Historic Sites are important to help us understand our past and make sense of our present. The stories of our past contain gems of insight into our cultures of origin as well as the unfamiliar. This is the case with the Columbia Lancaster House located about three miles north of Ridgefield near the south bank of the Lewis River.
What if the Lancaster House wasn’t there? Thankfully, it is. Now restored and serving as a private residence, the house built in 1850 is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and tells quite a significant story, as one of the few surviving buildings associated with a character important in the political history of Washington Territory.
That character is Thomas Lancaster, born August 26, 1803 in Litchfield County, Connecticut. Lancaster served as the first delegate to Congress from the Washington Territory in 1853.
“He was a big deal,” says Bradley Richardson, executive director for the Clark County Historical Museum. “Lancaster’s decisions in the 1850s and 1860s triggered events that still have lasting impacts today,” says Richardson.
The young pioneer became known as Columbia Lancaster when his mother changed his name after a visit with American explorer Meriwether Lewis. Lewis told Lancaster’s mother, according to an archived Columbian article at the Clark County Historical Museum, about the “Great River of the West.” The article stated Lancaster’s mother saw her son becoming a leader near the river for which he was named. This appears to have come true.
After crossing the plains by wagon to the Oregon Territory in 1847, he was named Chief Justice of the Provisional Supreme Court of Oregon Territory. Clark County was a part of the Oregon Territory at that time. Ultimately his influence led him to become joint councilman in the Oregon Territorial Legislature in 1851 for Clatsop, Lewis, Clark and Pacific counties before being elected first democratic delegate to Congress from the Washington Territory in 1853.
Civil War Repercussions
The Civil War impacted politics in Clark County, explains Richardson, and Lancaster had a real role with that. According to records at the Clark County Historical Museum, State’s rights, slavery, and secession were intensely debated in the years leading up to the war, with the Washington Territory lending its voice to the din. Political rhetoric would be the first “slings and arrows” during the May 1861 primaries for Washington Territory’s Delegate to the US House of Representatives. The Republican Convention was in Olympia. Vancouver hosted the Democratic Convention. No military battles were fought in Vancouver, but the impact of the Civil War shaped Clark County’s political and social landscape for decades.
In Vancouver, former Washington Territory Governor, Isaac I. Stevens, and Clark County Judge, Columbia Lancaster, vied for support. Since both had already served as territorial Democratic delegates, both were viewed as possibly having secessionist sympathies, explains Richardson. Stevens was believed more sympathetic to secessionists because he supported President Buchanan‘s pro-states’ rights appointees. Stevens won the primary, but lost the election to Colonel William H. Wallace, a Republican closely tied to Abraham Lincoln.
“The dynamic that came up between Lancaster and Stevens is significant,” says Richardson. “They were vying territorial delegates during the Civil War, and it was casting a shadow onto the Washington territories and interjecting into the election.”
The Lancaster family lived in Ridgefield during a time when the Euro-American settlers and the remaining people of the Native Nations were on friendly terms. Lancaster’s daughter is said to have told a story of her father receiving Chief Umtuch and members of his tribe on the porch of his home, according to a detailed document at the museum. The Chief was “an impressive sight dressed entirely in white,” and the judge put on his “quilted smoking jacket and fez (felt headdress) to present a formidable appearance.” Native people continued to live near the Lancaster’s and Cathlapotle. A local history recounts that because of the disastrous flooding along Lake River in 1867 and 1876, the remaining people were forced to move to the mouth of the Lewis River.
The Lancaster House
Lancaster built his impressive home on 1,000 acres. He would live there with his family for 33 years before finally selling the property in his later years and retiring to Vancouver in 1882. His home was of the highest quality with “finely preserved carpet” and patterns in bright red. The carpet was purchased as a wedding present for his wife and imported from London. The furniture was mostly made of old-fashioned mahogany with hair cloth seats.
Among his life events, Lancaster moved with his family to Canfield, Ohio in 1817 and attended the common schools. After moving to Detroit, Michigan in 1824, he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1830. He moved to Centerville, Michigan to practice law and returned briefly to Ohio to marry Rosanna Jones of Canfield on August 23, 1837. He was then appointed prosecuting attorney of the Michigan Territory by Governor Cass and became a member of the Territorial Legislature in 1837 before settling in Oregon in 1847. He had one failed attempt to head west in 1842. Other fun facts include his regency of the University of Washington in Seattle in 1862 where he was also connected with the Puget Sound and Columbia River Railroad project. Lancaster died in Vancouver, Washington, September 15, 1893 and rests in the City Cemetery.
“It is important to save spaces and places and pieces of history,” says Richardson, “because those help us to stay connected to the stories of our past.”