On November 30, 1813, in the midst of the War of 1812, HMS ship Racoon arrives on the Columbia River with orders from the British Admiralty to seize all American property on the river and along the coast. She is the first Royal Navy warship to enter the Columbia.
A Very Secret Piece of Business
In the winter and spring of 1813, the Racoon, commanded by Captain William Black, was patrolling the south Atlantic in search of American ships. She happened to be in the neutral port of Rio de Janeiro on June 10, 1813, when a convoy of merchant ships from London arrived, including the North West Company's supply ship the Isaac Todd, and her escort, the warship Phoebe, carrying sealed orders from the British Admiralty.
Rear-Admiral Dixon, head of Great Britain's South American station at Rio, was privy to the Phoebe's secret orders -- to escort the Isaac Todd to the Columbia and seize the American holdings there. Dixon also had intelligence that British ships in the Pacific were being harassed by an American frigate, and he decided that it would be wise to furnish the Isaac Todd with two additional armed escorts -- the Racoon and the Cherub. The next day, he ordered the Racoon and the Cherub to refit "for a hard-weather cruise around Cape Horn on a very secret piece of business" (Hussey, xi). Rumors soon flew that the secret business involved capturing an American trading post in the North Pacific.
The flotilla departed Rio on July 9, 1813. Once at sea, the captain of the Phoebe opened his sealed orders and learned that his "principal object was to secure the Northwest Coast at the Columbia River mouth as a field of British commerce" (Gough, Royal Navy, 15). He immediately sent a boat to the Isaac Todd with a request that a North West Company representative transfer to the Phoebe in case she reached the Columbia ahead of her companions. John McDonald of Garth, one of the company partners traveling on the Isaac Todd, made the move along with several of his employees.
The Isaac Todd was a much slower sailer than her escorts, and they lost sight of her in heavy fog before rounding Cape Horn. The three warships continued north through the Pacific and anchored at the island of Juan Fernandez off the coast of Chile on September 12, assuming that their charge would arrive shortly. When the Phoebe's captain received word that two American frigates were cruising nearby, he determined to give chase along with the Cherub. He quickly transferred John McDonald and his companions and a portion of the company's cargo to the Racoon, instructing Captain Black to sail on to Cocos Island, the appointed rendezvous spot with the Isaac Todd.
At the Columbia River
When the Racoon reached Cocos Island (near present-day Costa Rica) on October 7, there was no sign of the Isaac Todd. Captain Black waited for two days, but fearing the onslaught of winter weather, he left messages carved into a tree trunk and a rock and set sail alone. They reached the mouth of the Columbia on November 30 and confronted its infamous bar. A clerk on board wrote that "it being a fine day and perfectly smooth, passed over it with great ease and anchored in Bakers Bay" (Hussey, 4).
The first object of business was to assess the strength of the American presence at Fort Astoria, a fur post built in 1811 by the Pacific Fur Company of New York and named for founder John Jacob Astor. The post was located several miles upstream, on the south side of the river, and as soon as the sails were furled, Captain Black dispatched an armed cutter "to reconnoiter the Force of the Fort & find a place for landing" (Hussey, 5). The cutter had not proceeded very far when a large birchbark canoe approached, carrying Duncan McDougall, chief agent of the Pacific Fur Company on the Columbia. McDougall was ushered on board the Racoon, where, according to one eyewitness, he "gave us to understand our grand attack and expectations were totally frustrated" (Hussey, 5).
End of a Fool's Errand
McDougall explained that several weeks earlier, he and his fellow Astorians had learned from an overland party of Nor'Westers that a British warship was on the way to seize their settlement. "Well knowing our near approach and that they must inevitably quit the settlement and lose all their property," the Astorians had decided to sell their holdings to the North West Company (Hussey, 5). This was dismaying news to Captain Black and his officers, who apparently felt that they had sailed halfway around the world "on a fool's errand" (Hussey, xvii).
Gabriel Franchere, a clerk at Fort Astoria, wrote that some of the ship's officers who visited the post "seemed generally discontented with their dangerous voyage, as they had expected to encounter several American vessels richly laden with furs. They had doubtless calculated in advance their share of the capture of our establishment. One may well imagine their surprise and mortification on discovering the post in the hands of the North West Company and already under the British flag" (Franchere, 134). One officer vowed to bring the matter before the Court of Admiralty upon their return to Great Britain, but there is no evidence that a formal complaint was ever filed.
Despite the international tensions, Captain Black invited several of the fur agents from both companies to a "hearty meal" with his officers the next evening. During the two weeks that passed before the weather was calm enough to risk a river crossing in the ship's cutter, the sailors unloaded supplies for the Nor'Westers, then cut firewood and traded for salmon, wild fowl, and venison from the local Chinook Indians in return for "Beads, Buttons, old Clothes, knives, & other articles" (Hussey, 9). On December 13, Captain Black crossed the Columbia to Fort Astoria, where he took official possession of the lower Columbia and raised the Union Jack over the post he renamed Fort George.