Tuesday, May 28, 2024


June 16, 1811 was blazingly hot along the shores of what is now Vancouver Island.

The young man from New York was bleeding profusely – he had been stabbed in a surprise attack by the seemingly passive Clayoquot Indians, who only hours before had been trying to trade their otter furs for trinkets and blankets. Instead of becoming witness to a productive day of trading, he watched as his shipmates, one by one, were butchered, clubbed, stabbed and thrown off the American boat, the Tonquin.


The young crewmember James Lewis did not envision a horrific clubbing death to end his oceanic career much less his life – he was simply an enterprising youth looking for new adventure and maybe a small fortune in a wide-open North America. The native New Yorker jumped at the chance to be part of the grand vision of John Jacob Astor, the visionary if not delusional millionaire tycoon who immigrated to New York from Germany as a child to make his fortune. With the rest of the two dozen or so men and its autocratic captain, Lewis and the Tonquin had just completed a nine-month voyage to Hawaii.

On this, his final day on Earth, Lewis had had enough. It was the second day of a one-sided battle that left just a handful of the Tonquin’s crew cowering in the dark and dank holds of the beleaguered ship. After the attack, the Clayoquot Indians had sailed off the day before for what Lewis was sure was merely a re-grouping before their final assault on the remnants of the ship. Hundreds of natives would soon be returning to the ship to harvest the tremendous amount of treasure that the Tonquin still held. Lewis and the other remaining four or five crewmembers would simply be pesky flies that they would swat and flick off over the ship’s side as they took off with their booty. But not if Lewis had anything to say about it.

In a cavernous hold in the bottom of the Tonquin was stored 9,000 pounds of gunpowder that was meant to arm the 10 huge cannons that were generally left unused and useless against the hundreds of attackers. As Lewis pondered his shrinking options, four of his shipmates slipped out by boat unseen – they were never seen or heard from again – leaving Lewis alone with his thoughts and the four tons of gunpowder in the ship’s hold. There was no way to document what went on in Lewis’ mind that day. We can almost be sure, however, that he was pondering his fateful last hours. He was also probably considering the injustice of savages getting off with a shipload of valuables that were intended for legitimate trades in exchange for furs that Mr. Astor had planned to be the basis of his Western empire, Astoria.

Lewis waited as he heard the hubbub above and around him of the attackers clambering back into the ship, collecting their booty. Nobody knows the mechanics of what happened next, but only an account of the aftermath.

As hundreds of natives looked expectantly westward across the still waters, they pondered the stationary Tonquin. Suddenly, the once proud ship disintegrated in a blinding flash of smoke and fire. The force of the explosion rolled across the harbor and could be heard for miles inland and along the wooded coast.

The young clerk Lewis had exacted some measure of revenge for him and his shipmates by igniting the gunpowder in the ship’s hold. As Tonquin disappeared in a flash, the lives of hundreds of Indians went up in smoke together with John Jacob Astor’s dream of a flourishing Western Empire.


The Boy as Millionaire To Be

John Jacob Astor was a restless young boy who felt stifled by the tiny hamlet of Waldorf, near Heidelberg, Germany. Born in 1763 he would soon feel the pull of fame and fortune that the vast new British colonies in North America seemed to promise. The American Revolution had been in full flower and he could not wait to make his move after things had settled.

In 1784, the young Astor landed in a young United States of America with no money in his pocket and only armed with various musical instruments and dreams of a fortune. What America had for young people like Astor was the promise of success and not success itself – it was a country just in the process of formation, with still emerging laws on finance, commerce and taxation. Visionaries like Astor knew that there was a lot of money to be made in this New World, where the sheer scale of the continent’s wilderness was an enormous and limitless blank slate for anybody who had any ambition to make it big.

On his ship voyage from Germany, he learned of the huge demand for furs in Europe and China, and that North America was a huge and cheap source for the furs. The ever-enterprising Astor hung around the New York harbor and exchanged his musical instruments for furs with natives and frontiersmen who secured their furs mostly from the Northeastern part of Canada and the US. After a few trades, he accumulated enough money to travel to London where he learned that the affluent in Europe were willing to pay top money from American-sourced furs. He had found his calling.

Back in America, Astor married Sarah Todd, who would herself possess a shrewd business sense, and would complement her husband’s business vision and aggressiveness. Astor borrowed $200 from his brother and continued to engage in profitable fur trades, slowly accumulating a fortune that would allow him to build up his fortune allowing him to snap up property in Manhattan and even beyond.

He traveled up to the East Coast and all the way up to Montreal to learn more about the sources of fur in the Americas. Astor discovered that most of the furs, especially the more valuable otter variety, were sourced deeper into the western United States. The Lewis and Clark expedition that had mapped a huge previously uncharted part of the United States suggested to Astor that if fur could be obtained in what had been but a small segment of the country, what potential did a mass of land several times bigger would have?

The genius of a John Jacob Astor was that he could see far beyond the horizon of possibility. The entire West beckoned to him. Writer Alexander Mckenzie, in his work Travel about his western voyages, said that whoever controlled the massive stretch of land west of the Columbia River would dominate the fur trade in America. John Jacob Astor needed no further convincing.


Onward West

When Astor sat down at his desk on February 27, 1808, he wrote to the one man he thought could help him fulfill his vision of Western dominance: US President Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson, a man with no less grandiose vision, had just a few years earlier commissioned the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to reconnoiter what was west of Louisiana, part of a massive purchase of land engineered by Jefferson that doubled the size of the then United States. The big-thinking Jefferson and Astor met in Washington, DC and quickly came to a meeting of the minds. Jefferson would grant Astor permission to proceed with securing unlimited commercial interests for the United States.

In 1809, just about a year after coming into an agreement with Jefferson, Astor sent his first vessel, the Enterprise, to see whether his transglobal trading plan would be profitable. It would make a stop at the Northwest Coast and then move on to China to assess the commercial prospects of American fur in that part of the world.

In 1810, he would send two parties – a seagoing contingent on another of his boats, the 290-ton American merchant ship Tonquin, and a land-based contingent he would call the Overland Party – to meet at the mouth of the Columbia River overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There they would establish the first colony representing the US on the West Coast. He expected this colony to be a vast trading “emporium” that would collect furs from the western region of the country and trade it on worldwide routes to Asia and Europe.

Astor would set up a base of operations in his house on 223 Broadway in Manhattan. For his Overland team, he chose Wilson Price Hunt, a young American businessman from Trenton, New Jersey, who was a friend. He was someone Astor could trust implicitly and Astor was confident that Hunt would be loyal to the cause no matter the difficulty or the odds.

Astor chose Duncan McDougall to be second in command after Hunt. A Scottish-born trader, McDougall was also a British subject. Short, proud and energetic, he was quick to take command and play offense fearlessly. While Astor would have preferred that McDougall and the several other Scottish fur traders he recruited be American, he could rely on their fur trading experience to help him get his empire started. McDougall would be accompanied by a group of rough-hewn burly Canadians led by Alexander McKay. a fur trader who had experience in dealing with Indians.

Three more intrepid tradesmen from Scotland signed on in addition to McKay and McDougall. These were Donald Mackenzie and David Stuart, who agreed to halve his shares with his young nephew Robert. They would join Hunt in the land contingent. Three other Scotsmen would join the Tonquin en route.

The third of Astor’s chosen leaders was a US naval hero and American patriot Captain Jonathan Thorn. Thorn was on leave from the US Navy and had a reputation as a fearless, take-no-prisoners commander who Astor counted on to steer his vessel ably and courageously. Known to be imperious and of one mind, these qualities would lead to many questionable actions that would threaten to scuttle Astor’s glorious plans.

Astor’s plan called for recruiting other able members of his commercial crew on their way to the Pacific. Many of these would play significant roles in the fledgling enterprise: Virginia hunter John Day, fur trader Ramsay Crooks, and Marie Dorion – an incredibly tough Native American woman using her Westernized name. She had two toddlers in tow.


The Most Unpredictable Part

Manpower planning was but one aspect of Astor’s wide-ranging plan. He had established diplomatic relations with every country that his enterprise would come into contact with, including Canada and Russia. He had backup plans for his backup plans. But not having traveled the unknown routes himself, he did not have plans on how to address problems that affected what was much more complicated and unpredictable: human nature.

The first dimension was the human body’s physical reaction to exposure – how would a person respond to extreme weather conditions, hunger, thirst and sickness in the wilderness? He also could not foretell about his team’s human response to exposure to hostile elements – American natives, whose agenda and motives were often left to chance and guessing.

Then there were the distorting effects of such external stimuli on the minds of his men. His crew possessed different personalities, leadership traits and abilities, which means that they would react differently given similar situations. His crew was about to be subject to the worst deprivations and stresses that anyone traveling toward the Western wilderness would ever know. They would also be subject not only to each other’s whims and weaknesses, but the fickleness of nature and the unseen and sometimes sinister designs of other men.


The Tonquin Sails

The Tonquin sailed out of New York Harbor on September 8, 1810. It took less than a day before cracks began to show in Astor’s fledgling operation.

Captain Jonathan Thorn instituted an 8:00 curfew that was acceptable to most except the four Scottish men, who included Astor’s top civilian lieutenant on the ship, the small but proud McDougall. McDougall, convinced that he was the de facto leader of the 29 men crew, did not want to surrender their evening on-deck frolicking. Nor did they want to sleep in the same quarters as the other ordinary sailors on the ship. McDougall felt that being an Astor partner highly respected in the fur-trade business, his word would be law on the ship.

He sent McKay to demand that Thorn rescind his curfew and sleeping quarter orders. If not, thing would turn violent. Thorn, the domineering taskmaster, would have none of it. The proud Navy captain was unbowed and unmoved. He threatened to shoot anyone who disobeyed orders “aboard my own ship.” Only by the intercession of David Stuart was any further altercation avoided.

Still the enmity would simmer for the rest of the voyage. Thorn did not tolerate his own crew sharing leisure time with the Scottish contingent. He showed how serious he was when he confined his own First Mate, Mr. Fox of Boston, below decks for three days for violating this rule.

So here they were: at least three cultures trapped together cheek-by jowl for six months – the good-time, canoe-paddling French-Canadians, the earthy Scottish fur traders who had operated their own wilderness fur posts, and the iron-fisted Yankee naval veteran and his subservient crew of American sailors.

It would take three and a half months of tedious sailing just to get them to Cape Horn at the bottom of South America. All that traveling, however, would only bring them halfway to their Pacific destination. To many, they realized quickly that they were about to face a disturbing if not traumatic experience of boredom and tension on a boat captained by a cheerless and unbending captain. There would be nothing but an endless view of the ocean, monotonous if tasteless food with no respite or relief en route until their final destination.

The crew’s ennui was interrupted by what appeared to be British gunship pursuing them as they were approaching Cape Horn. After a few days of tension, Captain Thorn subdued the threat not by fleeing but by strutting its own armaments, indicating that the Tonquin was ready to fight fire with fire.

Perhaps unbeknownst to the Scottish, Thorn wrote regularly to Astor, lacing his letters with complaints about how his passengers, especially the Scottish, were an irksome lot. Thorn noted that they complained about the food that he felt was sufficiently lavish, the sleeping quarters, and Scotsmen’s lack of serious discipline.


Stormy Seas

On November 11, 1811, all these cultural irritations took a back seat to life-and-death reality.

Vicious winds and torrential rain started pounding the ship into submission, as the storm seemed committed to consign the Tonquin to the bottom of the ocean. Massive breakers sent water washing over the shrunken wooden planking, pouring seawater into the gaps of the boat saturating the men below. The winds and rain were heightened by the blasts of thunder and lightning, which seemed to portend total destruction.

After the storm died down, Thorn ordered the sails drawn in to prevent them from being destroyed, turning the Tonquin into nothing but a listless cork that would bob randomly at sea, with no means of control. The effort was not enough, as the unexpected strength of the wind and rain unmoored six cannons and tossed them about the deck, and continued to hammer the masts that were left under the mercy of the lashing winds.

On November 14, a huge rogue wave curled over the Tonquin and threatened to upend it, but instead tossed the men about amidships, resulting in broken ribs for one sailor.


The Vengeful Captain

On November 20, one of Thorn’s miscalculations almost led to the deaths of everyone onboard. Given a chance one week earlier to stop at Cape Verde, he refused the entreaties of men who wanted to do some sightseeing while replenishing their fresh water stocks. Thorn now realized that his fresh water supply had run dangerously low, which forced him to ration water consumption to a measly one pint per man per day, no mean feat considering the saltiness of the preserved meats that they had to consume daily. Fortunately, they sailed into what is now the Falkland Islands off Argentina, a group of tiny uninhabited rock formations that had abundant springs of fresh water.

While the water injected new life into the ship, the mercurial and apparently thin-skinned Thorn was stung by a prank that a crewmember played on him while they were on the island. While some of the French-Canadians hunted for fowl, an incensed Thorn turned the Tonquin around and sailed away into the open sea, leaving a handful of its shocked passengers behind and consigning them to certain death.

The sailors left behind on the shore frantically piled into their boats and desperately rowed back with every ounce of their strength toward the Tonquin, which was now six miles away from the shore. The sailors on the rowboat pondered whether to chase after the Tonquin on the open sea and fight the growing swells, or sail back to the islands – both options leaving them very small chances of survival.

As they deliberated on the two alternatives, Robert Stuart pointed a gun at Captain Thorn and ordered him to turn back for the men. As the rowboat began to fill with water, the Tonquin steered back toward the boat and brought the men up safety.

Nothing much was said for the next two months as the passengers and crew carried on amidst a thickening tension on the boat. Many of the men were convinced that what Thorn had tried to pull off was nothing short of attempted murder.

Thorn, on the other hand, believed that he was simply trying to meet the demanding schedule and objectives laid out by John Jacob Astor, who Thorn considered his only boss, a boss who Thorn believed had delegated all authority and ship-bound decisions to him.

To be continued…



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