On December 25, 1845, Esther Clark Short (1806-1862) arrives at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver in what will become the city of Vancouver, Clark County. She, her husband Amos Meade Short (1808-1853), and their children explore the area near the fort and the Willamette Valley across the Columbia River before becoming the first American settlers to locate permanently in the future Clark County. They claim a section of land near Fort Vancouver, where they will establish their farm. Their move will lead to tension with the British Hudson’s Bay Company, which seeks to confine American settlement to south of the Columbia River. The Shorts will not be deterred and will successfully defend their claim, which stretches from the banks of the Columbia River up to what is today W Fourth Plain Boulevard and Main Street. After Amos’s death, Esther will play a pivotal role in building the new city of Vancouver.
Long Journey West
Esther Clark was born in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, on December 24, 1806. Her mother was an Algonquin Indian and her father was of German ancestry. (Another source reports Esther’s ancestry as entirely Indian: one-fourth Cherokee, one-fourth Algonquin, and one-half Six Nations.) Esther married Amos Meade Short on November 22, 1829. Their journey west was a gradual one, as it was for many pioneer families. Esther and Amos were married in Pennsylvania. After their first two children were born, they moved to Michigan. In 1837, the family moved to Illinois. In 1841, the first school in Ustick Township, Illinois, was held in the loft of the Short cabin.
In late May 1845, Esther, Amos and their children joined a wagon train headed for Oregon Territory from St. Joseph, Missouri, led by A. Hackleman and J. B. Holiday. The train was made up of some 52 wagons. At the time, the Shorts had seven children: Curtis, Jerusha, Drusilla, Amos Clark, Samantha, Aubrey B. (some records name this child Maxie B.), and Alfred. Two children, Ira and Elizabeth, had died in early childhood before the family joined the wagon train. During their journey, Esther gave birth to a son, Grant Hall Short, who was born at Fort Hall, near present-day Boise, Idaho. Another daughter, Esther M. Short, was born in present day Oregon, and their last child, Hannah Emmaline Short, was born in Vancouver, on September 5, 1850.
When the Short family settled near Fort Vancouver in December 1845, the Hudson’s Bay Company officials were suspicious. They attempted to drive the Shorts back across the Columbia River, since they hoped to keep the territory north of the river in British hands. Even after the signing of the Treaty of Oregon in June 1846, relations remained tense between British fur traders and American settlers. The treaty established the border between the United States and British North America at the 49th parallel, but it specifically provided that the property rights of the Hudson’s Bay Company and all British subjects south of the new boundary were to be respected.
After the signing, the Hudson’s Bay men felt justified in continuing their attempts to send the Shorts back to the Willamette Valley. The soldiers knocked down fences the Shorts had built. On one occasion, while Amos was away, some Hudson’s Bay men forced Esther and her children onto a raft and cast them adrift on the Columbia River. However, Esther was able to steer herself and the children safely ashore, and they returned home.
In late March or early April, 1850, a Hudson’s Bay officer, Dr. Gardner, accompanied by his servant, confronted Amos and, according to one report, claimed title to the land. Amos ordered them off his land, and when they refused to leave, shots were exchanged and the Hudson’s Bay men were killed. Amos was arrested and tried for murder. The court found that he had acted in self-defense and acquitted him.
Esther Slaps the Lieutenant
While Amos was awaiting trial in Oregon, a group of Hudson’s Bay men, led by a French Canadian Lieutenant, Francois Facette, visited Esther and tried to convince her to move her family back to Oregon. Tired of the constant harassment, Esther slapped Facette across the face, knocking him to the ground. Years later, a local historian would describe this event, writing that Esther “plied only in the armour of her own righteousness” and armed only with “her good right arm and [the] justice of her cause … laid victory over the redcoats” (Ranck). He further wrote that pioneer women of the Northwest displayed the same heroism “in the defense of their firesides as did their grandmothers in the days of Washington and Molly Pitcher” (Ranck).
Another reporter would laud Esther as the “Joan of Arc of old Oregon,” who “laid low with a blow from her hand a French Canadian ordered by the Hudson’s Bay Company to tear down the fence of the Short homestead” (Oregonian).
Clearly, Esther Short intended to stay in Vancouver. Not long after his acquittal, while returning from a trip to California in 1853, Amos drowned when the Vandalia sank at the mouth of the Columbia River. Undaunted, Esther carried on with the task of raising her family.
Building the City
On October 4, 1853, pursuant to the Donation Land Claims Act, Esther filed notification of her claim to 640 acres, from what is today W Fourth Plain Boulevard down to the Columbia River, and west from today’s Main Street.
Esther eventually helped build the city of Vancouver (at first called Columbia City). In 1853, she opened a restaurant and in 1854, she opened the city’s first hotel, the Pacific House on S Main at 2nd Street. In 1855 she donated Esther Short Park and a long strip of waterfront for the city’s use. Esther also allowed ferry boats to land on her property, at the foot of present-day Washington Street. The park was part of this land, bequeathed as a public plaza, and now reputed to be the oldest public square in the state. Some of her other land is presently the Port of Vancouver.
Vancouver was incorporated on January 23, 1857. Also in 1857, Vancouver’s first church was erected on land purchased from Esther Short, near the corner of 8th and Washington streets. In the summer of 1859, Esther opened a second hotel, the Alta House. Today there is a statue in Esther Short Park called The Pioneer Mothers, by sculptor Avard Fairbanks. It was dedicated on July 22, 1929.
Esther Clark Short died on June 28, 1862.