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Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon and Columbia Rivers
Chapter I


WHEN I first conceived the idea of writing the following narrative, my design was to begin with a brief outline of the discoveries already made on the coast of the Pacific, from Drake in 1579 to Vancouver in 1792; or, rather, down to the present time; but, on second thoughts, I felt convinced that enough had been done already in that branch of inquiry; or, at least, that the further prosecution of it might be better left to those who aspire to literary fame. Mine is an humbler ambition—not to figure as an author, but to record faithfully, as a trader, the events in which I bore a part; and, in so doing, to gratify a desire kindled by an acquaintance with strange scenes and new fields of action, in a remote country which is still but little known.

The progress of discovery contributes not a little to the enlightenment of mankind; for mercantile interest stimulates curiosity and adventure, and combines with them to enlarge the circle of knowledge. To the spirit of enterprise developed in the service of commercial speculation, civilized nations owe not only wealth and territorial acquisitions, but also their acquaintance with the earth and its productions. The illustration of these remarks will be found in the following pages.

Mr. Astor of New York, a German by birth, but a citizen of the United States, raised himself; by his adventurous and enterprising spirit, from small beginnings to be one of the wealthiest and most eminent merchants in America. Soon after his arrival in the United States, about the year 1784, he commenced his commercial career in the traffic of furs: at first on a very narrow scale, but gradually expanding as his means increased. In this way he made visits to Canada, purchasing furs in that country, and shipping them from thence to the London market: and it is supposed that at this period his buoyant and aspiring mind conceived the vast project of grasping in his own hands, at some future day, the whole fur trade of North America.

The valuable furs and peltries scattered in former days over the extensive forests, lakes, and rivers of the Canadas, like the rich mines of Potosi and Mexico, invited many adventurers. The French, for some time after settling there, carried on an irregular but lucrative traffic in furs and peltries, with very little opposition, until the year 1670, when the Hudson's Bay Company, established by royal charter, took possession of the territory now called "Bupert's Laud," or Hudson's Bay. The Canada, or as it was more generally called, the North-West Company, was formed in 1787; and these soon became the two great rival companies of the north, as we shall have occasion to notice more fully hereafter. Next on the theatre of action appeared the Mackina Company, which swept the warm regions of the south, as the two others did those of the wintry north, until the American Fur Company, established by Mr. Astor in 1809, commenced operations; but he, finding the Mackina fur traders somewhat in his way,. bought out that Company, and added its territorial resources in 1811 to those of the American Fur Company. This body corporate was entitled the South-West, in contradistinction to the North-West Company.

Mr. Astor now saw himself at the head of all the fur trade of the south, and his intention was to penetrate through the barriers of the Northern Company, so as eventually to come into possession of all the fur trade east of the Rocky Mountains. With this plan still before him, he now turned his views to the trade on the coast of the Pacific, or that new field lying west of the Rocky Mountains, and which forms the subject of our present narrative. In this quarter the Russians alone had regular trading ports, opposite to Kamtschatka, where they still carry on a considerable trade in furs and seal skins, sending them across the Pacific direct to China. Their capital is limited, and their hunting grounds almost entirely confined to the sea-coast and islands around their establishments. The American coasting vessels also frequent this quarter, collecting vast quantities of valuable furs, which they convey to the Chinese market. This casual traffic by coasters, yielded to their owners in former days, by means of the returning cargo, an average clear gain of a thousand per cent. every second year; but these vessels are not so numerous of late, nor are the profits thus made so great as formerly.

The comprehensive mind of Mr. Astor could not but see these things in their true light, and to perceive that if such limited and desultory traffic produced such immense profits, what might not be expected from a well-regulated trade, supported by capital and prosecuted with system: at all events, the Russian trader would then be confined within his own limits, and the coasting vessels must soon disappear altogether.

Towards the accomplishment of the great plan which he had in view, Mr. Astor now set about opening a new branch of the fur trade on the Pacific, under the appellation of the "Pacific Fur Company," the grand central depot of which was to be at the mouth of the Columbia River, the "Oregon of the Spaniards." By this means he contemplated carrying off the furs of all the countries west of the Rocky Mountains; at the same time forming a chain of trading posts across the Continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, along the waters of the great Missouri: connecting by this chain the operations of the South- West Company on the east, with that of the Pacific Fur Company on the west side of the dividing ridge.

This grand commercial scheme, appearing now plain and practicable, at least to men of sanguine disposition, gave much satisfaction to the American public, who, from the results contemplated, became deeply interested in its success; for all the rich cargoes of furs and peltries thus to be collected annually over the vast expanse were to be shipped in American vessels for the great China mart, there to be sold, and the proceeds invested in a return cargo of teas, silks, beads, and nankeens, and other articles of high demand in the United States; which would not only prevent to some extent the American specie from going out of the Union for such articles, but also turn the barren wilds of the north and far west into a source of national wealth. Some, however, of the more sagacious and influential among the Americans themselves observed to Mr. Astor at the time, that his plan would be likely to give umbrage to the British, and arouse them to assert more speedily their claims of prior discovery to the Oregon quarter, and that such a step would operate against him. To these suggestions Mr. Astor simply observed, If he had thought of that, but intended chiefly to employ in his undertaking British subjects, and that he should on that account give less offence; besides," added he, "the claims of prior discovery and territorial right are claims to be settled by Government only, and not by an individual."

Mr. Astor's plans, hitherto known only to a few, now began to develop themselves more publicly. On the first intimation of the scheme, the North- Westerns took the alarm; for having already, in the prosecution of their trade, penetrated to the west side of the Rocky Mountains, in the direction of New Caledonia and the north branch of the Columbia, where they expected to reap a rich harvest, they viewed Astor's expedition to that quarter with a jealous eye, according to the old adage that "two of a trade seldom agree;" but others again extolled the brilliant project, as the brightest gem in the American Union, and particularly many of the retired partners of the North-West Company, who, not being provided for in some late arrangements, had left that concern in disgust, and therefore were the most likely to oppose with effect the ambitious views of their former coadjutors. These were just the men Mr. Astor had in his eye; melt of influence and experience among savages, and who from their earlier days had been brought up in, and habituated to, the hardships of the Indian trade. To several of these persona Mr. Astor disclosed his plans and made proposals, whereupon Messrs. M'Kay, M'Kenzie, M'Dougall, and Stuart, entered into his views, and became partners in the new concern. The former of these gentlemen had accompanied Sir Alexander M'Kenzie in his voyages of discovery to the North Polar Sea in 1789, and to the Pacific in 1793, the narratives of which are before the public; and most of the others had equal experience, and were all of them in some way or other related to the great men at the head of the North-West Company.

Articles of association and co-partnership were therefore entered into and concluded at New York, in the spring of 1810, between those gentlemen and Mr. Astor, establishing the firm of the Pacific Fur Company, as already noticed; to which firm five other partners, namely, Messrs. Hunt, Crooks, Miller, M'Lellan, and Clarke, were soon afterwards added. The association was not a joint-stock concern; Mr. Astor alone furnished the capital, amounting to 200,000 dollars, divided into 100 shares of 2000 dollars each, with power to increase the capital to 500,000 dollars.

The association was formed for a period of twenty years, but with this proviso, that it was to be dissolved if it proved either unprofitable or impracticable, after a trial of five years; during which trial, however, Mr. Astor, as stock-holder, was alone to bear all expenses and losses, the other partners giving only their time and labour. Of the above shares, Mr. Astor held fifty in his own hands; Mr. Hunt, as his representative and chief manager of the business, five; while the other partners, who were to carry on the trade with the Indians, were to have four each, in the event of the business succeeding. The remaining shares were reserved for the clerks, who joined the concern as adventurers, without any other remuneration than their chance of success at the end of the five years' trial The only exceptions were Mr. Robert Stuart and myself; who were to have our promotion at the end of the third year. From the proportion of interest, or number of shares in the hands of the stockholder and his representative, it will appear evident that the other partners, however unanimous they might be, could never have gained a majority of votes in any case over those which might have been by proxy appointed to represent Astor.

At the head depot, or general rendezvous, was to be stationed Mr. Astor's representative. The person appointed to this important trust was Wilson Price Hunt, a gentleman from New Jersey, who alone, of the whole party, had never been engaged in the Indian trade; yet his active habits, perseverance, and enterprise, soon made good his want of experience, and enabled him to discharge the duties of his station. In him was also vested the chief authority, or, in his absence, in M'Dougall. It was therefore to either or to both of these gentlemen that all Mr. Astor's measures were made known, and all his cargoes consigned.

At the time when these novel schemes were first agitated, I was in Upper Canada; and the first intimation I had of them was in a letter from Mr. M'Kay, the senior partner, requesting an interview with me at Montreal. To Montreal I accordingly went in the month of May; and there, for the first time, I saw the gilded prospectus of the new Company, and, accepting the proposals made to me by Mr. Astor, was the first to join the expedition;— and who at the time would not have joined it, for, although the North-Westerns tried to throw all the cold water of the St. Lawrence on the project, yet they could not extinguish the flame it had spread abroad. The flattering hopes and golden prospects held out to adventurers, so influenced the public mind, that the wonder-stricken believers flocked in from all quarters to share in the wonderful riches of the far west.

It need not be wondered at, if, under the influence of such extravagant expectations, many applicants appeared; but in accordance with Astor's plan, that the business should be carried on only by persons of well-tested merit and experience, for on their habits of perseverance and enterprise alone rested all hopes of ultimate success, his assistants were selected with more than ordinary care, every poor fellow that engaged being led to believe that his fortune was already made. Here Messrs. Franchere, Pullet, M'Gillis, Farnham, and M'Lennan, besides Mr. Stuart and myself, joined the adventurers; besides five tradesmen or mechanics, and twenty-four canoe men, the best that could be found of their classes.

Operations were now deemed requisite for the accomplishment of the Company's views; therefore, while one party, headed by Mr. Hunt, was ordered to make its way across the Continent by land, another party, headed by Mr. M'Kay, was to proceed by sea in the Tonquin, a ship of 300 tons, and mounting twelve guns. The Tonquin's course was round Cape Horn, for the north-west coast. The Columbia River was to be the common destination of both parties. The land party at its outset consisted of only seventeen persons, but Mr. Hunt's object was to augment that number to about eighty as he passed along, by means of American trappers and hunters from the south. Here M'Kenzie strongly recommended Mr. Hunt to take all his men from Canada, as too much time might probably be lost in collecting them from the south; and besides, Canadians, as he thought, would answer much better; but Mr. Hunt adhered to his first plan.

The arrangement of these two expeditions, in which M'Kay, whose life had been spent in voyaging through the Indian countries, and who was nowise qualified as a merchant, had resigned the inland voyage to a gentleman, bred to mercantile pursuits, but unacquainted with this his new mode of travelling, exhibited such an egregious inversion of the ordinary rules of prudence, as gave rise to much comment.

Matters being so far settled, Mr. Hunt, who was now seconded by Mr. M'Kenzie, left La Chine, nine miles south of Montreal, with the land expedition, in the beginning of July; and, on the 20th of the same month, the ship party, consisting of three partners, five clerks, Mr. Stuart, and myself, five mechanics, and fourteen canoe men, left Montreal for New York, where we were to embark. Of this number, however, M'Kay and eight of the most expert voyageurs proceeded in a bark-canoe through the States: on all such occasions there is a kind of mutual understanding between both parties, that is, between the canoe men and the canoe, the former undertaking to carry the latter over the land part of the journey, while the latter is bound to carry the others safe over water. The appearance of this unusual kind of craft on the American waters, with the cheerful chantings of its crew, their feathered caps and sylvan appearance, as they approached the gay city of New York, attracted such a crowd of spectators of all classes around them, as left but little space to land; but what was the astonishment, when, in the twinkling of an eye, two of the crew were seen to shoulder their craft, capable of containing two tons weight, and to convey it to a place of safety on terra firma. Mr. Astor, who happened to be present, was so delighted with the vivacity and dexterity of the two men, that he gave them an eagle to drink his health; then turning round, observed to some gentlemen who were standing by, that "six Americans could not do what these two brawny fellows had done," which observation gave rise to some further remarks, when Mr. M'Kay, with an air of confidence, challenged the swiftest New. York boat for a three mile race, offering to bet ten to one on his canoe men, but, after what had been witnessed, no one appeared disposed to risk his money. It is scarcely necessary in this place to observe, that the Canadian voyageurs are among the most expert and venturesome canoe men in the world.


 


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