Voyages and Discoveries Along the North
Pacific Coast-Conflicting Claims of Various Nations to the
Country--Expeditions of Lewis and Clarke--Contest for
Possession of the Country-Early Settlements-Efforts of
Americans to Establish Trading Posts John Jacob Astor and
Astoria--Growth, Power and Purposes of British Fur
Companies-Period of Joint Occupancy of the Territory-Oregon
in Control of Hudson's Bay Company-Efforts to Secure
American Settlers-Labors of Bonneville, With and
Kelley-Advent of the Missionaries-Their Influence in Behalf
of American Interests-Arrival of the Home
Builders-Establishment of a Civil Government-Value of the
Labor of the Oregon Pioneers-Creation of Oregon Territory
Before the first white
settler had sought to secure a habitation in
the forest which marked the site of the
present city of Portland, the region of
which it is now the commercial center had
passed through the most interesting period
of its history. The progress of civilization
in this portion of the New World, covering a
period of nearly half a century antedating
the founding of the city, after many heroic
sacrifices and struggles, had led to the
peaceful conquest of a vast area and to the
establishment of American supremacy. The
successive steps which contributed to these
results give to this region a unique place
in our national annals, and it seems proper
that a brief historical review of the period
should pre-cede the story of the city whose
foundations were laid after the self-denial,
energy and endurance of many men and women
had opened the forest to the sunlight, and
brought the country bordering on the Pacific
under the influence of American
institutions. When a little more than a
century ago the United States sprang into
being as a nation, Oregon was known in name
only, and that name was applied simply to a
great river, which, from vague and
indefinite reports, obtained from Indians
and Spanish navigators, was said to flow
westward from the Rocky Mountains to the
Pacific Ocean. This river was known to
Americans and Englishmen as the Oregon or
River of the West, while the Spaniards
called it variously Rio de Aguilar and Rio
de las Reyes. At this time, the country
north of California had no name by which it
was distinctively known, and there is no
certain record that any civilized man had
ever placed foot on the soil of either
Oregon or Washington. The North Pacific
coast, however, had been visited as early as
1535 by a Spanish naval explorer, and from
that time between long intervals down to the
beginning of the present century, other
Spanish, Portugese, English and French
navigators had sailed along the Pacific
Coast, but the information they obtained was
of the most vague and uncertain character.
It was left for an American to give the first information of value concerning the country north of California. This was Captain Robert Gray who, in May, 1792, in the American ship Columbia, discovered and entered the River of the West, which he ascended some twenty-five miles, bestowing on it the name of his vessel. This was the first discovery of the river and according to the custom of nations was a strong element in the title of the United States to all the country drained by it. A few weeks later Captain George Vancouver, in command of an English exploring expedition, having heard of Captain Gray's discovery, appeared at the mouth of the river, and sent one of his vessels, the Chatham, under the command of Lieutenant W. R. Broughton, into the river, and this officer ascended the river in a boat a distance of one hundred and twenty miles. The same year, Alexander MacKenzie, a member of the Northwest Company - a Canadian fur company - made the first overland journey from the East to the Pacific, reaching the ocean on the present coast of British Columbia. He discovered Fraser River, down which he passed in canoes a distance of two hundred and fifty miles. Upon his return home, learning that the Columbia had been discovered, he supposed that the large river which he had followed so far southward must be that great stream. This error was not corrected until twenty years later, and the stream was then named in honor of Simon Fraser, who, in 1805, had established a post in that region for the Northwest Company.
These various sea and land explorations had proved three very important facts: First, that there was no water passage for vessels across the continent. Second: that by following the courses of streams and lakes, the overland journey could be nearly accomplished in boats. Third: that this vast unexplored region abounded in fur-bearing animals, a fact which led in a few years to its occupation by rival fur traders, both English and American.
At the beginning of the present century the territorial claims of the various nations to the Pacific Coast were exceedingly conflicting. Russia alone had a valid claim to Alaska, both by discovery and occupation, although no definite southern boundary had been fixed. Spain's claim to California was also undisputed, extending to the forty-second parallel. Between these two, England and Spain claimed title by right of discovery only, while the United States by reason of Gray's discovery of the Columbia, had laid the foundation for a claim to the whole region drained by that mighty river, a claim as yet unasserted, but which was pressed with much vigor a few years later. Besides these discovery rights, the Louisiana Province, which France had transferred to Spain in 1192 was construed by its possessor, or more accurately speaking, its technical claimant, to cover the whole region west of the Mississippi not claimed by the same nations as portions of Mexico and California. This title was reconveyed to France in 1800, thus putting that nation again in the field as a claimant of territory in the western portions of North America.
President Jefferson gave the first impulse to the movement to explore and perfect the title of the United States government in the region drained by the Columbia. He had been at Versailles when John Ledyard, who had accompanied Captain Cook's expedition in 1780 attempted to interest American and French capitalists in the Pacific fur trade. Jefferson, with his profound sagacity, became deeply interested in the brilliant pictures of the wealth of this region as related by Ledyard, and he naturally preferred that to his own country should fall so magnificent an inheritance. Upon his return to America, in 1792, he endeavored to interest his countrymen in the project, but the United States were then perfecting their government and the regulations of national affairs required immediate and careful attention. Thus engrossed with great political questions, more than a decade passed before the people began to think of future acquisition of territory. When Jefferson became president in 1801, he had lost none of his former interest in the northwest territory and was more than ever convinced of the expediency of making explorations in the remote west, and of obtaining more valid claim to the region than then existed. Under his administration was negotiated, in 1803, the purchase from France of Louisiana and all of the territorial rights of that nation in North America. It is questionable, however, whether the French title added much strength to the claim of the United States to that region bordering on the Columbia River. From the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains it was good enough as far north as the headwaters of the Mississippi, but west of the continental divide, the French claim rested upon the uncertain plea of contiguity." This, however, the successors to the French claim made the most of in the subsequent controversy with Great Britain.
Immediately after the purchase of Louisiana, Congress, at the urgent request of President Jefferson, dispatched an exploring expedition under the command of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark. They left St. Louis in 1804 and returned in 1806, having twice traversed the distance between that city and the mouth of the Columbia. The result of their explorations had been awaited with much anxiety, and their return caused great rejoicing. "Never," says Mr. Jefferson, "did a similar event excite more joy throughout the United States. The humblest of its citizens had taken a lively interest in the issue of this journey and looked for-ward with impatience to the information it would bring." The journal of these explorers was soon published and widely read and for the first time something definite was known of the character of the country and the native tribes occupying it. The interest it awakened, especially among the brave and daring Rocky Mountain trappers, hunters and traders was great, and gave them the first proof of the feasibility of making the journey to the Pacific shore by land.
When Great Britain became aware that the territory claimed by France in North America had been ceded to the United States, anxiety was felt by that government and such of its subjects as were personally interested, as to the policy to be pursued to establish the British title to the country on the Pacific Coast north of California. The Northwest and Hudson's Bay Companies were especially anxious as to the future of their interests in that region. The French and Spanish claims to the territory had been regarded as of little importance, but when they were transferred to a nation both able and anxious to perfect the title by reducing the country to actual possession and moreover were supported by the mere claims of discovery and occupation, the matter presented an entirely new aspect.
The race for possession by right of occupancy from this time on was prosecuted with vigor. Great Britain secured the first advantage in this direction. Simon Fraser, an English subject and agent of the Northwest Fur Company, established a trading post in 1805 at Fraser Lake, a few miles west of the point where Fraser River turns southward, bestowing the name of "New Caledonia" upon that region. At this time the Fraser, as before stated, was considered to be identical with the Columbia and the post was supposed to be on the great stream, for the possession of which America and England a few years later were to become vigorous contestants. This idea was soon afterwards proven to be erroneous, but the fact re-mains that the post was the first established by the subjects of either country west of the Rocky Mountains. The first American settlement was made by a man named Henry who, in 1808, founded Fort Henry on the headwaters of Lewis or Snake River, the first of any kind on a tributary of the Columbia. The next was made by Nathan Winship and William Smith, representatives of a Boston Company, who, in June, 1810, selected a spot on the south bank of the Columbia, forty-five miles from its mouth which they called "Oak Point." Here they made some preparation to found a settlement, but the annual freshet of the river forced them to abandon the undertaking. They then selected a higher site further down the river, but signs of hostility on the part of the Indians led them to give up the effort, and they returned to Boston. Thus it will be seen that the first settlements on the Columbia were made by Americans, but they were unimportant links in the chain of evidence which proved the original occupancy of the territory by Americans, compared to the settlement established by the Astor party in 1811.
After the independence of the United States was acknowledged by Great Britain, American ships were for many years practically barred from British ports. In seeking new haunts of commerce they sailed into the Western Ocean and during the early part of the present century took the lead in the fishing and fur trade of the Pacific. They sailed along the entire northwest coast, collecting furs to exchange for the fabrics of China, having a monopoly of this business long before the Hudson's Bay Company had established headquarters in this region. In addition to the fur trade they supplied the Spanish and Russian settlements along the coast with American manufactured goods. In dealing with the natives, the conduct of certain of these traders brought them into disrepute. For furs they exchanged with the Indians whisky and fire arms. In this way several fierce tribes in the vicinity of the Russian settlements were furnished with deadly means of warfare and rendered dangerous and troublesome. Numerous complaints were made by the Russian government to the State Department, but the American traders were violating no law or treaty and the government could not interfere.
At this time John Jacob
Astor was the central figure of the American
fur trade, and being consulted about the
matter, he pro-posed as a remedy that a
permanent trading post be established at the
mouth of the Columbia, that would be the
headquarters for trade within the interior
and along the coast, and that the business
be concentrated in the hands of a company
powerful enough to supersede the independent
traders who had been the cause of irritation
to Russia. To this plan President Jefferson
and his cabinet gave their hearty approval.
Thus encouraged by the government, Mr. Astor
organized the Pacific Fur Company to carry
out the enterprise which, while he believed
it would be a highly profitable undertaking,
intended should be purely American in
character and of deep political
significance. Although he was actuated by
the idea of financial gain, there can be no
doubt he was also animated by a patriotic
desire to see the United States gain control
of the region, and that he believed this end
could be more surely gained by the
establishment of a permanent trading
settlement. He dispatched two expeditions to
the mouth of the Columbia; one by sea, in
the ship Tonquin, which arrived March
22, 1810, and one by land, under Wilson
Price Hunt, which did not arrive until
nearly a year later.
So on after the arrival of the Tonquin, the erection of a fort was begun on the south side of the river at a spot named "Point George" by Lieutenant Broughton. This they christened "Astoria" in honor of the founder and promoter of the enterprise. The name is perpetuated by the rise and growth of the thriving city which marks the spot where America first planted her foot upon the disputed territory of Oregon.
The Northwest Fur Company upon learning of Astor's plans, and realizing the strong hold the American Government would have upon the territory in dispute, should those plans succeed, sent a party overland to counteract them. But this party did not arrive until three months after the fort was built, and at once returned. The war of 1812 gave the English company another opportunity. A second party was dispatched overland, which reached Astoria in the spring of 1813, bringing intelligence of the hostilities and the disheartening fact that an English war vessel was on the way to capture the fort. Under stress of circumstances the entire stock of furs was sold to the agent of the Northwest Company. Three months later the fort was surrendered to the commander of the Raccoon, who had come for the purpose of capturing it. The American flag was lowered to give place to the British colors, and the name of Astoria was changed to Fort George.
The failure of Mr. Astor's plans in a national point of view was of much significance. It retarded the settlement of Oregon for many years. The maintenance of Astoria as a commercial point, such as Astor designed it should be, would have given the United States so strong a claim upon the country that little ground for contest of title would have remained for any other nation.