Bloody Trek To Empire

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Oregon commemorates in 1959 the one hundreth anniversary of its admission as a state of the Union. Oregon today contains the country’s greatest reserve of standing timber and produces far more lumber than any other state. Oregon was first in the nation to provide for election of United States senators by popular vote, and it pioneered in introducing to the New World such governmental reforms as the initiative, referendum, and recall.

Yet the earliest attempt of white men to found a permanent settlement on this frontier of majestic solitudes and swift rivers was attended by death, destruction, and massacre. Lives and dollars were strewn recklessly across a vast expanse of the globe—from Manhattan Island to the distant island of Oahu. Almost half the participants in this effort were to perish, some on spray-spattered ocean reefs and others in the darkness of mile-deep mountain chasms. The founder of one of America’s great fortunes was dealt a stunning financial setback, and the U.S. Navy suffered a blow to pride and prestige which was not forgotten for decades.

And yet, despite all the suffering and agony and failure, no other thrust westward was so important to American sovereignty over the immense Columbia River basin. Although a larger portion of its personnel died on land and sea than during any other expedition to the Pacific Coast, the undertaking proved to be the anchoring claim to Oregon; so President James K. Polk was to declare at the time of the historic international crisis of “Fifty-four forty or fight” more than a generation later.

It all started bravely enough as the bark Tonquin sailed from New York Harbor in the late summer of 1810. The frigate Constitution , Old Ironsides herself, escorted the Tonquin to the open sea.

With the Tonquin went the hopes of the new nation along the Atlantic seaboard. Lewis and Clark had returned from the western solitudes only four years before. Their startling reports of limitless forests and prairie had been avidly read, but behind them the valiant explorers left no outpost symbolizing American rights to the region. Now the spectacularly successful German-born merchant, John Jacob Astor, had organized the Pacific Fur Company to build a settlement at the mouth of the legendary Columbia River.

This would be the first American colony on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, and Astor had no doubt it would be the beginning of a fabulous empire. Were not the creeks and marshes of the West alive with beaver? Beaver pelts were the standard symbol of wealth. Astor owned half the 100 shares of stock in the company, and guaranteed its expenses up to $400,000. His partners divided ownership of the other fifty shares. One of the principal partners, Alexander McKay, who had been to the Arctic with the intrepid Sir Alexander Mackenzie, sailed in the Tonquin . Another, a gentle and pious New Jersey-born businessman named Wilson Price Hunt, was to lead an expedition overland across the continent to occupy the fort which the Tonquin ’s passengers and crew would erect.

The enterprise had the full blessing of the American government. On orders of President Madison himself, the Navy furloughed Lieutenant Jonathan Thorn to take command of the Tonquin . Thorn had been cited by Stephen Decatur for gallantry under fire at Tripoli. He was considered one of the Navy’s most promising junior officers. But he had a jaw of granite and a stubborn arrogance, and he tried to bring to a trading vessel the discipline of a warship.

The top royals of the Constitution had barely disappeared over the horizon when those aboard the Tonquin learned what manner of man their captain was. Thorn ordered all lights doused by eight o’clock; he cursed the crew for chanting a ditty and told McKay he considered him “the most worthless human who ever broke a sea biscuit” because he demurred at some of the ship’s fare.

“I fear we are in the hands of a maniac,” McKay wrote that night in his journal by the flicker of a candle lit surreptitiously beside his bunk.

This fear was confirmed when the Tonquin replenished its supply of fresh water at the bleak Falkland Islands, off the coast of South America. Five of McKay’s business associates were a few minutes late getting back to the beach; so Thorn lifted anchor without them. The five, sure they were to be left behind to perish as castaways, rowed frantically after the Tonquin for three hours. Thorn obstinately refused to stop, even when one of Astor’s younger partners, Robert Stuart, threatened him with a brace of pistols. Later Thorn wrote Astor that only the opportune waning of the wind, which left the Tonquin becalmed, enabled the five wretched men to overtake the bark. They clambered up her sides to the deck, where they lay gasping and vomiting. This experience terrified all on board.