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       John Jacob Astor - Pacific Fur Company 

INTRODUCTION: Biography of John Astor.

John Astor was born in Germany and emigrated to America with his parents. He lived in the east and followed the business of trading furs. He was the first to build a fort in Oregon, Fort Astoria, and founded the first town, Astoria, Oregon.

John Jacob Astor and the Pacific Fur Company had a profound effect on America’s westward expansion. The accomplishments of the Astorians led to the realization of Manifest Destiny for several hundred thousand American pioneers that traveled the Mormon Trail to Utah, the California Trail to the gold fields, and the Oregon Trail to the Oregon Country

Many historians write that Astor's attempt to establish a trading empire on the Pacific Coast was a dismal failure. In one sense it was, but look at what the Pacific Fur Company and the Astorians accomplished. Within in a two year period, the Astorians established trading posts on the Columbia, Willamette, Okanogan, Spokane, and Snake rivers, and another Astorian, Robert Stuart traveled over South Pass on most of what would become the Oregon Trail. These fur trading posts, especially Okanogan, and the Oregon Trail were major factors in the boundary between the United States and Canada being at the forty-ninth parallel, instead of at the Columbia River as the British had insisted. There is no question that despite the wrong people in key roles, i.e. Jonathan Thorn, Wilson Price Hunt, Duncan McDougall, the Astorians played a major role in helping to establish claims for what would be the geographical outline of the United States.

The first non-missionary wife and the first white children traveled the Oregon Trail in 1840. This was the family of Joel Walker, the brother of mountain man Joseph Walker (Lavender). The Oregon Trail pioneered by the eastbound Astorians opened up a new way of life for a great many Americans. By the same token, the Oregon Trail sounded the death knell for a great many Native Americans. The first settlers over South Pass on the Oregon Trail signaled the end for millions of buffalo and the Plains Indians...forty-six years after Joel Walker's family traveled the Oregon Trail the last buffalo hunt was held in the Judith Valley (Ewers), and the vast majority of Plains Indians were on reservations.

Another point that should be brought out is that some historians have stated that Astor tried to suppress the information on South Pass and the Oregon Trail. This article appeared in the Missouri Gazette, in June 1813, outlining the journey of Stuart and an account of Hunt's journey from an interview with Ramsey Crooks.

...By information received from these gentlemen, it appears that a journey across the continent of North America might be performed with a waggon, there being no obstruction in the whole route that any person would dare to call a mountain, in addition to its being much the most direct and short one to go from this place to the mouth of the Columbia river....

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.

The 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 neglected (Ronda). 

“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 Western Department 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 United States.

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.

The Tonquin  

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 waves.

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 boat.

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 eight men.

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 Astoria.

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.

Fort Astoria:

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 Dalles.

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 (Franchère).

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 Donald Mackenzie.

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.

Citation: Eddins, Ned. Afton, Wyoming. 2002.                                                                                 

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