Bloody Trek To Empire


The Tonquin rounded Cape Horn and scudded northward with no civility or conversation between Thorn and the members of the Pacific Fur Company. On the island of Oahu in the Mawaiians, the Captain sneered at the display of Highland plaids and kilts which McKay and his Scottish aides put on for the admiring native girls.

And then at last, on March 22, 1811, half a year after clearing New York, this cargo of tensions and rivalries stood off the Columbia’s surging mouth. There on that timbered shore, with distant snowcapped mountains framing the scene, was to be laid the cornerstone of Astor’s Northwest empire.

But where was the course across the tossing bar? Thorn commanded Ebenezer Fox, the first mate, to put out in a whaleboat to find the passage into the river. The captain arbitrarily ordered him to man the boat with French-Canadian voyageurs instead of with sailors from the crew. The voyageurs had been brought along to paddle canoes on riffled mountain streams. They knew nothing of this churning maelstrom of salt water. Fox appealed to McKay over the Captain’s order. “I am to be sent off,” protested the mate, “without seamen, in boisterous weather, and on the most perilous of missions.”

When McKay remonstrated with him, Thorn thundered defiance. “I command here!” he shouted. “Mr. Fox, do not be a coward. Put off!”

As the whaleboat disappeared into the gloom, the mate looked up once again at the Captain in silent dismay. The boat with its five occupants breasted the heavy breakers and slid sideways over the long spit. It bobbed violently like a log in a waterfall. Then the boat was seen no more. The waves had swallowed it. The next day two Hawaiian oarsmen, far from the sunny homeland where they had been recruited by Captain Thorn, also drowned attempting to locate the elusive passage.

When the Tonquin finally was anchored in a deep bay of the Columbia, eight men had perished on the bar. To Alexander McKay it was an ominous start. Lewis and Clark had crossed the whole continent and returned with the loss of only one man.

Now began the construction of Fort Astoria, the first settlement ever built by Americans on the great ocean they would one day dominate in peace and in war. It was an agonizing task. Two months passed before a single acre of ground was cleared. Tools were crude and inadequate. Three men were killed by marauding Indians, and three more painfully injured by falling fir trees. Through an incredible oversight. Astor had not included a doctor in the expedition. The men bandaged their own wounds and cuts with unsanitary poultices. Blood poisoning attained alarming proportions.

Thorn, waiting impatiently aboard the Tonquin , wanted to sail northward along the coast on a trading voyage. Perhaps he could pick up some valuable furs for Mr. Astor. McKay decided to accompany the ship, leaving behind a small company at Astoria. Just before the Tonquin braved the bar again, Thorn had an angry quarrel with the only surviving mate and banished him to shore. “If you ever see us again, it will be a miracle,” the despondent McKay told his friends at Astoria.

The miracle did not occur. Instead, there befell the Tonquin a disaster which today, nearly a century and a half later, still is whispered around the council fires of coastal tribes from Alaska to the California border. Thorn put in at Clayoquot Sound and commenced trading with the Salish Indians. Soon he had brutally struck a chief in the face with an otter pelt for demanding what Thorn considered a hard bargain. A grim surliness spread over the Indians, who swarmed aboard the Tonquin in ever-increasing numbers. McKay became frightened. He called to the Captain’s attention a stern sentence in the instructions from Mr. Astor:

“Under no circumstances admit more than a few natives on the ship at a time.”

Thorn brushed aside the warning. He who had bested the Tripoli pirates could take care of these fish-eating savages. The Indians began trading for knives rather than for beads and blankets. This, too, alarmed Alexander McKay, but he had no time to communicate his fears to the Captain. At a high, shrill, sudden shout from Shewish, the son of a chief, the Indians fell on the outnumbered white men with their new knives and with clubs they had concealed in bundles of furs.

McKay was first to die. An Indian pushed him over the rail into a war canoe, where waiting squaws cruelly killed him with their cooking utensils. The imperious Thorn, who had brought doom to himself and his vessel, fought ferociously in his final few moments of life. This, at last, was the task for which the great Commodore Decatur had recommended him. He was no merchant captain; he was a fighting man of the U.S. Navy. When Thorn went down beneath a torrent of brown bodies, the deck around him was strewn with dead Indians. One of the victims, the Captain’s clasp-knife buried in his chest, was Shewish. So the man who had planned the massacre did not live to share in the loot.