During the War of 1812, Captain William Black claims possession of the Columbia River drainage for Great Britain on December 13, 1813.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 3/12/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9767
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On December 13, 1813, in the midst of the War of 1812, Captain William Black of the Royal Navy takes possession of the Columbia River drainage for Great Britain and changes the name of Fort Astoria to Fort George in honor of King George III. The War of 1812 was fought between the United States and Great Britain between 1812 and 1815. 

Upon dropping anchor in Bakers Bay, however, Black learned that agents of the North West Company of Montreal had already purchased all of the Pacific Fur Company's holdings, including its inventory and two inland posts on the Okanogan and Spokane rivers. The American Pacific Fur Company was started in 1810 by John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) and his partners.

With no need for a bombardment, Black resolved to formally declare possession of the area, unload the North West Company men and supplies he had brought from London, and put back to sea as soon as possible in pursuit of enemy vessels cruising the Pacific.

Ten days of stormy weather kept Black on board the Racoon in Bakers Bay until the evening of December 12, when he crossed  the Columbia in a small schooner belonging to the fur post. He did not arrive until well after dark, and upon surveying the fort the next morning reportedly remarked, "What, is this the fort I have heard so much of? Great God, I could batter it down with a four-pounder in two hours!" (Franchere, 134). Apparently some representatives of the North West Company, either in London or on the voyage, had led him to expect to find "America's Gibraltar on the Columbia" (Ronda, 296) rather than a small stockade surrounding a few stores and barracks, with two or three swivel guns guarding the gate.

At mid-afternoon on December 13, an unusually clear day, representatives of the North West Company and the Pacific Fur Company gathered outside the fort along with Captain Black, a midshipman, four marines and four sailors from the Racoon, all in full dress uniform. The three swivel guns belonging to the fort were fired to signal the beginning of the ceremony. Astorian clerk Gabriel Franchere described the proceedings:

"[H]aving distributed firearms to the servants of the Company, we mounted a platform where a flagpole had been erected. There the Captain took a British flag that he had brought for the purpose and raised in to the top of the staff; taking a bottle of Madeira, he smashed it against the pole, proclaiming in a loud voice that he took possession of the establishment and the country in the name of His Britannic Majesty and named it Fort George" (Franchere, 133).

According to North West Company partner Alexander Henry the Younger, who was also on hand, "three cheers were given by us all. Three rounds of Musketry were then fired by our men and the Marines ... and we drank His Majesty's Health" (Henry 622). The chiefs of several Chinook and Clatsop bands who traded at Fort Astoria had been invited to the ceremony, and after listening to an explanation of the proceedings, they and the other attendants were treated to "a few extra glasses of wine" (Henry, 622).

Back aboard the Racoon two days later, Captain Black wrote to the Secretary of the Admiralty, in cipher in case his ship should be captured at sea. "Agreeable to orders," he wrote, "I succeeded entering Columbia River in His Majesty's Sloop Racoon November thirty 1813, found party North West Company here who arranged with enemy before arrival; Country and fort I have taken possession of in name and for His Britannic Majesty; latter I have named Fort George and left in charge of North West Company" (Black, 148). Referring to the Astorians as the "Enemy party," he reported that they were "quite broken; they have no settlement whatever on this river or coast" (Black, 148).

After waiting two weeks for a break in the weather, Black departed the Columbia on December 30, leaving the Union Jack flying over Fort George and the North West Company firmly in command of the fur trade on the Columbia.

Sources: "Captain Black's Report on Taking of Astoria," Oregon Historical Quarterly Vol. 17 (1916), pp. 147-148; Gabriel Franchere, Journal of a Voyage on the North West Coast of North America during the Years 1811, 1812, 1813 and 1814 (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1969); Barry M. Gough, The Royal Navy and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1810-1914 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1971); Alexander Henry, The Journal of Alexander Henry the Younger, Vols. 1 and 2 ed. by Barry M. Gough (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1992); Voyage of the Racoon: A "Secret" Journal of a Visit to Oregon, California, and Hawaii, 1813-1814 ed. by John A. Hussey (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1958); James P. Ronda, Astoria and Empire (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990).

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