|Fur Trade Post|
The trading post as it was in 1813.
|Company built:||Pacific Fur Company|
|Later Ownership:||Hudson's Bay Company|
|Part of||Astoria Downtown Historic District (#98000631)|
|NRHP Reference #||66000639|
|Added to NRHP||October 15, 1966|
|Designated NHL||November 5, 1961|
Fort Astoria (also named Fort George) was the primary fur trading post of John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company (PFC). Built at the entrance of the Columbia River in 1811, it was the first American-owned settlement on the Pacific coast. With the onset of the War of 1812, the Montreal-based North West Company (NWC) bought out the assets of the PFC in 1813, including Fort Astoria. They renamed it as Fort George. It was the first British port on the Pacific coast of the Americas.
In 1821 the Hudson's Bay Company took over the NWC, and Fort George was incorporated into its posts. Competition for control of Fort Astoria was a factor in the British and the Americans' resolving their disputed claims to the Oregon Country.
Pacific Fur Company
John Jacob Astor planned to have his Pacific Fur Company begin operations on the Pacific Coast by sending men by both land and sea, a large effort known as the Astor Expedition. Captain Jonathan Thorn's ship, Tonquin, was used to carry a detachment of employees to the Pacific. After several days were spent surveying the mouth of the Columbia River, 33 men disembarked on 12 April 1811. Among the PFC men were eleven Kanaka laborers from the Kingdom of Hawaii, including Naukane (also known as John Coxe). Notable among the early staff of Fort Astoria were two Scottish emigrants to Canada, Alexander MacKay, who had previously been with the North West Company, and Alexander Ross. Mackay died in the 1811 battle with natives that destroyed the Tonquin near Vancouver Island.
Ross recalled that in almost two months, "scarcely yet an acre of ground cleared" due to the many initial difficulties the PFC employees faced in establishing Fort Astoria:
"The place thus selected for the emporium of the west, might challenge the whole continent to produce a spot of equal extent presenting more difficulties to the settler: studded with many gigantic trees of almost incredible size, many of them measuring fifty feet in girth, and so close together, and intermingled with huge rocks, as to make it work of no ordinary labour to level and clear the ground."
The PFC had built much of Astoria, initially out of bark-covered logs enclosing a stockade and guns mounted for defense, by the end of May. Another 26 Hawaiian Kanakas were hired and transported in 1812 by the Tonquin to Astoria. By the time an overland party joined them in February 1812, the PFC laborers had constructed a trading store, a blacksmith's shop, a house, and a storage shed for pelts acquired from trapping or trading with the local Native Americans. The traders arranged cannons around the perimeter for defense. The post was to serve as an administrative center for various PFC satellite forts such as Fort Okanogan.
In 1811 British explorer and NWC employee David Thompson navigated the entire length of the Columbia River. He reached the partially constructed Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia, two months after the PFC's ship Tonquin.
The inhabitants of the fort differed greatly in background and position, and were structured into a corporate hierarchy. The fur trading partners of the company were at the top, with clerks, craftsmen, hunters, and laborers in descending order. Nationalities included Scots, French Canadian, American, Native Hawaiian, and people from various indigenous North American peoples, including Iroquois and others from Eastern Canada. They found life quite monotonous, with the fish and vegetable diet boring. Venereal diseases were problematic.
On June 15, 1811, two unusual native visitors arrived: the Two-Spirit woman Kaúxuma Núpika (known in English as Man-like Woman or Bowdash, which is derived from the Chinook Jargon burdash) and her wife, both of the Kootenai from the far interior. The Astorian Pacific Fur Company leaders suspected the two of being spies for the NWC, but at the same time welcomed their detailed geographical knowledge. A NWC employee, David Thompson, arrived about a month later. Thompson knew the Kootenai couple and told the Astorians about Kaúxuma Núpika and her unusual life. Both the Astorians and Thompson's party ended up protecting the life of Kaúxuma Núpika, whose prophecies of smallpox among the local natives put her life at risk.
Thompson, who for months had been out of touch with the evolving politics between the fur companies, believed that the NWC held a one-third partnership with Astor's Pacific Fur Company. He carried a letter to the effect. The Astorians knew that the deal had fallen through but dealt with Thompson as if the deal were still on. The journals of Thompson and the Astorians are silent on the matter, yet both parties took steps to mislead or thwart the other, while at the same time remaining on friendly terms. It is likely that in this remote region, neither party knew for certain whether the two companies were to be allies or competitors.
Thorn and the Tonquin left for Russian America in June 1812, but the ship and crew were destroyed at Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver Island in the Battle of Woody Point with the Tla-o-qui-aht people there. Astor sent the Beaver to resupply the fort and to carry fur to Russian America, and thence to Canton in exchange for highly valuable Chinese goods.
The War of 1812 between the British and Americans brought tension to Fort Astoria, though not as a result of hostilities between the fur companies. On 1 July 1813 the fort officers of Donald Mackenzie, Duncan McDougall, David Stuart and John Clarke, desiring to abandon the fort agreed to sell the PFC trading stations to the British-owned NWC, "unless the necessary support and supplies arrive with advice from John Jacob Astor of New York, or the Stockholders to continue the trade, the same shall be abandoned as impracticable, as well as unprofitable." NWC staff arrived at the coast after running low on food supplies in the Interior on 7 October, with the liquidation of the PFC assets being executed on 23 October.
North West Company
The HMS Racoon, a British war-sloop, visited Fort Astoria on 12 December 1813, previously instructed to claim the station as a British possession. Its captain William Black found the trading station far from militarily imposing, reportidly exclaiming "Is this the fort about which I have heard so much talking? Damn me, but I'd batter it down in two hours with a four pounder!" Black renamed the post Fort George in honor of King George III. Ross joined the NWC during this time. It soon became the centre of North West Company operations in the region, where the company had no competition for the land-based fur trade. It became an important port-of-call for the Maritime Fur Trade. By 1818 there about 50 NWC employees at Fort George, over half being Hawaiian Kanakas.
[With the foundation of Astoria in 1811] for the first time, the NWC had a competitor in the territory west of the Rocky Mountains. That competition did not last long. From beginning to end fortune frowned upon the American Fur Company. Its ships were wrecked, its overland expedition suffered losses and hardships; its affairs were mis-managed, and jealousies and bickerings marked its councils; then war broke out between Great Britain and America, and HHM Raccoon [sic] was despatched to take Fort Astoria. The officers of the warship looked forward to winning much prize-money, as the post was said to be weel-stocked with furs. However, it was already in possession of the British. Without supplies, and without an adequate force to defend the place, Donald McDougall, who in [Wilson Price] Hunt's absence was in command of the place, had disposed of the fort and all it contained to the NWC, whose agents had found their way to the Columbia.
Upon his return from a tour of the Russian settlement and the Sandwich Islands, Wilson Price Hunt found that the fort and its supplies and stores that it contained had been transferred to J.G. McTavish and John Stuart, the representatives of the NWC. He was not, perhaps, altogether in favour of this disposition....nevertheless he acquiesced at the time....thus all the efforts and expenditure of John Jacob Astor, who had aspired to be supreme in the new region, went for naught and his British rivals acquired sole control of the whole field.No sooner had the NWC acquired Astoria than it energetically proceeded to occupy the rich territories lying between the Fraser River and Columbia River. Fort George, formerly Astoria, became the capital of the Oregon Territory [sic], and all supplies for the transmontane region were shipped to that place around the Horn, or through the Strait of Magellan. Fort George became a Fort William in miniature. Fields were cultivated, several large buildings erected, and the pallisades [sic] and bastions strengthened. The Nor'Westers were noted for their hospitality and bonhomie. The banqueting hall was often the scene of the revelries of as jovial a set as ever gathered together. Nevertheless the officers were jealous of each other and life at Fort George was not always as depicted by Commander Wilkes, the author of this picture.
By 1818, complications of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, resulted in an odd scenario: a fort never conquered was returned as booty-of-war. The USS Ontario had sent dispatched in 1817 to reassert the American claim to Fort Astoria, though ordered to avoid an armed confrontation. NWC partner Simon McGillivray dramatically claimed that the vessel was sent "to seize or destroy the establishments and trade of the North West Company..." This led to additional complications of international law concerning the region, and circumstances set the stage for the "joint occupancy" of what became known as the Oregon Country afterward. British Columbian historians E.O.S. Scholefield and F.W. Howay state it this way:
During the war of 1812–14 the British government at the earnest solicitation of the North West Company sent out the sloop of war Raccoon [sic] to demolish Astoria; but before her arrival Astoria had passed into the hands of the North West Company by purchase, yet Captain Black could not resist the temptation of "taking" the fort, and as we have already shown, he went through a little demonstration of hauling down the American flag and running up the British in its place. When the war was settled by the Treaty of Ghent, the first article provided that "all territory, places and possessions whatever, taken by either party from the other during the war, or which may be taken after the signing of the treaty excepting the islands hereinafter mentioned (in the Bay of Fundy) shall be restored without delay."
In the negotiation of that treaty the word "possessions" was introduced by Henry Clay, as he later proudly stated for the very purpose of including Astoria, even though it was not known at the time that it was captured. In accordance therewith in October 1818, commissioners representing the two nations met at Astoria and exchanged acts of delivery and acceptance whereby the British Commissioner Captain Hickey of HMS Blossom and J. Keith for the North West Company "did in conformity to the first article of the Treaty of Ghent restore to the Government of the United States through its agent J.B. Prevost, Esq., the settlement of Fort George on the Columbia River." The North West Company after they had obtained possession of Astoria had given it the name of Fort George. it was strongly contended that the effect of this transaction was a formal recognition of the territorial rights of the United States at the mouth of the Columbia. In addition to these claims in her own right the United States also claimed by contiguity that portion of Oregon west of the boundaries of Louisiana. And, further, claim was made by them as a result of the Florida Treaty of 1819. by that treaty, all of Spain's rights passed to the United States. It was urged that as the heir of Spain the United States obtained strength from the discoveries of the Spanish explorers Heceta, Bodega, and Maurelle. In order to escape the difficulty which the Nootka convention naturally placed in the way of any claim of exclusive sovereignty the United States were forced to argue, as they did most energetically, that by reason of the war which broke out between Spain and Great Britain in 1796, the convention of 1790 ceased to have any effect.The British claims, however, did not allege any exclusive right or sovereignty of Great Britain in the disputed territory. The claim was that the Nootka convention entitled Great Britain to a sort of joint right to settle upon and thereby obtain the sovereignty of such portion of the territory as were desired.
The continued pressure exerted by the American government led to a conciliatory policy by Viscount Castlereagh, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In a letter to Charles Bagot on 4 February 1818 Castlereagh stated that "whilst the Government is not disposed to contest with the American govt't the point of possession as it stood in the Columbia River at the moment of the rupture, they are not prepared to admit the validity of the title of the Govt of the United States to this Settlement." NWC parters had already instructed its staff at Fort George to not resist an attempt by Americans to reclaim the fur trading station. Despite the ceremony of possession, actual ownership by the NWC went on as before, and no actual American presence was established in the region from the symbolic repossession.
Hudson's Bay Company
In 1821 the North West Company was merged into the Hudson's Bay Company, which took ownership of the fort. During a tour of the Columbia Department Governor George Simpson spent the winter of 1824 at Fort George, arriving on 8 November. He did not like the fort, finding it inappropriate both as a fur post and a regional depot. He ordered the construction of Fort Vancouver, a new post and depot upriver at a site with better potential for agriculture, to be the administrative center of Columbia District.
Functioning as the company's main depot in the region until Fort Vancouver was completed in April 1825, Fort George was abandoned in June 1825. Neighboring native villagers began to seasonally reside there, "rapidly reducing it to a state of ruin & filth." A small number of lodges, likely maintained by Clatsops, were established "about a gunshot" away from the HBC station. The canoes maintained for the station had crews mostly composed of members of the surrounding tribes.
Fort George was at the forefront of competition with visiting American trading vessels. A reoccupation of Fort George to counter the Americans occurred in 1829, the sole clerk having to sleep in a tent due to the station being in a dilapidated condition. During 1829 the post was rebuilt. The residency of the HBC trader was made to be 20 feet wide by 60 feet long. Along with two minor buildings, there was a small warehouse. While ordering a lowering of exchange rates for skins in 1829, McLoughlin focused on maintaining commercial ties with the Chinookan peoples; "if we have none [Indigenous nations] to sell ourselves, we may oblige Our Competitors to Reduce their prices."
The sinking of such HBC ships as the William and Ann at the mouth of the Columbia necessitated the use of the trading post to guide ships inland. Beginning in 1830 the location was continuously used in a small capacity by the company. The Isabella, a HBC trading ship, crashed near the station during that year. Neighboring Clatsops appeared on the scene, offering to recover property from the ship. Despite Chief Factor McLoughlin lamenting that "we have no alternative but to run the risk or lose the property", the assistance tendered by them proved invaluable for the company.
During 1833 the post had a staff of four; an English clerk, a Scottish field manager from Stromness, and two Hawaiians. The growing salmon harvesting operations of the Hudson's Bay Company were focused on the fisheries surrounding Fort George. The company used the salmon to feed its employees, as well as exporting some to the markets of the Kingdom of Hawaii.
The post finally became United States territory only after the Oregon Treaty ended the Oregon boundary dispute. Great Britain ceded its territorial rights south of the 49th parallel. The Hudson's Bay Company gave up its possessions in the region, though the treaty had guaranteed their continued existence.
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