David Thompson, Canadian explorer and agent of the North West Company, reaches the mouth of the Columbia River and meets with Pacific Fur Company agents at Astoria on July 15, 1811.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 10/10/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9177
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On July 15, 1811, Canadian explorer David Thompson (1770-1857) reaches the mouth of the Columbia River after a historic voyage downriver from Kettle Falls. In addition to his scientific work as a geographer, Thompson is the fur agent in charge of the Columbia Department of the North West Company of Canada. He is on a mission to determine whether the Columbia is navigable from its upper reaches to the sea and whether it will provide a viable trade route for the fur company. Thompson also carries a message for members of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company, who have recently reached the mouth of the Columbia on the ship Tonquin to establish a trading post called Astoria.

July 15: Astoria

"July 15th. Monday. A very fine day, somewhat cloudy. Staid ‘till 6:25 Am shaving & arranging ourselves, when we set off ... the Fog all along prevents me seeing well" (Thompson, Notebook 27).

Setting off from an uncomfortable campsite just upstream from the present town of Cathlamet, Thompson and his crew of French Canadian and Iroquois paddlers reached the isthmus of Tongue Point on the south shore of the Columbia around noon. After portaging across the narrow spit, they put back into the water, surrounded by harbor seals.

A mile and a half downstream, the seagoing members of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company, who had reached the Columbia in March, had been building their new post, called Astoria. At least three journal keepers recorded the surprise arrival of visitors on July 15, 1811. Duncan McDougall, commander of the new fort, matter-of-factly noted: "Mr. Thomson of the N. W. Co. in Canada arrived about 1 p.m. in a Cedar Canoe (made after the manner of a bark Canoe) manned by eight Men" (Jones, 32).
Gabriel Franchere (1786-1863), a young clerk from Montreal who had signed on with Astor’s expedition for novelty and adventure, gave a more dramatic account:

"We saw a large canoe coming round the point, bearing a flag, ... which presently drew up alongside the small quay we had built ... . A relatively well-dressed man who seemed to be in command jumped ashore and approaching us without formality told us that his name was David Thompson, and that he was a partner in the North West Company" (Franchere, 87).

Alexander Ross (1783-1856), a Scottish schoolteacher who had left a job in Canada to serve as a clerk with the Astorians, described the event in his memoir:

"Mr. Thompson, northwest-like, came dashing down the Columbia in a light canoe, manned with eight Iroquois and an interpreter" (Ross, 85).

Mr. Astor’s Company

The three men in charge of the new fort -- Duncan McDougall (178?-1818),  David Stuart (1765-1853), and his nephew Robert Stuart -- were all Canadians who had been recruited by Astor; at least one of them had formerly worked for the North West Company. Whether Thompson was already acquainted with any of them is not known, but by all accounts he was graciously received by the Astorians.

In addition to his scientific instruments, Thompson carried a copy of a resolution passed the previous summer by the North West Company directors, who had been negotiating with John Jacob Astor regarding a possible partnership on the Columbia River. Thompson obviously saw a need to formally state the nature of his visit, for he penned a letter on the day of his arrival summarizing his understanding of the relationship between his company and the Astorians.

Permit me to congratulate you on your safe arrival & building in the mouth of the Columbia River. Your situation is such as to enable you with the aid of good Providence to command an extensive commerce & humanize numerous Indians in which I wish you success.

With pleasure I acquaint you that the Wintering Partners have acceded to the offer of Mr. Astor, accepting one third share of the business you are engaged in, their share of Capital not to exceed £10,000 without further permission -- I have only to hope that the respective parties at Montreal may finally settle the arrangements between the two Companies which in my opinion will be to our mutual Interest.

Accept of my best wishes for your health & that of the Young Gentlemen with you" (Bridgewater, 53).    

The Astorians now found themselves in a dilemma, uncertain whether their visitor was a partner or a rival. When they had set sail from New York in September 1810, Astor had grown tired of waiting for an answer from the North West partners and had decided to launch his expedition without their support; as far as McDougall and the Stuarts knew, there was no joint agreement. But Thompson had evidence that perhaps a deal had been reached after all. According to McDougall,

"the surveyor told us that no doubt remained with him, but ere now a coalition of the two companies had taken place, regarding which he wrote us on his arrival, and also handed us an extract from a Letter (on the same subject) addressed to Mr. McGillivray of Montreal, by the wintering Partners" (Jones, 34).

This extract was a copy of the resolution passed by the wintering partners at the summer council of 1810 authorizing the deal with Astor, which Thompson had preserved through the many hardships of his cross-continent journey.

Neither Thompson nor the Astorians had any way of knowing for certain what had transpired on the opposite side of the continent over the past 10 months (in actuality, the negotiations had failed). Whatever their private thoughts and discussions on the matter, however, the Astorians chose to follow Thompson’s lead. The day after he arrived, they answered his letter with one of their own.

"We have the pleasure to acknowledge the receipt of your Note of yesterday, communicating the pleasant intelligence of the Wintering Partners of the North West Company having accepted Mr. Astor’s offer, of one third share of the Business we are engaged in, and with you sincerely wish that final arrangements may take place to the mutual satisfaction of both parties, which would inevitably secure to us every advantage that can possibly be drawn from the Business" (Bridgewater, 53).

According to all accounts, the leaders of the two parties spent the next week on the most cordial of terms; the acerbic Alexander Ross complained that McDougall treated Thompson "like a brother" and gave him free access to the fort "as if he had been one of ourselves." Ross thought Thompson a most suspicious character, and in his subsequent book titled a chapter about this incident "A Spy in the Camp," but he also theorized that McDougall was showering the Nor’Wester with a warm welcome to dupe him into revealing his true intentions.

If so, his efforts were less than successful, for Franchere reported that Thompson gave an "unfavorable description of the interior country" in order to discourage any ideas the Americans might have been entertaining about entering his domain. And despite their public display of accord, the Astorians were not being completely truthful either -- they claimed to be preparing to send a small group to meet their overland party, when in fact they were about to launch a trading expedition upstream.

Whatever political intrigue was brewing beneath the surface, one important aspect of Thompson’s visit was clearly evident. According to Franchere,

"This gentleman travelled as a geographer rather than as a fur-trader. During his stay of 7 or 8 days with us he had the opportunity of taking several observations, being in possession of a good sextant, and it seemed to me he kept a regular journal" (Franchere, 87).

Sources: Barbara Belyea, Columbia Journals (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994); Dorothy Bridgewater,  "John Jacob Astor Relative to His Settlement on the Columbia River," Yale University Gazette Vol. 24 (1949), pp. 47-69; Gabriel Franchere, Journal of a Voyage to the Northwest Coast of America ed. by W. Kaye Lamb (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1969); Annals of Astoria: The Headquarters Log of the Pacific Fur Company on the Columbia River, 1811-1813 ed. by Robert F. Jones (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999); Jack Nisbet, The Mapmaker’s Eye  (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2005); Jack Nisbet, Sources of the River  (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1994); Alexander Ross, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986); David Thompson, Notebook 27, F443, Archives of Ontario, Toronto; David Thompson, Travels, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

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