On the first day of the state legislative session in 1911, State Representative E.L. French of Vancouver presented the Speaker of the House with a gavel. French claimed the gavel was made with wood from an apple tree planted in 1835 by the British at what was then the trading outpost of Fort Vancouver.
We do not know if the gavel presentation started some sort of public discussion over the age of the tree. But, we do know that French called in A.A. Quarenburg, whose state duty was inspecting the fruit products of the lower Columbia region, to make a determination on the age of the tree itself.
About a week after the gavel presentation, Quarenburg declared it to be the oldest apple tree in the state. Using documents from the 1830s, Quarenburg determined that the old apple tree, from what was then a U.S. Army base, dated back to the site’s origins as an outpost of the British Empire.
In the early 1800s, the Hudson Bay Company had established trading posts across the Pacific Northwest, one of them in what is now Vancouver. From the romantic telling of one of Chief Factor of Ft. Vancouver’s descendants:
In the year 1827 Mr. Simpson, cousin of Gov’r Simpson, who arrived in the county in 1826, at the dinner table happening to feel in his vest pocket found a few apple seeds wrapped up in a paper, the circumstances of which he explained as follows. At a dinner party in England prior to his coming to this country, a lady after paring an apple gathered the seeds together and handed them to Mr. Simpson with the remark ‘that as he was going to a new country where apples were unknown she would make him a present of the seeds with the hope that at some time he would plant them.’
While it is fun to think that our apple tree came from a British dinner party, there is a much more likely story for how the seeds came to Fort Vancouver.
David Douglas was a Scottish born and educated botanist who had been sent to the Pacific Northwest by the Royal Horticultural Society a year before the romantic tale of apple seeds in a pocket allegedly took place. Douglas, for whom the Douglas fir was named, came to the Northwest to catalog and collect as much flora of the region as possible.
But, he also became a route for English flora back to the capitalists on the Columbia:
Douglas asked the Society to ship a parcel of seeds to ‘ . . . the Company’s Settlements on the Western Coast.’ This parcel was sent to York Factory via the Company ship, which was scheduled to leave Gravesend on June 3, 1826. From York Factory, the parcel would have been shipped overland via the express to Fort Vancouver, possibly arriving in the summer or fall of 1826, but most probably in the spring of 1827. On Sabine’s advice, a second parcel, and a box ‘to the address of Mr. McLoughlin’ was sent by the Society via the Company ship sailing directly to the Columbia in late September of 1826. These packages would have reached the Columbia in the early spring of 1827, in advance of the express from York Factory.
So, when Quarenburg settled down in 1911 to declare that the old apple tree was in fact the oldest apple tree in the region, he was probably right. If there was an apple tree of 1820s vintage in the Pacific Northwest, it was at the site of old Fort Vancouver. But, who brought the seed over may never be clear.
For years groves of fruit trees and other agricultural efforts were key to the success of Fort Vancouver.
But, because the tree was found in a place away from where most of the apple trees were planted on Fort Vancouver, it is hard to say what the tree was used for. In fact, researchers have overlaid historic maps of the area and discovered that the old apple tree was in the residential area of the 1820s fort.
When Quarenburg pruned the tree in 1911, he counted 71 rings on a low hanging branch. When you add on 10 years for an apple tree to even be able to sprout a branch, the earliest the oldest apple tree could have been planted was 1830. That puts it a bit out of the range for the romantic apple seeds in the pocket story. It is much more likely that since a commercial apple orchard did exist on Fort Vancouver, this apple tree was an extra planted near where the people who lived at the fort resided.