Polk County Historical Society

From the mid-1850s past the end of the war, U.S. soldiers were stationed at two forts on the north and south boundaries of Polk County. They were Fort Yamhill, at the north end of the county, and Fort Hoskins at the south. Both were established to guard the approach to the extensive Indian reservation that covered most of what now is Lincoln County and parts of three others. Their job was to keep the Indians on the reservation and white settlers off of it.

Life was difficult on these remote military stations. Boredom, repeated military drill, illness and poor food were paramount.

Food was of limited scope — mainly grain, salted meat, crackers and coffee. Many soldiers maintained their own gardens to raise vegetables, found in limited presence in the rations provided by a Quartermaster Corps more interested in preservation than nutrition, a relatively unknown science at that time.

Pay for the private soldier was not much — $13 a month for a private, paid in cash once every two months.

Pay, when received, often did not last long. Many Oregon military posts had reading clubs and Bible study groups. There was only one military chaplain for all of the Pacific Northwest during most of the war — at Fort Vancouver, the most metropolitan of the posts.

But there were sutlers, who conducted sales emporiums outside the gates of most permanent installations, selling food and goods not available on post. And below the main gate of Fort Hoskins was a bucket shop which sold liquor — often on credit — to Fort Hoskins soldiers. It was so disliked by the commanding officer at Fort Hoskins that soldiers were delayed in reaching the scene of the apparently accidental fire that burned the place down.

The ladies of the night were Indian. One Civil War diarist wrote that you could buy the services of a squaw during service at the Army blockhouse maintained at the main Siletz Indian settlement. If she “vamoosed,” the diary said, the tribe would see you got your money back. A small settlement of Indians near Fort Hoskins was believed responsible for most of the venereal disease reported among the Hoskins soldiers. In 1996 Timothy Trussell, a graduate student at Oregon State University, did a master’s thesis that studied the Fort Hoskins military medical records for the period of the War. Of those soldiers treated at Fort Hoskins, 16.8 percent were treated for sexually transmitted disease and 3.5 percent for alcohol-related matters.

But drinking sometimes resulted in unusual if somewhat embarrassing experiences.

Royal A. Bensell, a soldier stationed at Fort Yamhill, is quoted by author Gunter Barth in this account of a holiday dinner at Fort Yamhill to which his messmates invited guests — including young ladies — from the area:

“July 4. 1864. Clear. Independence Day. Pvt. Lewee purchased a pig and a mutton. Bowery, Moran and Doc Getzendanner attempted to cook the same. All got gloriously fuddled. Just before dinner “Bowery” went to the rear and lost the Kitchen Key down the privy hole. He went outside then tried to crawl down to where he could see the key, but being a little too drunk he lost his balance and found himself in a nice fix. Finally, he got out, cleaning his clothes with a bunch of grass. He reported for duty as a waiter just as several ladies got seated. The curiosity that follows defies description. Everybody was seen to examine the soles of their Boots carefully. All to no purpose. “Bowery” was discovered and hustled out in “Double Quick.” Of course, much fun followed, and the 4th passed jollily after all. The Dinner was a “lifter,” you may depend.”

Information in this article is from the Library of the Polk County Historical Society. The Society’s Library and Museum, located at the Polk County Fairgrounds at Rickreall, is open to the public from 12 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and closed on holidays. Admission: adults, $5; seniors (age 62+), $4; children ages 6-17, $1; children younger than age 6, centenarians and historical society members, free.

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