators. The door knobs are round, heavily glazed, unornamented. The insulators are of white glazed clay, spool-shaped, and were fastened to a supporting structure by a long nail (a type that is in common use today on electric fences) with no marks to indicate the manufacturer's name. There was one glass insulator found that would have been used on a telephone-telegraph pole. It was designed to fit over a wooden pin fastened on a pole, cross-arm, or other supporting structure.

The tableware, including crocks, is considerably more varied than might be expected at an Army base. The majority of the finds were of heavy glazed, white, unornamented ware marked either 'QMD' (Quartermaster Department) or 'United States Medical Department.' These are obviously government issue. There was also a number of fragments of heavy earthenware that had been turned on a potter's wheel (as evidenced by the finger grooves on the inside) and glazed both inside and out. These are presumed to have been parts of large storage jars for pickles, sauerkraut, pickled meats, and water. Some may have been churns. They had no identifying marks on them.

The china fragments with colored patterns were unexpectedly numerous and diverse. Besides American-made pieces, there were Staffordshire ironstone (England), Haviland (France), Meisen (Germany), plus several fragments from Sweden, Austria, China, and Japan. The Chinese and Japanese wares were not only the most colorful but probably the most expensive. Both were porcelain, the best grade of china, and in the mid-nineteenth century saucers of porcelain sold for as much as three and four dollars each. Most designs on the Asian types were hand-painted groups of birds, landscapes, or mandarin-like figures. Porcelain probably belonged to officer's families as it was too expensive to be used by the families of enlisted men.

A soldier's 'off-duty' life was one of boredom relieved in part by alcohol. This became apparent in our analysis of the bottles recovered. Over eighty percent of all bottles found were either beer or whiskey containers. Beer bottles were quart size and either brown or green. Whiskey bottles were usually of the clear glass, pocket-flask type, but quart-sized were also found. It is hard to conceive of these being used solely for medicinal purposes.

The dispensary was represented in our bottle inventory by an accumulation of blue bottles. During the nineteenth century it was a common practice to use blue bottles in medicine to indicate that the contents were poison. The medicinal glass items ranged from two ounce 'pill bottles' to quart-size bottles containing salts or rubbing alcohol. Some bottles we found had served other purposes: to hold ink, soft drinks, Worcestershire sauce, perfume, and powder.

The miscellaneous items provided us with brief glimpses of other aspects of life at the fort: fragments of clay pipes, parts of dolls, and a portion of a denture. The fragments of clay pipes found were all similar. One bore the name 'McDougall' and could be identified with that pre-1890 Scottish firm. The remainder were long-stemmed clay pipes typical of the period, cheap, short-lived, but apparently favored by frontiersmen. Many of this same type were found by Les Ross in his excavations at Fort Vancouver.

Vivid proof that the dump was domestic as well as military came from the doll collection. These included arms, legs, heads, feet, teeth and other small fragments. Two dolls' heads were marked with the initials 'A.M.' and the word 'Germany.' The initials 'A. M.' might stand for Armand Marseille, a famous manufacturer of dolls in Germany from about 1860-1900, though these dolls were not very common in the nineteenth century West and their cost was above what an ordinary soldier could afford.

The piece of denture that we found had two upper-right incisors and a canine. This item was a most unexpected discovery. We asked Joe Kirkman of Walla Walla, a dental technician of 40 years, to examine the piece. He reported that "This is not a denture. It is sort of the raw material to make dentures from. From about 1900 to 1910 (possibly as late as 1915), there was a fad among dentists to get the teeth already set in "vulcanite," and then the lab vulcanized on a backing that was made to fit the roof of the patient's mouth. The artifact is part of the right upper section and it took two sections to make the complete arch. The number ten on the inside was the size. At the time that the backing was vulcanized on, the two sections of the arch were vulcanized together. This section has never been used. The teeth are made of porcelain."

These and other finds provided valuable information on Fort Walla Walla. After we had completed our excavations, in the latter part of August, 1975, Bob Munnick and I had time to reflect on what we had accomplished. We had gained national recognition for our site (Pete Rice had said that Fort Walla Walla was now the most significant historic site in the Pacific Northwest, and we agreed); we had accumulated over 20,000 artifacts just in the small area of our excavations; and we had added to the history of the Walla Walla area.

Several frontier forts have now been excavated in the Pacific Northwest. One of our objectives was to demonstrate Fort Walla Walla's place within the greater picture. With the knowledge gained from the excavation, we are able now to make a comparative analysis with other forts. This past summer we had that opportunity when Bob and I visited Fort Vancouver.

This post was founded in 1824 by the Hudson's Bay Company and remained active until 1860, or about the beginning of Fort Walla Walla. Fort Walla Walla was in existence from then until 1910. The artifacts recovered at both forts should, therefore, represent a continuous line for nearly one hundred years.

One outstanding example was the tableware used at the two forts. We know that structural features and pattern designs on tableware change over the years. At the two forts we can trace that change continuously for most of the nineteenth century. In addition, strong English influence on nineteenth century American culture can be demonstrated because English china was found in abundance at Fort Walla Walla, an American Army post.

Buttons (Old Style on Left and
New Style on Right) and Tasse-Tip.

But what did we find out about the people? We had demonstrated our premise that Fort Walla Walla was similar in its basic patterns to other frontier posts. The wealthier officer corps could afford to use expensive china on their tables, they could afford to give their children expensive imported dolls, they could afford to buy sporting rifles to hunt game. The large number of beer and whiskey bottles found at the site indicates that those soldiers drank alcohol, just as most soldiers have always done. They drank, ate beef, wore shoes, had children, and fought for their country. Our excavations were able to fill in the details: the china patterns, the arms and ammunition used, the children's toys.

In September, 1975 I presented a preliminary report of our excavations to the State Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. After the report was issued, Washington State University became interested in the site and received a grant to support a field school in the summer of 1976.

What does the future hold for Fort Walla Walla? Further excavations, I hope. With our combined efforts we have dug only a small fraction of the site. Many years are still needed to remove all the artifacts from the dump area. Plans do call for future excavations. Meanwhile, pieces of pottery need to be joined, metal cleaned and restored, trademarks and patterns researched. In time our analysis may show patterns we never knew existed. Eventually, we may be able to reconstruct those details which allow us to penetrate the barrier of time.


1. During the period of occupancy of Fort Walla Walla (1858-1910) the dump area, where we were now walking, had begun about three hundred yards west of the fort. From that point it extended westward about 1,600 feet. The area nearest the fort was probably used first, subsequent trash dumping continued further west away from the fort.

2. Contrary to popular assumptions, such a division certainly existed on military posts along the frontier. A private nearing the end of his first five-year enlistment received $16.00 per month while a second lieutenant, the lowest officer grade, received $103.12. The highest sergeant received $26.00 per month while a colonel received $240.62.

3. An important element in dating comes from the "headstamps" found on many cartridges. The term "headstamping" refers to the numbers and letters on the base of cartridge, usually identifying the date it was made and the manufacturer. The Army's .45-70 cases had the letters 'C' or 'R' indicating carbine or rifle. This was useful in our later analysis as it gave us a clue as to which kind of soldier used a particular arm. We know the carbine was issued to cavalry units and the rifle to the infantry. It also helped us determine that more cavalry units served at the fort than infantry, since the majority of our .45-70 finds indicated cavalry usage.

4. Headstamping was not commonly practiced on military ammunition until about 1890 when it became universally accepted. Early editions of the Army Springfield Model 1873, .45 caliber, were in use at military posts throughout the West. Hence, we may assume the many .45 caliber cases we found without headstamps would indicate a probable date between 1873 and 1890. We might mention, however, that the Frankford Arsenal had been experimenting with the use of headstamping as early as 1880. We found one .45 caliber case with a headstamp date of March, 1880.

5. Buttons are dated on the bases of variations in the form of the eagle on the top and the manufacturer's name on the back. The eagle variations are too numerous to pursue here; variations in the manufacturer's name are less complex. The following example is for the Waterbury, Connecticut firm of Scovill whose buttons were found at the site:

Manufacturer’s Identifying Mark and Date

Scovill - Before 1827

JHL& WHScovill - 1827-1840

Scovill & Co. - 1840-1850

Scovill Mg. Co. - 1850

Scovill Mfg. Co. - 1850-present

6. This letter indicates the word 'Dragoon,' a term used to identify cavalrymen before 1861. After that date, all cavalry buttons were marked with a 'C.'