Skip to main content

The Fabulous River

March 2023
3min read

Ross covers one little segment of the story. A bird’s-eye view of the whole business, touching on everything from the arrival of the first Yankee sailing vessel at the mouth of the Columbia in 1792 down to the June night in 1942 when a Japanese submarine lay offshore and lobbed shells in at Fort Stevens, is provided in Stewart Holbrook’s The Columbia , which is a fine book to read after Ross’s book.

Mr. Holbrook undertakes to tell what happened along the Columbia River, which means that he gets pretty much all across the Oregon Country before he is finished; and he tells his story with an unpretentious ease which somehow disguises the fact that at the ancient art of spinning a good yarn he is a superbly competent craftsman.

What happened along the Columbia included a good many things, some of which of course are described in The Fur Hunters of the Far West . An American trader entered the mouth of the river in 1792, a British naval officer came in very shortly thereafter, Lewis and Clark encountered the stream at its junction with the Snake River in 1805 and the American-born Canadian Simon Fraser came down from British Columbia a bit later, and in 1807 David Thompson followed the river upstream to its source.

Thompson was one of history’s lucky men. He was in his canoe going down an unknown river; he was in a bewitched land where a man could either lose his life quickly or see things straight out of fable and the left-hand side of the Gate of Horn, and going down the Columbia in 1807 was like knowing the morning and the evening of the Seventh Day. Thompson stitched together a 25-foot canoe out of split cedar and the roots of various trees, slept in the snow while the job was being done, and finally cruised where no man had cruised before; he got to the river mouth at last, claimed everything in sight for the British Crown, and waited to watch John Jacob Astor’s boys come in and get into trouble with one another.

This sort of thing, perhaps, is the small change of history. But somehow it is interesting; somehow, through it one sees history as a moving story of people rather than as a cut and dried procession of names, dates, and mural paintings. The great events are not always world-famous men posing, hand in vest, in front of full-color canvasses; they can be men in dirty buck-skins floating down an unknown river, or tired pork-eaters trudging a wilderness road with eighty-pound packs on their shoulders, or weary businessmen in a board room trying to decide, from imperfect knowledge, whether to risk the last of a company’s capital in a dubious venture on some far-off river none of them has ever seen.

All of which is something Mr. Holbrook understands perfectly. So he writes a history of the Northwest (for that is what this book really is) and he never bothers to think of it as history; rather, it is simply a succession of interesting stories, chosen and told by an expert. He tells, for instance, about the Hudson’s Bay Company and what it did in the Oregon Country; about Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, two of the most appealing of all American pioneers, who were butchered by Indians in a senseless, meaningless massacre, and who left their names and the memory of their noble lives as something for all the rest of us to live up to; of the gaudy steamboat era on the Columbia, when river transportation was a vital part of the great tale of the empire builders, and when steamboat captains, hard-eyed men who wanted to make an extra dollar, and settlers who hoped that the boom would finally come true worked together to create a colorful chapter in the history of getting goods to market; of the great trees of the Northwest, and how men hewed them down, brought them to the mills, and helped open a wilderness to settlement; and, finally, of the great Columbia itself, with its pulsing, turbulent flow, and the men who tamed it and laid the base for an industrial kingdom.

The Columbia , by Stewart H. Holbrook. Rinehart & Co. 393 pp. $5.

This is a great story; a yarn in which the prevalence of forest fires in the Columbia basin takes, quite properly, as much emphasis as the doings of the men who thought they were in charge of things, and in which Mr. Holbrook is quite willing to go out of his way to explain that that part of a logging-country town which caters to the needs of lumberjacks, fishermen, harvest hands, and Wobblies is properly called “Skidroad” rather than the “Skidrow” of the Sunday supplement writers. Salmon fishers, Jim Hill, and the Bonneville Dam all have their place here. Out of it all Mr. Holbrook draws a moving and coherent story of a mighty land that was finally tamed for settlement but that continues to put its mark on the people who live in it.

The Columbia is a fine book—one of the best in the notable “Rivers of America” series.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "April 1956"

Authored by: Duncan Emrich

A glimpse at the ancient lore of cattle brands

Authored by: Robert M. Lunny

Fine printmakers celebrated the heroes and heroics of 1812

Authored by: Clifford Dowdey

Hunting an unattainable security, the poet sought his “lost Lenore” and then drifted into the shadows

Authored by: Clinton Rossiter

Through the years the chief executive’s job has grown in power. Here is a study of the men who made it a greater office.

Authored by: Lynn Montross

At Cowpens, Dan Morgan showed how militia can be used. The formula worked in three later fights.

Both grimness and beauty touch this haunting fragment of America’s past

Authored by: Thomas Naughton

It was quite an air meet. In 1910 it was sensational to see 14 planes aloft at one time, and the spectators seemed to feel the airplane was here to stay.

Authored by: Richard Hofstadter

Changing times have revolutionised rural life in America, but the legend built up in the old
days remains a powerful force

Authored by: Laurence Farmer

Yellow fever killed 4,000 in Philadelphia in 1793, and puzzled doctors ignored the real clue to blame “miasmata” in the air.

Authored by: Penrose Scull

What the old-time peddler meant in the development of the American frontier

Featured Articles

Rarely has the full story been told about how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.