Empires In The Northwest

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[ The dream of a Northwest Passage stirred men’s minds for another two centuries. In 1742 an expedition of the British Admiralty, sent to search the shores of Hudson Bay, returned a flat denial that any passage existed. Still the dream lingered on, but by the middle of the Eighteenth Century Americans were thinking less of a sea passage than of a river route across the continental land mass. One of those who responded to this later vision was Major Robert Rogers, the fabulous hero of the French and Indian Wars. ]

In 1765 Rogers wangled an appointment as commander of Michilimackinac on the strait between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Meantime he had tied up with Jonathan Carver, who in 1766 set out to explore to the westward and did reach as far as the vicinity of present St. Paul, Minnesota. Both men postulated a short portage from the headwaters of the Mississippi (and later from the Missouri) across a slight height of land to the upper tributaries of a great River of the West. This river Rogers first called Ouragan, then Ourigan. He probably got the name from Carver, who, however, spelled it Oregon when finally, in 1778, he got around to publishing his Travels through the Interior Parts of North America .

Where Carver picked up the name is unknown, though various ingenious suggestions have been offered. As for the great River of the West, he plucked it from sheer myth. Carver’s travels did not bring him within a thousand miles of the Columbia. The fact that the Columbia actually does lie in the approximate vicinity of his River Oregon is a coincidence comparable to that which led Juan de Fuca to locate a fanciful strait in the vicinity of a real one. And, just as Juan’s name stuck, so did Oregon, though not to the river. For this carry-through the Northwest can thank young William Cullen Bryant, who relished the sound of the word and so wrote into his precocious poem “Thanatopsis” the resonant phrase:

… in the continuous woods Where rolls the Oregon. …

The very fact that Rogers and Carver could dream up their schemes of pushing west with government help to the Pacific underlined what had become a poignant new worry to Spanish policy-makers. This was England’s emergence, after the 1763 Peace of Paris, as the dominant force in North America. By terms of the Peace, French Canada and Spanish Florida were handed outright to the spreading British Empire. As a sop for the loss of the Floridas, Spain was then repossessed of Cuba and, by the Treaty of San Ildefonso, given Louisiana. The gift, its extent largely unknown, was not entirely welcome, for it created in the Mississippi Valley a common boundary with England, a mortal enemy that at any time might cast covetous eyes toward the silver mines of Mexico. Or perhaps the expansion to the Pacific would come farther north, through Canada.

This last danger, however, was in 1770 still somewhat dimmed by distance. The immediate threat that finally aroused Madrid to take a closer look at the New World’s long-neglected Northwest Coast was a challenge from a most unmaritime and hitherto ignored quarter—Russia.

The Track of the Bear

Within the space of a man’s lifetime, in a land 3ccupation as extraordinary as Spain’s in America, the Russians swept eastward from the Urals to the Pacific. The headlong push was initiated by a river pirate named Yermak. Driven from his favorite fields beside the lower Volga by soldiers of Ivan the Terrible, Yermak led nearly a thousand Cossacks north along the western slope of the Ural Mountains to salt mines being operated by the Stroganov family. Uneasy in the company of such uninvited guests, Grigori Stroganov got rid of them by telling them of rich fur grounds beyond the mountains.

In 1581, the year after Francis Drake brought his treasure-laden Golden Hind back to England, Yermak crossed the Urals and fell ferociously on the Tartars of Khan Kuchum. Utterly overwhelmed, Kuchum abandoned his capital, Isker, sometimes called Sibir.

Within fifty years the name of that little city—Sibir —had spread across the entire continent. In the van of this wild rush went the incredible promyshleniki , the more than half-wild, fanatically reckless Siberian counterpart of the American mountain men. Close behind came the fur merchant. With him, invariably, rode the gatherer of yassack , annual tribute in furs for the Tsar. Separately and in concert this threesome—hunter, merchant, and tribute gatherer—subjected the natives to a merciless grinding. If a tribe’s quota of furs was not met, hostages were killed, chiefs tortured, villages put to the torch by forerunners of a people who later cried shame over the Americans’ treatment of the Indians. Resistance brought decimation to entire groups. Humbly, therefore, the precious sable and marten and ermine furs were delivered; and as fast as the animals were exterminated in one district, the exploiters hurried on to the next.