CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) — Archaeologist David Brauner has spent much of the last 35 years reconstructing the history of Fort Hoskins, a Civil War-era Army outpost in the Oregon Coast Range that existed for less than a decade before it was decommissioned, dismantled and consigned to the past.
Since 1976, the Oregon State University professor has led five digs at the site 20 miles northwest of Corvallis, unearthing thousands of artifacts from buttons and belt buckles to brandy bottles and chamber pots.
He has mined nuggets of information from official correspondence, military maps, inspectors' reports and soldiers' diaries, patiently piling detail on detail to assemble an ever-clearer picture of the fort in his mind's eye.
With no surviving photographs to compare it to, he thought that mental image was as close as he would ever come to seeing what Fort Hoskins actually looked like — until he saw the painting.
Last fall, following a long chain of improbable coincidences, he obtained a copy of an oil painting from about 1860 that shows the fort in its heyday. For Brauner, it was at once a validation of his painstaking research and a revelation of unexpected details.
"We hoped sooner or later we'd see an image of at least one of the buildings at Fort Hoskins, but I'd kind of given up," he said. "When this painting arrived, it was like a giant breath of fresh air."
Little is known about the painting itself — the name of the artist, the precise year it was produced, who commissioned it or why — but Brauner said there's no doubt that it's authentic.
Now he's hoping it will help guide future restoration efforts at the site of the old fort, which became a county park in 2002. So far, those efforts have not proceeded much beyond a restroom, a picnic shelter and some historical markers.
The irony in all this is that the painting might never have come to light if not for a typographical error on one of the interpretive signs — and the visitor who traveled 3,000 miles to spot it.
Dr. Newell Augur is a retired gastroenterologist from Portland — the one in Maine. He's also a bit of a history buff.
It's easy to understand why. The doctor's great-grandfather was Christopher Colon Augur, a distinguished 19th century Army officer whose career brought him to the Oregon Territory, where he fought against the Indians in the Rogue River country and was the first commander of Fort Hoskins.
In 2008, Dr. Augur was visiting his daughter and her husband at Fort Lewis, Wash., when he decided to make a side trip to Oregon with his son-in-law to see Fort Hoskins. He enjoyed his stroll through the Benton County historical site except for one thing. "On the far side of the parade ground there were these historical panels," Augur recalled in a recent phone interview. "And on one of those panels, my great-grandfather's name was misspelled — A-U-G-E-R."
That didn't sit well with the doctor, who made a mental note to contact the county parks department and ask for a correction. But he didn't do anything about it until the following year, when he made a trip to Arizona for his niece's wedding and saw something that jogged his memory.
Hanging in the den of his brother's house was an old oil painting that had been in the family for generations. Its origins were obscure. No one was sure what it really depicted, although most people seemed to think it was Fort Lewis.
Seeing it again, Dr. Augur suddenly recalled his visit to Fort Hoskins and was struck with an overpowering sense of deja vu.
"I can remember where we parked and walked down — it's exactly the same perspective from which the painting is done," he said. "I looked at the painting and realized I'd been there."
That realization got the ball rolling.
"Newell Augur called me out of the blue" in the spring of 2009, remembered George McAdams, the community project coordinator for Benton County. "He said we had misspelled the commander's name."
The typo was repeated several times on one of the historical markers, Augur said, and he'd like to have it fixed.
McAdams wanted Brauner, the expert on all things related to Fort Hoskins, to weigh in on the matter. Sure enough, Brauner confirmed, the sign was wrong (he thinks the error may have been introduced by a computer spell-check program when the graphic designer was preparing the text).
Making a new sign would cost around $500, but the county wanted to correct its mistake.
Augur, meanwhile, offered to sweeten the deal. Once the sign was fixed, he said, he would return the favor by sending out a copy of an old family heirloom: a painting of Fort Hoskins.
McAdams still can't believe the county's good fortune.
"It's a good reminder," he said, "of how much history is shared across this country."
Fort Hoskins is largely forgotten now by most Oregonians, but it played a crucial role in the state's early history.
Erected in 1856, it was one of three forts built to guard the vast Coast Indian Reservation, where the tribes of Western Oregon were forcibly resettled after signing away their ancestral lands to the United States.
Like Fort Yamhill to the north and Fort Umpqua to the south, Fort Hoskins had a dual purpose. It was supposed to keep the Indians from leaving the reservation to attack white settlers in the Willamette Valley, and it was supposed to keep the white settlers from invading the reservation to wipe out the Indians.
Occupying a key pinch point on the rugged trail between Corvallis and the Siletz Indian Agency, Fort Hoskins was ideally situated to keep the peace.
By the outbreak of the Civil War, relations between the whites and Indians had stabilized. In 1861, with troops needed badly back East, Capt. Augur and his two companies of regulars were replaced by a small detachment of volunteers.
But a new threat emerged. Though admitted to the Union as a free state in 1859, Oregon was rife with Southern sympathizers. The state's leading pro-Confederate organization, the Knights of the Golden Circle, was headquartered in Monroe, a day's ride from Fort Hoskins, where a handful of troops stood guard over enough guns and ammunition to arm 300 men.
To help Fort Hoskins tell its story, Brauner is working with a county advisory committee on restoration of the historic site, and that's where the Augur painting may really prove its worth.
Among the wealth of period detail it provides is important confirmation of something Brauner had long believed to be true: One of the post's original structures still exists.
When Fort Hoskins was decommissioned at the end of the Civil War, everything on the base was sold at auction, including the buildings. While no records from the auction have been found, one of the officers' houses reportedly was floated a few miles down the Luckiamute River to Pedee, where it still is in use.
Based on the painting, Brauner is now convinced that story is true — and that the house belonged to the fort's first commander, C.C. Augur. He hopes to acquire the structure and bring it back to its original location, where it could eventually become the cornerstone of a full-scale restoration project.
"The folks who own it are willing to sell it to us for a dollar," Brauner said. "All we have to do is move it."
For Newell Augur, the historical connections are fascinating, but the personal ones are even more so.
His own personal link to history was brought home to him powerfully as he stood on the grounds of Fort Hoskins in 2008, seeing his illustrious ancestor's name misspelled on an interpretive sign.
"The place where the historical markers are is the officers' quarters," Augur said. "That's where my grandfather was born."
Walter Wheaton Augur came into the world on Feb. 5, 1858, at a little frontier outpost in the Oregon Coast Range. A century and a half later, his grandson stood on the same ground and felt the pull of history.
"We're all tied together," Augur said, "aren't we?"
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.