Robert Stuart (explorer)

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Robert Stuart
Robert Stuart explorer.png
Born (1785-02-19)February 19, 1785
Died October 28, 1848(1848-10-28) (aged 63)

Robert Stuart, (February 19, 1785 – October 28, 1848) was an American fur trader and the son of Charles Stuart. He was a member of the North West Company (NWC) until recruited by John Jacob Astor to develop the new Pacific Fur Company. The venture was intended by Astor to develop a continent wide fur commercial empire.


Stuart was age 25 when he sailed aboard the Pacific Fur Company ship, the Tonquin, on its voyage to the Falkland Islands. He held a pistol to the head of the ship's captain, Jonathan Thorn, when he attempted to leave the Falkland Islands without Stuart's uncle David, another of Astor's partners. They sailed around Cape Horn and up the West coast of North America to the Columbia River. The Tonquin crossed the Columbia Bar and established Fort Astoria (located in modern Astoria, Oregon) in May 1811. After leaving supplies and traders in the newly created outpost on the Columbia, the ship and crew traveled north to Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island. The Tonquin crew engaged in commercial negotiations with members of the Tla-o-qui-aht nation in June. An altercation arose, with the entire crew killed besides a hired translator and the ship destroyed. After incident the traders had no way to communicate with Astor. Stuart accompanied the overland expedition of seven men carrying word of the Tonquin's fate to St. Louis, in 1812-1813, and discovering South Pass in the Continental Divide on the way. In 1856, Ramsay Crooks, one of the party, wrote a letter describing their journey:[1]

"In 1811, the overland party of Mr. Astor's expedition [from St. Louis to Fort Astoria], under the command of Mr. Wilson P. Hunt, of Trenton, New Jersey, although numbering sixty well armed men, found the Indians so very troublesome in the country of the Yellowstone River, that the party of seven persons who left Astoria toward the end of June, 1812, considering it dangerous to pass again by the route of 1811, turned toward the southeast as soon as they had crossed the main chain of the Rocky Mountains, and, after several days' journey, came through the celebrated 'South Pass' in the month of November, 1812." "Pursuing from thence an easterly course, they fell upon the River Platte of the Missouri, where they passed the winter and reached St. Louis in April, 1813."

Stuart thus helped blaze the Oregon Trail from the Columbia to the Missouri River. His journal is a detailed account of the wintertime trip, and Washington Irving's Astoria is said to be based on it. Presented to Astor and President James Madison, and published in France, it did not make location of the South Pass widely known. In 1824, U.S. trappers Jedediah Smith and Thomas Fitzpatrick rediscovered the South Pass route across the Rockies. Despite the efforts of Stuart and others, the Pacific Fur Company collapsed due to the War of 1812, with Fort Astoria being sold to the North West Company in 1813. Later on the Hudson's Bay Company tried to discourage American trappers from operating in the Pacific Northwest; establishing an overland route between Fort Astoria and the York Factory on Hudson Bay called the York Factory Express. The route was partially based on the paths explored by Stuart.

After the War of 1812 Stuart continued in Astor's employ as head of the American Fur Company's Northern Department based on Mackinac Island, Michigan. He was also Treasurer of the State of Michigan from 1840-1841. He died on October 28, 1848, and is buried at the historical Elmwood Cemetery, Detroit, Michigan.[citation needed]


The Robert Stuart House is one of fourteen historic buildings in Fort Mackinac. The building has been made into a museum of the fur trading industry, covering the time period begun by French merchants, English businessmen, and Native Americans (buckskins).[2]

Robert Stuart Middle School in Twin Falls, Idaho, is named after the explorer.[3]



  • Philip Ashton Rollins, ed., The Discovery of the Oregon Trail: Robert Stuart's Narratives of His Overland Trip Eastward from Astoria in 1812-13, University of Nebraska Press, 1995, ISBN 0-8032-9234-1
  • G.P.V. and Helen B. Akrigg, British Columbia Chronicle: Adventurers by Sea and Land, Discovery Press, Vancouver, 1975
  • Laton McCartney, "Across the Great Divide: Robert Stuart and the Discovery of the Oregon Trail", Simon & Schuster, 2003, ISBN 0-7432-4924-0

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