On March 26, 1811, on the shore of Cape Disappointment, six Hawaiian Islanders conduct a traditional funeral for one of their countrymen who drowned near the mouth of the Columbia River. The mourners are assisted by Gabriel Franchere and Benjamin Pillet, clerks for the Pacific Fur Company and fellow passengers on the ship Tonquin, owned by fur baron John Jacob Astor (1763–1848) of New York. The Tonquin has ferried charter members of Astor's Pacific Fur Company, known as the Astorians, to the West Coast to establish the first American trading post on the Columbia.
Hawaiian Islanders On Board
On her voyage from New York to the Northwest coast, the Tonquin stopped in Honolulu on the island of Oahu in February 1811 to take on fresh water and vegetables for the remainder of the voyage. On board were three Pacific Fur Company partners in charge of Astor’s Columbian venture, as well as assorted clerks and workers. While in port the partners noticed the nautical expertise of the Islanders in Honolulu Bay and decided to hire 12 of them "who seemed eager to enter our service" to work as boatmen and laborers on the Columbia for three years, "during which time we undertook to feed and clothe them and at the expiration of their contract, to give them goods to the value of one hundred piastres [silver dollars]" (Franchere, 70). The Tonquin’s captain, Jonathan Thorn (1779-1811), hired an additional dozen Hawaiians to augment his crew.
When the Tonquin departed Hawaii on March 1, her 24 new recruits were given English nicknames such as Harry, Peter, Toby, Paul, Bob, and Dick. After two weeks at sea, a series of storms introduced the natives to sleet, hail, and ice, an ordeal that was exacerbated by the captain’s refusal to issue extra clothing to his crew or his passengers. The welcome sight of land was reported on March 22, and even with poor visibility Captain Thorn was certain they had reached the mouth of the Columbia. Despite the rough weather, the captain dispatched his first mate in a skiff to sound the Columbia’s treacherous bar. For the next two days, the men on board the Tonquin watched in vain for some sign of the skiff, but it was never seen again.
A Long Night
With clearing weather on March 24, Thorn sent out another scouting expedition in the ship’s pinnace, commanded by armorer Stephen Weeks (d. 1811) and manned by the rigger, a sailmaker, and two Hawaiians named Harry and Peter. After sounding the channel across the bar, the pinnace attempted to return to the Tonquin, but the tide had turned and was ebbing with such force that the small boat was swept past the mother ship "with incredible speed" (Franchere, 72). Eyewitness accounts differ as to the captain’s response, but all agree that the pinnace was last seen broadside to one of the enormous breakers that punctuated the bar, then disappeared from view in the fading evening light.
Stephen Weeks later recounted that he and his mates "had not passed more than 3 or 4 of the breakers before a huge one came rolling after them and broke right over the stern of the Boat which ingulphed them all in an instant" (McDougall, 5). When he came to the surface, the rigger and sailmaker had vanished. He could see the two Hawaiians, Harry and Peter, struggling through the surf toward their boat, which was floating upside down a short distance away. He watched as they managed to strip off their wet clothes, then, clinging to a stray oar, he followed suit. Rid of this weight and encumbrance, the three men reached the pinnace. "We managed to right it and by pushing it from the stern we succeeded in dumping enough water out of it for it to bear the weight of a man. One of the Islanders jumped in and very quickly bailed it out with his hands ... and we all three climbed in." By now the tide had carried them into relatively calm seas outside the breakers of the bar, giving them a respite from the pounding of the waves, but this was little consolation as the light faded and a cold night closed in.
Sculling from the stern with his salvaged oar, Weeks tried to stay beyond the roar of the breakers, hoping that they would still be in sight of shore next morning if they could survive the night. "I well knew that naked as I was and exposed to the rigour of the climate I must keep active, which I did," Weeks reported (Franchere, 74). The exposure proved fatal for Peter, however, who fell into a drowsy stupor and died about midnight. Harry "threw himself on the body of his comrade and I could not tear him away," Weeks later confided to his shipmates (Franchere, 74). When daylight finally came, Weeks could see the shore of Cape Disappointment no great distance away. He and Harry summoned their remaining strength to navigate the breakers and beach the boat.
Finding that Harry "had become so feeble and benumbed that he could not proceed," Weeks helped him to a sheltered spot, covered him with leaves, then followed a beaten path leading inland in search of help. A few hours later, he emerged on the shore of Baker’s Bay, where, to his great astonishment, the Tonquin floated placidly at anchor.
A search party was immediately assembled to retrieve Harry, but when they arrived at the spot where Weeks had left him, he was nowhere to be found. Early the next morning he was discovered on the beach of Baker’s Bay, "half-dead at the foot of the rocks, with his feet torn and bleeding and his legs much swollen," (Franchere, 74). His rescuers built a large fire to warm him, then lifted him into a longboat and rowed him back to the Tonquin, "where with kind attention we managed to bring him back to life" (Franchere, 75).
Later that evening, clerks Gabriel Franchere (1786-1863) and Benjamin Pillet accompanied six of the surviving Hawaiians across Cape Disappointment to find and bury the unfortunate Peter. The Islanders carried "the necessary implements to render the last rites to their compatriot." Upon locating the body, the men dug a deep hole and then performed "the ceremonies that they observe according to their tribal customs. Before leaving the ship, each had taken an offering of biscuit, pork, or tobacco. They put the biscuit under the arm of the deceased, the pork under the chin, and the tobacco under the testicles."
After placing the body in the grave and covering it, they formed a double line facing eastward. "One officiating as a priest went to fetch water in his hat and having sprinkled the two rows of Islanders, began a prayer to which the others responded. Then they rose and departed and made their way towards the ship without looking back" (Franchere, 75).