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%.
- 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.