The Port of Vancouver is the seat of Clark County, Washington. The Port of Vancouver is at the head of deep-water navigation for the Columbia River, and it is part of the Columbia River Waterway System. The Port of Vancouver is just six nautical miles (6.9 kilometers or 4.2 miles) east-northeast of Portland, Oregon. The Port of Vancouver is about 75 nautical miles upriver (106 kilometers or 66 miles southeast) of the Port of Astoria where the Columbia meets the Pacific Ocean. The 2010 US Census reported a population of 161.8 thousand people in the Port of Vancouver and more than 2.2 million in the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro metropolitan area.
The Port of Vancouver has been inhabited by non-indigenous people longer than any other settlement in the State of Washington. Port operations, manufacturing, lumbering, and farming are the base of a diverse economy in the Port of Vancouver, as is the Gifford Pinchot National Forest which is headquartered there. Clark County is the fastest-growing county in the State.
The Lewis & Clark Expedition met the Chinook and Klickitat people in the future Port of Vancouver area when they arrived in 1805. By the time the explorers got there, much of the Chinook population had fallen victim to European disease following the arrival of European explorers in 1775.
The Chinook were a peaceful people, preferring water challenge rituals and the exchange of gifts to war. Some 16 thousand members of the Chinook Nation lived along the Columbia River from what is now eastern Washington to the Pacific Ocean at the beginning of the 19th Century. With rivers full of salmon, sturgeon, and smelt, the Chinook did not have to work hard for food, and they focused instead on their social lives.
The Chinook lived a non-nomadic life, and their society followed a caste system led by traders, warriors, and shamans. They were nicknamed "Flathead Indians" by European settlers because some of them bound their children's heads, flattening them to demonstrate high status. The Chinook fished, hunted, and traded furs. They also held slaves that sometimes stole for their masters.
Today, the Chinook seek federal recognition as a tribe. Many Chinook live on reservations in Washington and Oregon. There are over two thousand registered tribal members, with hundreds of applications for tribal membership pending.
The Klickitat people also inhabited the region that now contains the Port of Vancouver. These busy traders linked the tribes of the Cascade Mountains with those who inhabited the Pacific Coast. The Klickitat met the Lewis & Clark Expedition in 1805. These indigenous people were in the path of the invading white settlers in south central Washington on the Columbia River. Trying to stop the flood of new immigrants, the Klickitat went to war. As a result, they were forced to cede their lands to the United States. In 1855, the Klickitat were removed to the Yakima Indian Reservation.
The first Europeans to enter the Port of Vancouver area came in 1775, bringing small pox to the indigenous populations. By the time Lewis & Clark arrived at the site of what would be the Port of Vancouver in 1806, almost half of the native population had died. Within the next 50 years, their populations were further decimated by diseases like malaria, measles, and influenza.
The first permanent settlement by Europeans came with the establishment of the trading post of Fort Vancouver by the Hudson's Bay Company. British and United States settlers agreed to share the area until the signing of the Oregon Treaty in 1846 that gave control of the area to the United States.
American Henry Williamson laid claim to the area west of Fort Vancouver before 1845, calling it Vancouver City. Williamson formally registered his claim at the courthouse in Oregon City and then left for California. In 1850, Amos Short laid claim to the land, naming it Columbia City. The name changed to Vancouver in 1855, and the City of Vancouver was incorporated in 1857. The Port of Vancouver was briefly the capital of the Washington Territory in 1859 and 1960.
The US Army had a strong presence in the Port of Vancouver in the 19th Century. From 1852, future President Ulysses S. Grant was quartermaster at the Vancouver Barracks (known then as the Columbia Barracks) for 15 months. Other well-known generals who served in the Port of Vancouver include Philip Sheridan, George B. McClellan, Oliver O. Howard. Winner of the 1953 Nobel Peace Prize, George Marshall, was also stationed at the Port of Vancouver. Eventually, Pearson Field was built on the site and became an important facility where the US Army Signal Corps prepared the wood used to build airplanes.
In 1917, the Interstate Bridge connected the Port of Vancouver to Oregon, replacing the ferries that had crossed the river. The Port of Vancouver had three shipyards that made ships for World War I. World War II brought an economic boom to the Port of Vancouver area. In 1940, Alcoa opened an aluminum plant there.
After the December 7 bombing of Pearl Harbor, Henry Kaiser opened a shipyard in the Port of Vancouver that employed up to 36 thousand people as it operated around the clock to produce liberty ships and other wartime vessels. The need for shipyard workers led to a dramatic population increase in the Port of Vancouver and the creation of new residential developments that were later incorporated into the city. Today, they are well-known Port of Vancouver neighborhoods.
Largely due to annexations, the Port of Vancouver population grew dramatically in the 20th Century, leading to conflict with other communities in Clark County. Over 30% of the Port of Vancouver population lives in unincorporated areas north of the city.