Bloody Trek To Empire

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It was an unequal battle. Soon Indians alone stood on the Tonquin ’s bloody deck. The natives quit the ship at sundown, intending to return the next day to claim the greatest prize ever won by any tribe. Did not the vessel bulge with trade goods? Salish warriors would possess guns without number. They would rule all the tribes of the North. But in the bowels of the Tonquin one desperately wounded white man still lived. Long afterward, the remnant of the Tonquin ’s company, left behind at Astoria, decided from vague descriptions of him that this man was James Lewis, the ship’s quiet and inconspicuous clerk.∗

∗Among historians there is still some discussion as to the identity of the wounded crewman. Some say he may have been Stephen Weekes, the Tonquin ’s armorer.

At dawn Lewis dragged himself to the rail and motioned in friendly fashion for the Indians to come aboard. Then he staggered back down the companionway. The savages hesitated. They had been sure all the white men were dead. But the temptation of guns and trinkets was too great. They raced up the sides of the Tonquin . In an hour the ship was covered with Indians, who crowded shoulder to shoulder, snatching booty from each other’s hands.

Suddenly, with a dreadful shiver, the 290-ton Tonquin blew up. The clerk, in a final sacrificial act, had fired the magazine. The explosion was deafening. A great column of smoke rose above the bay. A few fragments of timber, floating in the red-stained water, were mute reminders of a millionaire’s dream of empire and an Indian tribe’s plot for conquest. The mutilated bodies of natives were washed upon the shore for a fortnight. The tribe along the waters of Clayoquot never recovered from the terrible revenge taken by the ship’s clerk. It disappeared almost as completely as had the shattered Tonquin .

Months passed and the isolated settlement at Astoria heard no word of the ship on which they depended for contact with the distant world of cities and supplies and manufacturing. Rumors drifted along the wooded seacoast of a great and searing holocaust that involved a white man’s vessel. Indian campfire rumors were notoriously unreliable, but McKay’s interpreter, one Kasiascall, had been on shore at Clayoquot Sound when the Tonquin ’s magazine was fired. Being a native, he had survived the massacre. Only whites had been slaughtered aboard ship. Eventually, it was Kasiascall who brought to the lonely outpost of the Pacific Fur Company authentic news of what had befallen Mr. Astor’s proud bark.

The Astorians realized they were a solitary outpost in a vast wilderness, many miles from other white men and nearly a continent removed from the country whose flag of seventeen stars flew over their log stockade. Of the Tonquin ’s original company of 53 men, 37 were dead. Gravest of all, one of the missing was the canny Scotsman McKay, the veteran of the Arctic who had been selected by Astor to found the Pacific Fur Company’s trade in skins and metals. Gone, too, were most of the goods and supplies, for Captain Thorn had neglected to unload cargo before sailing the Tonquin off to its destruction.

Sole succor for the only American settlement on the world’s greatest ocean now rested with the Astor overland party led by Wilson Price Hunt.

But it was a question who needed help the more—the beleaguered men at Astoria or the starving ragamuffins of the overland expedition, chewing on the soles of their moccasins in the 6,000-foot abyss of the Snake River.

To avoid the hostile Blackfeet, Hunt had led his party of 64 on a route south of that advised by Lewis and Clark. On this trek Hunt had crossed the famous South Pass over the Rocky Mountains, some day to be followed by the Oregon Trail and charted by the Union Pacific Railroad. But on the headwaters of the Snake River, west of the Continental Divide, the irredeemable blunder was made.

The voyageurs , tired of razor-backed horses and trudging on foot, wanted to journey to the Columbia by water. This was their natural element. They insisted on discarding their mounts and building long canoes. Hunt had grave doubts, but the New Jersey merchant lacked the implacable will of the dead mariner, Jonathan Thorn. He reluctantly assented to the plan. They turned over their horses to a Shoshone tribe and embarked in fifteen canoes.

It was a mistake from the beginning. They had been on the Snake only two days in the autumn of 1811 when they bitterly regretted abandoning their horses. The river commenced to brawl and fret. It snatched at the boats with white-capped talons. One of the canoes capsized and two men were swept away in the foam. “ La maudite rivière enragée! ” it was called by the French-Canadians: “The accursed mad river.”