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Bloody Trek To Empire

July 2024
14min read

Astoria was the key to the entire Northwest, but half the expedition was led by a “maniac” and the rest were trapped in Hell’s Canyon

Oregon commemorates in 1959 the one hundreth anniversary of its admission as a state of the Union. Oregon today contains the country’s greatest reserve of standing timber and produces far more lumber than any other state. Oregon was first in the nation to provide for election of United States senators by popular vote, and it pioneered in introducing to the New World such governmental reforms as the initiative, referendum, and recall.

Yet the earliest attempt of white men to found a permanent settlement on this frontier of majestic solitudes and swift rivers was attended by death, destruction, and massacre. Lives and dollars were strewn recklessly across a vast expanse of the globe—from Manhattan Island to the distant island of Oahu. Almost half the participants in this effort were to perish, some on spray-spattered ocean reefs and others in the darkness of mile-deep mountain chasms. The founder of one of America’s great fortunes was dealt a stunning financial setback, and the U.S. Navy suffered a blow to pride and prestige which was not forgotten for decades.

And yet, despite all the suffering and agony and failure, no other thrust westward was so important to American sovereignty over the immense Columbia River basin. Although a larger portion of its personnel died on land and sea than during any other expedition to the Pacific Coast, the undertaking proved to be the anchoring claim to Oregon; so President James K. Polk was to declare at the time of the historic international crisis of “Fifty-four forty or fight” more than a generation later.

It all started bravely enough as the bark Tonquin sailed from New York Harbor in the late summer of 1810. The frigate Constitution , Old Ironsides herself, escorted the Tonquin to the open sea.

With the Tonquin went the hopes of the new nation along the Atlantic seaboard. Lewis and Clark had returned from the western solitudes only four years before. Their startling reports of limitless forests and prairie had been avidly read, but behind them the valiant explorers left no outpost symbolizing American rights to the region. Now the spectacularly successful German-born merchant, John Jacob Astor, had organized the Pacific Fur Company to build a settlement at the mouth of the legendary Columbia River.

This would be the first American colony on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, and Astor had no doubt it would be the beginning of a fabulous empire. Were not the creeks and marshes of the West alive with beaver? Beaver pelts were the standard symbol of wealth. Astor owned half the 100 shares of stock in the company, and guaranteed its expenses up to $400,000. His partners divided ownership of the other fifty shares. One of the principal partners, Alexander McKay, who had been to the Arctic with the intrepid Sir Alexander Mackenzie, sailed in the Tonquin . Another, a gentle and pious New Jersey-born businessman named Wilson Price Hunt, was to lead an expedition overland across the continent to occupy the fort which the Tonquin ’s passengers and crew would erect.

The enterprise had the full blessing of the American government. On orders of President Madison himself, the Navy furloughed Lieutenant Jonathan Thorn to take command of the Tonquin . Thorn had been cited by Stephen Decatur for gallantry under fire at Tripoli. He was considered one of the Navy’s most promising junior officers. But he had a jaw of granite and a stubborn arrogance, and he tried to bring to a trading vessel the discipline of a warship.

The top royals of the Constitution had barely disappeared over the horizon when those aboard the Tonquin learned what manner of man their captain was. Thorn ordered all lights doused by eight o’clock; he cursed the crew for chanting a ditty and told McKay he considered him “the most worthless human who ever broke a sea biscuit” because he demurred at some of the ship’s fare.

“I fear we are in the hands of a maniac,” McKay wrote that night in his journal by the flicker of a candle lit surreptitiously beside his bunk.

This fear was confirmed when the Tonquin replenished its supply of fresh water at the bleak Falkland Islands, off the coast of South America. Five of McKay’s business associates were a few minutes late getting back to the beach; so Thorn lifted anchor without them. The five, sure they were to be left behind to perish as castaways, rowed frantically after the Tonquin for three hours. Thorn obstinately refused to stop, even when one of Astor’s younger partners, Robert Stuart, threatened him with a brace of pistols. Later Thorn wrote Astor that only the opportune waning of the wind, which left the Tonquin becalmed, enabled the five wretched men to overtake the bark. They clambered up her sides to the deck, where they lay gasping and vomiting. This experience terrified all on board.

The Tonquin rounded Cape Horn and scudded northward with no civility or conversation between Thorn and the members of the Pacific Fur Company. On the island of Oahu in the Mawaiians, the Captain sneered at the display of Highland plaids and kilts which McKay and his Scottish aides put on for the admiring native girls.

And then at last, on March 22, 1811, half a year after clearing New York, this cargo of tensions and rivalries stood off the Columbia’s surging mouth. There on that timbered shore, with distant snowcapped mountains framing the scene, was to be laid the cornerstone of Astor’s Northwest empire.

But where was the course across the tossing bar? Thorn commanded Ebenezer Fox, the first mate, to put out in a whaleboat to find the passage into the river. The captain arbitrarily ordered him to man the boat with French-Canadian voyageurs instead of with sailors from the crew. The voyageurs had been brought along to paddle canoes on riffled mountain streams. They knew nothing of this churning maelstrom of salt water. Fox appealed to McKay over the Captain’s order. “I am to be sent off,” protested the mate, “without seamen, in boisterous weather, and on the most perilous of missions.”

When McKay remonstrated with him, Thorn thundered defiance. “I command here!” he shouted. “Mr. Fox, do not be a coward. Put off!”

As the whaleboat disappeared into the gloom, the mate looked up once again at the Captain in silent dismay. The boat with its five occupants breasted the heavy breakers and slid sideways over the long spit. It bobbed violently like a log in a waterfall. Then the boat was seen no more. The waves had swallowed it. The next day two Hawaiian oarsmen, far from the sunny homeland where they had been recruited by Captain Thorn, also drowned attempting to locate the elusive passage.

When the Tonquin finally was anchored in a deep bay of the Columbia, eight men had perished on the bar. To Alexander McKay it was an ominous start. Lewis and Clark had crossed the whole continent and returned with the loss of only one man.

Now began the construction of Fort Astoria, the first settlement ever built by Americans on the great ocean they would one day dominate in peace and in war. It was an agonizing task. Two months passed before a single acre of ground was cleared. Tools were crude and inadequate. Three men were killed by marauding Indians, and three more painfully injured by falling fir trees. Through an incredible oversight. Astor had not included a doctor in the expedition. The men bandaged their own wounds and cuts with unsanitary poultices. Blood poisoning attained alarming proportions.

Thorn, waiting impatiently aboard the Tonquin , wanted to sail northward along the coast on a trading voyage. Perhaps he could pick up some valuable furs for Mr. Astor. McKay decided to accompany the ship, leaving behind a small company at Astoria. Just before the Tonquin braved the bar again, Thorn had an angry quarrel with the only surviving mate and banished him to shore. “If you ever see us again, it will be a miracle,” the despondent McKay told his friends at Astoria.

The miracle did not occur. Instead, there befell the Tonquin a disaster which today, nearly a century and a half later, still is whispered around the council fires of coastal tribes from Alaska to the California border. Thorn put in at Clayoquot Sound and commenced trading with the Salish Indians. Soon he had brutally struck a chief in the face with an otter pelt for demanding what Thorn considered a hard bargain. A grim surliness spread over the Indians, who swarmed aboard the Tonquin in ever-increasing numbers. McKay became frightened. He called to the Captain’s attention a stern sentence in the instructions from Mr. Astor:

“Under no circumstances admit more than a few natives on the ship at a time.”

Thorn brushed aside the warning. He who had bested the Tripoli pirates could take care of these fish-eating savages. The Indians began trading for knives rather than for beads and blankets. This, too, alarmed Alexander McKay, but he had no time to communicate his fears to the Captain. At a high, shrill, sudden shout from Shewish, the son of a chief, the Indians fell on the outnumbered white men with their new knives and with clubs they had concealed in bundles of furs.

McKay was first to die. An Indian pushed him over the rail into a war canoe, where waiting squaws cruelly killed him with their cooking utensils. The imperious Thorn, who had brought doom to himself and his vessel, fought ferociously in his final few moments of life. This, at last, was the task for which the great Commodore Decatur had recommended him. He was no merchant captain; he was a fighting man of the U.S. Navy. When Thorn went down beneath a torrent of brown bodies, the deck around him was strewn with dead Indians. One of the victims, the Captain’s clasp-knife buried in his chest, was Shewish. So the man who had planned the massacre did not live to share in the loot.

It was an unequal battle. Soon Indians alone stood on the Tonquin ’s bloody deck. The natives quit the ship at sundown, intending to return the next day to claim the greatest prize ever won by any tribe. Did not the vessel bulge with trade goods? Salish warriors would possess guns without number. They would rule all the tribes of the North. But in the bowels of the Tonquin one desperately wounded white man still lived. Long afterward, the remnant of the Tonquin ’s company, left behind at Astoria, decided from vague descriptions of him that this man was James Lewis, the ship’s quiet and inconspicuous clerk.∗

∗Among historians there is still some discussion as to the identity of the wounded crewman. Some say he may have been Stephen Weekes, the Tonquin ’s armorer.

At dawn Lewis dragged himself to the rail and motioned in friendly fashion for the Indians to come aboard. Then he staggered back down the companionway. The savages hesitated. They had been sure all the white men were dead. But the temptation of guns and trinkets was too great. They raced up the sides of the Tonquin . In an hour the ship was covered with Indians, who crowded shoulder to shoulder, snatching booty from each other’s hands.

Suddenly, with a dreadful shiver, the 290-ton Tonquin blew up. The clerk, in a final sacrificial act, had fired the magazine. The explosion was deafening. A great column of smoke rose above the bay. A few fragments of timber, floating in the red-stained water, were mute reminders of a millionaire’s dream of empire and an Indian tribe’s plot for conquest. The mutilated bodies of natives were washed upon the shore for a fortnight. The tribe along the waters of Clayoquot never recovered from the terrible revenge taken by the ship’s clerk. It disappeared almost as completely as had the shattered Tonquin .

Months passed and the isolated settlement at Astoria heard no word of the ship on which they depended for contact with the distant world of cities and supplies and manufacturing. Rumors drifted along the wooded seacoast of a great and searing holocaust that involved a white man’s vessel. Indian campfire rumors were notoriously unreliable, but McKay’s interpreter, one Kasiascall, had been on shore at Clayoquot Sound when the Tonquin ’s magazine was fired. Being a native, he had survived the massacre. Only whites had been slaughtered aboard ship. Eventually, it was Kasiascall who brought to the lonely outpost of the Pacific Fur Company authentic news of what had befallen Mr. Astor’s proud bark.

The Astorians realized they were a solitary outpost in a vast wilderness, many miles from other white men and nearly a continent removed from the country whose flag of seventeen stars flew over their log stockade. Of the Tonquin ’s original company of 53 men, 37 were dead. Gravest of all, one of the missing was the canny Scotsman McKay, the veteran of the Arctic who had been selected by Astor to found the Pacific Fur Company’s trade in skins and metals. Gone, too, were most of the goods and supplies, for Captain Thorn had neglected to unload cargo before sailing the Tonquin off to its destruction.

Sole succor for the only American settlement on the world’s greatest ocean now rested with the Astor overland party led by Wilson Price Hunt.

But it was a question who needed help the more—the beleaguered men at Astoria or the starving ragamuffins of the overland expedition, chewing on the soles of their moccasins in the 6,000-foot abyss of the Snake River.

To avoid the hostile Blackfeet, Hunt had led his party of 64 on a route south of that advised by Lewis and Clark. On this trek Hunt had crossed the famous South Pass over the Rocky Mountains, some day to be followed by the Oregon Trail and charted by the Union Pacific Railroad. But on the headwaters of the Snake River, west of the Continental Divide, the irredeemable blunder was made.

The voyageurs , tired of razor-backed horses and trudging on foot, wanted to journey to the Columbia by water. This was their natural element. They insisted on discarding their mounts and building long canoes. Hunt had grave doubts, but the New Jersey merchant lacked the implacable will of the dead mariner, Jonathan Thorn. He reluctantly assented to the plan. They turned over their horses to a Shoshone tribe and embarked in fifteen canoes.

It was a mistake from the beginning. They had been on the Snake only two days in the autumn of 1811 when they bitterly regretted abandoning their horses. The river commenced to brawl and fret. It snatched at the boats with white-capped talons. One of the canoes capsized and two men were swept away in the foam. “ La maudite rivière enragée! ” it was called by the French-Canadians: “The accursed mad river.”

The hills along the Snake stiffened into cliffs. Above the cliffs loomed white mountains with pinnacled summits. Now the expedition was in a prison of granite and lava rock. Return upstream was impossible. The river slanted through the gorge like a thing alive. Snow began to fall, plugging the side canyons which opened on the Snake. Precipices almost a mile high frowned down on the dark moat. This was Hell’s Canyon, deepest of all chasms on the continent, although the Argonauts could not know it at the time. No game fell to their rifles. It was a winter of famine, and they boiled their buckskin footgear and drank the fetid broth. Two more voyageurs were swallowed up by rapids and another went mad.

That more of the members of the party did not crumple may have been due, in Hunt’s opinion, to a remarkable Indian woman. The only female on this prodigious trek, she was the willowy Iowa wife of the half-breed interpreter, Pierre Dorion. With her were their two small sons. After ten days in the gloomy canyon with only a few crumbs of food apiece, the men endured their hunger impassively because this dark young Indian woman with long braids and lithe legs had uttered no word of complaint. “She is as brave as any among our group,” Hunt confided in his notes.

But escape from the abyss they must. To remain in its depths meant starvation or death in the brawling river. It took three desperate attempts to find a way over the slippery crags. And when at last, half-frozen and exhausted, they looked down on Hell’s Canyon, they had left behind in the yawning crevice practically all their trade goods, weapons, and tools. With barely enough strength to drag themselves up that terrible perpendicular mile, they had dumped their employer’s loads before they reached the first rim. But Dorion’s squaw had a cargo she could not jettison. Up the canyon wall she carried her two-year-old son and helped along the four-year-old by the hand.

Winter shrouded the land and still there was no food. Deer had fled the region, and fish did not rise to the lures the men desperately dropped through the ice. Hunt decided that in small parties they had a better chance of finding game. So they scattered in this uncharted wilderness, hoping to meet at the Columbia’s distant mouth.

One by one, in January and February, 1812, the members of the overland party tottered into the log outpost at Astoria. Some were so emaciated their friends could not recognize them. Now the remnants of the two shattered expeditions struggled to salvage something from their disasters on land and sea. A small schooner was built of fir timbers, the first ever launched on the Pacific Coast. It was named Dolly for the wife of John Jacob Astor. They sailed up the Columbia and trudged into the back country. Small trading posts were established on the sites of such present cities as Boise, Salem, and Spokane.

One of these expeditions brought a grim ordeal to Dorion’s squaw. Her party was attacked on the trail by Snake hostiles. She and the children escaped only because they were in camp at the time. Her husband perished with the nine white men.

Somehow, the slim squaw and the two little boys survived in a Wallowa Mountain defile for three months. She built a lean-to of pine boughs and butchered a horse stolen from the Indians. She crept out only at night to avoid the murderous Snakes. Many times she watched the slayers of her husband filing past to hunt. But her woodcraft exceeded theirs. Her hiding place was not found. When spring unlocked the fastnesses, she and the children picked their way silently down the tumbling creeks and so eventually came to the domain of the friendly Walla Walla tribe.

Wilson Price Hunt, eager to trade with the far-off Russians, had gone northward along the mountainous coast to New Archangel and was entertained by the czar’s high-living emissary, Lord Baranof. The horrified American merchant saw Indians wilt at the stake under the knout and their half-naked women fondled in the barbaric court which the Russian governor maintained. Hunt was shocked by the cruelty of the Russians, but impressed by the riches of the land of which New Archangel was the capital. He referred to it as Alakh-Skhah ; today we know it as Alaska.

Despite the lack of trade goods, skins were piling up in the crude warehouses at Astoria. The Astorians looked at them by lantern light—glistening bales of wealth. Perhaps, after all the tragic reverses, the Pacific Fur Company might yet succeed. Astor, learning of the loss of the Tonquin a year after its destruction, had not been dismayed. “Would you have me weep for what I cannot help?” he thundered to a friend. The Navy Department had been more stunned than the owner of the lost vessel. It could not believe the follies committed by Jonathan Thorn, protégé of the illustrious Commodore Decatur.

But further misfortunes were still to occur. England and the United States went to war in 1812. British ships of the line now cut off the long sea lanes to Astoria. John Jacob Astor, however, was one to take a gamble. He sent out a speedy, full-rigged merchantman, the Lark . Ironically, the Lark ran the British naval blockade, but capsized in a hurricane off an island in the Hawaiians. Five more men lost their lives in this disaster.

With the sinking of the Lark , Astoria was without supplies or communication with the nation to which it owed allegiance. It also was at the mercy of the British Northwest Fur Company, whose factors in 1813 forced Astor’s representative virtually at gun point to sell $200,000 worth of furs for less than $80,500. Then his Majesty’s ship Raccoon anchored at Astoria, the Stars and Stripes came down, and the Union Jack went up. Astoria was renamed Fort George.

Captain William Black of the Raccoon looked at the pitiful collection of crumbling log buildings where Americans had founded their first settlement on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. “Is this,” he exclaimed, “the great Fort Astoria I have heard so much of around the world? Good God, I could batter it down with a four-pounder in two hours!”

Astoria was lost and the Pacific Fur Company abandoned. The death of 65 men, prolonged suffering on the part of many more, and the expenditure of a vast amount of money seemed to have arrived only at a dead end. But in his Virginia home, Monticello, Thomas Jefferson gazed at the uncompleted map of the continent. British possession, he felt, was not to be permanent. The former President wrote reassuringly to John Jacob Astor:

“I considered, as a great public acquisition, the commencement of a settlement on that point of the western coast of America, and looked forward with gratification to the time when its descendants should have spread themselves through the whole length of that coast, covering it with free and independent Americans. …”

So into the Treaty of Ghent, which concluded the abortive War of 1812, was written a clause which in effect restored Astoria to the sovereignty of the United States. On a bright August afternoon in 1818 the American sloop of war Ontario , Captain James Biddle commanding, stood off the green headlands which so many adventurous men had died to win. In the Captain’s leather case were instructions from President James Monroe “to assert the claim of the United States to the adjacent country and especially to reoccupy Astoria, or Fort George.”

This time it was to be Astoria permanently, and this time the American flag was there to stay. It snapped brightly at the halyards, while the marines from off the Ontario came to a salute. The notes of the bugle echoed back from the wooded hills. Some day that flag would have three new stars—for Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, states carved out of a domain made secure for America by the Argonauts who voyaged through dark gorges or manned the luckless Tonquin .


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