The Pacific Fur Company in Canada
Students of Canadian history may occasionally see references to a long-defunct entity called the Pacific Fur Company- a short-lived American fur trading syndicate with an epic and tragic history which is now relatively well-known in the United States, yet generally unheard of in Canada. Although the majority of the company’s operations took place within what are now the states of Oregon and Washington, the men of the Pacific Fur Company did make several noteworthy forays into what is now Canadian territory. The purpose of this article is to provide a very brief synopsis of the story of this American syndicate with an emphasis on its Canadian operations.
The Pacific Fur Company was founded in 1810 by John Jacob Astor, a German-American businessman based out of New York, who made his fortune buying furs from the Great Lakes and selling them at profit in London. At that time, rival fur trading syndicates across North America were extending their enterprises into the western half of the continent, into wild countries populated almost exclusively by native tribes. Since the 1770s, the great English Hudson’s Bay Company had been creeping northwest from its traditional haunts on the shores of the frozen sea for which it was named. On the Pacific Coast, small independent American traders vied with the tzar-sponsored Russian-American Company for sea otter pelts, which were purchased from the coastal natives, shipped west across the ocean, and exchanged for Chinese goods like porcelain and tea at Russian ports. And Astor’s main competitor, the North West Company (NWC), had already launched three exploratory expeditions west across the Rocky Mountains for the purpose of opening up trade with the natives of what is now the British Columbian interior. In 1793, one of its agents, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, became the first white man to traverse the Great Divide, travelling up the Peace River Valley in now west-central Alberta before continuing west to the Pacific Ocean. A second Nor’Wester (as NWC agents were known) named Simon Fraser repeated Mackenzie’s crossing in 1806 and began to establish trading posts throughout what he dubbed ‘New Caledonia’- a territory encompassing the northern half of what is now British Columbia. The following year, HBC agent David Thompson crossed the Rockies further to the south, entering the BC Interior by way of the Howse Pass east of present-day Red Deer, Alberta.
Astor hoped to gain control of what appeared to be the last untapped fur-bearing region on the continent- the watershed of the Columbia River, which flows southwest from the Canadian Rockies, along the border of what are now the American states of Washington and Oregon, before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. To effect this end, he outfitted two expeditions with trade goods and dispatched them to the mouth of the Columbia, one by land, and the other by sea.
The tragic events that followed were detailed in the memoirs of at least four of their participants, namely:
- Gabriel Franchere’s Journal of a Voyage on the North West Coast of North America during the Years 1811, 1812, 1813 and 1814
- Alexander Ross’ Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813 (1849)
- Robert Stuart’s On the Oregon Trail: Robert Stuart’s Journey of Discovery, 1812, 1813
- Ross Cox’s Adventures on the Columbia River Including The Narrative of a Residence of Six Years on the Western Side of the Rocky Mountains Among Various Tribes of Indians Hitherto Unknown Together With a Journey Across the American Continent (1832)
As well as in at least two contemporary journals, namely:
- Wilson Price Hunt’s Overland Diary
- Duncan McDougall’s Annals of Astoria: The Headquarters Log of the Pacific Fur Company on the Columbia River, 1811-1813.
Decades later, celebrated American writer Washington Irving drew upon these sources and others to produce his 1836 book Astoria: Or, Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains, an official history of the Pacific Fur Company commissioned by John Jacob Astor himself. As Irving succinctly summarized the fate of Astor’s bold but ill-fated enterprise, “a strange fatality seems to have attended all the expeditions by sea, nor were those by land much less disastrous.”
The Tonquin and the Battle of Woody Point
On September 8th, 1810, Astor’s seagoing crew left New York in a ship called the Tonquin. Captained by Jonathan Thorn, a petulant U.S. Navy veteran whose disposition was as prickly as the protrusion which his surname evokes, the crew sailed all the way down the Atlantic Ocean, rounded Cape Horn, took on fresh water and provisions at Hawaii, and continued on to the mouth of the Columbia, at which they arrived on March 22nd, 1811. There, in accordance with Astor’s orders, the men of the Pacific Fur Company built a trading post, which they christened Fort Astoria in honour of their benefactor.
On June 5th, while the fort was under construction, a portion of the crew sailed north to Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where they began to trade with the local Nootka Indians. Incidentally, Clayoquot Sound lies about 68 kilometres (42 miles) down the coast of Vancouver Island from Nootka Sound, the site where, only seven years earlier, an entire crew of American merchants aboard the ship Boston, save for a blacksmith named John Jewitt, had been massacred by Nootka warriors.
On June 14th, the Tonquin dropped anchor off the shore of a Nootka village in Clayoquot Sound and opened trade with the locals, allowing the natives to approach their ship in canoes and come aboard with their furs. During the proceedings, Captain Thorne insulted an elderly Nootka chief. Although the details of this insult vary from storyteller to storyteller, it was grievous enough to prompt the Nootka to plot the destruction of the Tonquin and her crew. The following day, on June 15th, 1811, several hundred Nootka warriors boarded the ship on the pretense of resuming trade. At a prearranged signal, they dropped their furs, drew their knives, and massacred the ship’s entire crew, sparing only one native interpreter.
In the aftermath of the slaughter, one of the ship’s crew members, mortally wounded, retreated to the cargo hold and set fire to the gunpowder supply. The ensuing explosion obliterated the Tonquin and killed about two hundred Nootka warriors.
Below are all known contemporary accounts of this sudden and tragic event, which is sometimes referred to today as the ‘Battle of Woody Point’:
Duncan McDougall’s Accounts
The following is a portion of the August 11th, 1811 entry in the official Astoria log book (Annals of Astoria: The Headquarters Log of the Pacific Fur Company on the Columbia River, 1811-1813) by Duncan McDougall, the officer in charge of Fort Astoria:
“In the afternoon we received a visit from one of our Chinook friends, who informed us that some Indians have lately arrived from Neweetie with a report that the Tonquin was cut off at Nootka in conseuqnece of some misunderstanding with the [blank], viz. ‘On her arrival there, the Natives went on board to trade, but Capt. Thorn giving them only two Blankets for a Sea Otter displeased them so much that one of their chiefs gave him some insolent language, which he resented by rubbing the Otter across his face, this so enraged him that he ordered all his tribe immediately ashore. Next day the ship proceeded to Nootka, and they accompanied by a considerable number of the Neweetians (say 50 or 60 canoes in all) followed her. On their arrival they requested the Nootka Chief to join them, to which he at length assented, and next day they all repaired on board with their furs, which they traded at the rate of two Blankets & two knives for each Sea Otter, appeared very well pleased and carried on a pretty brisk trade, untill they had a sufficient number (on board) with knives to answer their diabolical purpose: when a signal was given, and four of them laid hold on Capt. Thorn whilst a fifth stabbed him in the Neck. A number got round Mr. McKay, but he made his way to the forecastle, where he killed three of them with his Dirk. However, they at length got hold of him and one gave him a mortal blow over the eyebrow with an Iron Bludgeon. Whilst this was going on, two had sprung on each of the ship’s crew, and after a short conflict killed every man on board excepting four, who got into the Magazine and there heroically terminated their fate by blowing up the Ship, with about 100 of the Indians who were on board.’ We heard a vague account of this about a month ago, but gave it no credit. However we now find that the Chinooks have been circumstantially acquainted with the whole affair for some time past. But Comcomly, their chief, gave strict orders that no one should mention a word of it, on pretence that it would too much afflict us. However, we have pretty good reasons to believe, particularly from his late conduct and several suspicious circumstances that have taken place, his pretended friendship all along has been a mere train of deceit, and his sole object in not informing us of this circumstance was to put us off our guard untill they should find it convenient to cut us off, which we are convinced they have had in contemplation ever since the Ships departure. Turned all hands out to drill, & examined their Arms.”
The following is a portion of McDougall’s June 15th, 1813 entry in the Astoria logbook:
“Visited by Comcomly, his young son & suite, bringing with the Joseachal the Queenhilt Indian who was on board the ship Tonquin when destroyed, and whom we have so much wished to see for the purpose of learning from himself the particulars respecting the transactions that took place on board before and at the time she was destroyed. He appeared quite an intelligent Indian, and by means of Comcomly’s son as an interpreter & his own knowledge of Chinook with a smattering of English made us acquainted with many little circumstances respecting the proceedings on board. But throughout was only in matter a confirmation of what we had learned long before.
“Mr. McKay was the first seized, thrown overboard and instantly despatched by the Indians in Canoes. Captain Thorn with only a Clasp Knife defended himself for some time, killed 4 Indians (among whom was the son of the principal Chief, & instigator of the proceedings) and was in a fair way to drive others before him off the decks, when he was cut down by a blow with a war knife, or club, from behind. The manner in which the Ship was blown up he explained fully. They were at the commencement of the difficulty getting under weigh and many of the Sailors aloft. These during the first attack found means to get between the decks & with muskets killed many Indians; among these were the Boatswain, two or three other whites & some S. Islanders.
“The decks were soon cleared of the crew & filled with Indians. The men below strewed Powder along between decks, then watched an opportunity when that part was crowded & blew it up, which killed best part of a hundred. This explosion set fire to the Ship but did not destroy her. The quarter deck & after part remained entire, & consequently the magazine. While the few Indians on board were endeavoring to extinguish the fire about the Ship three of the crew took to the boat from the Cabin window, & three swam ashore.
“those in the boat he says passed three nations to the Northward along the sea shore, but were at length Killed, we suppose at the Straits of De Fuca; the three that swam ashore were immediately killed.
“The Indians continued flocking on board after the Ship was on fire, apprehending no danger, when the crew were all killed or had left her but she at length blew up with a great on board & around near in Canoes, most or all of whom perished. He informs us also that he warned both Mr. McKay & Capt. Thorn that the Indians had a design upon them, but they would not listen to it, allowed as many to come on board as wished, expressed a contempt for the power of the Indians to hurt them, and were even entirely unarmed in the midst of them after he had apprized them of the danger. He may very well be credited in this particular, as he was considered by the natives there an enemy, and but for the circumstance of having a Sister married among them would also have been killed.
“The cause that gave rise to this unhappy event is already detailed in our Journal of 1811. To see this man afforded a satisfaction, as there is no question but that he actually witnessed it. Gave him a suitable present as was promised and to the Queenhilt Chief who accompanied him. Rewarded Comcomly also for his trouble.”
The following constitutes a portion of McDougall’s June 18th, 1813 entry in the Astoria log book:
“Joseachal took leave of us to day for Queenhilt after being handsomely rewarded for his trouble. As we may probably not have an opportunity of seeing him again it is thought proper here to make further mention of his story in a manner more connected than before, for which purpose he was separately examined at different times by several of us.
“The first account we received of the loss of the Tonquin was about the latter end of July 1811, but it was not then thought credible, or noticed in the Journal untill some time in August, after being repeatedly told to us. Hopes were not even then given over for her return untill late in the fall. Time, however, settled all doubts, & the fact is now but too well established.
“This Indian went on board of her to Northward of Gray’s habor, at or near Destruction Isle, from a fishing canoe, on the promise of Captain Thorn or McKay, or both, that he should be well rewarded for his services, & returned at that place or in this river on the arrival of the Ship in the fall. He had performed already two voyages on the Coast with Captn Ebbets & Capn Brown, & on account of his knowledge of the languages, trade, etc., could render himself serviceable.
“The Ship proceeded to Wicanninishes, where they came to anchor toward evening for the purpose of trading Sea Otters. Numbers of the natives were immediately around & on board, but being late Captn Thorn did not commence a trade. Mr. McKay proposed for himself & this Indian to go ashore, which he objected to as not being safe. At length, however, Mr. McKay prevailed upon him to go in an Indian Canoe, while 6 of the natives remained on board as hostages untill their return. Mr. McK. arrived soon on board without any difficulty happening to him, the natives were set at liberty, and we do not learn that any trouble or disquiet was to advertise the Indians that they had come to trade with them.
“The day following commenced the trade. The natives about the Ship & on board of her were very numerous, had plenty of Skins, but would not trade them at the rate Capt. Thorn wished. He offered them 2 Blankets of Cloth, or Lion Skin, a quantity of Beads, hooks, and Vermillion for each skin, and they would think of taking nothing less than 5 Blankets.
“The Chiefs of the Villages ashore were Wicanninish and his two sons (the younger of whose name was Shee-wish), Nook-a-mis, & Sid-da-kum, two elderly men. The principal trader or oracle for the day among them was Nookamis. Great quantities of Cloth, Blankets, etc., were brought on deck, the cloth unfolded & laying loose during the long debates about trading.. Captn. Thorn alone took upon himself this task. Mr. McK. during the arguments with the natives was sitting on the Taf’rel of the Ship. Captn. T. in his walks about deck had some words with him, probably about the trade. This Indian enquired of Mr. McK. the subject of their dispute, but was told it was about the Sails of the Ship or some such like answer.
“They were in this manner engaged in debates about trade untill past midday when Capt. Thorn got in a passion with Nookamis (who was continually following him about decks & pestering him to trade) kicked way his Skins, struck him with one across the face, damned his eyes & began preparing to get under weigh. It was after this had happened that the discourse mentioned took place between him & Mr. McKay. The Ship was at this time full of Indians, the decks lined with them on each side. This Indian observed their proceedings after the affront given to the Chief, and apprized both Capt. Thorn & Mr. McKay that they were meditating an attempt to destroy them. Capt. Thorn would not listen to it at all, nor would believe them capable of hurting him. In addressing Mr. McK. before this Indian, pointed to the guns & number of arms below seemed to defy them. He continued on deck wholly unarmed, giving orders for getting under weigh, without taking the precaution of making the natives leave the Ship during the confusion of preparing for sea. Mr. McKay was also entirely unarmed. Respecting this, as also of the Captain’s being unarmed he was questioned loosely.
“After the affront offered to Nookamis, time enough was allowed them to consult upon measures to take revenge. The young son of Wicanninish, Shee-wish made himself busy in this, had been ashore & returned with a number of his own people. This was not noticed by Capt. Thorn on account of the confusion on board. They were getting up the anchor & loosing the Topsails when the Indians offered a second time to trade. They offered their Skins for 3 Blankets & a knife each which was given. A brisk trade was carried on untill all the Indians sitting round on the decks of the Ship were supplied with a knife a piece.
“This was narrowly observed by Joseachal, but probably by no one else on board, as it appears they were not sensible of the danger. He mentions in a particular manner this circumstance, how they concealed the knives in their Blankets, which was thron off their shoulders laying before them.
“The proceedings after this were as related on Tuesday last, with very little difference. The chief mentioned as killed by Captn. Thorn was Shee-wish, not killed but badly wounded in the thigh, fell down the hatch way, and was there either despatched by some of the crew or was blown up with others. Both Mr. McKay and Capt. Thorn after being killed had the head severed from the body, that stripped of every thing & thrown into the sea. When Capt. Thorn received the blow that despatched him, he was seized by an uncommonly strong Indian, brother to Wicanninish.
“The whole number of Indians destroyed on the occasion amounts to near two hundred, by the account of Joseachal. he was in the mizen chains trembling for his life during the proceeding of the natives, untill the first explosion when the Jumped in the water & swam ashore.”
Gabriel Franchere’s Account
The following is an excerpt from the 1854 English translation (the original having been written in French) of Gabriel Franchere’s book Journal of a Voyage on the North West Coast of North America during the Years 1811, 1812, 1813 and 1814:
“Toward the end of the month [July 1811], a large assemblage of Indians from the neighborhood of the straits Juan de Fuca, and Gray’s Harbor, formed a great camp on Baker’s Bay, for the ostensible object of fishing for sturgeon. It was bruited among these Indians that the Tonquin had been destroyed on the coast, and Mr. M’Kay (or the chief trader, as they called him) [Alexander McKay, a former Nor’Wester and veteran of Alexander Mackenzie’s 1793 overland journey to the Pacific Ocean] and all the crew, massacred by the natives. We did not give credence to this rumor. Some days after, other Indians from Gray’s Harbor, called Tchikeylis [Chehalis], confirmed what the first had narrated, and even gave us, as far as we could judge by the little we knew of their language, a very circumstantial detail of the affair, so that without wholly convincing us, it did not fail to make a painful impression on our minds, and keep us in an excited state of feeling as to the truth of the report.
Ross Cox’s Account
The following is an excerpt from Ross Cox’s 1832 book Adventures on the Columbia River Including The Narrative of a Residence of Six Years on the Western Side of the Rocky Mountains Among Various Tribes of Indians Hitherto Unknown Together With a Journey Across the American Continent:
“Early in the month of August a party of Indians from Gray’s Harbour arrived at the mouth of the Columbia for the purpose of fishing. They told the Chinooks that the Tonquin had been cut off by one of the northern tribes, and that every soul on board had been massacred. This intelligence was not at first believed; but several other rumours of a similar nature having reached Astoria, caused considerable uneasiness, particularly as the month passed away without any news of a satisfactory nature having been received…
“It is now time to return to the Tonquin, of which no news had been heard during the winter, with the exception of the flying rumours already alluded to. That vessel, as mentioned in the preceding chapter, sailed from the Columbia on the 5th of June, 1811, on a trading speculation to the northward; and Mr. M’Kay took on board, as an interpreter, a native of Gray’s Harbour, who was well acquainted with the various dialects of the tribes on the coast. From this Indian the following melancholy particulars were learned.
“A few days after their departure from the Columbia they anchored opposite a large village, named ‘New Whitty,’ in the vicinity of Nootka, where Mr. M’Kay immediately opened a smart trade with the natives. He went on shore with a few men, was received in the most friendly manner, and slept a couple of nights at the village. During this period several of the natives visited the vessel with furs. The harsh and unbending manners of the captain were not calculated to win their esteem; and having struck one of the principal men whom he had caught in a petty theft, a conspiracy was formed by the friends of the chief to surprise and cut off the vessel. The faithful interpreter, having discovered their designs, lost no time in acquainting Mr. M’Kay, who instantly hurried on board for the purpose of warning the captain of the intended attack. That evening Mr. M’Kay told the interpreter that the captain only laughed at the information, and said he could never believe that a parcel of lazy thieving Indians would have the courage to attack such a ship as his. The natives, in the mean time, apprehensive from Mr. M’Kay’s sudden return that their plans were suspected, visited the ship in small numbers, totally unarmed, in order to throw our people off their guard. Even the chief who had been struck by Captain Thorne, and who was the head of the conspiracy, came on board in a manner seemingly friendly, and apparently forgetful of the insult he had received.
“Early in the morning of the day previous to that on which the ship was to leave New Whitty a couple of large canoes, each containing about twenty men, appeared alongside. They brought several small bundles of furs, and, as the sailors imagined they came for the purpose of trading, were allowed to come on deck. Shortly after, another canoe, with an equal number, arrived also with furs; and it was quickly followed by two others, full of men carrying beaver, otter, and other valuable skins. No opposition was made to their coming on board; but the officer of the watch perceiving a number of other canoes pushing off, became suspicious of their intentions, and warned Captain Thorne of the circumstance. He immediately came on the quarter-deck, accompanied by Mr. M’Kay and the interpreter. The latter, on observing that they all wore short cloaks or mantles of skins, which was by no means a general custom, at once knew their designs were hostile, and told Mr. M’Kay of his suspicions. That gentleman immediately appraised Captain Thorne of the circumstances, and begged him to lose no time in clearing the ship of the intruders. This caution was however treated with contempt by the captain, who remarked, that with the arms they had on board they would be more than a match for three times the number. The sailors in the mean time had all come up on the deck, which was crowded with Indians, who completely blocked up the passages, and obstructed the men in the performance of their various duties. The captain requested them to retire, to which they paid no attention. He then told them he was about going to sea, and had given orders to the men to raise the anchor, that he hoped they would go away quietly, but if they refused, he should be compelled to force their departure. He had scarcely finished, when, at a signal given by one of the chiefs, a loud and frightful yell was heard from the assembled savages, who commenced a sudden and simultaneous attack on the officers and crew with knives, bludgeons, and short sabres, which they had concealed under their robes.
“Mr. M’Kay was one of the first attacked. One Indian gave him a severe blow with a bludgeon, which partially stunned him; upon which he was seized by five or six others, who threw him overboard into a canoe alongside, where he quickly recovered, and was allowed to remain for some time uninjured.
“Captain Thorne made an ineffectual attempt to reach the cabin for his fire-arms, but was overpowered by numbers. His only weapon was a jack-knife, with which he killed four of his savage assailants by ripping up their bellies, and mutilated several others. Covered with wounds, and exhausted from the loss of blood, he rested himself for a moment by leaned on the tiller wheel, when he received a dreadful blow from a weapon called a pautumaugan, on the back of the head, which felled him to the deck. The death-dealing knife fell from his hand; and his savage butchers, after extinguishing the few sparks of life that still remained, threw his mangled body overboard.
“On seeing the captain’s fate, our informant, who was close to him, and who had hitherto escaped uninjured, jumped into the water, and was taken into a canoe by some women, who partially covered his body with mats. He states that the original intention of the enemy was to detain Mr. M’Kay a prisoner, and after securing the vessel, to give him his liberty, on obtaining a ransom from Astoria; but on finding the resistance made by the captain and crew, the former of whom had killed one of their principal chiefs, their love of gain gave way to revenge, and they resolved to destroy him. The last time the ill-fated gentleman was seen, his head was hanging over the side of a canoe, and three savages, armed with pautumaugans, were battering out his brains.
“In the mean time the devoted crew, who had maintained the unequal conflict with unparalleled bravery, became gradually overpowered. Three of them, John Anderson, the boatswain, John Weekes, the carpenter, Stephen Weekes, who had so narrowly escaped at the Columbia, succeeded, after a desperate struggle, in gaining possession of the cabin, the entrance to which they securely fastened inside. The Indians now became more cautious, for they well knew there were plenty of fire-arms below; and they had already experienced enough of the prowess of the three men while on the deck, and armed only with hand-spikes, to dread approaching them while they had more mortal weapons at their command.
“Anderson and his two companions seeing their commander and the crew dead and dying about them, and that no hope of escape remained, and feeling moreover, the uselessness of any farther opposition, set about laying a train to the powder magazine, while the third addressed some Indians from the cabin windows, who were in canoes, and gave them to understand, that if they were permitted to depart unmolested in one of the ship’s boats, they would give them quiet possession of the vessel without firing a shot, stipulating, however, that no canoe should remain near them while getting into the boat. The anxiety of the barbarians to obtain possession of the plunder, and their disinclination to risk any more lives, induced them to embrace this proposition with eagerness, and the pinnace was immediately brought astern. The three heroes having by this time perfected their dreadful arrangements, and ascertained that no Indian was watching them, gradually lowered themselves from the cabin windows into the boat, and, having fired the train, quickly pushed off towards the mouth of the harbour, no obstacle being interposed to prevent their departures.
“Hundreds of the enemy now rushed on deck to seize the long expected prize, shouting yells of victory; but their triumph was of short duration. Just as they had burst open the cabin door, an explosion took place, which in an instant hurled upwards of two hundred savages into eternity, and dreadfully injured as many more. The interpreter, who had by this time reached land, states he saw many mutilated bodies floating near the beach, while heads, arms, and legs, together with fragments of the ship, were thrown to a considerable distance on the shore.
“The first impression of the survivors was, that the Master of Life had sent forth the Evil Spirit from the waters to punish them for their cruelty to the white people. This belief, joined to the consternation occasioned by the shock, and the reproaches and lamentations of the wives and other relatives of the sufferers, paralysed for a time the exertions of the savages, and favoured the attempt of Anderson and his brave comrades to escape. They rowed hard for the mouth of the harbour, with the intention, as is supposed, of coasting along the shore to the Columbia; but after passing the bar, a head wind and flowing tide drove them back, and compelled them to land late at night in a small cove, where they fancied themselves free from danger; and where, weak from the loss of blood, and the harassing exertions of the day, they fell into a profound sleep.
“In the mean time, the terror of the Indians had in some degree subsided, and they quickly discovered that it was by human agency so many of their warriors had been destroyed. They therefore determined on having the lives of those who caused the explosion; and being aware, from the state of the wind and tide, that the boat could not put to sea, a party proceeded after dark cautiously along the shore of the bay, until they arrived at the spot where their helpless victims lay slumbering. Bleeding and exhausted, they opposed but a feeble resistance to their savage conquerors; and about midnight, their heroic spirits mingled with those of their departed comrades.
“Thus perished the last of the gallant crew of the Tonquin: and in reflecting on their melancholy fate, it is deeply to be regretted that there was no person of sufficient influence at Astoria to bring about a reconciliation between Captain Thorn and Mr. M’Kay; for were it not for the deplorable hostility and consequent want of union that existed between these two brave men, it is more than probable this dreadful catastrophe would never have occurred.”
Alexander Ross’ Account
Below are excerpts from Alexander Ross’ 1849 book Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813. Shortly after the bloody affair at Clayoquot Sound, of which everyone at Astoria was ignorant at the time, Ross and a handful of Astorians left the fort and established Fort Okanagan at the confluence of the Columbia and Okanagan Rivers- an event which we will describe later on in this piece. In his memoir, Ross wrote:
“…Not many days after we had arrived at Oakinacken [Okanagan], a party of Indians reached that place, on their return from the Great Salt Lake, as they called it, and gave us to understand by signs and gestures that a large ship, with white people in it, had been blown up on the water; and, in order the better to make us comprehend the subject, they threw up their arms in the air, blew with the mouth, and made the wild grimace of despair, to signify the explosion. On our part all was conjecture and suspense, unwilling as we were to believe what we did not wish to be true; but the more we reflected, the more we were disposed to believe the report, from the well-known fact that Mr. Astor’s choice of a captain was most unfortunate… The conduct of Captain Thom throughout, coupled with the fact of his having left Astoria without a single officer on board his ship, led strongly to the conclusion that all was not right, and that the reports in circulation might ultimately prove true. The facts above stated I myself witnessed—fifty others witnessed them also: they cannot be denied nor gainsaid—yet such was the man who enjoyed Mr. Astor’s unbounded confidence.”
According to Ross, the men at Astoria received the same report on August 5th, 1811, from a friendly Chinook native named Calpo. Ross continued:
“Various and conflicting were the reports that had from time to time reached Astoria respecting the fate of the Tonquin; yet all agreed in the main point—that is, in her destruction. She had also. passed, by some months, the time of her expected return, so that there remained but little doubt of her fate; yet, subsequently to Calpo’s statement, nothing transpired to add to our fears for a month or two, although during that time various individuals and parties had been employed to trace out the true story of her fate.
“On the 12th of October, however, three Chinooks were fitted out, and set off with the determination not to return until they should reach the place where it was reported she had been cut off, or obtain certain accounts respecting her. These men had not, however, proceeded far, before they were met by a strange Indian on his way to Astoria with the unwelcome news of the Tonquin’s tragical end: so the Chinooks turned about, and accompanied the stranger back to Astoria, where they arrived on the eighth day; and here the strange Indian made his report, which we shall give in his own words:
“‘My name is Kasiascall, but the Chinooks and other Indians hereabout call me Lamazu. I belong to the Wick-a-nook [Wickaninnish] tribe of Indians near Nootka Sound. I have often been on board ships. The whites call me Jack. I understand most of the languages that are spoken along the coast. I can speak some Chinook, too. I have been twice at this place before; once by land and once by sea. I saw the ship Tonquin; Captain Thorn was her commander. I went on board of her at Woody Point harbour in June last. We remained there for two days. We then sailed for Vancouver’s Island; and just as we had got to it, a gale of wind drove us to sea, and it was three days before we got back again. The fourth morning we cast anchor in Eyuck Whoola, Newcetu Bay. There we remained for some days; Indians going and coming, but not much trade. One day the Indians came on board in great numbers, but did not trade much, although they had plenty of skins. The prices offered did not please the Indians; so they carried back their furs again. The day following the chiefs came on board, and as usual asked the captain to show them such and such things, and state the lowest price, which he accordingly did. They did not, however, trade, but pressed the captain for presents, which he refused. The chiefs left the ship displeased at what they called stingy conduct in the captain, as they were accustomed to receive trifling presents from the traders on the coast.
“‘In the evening of the same day, Mr. M’Kay and myself went on shore, and were well received by the chiefs, and saw a great many sea-otter skins with the Indians. We both returned to the ship the same evening. Next day the Indians came off to trade in great numbers. On their coming alongside, the captain ordered the boarding-netting to be put up round the ship, and would not allow more than ten on board at a time; but just as the trade had commenced, an Indian was detected cutting the boarding-netting with a knife in order to get on board. On being detected, he instantly jumped into one of the canoes which were alongside, and made his escape. The captain then, turning round, bade the chiefs to call him back. The chiefs smiled and said nothing, which irritated the captain, and he immediately laid hold of two of the chiefs, and threatened to hang them up unless they caused the delinquent to be brought back to be punished. The moment the chiefs were seized, all the Indians fled from the ship in consternation. The chiefs were kept on board all night with a guard over them. Food was offered them, but they would neither eat nor drink. Next day, however, the offender was brought to the ship and delivered up, when the captain ordered him to be stripped and tied up, but did not flog him. He was then dismissed. The chiefs were also liberated, and left the ship, refusing with disdain a present that was offered them, and vowing vengeance on the whites for the insult received.
“‘Next day not an Indian came to the ship; but in the afternoon an old chief sent for Mr. M’Kay and myself to go to his lodge. We did so, and were very kindly treated. Mr. M’Kay was a great favourite among the Indians; and I have no doubt that the plot for destroying the ship was at this time fully arranged, and that it was intended, if possible, to save M’Kay’s life in the general massacre. But not finding this practicable without the risk of discovery, he, as we shall soon learn, fell with the rest. When we were on shore we saw the chiefs, and they seemed all in good humour, and asked me if the captain was still angry; and on being assured that they would be well treated and kindly received by him if they went on board, they appeared highly pleased, and promised to go and trade the following day. Mr. M’Kay returned to the ship that evening, but I remained on shore till the next morning. When I got on board, Mr. M’Kay was walking backwards and forwards on deck in rather a gloomy mood, and considerably excited; himself and the captain having, as he told me, had some angry words between them respecting the two chiefs who had been kept prisoners on board, which was sorely against M’Kay’s will.
“‘As soon as I got on deck, he called me to him. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘are the Indians coming to trade today?’ I said, ‘They are. ‘I wish they would not come,’ said he again; adding, ‘I am afraid there is an under-current at work. After the captain’s late conduct to the chiefs, I do not like so sudden, so flattering a change. There is treachery in the case, or they differ from all other Indians I ever knew. I have told the captain so- I have also suggested that all hands should be on the alert when the Indians are here; but he ridicules the suggestion as groundless. So let him have his own way.’ M’Kay then asked me my opinion. I told him it would be well to have the netting up. He then bid me go to the captain, and I went; but before I could speak to him, he called out, ‘Well, Kas, are the Indians coming today?’ I said I thought so. He then asked- ‘Are the chiefs in good humour yet?’ I said I never saw them in better humour. ‘I humbled the fellows a little; they’ll not be so saucy now; and we will get on much better,’ said the captain. At this moment M’Kay joined us, and repeated to the captain what he had just stated to me. The captain laughed; observing to M’Kay, ‘You pretend to know a great deal about the Indian character: you know nothing at all’ And so the conversation dropt.
“‘Mr. M’Kay’s anxiety and perturbation of mind was increased by the manner in which the captain treated his advice; and having, to all appearance, a presentiment of what was brooding among the Indians, he refused going to breakfast that morning, put two pair of pistols in his pockets, and sat down on the larboard side of the quarter-deck in a pensive mood. In a short time afterwards, the Indians began to flock about the ship, both men and women, in great crowds, with their furs; and certainly I myself thought that there was not the least danger, particularly as the women accompanied the men to trade; but I was surprised that the captain did not put the netting up. It was the first time I ever saw a ship trade there without adopting that precaution. As soon as the Indians arrived, the captain, relying no doubt on the apparent reconciliation which had taken place between M’Kay and the chiefs on shore, and wishing perhaps to atone for the insult he had offered the latter, flew from one extreme to the other, receiving them with open arms, and admitting them on board without reserve, and without the usual precautions. The trade went on briskly, and at the captain’s own prices. The Indians throwing the goods received into the canoes, which were alongside, with the women in them; but in doing so, they managed to conceal their knives about their persons, which circumstance was noticed by one of the men aloft, then by myself, and we warned the captain of it; but he treated the suggestions, as usual, with a smile of contempt, and no more was said about it; but in a moment or two afterwards, the captain began to suspect something himself, and was in the act of calling Mr. M’Kay to him, when the Indians in an instant raised the hideous yell of death, which echoed from stem to stern of the devoted ship, the women in the canoes immediately pushed off, and the massacre began. The conflict was bloody but short. The savages, with their naked knives and horrid yells, rushed on the unsuspecting and defenceless whites, who were dispersed all over the ship, and in five minutes’ time the vessel was their own. M’Kay was the first man who fell, he shot one Indian, but was instantly killed and thrown overboard, and so sudden was the surprise that the captain had scarcely time to draw from his pocket a clasp-knife, with which he defended himself desperately, killed two, and wounded several more, till at last he fell dead in the crowd. The last man I saw alive was Stephen Weeks, the armourer. In the midst of the carnage, I leapt overboard, as did several other Indians, and we were taken up by the women in the canoes, who were yelling, whooping, and crying like so many fiends about the ship; but before I had got two gun-shots from the ship, and not ten minutes after I had left her, she blew up in the air with a fearful explosion, filling the whole place with broken fragments and mutilated bodies. The sight was terrific and overwhelming. Weeks must have been the man who blew up the ship, and by that awful act of revenge, one hundred and seventy-five Indians perished, and some of the canoes, although at a great distance off, had a narrow escape. The melancholy and fatal catastrophe spread desolation, lamentation, and terror throughout the whole tribe.
“‘Scarcely anything belonging to the ship was saved by the Indians, and so terrifying was the effect, so awful the scene, when two other ships passed there soon afterwards, not an Indian would venture to go near them. I knew that the Tonquin belonged to the whites at Columbia, I was eighteen days on board of her, and had started long ago with the tidings of her tragical end; but falling sick, I was prevented from coming sooner. There might have been twenty-four days between the time the Tonquin left the Columbia and her destruction by the Indians.”
“Thus ended the sad story of Kasiascall, a story which we at the time believed to be perfectly true; but not many days after, some Indians belonging to the same quarter reached Astoria also, and gave a somewhat different version of the affair, particularly as regarded Kasiascall himself, and what convinced us that he had acted a treacherous part, was the fact, that on hearing that the other Indians were coming, he immediately absconded, and we saw him no more. These Indians confirmed Kasiascall’s story in every respect as regarded the destruction of the ill-fated Tonquin; but persisted in assuring us that he was not on board at the time, and that he was privy to the whole plot. They said that before that affair he had caused the death of four white men, and that, early in the morning of the Tonquin’s fatal day, he had induced the captain, through some plausible artifice, to send a boat with six men to shore, and that neither he nor the six men were on board at the time of her destruction. That in the evening of the same day, Kasiascall himself headed the party who went, and brought the six unfortunate men, after the ship was blown up, to the Indian camp, where they were first tortured with savage cruelty, and then all massacred in the most inhuman manner.
“We have now brought the tragical story of the fated Tonquin nearly to a dose. Wise men profit by experience, listen to counsel, and yield to circumstances. Captain Thorn, on the contrary, looked upon every suggestion as an attempt to dictate to him, despised counsel, and treated advice with contempt. Had he profited either by the errors or misfortunes of others, or had he listened to the dictates of common prudence, and used the means he had at command, the savages along the coast, numerous and hostile as they are, would never have obtained the mastery, nor taken the Tonquin. We lament the fate of her unfortunate crew and commander. Captain Thorn had many good qualities- was brave, had the manners of a gentleman, and was an able and experienced seaman; but his temper was cruel and overbearing,- and his fate verifies the sacred decree, that ‘he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath showed no mercy.’”
Ross went on to describe how Kasiascall, after fleeing Astoria at the approach of the natives, lurked for some time among the local Chinooks and encouraged them to attack their white neighbours. He convinced twenty or thirty Chinook warriors to consider the idea, and on December 25th, 1811, he accompanied them on a reconnaissance expedition to the back side of the fort, conducted for the purpose of determining a plan of attack. Fortunately for the Astorians, a band of friendly Chinooks headed into that same stretch of woods at that very moment on a hog-hunting excursion and spotted the native scouts. Bereft of the element of surprise, the mauraders-to-be called off the attack.
Washington Irving’s Treatment
The following is an excerpt from Washington Irving’s 1836 book Astoria: Or, Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains:
“Early in August, a wandering band of savages from the Strait of Juan de Fuca made their appearance at the mouth of the Columbia, where they came to fish for sturgeon. They brought disastrous accounts of the Tonquin, which were at first treated as fables, but which were too sadly confirmed by a different tribe that arrived a few days subsequently. We shall relate the circumstances of this melancholy affair as correctly as the casual discrepancies in the statements that have reached us will permit.
“We have already stated that the Tonquin set sail from the mouth of the river on the fifth of June. The whole number of persons on board amounted to twenty-three. In one of the outer bays they picked up, from a fishing canoe, an Indian named Lamazee [called ‘Joseachal’ in other accounts], who had already made two voyages along the coast and knew something of the language of the various tribes. He agreed to accompany them as interpreter.
“Steering to the north, Captain Thorn arrived in a few days at Vancouver’s Island, and anchored in the harbor of Neweetee, very much against the advice of his Indian interpreter, who warned him against the perfidious character of the natives of this part of the coast. Numbers of canoes soon came off, bringing sea-otter skins to sell. It was too late in the day to commence a traffic, but Mr. M’Kay, accompanied by a few of the men, went on shore to a large village to visit Wicananish [sometimes spelled ‘Wickaninnish’], the chief of the surrounding territory, six of the natives remaining on board as hostages. He was received with great professions of friendship, entertained hospitably, and a couch of sea-otter skins prepared for him in the dwelling of the chieftain, where he was prevailed upon to pass the night.
“In the morning, before Mr. M’Kay had returned to the ship, great numbers of the natives came off in their canoes to trade, headed by two sons of Wicananish. As they brought abundance of sea-otter skins, and there was every appearance of a brisk trade, Captain Thorn did not wait for the return of Mr. M’Kay, but spread his wares upon the deck, making a tempting display of blankets, cloths, knives, beads, and fish-hooks, expecting a prompt and profitable sale. The Indians, however, were not so eager and simple as he had supposed, having learned the art of bargaining and the value of merchandise from the casual traders along the coast. They were guided, too, by a shrewd old chief named Nookamis, who had grown gray in traffic with New England skippers, and prided himself upon his acuteness. His opinion seemed to regulate the market. When Captain Thorn made what he considered a liberal offer for an otter-skin, the wily old Indian treated it with scorn, and asked more than double. His comrades all took their cue from him, and not an otter-skin was to be had at a reasonable rate.
“The old fellow, however, overshot his mark, and mistook the character of the man he was treating with. Thorn was a plain, straightforward sailor, who never had two minds nor two prices in his dealings, was deficient in patience and pliancy, and totally wanting in the chicanery of traffic. He had a vast deal of stern but honest pride in his nature, and, moreover, held the whole savage race in sovereign contempt. Abandoning all further attempts, therefore, to bargain with his shuffling customers, he thrust his hands into his pockets, and paced up and down the deck in sullen silence. The cunning old Indian followed him to and fro, holding out a sea-otter skin to him at every turn, and pestering him to trade. Finding other means unavailing, he suddenly changed his tone, and began to jeer and banter him upon the mean prices he offered. This was too much for the patience of the captain, who was never remarkable for relishing a joke, especially when at his own expense. Turning suddenly upon his persecutor, he snatched the proffered otter-skin from his hands, rubbed it in his face, and dismissed him over the side of the ship with no very complimentary application to accelerate his exit. He then kicked the peltries to the right and left about the deck, and broke up the market in the most ignominious manner. Old Nookamis made for shore in a furious passion, in which he was joined by Shewish, one of the sons of Wicananish, who went off breathing vengeance, and the ship was soon abandoned by the natives.
“When Mr. M’Kay returned on board, the interpreter related what had passed, and begged him to prevail upon the captain to make sail, as from his knowledge of the temper and pride of the people of the place, he was sure they would resent the indignity offered to one of their chiefs. Mr. M’Kay, who himself possessed some experience of Indian character, went to the captain, who was still pacing the deck in moody humor, represented the danger to which his hasty act had exposed the vessel, and urged him to weigh anchor. The captain made light of his counsels, and pointed to his cannon and fire-arms as sufficient safeguard against naked savages. Further remonstrances only provoked taunting replies and sharp altercations. The day passed away without any signs of hostility, and at night the captain retired as usual to his cabin, taking no more than the usual precautions.
“On the following morning, at daybreak, while the captain and Mr. M’Kay were yet asleep, a canoe came alongside in which were twenty Indians, commanded by young Shewish. They were unarmed, their aspect and demeanor friendly, and they held up otter-skins, and made signs indicative of a wish to trade. The caution enjoined by Mr. Astor, in respect to the admission of Indians on board of the ship, had been neglected for some time past, and the officer of the watch, perceiving those in the canoe to be without weapons, and having received no orders to the contrary, readily permitted them to mount the deck. Another canoe soon succeeded, the crew of which was likewise admitted. In a little while other canoes came off, and Indians were soon clambering into the vessel on all sides.
“The officer of the watch now felt alarmed, and called to Captain Thorn and Mr. M’Kay. By the time they came on deck, it was thronged with Indians. The interpreter noticed to Mr. M’Kay that many of the natives wore short mantles of skins, and intimated a suspicion that they were secretly armed. Mr. M’Kay urged the captain to clear the ship and get under way. He again made light of the advice; but the augmented swarm of canoes about the ship, and the numbers still putting off from shore, at length awakened his distrust, and he ordered some of the crew to weigh anchor, while some were sent aloft to make sail.
“The Indians now offered to trade with the captain on his own terms, prompted, apparently, by the approaching departure of the ship. Accordingly, a hurried trade was commenced. The main articles sought by the savages in barter were knives; as fast as some were supplied they moved off, and others succeeded. By degrees they were thus distributed about the deck, and all with weapons.
“The anchor was now nearly up, the sails were loose, and the captain, in a loud and peremptory tone, ordered the ship to be cleared. In an instant, a signal yell was given; it was echoed on every side, knives and war-clubs were brandished in every direction, and the savages rushed upon their marked victims.
“The first that fell was Mr. Lewis, the ship’s clerk. He was leaning, with folded arms, over a bale of blankets, engaged in bargaining, when he received a deadly stab in the back, and fell down the companion-way.
“Mr. M’Kay, who was seated on the taffrail, sprang on his feet, but was instantly knocked down with a war-club and flung backwards into the sea, where he was despatched by the women in the canoes.
“In the meantime Captain Thorn made desperate fight against fearful odds. He was a powerful as well as a resolute man, but he had come upon deck without weapons. Shewish, the young chief singled him out as his peculiar prey, and rushed upon him at the first outbreak. The captain had barely time to draw a clasp-knife with one blow of which he laid the young savage dead at his feet. Several of the stoutest followers of Shewish now set upon him. He defended himself vigorously, dealing crippling blows to right and left, and strewing the quarter-deck with the slain and wounded. His object was to fight his way to the cabin, where there were fire-arms; but he was hemmed in with foes, covered with wounds, and faint with loss of blood. For an instant he leaned upon the tiller wheel, when a blow from behind, with a war-club, felled him to the deck, where he was despatched with knives and thrown overboard.
“While this was transacting upon the quarter-deck, a chance-medley fight was going on throughout the ship. The crew fought desperately with knives, handspikes, and whatever weapon they could seize upon in the moment of surprise. They were soon, however, overpowered by numbers, and mercilessly butchered.
“As to the seven who had been sent aloft to make sail, they contemplated with horror the carnage that was going on below. Being destitute of weapons, they let themselves down by the running rigging, in hopes of getting between decks. One fell in the attempt, and was instantly despatched; another received a death-blow in the back as he was descending; a third, Stephen Weekes, the armorer, was mortally wounded as he was getting down the hatchway.
“The remaining four made good their retreat into the cabin, where they found Mr. Lewis, still alive, though mortally wounded. Barricading the cabin door, they broke holes through the companion-way, and, with the muskets and ammunition which were at hand, opened a brisk fire that soon cleared the deck.
“Thus far the Indian interpreter, from whom these particulars are derived, had been an eye-witness to the deadly conflict. He had taken no part in it, and had been spared by the natives as being of their race. In the confusion of the moment he took refuge with the rest, in the canoes. The survivors of the crew now sallied forth, and discharged some of the deck-guns, which did great execution among the canoes, and drove all the savages to shore.
“For the remainder of the day no one ventured to put off to the ship, deterred by the effects of the fire-arms. The night passed away without any further attempts on the part of the natives. When the day dawned, the Tonquin still lay at anchor in the bay, her sails all loose and flapping in the wind, and no one apparently on board of her. After a time, some of the canoes ventured forth to reconnoitre, taking with them the interpreter.
“They paddled about her, keeping cautiously at a distance, but growing more and more emboldened at seeing her quiet and lifeless. One man at length made his appearance on the deck, and was recognized by the interpreter as Mr. Lewis. He made friendly signs, and invited them on board. It was long before they ventured to comply. Those who mounted the deck met with no opposition; no one was to be seen on board; for Mr. Lewis, after inviting them, had disappeared. Other canoes now pressed forward to board the prize; the decks were soon crowded, and the sides covered with clambering savages, all intent on plunder. In the midst of their eagerness and exultation, the ship blew up with a tremendous explosion. Arms, legs, and mutilated bodies were blown into the air, and dreadful havoc was made in the surrounding canoes. The interpreter was in the main-chains at the time of the explosion, and was thrown unhurt into the water, where he succeeded in getting into one of the canoes. According to his statement, the bay presented an awful spectacle after the catastrophe. The ship had disappeared, but the bay was covered with fragments of the wreck, with shattered canoes, and Indians swimming for their lives, or struggling in the agonies of death; while those who had escaped the danger remained aghast and stupefied, or made with frantic panic for the shore. Upwards of a hundred savages were destroyed by the explosion, many more were shockingly mutilated, and for days afterwards the limbs and bodies of the slain were thrown upon the beach.
“The inhabitants of Neweetee were overwhelmed with consternation at this astounding calamity, which had burst upon them in the very moment of triumph. The warriors sat mute and mournful, while the women filled the air with loud lamentations. Their weeping and walling, however, was suddenly changed into yells of fury at the sight of four unfortunate white men, brought captive into the village. They had been driven on shore in one of the ship’s boats, and taken at some distance along the coast.
“The interpreter was permitted to converse with them. They proved to be the four brave fellows who had made such desperate defense from the cabin. The interpreter gathered from them some of the particulars already related. They told him further, that after they had beaten off the enemy and cleared the ship, Lewis advised that they should slip the cable and endeavor to get to sea. They declined to take his advice, alleging that the wind set too strongly into the bay and would drive them on shore. They resolved, as soon as it was dark, to put off quietly in the ship’s boat, which they would be able to do unperceived, and to coast along back to Astoria. They put their resolution into effect; but Lewis refused to accompany them, being disabled by his wound, hopeless of escape, and determined on a terrible revenge. On the voyage out, he had repeatedly expressed a presentiment that he should die by his own hands; thinking it highly probable that he should be engaged in some contest with the natives, and being resolved, in case of extremity, to commit suicide rather than be made a prisoner. He now declared his intention to remain on board of the ship until daylight, to decoy as many of the savages on board as possible, then to set fire to the powder magazine, and terminate his life by a signal of vengeance. How well he succeeded has been shown. His companions bade him a melancholy adieu, and set off on their precarious expedition. They strove with might and main to get out of the bay, but found it impossible to weather a point of land, and were at length compelled to take shelter in a small cove, where they hoped to remain concealed until the wind should be more favorable. Exhausted by fatigue and watching, they fell into a sound sleep, and in that state were surprised by the savages. Better had it been for those unfortunate men had they remained with Lewis, and shared his heroic death: as it was, they perished in a more painful and protracted manner, being sacrificed by the natives to the manes of their friends with all the lingering tortures of savage cruelty. Some time after their death, the interpreter, who had remained a kind of prisoner at large, effected his escape, and brought the tragical tidings to Astoria.
“Such is the melancholy story of the Tonquin, and such was the fate of her brave but headstrong commander, and her adventurous crew. It is a catastrophe that shows the importance, in all enterprises of moment, to keep in mind the general instructions of the sagacious heads which devise them. Mr. Astor was well aware of the perils to which ships were exposed on this coast from quarrels with the natives, and from perfidious attempts of the latter to surprise and capture them in unguarded moments. He had repeatedly enjoined it upon Captain Thorn, in conversation, and at parting, in his letter of instructions, to be courteous and kind in his dealings with the savages, but by no means to confide in their apparent friendship, nor to admit more than a few on board of his ship at a time.
“Had the deportment of Captain Thorn been properly regulated, the insult so wounding to savage pride would never have been given. Had he enforced the rule to admit but a few at a time, the savages would not have been able to get the mastery. He was too irritable, however, to practice the necessary self-command, and, having been nurtured in a proud contempt of danger, thought it beneath him to manifest any fear of a crew of unarmed savages.
“With all his faults and foibles, we cannot but speak of him with esteem, and deplore his untimely fate; for we remember him well in early life, as a companion in pleasant scenes and joyous hours. When on shore, among his friends, he was a frank, manly, sound-hearted sailor. On board ship he evidently assumed the hardness of deportment and sternness of demeanor which many deem essential to naval service. Throughout the whole of the expedition, however, he showed himself loyal, single-minded, straightforward, and fearless; and if the fate of his vessel may be charged to his harshness and imprudence, we should recollect that he paid for his error with his life.
Back at Fort Astoria, the men of the Pacific Fur Company played host to a succession of visitors. The first of these was Chief Concomly, the wily leader of the local Chinook Indians, with whom the Astorians began to trade.
On July 15th, 1811, a strange Indian couple visited the new post at the mouth of the Columbia. Both of these visitors were biological females, but one of them, named Kauxuma Nupika, affected the dress and accoutrements of a man. These visitors hailed from the interior, which they claimed abounded with fur-bearing animals. Partly on account of their description of the country, the men of the Pacific Fur Company resolved to make an exploratory expedition up the Columbia River for the purpose of determining whether the establishment of any interior posts might benefit their enterprise. A nine-man team was formed to carry out this operation, its members including Highland Scotsmen Alexander Ross and Donald McLennan [sometimes spelled McLenan and McLennon; not to be confused with another colourful Astorian named Donald (or Robert?) McClellan or McLellan, as some historians have, probably on account of consistent mistakes in Franchere’s memoirs]; French-Canadians Francis Pillette, Ovid de Montigney, Benjamin Roussell, and Jacques Lafantaisie; Hawaiians Bob Pookarakara and Naukane (a.k.a. John Cox); and leader David Stuart. The company planned to embark one month later, on July 15th, 1811.
On the day of the interior expedition’s scheduled departure, the Astorians were visited by explorer and geographer David Thompson of the rival North West Company, who had hoped to reach the mouth of the Columbia before the Astorians. Thwarted in his design, Thompson and his party decided to return to NWC territory, and agreed to accompany the outgoing Astorians up the Columbia River for mutual protection against hostile natives.
The joint party, accompanied by Kauxuma Nupika and her wife, left Astoria on July 22nd and proceeded up the Columbia, laden with trade goods. They travelled together until July 31st, whereupon Thompson’s men took their leave of the slower, more heavily-laden Astorians and pushed on up the river. Before their separation, the two parties exchanged one of their members as a sign of goodwill. The Astorians left the Hawaiian named Naukana, or John Cox, in David Thompson’s charge. The Nor’Westers likewise left their own Michel Boulard, a veteran voyageur, in the company of the Astorians.
In his October 5th, 1811 entry in the Astoria log book, Duncan McDougall implied that a freeman, or retired voyageur-turned-independent-trapper, named Pierre Bruguiere (or Brugier), along with an Iroquois hunter named Ignace Shorowane (or Salioheni) and his wife and two children, fell in with or encountered this band of Astorians at some point on their journey.
David Stuart and company reached the confluence of the Columbia and Okanagan Rivers on October 31st, 1811. After exploring the lower Okanagan, the fur traders began to construct a small post, called Fort Okanagan, at the junction. When the post was half built, McLennan and Pillette set out for Astoria in accordance with a prearranged plan. David Stuart, on the other hand, along with the rest of the men, proceeded north up the Okanagan River on an exploratory expedition, leaving Alexander Ross to finish building Fort Okanagan by himself, and to singlehandedly man the new outpost until Stuart’s return.
First Astorian Expedition to Thompson River Country
David Stuart and company’s northern expedition was the second Astorian excursion into what is now Canadian territory, the first being the tragic final voyage of the Tonquin. According to Alexander Ross in his 1849 memoir, Stuart and his companions followed the Okanagan River (which Ross spelled ‘Oakinacken’) north to its source, Okanagan Lake, becoming the first white men to set foot on the lake’s shore. They continued north up the lake and travelled northwest overland to the South Thompson River, where they encountered Shuswap Indians. Due to thick snow which made travel all but impossible, Stuart and company decided to spend the winter with the Shuswaps.
During his stay in Shuswap Country, Stuart found that the region was rich in beaver and other fur-bearing animals, and resolved to return to the South Thompson River the following year to establish a trading post. On February 26th, 1812, the Astorian explorers began their return journey, retracing their steps down the Okanagan Valley.
On March 22nd, Stuart and company arrived at Fort Okanagan, where they were heartily welcomed by lonely Alexander Ross. The Highlander’s hair, they found, had turned completely grey on account of the stresses he had endured that winter, which had nonetheless yielded him 1550 beaver pelts courtesy of the Okanagan natives.
The Overland Expedition
While the dramas of Fort Astoria and the Tonquin were unfolding on the West Coast, Astor’s land expedition made its way west across the continent, following the general route of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition. Led by an American trader named Wilson Price Hunt, this so-called ‘Overland Expedition’ travelled up the Missouri River and across the Rocky Mountains, surviving several near-disastrous encounters with hostile Sioux warriors, and nearly succumbing to thirst and hunger along the way. Most of the weary and emaciated veterans of the Overland Expedition finally arrived at Fort Astoria in January 1812, the remainder having either separated from the main party, perished from privation or drowning on the trail, or disappeared in the bush.
First Astorian Expedition to Kamloops
On April 24th, 1812, David Stuart’s nephew, Robert Stuart, arrived at Fort Okanagan with a handful of men and a boatful of supplies fresh from Astoria, having endured a harrowing journey during which he and his men were attacked by hostile natives. The newcomers remained at Fort Okanagan for five days before returning to Astoria with the Okanagan furs, accompanied by David Stuart and the rest of the post’s occupants save for Alexander Ross, a Scotsman named Donald McGillis, and the veteran Nor’Wester Michel Boulard.
Twelve days later, on May 6th, 1812, Ross, Boulard, and an Okanagan native, along with sixteen horses and a number of trade goods, headed north along the route that David Stuart and company had travelled the previous autumn, leaving McGillis to man the post alone. This was the PFC’s third expedition into what is now Canadian territory, and the second expedition into Thompson Country. After riding for ten days, the three men reached a place which Ross called Cumcloups [i.e. Kamloops; meaning “meeting of the waters” in the Shuswap language], which lies at the confluence of the South and North Thomson Rivers.
“From this station,” Ross wrote in his memoir, “I sent messages to the different tribes around, who soon assembled, bringing with them their furs. Here we stayed for ten days. The number of Indians collected on the occasion could not have been less than 2,000. Not expecting to see so many, I had taken but a small quantity of goods with me; nevertheless, we loaded all our horses- so anxious were they to trade, and so fond of tobacco, that one morning before breakfast I obtained one hundred and ten beavers for leaf-tobacco, at the rate of five leaves per skin; and at last, when I had but one yard of white cotton remaining, one of the chiefs gave me twenty prime beaver skins for it.
“Having now finished our trade, we prepared to return home, but before we could get our odds-and-ends ready, Boullard, my trusty second, got involved in a love affair, which had nearly involved us all in a disagreeable scrape with the Indians. This was the very man Mr. Stuart got from Mr. Thompson in exchange for Cox, the Owhyhee [Hawaiian]. He was as full of latent tricks as a serpent is of guile. Unknown to me, the old fellow had been teasing the Indians for a wife, and had already an old squaw at his heels, but could not raise the wind to pay the whole purchase-money. With an air of effrontery he asked me to unload one of my horses to satisfy the demands of the old father-in-law, and because I refuse him, he threatened to leave me and to remain with the savages. Provoked at his conduct, I suddenly turned round and horsewhipped the fellow, and, fortunately, the Indians did not interfere. The castigation had a good effect: it brought the amorous gallant to his senses- the squaw was left behind. We started; but were frequently impeded on our journey by the sudden rise of the rivers. As we were often obliged to swim our horses, our packs of beaver got now and then wet, but without sustaining any serious injury; and on the 12th of July we reached home, well pleased both with our trade and the reception we had met with from the Indians. On this trip we had frequent opportunities of paying attention to the aspect and topography of the country through which we passed.”
Second Astorian Expedition to Kamloops
Back at Fort Astoria, all surviving members of John Jacob Astor’s two expeditions by land and sea were congregated together for the first time. “All parties being now at their posts,” wrote Alexander Ross in his memoir, “for the first time a meeting of all the partners was convened.” During the meeting, a number of resolutions were passed, one of which was that David Stuart return to Fort Okanagan and conduct a second exploratory expedition to the north for the purpose of establishing a trading post between that fort and the NWC’s territory of New Caledonia (i.e. in Thompson River Country).
On June 29th, 1812, three parties with a combined total of sixty two men left Astoria and headed up the Columbia River, the first leg of all their respective destinations. David Stuart’s party reached Fort Okanagan on August 12th.
After staying at the post for thirteen days, David Stuart embarked upon his second expedition north up the Okanagan Valley, appointing Alexander Ross the chief trader of Fort Okanagan as a reward for his singlehanded management of the post the previous year. Among his party were Donald McGillis and a man named William Wallace Matthews. Ross accompanied Stuart 70 miles (113 kilometres) up the Okanagan River, probably to Osoyoos Lake, before returning to his post and preparing for winter.
After spending the autumn trading with the native Okanagan Indians, Ross set out to visit the westerly Fort Spokane, another remote Pacific Fur Company post located at the site of present-day Spokane, Washington. Ross visited with the post’s factor, John Clarke, for three days before returning to Fort Okanagan, finding Clarke in fierce competition with a rival NWC post which had been built near his own store. On the return journey, Ross was beset by a blizzard and nearly froze to death, spending a night curled up in a hole in the snow with his trousers wrapped around his feet in an effort to stave off frostbite.
Ross and Jacques Visit Fort Cumcloups
On December 20th, six days after his return from Spokane, Ross and a French-Canadian voyageur named Jacques (perhaps Jacques Lafantaisie; alternatively, it seems possible that Ross forgot the name of his companion and used ‘Jacques’ as a general nickname for any French-Canadian voyageur, much as he used ‘Jean-Baptiste’ for the same purpose, and ‘Jonathan’ as a nickname for Kentuckians, at various points throughout his memoirs) headed north with the intention of visiting David Stuart and the Astorians at Kamloops. They reached Stuart’s newly-constructed post at the confluence of the North and South Thompson Rivers, dubbed Fort Cumcloups, on New Year’s Eve, 1812. Like Clarke’s Fort Spokane, David Stuart’s Fort Cumcloups was in competition with an adjacent NWC post which had been built in the area shortly after the erection of the former. “M. La Rocque, the North West clerk in charge,” Ross wrote, “and Mr. Stuart, were open and candid, and [in contrast with the bitter relationship between Clarke and his NWC counterpart] on friendly terms. The field before them was wide enough for both parties, and, what is more, they thought it so; consequently they followed a fair and straightforward course of trade; with Mr. Stuart I remained five days…”
In reference to his experience wintering at Kamloops, David Stuart is quoted as having said, “I have passed a winter nowise unpleasant. The opposition, it is true, gave me a good deal of anxiety when it first arrived, but we agreed very well, and made as much, perhaps more, than if we had been enemies. I sent out parties in all directions, north as far as Fraser’s River, and for two hundred miles up the south branch [i.e. the South Thompson River]. The accounts from all quarters were most satisfactory. The country everywhere rich in furs, and the natives very peaceable. The She Whaps [Shuswap] will be one of the best beaver posts in the country, and I have now brought a fine stock of valuable furs with me.”
At the conclusion of their visit to Fort Cumcloups, Ross and Jacques decided to take a new route back to Fort Okanagan, hoping to explore a part of the country they had never seen before. Some historians suspect that the two made their way south via Nicola Lake. On the way, they became lost in the mountains, and their progress was hampered by deep snow. “Our horses suffered greatly,” Ross wrote, “had nothing to eat for four days and four nights, not a blade of grass appearing above the snow, and their feet were so frightfully cut with the crust on the snow that they could scarcely move, so that we were within a hair’s breadth of losing every one of them.
“One evening,” Ross continued, “the fuel being damp, we were unable to kindle a brisk fire. In this predicament, I called on Jacques to give me a little powder, a customary thing in such cases; but in place of handing me a little powder, or taking a little out of his hand, wise Jacques, uncorking his horn, began to pour it out on the heated coal. It instantly exploded, and blew all up before it, sending Jacques himself sprawling six feet from where he stood, and myself nearly as far, both for some time stunned and senseless, while the fire was completely extinguished.
“We, however, received no injury beyond fright, though Jacques held the horn in his hand when it was blown to atoms. On recovering, we were not in the best humour, and sat down for some time in gloomy mood; cold, however, soon admonished us to try again; but it was midnight before we could get a fire lighted and ourselves warmed, and we passed a disagreeable night without sleep or food.”
The following morning, Ross and Jacques found their way out of the mountains and into what proved to be the Similkameen Valley in what is now south-central British Columbia, where they fell in with friendly Okanagan natives. Some historians have proposed that the partners arrived at the Similkameen at the site where Princeton, BC, now stands. After trading with their new acquaintances, the travellers proceeded down the Similkameen River and further down the Okanagan, reaching their post on January 24th, 1813.
David Stuart and his party had a similarly interesting journey back south in the spring of 1813. When the time came to return to Astoria with their season’s take of furs, William Matthews is said to have headed alone to what is probably Shuswap Lake to collect furs from the Shuswap Indians before heading overland to the Okanagan Valley and south to Fort Okanagan. This is a considerable detour, Shuswap Lake being located many miles from the trail between Kamloops and Fort Okanagan. For some reason lost to history, David Stuart and the remainder of his party intended to follow in Matthew’s footsteps, making the long journey to Shuswap Lake before proceeding to Fort Okanagan.
When he reached the fort at the mouth of the Okanagan River, Matthews learned that the Astorians from all the easterly outposts planned to meet up at the confluence of the Walla Walla and Columbia Rivers on June 1st, 1813. Knowing that Stuart and his men would not make it to this rendezvous if they went through with their planned visit to Shuswap Lake, he mounted the fastest horse the Okanagan Indians could furnish him with and raced up the Okanagan Valley, hoping to intercept the pedestrians on their way to Shuswap Country. Riding 80 miles in 8 hours, he crossed paths with Stuart and company informed them of the scheduled meeting. The company abandoned their previous plan and proceeded straight to Fort Okanagan. Despite being attacked by hostile natives along the way, they reached the fort on May 13th. They remained at Okanagan for ten days, packing, pressing, and loading their season’s take of furs, before setting out in canoes for the rendezvous at the mouth of the Walla Walla.
End of the Pacific Fur Company
David Stuart’s 1812-1813 season at Fort Cumcloups constituted the Pacific Fur Company’s last foray into Canada. As Alexander Ross succinctly put it in the introduction to his second memoir, The Fur Hunters of the Far West (1850):
“This wide field of commercial enterprise fell into the lap of the North West Company almost without an effort; for misfortunes alone, over which man had no control, sealed the doom of the unfortunate Astoria. The first ship, called the Tonquin, employed by the Astor Company, was cut off by the Indians on the Northwest Coast, and every soul on board massacred. The second, named the Beaver, was lost in unknown seas; and the third, called the Lark, was upset in a gale 250 miles from the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii], and became a total wreck; and to complete the catalogue of disasters, in 1812 war broke out between England and the United States.”
Left with little choice, the agents of the Pacific Fur Company sold their assets to the North West Company and abandoned the country, some returning overland to easterly civilization, and others gaining employment in the NWC. PFC outposts throughout present-day Washington state and the province of British Columbia became the property of the North West Company, and Fort Astoria itself was occupied by the NWC and renamed Fort George.
- Journal of a Voyage on the North West Coast of North America during the Years 1811, 1812, 1813 and 1814, by Gabriel Franchere
- Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813 (1849), by Alexander Ross
- Adventures on the Columbia River Including The Narrative of a Residence of Six Years on the Western Side of the Rocky Mountains Among Various Tribes of Indians Hitherto Unknown Together With a Journey Across the American Continent (1832), by Ross Cox
- Annals of Astoria: The Headquarters Log of the Pacific Fur Company on the Columbia River, 1811-1813, by Duncan McDougall
- Astoria: Or, Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains (1836), by Washington Irving
- “Matthews’ Adventures on the Columbia: A Pacific Fur Company Document,” by Jesse S. Douglas in the June 1939 issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly
- “Old Fort Okanogan and the Okanogan Trail,” by William C. Brown in the March 1914 issue of The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society
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