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Vivid history: Hands-on learning at Fort Nisqually

Published on: October 01, 2009

Tucked into a corner of the multipurpose Point Defiance Park in Tacoma, it doesn’t look like much from the outside; from the parking lot, a killer view of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge draws your eye away from the tall, plain wooden fence that encloses the grounds.

Fort NisquallyBut step inside the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum and the scene changes entirely. Nineteenth-century buildings abut a wide green, and re-enactors dressed in period costume wander the grounds.

Fort Nisqually, a re-creation of the trading outpost established in 1833 by the powerful Hudson’s Bay Company — the first European settlement in the Puget Sound region — offers families a unique chance to delve into the fascinating history of the area. The fort, originally located a few miles south, near the town of DuPont, was a self-contained community, where a multi-ethnic workforce lived, gardened, played, blacksmithed and sold a vast array of imported goods that had been traded for furs stockpiled by Hudson’s Bay trappers.

My 9-year-old daughter and I visited Fort Nisqually on a recent weekday and found plenty to keep us engaged. Although some of the facts went slightly over her head, the interactive exhibits fascinated her, and she came away with an understanding of a way of life that flourished before the mass European settlement of our region.

As you tour the grounds, you’ll find that each building is outfitted the way it would have been in the early 19th century. Stroll into the blacksmith’s workshop, and you’ll see smiths pounding red-hot iron into various forms and working a huge bellows to fan the flames in the brick fireplace. A number of interlocking metal forms hang from a hook; these are puzzles, with which my daughter and I struggled and finally mastered. Inside the general store, piles of furs — beaver, badger, raccoon — sit next to fine blankets and crockery. Many of the goods are off-limits to little hands, but the furs are not. As we compared the softness and thickness of various furs, the store manager quizzed a group of kids about their skills as if he were getting ready to hire them: Can they read and write? Do they have the stomach for hard labor?

One of the most interesting exhibits is in the house, one of the two original buildings on the grounds. Painted white and surrounded by a deep porch, the house was home to Dr. Tolmie, the fort boss from 1855 to 1859, and his family. It was also the Hudson’s Bay Company’s world headquarters. Furnished in the style of the 1850s, the house reflects the lives lived within its relatively small walls: A wooden high chair is pulled up to the table in the drawing room, and a tiny trundle bed sits on the floor of the children’s room. In the dining room, blue-painted crockery adorns a sideboard, while maps of the region are spread out on the dining room table.

On the day my daughter and I visited, a guide outfitted in leggings, moccasins and a wool skirt gave us a detailed account of the history of the fort and the lives of the house’s occupants. A master of the leading question, she focused our attention on unusual furnishings, asking what they might have been used for. Motioning to a warehouse outside, which in the 19th century would have been stuffed to the rafters with fine imported goods, she likened the fort to “a Fred Meyer in the wilderness.”

At Fort Nisqually, history isn’t abstract or dry. It’s translated into vivid terms that children can understand.

Kris Collingridge is ParentMap’s Out & About editor.

This story originally appeared in the October, 2009, issue of ParentMap.


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