During the first weeks of April 1811, members of the Pacific Fur Company trade with the local Chinook and Clatsop Indians while a small party scouts the north shore of the Columbia River and journeys upstream in search of a suitable building site for the first American trading post on the Columbia. The Astorians, as they are known, are the vanguard of a new business enterprise by fur baron John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) of New York. Astor intends to establish a commercial fur empire in the Northwest as well as a transcontinental trade network between the Missouri and the Pacific coast.
The Great River
The Pacific Fur Company contingent had arrived at the mouth of the Columbia on March 22 after a “troublesome voyage” aboard the brig Tonquin, commanded by Captain Jonathan Thorn. Eight men had been drowned while crossing the bar, casting a melancholy pall over the ship’s crew and passengers. Relations between Captain Thorn and the Astorians had been tense from the beginning of their voyage in New York, and now the captain was impatient to deliver his passengers and cargo and head back to sea to trade for sea otter along the north Pacific coast. The Astorians were equally anxious to leave the cramped ship and begin construction of their new post.
Three company partners -- Duncan McDougall, Alexander McKay, and David Stuart -- were in charge of operations, assisted by David Stuart’s nephew Robert as a junior partner. They were accompanied by nine clerks, a blacksmith, a silversmith, a cooper, a carpenter, a shoemaker, seven Canadian voyageurs, 13 Sandwich Islanders (Hawaiians), and one 10-year-old apprentice.
Pigs, Sheep, Goats
One of the first orders of business was to unload an assortment of animals that had been purchased in Hawaii to furnish livestock for the post. On March 27, a pen was build on the edge of Baker’s Bay, and 14 pigs, two sheep, and four goats were ferried to shore. As they were being herded into their pen, two of the hogs -- a male and a female -- escaped into the woods, where they soon produced the first of many generations of wild pigs that would later populate the north shore of the river.
On March 28, after fitting out the ship’s launch and enlisting Chief Dhaitshowan of the local Clatsop tribe as a guide, Captain Thorn, Alexander McKay, and David Stuart set off with 10 crewmen at the oars. They dropped two clerks on the south shore of the river to search for any survivors from the men lost crossing the bar, then headed upriver. They were looking for a suitable location for their headquarters -- a site that was accessible by ship, with sufficient room for housing, trading stores, warehouses, gardens, and livestock. During six days of pleasant weather, they explored upstream as far as Oak Point, but when Captain Thorn refused to consider bringing his ship so far upriver, they turned back.
Trading and Talking
Meanwhile, Duncan McDougall, who remained aboard the Tonquin at Baker’s Bay, retrieved trade articles from the hold in order to barter with parties of Chinook and Clatsop Indians who arrived with beaver, river otter, and beautiful sea otter skins. The blacksmith hauled his forge ashore and began busily making axe heads. Taking advantage of the clear weather, Robert Stuart set a crew to work washing clothes in addition to making musket balls and cutting firewood. On April 1, the two clerks who had been searching the south shore for survivors returned, “but brought no tidings whatever of those whom they had been looking for, which no longer leaves any doubt of their unfortunate fate” (Jones, 7).
Three days later the launch party returned from upriver to report their lack of success. The next morning, without consulting any of the fur company partners, Captain Thorn sent a crew ashore to build a shed so that he could unload the fur company’s cargo. When the Astorians realized his intention, they were furious, for they had already decided that their anchorage in Baker’s Bay was not suitable for a post. Once Thorn unloaded their cargo, they would have no way to transport it any distance. Despite heavy showers of sleet, Duncan McDougall, David Stuart, and Chief Dhaitshowan set out in the early afternoon, resolved to select an eligible spot somewhere along the Columbia’s broad estuary.
Having decided to survey the south side of the river, they crossed over and after two days found a point of land that they felt would suffice. After re-crossing the river on their return to Baker’s Bay, they stopped at a large Chinook village on Chinook Point, where they visited with an influential chief called Comcomly. When they prepared to depart, the chief “tried to make them realize the risk that they were running in attempting to cross the Bay in the teeth of the south-east gale that was then blowing. Disregarding the wise advice of the Chief they set out and after they had sailed half a league a breaker swamped and overturned their small boat and they barely escaped with their lives” (Franchere, 76).
The Chinooks, having foreseen such an occurrence, had kept the skiff under observation from shore and quickly came to their rescue. The incessant rain and hail prevailed for three more days, during which the Astorians remained in the Chinook village, where Comcomly “entertained them in a most hospitable manner,” then ushered them safely back to the Tonquin in two of his own canoes.
Pressed by Captain Thorn to choose a site, the partners decided that Point George would have to suffice. The captain sounded the channel in his launch and surveyed the anchorage on the point. Although the channel proved “somewhat intricate,” Thorn gave his go-ahead. McKay and David Stuart loaded the longboat with axes and workmen and crossed the river to begin clearing a spot for a warehouse. On April 15, after reloading two of the goats and seven of the pigs, Thorn weighed anchor and sailed across the Columbia to unload his cargo at the site that would soon be christened Astoria.