The Columbia River: Its History, Its Myths, Its Scenery, Its Commerce/Part 1/Chapter 5
The Fur-Traders, their Bateaux, and their Stations
AS the reader will doubtless already have discovered, we are presenting the history of the River topically rather than chronologically. The various great stages of progress, discovery by sea, discovery by land, fur-trade, Indian wars, missionary undertakings, international contests, beginnings of steamboat navigation, and settlement, overlap each other, and each topic compels us in a measure to anticipate its successors. This is especially true of the topic treated of in this chapter.
The fur-trade was an important factor in the eras of discovery both by land and by sea, in the Indian wars and in the era of settlement, while the strife of nations for the possession of the land of Oregon is almost a history of the fur companies and their international policies. Remembering this synthetic nature of these features of our history, we shall endeavour, with as little repetition as possible, to present a coherent picture of that great era of the fur-traders.
Without doubt one of the earliest uses to which man has put the lower animals is that of clothing his body in their captured skins. The acquisition of furs has been a special feature of the colder climes. It is obviously also a feature of discovery and conquest, for it is the wilderness only which yields any considerable number of fur-producing animals. Thus navigation, commerce, discovery, invention, economics, finally international wars and policies, have been rooted to a large degree in this primal business. The fur-hunters have held the hunters of gold and precious stones and spicery a close race in the rank of world movers. Indeed it may well be questioned whether results of greater moment to humanity have not proceeded from the quest for furs than from that for gold.
The Spaniards expended their energies in the gold and silver hunt in Mexico and Peru and annihilated the races of those lands in their pitiless rapacity. The other great exploring nations of the sixteenth century, especially the French, while not indifferent to the possibility of encountering the precious metals, found more certain and permanent results in the less feverish and dazzling pursuit of the wild animals of the wilderness. Neither the hunters for gold nor those for peltries were the state-builders and home-builders without whom our American Union would not exist. But they were the avant-couriers of both. Our land of Oregon has had the peculiar fortune of being opened by both for both.
China furnished the most active and convenient market for furs to those who secured their supplies on the Pacific Coast of North America. The Russians were the first Europeans to enter the Chinese market, and they began their voyages as early as 1741.
The sea-otter seems to have had its chief habitat on the Pacific shore from Oregon to Alaska, and, as the ships of all nations began to crowd upon the location of the fabled Strait of Anian, the trade with the natives for these precious furs became constantly augmented, until the curious and interesting creatures, so fatally attractive, were added to the long list of "lower creatures" whom the greed of the "higher creatures" has exterminated. A book by Coxe published in London in 1787 first made known to the English-speaking people the rich profits of the Russians from the transportation of the sea-otter skins to China. He instanced a case of a profit of $50,000 from a single cargo. It had, however, been known in 1785 from the report of the voyage of Captain Cook that the North-west Coast of America contained a new source of wealth from the accumulation of these furs by the Indians and their eager desire to trade them for trinkets and implements of civilised manufacture.
The first American to comprehend the greatness of the fur-trade on the North-west Coast of the Pacific, both as a means of profit to himself and as a patriotic impulse to direct his own nation into the channels of westward expansion, was John Ledyard. Thomas Jefferson and John Paul Jones became deeply interested in Ledyard's extravagant hopes of future wealth and glory, but all his efforts came to naught, and in 1788 this brilliant adventurer, just on the eve of setting out to explore the interior of Africa, suddenly put an end to his own life at Cairo, Egypt. Ledyard should always be remembered by his countrymen, for, though his glowing visions were unfulfilled, he was an important link in the great chain which bound Oregon to our own country.
During these same years, several Englishmen, already noted in the chapter on discovery, Portlock, Dixon, Hanna, Barclay, and Meares, were actively engaged in the fur-trade, while the voyages of La Pérouse and Marchand carried the flag of France on the same quest, and Spain's once illustrious emblem of world dominion was borne by Quadra, Valdes, Galiano, Fidalgo, Quimper, Caamano, and several others. While these explorers all were impelled in part by national pride and diplomacy, the hope of sharing the spoils of the sea-otter droves was the chief lure to the tempestuous seas of the North Pacific.
In Bullfinch's Oregon and El Dorado is a very interesting narration of the inception of the American part in the fur-trade of Oregon. In a building known as the Coolidge Building in Boston a company were gathered together in 1787 discussing the reports, then first made public, of Cook's voyages. Mr. Joseph Barrell, a rich merchant of Boston, was much impressed with Cook's account of the chances of barter with the Indians for furs and the disposal of them in China for yet more profitable cargoes of teas, silks, and other characteristic commodities of that land. As a result of this conference, a company was formed in Boston to prosecute such enterprise, the members of the company, Messrs. Barrell, Brown, Bulfinch, Darby, Hatch, and Pintard, being among the foremost of the business men in Boston in that good year of the creation of the American Constitution.
The enterprising Yankees rapidly drew to the front, so that during the years from 1790 to 1818, the records show one hundred and eight American vessels regularly engaged in the business, while only twenty-two English, with a few Portuguese and French are found. It should, of course be remembered that the tremendous strife of the Napoleonic Wars was engrossing the attention of European nations during that time. So well known did the Boston navigators become in that period that the common name of Americans used by the Oregon Indians was "Bostons." Robert Gray, the discoverer of the Columbia River, was fitted out by Bulfinch and others of the first Boston Company. During the period under consideration the profits of the traffic were usually very great, though variable, sometimes actual losses being incurred, while disaster from wreck, storm, scurvy, and murderous Indians was frequent. During the two years, 1786 and 1787, if Dixon is to be followed, there were sold in Canton five thousand eight hundred sea-otter hides for $160,700. Swan figures that with the four years ending with 1802, forty-eight thousand five hundred skins were sold. Sturgis states that he knew a capital of $50,000 to yield a gross income of $284,000. He relates that he had collected as high as six thousand fine skins in a single voyage and once secured five hundred and sixty of the best quality in one day. The Indians, however, learned to become very expert traders, and as they discovered the eagerness with which the whites sought their furs, they raised the price. They became, moreover, very capricious and unreliable, so that the phenomenal profits could no longer be obtained.
The stage of the history of the fur-trade of which we have thus far spoken may be called its first era of a free-for-all rush to the new seas, with no vast moneyed interests in any position of leadership. But commercial conditions were already in existence which were bound to reverse the situation.
Great operators, gigantic companies, foreshadowings of the great trusts of the present, with monopolistic aims, were seeking the ear of the British Government, while enterprises, larger, though not so monopolistic, were rapidly forming in the United States. The great monopolies of Europe had indeed existed long prior to the period of the Oregon fur-traders. As far back as the beginning of the sixteenth century, De Monts, Pontgrave, Champlain, and other great French explorers had secured monopolies on the fur-trade from Louis XIII. and his minister, Richelieu. Later La Salle, Hennepin, D'Iberville, and others had the same advantages. The St. Lawrence, the Great Lakes, and the upper Mississippi were the great "preserve" of these great concessionaires. The English and their American Colonists set themselves in battle array against the monopolistic Bourbon methods of handling the vast domain which the genius and enterprise of De Monts and Champlain had won for France, with the result that upon the heights of Abraham the Fleur-de-Lis was lowered before the Cross of St. George, and North America became English instead of Gallic, and one of the world's milestones was set for good. Then by one of those beautiful ironies of history which baffle all prescience, victorious Britain violated the principles of her own conquest and adopted the methods of Bourbon tyranny and monopoly, with the result that another milestone was set on the highway of liberty and the new continent became American instead of European.
But out of the struggles of that century, French, English, and American, out of the final distribution of territory, by which England retained Canada and with it a large French and Indian population, mingled with English and Scotch,—out of these curious comminglings, economic, commercial, political, religious, and ethnic, grew the great English fur companies, whose history was largely wrought out on the shores of the Columbia, and from whose juxtaposition with the American State-builder the romance and epic grandeur of the history of the River largely comes.
Many enterprises were started by the French and English in the seventeenth century, but the Hudson's Bay Company became the Goliath of them all. The first charter of this gigantic organisation was granted in 1670 by Charles II. to Prince Rupert and seventeen others, with a capital stock of ten thousand five hundred pounds. From this small beginning, the profits were so great that, notwithstanding the loss of two hundred thousand pounds from the French wars during the latter part of the century, the Company declared dividends of from twenty-five to fifty per cent.
The field of operations was gradually extended from the south-eastern regions contiguous to Hudson's Bay until it embraced the vast and dreary expanses of snowy prairie traversed by the Saskatchewan, the Athabasca, the Peace, and finally the Mackenzie. Many of the greatest expeditions by land under British auspices which resulted in great geographical discoveries were primarily designed for the expansion of the fur-trade.
Just at the critical moment, both for the great Canadian Fur Company, as well as for discovery and acquisition in the region of the Columbia, a most important and remarkable champion entered the lists. This was the North-west Fur Company of Montreal. It was one of the legitimate consequences of the treaty of Paris in 1763, ceding Canada to Great Britain. The French in Canada became British subjects by that treaty, and many of them had extensive interests as well as experience in the fur business. Furthermore a number of Scotchmen of great enterprise and intelligence betook themselves to Canada, eager to partake of the boundless opportunities offered by the new shuffle of the cards. These Scotchmen and Frenchmen became natural partners in the foundation of enterprises independent of the Hudson's Bay monopoly. In 1783 a group of the boldest and most energetic of these active spirits, of whom the leaders were McGillivray, McTavish, Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher, Rechebleve, Thain, and Frazer, united in the formation of the North-west Fur Company. Bitter rivalry soon arose between the new company and the old monopoly. Following the usual history of special privilege, the old company, which had now been in existence one hundred and thirteen years, had learned to depend more on privilege than on enterprise, and had become somewhat degenerate. The North-westers "rustled" for new business in new regions. In 1789 Alexander Mackenzie, as one of the North-westers, made his way, with incredible hardship, down the river which bears his name to the Frozen Ocean. A few years later he made the first journey to the shore of the Pacific, commemorating his course by painting on a rock on the shore of the Cascade Inlet, north-east of Vancouver Island, these words: "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three."
As a result of the new undertakings set on foot by the North-westers and the reawakened Hudson's Bay Company, both companies entered the Columbia Valley. The struggle for possession of Oregon between the English and American fur companies and their government was on. In the summer of 1810 David Thompson of the North-west company crossed the continental divide by the Athabasca Pass in latitude 52° 25′. The North-westers had heard of the Astor enterprise in New York and realised that they must be up and doing if they would control the land of the Oregon. Although the character of soil, climate, and productions of the Columbia Valley was but imperfectly known, enough had been derived from Lewis and Clark, and from ocean discoveries to make it plain that the Columbia furnished the most convenient access to the interior from the sea, and that its numerous tributaries furnished a network of boatable waters unequalled on the Western slope, while there was every reason to suppose that its forests abounded in fur-bearing animals and that its climate would admit of much longer seasons of work than was possible in the biting winters of the Athabasca. It became vital to the continental magnitude of the designs of the Canadian companies that they control Oregon.
For greater topical clearness we will anticipate a little at this point and state that after several years of intense rivalry it became plain to the British Parliament that it was suicidal to allow a policy of division in the face of a common enemy. Hence in 1821, by act of Parliament, the two companies were reorganised and united under a charter which was to last twenty-one years (and as a matter of fact was renewed at the end of that time), and under the provisions of which the North-westers were to have equal shares in both stock and offices, though the name of the Hudson's Bay Company, was retained. It will be remembered therefore, that up to the year 1821, the two great Canadian companies were distinct, and that during that time the North-west Company was much the more active and aggressive in the Columbia Valley, but that after that date the entire force of the Canadian Companies was combined under the name of the old monopoly. But however bitter the first enmity of the Canadian rivals, they agreed on the general proposition that the Americans must be checkmated, and during the score of years prior to their coalition they were seizing the pivotal points of the Oregon country. During the next two decades they created a vast network of forts and stations, and reduced the country contiguous to the River and its tributaries to a system so elaborate and interesting as to be worthy of extended study. We can sketch only its more general features. And the more perfectly to understand them, we must arrest here the story of the great Canadian monopoly and bring up the movement of the American fur companies.
It may be noted, first of all, that by reason of the quicker colonisation and settlement and consequent establishment of agriculture and other arts pertaining to home life, the region of the United States east of the Mississippi never became the natural habitat of the trapper and fur-trader to anything like the degree of Canada and the western part of our own land. Nevertheless extensive fur interests grew up on the Mississippi during the French régime, and in 1763-4 August and Pierre Choteau located a trading post on the present site of St. Louis, and the fascinating history of that great capital began.
Most of the American trading companies confined their operations to the east side of the Rocky Mountains. But the Missouri Fur Company of St. Louis, composed of a miscellaneous group of Americans and Hispano-Gallo-Americans, under the presidency of Manuel Lisa, a bold and enterprising Spaniard, took a step over the crest of the mountains and established the first trading post upon the waters of the Columbia. This was in 1809. Andrew Henry, one of the partners of the aforesaid company, crossed the mountains in that year and a year later built a fort on a branch of Snake River. This seems to have been on what subsequently became known as Henry's River. It was in one of the wildest and grandest regions of all that wild grand section of Snake River. Henry's River drains the north side of the Three Tetons, while the south branch, known afterwards as Lewis and finally as Snake River, drains the south of that group of mountains. Henry must be remembered as the first American and the first white man recorded in history who built any structure upon any tributary of our River, and the year was 1810. Both Henry and his Company had hopes of accomplishing great things in the way of the fur-trade in that very favourable region. But the next year the Indians were so threatening that the fort was forsaken and the party returned to the Missouri. When the Hunt party in the fall of 1811 sought refuge at this point they found only a group of abandoned huts, with no provisions or equipment of which they could make any use.
But though Henry's fort was but a transient matter, his American countrymen were beginning to press through the open gateways of both mountain and sea. In the early part of 1809 the Winship brothers of Boston, together with several other keen-sighted Yankees, formed a project for a definite post on the Columbia River, proposing to reach their destination by ship. Accordingly they fitted out an old vessel known as the Albatross, with Nathan Winship as captain, William Gale as captain's assistant, and William Smith as first mate. Captain Gale kept a journal of the entire enterprise, and it is one of the most interesting and valuable of the many ship's records of the North-western Coast.
Setting sail with a crew of twenty-two men and an excellent supply of stores and ammunition, and abundance of tools and hardware for erecting needful buildings, the Albatross left Boston in the summer of 1809. After a slow and tedious, but very healthful and comfortable voyage, stopping at the Hawaiian Islands on the route, the Albatross reached the mouth of the Columbia River on May 26, 1810. Many American and other ships had entered the mouth of the River prior to that date, but so far as known none had ascended any considerable distance. Apparently Gray and Broughton were the only shipmasters who had ascended above the wide expanse now known as Gray's Bay, while the Lewis and Clark expedition contained the only white men who had seen the river above tide-water. The Winship enterprise may be regarded with great interest, therefore, as the first real attempt to plant a permanent establishment on the banks of the River.
Winship and his companions spent some days in careful examination of the river banks and as a result of their search they decided on a strip of valley land formed by a narrowing of the River on the north and an indentation of the mountain on the south. This pleasant strip of fertile land is located on the south bank of the lordly stream, and its lower end is about forty-five miles from the ocean. Being partially covered with a beautiful grove of oak trees, the first to be seen on the ascent of the River, the place received the name of Oak Point. It may be noted that this name was subsequently transferred to a promontory nearly opposite on the north bank, and this circumstance has led many to locate erroneously the site of the first buildings designed for permanent use on the banks of the Columbia. And such these were, for the Lewis and Clark structures at what they called Fort Clatsop, erected four and a half years earlier, were meant only for a winter's use. But the Winship party had glowing visions of a great emporium of the fur-trade, another Montreal or St. Louis, to inaugurate a new era for their country and themselves. They designed paying the Indians for their lands and in every way treating them justly. They seem in short to have had a very high conception of the dignity and worth of their enterprise. They were worthy of the highest success, and the student of to-day cannot but grieve that their high hopes were dashed with disaster.
Tying the Albatross to the bank on June 4th, they entered at once with great energy on the task of felling trees, rearing a large log house, clearing a garden spot, in which they at once began the planting of seeds, and getting ready to trade with the natives. But within four days the River began to rise rapidly, and the busy fort-builders perceived to their dismay that they had located on land subject to inundation. All the work thus far done went for naught, and they pulled their fort to pieces and floated the logs down stream a quarter of a mile to a higher place. There they resumed their buildings with redoubled energy. But within a week a much more dangerous situation again, and this time permanently, arrested their grand project. This time it was the very men toward whom they had entertained such just and benevolent designs, the Indians, who thwarted the plans. For, as Captain Gale narrates in a most entertaining manner, a large body of Chinooks and Cheheeles, armed with bows and arrows, and some muskets, made their appearance,, announcing that they were on their way to war against the Culaworth tribe who had killed one of their chiefs a year before. But the next day the Indians massing themselves about the whites, gave such plain indications that the previous declaration was a pretence that the party hastily got into a position of defence. Their cannon on board the Albatross had already been loaded in anticipation of emergencies, and so plain was it that they could make a deadly defence that the threatened attack did not come. A long "pow-wow" ensued instead, and the Chinooks insisted that the builders must select a site lower down the river. After due consideration the party decided that any determined opposition by the Indians would so impair their enterprise, even though they might be able to defend themselves, that it would be best to seek a new location. Accordingly they reloaded their effects, dropped down the River, and finally decided to make a voyage down the California coast and return the next year. Return they did, but by that time the next year the Pacific Fur Company had already located at Astoria the first permanent American settlement, and the Winship enterprise faded away. That the design of the Winships was not at all chimerical is apparent from the fact that within twenty years the Hudson's Bay Company had made of Vancouver, sixty miles farther up the River, the very kind of a trading entrepôt of which the Winships had dreamed. Their dream was reasonable, but the time and place were unpropitious.
A quotation from Captain Gale's journal will give a conception of his feelings:
June 12th.—The ship dropped further down the River, and it was now determined to abandon all attempts to force a settlement. We have taken off the goats and hogs which were left on shore for the use of the settlement, and thus we have to abandon the business, after having, with great difficulty and labour, got about forty-five miles above Cape Disappointment; and with great trouble began to clear the land and build a house a second time, after cutting timber enough to finish nearly one-half, and having two of our hands disabled in the work. It is, indeed, cutting to be obliged to knuckle to those whom you have not the least fear of, but whom, from motives of prudence, you are obliged to treat with forbearance. What can be more disagreeable than to sit at the table with a number of these rascally chiefs, who while they supply their greedy mouths with your food with one hand, their bloods boil within them to cut your throat with the other, without the least provocation.
On the way out of the River Captain Winship learned that the Chinooks designed capturing his vessel, and would doubtless have done so, had not his vigilance prevented.
While the crew of the Albatross were engaged in these adventures the largest American Fur Company yet formed was getting ready to effect a lodgment on the shores of the Columbia. This was the Pacific Fur Company. John Jacob Astor was the founder of this enterprise. Though unfortunate in almost every feature of its history and its final outcome, this company had a magnificent conception, a royal grandeur of opportunity, and it possessed also the felicity, shared by no one of its predecessors, of the genius of a great literary star to illuminate its records. To Washington Irving it owes much of its fame. Yet the commercial genius of Astor could not prevent errors of judgment by the management any more than the literary genius of Irving was able to conceal their appearance,</noinclude>errors, or the genius of American liberty able to order events so as to prevent victory for a time by the "Britishers." As we view the history in the large it may be that we shall conclude that the British triumph at first was the best introduction to American triumph in the end.
John Jacob Astor may, perhaps, be justly regarded as the first of the great promoters or financial magnates who have made the United States the world's El Dorado. Coming from Germany to this land of opportunity after the close of the Revolutionary War, he soon manifested that keen intuition in money matters, as well as intense devotion to accumulation, which has led to the colossal fortunes of his own descendants and of the other multimillionaires of this age. Having made quite a fortune by transporting furs to London, Mr. Astor turned to larger fields. With his broad and keen geographical and commercial insight, he could readily grasp the same fact which the North-westers of Montreal were also considering, that the Columbia River might well become the key to an international fur-trade, as well as a strategic point for American expansion westward. He made overtures to the North-westers for a partnership, but they declined. Then he determined to be the chief manager, and to associate individual Americans and Canadians with himself. With the promptitude of the skilful general, he proceeded to form his company and make his plan of campaign in time to anticipate the apparent designs of the active Canadians. They saw, as well as Astor did, the magnitude of the stake and at once made ready to play their part. For, as already noted, David Thompson crossed the Rockies by the Athabasca Pass in 1810, spent the winter at Lake Windermere on the Columbia River, and in the summer of 1811 reached Astoria, only to find the Astor Company already established there. It should be especially noted that the Thompson party was the first to descend the River from near its source to the ocean, although of course Lewis and Clark had anticipated them on the portion below the junction of the Snake with the main River.
Mr. Astor's plans provided for an expedition by sea and one by land. The first was to convey stores and equipment for founding and defending the proposed capital of the empire of the fur-traders. Of the expedition by land under Hunt we have already given a full account in the preceding chapter, since its events rather allied it to the era of exploration than that of the traders. The organisation of Mr. Astor's company provided that there should be a capital stock of a hundred shares, of which he should hold half and his associates half. Mr. Astor was to furnish the money, though not to exceed four hundred thousand dollars, and was to bear all losses for five years. The term of the association was fixed at twenty years, though with the privilege of dissolving it in five years if it proved unprofitable. The general plan and the details of the expedition had been decided upon by the master mind of the founder with statesmanlike ability. It comes, therefore, as a surprise to the reader that Mr. Astor should have made a capital mistake at the very beginning of his undertaking. This mistake was in the selection of his associates and the captains of some of his ships. Of the partners, five were Americans and five were Canadians. Two only of the Americans remained with the company long enough to have any determining influence on its policies. Take the fact that the majority of the active partners and almost all the clerks, trappers, and other employees of the company were Canadians, and put it beside the other fact that war was imminent with Great Britain and did actually break out within two years, and the dangerous nature of the situation can be seen. Of the ship-captains, the first one, Captain Jonathan Thorn of the Tonquin, was a man of such overbearing and obstinate nature that disaster seemed to be fairly invited by placing him in such vitally responsible a position. The captain of the second ship, the Beaver, was Cornelius Sowles, and he seems to have been as timid and irresolute as Captain Thorn was bold and implacable. Both lacked judgment. It was probably natural that Mr. Astor, having had his main prior experience as a fur-dealer in connection with the Canadians centring at Montreal, should have looked in that direction for associates. But inasmuch as war between England and the United States seemed a practical certainty, it was a great error, in founding a vast enterprise in remote regions whose ownership was not yet definitely recognised, to share with citizens of Great Britain the determination of the important issues of the enterprise. It would have saved Mr. Astor great loss and chagrin if he had observed the maxim: "Put none but Americans on guard." As to the captains of the two vessels, that was an error that any one might have made. Yet for a man of Astor's exceptional ability and shrewdness to err so conspicuously in judging the character of the men appointed to such important places seems indeed strange.
To these facts in regard to the personnel of the partners, the captains, and the force, must be added two others; i. e., war and shipwreck. The combination of all these conditions made the history of the Astoria enterprise what it was. Yet, with all of its adversity, this was one of the best conceived, and, in most of its details, the best equipped and executed of all the great enterprises which have appeared in the commercial history of our country. As an element in the development of the land of the Oregon, it must be accorded the first place after the period of discovery.
The Tonquin left New York on September 6, 1810. She carried a fine equipment of all things needed for founding the proposed emporium. She was manned by a crew of twenty-one and conveyed members of the fur-trading force to the number of thirty-three. Stopping at the Sandwich Islands, an added force of twenty-four natives was taken aboard. At various times on the journey the rigid ideas of naval discipline and the imperious temper of Captain Thorn came near producing mutiny among the partners and clerks. When the Tonquin hove to off the mouth of the Columbia on March 22, 1811, the eager voyagers saw little to attract. The wind was blowing in heavy squalls, and the sea ran high. Nevertheless the hard-hearted Captain issued orders to the first mate, Fox, with a boat's crew of four men, to go into the foaming waves and sound the channel. The boat was insufficiently provided, and it seemed scarcely short of murder to despatch a crew under such circumstances. But the tyrannical captain would listen to no remonstrances, and the poor little boat went tossing over the billows on her forlorn hope. Such indeed it proved to be, for neither boat nor any one of the crew was ever heard of again. This was a wholly unnecessary sacrifice of life, for the Tonquin was in no danger, and time could just as well have been taken for more propitious weather.
The next day, the wind and sea having abated, the Tonquin drew near the dreaded bar, but, no entrance that satisfied the captain appearing, the ship again stood off to spend the night in deep water. On the next day, the 24th, the wind fell and a serene sky seemed to invite another attempt. The pinnace in command of Mr. Aikin, with two white men and two Kanakas, was sent out to find the channel. Following the pinnace the ship moved in so rapidly under a freshening breeze that she passed the pinnace, the unfortunate men on board finding it impossible to effect an entrance and being borne by the refluent current into the mad surge where ocean tide and outflowing river met in foamy strife. So the pinnace disappeared. But meanwhile the crew had all their energies engaged to save the Tonquin. For the wind failed at the critical moment and the ship struck the sands with violence. Night came on. Had the men been classically trained (as in fact Franchère was) they might have remembered Virgil, Ponto nox incubat atra. But they had no time for classical or other quotations. Hastily dropping the anchors they lay to in the midst of the tumult of waters, in that worst of situations, on an unknown coast in the dark and in storm. But as Franchère expresses it, Providence came to their succour, and the tide flooding and the wind rising, they weighed the anchors, and in spite of the obscurity of the night, they gained a safe harbour in a little cove inside of Cape Disappointment, apparently just about abreast of the present town of Ilwaco.
Thus the Tonquin was saved, and with the light of morning it could be seen that she was fairly within the bar. Natives soon made their appearance, desirous of trading beaver-skins. But the crew were in no mood for commerce while any hope existed for finding the lost sailors. Taking a course toward the shore by what must have been nearly the present route from Ilwaco to Long Beach, the captain and a party with him, began a search and soon found Weeks, one of the crew of the pinnace. He was stark naked and suffering intensely from the cold. As soon as sufficiently revived he narrated the loss of the pinnace in the breakers, the death of three of the crew, and the casting of himself and one of the Kanakas upon the beach. The point where they were cast would seem to have been near the present location of the life-saving station.
The two survivors of the ill-fated pinnace having been revived, the party returned to the Tonquin, which was now riding safely at anchor in the bay on the north side of the river, named Baker's Bay by Broughton nineteen years before. Joy for their own escape from such imminent perils was mingled with melancholy at the loss of their eight companions of the two boats, and with the melancholy there was a sense of bitterness toward the captain, who was to blame, at least for the loss of the small boat.
But now the new land was all before them where to choose, and since Captain Thorn was in great haste to depart and begin his trading cruise along the coast, the partners on the Tonquin, Messrs. McKay, McDougal, David Stuart, and Robert Stuart, decided somewhat hurriedly to locate at the point which had received from Lieutenant Broughton the name of Point George. Franchère gives a pleasant picture of the beauty of the trees and sky, and the surprise of the party to find that, though it was only the 12th of April when they set to work upon the great trees which covered the site of their chosen capital, yet spring was already far advanced. They did not then understand the effect of the Japan current upon the Pacific Coast climate.An incident of special interest soon after landing was the appearance on June 15th of two strange Indians, a man and a woman, bearing a letter addressed to Mr. John Stuart, Fort Estekatadene, New Caledonia. These two Indians wore long robes of dressed deerskins with leggings and moccasins more like the Indians of the Rocky Mountains. They could not understand the speech of the Astoria Indians nor of any of the mixture of dialects which the white men tried on them, until one of the Canadian clerks addressed them in the Knisteneaux language with which they seemed to be partially familiar. After several days of stay at the fort the two wandering Indians succeeded in making it clear to the traders that they had been sent out by a clerk named Finnan McDonald of the North-west Fur Company from a fort which that company had just established on the Spokane River. They said that they had lost their way and in consequence had descended the Tacousah-Tessah (and this Franchère understood to be the Indian name for the Columbia, though the general impression among the Indians is that Tacousah-Tessah, or Tacoutche-Tesse, signified Frazer River). From the revelation gradually drawn from these two Indians (and the surprising discovery was made that they were both women) the very important conclusion was drawn that the North-west Fur Company was already prepared to contest with the Astor Company the possession of the River. The peculiar feature of the situation was that the most of the Astorians, though American by the existing business tie, were Canadian and British by blood and sympathy, and hence were very likely to fraternise with the Montreal traders.
However the Astorians decided to send an expedition into the interior to verify the story given by the two Indian women, but, just as they were ready to go, a large canoe with the British flag floating from her stern appeared, from which, when it had reached the landing, there leaped ashore an active, well-dressed man who introduced himself as David Thompson, of the North-west Company. This was the same man, the reader will remember, who had crossed the Rocky Mountains the year before, had wintered near the head of the River, and had then descended it, seeking a location for the Columbia River emporium of the Canadian company. But he was too late. It was quite strange by what narrow margins on several occasions the British failed to forestall the Yankees.
On July 23d the delayed expedition of the Astorians set forth far to the interior, and as a result of their investigations, David Stuart, in charge of the party, began the erection of a trading house at the mouth of the Okanogan, five hundred and forty miles above Astoria. It was on September 2, 1811, that this post was begun, and hence Fort Okanogan may be regarded as the first American establishment in the present State of Washington. It was antedated a few months by the post of the North-west Company at the entrance of the Little Spokane into the Spokane, near the present site of the City of Spokane.
During the fall of 1811 the Indians around Astoria became very threatening. Direful rumours, too, in regard to the destruction of the Tonquin began to disquiet the Astorians. In the emergency the wary McDougall, then acting as the head of the Company, bethought himself of a very effective expedient. He had learned that dreadful loss of life among the Indians had resulted a few years before from smallpox and that the Indians were mortally afraid of it. Calling into his room several of the principal chiefs, he asked if they remembered the smallpox. Their serious faces were sufficient proof that they did. McDougall then held up a small vial and continued with awful solemnity: "Listen to me. I am the great smallpox chief. In this little bottle I keep the smallpox. If I uncork the bottle and let it out I will kill every man, woman, and child of the Indians. Now go in peace, but if you make war upon us I will open the bottle, and you will die." The chiefs filed out in terror, and peace was preserved.
McDougall still further cemented the bond of union with the natives by becoming united in wedlock with the daughter of Comcomly, the one-eyed chieftain of the Chinooks. After numerous and thorough ablutions had somewhat mitigated the oiliness and general fishiness of the Chinook princess, she was clad in the most brilliant style of the native beauty, a grand holiday was declared at Astoria, and white men and Indians joined in the wedding feast and made the welkin ring with their demonstrations. Thus did the daughter of Comcomly become the first lady of the land, and thus did peace brood over the broad waters of the lower River.
During the winter of 1811-12 the two instalments of the Hunt party made their appearance, after their distressful journey from St. Louis as already narrated in Chapter IV. In May, 1812, the company's ship Beaver arrived from New York, loaded with stores and trading equipment, and bringing a considerable addition to the force of men. In the following month sixty men were despatched up-river, and by them a trading post was located at Spokane and another on the Snake River somewhere near the present site of Lewiston, while one section of the party went across the mountains and down the Missouri to convey dispatches to Mr. Astor.
At this stage of the history of the Astoria enterprise, every aspect was encouraging. The trade in furs on the Spokane, the Okanogan, the Snake, the Cœur d'Alene was excellent, a successful cruise along the coast by the Beaver seemed sure, and the Indians about the mouth of the River were friendly and well disposed. Mr. Astor's great undertaking seemed sure to be crowned with success. In the midst of all the signs of hope came tidings of dismay. It became known with certainty that the Tonquin had been destroyed. This appalling disaster was related directly to the Astoria Company by the only survivor. This was an Indian of the Chehalis tribe whose name is given by Irving as Lamazee, by Ross as Lamazu, and by Bancroft as Lamanse. He had escaped from the Indians who had held him after the destruction of the Tonquin and had finally found his way to Astoria, there to tell his tale, one of the most sanguinary in the long roll of struggles with the Indians. The next great disaster was the wrecking of the Lark, the third of the Company's ships from New York. During the same period Mr. Hunt, the partner next in rank to Mr. Astor and the one above all who could have acted wisely and patriotically in the forthcoming crisis, had gone in the Beaver on a trading cruise among the Russians of Sitka, and by a most remarkable series of detentions he had been kept away from Astoria for over a year.
To cap the climax of misfortunes, the War of 1812 burst upon the knowledge of the fur-traders and seemed to force upon such of the partners as were of British nationality the question of their paramount duty. As a result of the crisis, McDougal and McKenzie, although against the wishes of the other partners present, sold out to the agent of the North-westers, who had repaired at once to Astoria upon knowledge of the declaration of war. Thus the great Astoria enterprise was abandoned, and the Stars and Stripes went down and the Union Jack went up. Soon after the transfer, the British man-of-war Raccoon, Captain Black, arrived at Astoria, expecting to have seized the place as a rich prize of war. Imagine the disgust of the expectant British mariners to discover that the post had already been sold to British subjects, that their long journey was useless, and that their hopes of prize money had vanished.With the close of the War of 1812 a series of
negotiations between the ministers of the two countries took place in regard to the possession of the River, by which it was finally decided that Astoria should be restored to the United States. Accordingly, on the 6th of October, 1818, the British Commissioners, Captain F. Hickey, of His Majesty's Ship Blossom, and J. Keith, representing the North-west Fur Company, signed an act of delivery restoring Fort George (Astoria) to the United States. Mr. J. B. Prevost, Commissioner for the United States, signed the act of acceptance. Astoria was once again American property.
While the River was now nominally in possession of the United States, it was practically under the control of the British fur companies. The Pacific Fur Company ceased to operate, and the North-westers entered upon active work both by sea and land in exploring the vast and profitable domain which the misfortunes of their American rivals, supplemented in a most timely manner by the treachery of McDougall and McKenzie, had put within their power. The canny Scotchmen, McDougall, McTavish, McKenzie, McDonald, and the various other Macs who now guided the plans of the North-westers, signalled their entrance into power by despatching companies to the various pivotal points of the great Columbia Basin, the Walla Walla, Yakima, Okanogan, Spokane, and Snake rivers. Two incidents may be related to illustrate the character of people and the conditions of that wilderness period.
A party of ninety men in ten canoes left Astoria for up-river points on April 4, 1814. While passing the mouth of the Yakima, about three hundred and fifty miles up the River, the men were surprised to see three canoes putting out from shore and to hear a child's voice calling out, "Arretez donc! arretez donc!" Stopping to investigate, the party found in one of the boats the Indian wife of Pierre Dorion, with her children. Dorion, with five other Canadians, had gone the previous summer with a party under command of John Reed of the Astor Company. While trapping and hunting, deep in the mountains of Snake River, the party had been massacred by Indians. The woman and her two boys had alone escaped the massacre. It was the dead of winter and the snows lay deep on the Blue Mountains. But the wife of Dorion found shelter in a remote fastness of the mountains, putting up a bark hut for a shelter and subsisting on the carcasses of some of her horses. In the spring, the pitiful little company of mother and children descended to Walla Walla and found there more kindly disposed natives, who cared for them and turned them over to the protection of the whites. A more thrilling story of suffering and heroism than this of Madame Dorion and her children has never come up from the chronicles of the wild West.
Equally illustrative of the life of the fur-traders is the account given by Alexander Ross of one of his many adventures in the Columbia country. In 1814 Ross went from Okanogan to Yakima to secure horses. With him were four other whites and three Indian women. The Yakima Valley was then as now a paradise of the Indians. There the tribes gathered by the thousands in the spring to dig camas, to race horses, and to gamble, as well as to form alliances and make plans for war. When the little company of traders reached the encampment, they discovered to their astonishment that it was a veritable city. Six thousand men, women, and children, with ten thousand horses, and uncounted dogs and many shackled bears and wolves, were strewn across the plain. It was a dangerous situation for the traders, for it became plain to them that the Indians were unfriendly. But assuming an air of careless bravado, Ross proceeded to display his store of trinkets for the purpose of starting a traffic in horses. Assuming a very hilarious manner the Indians would seize and drive away the animals as fast as the white men got them. Then the Indians began to deprive them of clothes and food. Finally they made ready to seize their three women as slaves. Ross managed to have the women escape temporarily, but then the savages were worse than ever. Matters reached a crisis when an obstreperous chief named Yaktana snatched a knife from the hands of one of the Canadians. A desperate struggle was just at the point of breaking out, which would inevitably have resulted in the death of all the white men, when a sudden intuition flashed through the quick mind of Ross, and rushing between the combatants he handed his own knife, a much more elegant one, to Yaktana, saying in a friendly tone, "This is a chief's knife. Take it and give back the other." There was an instant revulsion. Yaktana was so much flattered that he turned at once into a stanch supporter of the shrewd trader. Food was brought. The horses were restored. Equipment was provided. The three women were regained, and the company made their way without further trouble to Okanogan.
We have already mentioned the important fact that in 1821 the two great Canadian Companies, the North-western and the Hudson's Bay, decided to unite. With the union, the great era of fur-trade in the Columbia Basin fairly began, to continue about twenty-five years, yielding then to the American immigrant. That twenty-five years of the dominance of the great Fur Company contained nearly all the poetry and romance as well as the profit and statesmanship of the business. The entire region of the River, as well as that of the Puget Sound country, was mapped out in a most systematic manner with one chief central fort, Vancouver on the Columbia. A more magnificent location for the purpose cannot be conceived. It is now the site of a flourishing city and of the United States Fort Headquarters for the North-west, generally conceded to be the finest fort location in the United States. Fort Vancouver was established in 1825 upon a superb bench of land gently sloping back from the River for two miles. Great trees fringed the site, Mt. Hood lifted its pinnacled majesty sixty miles to the eastward, the sinuous mazes of the Willamette Valley stretched out far southward, while the lordly River was in full view a dozen miles up and down. Every natural advantage and delight which wild nature could offer was here in fullness. Ships could readily ascend the hundred miles from the ocean to unload their merchandise and take on their cargoes of precious furs, the furs collected at the outlay of so much toil and suffering over the area of hundreds of miles. Every species of game and fish abounded in the waters and along the banks of the River. Deer and elk tossed their antlers between the stately firs of the upland, and pheasant and grouse whirred among the branches. Geese, cranes, ducks, and swans, in countless numbers, darkened the lagoons amid the many islands enclosed by the mouths of the Willamette and the adjacent waters of the larger stream. Fish of many varieties, the royal Chinook salmon, king of food fish, being at the head in beauty and edibility, though surpassed in size by the gigantic sturgeon, which sometimes weighed a thousand pounds, abounded in the River. No epicure of the world's capitals could command such viands as nature brought to the doors of the denizens of Fort Vancouver.
The fort itself was laid out on a scale of amplitude suitable to the spaciousness of the site. It was enclosed with a picket wall twenty feet high, with massive buttresses of timber inside. This enclosure was a parallelogram seven hundred and fifty by five hundred feet. Inside were about forty buildings, the governor's residence of generous dimensions being in the centre. Two chapels provided for the spiritual needs of the company, while schoolhouse, stores, "bachelors' halls," and shops of various kinds attested the variety of the needs. Along the bank of the River, outside the enclosure, lay quite a village of cottages for the married employees, together with hospital, boathouses, granaries, warehouses, threshing mills, and dairy buildings.
Taken altogether Fort Vancouver was the model fort of the western slope. Moreover, the fertile soil and genial, humid climate soon encouraged the factors of the Company to experiment with gardens and orchards, and, within a few years after founding, fifteen hundred acres of land were in the finest state of productivity, while three thousand head of cattle, twenty-five hundred sheep, three hundred brood mares, and over a hundred milch cows, added their bounteous contributions to the already plentiful resources of the fort.
With this rich larder, with the spacious buildings, with the annual arrivals and departures of ships by sea and fleets of bateaux by river, with hunting trips and Indian policies, with the intercoast traffic with the Russians on the north and the Spaniards on the south,—there was as much to engage and delight the minds of these people as if they had lived in the heart of civilisation.
Any account of Fort Vancouver would be incomplete without some reference to Dr. John McLoughlin, chief factor of the Company in the Columbia district from 1824 to the time of his retirement from the Company in 1846 and settlement at Oregon City, Oregon, as an American citizen. Rarely has any one in the stormy history of the Columbia Basin received such unvarying and unqualified praise as has this truly great man. Physically, mentally, and morally, Dr. McLoughlin was altogether exceptional among the mixed population that gathered about the emporium of the traders. Six feet four inches in height, his noble and expressive face crowned with a great cascade of snowy hair, firm yet kindly, prompt and businesslike yet sympathetic and helpful, "Old Whitehead" or "White Eagle," as the Indians called him, was a true-born king of men.
We have said that Fort Vancouver was the great central fort. The others commanding the pivotal points upon the River and its tributaries were Fort Hall and Fort Boisé on the Snake, Spokane House on the Spokane near the present metropolis of the Inland Empire, Fort Colville on the river of the same name near its junction with the Columbia, Fort Okanogan at the junction of the stream of that name with the great River, Fort Owen in the Cœur d'Alene region, Fort Simcoe in the Yakima country, Fort Walla Walla, first known as Fort Nez Percé, on the Columbia at the mouth of the Walla Walla, and Fort George on the former site of Astoria. These forts were all laid out in the same general fashion as Fort Vancouver, though no one was so large, elaborate, or comfortable. Besides the forts there were a number of small trading posts. The chief furs procured in the interior were beaver, and those on the coast were sea-otter. Many others, as the mink, sharp-toothed otter, fox, lynx, raccoon, were found in abundance.
The profits of the business were immense. Alexander Ross relates that he secured one morning before breakfast one hundred and ten beaver skins for a single yard of white cloth. Ross spent one hundred and eighty-eight days alone in the Yakima country. During that time he collected one thousand five hundred and fifty beavers, besides other peltries, worth in the Canton market two thousand two hundred and fifty pounds, which cost him in his objects of trade only thirty-five pounds. That was while Ross was connected with the Astor Company.
In completing this necessarily hurried chapter on the fascinating era of the fur-traders, we cannot omit a brief reference to the movements of the regular brigades of boats up and down the River, for these comprised a great part of both the business and the romance of the age. The course of these brigades was from the southern shores of Hudson Bay, through Manitoba, to the crest of the Rockies at the head of the Columbia. Water was utilised to the greatest possible extent, while at the portages and across the mountains horse-power and man-power were employed. Once afloat upon the Columbia, the brigades braved most of the rapids, paying occasional toll of men and goods to the envious deities of the waters, yet with marvellous skill and general fortune making their way down the thousand or more miles from Boat Encampment to Fort Vancouver. The descent was easy compared with the ascent. The first journey of the east-bound brigade of the North-westers from Astoria to Montreal was in 1814, and it required the time from April 4th to May 11th to reach the mouth of Canoe River, the point at which they entered upon the mountain climb to the head of the Athabasca.
The boatmen were French-Canadians, a hardy, mercurial, light-hearted race, half French, with the natural grace and politeness of their race, and having the pleasant patois which has made them the theme of much popular present-day literature. They were half Indian, either in tastes and manners or in blood, with the atmosphere of forests and streams clinging to every word and gesture. They were perhaps the best boatmen in the world. Upon those matchless lakes into which the Columbia and its tributaries expand at intervals the fur-laden boats would glide at ease, while the wild songs of the coureurs des bois would echo from shore to shore in lazy sibilations, apparently betokening no thought of serious or earnest business. But once the rapids were reached, the gay and rollicking knight of the paddle became all attention. With keen eyes fixed on every swirl or rock, he guided the light craft with a ready skill which would be inconceivable to one less daring and experienced. The brigades would run almost all the rapids from Death Rapids to the sea, making portages at Kettle Falls, Tumwater or Celilo Falls, and the Cascades, though at some stages of the water they could run down even them. They always had to carry around those points in ascending the River. In spite of all the skill of the voyageurs the Columbia and the Snake, the Pend Oreille and the Kootenai have exacted a heavy toll of life from those who have laid their compelling hands upon the white manes of chute and cataract. Many, even of the voyageurs, are the human skeletons that have whitened the volcanic beds of the great streams.
The boats used by the fur brigades were either log canoes obtained of the Indians or bateaux. The former were hollowed from the magnificent cedars which grew on the banks of the River, sometimes fifty or sixty feet long, with prow carved in fantastic, even beautiful fashion. They would hold from six to twenty persons with from half a ton to two or three tons of load, yet were so light that two men could carry one of the medium size while four could handle one of any size around a portage. But the voyageurs never took quite so much to the canoes as did the Indians, whose skill in handling them in high waves is described by Ross and Franchère as something astonishing. And even the Indians of the present show much the same ability, though the splendid cedar canoes are no longer made, and only here and there can one of the picturesque survivors be seen.
The bateaux were boats of peculiar shape, being built very high and broad so that in an unloaded condition they seemed to rest on the water almost like a paper shell. Both ends were high and pointed as prows. They were propelled with oars and steered with paddles. One of the usual size was about thirty feet long and five feet wide. Being of light-draft, double-enders, capable of holding large loads and yet easily conveyed around portages, more steady and roomy than canoes, these bateaux were the typical Columbia River medium of commerce during the era of the fur-traders. They, too, have mainly vanished from the scenes of their former glory. Canoes, bateaux, cries and yells of Indians, songs of voyageurs, have gone into the engulfing limbo of the bygone, along with the keen-eyed Scotch factor and the sharp-featured Yankee skipper. Yet the swans and geese and ducks still darken the more placid expanses of the River and the salmon still start the widening circles in almost undiminished numbers, while the glaciated heights of Hood and Adams and St. Helens (we would rather say Wiyeast, Klickitat, and Loowit) still stand guard over the unchanging waters.
This part of our topic has mainly centred upon the British possession of the River. A full history of the fur era on the River would demand a chapter on the later attempts of three remarkable men to reestablish American interests in the disputed territory. These men were Jedediah Smith, Capt. E. L. Bonneville, and Nathaniel J. Wyeth. But though these men belong properly to this era, their efforts in the fur-trade were relatively unimportant in comparison with the influence of their lives in the direction of permanent American occupation. It seemed the appointment of destiny that the American should play second fiddle to his British rival in the fur-trade. But as tenfold, a thousandfold compensation, the American farmers, home-builders, and tradesmen were to acquire final possession of one of the goodliest lands on which the Stars and Stripes has ever floated. The bateaux and canoes must needs give way to the steamboat and the launch, the coureur des bois to the lumberman and the miner and farmer, and the picturesque emporium of the British fur-trader on the River to the modern American city. We shall, therefore, more fittingly chronicle the later American fur-traders as a part of the march of their countrymen to permanent ownership of Oregon.