Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Webfoot Wednesday: Astoria

The town of Astoria, Oregon is proudly celebrating its bicentennial this year as the oldest American settlement in the western United States. Turns out that tomorrow marks the 201st anniversary of the day when a Scottish immigrant to New York by the name of John Jacob Astor organized the Pacific Fur Company, sending Captain Jonathan Thorn and a crew aboard the ship Tonquin and a separate overland party under Wilson Price Hunt to set up a trading post and begin exploiting the rich resources of this region.

Lithograph of Fort Astoria ca. 1813 by Pacific Fur Co. clerk Gabriel Franchère [Credit]

The Tonquin arrived first, on April 4, 1811. Predictable? Well, not exactly, given that the sailors had to round Cape Horn to get there. One of the sailors, a Scotsman named Alexander Ross, recorded in his account of the voyage that the ship traveled 21,852 miles to reach the mouth of the Columbia River, where they were promptly swamped and had to be rescued by the local native leader, Concomly, and his Chinookan-speaking people.

The irony of the expedition is that a short time later, the United States entered the War of 1812 and British traders coming down from the north with the North West Company (remember, the Northwest was contested territory until the late 1840s) forced sale of the newly christened Fort Astoria to Britain in 1813. Darn. The British renamed the outpost Fort George, which it remained through the period of a North West Company merger with the Hudson's Bay Company until regional headquarters were relocated to Fort Vancouver, further up the Columbia, in 1824-25. Abandoned for a few years, it was used as a minor outpost by the HBC in the 1830s and 1840s before border arrangements placed Oregon firmly under the auspices of the United States.

A closing thought from Ross, who clearly was not thrilled at what he found once he washed ashore. Scenic beauty is, I suppose, in the eyes of the beholder, and were I faced with the prospect of constructing a trading post thousands of miles from home I might well agree with Ross:

"The place thus selected for the emporium of the west, might challenge the whole continent to produce a spot of equal extent presenting more difficulties to the settler: studded with gigantic trees of almost incredible size, many of them measuring fifty feet in girth, and close together, and intermingled with huge rocks, as to make it a work of no ordinary labour to level and clear the ground."

Welcome to Oregon, Mr. Ross!

Alexander Ross, "Astoria: the First American Settlement," in Stephen Dow Beckham, ed., Many Faces: An Anthology of Oregon Autobiography (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1993), pp. 3-9.
Oregon History Project of the Oregon Historical Society:

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