Fur Trade in the Pacific- American Coasting Voyages- Russian Enterprises.- Discovery
of the Columbia River.- Carver's Project to Found a Settlement There.-Mackenzie's
Expedition.- Lewis and Clarke's Journey Across the Rocky Mountains- Mr. Astor's
Grand Commercial Scheme.-His Correspondence on the Subject With Mr. Jefferson.His
Negotiations With the Northwest Company.- His Steps to Carry His Scheme Into Effect.
WHILE the various companies we have noticed were pushing their enterprises far and
wide in the wilds of Canada, and along the course of the great western waters, other
adventurers, intent on the same objects, were traversing the watery wastes of the
Pacific and skirting the northwest coast of America. The last voyage of that renowned
but unfortunate discoverer, Captain Cook, had made known the vast quantities of the
sea-otter to be found along that coast, and the immense prices to be obtained for its fur
in China. It was as if a new gold coast had been discovered. Individuals from various
countries dashed into this lucrative traffic, so that in the year 1792, there were twenty-one vessels under different flags, plying along the coast and trading with the natives.
The greater part of them were American, and owned by Boston merchants. They
generally remained on the coast and about the adjacent seas, for two years, carrying
on as wandering and adventurous a commerce on the water as did the traders and
trappers on land. Their trade extended along the whole coast from California to the
high northern latitudes. They would run in near shore, anchor, and wait for the natives
to come off in their canoes with peltries. The trade exhausted at one place, they would
up anchor and off to another. In this way they would consume the summer, and when
autumn came on, would run down to the Sandwich Islands and winter in some friendly
and plentiful harbor. In the following year they would resume their summer trade,
commencing at California and proceeding north: and, having in the course of the two
seasons collected a sufficient cargo of peltries, would make the best of their way to
China. Here they would sell their furs, take in teas, nankeens, and other merchandise,
and return to Boston, after an absence of two or three years.
The people, however, who entered most extensively and effectively in the fur trade of
the Pacific, were the Russians. Instead of making casual voyages, in transient ships,
they established regular trading houses in the high latitudes, along the northwest coast
of America, and upon the chain of the Aleutian Islands between Kamtschatka and the
promontory of Alaska.
To promote and protect these enterprises, a company was incorporated by the Russian
government with exclusive privileges, and a capital of two hundred and sixty thousand
pounds sterling; and the sovereignty of that part of the American continent, along the
coast of which the posts had been established, was claimed by the Russian crown, on
the plea that the land had been discovered and occupied by its subjects.
As China was the grand mart for the furs collected in these quarters, the Russians had
the advantage over their competitors in the trade. The latter had to take their peltries to
Canton, which, however, was a mere receiving mart, from whence they had to be
distributed over the interior of the empire and sent to the northern parts, where there
was the chief consumption. The Russians, on the contrary, carried their furs, by a
shorter voyage, directly to the northern parts of the Chinese empire; thus being able to
afford them in the market without the additional cost of internal transportation.
We come now to the immediate field of operation of the great enterprise we have
undertaken to illustrate.
Among the American ships which traded along the northwest coast in 1792, was the
Columbia, Captain Gray, of Boston. In the course of her voyage she discovered the
mouth of a large river in lat. 46 19' north. Entering it with some difficulty, on account of
sand-bars and breakers, she came to anchor in a spacious bay. A boat was well
manned, and sent on shore to a village on the beach, but all the inhabitants fled
excepting the aged and infirm. The kind manner in which these were treated, and the
presents given them, gradually lured back the others, and a friendly intercourse took
place. They had never seen a ship or a white man. When they had first descried the
Columbia, they had supposed it a floating island; then some monster of the deep; but
when they saw the boat putting for shore with human beings on board, they considered
them cannibals sent by the Great Spirit to ravage the country and devour the
inhabitants. Captain Gray did not ascend the river farther than the bay in question,
which continues to bear his name. After putting to sea, he fell in with the celebrated
discoverer, Vancouver, and informed him of his discovery, furnished him with a chart
which he had made of the river. Vancouver visited the river, and his lieutenant,
Broughton, explored it by the aid of Captain Gray's chart; ascending it upwards of one
hundred miles, until within view of a snowy mountain, to which he gave the name of Mt.
Hood, which it still retains.
The existence of this river, however, was known long before the visits of Gray and Vancouver, but the information concerning it was vague and indefinite, being gathered from the reports of Indians. It was spoken of by travellers as the Oregon, and as the Great River of the West. A Spanish ship is said to have been wrecked at the mouth, several of the crew of which lived for some time among, the natives. The Columbia, however, is believed to be the first ship that made a regular discovery and anchored within its waters, and it has since generally borne the name of that vessel.
As early as 1763, shortly after the acquisition of the Canadas by Great Britain, Captain
Jonathan Carver, who had been in the British provincial army, projected a journey
across the continent between the forty-third and forty-sixth degrees of northern latitude
to the shores of -the Pacific Ocean. His objects were to ascertain the breadth of the
continent at its broadest part, and to determine on some place on the shores of the
Pacific, where government might establish a post to facilitate the discovery of a
northwest passage, or a communication between Hudson's Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
This place he presumed would be somewhere about the Straits of Annian, at which
point he supposed the Oregon disembogued itself. It was his opinion, also, that a
settlement on this extremity of America would disclose new sources of trade, promote
many useful discoveries, and open a more direct communication with China and the
English settlements in the East Indies, than that by the Cape of Good Hope or the
Straits of Magellan. * This enterprising and intrepid traveller was twice baffled in
individual efforts to accomplish this great journey. In 1774, he was joined in the scheme
by Richard Whitworth, a member of Parliament, and a man of wealth. Their enterprise
was projected on a broad and bold plan. They were to take with them fifty or sixty men,
artificers and mariners. With these they were to make their way up one of the branches
of the Missouri, explore the mountains for the source of the Oregon, or River of the
West, and sail down that river to its supposed exit, near the Straits of Annian. Here
they were to erect a fort, and build the vessels necessary to carry their discoveries by
sea into effect. Their plan had the sanction of the British government, and grants and
other requisites were nearly completed, when the breaking out of the American
Revolution once more defeated the undertaking. **
The expedition of Sir Alexander Mackenzie in 1793, across the continent to the Pacific
Ocean, which he reached in lat. 52 20' 48", again suggested the possibility of linking
together the trade of both sides of the continent. In lat. 52 30' he had descended a river
for some distance which flowed towards the south, and wag called by the natives
Tacoutche Tesse, and which he erroneously supposed to be the Columbia. It was
afterwards ascertained that it emptied itself in lat. 49 degrees, whereas the mouth of
the Columbia is about three degrees further south.
When Mackenzie some years subsequently published an account of his expeditions, he
suggested the policy of opening an intercourse between the Atlantic and Pacific
oceans, and forming regular establishments through the interior and at both extremes,
as well as along the coasts and islands. By this means, he observed, the entire
command of the fur trade of North America might be obtained from lat. 48 north to the
pole, excepting that portion held by the Russians, for as to the American adventurers
who had hitherto enjoyed the traffic along the northwest coast, they would instantly
disappear, he added, before a well regulated trade.
A scheme of this kind, however, was too vast and hazardous for individual enterprise; it
could only be undertaken by a company under the sanction and protection of a
government; and as there might be a clashing of claims between the Hudson's Bay and
Northwest Company, the one holding by right of charter, the other by right of
possession, he proposed that the two comparties should coalesce in this great
undertaking. The long-cherished jealousies of these two companies, however, were too
deep and strong to allow them to listen to such counsel.
In the meantime the attention of the American government was attracted to the subject,
and the memorable expedition under Messrs. Lewis and Clarke fitted out. These
gentlemen, in 1804, accomplished the enterprise which had been projected by Carver
and Whitworth in 1774. They ascended the Missouri, passed through the stupendous
gates of the Rocky Mountains, hitherto unknown to white men; discovered and explored
the upper waters of the Columbia, and followed that river down to its mouth, where their
countryman, Gray, had anchored about twelve years previously. Here they passed the
winter, and returned across the mountains in the following spring. The reports
published by them of their expedition demonstrated the practicability of establishing a
line of communication across the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
it was then that the idea presented itself to the mind of Mr. Astor, of grasping with his
individual hand this great enterprise, which for years had been dubiously yet desirously
contemplated by powerful associations and maternal governments. For some time he
revolved the idea in his mind, gradually extending and maturing his plans as his means
of executing them augmented. The main feature of his scheme was to establish a line
of trading posts along the Missouri and the Columbia, to the mouth of the latter, where
was to be founded the chief trading house or mart. Inferior posts would be established
in the interior, and on all the tributary streams of the Columbia, to trade with the
Indians; these posts would draw their supplies from the main establishment, and bring
to it the peltries they collected. Coasting craft would be built and fitted out, also at the
mouth of the Columbia, to trade, at favorable seasons, all along the northwest coast,
and return, with the proceeds of their voyages, to this place of deposit. Thus all the
Indian trade, both of the interior and the coast, would converge to this point, and thence
derive its sustenance.
A ship was to be sent annually from New York to this main establishment with reinforcements and supplies, and with merchandise suited to the trade. It would take on board the furs collected during the preceding year, carry them to Canton, invest the proceeds in the rich merchandise of China, and return thus freighted to New York.
As, in extending the American trade along the coast to the northward, it might be
brought into the vicinity of the Russian Fur Company, and produce a hostile rivalry, it
was part of the plan of Mr. Astor to conciliate the good-will of that company by the most
amicable and beneficial arrangements. The Russian establishment was chiefly
dependent for its supplies upon transient trading vessels from the United States. These
vessels, however, were often of more harm than advantage. Being owned by private
adventurers, or casual voyagers, who cared only for present profit, and had no interest
in the permanent prosperity of the trade, they were reckless in their dealings with the
natives, and made no scruple of supplying them with fire-arms. In this way several
fierce tribes in the vicinity of the Russian posts, or within the range of their trading
excursions, were furnished with deadly means of warfare, and rendered troublesome
and dangerous neighbors.
The Russian government had made representations to that of the United States of
these malpractices on the part of its citizens, and urged to have this traffic in arms
prohibited; but, as it did not infringe any municipal law, our government could not
interfere. Yet, still it regarded, with solicitude, a traffic which, if persisted in, might give
offence to Russia, at that time almost the only friendly power to us. In this dilemma the
government had applied to Mr. Astor, as one conversant in this branch of trade, for
information that might point out a way to remedy the evil. This circumstance had
suggested to him the idea of supplying the Russian establishment regularly by means
of the annual ship that should visit the settlement at the mouth of the Columbia (or
Oregon) ; by this means the casual trading vessels would be excluded from those parts
of the coast where their malpractices were so injurious to the Russians.
Such is a brief outline of the enterprise projected by Mr. Astor, but which continually expanded in his mind. Indeed it is due to him to say that he was not actuated by mere motives of individual profit. He was already wealthy beyond the ordinary desires of man, but he now aspired to that honorable fame which is awarded to men of similar scope of mind, who by their great commercial enterprises have enriched nations, peopled wildernesses, and extended the bounds of empire. He considered his projected establishment at the mouth of the Columbia as the emporium to an immense commerce; as a colony that would form the germ of a wide civilization; that would, in fact, carry the American population across the Rocky Mountains and spread it along the shores of the Pacific, as it already animated the shores of the Atlantic.
As Mr. Astor, by the magnitude of his commercial and financial relations, and the vigor
and scope of his self-taught mind, had elevated himself into the consideration of
government and the communion and correspondence with leading statesmen, he, at an
early period, communicated his schemes to President Jefferson, soliciting the
countenance of government. How highly they were esteemed by that eminent man, we
may judge by the following passage, written by him some time afterwards.
"I remember well having invited your proposition on this subject,*** and encouraged it
with the assurance of every facility and protection which the government could
properly afford. 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,
unconnected with us but by the ties of blood and interest, and enjoying like us the
rights of self-government."
The cabinet joined with Mr. Jefferson in warm approbation of the plan, and held out assurance of every protection that could, consistently with general policy, be afforded.
Mr. Astor now prepared to carry his scheme into prompt execution. He had some
competition, however, to apprehend and guard against. The Northwest Company,
acting feebly and partially upon the suggestions of its former agent, Sir Alexander
Mackenzie, had pushed one or two advanced trading posts across the Rocky
Mountains, into a tract of country visited by that enterprising traveller, and since named
New Caledonia. This tract lay about two degrees north of the Columbia, and intervened
between the territories of the United States and those of Russia. Its length was about
five hundred and fifty miles, and its breadth, from the mountains to the Pacific, from
three hundred to three hundred and fifty geographic miles.
Should the Northwest Company persist in extending their trade in that quarter, their
competition might be of serious detriment to the plans of Mr. Astor. It is true they would
contend with him to a vast disadvantage, from the checks and restrictions to which they
were subjected. They were straitened on one side by the rivalry of the Hudson's Bay
Company; then they had no good post on the Pacific where they could receive supplies
by sea for their establishments beyond the mountains; nor, if they had one, could they
ship their furs thence to China, that great mart for peltries; the Chinese trade being
comprised in the monopoly of the East India Company. Their posts beyond the
mountains had to be supplied in yearly expeditions, like caravans, from Montreal, and
the furs conveyed back in the same way, by long, precarious, and expensive routes,
across the continent. Mr. Astor, on the contrary, would be able to supply his proposed
establishment at the mouth of the Columbia by sea, and to ship the furs collected there
directly to China, so as to undersell the Northwest Company in the great Chinese
Still, the competition of two rival companies west of the Rocky Mountains could not but
prove detrimental to both, and fraught with those evils, both to the trade and to the
Indians, that had attended similar rivalries in the Canadas. To prevent any contest of
the kind, therefore, he made known his plan to the agents of the Northwest Company,
and proposed to interest them, to the extent of one third, in the trade thus to be
opened. Some correspondence and negotiation ensued. The company were aware of
the advantages which would be possessed by Mr. Astor should he be able to carry his
scheme into effect; but they anticipated a monopoly of the trade beyond the mountains
by their establishments in New Caledonia, and were loth to share it with an individual
who had already proved a formidable competitor in the Atlantic trade. They hoped, too,
by a timely move, to secure the mouth of the Columbia before Mr. Astor would be able
to put his plans into operation; and, that key to the internal trade once in their
possession, the whole country would be at their command. After some negotiation and
delay, therefore, they declined the proposition that had been made to them, but
subsequently despatched a party for the mouth of the Columbia, to establish a post
there before any expedition sent out by Mr. Astor might arrive.
In the meantime Mr. Astor, finding his overtures rejected, proceeded fearlessly to
execute his enterprise in face of the whole power of the Northwest Company. His main
establishment once planted at the mouth of the Columbia, he looked with confidence to
ultimate success. Being able to reinforce and supply it amply by sea, he would push his
interior posts in every direction up the rivers and along the coast; supplying the natives
at a lower rate, and thus gradually obliging the Northwest Company to give up the
competition, relinquish New Caledonia, and retire to the other side of the mountains.
He would then have possession of the trade, not merely of the Columbia and its
tributaries, but of the regions farther north, quite to the Russian possessions. Such was
a part of his brilliant and comprehensive plan.
He now proceeded, with all diligence, to procure proper agents and coadjutors,
habituated to the Indian trade and to the life of the wilderness. Among the clerks of the
Northwest Company were several of great capacity and experience, who had served
out their probationary terms, but who, either through lack of interest and influence, or a
want of vacancies, had not been promoted. They were consequently much dissatisfied,
and ready for any employment in which their talents and acquirements might be turned
to better account.
Mr. Astor made his overtures to several of these persons, and three of them entered
into his views. One of these, Mr. Alexander M'Kay, had accompanied Sir Alexander
Mackenzie in both of his expeditions to the northwest coast of America in 1789 and
1793. The other two were Duncan M'Dougal and Donald M'Kenzie. To these were
subsequently added Mr. Wilson Price Hunt, of New Jersey. As this gentleman was a
native born citizen of the United States, a person of great probity and worth, he was
selected by Mr. Astor to be his chief agent, and to represent him in the contemplated
On the 23d of June, 1810, articles of agreement were entered into between Mr. Astor
and those four gentlemen, acting for themselves and for the several persons who had
already agreed to become, or should thereafter become, associated under the firm of
"The Pacific Fur Company."
According to these articles, Mr. Astor was to be at the head of the company, and to
manage its affairs in New York. He was to furnish vessels, goods, provisions, arms,
ammunition, and all other requisites for the enterprise at first cost and charges,
provided that they did not, at any time, involve an advance of more than four hundred
The stock of the company was to be divided into a hundred equal shares, with the
profits accruing thereon. Fifty shares were to be at the disposition of Mr. Astor, and the
other fifty to be divided among the partners and their associates.
Mr. Astor was to have the privilege of introducing other persons into the connection as
partners, two of whom, at least, should be conversant with the Indian trade, and none
of them entitled to more than three shares.
A general meeting of the company was to be held annually at Columbia River, for the
investigation and regulation of its affairs; at which absent members might be
represented, and might vote by proxy under certain specified conditions.
The association, if successful, was to continue for twenty years; but the parties had full
power to abandon and dissolve it within the first five years, should it be found
unprofitable. For this term Mr. Astor covenanted to bear all the loss that might be
incurred; after which it was to be borne by all the partners, in proportion to their
The parties of the second part were to execute faithfully such duties as might be
assigned to them by a majority of the company on the northwest coast, and to repair to
such place or places as the majority might direct.
An agent, appointed for the term of five years, was to reside at the principal
establishment on the northwest coast, and Wilson Price Hunt was the one chosen for
the first term. Should the interests of the concern at any time require his absence, a
person was to be appointed, in general meeting, to take his place.
Such were the leading conditions of this ascociation; we shall now proceed to relate the
various hardy and eventful expeditions, by sea and land, to which it gave rise.
* Carver's Travels, Introd. b. iii. Philad. 1796.
** Carver's Travels, p. 360.
*** On this point Mr. Jefferson's memory was in error. The proposition alluded to was
the one, already mentioned, for the establishment of an American Fur Company in the
Atlantic States. The great enterprise beyond the mountains, that was to sweep the
shores of the Pacific, originated in the mind of Mr. Astor, and was proposed by him to