The Astor Expedition of 1810–1812 was an American-led expedition that traveled by land and sea to the mouth of the Columbia River to establish a fur trading "emporium". Financed by New York businessman John Jacob Astor, it was part of his dream to build a global network linking by trade locations in the Atlantic and Pacific. Fort Astoria, today Astoria, Oregon, was the second European settlement in the Northwest, after the Lewis and Clark Expedition a few years earlier. Although the emporium envision by Astor was a failure for a number of reasons, the overland expedition pioneered the route now known as the Oregon Trail and in other ways laid the foundations for future American settlement of Oregon and Washington.
The Astor Expedition was named after its financier, John Jacob Astor, and is sometimes referred to as the "Hunt Party" due to Wilson Price Hunt being in charge of the group. However, it has been suggested that the title "Overland Expedition of the Pacific Fur Company" might be more accurate with the members of the party referred to as "Overland Astorians."
Following the death of Meriwether Lewis in 1809, a search commenced for a suitable governor for the area. Astor hoped to propose a solution with his proposed route west. Astor's plans were to create a company that aimed to control the entire existing fur trade, as well as extend it all the way to the Pacific. In a global circle of trade, ships would sail from New York laden with Indian trade goods such as beads and blankets to Oregon where they would take on furs and sail to China where the furs could be sold for 10 times or more profit; they would then buy porcelain and tea and sail to London and profit from a markup there; then load English manufactured goods and continue back to New York completing the circle. However, the British had claims to the area Astor hoped to control with the establishment of The Pacific Fur Company. Astor's plans were not only in defiance of the British, but the organization of the Astoria party was also not welcomed by established companies including the North West and the Hudson's Bay Company.
Another trade war was plausible due to the organization and implementation of such an organized group. Just as other American fur merchants refused, Astor would not "concede so lucrative a trade to their British and Canadian counterparts without a spirited contest." Astor understood his proposal for the expedition was as much political, as it was commercial. He needed to get the support of the government in order to be successful in his endeavor. In 1810 John Jacob Astor, along with his Canadian partners, Alexander McKay, Duncan McDougall, and Donald Mackenzie met in New York to sign the Pacific Fur Company's provisional agreement.
Astor owned a one-half interest in the Pacific Fur Company (half of the shares being held by the American Fur Company, which was solely owned by Astor). The other half-interest of the Pacific Fur Company was divided among working partners, each owning two-and-a-half to five shares (with some shares held in reserve). The working partners all ventured to the Columbia River, either overland or by ship.
Wilson Price Hunt, a St. Louis businessman who had no outback experience, led the overland party to the Columbia River. Hunt made a number of decisions which, in hindsight, were disastrous to the expedition. However, those mistakes were to lead to the expedition's (and the company’s return expedition under Robert Stuart) most famous discoveries.
Most of the men in the Overland Party were engaged as hunters, interpreters, guides and Canadian Voyagers. The party also included one woman, Marie Dorion, an Iowan Indian and wife of Pierre Dorion, and their two young sons. A baby would be born to the Dorians and die near present-day Union, Oregon.
Hunt took the unusual step of starting his expedition just before the winter as he left St. Louis on October 21, 1810. The expedition traveled 450 miles up the Missouri River before setting up winter camp on Nodaway Island at the mouth of Nodaway River in Andrew County, Missouri just north of St. Joseph, Missouri. Hunt's expedition broke the Nodaway winter camp on April 21, 1811.
New route to the Northwest
On May 26, 1811, Hunt decided not to follow the Lewis and Clark route any further up the Missouri. To avoid an encounter with the hostile Blackfeet tribe, he chose to take his party overland instead. After having problems obtaining horses, they were not able to leave the Arikara in North Dakota until mid-July. Several men detached from the main party to trap and hunt in Wyoming and eastern Idaho. The party traveled west with relative ease through South Dakota and Wyoming, and accumulated 6,000 pounds of dried buffalo meat northwest of present-day Pinedale.
In September 1811, upon reaching Henry's Fork in present-day, Idaho, the party abandoned their horses thinking it would be easy to descend the Snake River (called by the party the "Mad River") to the Columbia. Traveling down the Snake river to present-day Milner, Idaho, they were forced to abandon this mode of travel when they encountered rapids, mainly Star Falls or Caldron Linn, where two men were lost to capsized canoes and a great deal of their food and other supplies were lost as well. The party managed to avoid disaster at the nearby Shoshone Falls and Twin Falls a short way farther along, where the Snake River cascades hundreds of feet. In fact, a number of large water falls and cliffs made navigation and porting impossible.
The party then divided itself and three main groups formed, two of explorers, one of trappers. The faction led by Donald MacKenzie traveled generally north and made its way via the lower Snake River and Columbia to reach Fort Astoria in January 1812. The factions led by Ramsey Crooks and Wilson Price Hunt traveled on opposite sides of the Snake River until they met each other again near the upper end of Hells Canyon. The remnants reunited and were later guided west by Indians to reach the Columbia River near Umatilla, and then down the river to Fort Astoria. Several men had been detached from the main party back in Wyoming and at Henry's Fort in Idaho to trap. Additionally, Ramsey Crooks and John Day, with four Canadians, were left behind by the party near present-day Weiser, Idaho as the party worked its way into the Columbia Basin. In all cases the parties were severely starved and wasted for want of food and water during mountain winter conditions. They were ultimately saved by Indian guides who led them over the Blue Mountains to the Columbia River.
Crooks and Day were the last stragglers of the original party to reach Fort Astoria in April after falling in with David Stuart, who had arrived by ship and ventured up the Columbia to establish a trading post on the Okanagan River, and was returning to Fort Astoria.
Hunt left Astoria via ship on August 4, 1812, he would not return for another year after an ill-fated voyage to Alaska and Hawaii.
A party led by Robert Stuart (including John Day who was left by Stuart on the lower Columbia River after being declared mad) was dispatched back to St. Louis, leaving Fort Astoria in June 1812, wintering on the Platte River, and arriving at St. Louis the following year. In the process, they discovered South Pass through the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming.
Most Astorians survived the trip, but they utterly failed to blaze a dependable trail to Oregon and got there just barely ahead of the competing British expedition. However, the overland component (and its members' return trips) did result in discoveries in Wyoming, including the South Pass through the Rocky Mountains route via the Snake River through which hundreds of thousands of settlers were to follow along the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails.
The ocean-based component of the expedition arrived via the Tonquin and established Fort Astoria, the first permanent American settlement on the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River, present-day Astoria, Oregon. The Tonquin was captained by a former Navy officer named Jonathan Thorn, who quickly established a reputation as a strict and abrasive martinet. He was killed and the Tonquin destroyed in a battle with a group of Native Americans on Vancouver Island, known as the Battle of Woody Point. This put the occupants of Fort Astoria in a tough position, having no access to seaborne transport.
The War of 1812 and the end of the enterprise
Although Astor's plan for gaining control of the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest established the first United States settlement on the Pacific coast, the accomplishment was short lived. Both the Americans and the British subjects in the jointly occupied Oregon Country were apprehensive that a ship from the other side should arrive and seize their property as a spoil of war. In October 1813, under duress during the War of 1812, the partners of the Pacific Fur Company agreed to sell the fort and all the concern’s property in the old Oregon Country to the Montreal-based North West Company. Several weeks later, HMS Racoon arrived bringing a partner of the North West Company and supplies for the Canadian concern.
Although the Astorians had sold out to the British when the war broke out, the treaty that ended hostilities stipulated that everything be returned to the status quo ante bellum, which meant the Americans got their property back. They immediately returned it to the British, to whom they had sold it and for whom many of them were now employed, but the result was that when the first treaty of joint occupancy was made, both America and Britain had a presence in the Oregon territory.
Had the Astorians sold their stake to the British just before the war broke out, it is entirely likely that the treaty would instead have stipulated that Oregon, being at that time occupied only by British subjects, would belong to Britain, with the result that Oregon would have eventually become part of Canada. In this sense, a case could be made that the ill-starred Astorian expedition saved Oregon for the U.S. The Astorians presence in the Pacific Northwest was brief, but very significant. The present day international boundary along the 49th parallel was established following the organization of The Pacific Fur Company and its short presence on the Pacific. Likewise had the Astorians been more successful in holding on to the Northwest region, the British would not have had a claim to British Columbia and America today would include the entire coastline from Washington to Alaska.
Settlement by Astorians in Oregon
- Many accounts of the Pacific Fur Company’s Overland Expedition have been written. Two British naturalists, John Bradbury and Thomas Nuttall, accompanied the expedition as far as the Arikara and Mandan Villages in present-day South Dakota and North Dakota. Nuttall published an account of his observations in the book The Genera of North American Plants in 1818 as well as Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and of Canada in 1832. Bradbury published an excellent account of this leg of the journey up the Missouri in his book Travels in the Interior of America in the Years 1809, 1810, and 1811.
- Naturalist Henry Marie Brackenridge accompanied the Missouri Fur Company party, under Manuel Lisa, up the Missouri River at the same time. Brackenridge also wrote an account, Journal of a Voyage up the Missouri River in 1811, which was published in 1814.
- Wilson Price Hunt’s journal from the Missouri River to Fort Astoria was published in French in 1820, but not translated and published in English until 1935. Washington Irving's Astoria, was published in 1836 (and for a synopsis of the accuracy of Irving's work, see the Edgeley W. Todd edition). And although they arrived at Fort Astoria by sea and so did not accompany the overland party, clerks Gabriel Franchere, Alexander Ross and Ross Cox each published additional memoirs of the Pacific Fur Company, including accounts of the overland expedition.
- A modern account of the Astoria Expedition is Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire (2014) by Peter Stark.
- Schwantes, Carlos A. (1991). In Mountain Shadows: A History of Idaho. Moscow, ID: University of Nebraska Press. p. 292. ISBN 0-8032-9241-4.
- Ronda, James (1990). Astoria & Empire. University of Nebraska Press. p. 400. ISBN 0-8032-3896-7.
- Schwantes, Carlos Arnaldo (1996). The Pacific Northwest. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. p. 568. ISBN 0-8032-4225-5.
- Chapman, J. S. (1993). French Prairie Ceramics: The Harriet D. Munnick Archaeological Collection, circa 1820-1860: A Catalog and Northwest Comparative Guide. Anthropology Northwest, no. 8. Corvallis, Or: Dept. of Anthropology, Oregon State University.
- Peter Stark (2014). Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival. Ecco. ISBN 978-0062218292.