Copyright 2000 - 2003 - Janine M. Bork
This page is part of the Union County, OR AGHP
(1810 - 1818.)
John Jacob Astor Organizes the Pacific Fur Company - Intriguing Policy of the North West Company - Treacherous Conduct of Mr. Astor's Partners - Parties Sent by Sea and Overland to the Mouth of the Columbia River - Founding of Astoria - Loss of the Ship Tonquin - Launch of the Schooner Dolly, the First United States Vessel Built on the Pacific Coast - Pacific Fur Company Dissolved by British Partners - Transfer of Astor's Stock and Establishment to North West Company - The British Sloop-of-War Raccoon Captures Astoria - Name Changed to Fort George - End of Pacific Fur Company - American Employés Leave the Country - British Enter North West Company's Service - Restoration of Astoria Under Treaty of Ghent.
IN 1810, John Jacob Astor, a native of Heidelberg and citizen of the United States, residing at New York, who had amassed a princely fortune in successful commercial operations, projected an enterprise which combined the prosecution of the fur trade in every portion of the unsettled territories of America claimed by the United States; the furnishing of the Russian settlement with trading goods and supplies, receiving furs in exchange; and the China trade. At the mouth of the Columbia river was to be established the depot and center of trade. Through the interior, along the Columbia and Missouri rivers and their tributaries, at convenient places to insure facilities of communication, posts were to be located for conducting trade across the continent. Briefly, his grand scheme involved the concentration of the fur trade, the exclusive right to supply the Russian establishments, and to receive in return Russian furs; from the sale of which said supplies were to be paid, as also commission retained. Mr. Astor, had he not ben baffled by the treachery or cowardice of his agents, would have controlled the commerce between China and Northwest America.
A vessel was to be dispatched at regular intervals from New York to the Columbia river, laden with trading goods and supplies. Having discharged her cargo, she was to trade on the northwest coast, and visit the establishments of the Russian Fur Company, then return to the river, and, with the furs collected during the year, sail to Canton and obtain her return cargo of China goods for New York. Mr. Astor regarded this Russian trade as a most important feature. Arrangements with the Russian government had guarded against difficulties likely to arise between the coasting vessels of the two companies.
The North West Company had no trading-posts west of the Rocky Mountains south of fifty-two degrees north. That company's operations had been confined to the region called New Caledonia. Its managers were men of great energy and experience. Its business was conducted with perfect system and managed with consummate ability. Mr. Astor sought to avoid competition with that company. With this in view he made known
his plans to them, invited their co-operation, generously offering a one-third interest in the enterprise. To gain the necessary time to enable the North West Company to send a party to occupy the mouth of the Columbia river before Mr. Astor's party could have reached such point, they pretended to take Mr. Astor's proposition under advisement. Having started David Thompson, the surveyor and astronomer of the company, with instructions to occupy the mouth of the Columbia river, to explore the river from its headwaters, and to watch the progress of the Astor enterprise, the North West Company formally declined Mr. Astor's proposition. Mr. Astor, fully aware of this ungracious return for his generosity and good will, prosecuted his enterprise with renewed vigor.
"On the 23d of June, 1810, the Pacific Fur Company was formed. Mr. Astor says: "I preferred to have it appear as the business of a company, rather than that of an individual; the several gentlemen were, in effect, to be interested as partners in the undertaking, so far as respected the profit which might arise; but the means were furnished by me, and the property was solely mine, and I sustained the loss."
He associated as partners Alexander Mackay, Duncan MacDougal and Donald Mackenzie, all late of the North West Company, men of great experience. Mackay had accompanied Alexander Mackenzie in his two voyages of discovery. The partners subsequently admitted were David and Robert Stuart and Ramsay Crooks, Scotchmen, all of whom had been in the service of the North West Company, John Clarke, of Canada, Wilson P. Hunt and Robert Mclellan, citizens of the United States.
The articles of organization provided: Mr. Astor as the head of the company should remain at New York and manage its affairs. Vessels, goods, supplies, arms, ammunition and every necessary were to be furnished by him at prime cost, provided they did not necessitate at any time an advance to exceed $400,000. The stock was divided into one hundred shares, of which Mr. Astor retained fifty. the remainder went to other partners, and such persons as might be added to the company. Mr. Astor reserved the right to introduce other persons as partners, at least two of whom were to be conversant with the Indian trade; but no individual should be permitted to hold more than three shares of stock. Twenty years was the duration of the company; but at the end of five years, if the business was found to be unprofitable, it might be dissolved. For the first five years, all the loss was to be borne by Mr. Astor; after which each partner shared the loss in proportion to his stock.
The chief agent on the Columbia
held the position for five years. Wilson P. Hunt was selected for the first
term. When such chief agent was absent, the vacancy was to be temporarily
filled by a meeting of the partners who were present. to faithfully execute
the objects of the company, and to go to such places as they might be assigned,
the partners solemnly bound themselves. Two of the British partners, before
having subscribed, communicated to Mr. Jackson, British Minister, then
in New York, the full details of Mr. Astor's project. They sought of him
knowledge as to their status as British subjects trading under the
flag of the United States, in the event of a war between the United States
and Great Britain. Mackay was assured by the minister "that he saw our
object was purely commercial, and that al that he could promise was that,
in case of a war, they should be respected as English subjects and merchants."
All scruples of those British partners were dissipated. Their patron did
not learn until too late of this gross disregard of mercantile honor, or,
possibly, he might have guarded himself from the humiliating sacrifice
which effectually transferred his enterprise to unscrupulous enemies. The
man party, consisting of Messrs. Mackay, MacDougal, David and Robert Stuart,
partners, twelve clerks, (among whom was Gabriel Franchere, the author of the narrative of the voyage), five mechanics and thirteen Canadian voyageurs, was to go to the mouth of the Columbia river, via Cape Horn and the Sandwich Islands, until Mr. Hunt, chief agent, should arrive at the mouth of the river. Mr. MacDougal was to take charge. To convey this party, the ship Tonquin, 290 tons, was fitted for sea, commanded by captain Jonathan Thorne, a lieutenant of the United States navy, on leave. A full assortment of Indian trading goods, a bountiful supply of provisions, and the frame timbers of a schooner, designed for coasting, garden seeds and other articles, in short, everything necessary to secure comfort, were provided for the proposed settlement.
Before the Tonquin was ready for sea, Mr. Astor had been advised that a British vessel of war was cruising off the Atlantic coast to intercept the Tonquin and impress the Canadians as British subjects. This was at the instance of the North West Company purposed to defeat the arrival of the Tonquin, or so delay it that Mr. Thompson's party would have ample time to arrive first at the mouth of the Columbia. To thwart such interruption, Mr. Astor secured from the United States convoy off the coast, till the Tonquin could proceed on her voyage without interference from British cruisers.
On the 8th of September, the Tonquin sailed under convoy of the United States frigate Constitution, Captain Isaac Hull, United States navy. The incidents of that voyage will be found in that most readable of books, "Irving's Astoria," and in the very fascinating narrative of Franchere. Mr. Hunt, chief agent, with whom was associated Donald Mackenzie, was to lead a party overland to the mouth of the Columbia river, and had gone to Montreal and Fort William to recruit the necessary voyageurs for the service.
The Tonquin arrived at the mouth of the Columbia, and anchored in Baker's Bay on the 22d of March, 1811. The crossing of the bar and the entrance of the river were attended with most serious difficulties. Eight of the crew were lost in the attempt to examine the shores and bays, and mark out the channel.
On the 12th of April, the launch, with sixteen persons, freighted with supplies, crossed the river and landed upon Point George. There and then was established a settlement, to which was given the name of Astoria, in honor of the projector of the enterprise. By the end of the month, the keel of the schooner of thirty tons had been laid, to be constructed of the frame timbers brought out in the Tonquin.
The report that a party was establishing a post at the second rapids of the Columbia was the occasion of Mackay ascending the river to the first rapids, now called the Cascades. His Indian crew refused to go farther. At that point nothing could be definitely learned of any White being on the upper Columbia. The intelligence that a trading-house had been established by the North West Company, on the Spokane river, was shortly afterwards confirmed (1).
On the first of June, the Tonquin sailed north, Alexander Mackay, one of the partners accompanying as supercargo. By the middle of the month, she had reached Clyoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver's Island, and was anchored opposite the Indian town of Newitty. They were about to commence trade with Indians of Wicanish's tribe for sea-otter skins. At a preconcerted signal, the Indians, who had unwisely been permitted to crowd the deck of the Tonquin, commenced an attack. Captain Thorne and Mr. Mackay were almost immediately killed. All upon deck met a like fate. When Captain Thorne first observed that the actions of the Indians indicated hostility, he had
was the Spokane House, established twenty miles from the mouth of Spokane
river by Macdonald, clerk in the North West Company's service. About the
same time, that company also established forts on Clark's Fork of the Columbia,
and on the Kootenais.
endeavored to make sail, and had ordered some of the crew up into the rigging. Five of the sailors were still aloft; one in ascending was badly wounded. The remaining four had continued concealed. After the fight was over, the Indians went ashore. Returning to rob the ship, the five survivors successfully repelled the savages with firearms. In the night, at the urgent solicitation of Lewis, the wounded sailor, the four left the ship in one of her boats. next morning the Indians in great numbers again boarded the Tonquin. When they had most numerously collected, the gallant Lewis, the wounded sailor, fired the magazine, blew up the ship, creating sad havoc among the hordes of savages who were stripping and robbing the Tonquin. Thus was the murder of Captain Thorne and the crew of the Tonquin promptly avenged. The four sailors who had endeavored to escape were overtaken and put to death with atrocious torture. One Indian interpreter was the sole survivor of that cruel massacre. He was retained in close captivity for more than two years, when he escaped through the various coast tribes. The account of the loss of the Tonquin ws derived from the interpreter on his return to Astoria. There had been a misunderstanding between Captain Thorne and the Indian chief on the preceding day. Captain William Smith, an old and experienced trader on the North Pacific coast, then mate of the Albatross, of Boston, attributed the real provocation of this tragic affair to the conduct of Captain Ayres, of Boston. A short time previous the latter had been trading at Clyoquot Sound, and had induced some ten of the tribe to accompany him to the islands near the Bay of San Francisco to hunt seals. He had given a most positive assurance for their safe and early return. He sailed southward and violated that promise. In accordance with Indian custom, his inhuman perfidy was revenged by an equivalent sacrifice, from white men who fell into the hands of the outraged tribe.
On the 15th of July, David Thompson,
astronomer of the North West Company, in a canoe bearing the British flag,
with a crew of eight white men, arrived at Astoria. In the summer of 1810,
the North West Company fitted out the Thompson party; and, when the necessary
start had been secured to effect their object, they declined Mr. Astor's
proposition for co-operation in his project. Thompson reached the Rocky
Mountains, but was long delayed in finding a pass. Several of his party
deserted, which necessitated his return to the nearest post to winter.
In the early spring of 1811, he hurried forward, crossing the Rocky Mountains
in fifty-two degrees north, and striking the extreme northern source of
the Columbia, where a canoe was built to descend the river. In their descent
they built huts at the forks of rivers, erecting flags, distributed little
flags among the natives, and took formal possession of the country watered
by the Columbia and its tributaries, in the name of the King of Great
Britain, for the North West Company. But Mr. Astor's settlement had been
effected. Thompson could not occupy the lower columbia and its mouth; but
he made an exploration and reconnaissance of the river and the immediately
adjacent country. Franchere observes: "Mr. Thompson kept a regular journal,
and traveled, I thought, more like a geographer than a fur trader. He was
provided with a sextant, chronometer and barometer, and, during a week's
sojourn at our place, had an opportunity to make several astronomical observations."
Though sent by the North West Company to countervail the operations of
a rival enterprise, in fact upon a hostile expedition, yet Mr. MacDougal,
the temporary chief agent representing Mr. Astor, received him with the
utmost cordiality. Against urgent remonstrance of David Stuart, he furnished
Mr. Thompson with supplies and the means to return. David Stuart was about
starting for the Spokane country to establish a post, when Mr. Thompson
arrived. Mr. Stuart consequently delayed his departure until the 23d, when
started in canoes for the upper Columbia. They continued together for more than six hundred miles, when Mr. Thompson and his party left the river and marched overland across the Rocky Mountains. At the junction of the Columbia and the Okanagon rivers, Mr. Stuart erected Fort Okanagon, the first interior post west of the Rocky Mountains south of latitude forty-nine degrees north. Of the drift wood collected on the promontory made by the two rivers, he built a log house in which he and his company wintered.
On the 2d of October, the schooner Dolly was launched. She was the first United States vessel built on the Pacific coast. The infant settlement at Astoria was in a very discouraging, despondent condition. The little band, reduced in numbers, had not learned of the sad fate of the Tonquin, now overdue; and their anxiety for their fellows was intensified by Indian rumors, that a ship on the Strait of Fuca had been destroyed and her crew murdered. Their supplies were growing low; nothing had been heard of Mr. Hunt and his overland party. winter was upon them, and there was but little to give encouragement.
On the 8th of January, 1812, a portion of Mr. Hunt's party reached Astoria in a most wretched plight. The remainder arrived on the 15th of February. The party had experienced the most severe hardships in their tedious journey. Messrs. Hunt and Mackenzie, at Montreal, in their efforts during the summer of 1810 to secure men, had been subjected to the greatest difficulty through the jealous interference of the North West Company. Men who had engaged to serve were dissuaded, threatened and bought. Unsuccessful at Montreal, they went to Fort William, where the same annoyances were renewed. From thence they went to St. Louis, where they arrived September 3d. At that point the Missouri Fur Company baffled Mr. Hunt's effort, even more than the North West Company had done at Montreal and Fort William. To retain the men he had secured, Mr. Hunt, on the 21st of October, left St. Louis. The party in three boats ascended the Missouri river four hundred and fifty miles to the mouth of the Nodowa, where, on the 16th of November, he established winter quarters. Mr. Hunt, to reinforce his party, then returned to St. Louis, where he arrived January 1, 1811. After continued annoyance and vexatious disappointments, he made up his force, returned to the winter camp, and started April 17th for the Columbia river. They ascended the river n fir boats, the largest of which mounted a swivel and two howitzers. In the party were five partners, Messrs. W. P. Hunt, Donald Mackenzie, Robert Maclellan, Ramsay Crooks and Joseph Miller, one clerk, forty voyageurs, an interpreter and several hunters. The Missouri Fur Company continued its persecutions during the ascent of the river, subjecting Mr. Hunt's party to delays, difficulties and annoyances by the Indians. Having traveled fourteen hundred miles, they abandoned the boats and marched overland. Following the headwaters of the Yellowstone, they crossed the Rocky Mountains in September. Having reached one of the affluents of Lewis' Fork of the Columbia, the party built canoes, intending to descend to the mouth of the Columbia. In consequence of the rapids and dangerous navigation, the river was abandoned and the journey to Astoria resumed by land.
On the 5th of May the Beaver,
ship of 490 tons, Captain Sowles, which had been dispatched by Mr. Astor
the preceding October, arrived at Astoria. She brought as passengers John
Clark, of Canada, a partner, six clerks, and twenty-six Kanaka laborers.
Among the clerks was Ross Cox, author of the "Adventures on the Columbia
River." In those "Adventures," Mr. Cox thus pictures Astoria, as it was
upon his arrival in May, 1812:
"The spot selected for the fort was a handsome eminence called Point George, which commanded an extensive view of the majestic Columbia in front, bounded by the bold and thickly wooded northern shore. On the right, about three miles distant, a long, high and rocky peninsula, covered with timber, called Tongue Point, extended a considerable distance into the river from the southern side, with which it was connected by a narrow neck of land; while on the extreme left Cape Disappointment, with the bar and its terrific chain of breakers were distinctly visible. The buildings consisted of apartments for the proprietors and clerks, with a capacious dining-hall for both; extensive warehouses for the trading goods and furs, a provision store, a trading-shop, a smith's forge, carpenter's shop, etc.; the whole surrounded by stockades forming a square and reaching about fifteen feet above the ground. A gallery ran around the stockades, in which loopholes were pierced, sufficiently large for musketry; each bastion had two stories, in which a number of chosen men slept every night; a six-pounder was placed in the lower story of each, and they were both well provided with small arms. Immediately in front of the fort was a gentle declivity, sloping down to the river's side, which had been turned into an excellent kitchen garden; and a few hundred rods to the left, a tolerable wharf had been run out, by which bateaux and boats were enabled, at low water, to land their cargoes without sustaining any damage. An impenetrable forest of gigantic pines rose in the rear; and the ground was covered with a thick underwood of briar and whortleberry, intermingled with ferns and honeysuckle."
In June, the brigades, as they were called, left Astoria for the interior, respectively under the charge of John Clarke and Donald Mackenzie, who were sent to the Upper Columbia country to establish trading-posts. The former established a post at the junction of the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene rivers, and the latter on the Shahaptan river, or the Lewis' Fork of the Columbia, now called Snake river. A third party under David Stuart returned to Fort Okanagon, and during the season went north to Thompson's river.
On the Willamette, 150 miles from its mouth, another trading-post was located. Robert Stuart left at the same time to cross the continent as bearer of dispatches to Mr. Astor. He was accompanied by Robert Maclellan, Ramsay Crooks, Joseph Miller, partners, Benjamin Jones, hunter, and two voyageurs. The parties traveled together to the Walla Walla river. Robert Stuart's party then traveled southeast, and, in the month of November, discovered the South Pass in the Rocky Mountains, which afterwards became the great gateway of the emigrant route to the Pacific. They wintered on the Platt river, and arrived in St. Louis in April, 1813.
On the 4th of August, the Beaver sailed for Sitka, Mr. Hunt accompanying. Pursuant to Mr. Astor's instructions, she was to have returned to Astoria for the furs there collected before sailing to Canton, and hence was due at Astoria in October. While at Sitka, Mr. Hunt negotiated with Baranoff, Governor of Russian America, a highly advantageous arrangement for the Pacific Fur Company. The two companies were not to interfere with each other's hunting or trading grounds; and they were to operate jointly against trespassers on the rights of either. The Pacific Fur Company was to enjoy the exclusive privilege of supplying the Russian posts, the pay for which was to be in peltries. The Pacific Fur Company was to receive all the Russian furs and convey them to Canton, and to receive a commission for their sale.
Having collected large quantities
of furs, the Beaver proceeded to Canton via the Sandwich
Islands, instead of returning to Astoria. Mr. Hunt went with her to Oahu,
there to await the vessel then expected from New York, by which he was
to return to
Astoria. Before this agreement could go into effect, war had been declared between Great Britain and the United States. Mr. Astor learned that the North West Company was fitting out the Isaac Todd, a ship mounting twenty guns, to seize Astoria. As a large majority of the employés of the company were British subjects, Mr. Astor anticipated difficulty, as soon as the existence of the war should become known. He appealed to the United States government for a force to defend Astoria, to maintain possession of the mouth of the river.
His efforts being in vain, he fitted out the Lark, which sailed March 6, 1813. In the early part of 1813, matters at Astoria were in a very unsatisfactory condition. The Beaver, with Mr. Hunt on board, expected in October proceeding, had not been heard from and great anxiety was felt as to her safety. Mr. Mackenzie had been very unsuccessful at his post on the Shahaptan river and becoming disheartened, had determined on being assigned to another post. In this mood he visited Mr. Clark. While Mackenzie was there they were visited by John George MacTavish, a partner of the North West Company, who communicated the news of the declaration of war, and boastfully stated that the North West Company's armed ship, the Isaac Todd, had sailed, and was to be at the mouth of the Columbia in March, and that he had received orders to join her at that time; that full supplies had been sent by his company for the country west of the Rocky Mountains, and, with the coming spring, the North West Company would be prepared for vigorous opposition. Mackenzie no longer doubted as to his course. He at once returned to Shahaptan, broke up the post, cached all the provisions, and with his party went to Astoria, which they reached January 16th.
Having communicated the news of the war to MacDougal, who was agent-in-chief during Mr. Hunt's prolonged absence, the two, the only partners present, resolved to abandon Astoria in the coming spring and recross the Rocky Mountains. To enable them to execute this resolve, Mackenzie set off at once to recover the cached provisions and with them purchase from the Indians necessary horses. He carried dispatches from MacDougal to Messrs. Clarke, and D. Stuart, apprising them of the resolution to abandon Astoria and to return to the United States, and advised the making of necessary preparations. On his way, Mackenzie met a party of the North West Company in command of MacTavish and Laroque, en route to the mouth of the Columbia to await the arrival of the Isaac Todd. The parties camped together, leaders and men, as the graceful Irving remarks, "mingled together as united by a common interest, instead of belonging to rival companies trading under hostile flags."
When Mackenzie reached Shahaptan,
he found his cache had been robbed by the Indians; he was therefore without
means to purchase horses. He forwarded the order of MacDougal to Messrs.
Clarke and David Stuart. Walla Walla was agreed upon as a rendezvous for
the three parties to meet, to proceed together to astoria for conference.
In two boats and six canoes, they together descended the Columbia river,
reaching Astoria June 12th. MacDougal had determined on dissolving the
company July 1st, and had so apprised MacTavish. Both Stuart and Clarke,
who had been very successful, refused to break up their posts; and they
utterly ignored the advice to provide horses and make preparations for
leaving the country. Mackenzie's provisions having been stolen, he had
failed to accomplish anything, and of necessity the departure was deferred.
Messrs. Clarke and Stuart finally yielded consent, that if aid did not
come from the United States and the prospect at Astoria improve, the country
should be abandoned in the ensuing year.
MacTavish, who was camped at the fort, made application to purchase trading goods. MacDougal proposed to sell to him the post on the Spokane, for horses to be delivered the next spring. After much urging by MacDougal and Mackenzie, this proposition was accepted. Messrs. Clarke and Stuart were to winter at their posts. Mackenzie was transferred to the post on the Willamette for the winter; three clerks, among whom was Ross Cox, were transferred to the service of the North West Company. An arrangement for the dissolution of the company, to take effect June 1st of the next year, in accordance with the articles of agreement, which provide for an abandonment of the enterprise should it be found unprofitable, was signed by the four partners. Clarke and Stuart were extremely reluctant, yielding because of the determination of MacDougal and Mackenzie to abandon the country. On the 20th of August, Hunt arrived at Astoria. He was powerless to change the result. The causes of discouragement were presented by MacDougal, who pretended that he desired to save Mr. Astor's interest before the place fell into the hands of the British vessels on their way out. Mr. Hunt at length acquiesced, and consented that the management of the business should be intrusted solely to MacDougal, if he (Hunt) did not return by the 1st of January. Mr. Hunt then sailed to secure a vessel to convey the property to the Russian settlements till peace was declared, and also to give a return passage to the Sandwich Islands of the Kanaka laborers. Hunt agreed that, if the men became dissatisfied, they might be transferred to the North West Company, MacTavish becoming responsible for their wages, accepting goods to discharge indebtedness to them.
On the 2d of October, Mackenzie, with a party of twelve men in two canoes, started to advise Messrs. Clarke and Stuart of the new arrangement. He met MacTavish and J. Stuart, partners of the North West Company, with seventy-five men in ten canoes, on their way down the river to meet the frigate Phoebe and the ship Isaac Todd. Clark had been advised of the alarming news, and he had come with them as a passenger. Mackenzie camped with the party that night and resolved to return with them to Astoria. Mackenzie and Clarke during the night made an attempt to slip off, with a view of getting a start, and reaching Astoria first with the news. But as they pushed out into the river two of MacTavish's canoes followed. On the 7th of October, MacTavish and Mackenzie both reached Astoria. The North West Company's party camped at the fort. Macdougal prohibited the hoisting of the American flag by the young American employés. The next day MacDougal read to the assembled employés a sensational letter from his uncle Angus Shaw, one of the principal stockholders of the North West Company, announcing the sailing of the frigate Phoebe and the ship Isaac Todd, with orders "to take and destroy everything American on the northwest coast."
This dramatic scene was followed
by a proposition of MacTavish to purchase the interests, stocks, establishments,
etc. of the Pacific Fur Company. MacDougal then assumed sole control and
agency because of the non-arrival of Hunt, and after repeated conference
with MacTavish, in which the presence of the other partners was ignored,
the sale was concluded at certain rates. A few days later, Mr. J. Stuart
arrived with the remainder of the North West party. He objected to MacTavish's
prices, and lowered the rates materially. Mr. Stuart's offer was accepted
by MacDougal; and the agreement of transfer was signed October 16th. By
it Duncan MacDougal, for and on behalf of himself, Donald Mackenzie, David
Stuart and John Clarke, partners of the Pacific Fur Company, dissolved
July 1st, pretended to sell to his British confréres and
co-conspirators of the North West Company "the whole of the establishments,
furs and present stock on hand,
on the Columbia and Thompson's rivers," payable in three drafts on Montreal. This transaction, so dishonorable and perfidious to Mr. Astor, so disgraceful to the parties who consummated it, is thus detailed by John Jacob Astor in a letter to John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State:
"MacDougal transferred all my property to the North West Company, who were in possession of it by sale, as he called it, for the sum of fifty-eight thousand dollars, of which he retained fourteen thousand for wages said to be due to some of the men. From the price obtained for the goods, etc., and he having himself become interested in the purchase and made a partner of the North West Company, some idea may be formed as to this man's correctness of dealing. He sold to the North West Company eighteen thousand, one hundred and seventy and a quarter pounds of beaver at two dollars, which was at that time selling in Canton at five and six dollars per skin. I estimated the whole property to be worth nearer two hundred thousand dollars, than forty thousand dollars about the sum I received in bills on Montreal."
After David Thompson had returned, in 1811, from his expedition to secure for the North West Company the first occupancy of the mouth of the Columbia, the North West Company urged interference by the British government to prevent the establishment of American settlers in the territory drained by the Columbia river. The British government, while peace continued, had declined to assert acts of exclusive sovereignty over the region. Upon the declaration of war, the North West Company renewed its efforts with the government to expel its rivals, to seize and occupy the territory. Its appeals were based on national policy. The wealth and importance of the country were portrayed; the Americans should be prevented from firmly establishing themselves and acquiring the territory. The company's petitions were successful. They asked for convoy for their ship Isaac Todd, which was a storeship to carry out supplies, provisions, goods and necessaries to establish settlements, to hold the country against Americans, and acquire its entire trade. A squadron, consisting of the frigate Phoebe, the sloop-of-war Raccoon and Cherub, was ordered to the mouth of the Columbia "to take Fort Astoria and destroy the settlement." Ross Cox, one of Astor's clerks who deserted him and took service in the North West Company, thus narrates the capture of Astoria:
"The Isaac Todd sailed from London in March, 1813, in company with the Phoebe, frigate, and the Cherub and Raccoon, sloops-of-war. They arrived safe at Rio Janeiro, and thence proceeded around Cape Horn to the Pacific, having previously made arrangements to meet at Juan Fernandez. The three men-of-war reached the latter island, after encountering dreadful gales about the cape; they waited there some time for the Isaac Todd; but, as she did not make her appearance, Commodore Hillyer did not deem it prudent to remain any longer inactive. He therefore, in company with the Cherub, proceeded in search of Commodore Porter, who, in the American frigate Essex, was clearing the South Seas of English whalers, and inflicting other injuries of a serious nature on our commerce. He shortly after met the Essex at Valparaiso, and after a severe contest captured her.
"At the same time he ordered
Captain Black, in the Raccoon, to proceed direct to the Columbia,
for the purpose of destroying the American settlements at Astoria. The
arrived at the Columbia on the 1st of December, 1813. The surprise
and disappointment of Captain Black and his officers were extreme, on learning
the arrangement that had taken place between the two companies, by which
the establishment had become British property. They had calculated on obtaining
splendid prize by the capture of Astoria, the strength and importance of which had been much magnified; and the contracting parties were therefore fortunate in having closed their bargains previous to the arrival of the Raccoon.
"On looking at the wooden fortifications, Captain Black exclaimed: 'Is this the fort about which I have heard so much? D__n me, but I'd batter it down in two hours with a four-pounder.' Captain Black, however, took possession of Astoria in the name of his British Majesty, and re-baptised it by the name of Fort George. He also insisted on having an inventory taken of the valuable stock of furs, and all other property purchased from the American company, with a view to the adoption of ulterior proceedings in England for the recovery of the value from the North West Company; but he subsequently relinquished this idea, and we heard no more about his claims."
The formal capture of Fort Astoria took place on the 12th of December, at which time the colors of the United States were hauled down and the flag of Great Britain raised.
In the August preceding, Mr. Astor's chief agent, Mr. Hunt, had left Astoria in the ship Albatross for the Sandwich Islands to procure a ship to receive the property of the Pacific Fur Company, and to afford passage to such of its employés as desired by sea to return to the United States. The ship Lark sent out by Mr. Astor, on arriving at the Islands, was wrecked. The Beaver was still blockaded in China. Mr. Hunt at length purchased the brig Pedler, put Captain Northup, late of the Lark, in command, and returned to Astoria on February 28, 1814. He found the fort converted into a North West Company establishment. His late copartner MacDougal, whom he had left in charge to represent Mr. Astor, was still in charge, but now transformed into a North West Company partner. There was nothing left Mr. Hunt to do but to receive from MacDougal the drafts on Montreal, the purchase-money for the stock and establishments of the Pacific Fur Company. The Pedler then sailed for New York, by way of Canton, Mr. Hunt and three of the clerks of the late company being passengers. The remainder of the employés either engaged in the service of the North West Company, or returned overland with Messrs. Mackenzie, Clarke and David Stuart, who started April 4th. The arrival of the ship Isaac Todd on the 17th of April, with a full cargo of trading goods and supplies, enabled the North West Company, now exclusive masters of the field, vigorously to prosecute the fur trade, and establish themselves in the territory.
Thus disgracefully failed a magnificent enterprise, which merited success for sagacity displayed in its conception, its details, its objects; for the liberality and munificence of its projector in furnishing means adequate for its thorough execution; for the results it had aimed to produce. It was inaugurated purely for commercial purposes. Had it not been transferred to its enemies, it would have pioneered the colonization of the northwest coast by citizens of the United States; it would have furnished the natural and peaceful solution of the question of the right of the territory drained by the Columbia and its tributaries.
Perhaps, had Mr. Astor been a
native of the United States, instead of one of its most patriotic, generous
and wealthy adopted citizens, he would have appreciated that in 1809-10,
when about to develop this grand conception of mercantile genius, that
the antipathy between natives of the British Empire and the United States,
the natural result of the latter having conquered its independence, had
not then been effaced. Indeed, at that time it was manifesting itself in
a bitter renewal, which so shortly afterward developed into actual war.
As a merchant devoid of such national prejudice because of his different
nationality, he could not, did not, realize that a purely mercantile arrangement
be successfully conducted by and between citizens and subjects of different countries. He entirely overlooked that inbred, ineradicable, national prejudice (for it had no place in his bosom) which displayed itself in the contempt that Vancouver so conspicuously had manifested for Gray when off the Strait of Fuca, the latter having ventured to assert a belief that a river emptied into the ocean where was afterwards discovered the great Columbia; which the sagacious, able, but narrow-minded, though ever British, Sir Alexander mackenzie had so palpably exhibited in his appeal to the capitalists of Great Britain to advance the fur trade, to occupy the territory and coasts of Northwest America; wherein he contemptuously ridiculed "American adventurers who would instantly disappear before a well-regulated trade." The big-souled Astor had failed or was quite unable to realize what might result from a national hatred and jealousy, which could not be concealed because the great Columbia was discovered by a practical American sailor, when scientific navigators had failed to find its mouth; which aimed to head off lewis and Clark by the effort to reach the mouth of the Columbia river in advance of those gallant American soldiers and explorers; which had converted the men to whom he had bountifully supplied the means to acquire wealth, without possibility of risk or loss; into informers to his enemies of plans revealed to them in confidence; which converted rivals in business into unscrupulous and unrelenting personal and national enemies.
The scheme was grand in its aim, magnificent in its breadth of purpose and area of operation. Its results were naturally feasible, not over-anticipated. They were but the logical and necessary sequence of the pursuit of the plan. Mr. Astor made no miscalculation, no omission; neither did he permit a sanguine hope to lead him into any wild or imaginary venture. He was practical, generous, broad. He executed what Sir Alexander Mackenzie urged should be adopted as the policy of British capital and enterprise. That one American citizen should have individually undertaken what two mammoth British companies had not the courage to try was but an additional cause which had intensified national prejudice into embittered jealousy on the part of his British rivals, the North West Company.
The effect of war upon a commercial
enterprise mutually engaged in by subjects of the hostile nations had not
been considered by Mr. Astor. He believed that, for favors conferred, a
sense of gratitude might dictate loyalty of service to the patron and friend;
that common interest in an undertaking would hold together the parties
enlisted. He trusted those whose every prejudice had been fostered and
educated to hate the success of a rival trader; who coveted for their King
and country the territory which Mr. Astor had selected for his fields.
The act of Mackay and MacDougal, which revealed to the British Minister
Mr. Astor's purposes and offers before they had subscribed the articles,
proves them to have been more loyally British than true to the Pacific
Fur Company or honest to Mr. Astor. The breaking up of the post of Shahaptan
by Mr. Mackenzie on the first tidings of war between the two countries
exhibits the true animus of Mackenzie to disavow connection with Mr. Astor
the moment his exalted idea of being a British subject demanded its assertion.
The premature resolve of MacDougal and Mackenzie in January, 1813, to dissolve
the Pacific Fur Company, to abandon their trusts and leave the country,
was dictated by treachery to Mr. Astor, loyalty to his enemies, or to cowardice.
Their continued and persistent purpose to carry out this intention demoralized
the other partners and destroyed the business committed to their charge.
Thus far perhaps their conduct finds extenuation in admitting that it was
but the natural response to their national prejudices; nor should Mr. Astor
censure for doing what love of country or allegiance prompted.
It might be claimed that their fear was well grounded; that the territory and the establishment were to fall into the hands of the British expedition en route to capture Astoria; and that, by those acts, something could be saved to Mr. Astor. But MacDougal's conduct from this point was in studied and consistent obedience to the interest of the North West Company. Not satisfied with deserting Mr. Astor's service, he transferred to the rival company every vestige of the labors of Mr. Astor, banishing from the territory, and from existence, the Pacific Fur Company. He then was admitted as a full partner of the North West Company on the day that Captain Black of the British navy raised the British flag over Fort Astoria, and attempted to efface the memory of the origin of the settlement by giving it the new name of Fort George. This fact he concealed from his late partners, continuing to represent Mr. Astor, though partner of the North West Company in charge of Fort George, until Mr. Hunt's arrival, on the 28th of February, 1814. The Pacific Fur Company's weakness was in the fact, that it was organized as a commercial operation, nay, more; - it incorporated diffuse and hostile national elements. Had it been exclusively American, the North West Company might have supplanted it by open hostility; it could not have destroyed it by demoralization of its agents. Astor had not really aimed to Americanize the North Pacific, nor the territory in which he operated. The North West Company pursued the reverse policy. It sought to appropriate territory, to strengthen and expand the British Empire, looking to that nation to build it up, to afford it protection. It aimed to defeat the United States or any of its citizens in acquiring territorial rights on the northwest coast. As said by Alexander Mackenzie, it aimed to expel American adventurers from prosecuting the fur trade west of the Rocky Mountains.
Great Britain never swerved from the policy of encouraging these colonizing acts of her mammoth companies by the prestige of recognition. She espoused every difficulty which resulted rom the acts of her subjects in appropriating territory. The United States hesitated, until by the blockade of her Atlantic ports she was furnished an excuse for allowing the project of John Jacob Astor to become abortive. National recognition would have offset British demoralizing influence; the mouth of the Columbia might not have fallen into the hands of the enemy. Had the Pacific Fur Company been a genuine American movement, Astoria might have ben captured by the British during the war of 1812; it would not have been insidiously circumvented and destroyed by the perfidy and ingratitude of trusted agents.
Pursuant to the first article
of the treaty of peace between the United States and Great Britain (the
Treaty of Ghent, December 24, 1814) providing "that all territory, places
and possession whatsoever taken by either party from the other, during
or after the war, should be restored, the United States, in September,
1817, dispatched to the mouth of the Columbia river the sloop-of-war Ontario,
Captain James Biddle, U.S. navy, with who was associated J.B. Prevost as
commissioner," to assert the claim of the United States to the sovereignty
of the adjacent country, and especially to reoccupy Astoria or Fort George."
The British government transmitted orders to the agent of the North West
Company to deliver said fort or post "as one of the places captured during
the war." Captain Biddle entered the river in August, 1818, and on the
19th raised the flag of the United States over Astoria, restoring to it
that name. U.S. Commissioner J.B. Prevost had been detained in Chile, arriving
in the British frigate Blossom, Captain Hickey, R.N. James Keith,
partner of the North West Company, was in charge. The formal surrender
by Captain Hickey, on the part of the Crown, and by Mr. Keith, on behalf
of the North West Company, is dated October 6, 1818. The fort had been
considerably enlarged. It consisted of a stockade 250 by 150 feet, within which were a number of dwelling-houses, stores, workshops and other buildings. The defenses were two eighteen-pounders, four four-pounders, two six coehorns and several swivels, - all mounted. Twenty-three Whites, twenty-six Kanakas, twenty Canadian half-breeds and a number of women and children resided and were employed within the enclosure.
Though Mr. Astor urged the United States government to repossess Astoria, and intended to resume operations in the territory, the Pacific Fur Company was never resuscitated. Neither did Mr. Astor every reoccupy Astoria or engage in the fur trade within the territory. The North West Company continued its trade with the Indians under the provisions of the treaty of October 20, 1818, between Great Britain and the United States, usually called the Joint-Occupancy Treaty. Its third article provides:
"That any country which may be claimed by either party on the northwest coast of America, westward of the Stony Mountains, shall, together with its harbors, bays and creeks, and the navigation of all rivers within the same, be free and open, for the term of ten years from the date of the signature of the present convention, to the vessels, citizens and subjects of the two powers; it being well understood that this agreement is not to be construed to the prejudice of any claim which either of the two high contracting parties may have to any part of the said country; nor shall it be taken to effect the claims of any other power or state to any part of said country; the only object of the high contracting parties in that respect being to prevent disputes and differences amongst themselves."