‘Astoria’: 19th-century fortune hunters in the Pacific Northwest
Peter Stark’s “Astoria” is a vivid recreation of an era when the Pacific Northwest was a vast unexploited wilderness, with Astoria as its main American colony. Stark appears March 12 at Town Hall and March 13 at Third Place Books.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Astoria” will appear in conversation with Feliks Banel at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 12, at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $5 through website and at the door (townhallseattle.org). He will also discuss his book at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 13, at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
The first American colony on the West Coast was founded at Astoria, Ore., in 1811. The Lewis and Clark expedition had wintered there six years before; they are celebrated because they were first and because they were successful. They also had a simple mission, which was to explore, keep records and come back alive.
John Jacob Astor’s mission was the more complicated task of building a business. The New York fur merchant envisioned his West Coast station as a funnel for pelts bought from Native Americans in the tributaries of the Columbia River, shipped to China and exchanged for silks and porcelain for New York.
The profit margins would be tremendous. Also the risks.
As told by Peter Stark in “Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire — A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival” (Ecco, 256 pp., $26.99), Astor’s vision was good. His choice of men was not.
Because the American fur traders were freelancers, and Astor wanted company men, he hired French Canadians and Scots. And because they were subjects of the Crown and his was an American venture, he put them under American management.
Astor sent out two parties from his base in New York. The land party, which was told to follow the Lewis and Clark route, was led by Wilson Price Hunt, 27, a frontier retailer. The sea voyage was led by Jonathan Thorn, 31, a former naval commander.
Hunt was inexperienced and wasted too much time getting started. Talked out of the Lewis and Clark route, he led his team into unknown country and got stuck in winter in southern Idaho. He and the survivors of that winter straggled into Astoria the next spring.
On his sailing ship, Thorn demanded military discipline of the fur trappers, who were wont to play cards and mock him. At the Falkland Islands he attempted to maroon them. At Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island, he grossly insulted an Indian chief and got himself and his entire crew killed.
The venture did have a manager, Duncan McDougall, who Stark says, “possessed the flexibility to adjust to these fluid cultural situations.” McDougall ran the Astoria settlement post while Hunt was gallivanting around the Pacific, and he married the daughter of the local Chinook chief. He was, however, not American or loyal to American interests. When he found out that America and Britain were at war, and was told by Astor’s British rivals, the North West Fur Co., that Astoria would be attacked by the Royal Navy, he sold out to the British — literally sold out, for about 30 cents on the dollar.
For Astor the venture was a total loss. For the United States it was not. On their return, Astor’s overland party discovered the route that would become the Oregon Trail. The settlers, not the fur trappers, would make Oregon, Washington and Idaho part of the United States.
Stark, a Montana resident who writes for Outside magazine, is particularly strong in describing the wilderness and its effects on human psychology. Here is how he describes the loneliness of the first white settlement on the West Coast:
“Nothing stirred in the forest. Nothing moved on the river except the great sliding sheet of downstream current and the ebb and flow of the estuary’s tide pushing in from the ocean. The swells from the Pacific pounded endlessly against the bar in the distance. Astoria constituted a tiny dot of ‘civilization’ on this farthest, wildest rim of the North American continent.”
Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle writer.