Bloody Trek To Empire


With the sinking of the Lark , Astoria was without supplies or communication with the nation to which it owed allegiance. It also was at the mercy of the British Northwest Fur Company, whose factors in 1813 forced Astor’s representative virtually at gun point to sell $200,000 worth of furs for less than $80,500. Then his Majesty’s ship Raccoon anchored at Astoria, the Stars and Stripes came down, and the Union Jack went up. Astoria was renamed Fort George.

Captain William Black of the Raccoon looked at the pitiful collection of crumbling log buildings where Americans had founded their first settlement on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. “Is this,” he exclaimed, “the great Fort Astoria I have heard so much of around the world? Good God, I could batter it down with a four-pounder in two hours!”

Astoria was lost and the Pacific Fur Company abandoned. The death of 65 men, prolonged suffering on the part of many more, and the expenditure of a vast amount of money seemed to have arrived only at a dead end. But in his Virginia home, Monticello, Thomas Jefferson gazed at the uncompleted map of the continent. British possession, he felt, was not to be permanent. The former President wrote reassuringly to John Jacob Astor:

“I considered, as a great public acquisition, the commencement of a settlement on that point of the western coast of America, and looked forward with gratification to the time when its descendants should have spread themselves through the whole length of that coast, covering it with free and independent Americans. …”

So into the Treaty of Ghent, which concluded the abortive War of 1812, was written a clause which in effect restored Astoria to the sovereignty of the United States. On a bright August afternoon in 1818 the American sloop of war Ontario , Captain James Biddle commanding, stood off the green headlands which so many adventurous men had died to win. In the Captain’s leather case were instructions from President James Monroe “to assert the claim of the United States to the adjacent country and especially to reoccupy Astoria, or Fort George.”

This time it was to be Astoria permanently, and this time the American flag was there to stay. It snapped brightly at the halyards, while the marines from off the Ontario came to a salute. The notes of the bugle echoed back from the wooded hills. Some day that flag would have three new stars—for Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, states carved out of a domain made secure for America by the Argonauts who voyaged through dark gorges or manned the luckless Tonquin .