Fort Bellingham was established in 1856 by the US Army to be a northern outpost protecting the growing communities of Whatcom County. Constructed on a bluff overlooking Bellingham Bay and at the mouth of the Nooksack River, the fort was able to watch one of the most important strategic areas to the growing United States. It had a large parade ground for military drills (even though the Army Inspector General thought the soldiers stationed there were not very good shots), barracks and officers’ quarters, two blockhouses in the stockade wall, and a number of outbuildings outside of the fort proper.
Brigadier General William Harney, the commander of the Army’s Department of Oregon (which included Washington Territory), ordered the fort establish to allay the fears of American settlers in Whatcom County. Harney dispatched 9th Infantry, Company D commanded by Captain George E. Pickett (of later Civil War infamy) to construct and garrison the fortress. Life on the frontier was not always safe for white settlers. “Northern Indians,” perhaps defending their traditional trade routes, would travel from what is now Canada and raid the towns along the coast. The fear of attack would motivate several strategic decisions by the Army and would even give Brig. Gen. Harney a pretext for sending American soldiers to disputed San Juan Island during the Pig War (also called the San Juan Boundary Dispute).
Life at Fort Bellingham was not always pleasant. The pay was bad and often late, discipline was harsh, and a lot of the soldiers’ time was taken up by “extra duty” like construction or gardening. Desertion was remarkably common everywhere, though Fort Bellingham was commended by the Army Inspector General for keeping this to a minimum. Capt. Pickett was frequently called to the local Army headquarters in Vancouver, WA for court martial duty which left his lieutenants in charge for long periods. Pickett himself had a private house constructed in the town of Whatcom (now part of Bellingham) where he lived with his wife.
After years of fort structures being dismantled to build or repair buildings at American Camp on San Juan Island, Fort Bellingham was officially closed in 1863. In 1868, the land of the fort was returned to the Roberts family who had been evicted in 1856 for its construction. Virtually nothing of the fort remains today, and as of late 2020 the site is occupied by the greenhouses of a wholesale nursery.