Fort Astoria

On Monday March 10, Powells will present a reading by Peter Stark of his book "Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival".

To decide whether to go, I did a little web research on the early history of Astoria, and I was flabberflummoxed by how much colorful drama was involved, and how very slender the historical thread was that tied the Oregon Territory to the United States.

Fur, rum, and slave trader John Jacob Astor's tiny ship Tonquin arrived in 1811, delivering American settlers to commence building Fort Astoria - so Astor's agents could trade guns and rum and smallpox for native furs which he could sell in China for Big Bucks. The ship then made two trips to Hawaii to ferry a few dozen Hawaiian settlers to join the Americans. The Tonquin's trip to trade for furs with Vancouver Island natives ended Very Badly.

A British land expedition arrived at Fort Astoria only two months after it was founded. If they had gotten there before the Tonquin, we would be in Southern British Columbia now.

When news arrived in 1813 of the new war between the US and Britain, the stranded Americans sold their fort to a British Canadian trading company and stayed around to help their friends. If the history ended there, we would be in Southern British Columbia now.

But the bellicose Captain William Black, commander of the British war sloop Racoon, decided to seize the fort anyway (from its new British owners!). He renamed it Fort George. If history had ended there ...

After the pointless War of 1812 (which produced Andrew Jackson and a difficult-to-sing national anthem to the tune of an English drinking song), the 1814 Treaty of Ghent stipulated that all seized territories, forts, ships, etc. were to be returned to their 1812 owners. Because Black had seized Fort Astoria (regardless of who owned it when he did), and because the Fort belonged to a US company in 1812, it was repatriated to the United States by the Anglo-American Convention in 1818, though it was still operated by the Canadian North West Fir Company until they merged into the Hudson Bay Company, and moved operations to Fort Vancouver in 1824.

Perhaps it is just as well that Astor did not manage the fur trade in the Northwest - by the 1820s, his American Fur Company was trading liquor for furs with native Americans throughout the midwest, destroying their culture and wiping out most fur-bearing mammals. The northwest still has native Americans and beaver and sea otters, greatly diminished but not decimated.

So many Americans were in the jointly administered Oregon Territory by the 1840s that in 1846 the British ceded all of the Oregon Territory between 42° and 49° north to the US, and the US ceded the land from 49° to 54°40' to the British. The British filled their land with Irish and Scots and we filled our land with Finns and Swedes. Uppenbar Öde ...

We mostly got along OK, except for the Pig War of 1859 (over the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound), which was fought only with verbal insults between British and American soldiers and sailors armed to the teeth and prepared to blow each other's brains out. Cooler heads prevailed, and the islands were jointly administered by Canada and the US until an international arbitration commission, chaired by Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, awarded the disputed islands east of the Haro Strait to the United States in 1872.

There is far more zaniness to the Astoria and Oregon story than I describe above (google Kaúxuma Núpika, also Battle Ground, Washington), which is probably why they taught us none of it in school. It would make a heck of a funny movie.

So hell yes, I'm going to that reading ...

To read: Hiram Chittenden's book on the western fur trade.

Astoria (last edited 2014-03-14 19:10:10 by KeithLofstrom)