Astoria:  Accidental Long-term Success    [1803 CE – 1846 CE]

Before I had travelled to the northwestern corner of the contiguous American States or learned much about its geography, I asked a native of those regions why there was not a substantial city at the mouth of the Columbia River.  She puzzled for a moment, and replied “I don’t know.  There’s always Astoria, but that really doesn’t count.”  It was years before I understood her comment.

It all started because Napoleon Bonaparte needed money even more acutely than normal in 1802 CE.  He operated under no illusions regarding the continued hostility of the European countries with which he had peace treaties. Additionally, he had lost control of the incredibly profitable sugar island of Saint Domingue, now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where slave revolts kept breaking out and yellow fever killed more than half the troops he sent to reestablish French authority.  Thomas Jefferson endorsed Bonaparte’s efforts to crush the rebellion in Haiti, but Jefferson’s diplomatic support and embargo did not add a sou to the French treasury.

Eventually nearly 90,000 Frenchmen died in Hispaniola before Napoleon cut his losses and agreed to recognize the independence of Haiti in return for reparations.  The whole experience soured Napoleon on adventures in the Americas.

The reparation payments to France, often late, crippled the Haitian government financially until the debt, reduced through negotiation, was finally paid off in 1947.

But Napoleon had bullied Spain into transferring to France the rights to Louisiana, then defined as the lands of the Mississippi basin bordered on the west by Mexico and the Rocky Mountains, and stretching on the north into what is now southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.  So when Robert Livingston, later joined by James Monroe, both representing of Thomas Jefferson, arrived in France with an offer to buy New Orleans, needed as a port for Midwestern American goods, Napoleon instructed his Treasury Minister François de Barbé-Marbois to offer to sell the whole of the Louisiana Territory to the United States at the bargain price of $15 million, or approximately 4 cents per acre.  Talleyrand, Foreign Minister at the time, as usual more intelligent and farsighted than the men under whom he served, protested in vain.  Despite their lack of authority and financing to do so, Monroe, Livingston, and Jefferson agreed to the purchase.

This left what is currently the Northwest of the United States and Far West of Canada, roughly the size of Western Europe, up for grabs.   The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 – 1806 demonstrated among other things that the lands could be obtained by squatters’ rights.  For the United States, this meant getting substantive numbers of settlers in place before England and Canada, Spain, or Russia did.

But the government of the United States at this time had neither the funds nor the will to sponsor development of the Pacific Northwest.  In 1808 John Jacob Astor proposed to Jefferson a possible solution.  His ships would carry European and American trade goods around Cape Horn to a city established in the Northwest, where they would deliver trade items to agents of Astor who would carry on a fur business with the aborigines.  Sea otter pelts were especially valuable in China, with markups measured by orders of magnitude.

Loaded with furs from Astor’s agents and the Russians scattered on the Alaskan coast, the ships would proceed to Canton, where they would sell their cargo for a tremendous profit, and take on loads of tea, silk, porcelain, and other fashionable Chinese luxury goods which they would deliver to London and New York for another round of impressive profits.

All this would take place with the endorsement of the Government of the United States. Astor had the resources and experience to make the project successful if anybody did. For Jefferson, the plan would establish the United States’ hold on the Pacific Northwest.  For Astor, it would funnel much of the most lucrative trade of three continents through his hands.  For both parties, it seemed a win-win proposition.

Astor began to attend to the practical details of the project.  In 1809 he sent a ship, the Enterprise, to the Pacific Northwest to verify the trade prospects there.

In 1810 he sent another ship, the Tonquin, around Cape Horn and an Overland Party up the Missouri River, over the Rockies, and down the Columbia River to rendezvous with the Tonquin at the mouth of the Columbia.  Astor recruited experienced Canadian voyageurs and traders, a number of them Scottish, using his contacts with the Northwest Company in Montreal. He offered key personnel shares in the enterprise.

Astor selected a captain for the Tonquin with similar care, choosing a U.S. naval hero, Jonathan Thorn. His bravery, patriotism, and strict adherence to orders were enough to cause Astor to overlook that fact that Thorn had never commanded a civilian ship. The crew of the Tonquin did not respond well to Thorn’s attempts to institute a military style of discipline, and the Scottish traders seemed to enjoy mocking him.

Reaching the mouth of the Columbia River overland proved extremely difficult, as the Snake River Canyon was impassible by boats or by foot.  Hostile natives, brutal weather, and hunger took a fearsome toll before Astoria was properly founded and trading could begin.

Reaching the Columbia River’s mouth by sea was made notoriously difficult by a 4 mile [6.4 km] long sandbar, standing waves up to 4 feet [1.2 m] high that resulted from Pacific currents running into the Columbia’s massive flow, and occasional swells of up to 30 feet [9 m] from storms far out to sea.

Thorn, whose relationship with the crew and traders was venomous at best, lost a whaleboat and five men he had sent to explore the bar, and abandoned a pinnace and its crew at sea after they had found a channel for the Tonquin to pass through.  Later, while exploring the coastline and trading, Thorn was killed, along with most of his shipmates, by Clayoquot raiding parties.  One shipboard survivor blew the vessel’s 9,000 pound [4,100 kg] powder magazine, killing about 200 Clayoquot warriors as well as himself.

Another ship sent to bring supplies and trade goods to the colony at Astoria in 1813 was swamped during a storm off Hawaii, and could not complete the journey.  A third got delayed in Russian Alaska and Hawaii.  A fourth ship sent by Astor made it as far as Hawaii, where its crew apparently mutinied.

In 1813 Duncan McDougall, one of Astor’s Scots, sold the American settlement and its thousands of furs to the Canadian North West Company for about 30 cents on the dollar. The North West Company was represented by another Scot, John George McTavish, who concluded the deal shortly before the British Navy arrived hoping to seize the settlement and its pelts as booty in the War of 1812.  The North West Company had advised McDougall of the impending arrival and intentions of the Royal Navy.  Some Americans left Astoria. Most of the expedition’s trappers along the Snake River were killed by aboriginal warriors.

Between 61 and 65 of Astor’s pioneers perished during the initial attempt to found the city as an outpost of the United States, out of a total of roughly 140 men who set out: a death rate of about 45%.

Astor defended his plan and blamed his subordinate leaders.  Astor went on to dominate the Rocky Mountain fur trade in the 1820s and 1830s, and hire Washington Irving to write his version of the history of the failed colony.

But the real impact of Astor’s efforts was not evident at the time.  The Return Overland Party, while making its catastrophic way back from the Columbia River to the Missouri in 1812, had stumbled upon the South Pass through the Rocky Mountains, located in what is now southwestern Wyoming.  This was the final link in a practical land route to the Pacific Northwest.  The South Pass could be managed by a loaded wagon of the era.  The Oregon Trail had been found, though it was not to be heavily used for thirty years.

In 1818 the northwest corner of North America south of Alaska was made subject to “joint occupation” by Great Britain and the United States.  The trickle of American settlers travelling the Oregon Trail in the 1830s became a stream in the 1840s.  The British Canadian fur trading posts were demographically overwhelmed by American settlers heading for the Willamette Valley.  Despite hysterical American politicians’ adoption of the slogan of “54˚40’ or fight,” Britain and the U.S. agreed on a northern boundary of 49 degrees to separate the American Oregon Territory from Canada in 1846.

Astor lived to see this establishment of America’s domain, dying in 1848 the richest man in the country with a fortune of approximately $20 million [roughly $110 billion in today’s dollars].    One of his descendants moved to England, eventually becoming titled, with a son who married a divorcée from Virginia who became the first woman elected to Parliament.  The American line, which included John Jacob Astor IV, who went down with the Titanic in 1912, ended in 2007 with the death of Brooke Astor, aged 105.

The city of Astoria is now the seat of Clatsop County, Oregon. Its population is slightly less than 9,500.  It is the third clammiest city in the United States, after Lake Charles Louisiana and Port Arthur Texas, with an average morning relative humidity of 89%.

Further Reading:

  • Washington Irving’s Astoria, or, Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains is a solid piece of partisan journalism that defined the popularly accepted view of Astor’s ventures in the Pacific Northwest for generations.
  • Peter Stark’s Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire provides a broader perspective with more details.
  • Originally published in 1849, Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail describes his experiences travelling the famed route. His observations of those he met are as interesting as his efforts to acquaint himself with the aboriginal tribes through whose lands the trail ran. It is possible to see the young historian training himself for his masterpiece, the multi-volume narrative France and England in North America, while on the journey.

The Baltic Crusades [11th Century CE – 16th Century CE]  

The Northern Crusades in the Baltic area are less well known in English speaking countries than they should be.  After all, unlike Medieval Europe’s crusades in the Middle East, the Baltic Crusades added to the territory of Christendom on a long term basis.  Furthermore, like the Crusades in the Middle East, the Baltic Crusades generated conditions that have exacerbated hostilities in the area and beyond to this day.

Some of the difficulties arose from geographically non-contiguous entities like German East Prussia, so convenient an excuse for German aggression in the build up to World War II, and the contemporary Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg, which poses long-term problems for Poland, Lithuania, and allied countries.  The Baltic Crusades and Danzig Corridor are not merely of antiquarian interest.

The Northern Crusades took place between the 11th and 16th centuries CE primarily in the lands of Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Prussia, and Lithuania,  though some targeted Orthodox communities of Russians, especially Novgorod and Pskov.

The main aggressors were Germans, with campaigns by Danish, Swedish, Polish, English, and French forces as well.  Before he usurped the English throne, Henry Bolingbroke [Henry IV] honed his combat skills in two attacks on Vilnius directed by the Teutonic Knights [1390, 1392].

Dealing with the history of the Baltic wars is made complex by efforts of West European countries to justify campaigns of naked aggression against pagans and Orthodox Christians alike as Crusades.

The Germanic Teutonic Knights portrayed their efforts in Baltic areas as selfless altruistic campaigns to defend and expand Christendom.  To take such protestations at face value in regards to their efforts in the 13th century would be naïve.  To do so for their actions after Lithuania converted to Catholicism in 1386 stretches credulity beyond reason; to do so after their crushing defeat at Tannenberg [Grunwald] in 1410 is risible.

The Swedes recast many of their expansionist efforts against Christian Russians as crusades, with or without Papal blessings, in fits of Romanticized pseudo-history writing during the 19th century.

Originally the Baltic Crusades were justified as necessary to protect Christian missionaries and prevent morally repugnant pagan practices such as persecution of Christian converts by shamans, infanticide, polygamy, worship of idols, and human sacrifice.    By 1300 these goals had been achieved in the Baltic lands.  The attacks continued.

Protection of missionaries remained a staple public justification of European military aggression for centuries afterwards, in geographies as diverse as the Americas, Africa, and China.  French and Germans alike claimed their late imperialism in China was a response to the persecution of missionaries [1899 -1901].

Medieval Christian merchants in the Baltic areas also wanted crusaders to provide protection against local pirates and access to markets on the Baltic coast and major rivers of the region.

Military leaders found that designating their invasions of and reprisals in Baltic lands as Crusades was generally helpful in their recruitment drives and formation of alliances as they expanded their territories at the expense of native tribes and kingdoms.

If the Pope blessed your invasion and the war went your way, you could benefit monetarily from instituting or restructuring the Church in conquered territories.

The non-pecuniary results could also be dramatic, as the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 demonstrated. Pope Alexander II gave approval to William’s invasion, which enabled the Normans to replace English churchmen with Norman clergy. One unintended result was the near disappearance of Old English as a written language.  The spoken language evolved quickly without the restraint of literacy, morphing from something close to Old German into the promiscuous tongue to which Chaucer and Shakespeare gave voice.

Similar to the way that proximity to Roman military culture fostered the development of Gothic confederations in the 4th and 5th centuries CE, the Baltic Crusaders prompted formation of the first Lithuanian kingdom in 1251.

In 1253 the King of Lithuania, Mindaugus, and his wife were baptized as Christians.  If Mindaugus thought this would halt the Crusader’s attacks, he was soon disabused of the notion.  Lithuania officially became a Christian nation in 1386, when its Grand Duke Jogaila married 11 year old Queen Jadwiga of Poland.

The Teutonic Knights kept attacking until they were decisively defeated at the Battle of Tannenberg [Grunwald] in 1410.  More destructive to the ethnically and religiously diverse state of Lithuania in the long run was Jogaila’s choice of the Catholic brand of Christianity, which alienated many of his Orthodox subjects.

Previously the collapse of Kievan Rus as a result of Mongolian and Polish assaults led many Russians to turn to Lithuania for protection. By the middle of the 14th century, Lithuania had become the largest state in Europe, briefly reaching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Despite its union with Poland in 1569, creating a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that lasted more than two centuries, neighboring countries dismantled the Lithuanian state piece by piece.  This process, which was complete by 1795, saw Russia annexing most of Lithuania’s territory.

Luther and the Reformation led to the end of the Teutonic Knights’ power.  In 1525 Grand Master Albert von Brandenburg declared himself a Protestant, dissolved the Order, and made its lands a Polish duchy.

The Livonian Knights, an offshoot organization, survived only to be attacked by Russia, prompting Denmark and Sweden to join in the fighting.  After a decisive defeat by Moscow at the Battle of Ergeme in 1560, in 1561 the Livonian Master declared his Lutheranism, and converted land held by the Order in Semigallia and Courland into a hereditary duchy for his family.  Most of the remaining land was taken by Lithuania, with Denmark and Sweden grabbing portions of northern Estonia.

The end of the Northern Crusades did not bring peace to the Baltic region.


Further Reading:

  • Eric Christiansen’s The Northern Crusades details the Medieval attempts at military Christianization and domination of the Latvians, Lithuanians, Finns, Estonians, Prussians, and other inhabitants of the Baltic region. It is the only English language narrative currently in print to provide a comprehensive overview. On the positive side the narrative is clear and generally judicious; on the negative side, the lack of properly scaled detailed maps is a frequent irritation.
  • William Urban has a number of books that emphasize the German efforts, including The Baltic Crusade and The Teutonic Knights: A Military History, as well as monographs on the Samogitian, Livonian, and Prussian crusades. His Dithmarschen, A Medieval Peasant Republic is a useful reminder that resistance to feudal tyranny was more widespread and effective than is sometimes thought.
  • C. Rowell’s Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire within East-Central Europe, 1295 – 1345 provides a much needed and all too seldom presented pagan perspective.
  • Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky is a non-historical propaganda thriller that presents a Russian victory over fancifully imagined Teutonic knights. It bears a slight resemblance to a 13th century invasion of Novgorod and a Slavic victory fought on the frozen surface of Lake Peipus.

 Food Poisoning:  Then and Now  [18th Century CE to the Present]

A recently savored loaf of onion rye bread brought to mind Mary Kilbourne Matossian’s Poisons of the Past:  Molds, Epidemics, and History, which argued that food poisoning, especially from ergot growth on damp rye, influenced mass outbreaks of delusion, violence, and religious mania more than was previously generally thought.

Even the Great Awakening that convulsed Colonial American religious and social practices from the 1730s to the 1750s may well have owed something of its fervor to the effects of the compounds associated with grain molds.

Some American historians tried to dismiss Matossian’s argument out of hand without considering the evidence:  they had roughly the same credibility as those who denied Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings because of their belief that Jefferson was more interested in books and architecture than women, even after DNA analysis made their position untenable.

Certainly humanity has shown itself prone to ingest dangerous substances, willingly or unknowingly, ranging from soma quaffing Indo-Europeans, through Romans who systemically poisoned themselves with lead pipes and tableware, and not stopping with the Celts whom Posidonius describes drinking undiluted the wine Greeks added to their water as a disinfectant.

Ergot produces a wide range of mind altering chemicals, some related to LSD.  Its psychotropic properties were well known to medical and recreational users by at least the 19th century, as chronicles of the 1881 – 1884 Greely expedition to Greenland make clear:  the medical officer whiled away idle snowbound hours with the aid of a carefully husbanded supply of ergot, though its relationship to his probable complicity in acts of cannibalism was never conclusively demonstrated.  The carefully excised lumps of flesh removed beneath neat flaps of the corpses’ skin, however, suggest an uncommon surgical skill.

Some British reviewers attacked Matossian’s book with a peculiar virulence.  One critic savaged her for a supposed lack of notes and bibliographical references, evidently not noticing the 25 pages of citations before the index in addition to the sources cited with each table in the text.  It was not the proudest moment in the history of English scholarship.

The introduction of the potato as a basic starch for the poor in Europe and progressive displacement of rye bread by wheat bread seems to have broken the cycle of periods of mass hysteria and jacqueries following periods of unusually damp weather conducive to ergot growth detailed in Matossian’s book.

But I have little doubt future historians will look at the levels of sugar, salt, and fat in the mass produced and highly processed food of our days, and our epidemics of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiac disease, and wonder at our ability to blithely poison ourselves.


Further reading: 

  • Matossian discusses the effects of eating spoiled food in Poisons of the Past.
  • A brief discussion of ergot with reference to the Greely expedition can be found in Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail.