The History of Washington State

The History of Washington
Chapter 15, Part I

 

By Holice, Pam, and Deb

Extra special thanks to Holice B. Young for transcribing this series of books!

 

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CHAPTER XV.
SETTLEMENT AND CAPTURE OF ASTORIA.

"As cunning spiders wisely weave,
The web that nets their prey,
So patiently does commerce plan
For gain of future day;
Yet as the insect's well-wrought snare
By chance of breeze is blown,'
So wisest schemes are fruitless found
By circumstances o'erthrown."

--BREWERTON.

As the reader must already have discovered, the British fur companies were the bitter enemies of all who attempted to compete with them ina region which they had already come to regard as exclusively their own, and where they used every effort to retain their supremacy. Weaker attempts to oppose them had been rendered abortive by a policy which systematically discouraged or "froze out" (to sue a most expressive Westernism) their authors. Matters were in this condition when Mr. John Jacob Astor, the beginnings of whose them great fortune (for a few hundred thousand dollars in those days ranked their possessor with the millionaire of our own time) had risen from his dealings in furs, determined to forma company and establish the traffic on a large scale as an American enterprise on the Northwest coast. Now this Mr. Astor, so widely known now as the founder of a family of enormous wealth, was not an American by birth, but a native of Heidelberg, who came here poor, amassed a fortune, and was a citizen by adoption of the United States. Had he been "to the manor born" we fancy his enterprise would have been more patriotically American and have ended more happily than it did. As it was, he regarded his undertaking as a mere commercial investment, selected its personnel accordingly, and failed. Otherwise his plans wee farseeing and well laid. He proposed to prosecute the fur trade

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over all the unsettled regions claimed by the United States, to furnish the Russian settlements with supplies to be paid for in furs, and then re-sell at Canton, taking silks and teas in exchange. It was a colossal scheme, and deserved to succeed; had it done so it would have built up a trade which would have advanced American settlement and actual occupancy on the Northwest coast by at least a quarter o a century, given employment to thousands, and transferred the enormous profits of the Hudson's Bay and Northwest British fur companies from English to American coffers.

Looking over the ground, and, being well aware of the jealousy he would excite, and the difficulties thus engendered, and being, therefore, like the prudent man of business that he was, anxious to disarm and soften the enmity sure to grow out of his effort to enter their field a competition, we find him beginning his enterprise cautiously. Having this in mind, he writes to the directors of the Northwest Company, then in the zenith of its power and a serious rival of its older brother, the Hudson's Bay, though it (the Northwest) maintained no trading posts west of the Rocky Mountains south of 52 north latitude, being confined to a region known as New Caledonia. To these gentlemen, shrewd, unscrupulous, and of great experience, he most unwisely, as the sequence proves, detailed his plans, and generously offered them a third interest in his enterprise. He was met with a duplicity and want of good faith perfectly in accordance with the source from whence it emanated. To gain time to send a party to occupy the mouth of the Columbia, to forestall and, if possible, disappoint Mr. Astor's intentions, they pretended to take his proposition into consideration, and immediately dispatched David Thompson, their surveyor and astronomer, with instructions "to occupy the mouth of the Columbia, to explore the river to its headwaters, and, above all, to watch the progress of Mr. Astor's enterprise." They then declined Mr. Astor's proposal; but if they expected to discourage a man of Mr. Astor's stamp they reckoned without their host, for this ungracious return for this generosity and good will only stimulated him in his determination to carryout his plan.

On June 23rd, 1810, the Pacific Fur Company was formed, Mr. Astor Says: "I preferred to have it appear as the business of a company

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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."

We will now revert to Evans's narrative of the sequence of events which, leading through a chain of misfortunes, culminated in the final overthrow of Mr. Astor's undertaking, cutting down his elaborate statement of facts to such limits as our story will permit.

"Mr. Astor associated with himself as partners Alexander Mackay, Duncan MacDougal, and Donald Mackenzie, all late of the Northwest Company, men of great experience. Mackay had accompanied Alexander Mackenzie in his two voyages of discovery." (The reader will probably remember the strong anti-American sentiments that worthy laid down.) "The partners subsequently added were David and Robert Stuart and Ramsey Crooks, all Scotchmen, (as their names indicate.) "John Clarke, of Canada, Wilson P. Hunt and Robert Maclellan, citizens of the United States."

And here at the very outset we find Mr. Astor, with all his shrewdness, making his first and most fatal mistake. In this choice of partners he was doubtless influenced by a desire to obtain skill and experience coupled with a thorough knowledge of the country and the particular trade in which he desired to engage; but he might better have had less experience and more loyalty. Had he been American by birth, he would probably have reason with better results. He forgot in his selection to take into account the strength of an opposing nationality, to say nothing of previous association with the rival company, with whose secret enmity he was called to compete. When the Ethiopian changes his skin and the leopard his spots will the Englishman forget that he is born a Briton; and we are not sure, if he exhibit his partiality in an honest way, that is not commendable. But if Mr. Astor had ever heard of the order and acted upon it said to have been given by Washington, "Put none but Americans on guard," the Pacific fur company might have survived, as it did not, the War of 1812. But to return:

"The articles of organization provided that Mr. Astor, as the head of the company, should remain in New York and man-

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age its affairs, vessels, goods, supplies, arms, and ammunition--in fact, every necessary was 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 each persons as might be added to the company. Mr. Astor reserved the right to introduce other person as partners, at least two of whom were to be conversant with the Indian trade; but no individual should be permitted to hold more then 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."

Could any terms have been fairer or more liberal? His associates could lose nothing but their time, and might be large gainers. The chief agent on the Columbia was to hold his position for five years. For this position Wilson P. Hunt, one of the two Americans, was selected. When he was absent his place was to be temporarily filled by a meeting of the partners then present. But the English leaven is already working, and the time-serving spirit of his British associates begins to display itself. The partners were to solemnly bind themselves to faithfully execute the objects of the company; before signing this obligation two of the British partners communicated to Mr. Jackson, the British Minister then in New York, the full details of Astor's project, and desired to know their status as British subjects trading under the American flag in the event of war between the two countries. Mackay was assured by the minister "that he saw our object was purely commercial, but that all he could promise was that in the case of a war they should be respected as British merchants and subjects." All scruples of these British partners was dissipated. "Their patron," says Evans, " did not learn until too late of this gross disregard of mercantile honor or he might have guarded himself from the humiliating sacrifice which effectually transferred his enterprise to unscrupulous enemies."

The main party, consisting of four of the partners, twelve clerks, five merchants, and thirteen Canadian voyageurs, was to

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go to the mouth of the Columbia via Cape Horn, and await the arrival of Mr. Hunt, the chief agent, at the mouth of the river. Mr. MacDougal was to take charge. To convoy the party the ship Tonquin, 290 tons, was fitted for sea, commanded by Captain Jonathan Thorne, a lieutenant in the United States Navy, on leave. A full assortment of Indian trading goods, a bountiful supply of provisions, and the frame timbers of an schooner designed for coasting--in short, everything necessary to secure comfort was provided for the proposed settlement.

We come now to the first covert attack (unless the dispatch of Thompson as a spy may so be considered) upon the enterprise.

"Before the Tonquin was ready for sea Astor was apprised 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 Northwest Coast Company, so as to delay the departure of the ship, and thus give time for their emissary, Thompson, to arrive first at the mouth of the Columbia. To thwart this, Astor secured from the United States convoy off the coast till the Tonquin could proceed without interruption. On the 8th of September she sailed under convoy of the frigate Constitution, Captain Isaac Hull, of the United States Navy. Meanwhile, Mr. Hunt, the chief agent, with whom was associated Donald Mackenzie, who was to lead the overland party, had gone to Montreal and Fort William to recruit the necessary voyageurs for the service.

"The Tonquin reached the mouth of the Columbia and anchored in Baker's Bay on the 22nd of March, 1811. The crossing of the bar was attended with serious difficulties, and eight of the crew were lost in their attempt to 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. Then and there 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 timber brought out in the Tonquin. They soon learned that a trading house had been established, by their rival, the Northwest Company, on the Spokane River, about twenty miles from its mouth; at the same time they established forts on Clarke's Fork of the Columbia and on the Kootenais.

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"On the 1st of June the Tonquin sailed north, Alexander Mackay, one of the partners, going as supercargo. By the middle of the month she had reached Cyloquot Sound, on the west side of Vancouver's Island, and was anchored opposite the Indian two of Newitty. They were about to commence trade with the Indians of Wickanish'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 Mackay were almost instantly killed; all upon deck met a like fate. When Captain Thorne dirt observed that the actions of the natives indicated hostility, he had endeavored to make sail, and had ordered some of the crew up onto the rigging. Five of the sailors were still aloft, but one in descending was badly wounded. The remaining four had continued concealed. After the fight was over the Indians went on shore. Returning to strip the ship, the live survivors successfully repelled the savages with fire-arms. In the night, at the earnest solicitation of Lewis, the wounded sailor, the four left the ship in one of her boats. Next morning the Indians in great numbers once more boarded the Tonquin. When they had most numerously collected the gallant Lewis, the wounded sailor, fire the magazine and 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 terrible tortures. One Indian interpreter was the sole survivor of this cruel massacre. He was retained in close captivity for more than two years, when he escaped through the various coast tribes. The story of the Tonquin's loss was told by him on his return to Astoria. There had, it seems, been a misunderstanding between Captain Thorne and the Indian chief on the preceding day. Captain William Smith, an old and experienced trader on the Northwest 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 of their safe and early return. He

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sailed southward and violated that promise. In accordance with Indian customs his inhuman perfidy was avenged by an equivalent sacrifice, of white men who fell into the hands of the outraged tribe."

And now let us see how it fares with David Thompson, the Northwest Company's surveyor, astronomer, and spy, who on July 15th, nearly three months too late to anticipate the American party, arrived with a crew of eight men ina canoe flying the British flag at Astoria. He preceded on his mission, reached the Rocky Mountains, but was long delayed in finding a pass. Deserted by several of his men, he was obliged to return to the nearest post to winter. In the spring of 1811, however, he makes an early start, crosses the Rocky Mountains in 52 north, and striking the extreme northern source of the Columbia, builds a canoe to descend the river. He builds huts at the forks of the river as he goes, erects flags upon them, and distributes smaller ones (he seems to have a cargo of flags) among the natives, which, a la Indian, were most probably devoted to head decorations by the squaws. Having gotten rid of his flags, he then proceeds to take formal possession of the country watered by the Columbia, and its tributaries (rather a large slice of the Northwest, by the way) in the name of the King of Great Britain, but always for the Northwest Company. But Astor was already in possession at its mouth, which, of course, he could not occupy. It might be a curious geographical problem to decide (had his "taking possession" been worth anything) where his British fountain-head mingled with its larger American flood below, and at what precise point we were to draw the dividing line between Mr. Thompson's canoeing and the discovery by the New England Gray, backed up by the settlement of Astor!

And now we come to the very significant statement that though sent as an avowed emissary of their rival, and while actually engaged in an expedition hostile to the best interests of his employer, we find Thompson received and entertained as a welcome guest by MacDougal, the temporary chief agent, representing Mr. Astor. In spite of the earnest remonstrance of his fellow-partner Stuart, MacDougal furnished Thompson with supplies and means to return to his employers.

At the junction of the Columbia and Ocanagon, Mr. Stuart erects Fort Ocanagon, the first interior post west of the Rocky

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Mountains south of 49 north, and winters there with his company ina log-house built of the drift-wood collected on the point made by he two rivers.

On October 2d the Astorians launch the little schooner Dolly, the first United States vessel built on the Pacific coast. The little band, reduced in numbers and their supplies beginning to fail, look with growing anxiety for the arrival of the Tonquin, her reinforcements and supplies. They have not yet heard of her fate, though Indian rumors came to them of some ship in the Strait of Fuca being destroyed and her crew murdered, nor had anything yet been heard of Mr. Hunt and his overland party. Winter is at hand, and there is little to encourage them. At last a portion of Mr. Hunt's party arrives on January 8th, 1812; they reach the settlement in wretched plight. The remainder arrive on February 15th. They have suffered terribly from hardships and privation by the way. Even at Montreal, whither Hunt and Mackenzie had gone in the summer of 181 to procure recruits, did the ill-will of their rival, the Northwest Company, follow and hinder them. Men who had engaged to serve were threatened, dissuaded and bought. Unsuccessful at Montreal, they went to Fort William, where the same tactics produced similar results. Baffled and disappointed, they returned to St. Louis, where they arrived September 3d. There the Missouri Fur company interfered, and did them more harm than their foes at Montreal and Fort William. To retain the men they had secured, Hunt left St. Louis on October 21st; his party of three boats ascended the Missouri four hundred and fifty miles to the mouth of the Nodowa, where he established his winter quarters. This was in November; in January we find him again in St. Louis, whither he makes up his number, returns with his new men to the winter camp, from whence he finally starts for the Columbia on April 17th. They ascend the river in four boats, on the largest of which they have mounted a swivel and two howitzers. The personnel of the party is composed of five partners, one clerk, forty voyageurs, an interpreter, and several hunters. The Missouri Fur Company, determined to breakup the expedition, hand upon their flanks and wage a sort of guerrilla warfare during their ascent of the river through delays, difficulties, and trouble with the Indians. They travel fourteen

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hundred miles by water, then abandon their boats and proceed overland. Following the headwaters of the Yellowstone, they crossed the Rocky Mountains in September. Reaching the affluent of Lewis's Fork of the Columbia, they build canoes, intending to descend to the mouth of the Columbia; but deterred by rapids and other dangers of navigation, they abandon the project, and finally conclude this chapter of accidents, delays, dangers, and long preparations, by reaching Astoria overland.

 

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