Pacific Fur Company
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The Pacific Fur Company (PFC), also known as the Astor Expedition, was an American-owned trading company established in 1810, which competed with the Canadian-owned North West Company (NWC) in the Oregon Country of the Pacific Northwest.
Wholly-owned by John Jacob Astor of New York City, it was part of his dream to build a global network linking by trade locations in the Atlantic and Pacific. Fur trappers were sent both overland and by the sea to open trading posts on the Pacific coast. The company's base of operations was Fort Astoria, constructed 204 years ago in 1811 at the mouth of the Columbia River near present-day Astoria, Oregon.
The War of 1812 saw the collapse of the PFC, its assets purchased in 1813 by the North West Company, its major competitor. The emporium envisioned by Astor was a failure for a number of reasons, but the overland expedition pioneered the route now known as the Oregon Trail, critical for the later American colonization of Oregon and Washington.
Astor's plans were to create a company that aimed to control much of the North American fur trade, as well as extend it all the way to the Oregon Country. He intended to expand upon the growing trade routes of the Pacific Ocean. Trade goods for the Pacific Northwest Natives such as beads and blankets would be shipped from New York City and exchanged for fur pelts. Additionally the ports of Russian America would be visited to purchase additional furs. The ships would then sail to the Qing Empire port of Guangzhou, where the furs were sold for impressive profits and Chinese products like porcelain and tea were available. Astor's merchant vessels would then cross the Indian Ocean and head for London to sell the Chinese wares for British manufactured goods in demand at New York City. A potential trade war with British subjects was seen by Astor, but American merchants 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. Astor, along with his Canadian partners, Alexander McKay, Duncan McDougall, and Donald Mackenzie, met in New York on 23 June 1810 to sign the Pacific Fur Company's provisional agreement. Half of the stock of the company was held by the American Fur Company, owned exclusively by John Jacob Astor, and Astor provided all of the capital for the enterprise. 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.
The sea expedition transported furs from the PFC's stations and was transported by the ship Tonquin, under the command of Jonathan Thorn, an impatient and hard man. The Tonquin left New York on September 8, 1810, sailed around Cape Horn on Christmas Day, and found the mouth of the Columbia River in late March. The ship crossed the treacherous Columbia Bar on March 25 and a few weeks later established the first American-owned (if Canadian-staffed) outpost on the Pacific Coast, Fort Astoria, located about 5 miles (8 km) from the Lewis and Clark 1805–1806 winter camp of Fort Clatsop.
On the way to the Columbia, the Tonquin stopped at Hawaii and hired a number of Native Hawaiian Kanaka laborers, including Naukane. The Tonquin then sailed up the Pacific coast to trade. She was boarded by the Tla-o-qui-aht people of Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver Island and in the ensuring Battle of Woody Point, 61 PFC employees were killed before the ship was blown up by a surviving crew member. This put the occupants of Fort Astoria in a tough position, having no access to seaborne transport.
Wilson Price Hunt, a St. Louis businessman with 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 a Métis family of Marie Dorion, her husband Pierre Dorion, and their two young sons.
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 (720 km) 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. Hunt's expedition broke the Nodaway winter camp in 1811 on April 21. On May 26, Hunt decided not to follow the Lewis and Clark route any further up the Missouri. To avoid an encounter with the hostile Blackfeet tribe in present-day Montana, he chose to take his party overland instead. After having problems obtaining horses, they were not able to leave the Arikara in South 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 (2,700 kg) of dried buffalo meat northwest of present-day Pinedale.
Upon reaching Henry's Fork in September in present-day Idaho, just west of Yellowstone National Park, the party abandoned their horses thinking it would be easy to descend the Snake River (called "Mad River" by the party) to the Columbia. Traveling down the Snake, 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, where the river cascades hundreds of feet. In fact, a number of large water falls and cliffs made navigation and portaging 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 to present-day Lewiston and made its way via the lower Snake River and Columbia to reach Fort Astoria in January 1812. The groups led by Ramsey Crooks and Wilson Price Hunt traveled on opposite sides of the Snake River until reunited near the upper end of Hells Canyon. Then the PFC employees were guided west by Natives to reach the Columbia River in Oregon 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 Fork in Idaho to trap. Additionally, Crooks and John Day, with four Canadians, were left behind by the party near present-day Weiser, 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 Native 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.
Most PFC laborers and staff survived the trip, but they utterly failed to blaze a dependable trail to Oregon and got there just barely ahead of the competing Canadian expedition. However, the overland component (and its members' return trips) did result in discoveries 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.
Hunt left Astoria via ship on August 4, 1812; he returned a year later, after an ill-fated voyage to Russian America 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.
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, it ultimately floundered. The Pacific Fur Company's presence in the Pacific Northwest was brief but significant for later Americans. After a number of setbacks, the Pacific Fur Company failed when the supply ship Beaver was late to arrive at Fort Astoria. In addition, the loss of the Tonquin left the post vulnerable. At risk of being captured by the British during the War of 1812, Fort Astoria and all other Pacific Fur Company assets in the Oregon Country were sold to the Montreal-based North West Company (NWC) in October 1813. Alexander Ross, one of the chief employees of the company, recording a meeting with a NWC officer. "The Americans, he remarked, "have been very enterprising." "We are called Americans," said I, "but there were very few Americans among us--we were all Scotchmen like yourselves..."
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 PFC agreed to sell the fort and all the concern’s property in the Oregon Country to the NWC. 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. However they immediately returned it to the NWC, to whom they had sold it and for whom many of them were now employed. Two surviving members of the Astorians, Étienne Lucier and Joseph Gervais, would later become farmers on the French Prairie and participate in the Champoeg Meetings.
The Treaty of 1818 established a "joint occupancy" between the United States and the United Kingdom was confirmed, each nation agreeing not to inhibit the activities of each other's citizens. In March 1814, the North West Company's supply ship Isaac Todd arrived, along with a British warship with orders to destroy any American settlements. Fort Astoria was British and its employees under the protection of the North West Company. The Isaac Todd dropped off much-needed supplies and offered some personnel, many of whom were former employees of the North West Company, comfortable passage back to Montreal and England. Alexander Henry and Donald McTavish, two veteran North West Company employees who had joined the Pacific Fur Company, drowned when their boat capsized in the Columbia River on the way to the Isaac Todd.
- Schwantes, Carlos A. In the Mountain Shadows: A History of Idaho. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. 1991, p. 25. ISBN 0-8032-9241-4
- Schwantes (1991), p. 292.
- Ronda, James (1990). Astoria & Empire. University of Nebraska Press. p. 400. ISBN 0-8032-3896-7.
- Alexander Ross's Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River from 1810-13, 1849, London. Smith, Elder and Co., reprint 1849, pps 162-173.
- Ross, Alexander. The Fur Hunters of the Far West. Vol. 1. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885, p. 15.
- 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.
- Nisbet, Jack (1994). Sources of the River: Tracking David Thompson Across Western North America. Sasquatch Books. p. 247. ISBN 1-57061-522-5.
- 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.
- Ross Cox, Adventures on the Columbia River: Including the Narrative of a Residence of Six Years on the Western Side of the Rocky Mountains Among Various Tribes of Indians Hitherto Unknown, Together with a Journey Across the American Continent. New York: J. & J. Harper, 1832.
- 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: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival. (2014) by Peter Stark.