The above article on what would become
the Oregon Trail appeared in the Missouri Gazette before Stuart met with Astor
in New York on July twenty-sixth. A wagon route over
South Pass and the Oregon Trail to the mouth of the Columbia River and the
Oregon Country was soon forgotten. In the midst of the War of 1812, Americans
were not concerned with westward expansion.
The story of the Astorians and the American Pacific
Northwest can be traced to the birth of John Jacob Astor in Walldorf, Germany in
1763. At the age of twenty-one, Astor boarded a ship for America with a net
worth of twenty-five dollars and seven flutes. Reaching Chesapeake Bay in late
January, the ship was trapped in harbor ice for two months. A German aboard the
ship, with fur trade experience, convinced Astor on the merits of the fur trade.
Two years later, Astor married Sarah Todd. Using a
dowry of three hundred dollars, they opened a store on Water Street in New York
City to market musical instruments and furs. During his fur trade travels, Astor
gathered all the information he could on Peter Pond,
Alexander Mackenzie, the
Hudson’s Bay Company, and the newly formed North West Company.
Enactment of Jay’s Treaty in 1796, established the
United States and Canadian boundary between the Great Lakes and the eastern
seaboard at the forty-ninth parallel. The North West Company could no longer operate below the forty-ninth parallel,
but Astor still used them for most of his trade goods. Talks with a leading Montreal fur trader, Alexander Henry,
crystallized Astor’s plans for the fur trade. In 1808, Astor established the
American Fur Company. A major goal of Astor's American Fur Company was to trap
the Upper Missouri River Country.
Astor now turned has attention to marketing his furs.
American ships were entering the China trade, and through a friend in London, he
obtained a license to trade in the East India Company ports. His first trading
venture netted a fifty thousand dollar profit. A good portion of these profits,
and others to follow, were invested in New York City real estate.
Louisiana Purchase in 1803 had opened the Missouri
River fur trade, but there was still the Pacific Northwest. West of the
Continental Divide and north of the forty-second parallel to Alaska was disputed
territory. Astor envisioned this vast country as being part of the United
States. The presence of an American fur company, with posts along the Columbia
River, would help ensure this. To accomplish his fur trade interests and those
of American expansion, Astor planned two expeditions—one by sea and one by land.
From a post at the mouth of the Columbia River,
Astor envisioned fur trading posts along the rivers draining into the Columbia
and the ocean along the Pacific Coast. These
trading posts could supply Native
Americans with trade goods at a cheaper price than traders from the North West
Company. Astor believed that eventually this would force the North West Company
out of New Caledonia (British Columbia). With the North West Company driven out,
Astor’s Pacific Fur Company would control the Indian fur trade between Spanish
California and Russian owned Alaska...everything West of the Continental
Divide from California to Alaska would become part of the United States.
Astor pictured a worldwide fur trade empire. His
company would gather and ship Pacific Northwest beaver and sea otter furs to the
Orient to be traded for oriental goods. The oriental goods would be taken
to the marketplaces of Europe and traded for European goods that could be carried back to Boston. Astor’s
fleet of sailing ships would then complete his broad vision by re-supplying his
Pacific Coast posts and the Russian posts in Alaska.
To help achieve domination of the Pacific Northwest,
Astor approached the Russian’s field manager at New Archangel (Sitka, Alaska).
Astor proposed to Alexander Baranov that if they combined forces the British
could not maintain posts on the Columbia River system and in New Caledonia.
Astor’s ships would deliver supplies and trade goods to New Archangel, and since
Russians were barred from the lucrative fur trade markets of China, his ships
would carry Russian furs to Canton.
Astor discussed his plans with New York Governor DeWitt
Clinton, whose uncle was the Vice President of the United States. Seeking the
Federal Government’s backing for his fur company, Astor met with Vice President
Clinton, and then former President Jefferson. Jefferson pledged his wholehearted
support to the establishment of claims to the Oregon Country. Governor Clinton
issued a charter for Astor’s new fur company in April of 1809.
Astor had approached the North West Company about
joining his initial venture, but the partners had refused. Aware of
Astor’s plans, the North West Company sent Simon Frazer to establish a presence
on the mouth of the Fraser River and David Thompson to the mouth of the Columbia
River. Based on reports of increased North West activity, Astor sought stronger
government support. Letters were sent to Secretary of the Treasury, Gallatin,
which in turn was read to Secretary of War, Eustis and eventually, President Madison.
Washington officials refused any further support.
Pacific Fur Company articles of incorporation were
signed in June of 1810. Astor offered shares in the company to Wilson P. Hunt of
New Jersey, Duncan McDougall, Alexander McKay,
Donald Mackenzie, and David
Stuart. The last four were former employees of the North West Company. Later,
David Stuart’s nephew, Robert Stuart would be given two shares.
Wilson Price Hunt was appointed resident partner with
overall field command of the Pacific Fur Company. Hunt would lead the westbound
overland party, and Duncan McDougall, who would go on the
Tonquin, was in charge
of the new post until Hunt arrived.
The War of 1812 brought an end to Astoria, and Astor’s
plans for control of the Pacific Northwest. Despite the loss of Astoria, Astor
had little cause to regret the War of 1812. Through his connections in
Washington, D.C., Astor continued to trade for Canadian furs throughout the war.
Canadian furs, marketed in New York, made him enormous profits.
The Treaty of Ghent in 1814
restored all captured
territories in the War of 1812 to the previous owners, but the question with
Fort Astoria become, was it sold or was it
captured. The haggling and bickering over
the fate of Astoria dragged on until October 8th, 1818. On that date, Fort
George was returned to the United States; the American flag once again flew over Fort
Astoria. The Oregon Country was now under an agreement of joint occupancy
between the British and Americans. When news of the Joint Occupation Agreement of 1818 reached Astor, he
complained to his friend Albert Gallatin that his interests had been shamefully
“If I was a young man,” he lamented, “I would again
resume the trade—as it is I am too old and I am withdrawing from all business
as fast as I can.”
Despite Astor’s statement to Gallatin, he stayed in the
fur business another sixteen years, but did not direct any of his efforts, or
resources, toward Fort Astoria.
Following the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, Astor’s American Fur Company lobbied Congress to pass
an act to exclude Canadians from the fur trade in the Louisiana Territory,
unless employed by an American company. Congress passed the act in 1816, and
Astor promptly bought the North West Company holdings inside of American
territory. The price paid for the North West Company’s assets probably more than
recouped his losses from Astoria.
The next move for the American Fur Company was to
abolish the Federal Government’s
Factory System. Ramsey Crooks led the American
Fur Company’s lobbying efforts, and the Factory System was abolished in 1821.
The American Fur Company now dominated the Missouri River fur trade.
By the mid-1830s, the fur trade was suffering from
economic and geographical problems; cost and distances were to great for
the falling fur prices in St. Louis. With diminished profits in sight, Astor
sold his interests in the American Fur Company. In 1834, the
was bought by Pierre Chouteau and Company and the Northern Department by Ramsey
Crooks and Associates. Ramsey Crooks’ Northern Department retained the American
Fur Company name.
John Jacob Astor lived long enough for a limited
version of his Pacific Northwest vision to come about. In 1846, the border
between Canada and the United States was established along the forty-ninth
parallel, not at a latitude of fifty-four forty as one of the world’s greatest
entrepreneurs had envisioned it. Astor’s fur trading posts in the Pacific
Northwest were a major factor in establishing the border at the forty-ninth
parallel, instead of the Columbia River, as the British had wanted.
Former President Jefferson wrote a letter to John Jacob Astor in
1813, in which he predicted that Astoria would become “the germ of a great, free
and independent empire.” This germ reached fruition in 1846 when the Oregon
Country boundary was established at the forty-ninth parallel, and the future
states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Wyoming become part of the
Upon his death in 1848, Astor was considered the
richest man in America, with an estimated worth of twenty million dollars. The
majority of his wealth involved New York City real estate.
Astor purchased the Tonquin in August of 1810 for
thirty-seven thousand eight hundred and sixty dollars. A two hundred and ninety
ton ship, she had mountings for ten guns. Astor placed navy lieutenant Jonathan
Thorn in command.
The Tonquin departed New York Harbor in September 1810.
With a sailing crew of twenty-one men, the Tonquin carried the frame of a
schooner for the Pacific Coast trade, Indian trade goods, seeds, tools, and
materials for a combination fort and trading post at the mouth of the
Columbia. The ship was barely out of the harbor when trouble started between
Captain Thorn and the Pacific Fur Company partners. A rigid authoritarian,
Captain Thorn maintained absolute control and discipline over his ship, while the fur company
partners wanted the treatment and respect due a Pacific Fur Company partner.
Besides the partners Duncan McDougall, Alexander McKay,
David Stuart, and Robert Stuart, there were twelve clerks, several of them
natives of Canada, with experience in the Indian trade. In addition to the
clerks, there were thirteen Canadian voyageurs and four skilled craftsmen: a
boat builder, Job Aitkem, a blacksmith, Augustus Roussel, a carpenter, Johann
Koaster, and a cooper, George Bell.
Captain Thorn disliked the Canadians. He considered the
clerks’ journals as secret documents. To make matters worse, he could not
understand them. If he was nearby, the clerks spoke in either French or
Scots-Irish, neither of which Thorn understood.
The Tonquin rounded Cape Horn at the tip of South
America in December of 1810. Arriving at the Falkland Islands, the ship anchored
to take on water and make repairs. Once the repairs were completed, Thorn
signaled the men ashore to come aboard. Duncan McDougall and David Stuart with
six men were on the south side of the island. When they did not respond, Thorn
ordered the crew to set sail. At sight of the ship leaving, the eight men rushed
to a small boat and rowed for over three hours trying to catch the Tonquin, but
Thorn kept the ship on course. Seeing his uncle being left behind, Robert Stuart
grabbed a pistol and threatened to blow Captain Thorn’s brains all over the deck,
if he did not shorten sail and wait for the boat.
In February, the Tonquin reached the Sandwich Islands
and anchored in the bay of Karakakooa on the island of Owyhee. The
next morning, canoes filled with fruits and vegetables surrounded the ship.
Captain Thorn wanted to purchase a number of hogs, but the trade in pork was a
royal monopoly. Raising anchor and sailing to Oahu, the royal residence of King
Tamaahmaah, hogs, goats, sheep, poultry, and vegetables were obtained. The
partners wanted to recruit thirty or forty Hawaiians, but Captain Thorn
objected. He finally agreed on twelve.
The Tonquin arrived at the Columbia River estuary on
the twenty-second of March 1811. Between Cape Disappointment and Point Adams
high waves rolled over a sand bar that resulted in a continuous chain of breakers. Uncertain of how to
proceed, Captain Thorn had Ebenezer Fox, John Martin, and three Canadian
voyageurs take the whaleboat to locate a channel. The whaleboat soon disappeared in the heavy
Lying off shore until the next morning, William Mumford
and four others were sent to sound a four-fathom channel through the breakers.
The pinnace was nearly lost in the breakers, before making it back to the ship.
Thorn believed Mumford had looked too far south, so he ordered Job Aiken, John
Coles, Stephen Weekes, and two Hawaiians to take soundings further north. Aiken
located the channel, but before he could return, heavy waves swamped the small
The next day, March 24th, 1811, the Tonquin
crossed over the breakers and anchored in Baker’s Bay at
the mouth of the Columbia River. Search parties went ashore to look for the lost
men. Stephen Weeks and one Sandwich islander were all that could be found.
Crossing the breakers into the Columbia River had cost the lives of
Duncan McDougall and David Stuart proceeded upriver
about fifteen miles to a point of land with a good harbor. When the Tonquin
moved upriver and anchored in the harbor, the men started building a small a shed for the ships supplies
and clearing land for the post. The tiny settlement was named
Once the post was under construction, Captain Thorn,
with Alexander McKay as supercargo…an officer on a merchant ship that has charge
of the cargo and its sale and purchase…and James Lewis as clerk, made
preparations to sail. The ship’s crew was twenty-three, plus an Indian
interpreter called Jack Ramsey (Lamazu). Ramsey had made two voyages along the
coast with other sailing vessels. After sixty-five days at Astoria, the Tonquin
sailed back to Baker’s Bay, but had to wait until the 5th of June before
conditions were right to cross the breakers.
Anchoring on the west side of Vancouver Island at
Nootka Sound, McKay went ashore to an Indian village. While he was gone, Indians
began arriving with sea-otter skins to trade. Captain Thorn laid out the trade
goods, but when his first offer for a trade was scorned at by one of the chiefs,
Thorn hit him across the face with a sea otter skin. The Indians onboard
gathered their furs and left the ship.
The next morning a canoe of twenty unarmed Indians were
allowed on deck. When another canoe arrived, the Watch Officer become alarmed.
He called for Captain Thorn and McKay, but by the time they reached the deck, a
large number of Indians were onboard. McKay urged Captain Thorn to clear the
deck and get under way. The Indians offered to trade on Thorn’s terms, and while
the anchor was being raised, the trade started. Once the anchor was up and the
sails set, the Captain ordered the deck cleared of Indians.
Told to leave, the Indians drew weapons from under their blankets
and killed McKay and Thorn.
Although the three Astorian clerks that kept
journals, Ross, Franchère,
and Cox, heard the story from the only survivor, Jack Ramsey (Lamazu) the details in the
three books vary to such an extent that suffice it to say all of the Tonquin
crewmen were killed, except one. The following morning, when the Indian came back
onboard, a badly wounded James Lewis managed to light the powder magazine.
Ramsey estimated two hundred Indians were killed by the explosion. The sunken hull
of the Tonquin has never been located.
While the Tonquin was still anchored in Baker’s Bay, Duncan
McDougall and David Stuart decided on Point George as the place to build Fort
Astoria. As the men started to build the fort, Alexander Ross noted:
It would have made a cynic smile to see these
pioneers, composed of traders, shopkeepers, voyageurs, and Owyhees, all
ignorant alike in this new walk of life, and the most ignorant of all, the
leader [McDougall]. Many of the party had never handled an axe before, and but
few of them knew how to use a gun, but necessity, the mother of invention soon
taught us both.
On the 5th of July 1811, the Astorians were surprised to see
David Thompson of the North West Company approaching the fort in a canoe manned
by eight Iroquois and an interpreter. McDougall gave Thompson a warm welcome,
and treated him as if an honored guest, much to the chagrin of some of the
Astorians (Ross). David Thompson stayed for fifteen days. When Thompson's party started
upriver, David Stuart, Alexander Ross, and seven men accompanied him beyond the
Once free of David Thompson, the Stuart party continued
up the Columbia. At the junction of the Snake and Columbia rivers, they saw a
British flag flying in the middle of an Indian village.
Thompson had left the flag on his way downriver, and had put a note on a post
claiming the country as British territory.
David Stuart turned up the Columbia as far as the
Okanogan River. A half-mile above the mouth of the Okanogan, Stuart establish at
trading post. Leaving Ross in charge, Stuart continued on to the headwaters of
the Okanogan. When Stuart left to return to Astoria in the spring of 1812, he
promised the She-Waps (Shuswaps) that he would return and establish a trading post on the
Thompson River. Ross and two men stayed
at the lower Okanogan post, while Stuart went back to Astoria.
Dispatches needed to be sent to Astor, and on March
22nd, 1812, John Reed, Benjamin Jones, Robert McClellan, and two Canadians left
for St. Louis. Reed carried a tin case on his back that had been made to carry
the letters and papers for Astor. While on a portage near the Dalles, the party
was attacked by Indians. Reed was knocked out from the blow of a war club, and
the tin box was taken along with his rifle and pistols. The wounded Reed
and his party returned to Astoria.
At the end of June, Robert Stuart was selected to lead
another eastbound party. Three trading parties accompanied the eastbound
Astorians upriver in the summer of 1812. David Stuart, John Clarke, and Donald
Mackenzie headed the three groups.
David Stuart continued on to establish the
upper Okanogan Post at the junction of the Thompson River and the North Fork of the
Thompson River. This post was approximately two hundred miles north of the
present Canadian border. That same winter, La Rocque of the North West Company
built a post close by the one established by Heart.
John Clarke and Ross Cox were headed for the Spokane
River to build Spokane Post,
near the North West Company’s Spokane House. Donald Mackenzie with John Reed went
south into Idaho. According to Ross, McKenzie's post was on Snake River at the
mouth of the Boise River. From there, McKenzie sent Reed and a small party, to
retrieve the cached goods left by Hunt in the fall of 1811.
David Stuart and John Clarke returned to Astoria in
June of 1813. From two-years trading at the Okanogan posts and one year at
Spokane Post, the traders brought in one hundred and forty packs of fur
These two Astorian posts produced forty more packs
of furs than William Ashley
took from the 1825 Mountain Man Rendezvous
in the Rocky Mountains, and Ashley’s furs come from his own men, nineteen
deserters from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and over twenty Taos trappers under
Etienne Provost. The 1826 Rendezvous produced one hundred and twenty-five packs
(Gowans, Dale). Based on these comparisons, the Astorians were highly successful
in their trapping ventures. The Astorians were also trading for beaver and sea
otter skins at Fort Astoria and for beaver at Wallace House in the
Willamette Valley near Salem, Oregon.
When Donald Mackenzie returned to Astoria, he informed
the partners that North West traders along the Columbia had told him that on June 18th, 1812, the United States had
declared war on Britain. The Pacific Fur Company partners held a meeting, and it was
agreed that they were not adequately supplied and could not defend
Astoria against the British...Hunt was not at this meeting; he had gone to the
Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). A resolution, signed in July 1813, dissolved the company, and
the partners agreed to abandon the area to the North West Company the following
year, until then, business was to continue as usual (Franchère).
October 7th 1813, John McTavish arrived with a party of
seventy-one North West trappers. He produced a letter from Angus Shaw, a North
West partner, to the effect that the Isaac Todd had sailed from London with
orders to size Fort Astoria. When the ship did not arrive as expected and since
McTavish and men were being supplied by the Astorians, McTavish and McDougall
started to negotiate the sell of Astoria. The transaction and price were agreed
on by the 16th of October 1813, but McTavish put off signing in hopes
the British war ship would arrive and take possession of Fort Astoria. When
McDougall threatening to cut off McTavish’s food supply from the Fort, the agreement was finally
signed on the 12th of November. According to Ross, the total payment for
everything amounted to eighty thousand five hundred dollars. However according
to Franchère, Astor claimed that McDougall had sold the entire property for
about fifty-eight thousand, minus the men’s wages; that the beaver was sold for
two dollars and the otter for fifty cents a skin, both of which were worth five-
or six-dollars in Canton, China. Astor considered the property worth
two hundred thousand dollars.
November 30th, 1813, the
HMS Raccoon arrived at Fort Astoria, and Captain William Black took formal
possession of Fort Astoria declaring it was a conquest of war. Astoria was
promptly renamed Fort George. Most of the employees joined the North West
Company, including Duncan McDougall and
The history of the Pacific Fur Company was chronicled
by five Astorians: the Journals of Robert Stuart and Wilson Price Hunt, and
books by Astorian clerks Alexander Ross, Gabriel Franchère, and Ross Cox
At the time, no expedition was better chronicled by actual participants.
Permission is given for material from this site to be
used for research papers.
Ned. Mountainsofstone.com. Afton, Wyoming. 2002.
Oregon Mormon Trail