Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival

BOOK: Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival
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DEDICATION

To Murray and Rosa, and to Rags

EPIGRAPH

[T]his is the land of
liberty
and
equality,
where a man sees and feels that he is a man merely, and that he can no longer exist, [except if] he can himself procure the means of support.

—Robert Stuart,
journal postscript for October 13, 1812,
while starving in today’s Wyoming,
shortly before discovering the South Pass

CAST OF CHARACTERS

SEAGOING PARTY

Captain of the
Tonquin

CAPTAIN JONATHAN THORN
—age thirty-one. U.S. naval hero whom Astor hired to captain the
Tonquin
on the voyage around Cape Horn to the West Coast and then to China.

Partners Aboard the
Tonquin

ALEXANDER MCKAY
—age forty at the time he joined. Highly respected for his experience as explorer, trader, and friend of the Indians in many years’ service in Canada with the North West Company, he was a shareholding partner and trader with Astor’s enterprise, sailing aboard the
Tonquin
.

DUNCAN MCDOUGALL
—age unknown. Scottish fur trader from Canada and former North West Company employee appointed by Astor to be second in command for his “emporium” on the West Coast and to lead it whenever Wilson Price Hunt was absent.

DAVID STUART
—age forty-five. One of the oldest members of the Astor enterprise, the Scottish emigrant had lived some years in Canada, probably in the fur trade, before going out aboard the
Tonquin
as shareholding partner and fur trader.

ROBERT STUART
—age twenty-five. The younger Stuart, also Scottish-born, worked briefly as a clerk for the North West Company in Canada before joining Astor’s company with his uncle David, and also held a small number of shares.

Notable Clerks Aboard the
Tonquin

GABRIEL FRANCHÈRE
—age twenty-four. A French Canadian born in Montreal to a merchant family, Franchère sailed aboard the
Tonquin
as a clerk and kept his own journal account of the expedition.

ALEXANDER ROSS
—age twenty-seven. Scottish-born, Ross worked as a schoolteacher in Canada before seeking his fortune by joining Astor’s Pacific enterprise as a clerk, sailing aboard the
Tonquin
but staying at Astoria when she sailed on. He also kept his own journal.

JAMES LEWIS
—clerk from New York who sailed aboard the
Tonquin
.

THOMAS MCKAY
—son of Alexander McKay (above) who stayed at Astoria when the
Tonquin
sailed onward.

The Seagoing Party also included seven additional clerks, about fifteen French-Canadian voyageurs, and about five craftsmen such as blacksmiths and carpenters.

Crew of the
Tonquin

In addition, the
Tonquin
carried officers and crew, totaling about twenty-three people, and, after stopping at Hawaii, Hawaiians numbering about twenty-four individuals.

THE OVERLAND PARTY

Leader

WILSON PRICE HUNT
—age twenty-seven. The young New Jersey–born businessman, who had worked as a fur trade supplier in St. Louis, was appointed by Astor to lead the Overland Party across the continent and head Astor’s West Coast operations.

Partners

DONALD MACKENZIE
—age twenty-six. Scottish fur trader from Canada and former employee of the North West Company (NWC) who possessed considerable wilderness experience and great physical energy. Unhappy with the NWC, he joined Astor’s enterprise, initially helping Hunt to co-lead the Overland Party.

RAMSAY CROOKS
—age twenty-three. Scottish-born Canadian fur trader who had worked in the American fur trade along the Missouri River, befriending Hunt in St. Louis and eventually joining the Overland Party as partner in Astor’s West Coast enterprise.

ROBERT M
c
CLELLAN
—age forty. Born in Pennsylvania to parents of Scottish descent, McClellan had fought in Ohio Valley Indian wars and eventually worked as a fur trader along the Missouri, for a time in a partnership with Ramsay Crooks. Joined Hunt’s Overland Party as a partner at St. Louis, given two and a half shares, compared to most partners’ five shares.

JOSEPH MILLER
—age thirty, approximately. Member of a respected family in Baltimore, Miller had quit the military to come west as a fur trader, and joined the Overland Party in St. Louis, also holding two and a half shares.

Clerk with Overland Party

JOHN REED
—An Irishman, Reed joined the Overland Party at Montreal or Mackinac Island and served as clerk as Hunt’s party made its way west.

Other Notable Members of Overland Party

JOHN DAY
—forty-year-old Virginian who joined the Overland Party as a hunter.

MARIE DORION
—Iowa Indian woman with two toddlers and married to Pierre Dorion, interpreter for Hunt’s Overland Party.

PIERRE DORION
—half-Sioux interpreter for Hunt’s Overland Party and son of Old Dorion, interpreter for Lewis and Clark.

In addition, the Overland Party included nearly forty French-Canadian voyageurs, several other American hunters, and several trappers met on the Missouri.

Notable Clerks Aboard the
Beaver

ROSS COX
—age nineteen. The Dublin-born Cox emigrated to New York and joined Astor’s enterprise as clerk with the hope of making his fortune. He kept a journal of his experiences.

ALFRED SETON
—A young New Yorker of good family that was down on its luck, Seton dropped out of Columbia to join Astor’s enterprise as clerk. He also kept a journal of his own.

JOHN CLARKE
—age twenty-nine. From Montreal, and a former employee of the North West Company, Clarke may have been related to Astor through his mother. He sailed to the West Coast aboard the
Beaver,
and may have soon been made a shareholding partner.

Captain and Crew of the
Beaver

CAPTAIN CORNELIUS SOWLE
—age forty-two. A native of Rhode Island, Sowle had sailed on Pacific and Far East trading voyages for a number of years previous to joining Astor.

The
Beaver
also carried other Astor clerks, craftsmen, voyageurs, and Hawaiians, in addition to the captain and his crew.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

Nearly two centuries ago, the story that follows was well-known to Americans. In the Epilogue to the following account, I touch on some of the reasons why it has now been largely forgotten. It has been told before by various authors, a number of them participants in these events in the early 1800s who kept journals or logbooks at the time or later wrote memoirs. Among these participant-writers are Gabriel Franchère, John Bradbury, H. M. Brackenridge, Alexander Ross, Ross Cox, Alfred Seton, Duncan McDougall, and Robert Stuart.

The best-known account from the early 1800s was published in 1836, after a retired John Jacob Astor commissioned Washington Irving, then one of America’s most famous authors, to write an account of these events two decades past. Irving’s book,
Astoria, or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains
(1836), became a bestseller of its day and was soon published in editions abroad.

PROLOGUE

V
IEW OF THE
F
ALKLAND
I
SLANDS
.

Boat and five passengers pulling after Ship Tonquin.

 

O
N
A
UGUST 13, 1813, GALE WINDS BLEW UP AS
J
OHN
J
ACOB
Astor’s ship the
Lark
sailed in the open Pacific. At the time, the ship lay about two hundred miles off the coast of Maui, bound for Astor’s settlement on the Northwest Coast of America. Huge seas overtook the
Lark,
and Astor’s trusted Captain Samuel Northrup fought to keep her steady. For a moment the Captain took a break belowdecks, leaving her in the hands of less experienced officers. Suddenly she swung sideways to the onrush of wind and water and was “knocked down” by an enormous wave. She slowly heaved herself upright, decks lashed by spray, rigging screaming in the wind.

“[W]e were in great Confusion and disorder,” reported Captain Northrup.

The ship was short of experienced officers and crew, due in part to the recent outbreak of war between Britain and the United States on the East Coast. Another wave hit, knocking her almost entirely over, keel out of the water. This was now beyond an emergency. The yardarms, masts, and rigging dragged underwater like fishing nets, pulling the ship over, straining every fitting and line in the screaming winds, threatening to overturn the
Lark
completely. As the inexperienced crew clung to the rails and rigging of the wildly heeled ship in this tumult of wind and spray, the fate of John Jacob Astor’s West Coast empire literally hung in the balance.

Captain Northrup had to decide in a matter of a few moments whether to issue one of sailing’s most desperate commands—to order the masts knocked out of their fittings and rigging cut down to try to right the
Lark
.

A
STOR’S SETTLEMENT,
“A
STORIA,
” was the first American colony on the West Coast of North America, much in the way that Jamestown and Plymouth were the first British colonies on its East Coast. For John Jacob Astor, the West Coast colony would serve as the epicenter of a global commercial empire that leveraged nearly all the wealth of western North America into one vast trade network that passed through his own hands. For Thomas Jefferson, who had enthusiastically encouraged Astor to start the colony, it would provide the beginnings of a separate country on the West Coast—a sister democracy to the United States that looked out to the Pacific. Both men grasped far ahead of most of their contemporaries that the Pacific would one day take on the central importance in world affairs and trade that the Atlantic held in their day.

As it was, however, the West Coast lay nearly as remote as a separate planet. Jefferson had added a huge swath of territory to the United States just a few years before, with the Louisiana Purchase. But even this addition extended U.S. territories only as far as the Rockies. No nation had a solid claim to that enormous region of land, much of it unexplored despite the recent expedition by Lewis and Clark, between the crest of the Rockies and the Pacific shore. The Spanish, coming up from Mexico, had planted missions on the coast as far north as San Francisco Bay. Russian fur traders, coming across the Bering Sea in recent decades, had established a few fur outposts in Alaska, and contemplated adding a post down near San Francisco Bay. But in between those two points lay a vast coastal no-man’s-land nearly two thousand miles long that was essentially up for grabs. It was as if the East Coast of the United States from Florida to Maine were there for the taking.

It was Astor’s vision to capture its wealth. It was Jefferson’s vision to make it a democracy.

I
F
C
APTAIN
N
ORTHRUP CHOSE TO DISMAST HER,
the ship’s hull would probably right itself and her crew and cargo survive. But the crew would be rendered helpless aboard a drifting, mastless hulk—thereby ending the rescue mission that was aimed at saving Mr. Astor’s West Coast empire. If Captain Northrup chose not to cut away the masts and rigging, in these long suspended moments tipped on her beam ends in the raging storm, the ship still might right herself and sail on unharmed. Or she might not. She might capsize completely, slowly disappear beneath the tumbling seas, and then quietly sink to the depths of the Pacific Ocean along with Astor’s and Jefferson’s grandest plans.

As the
Lark
began to capsize, turning her bottom up toward the raging wind and monstrous seas, dragging her rigging and yardarms in the heaving ocean like a giant net, Captain Northrup issued the fateful command:
Dismast her
.

BOOK: Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival
13.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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