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


ON the 1st of March 1811, we took our departure from the Sandwich Islands; steering direct for Columbia River. The first step taken, after leaving the land, was to liberate those who had been put in irons. Poor fellows! they considered themselves particularly unfortunate, and doubly punished, in not having been partakers of the pleasures which the others had enjoyed on shore. All our thoughts now tended to one point; and the hope of soon terminating a long and irksome voyage made us forget all former misunderstandings, and a few days passed in harmony and good-fellowship, until the 12th, when the weather becoming squally and cold, with snow and sleet, the partners wished to serve out some articles of clothing to the passengers, who now began to feel very sensibly the change of climate; but the captain considered the broaching of a bale or box as an encroachment on his authority, and a violation of ship rules, and therefore steadily opposed it. This gave rise to bad blood on both sides. The partners swore they would have such articles as they wanted; the captain swore they should touch nothing. The dispute went to such a height that pistols were resorted to, and all, from stem to stern, seemed for a moment involved in the flame of civil war; but on this, as on a former occasion, Mr. David Stuart and some others interfering brought about a reconciliation. The partners desisted; the captain kept his bales and boxes untouched; and the men froze in the icy rigging of the ship until many of them were obliged to take to their hammocks.

On the 14th, in lat. 370 N. and long 137° W., a violent gale came on, which increased almost to a hurricane, and lasted four days without intermission, during which we were much puzzled in manoeuvring the ship. She had sprung a leak, but not seriously. Sometimes we had to let her scud before the wind; sometimes she lay-to; sometimes under one sail, sometimes under another, labouring greatly; and much anxiety was felt by all on board. During this storm, almost everything on deck was carried off or dashed to pieces; all our live stock were either killed or washed overboard; and so bad was the weather, first with rain, and then with sleet, hail, frost, and snow, which froze on the rigging as it fell, that there was no bending either ropes or sails, and the poor sailors were harassed to death. But bad and harassing as this state of things was, it proved to be only the beginning of our troubles, and a prelude to far greater trials. During this gale, we sustained considerable damage in the sails and rigging, besides the Joss of our live stock, and other things on board.

On the 22nd of March, we came in sight of land, which, on a nearer approach, proved to be Cape Disappointment, a promontory forming the north side of the Great Oregon or Columbia River. The sight filled every heart with gladness. But the cloudy and stormy state of the weather prevented us seeing .clearly the mouth of the river; being then about ten miles from land. The aspect of the coast was wild and dangerous, and for some time the ship lay-to, until the captain could satisfy himself that it was the entrance of the river; which he had no sooner done, than Mr. Fox, the first mate, was ordered to go and examine the channel on the bar. At half-past one o'clock in the afternoon, Mr. Fox left the ship, having with him one sailor, a very old Frenchman, and three Canadian lads, unacquainted with sea service— two of them being carters from La Chine, and the other a Montreal barber. Mr. Fox objected to such hands; but the captain refused to change them, adding, that he had none else to spare. Mr. Fox then represented the impossibility of performing the business in such weather, and on such a rough sea, even with the best seamen, adding, that the waves were too high for any boat to live in. The captain, turning sharply round, said—" Mr. Fox, if you are afraid of water, you should have remained at Boston." On this Mr. Fox immediately ordered the boat to be lowered, and the men to embark. If the crew was bad, the boat was still worse—being scarcely seaworthy, and very small. While this was going on, the partners, who were all partial to Mr. Fox, began to sympathize with him, and to intercede with the captain to defer examining the bar till a favourable change took place in the weather. But he was deaf to entreaties, stamped, and swore that a combination was formed to frustrate all his designs. The partners' interference, therefore, only riveted him the more in his determination, and Mr. Fox was peremptorily ordered to proceed. He, seeing that the captain was immoveable, turned to the partners with tears in his eyes, and said—"My uncle was drowned here not many years ago, and now I am going to lay my bones with his." He then shook hands with all around him, and bade them adieu. Stepping into the boat" my friends!" said he; "we will perhaps meet again in the next world." And the words were prophetic.

The moment the boat pushed off, all hands crowded in silence to take a last farewell of her. The weather was boisterous, and the sea rough, so that we often lost sight of the boat before she got 100 yards from the ship; nor had she gone that far before she became utterly unmanageable, sometimes broaching broadside to the foaming surges, and at other times almost whirling round like a top, then tossing on the crest of a huge wave would sink again for a time and disappear altogether. At last she hoisted the flag; the meaning could not be mistaken; we knew it was a signal of distress. At this instant all the people crowded round the captain, and implored him to try and save the boat; but in an angry tone he ordered about ship, and we saw the ill-fated boat no more.

Mr. Fox was not only, an able officer, but an experienced seaman, and a great favourite among all classes on board; and this circumstance, I fear, proved his ruin, for his uniform kindness and affability to the passengers had from the commencement of the voyage drawn down upon his head the ill-will of his captain; and his being sent off on the present perilous and forlorn undertaking, with such awkward and inexperienced bands, whose language he did not understand, is a proof of that ill-will.

The mouth of Columbia River is remarkable for its sand-bars and high surf at all seasons, but more particularly in the spring and fall, during the equinoctial gales: these sand-bars frequently shift, the channel of course shifting along with them, which renders the passage at all times extremely dangerous. The bar, or rather the chain of sand-banks, over which the huge waves and foaming breakers roll so awfully, is a league broad, and extends in a white foaming sheet for many miles, both south and north of the mouth of the river, forming as it were an impracticable barrier to the entrance, and threatening with instant destruction everything that comes near it.

The river at its mouth is 4J miles broad, confined by Cape Disappointment on the north, and Point Adams on the south; the former is a rocky cliff or promontory, rising about 500 feet above the level of the water, and covered on the top with a few scattered trees of stinted growth; the latter a low sandy point, jutting out about 300 yards into the river, directly opposite to Cape Disappointment: the deep- eat water is near the Cape, but the channel is both narrow and intricate. The country is low, and the impervious forests give to the surrounding coast a wild and gloomy aspect.

After the captain ordered about ship, as already stated, some angry words passed between himself and Mr. Mumford, the second officer, which ended in the latter being ordered below. After passing an anxious night, the return of day only increased the anxiety, and every mind was filled with gloomy apprehensions. In the course of this day, Mr. Mumford resumed his duties, and the ship kept beating off and on till noon, when she cast anchor in fourteen fathoms, about a mile from the breakers; and the weather becoming calm, Mr. M'Kay, Mr. David Stuart, myself, and several others, embarking in the long boat, which was well manned and armed, stood in for the shore, in hopes of being able to effect a landing. On approaching the bar, the terrific chain of breakers, which keep rolling one after another in awful succession, completely- overpowered us with dread; and the fearful suction or current became so irresistibly great, that, before we were aware of it, the boat was drawn into them, and became unmanageable: at this instant, Mr. Mumford, who was at the helm, called out, "Let us turn back, and pull for your lives; pull hard, or you are all dead men." In turning round, the boat broached broadside to the surf, and was for some time in imminent danger of being engulfed or dashed to pieces; and, although every effort was made, we were for twelve minutes struggling in this perilous situation, between hope and despair, before we got clear, or the boat obeyed the oars, and yet we were still two miles from the shore; and, had it not been for the prompt and determined step taken by Mr. Mumford, the boat and every soul on board of it must have inevitably perished. Notwithstanding our narrow escape, we made a second and third attempt, but without success, and then returned to the ship. The same afternoon, Mr. Mumford was sent more to the south to seek for a channel, but to no purpose. The charts were again examined, and every preparation made for next morning.

On the 25th, early in the morning, Mr. Mumford was again ordered in another direction to go and discover if possible the proper channel, and ascertain the depth of water. After several trials, in one or two of which the boat got again entangled in the breakers, and had a very narrow escape, she at length came into 2½ fathoms of water, and then returned; but the captain seemed to hint that Mr. Mumford had not done so much as he might have done, or in other words, he was dissatisfied; indeed, his mind was not in a state to be satisfied with anything, not even with himself; but his officers, whatever they did, were sure to displease.

The captain now called on Mr. Aikens, the third mate, and ordered him to go and sound in a more northerly direction, and if he found 3½ fathoms water to hoist a flag as a signal. At three o'clock in the afternoon, Mr. Aikens, together with the sail- maker, armourer, and two Sandwich Islanders, embarked in the pinnace, and proceeded to the bar. As soon as the pinnace hoisted the flag agreed upon, the ship weighed anchor and stood in for the channel; at the same time the boat, pulling back from the bar, met the ship about half a mile from the breakers, in eight fathoms, going in with a gentle sea-breeze, at the rate of three knots an hour.

As the ship and boat drew near to each other, the latter steered a little aside to be out of the ship's way, then lay upon her oars in smooth water, waiting to be taken on board, while the ship passed on within twenty yards of them in silence; nor did the people in the boat speak a single word. As soon as the ship had passed, and no motion made to take the boat on board, every- one appeared thunderstruck, and Mr. M'Kay was the first that spoke,—"Who," said he, "is going to throw a rope to the boat?" No one answered; but by this time she had fallen astern, and began to pull after the ship. Every one now called out, "The boat, the boat!" The partners, in astonishment, entreated the captain to take the boat on board, but he coolly replied, "I can give them no assistance." Mr. Mumford said it would not be the work of a minute. "Back a sail, throw a rope overboard," cried the partners; the answer was, "No, I will not endanger the ship." We now felt convinced that the boat and crew were devoted to destruction—no advice was given them, no assistance offered, no reasons assigned for risking so cruel a sacrifice of human life—for the place where the boat met us was entirely free from the influence of the breakers, and a long way from the bar. It is impossible, therefore, to account for the cool indifference manifested towards the fated boat and her crew, unless we suppose that the mind of the captain was so absorbed in apprehension, and perplexed with anxiety at the danger which stared him in the face, and which he was about to encounter in a few minutes, that he could not be brought to give a thought to anything else but the safety of the ship.

During this time the ship was drawing nearer and nearer to the breakers, which called our attention from the boat to look out for our own safety; but she was seen for some time struggling hard to follow the ship as we entered the breakers, the sight of which was appalling. On the ship making the first plunge, every countenance looked dismay; and the sun, at the time just sinking below the horizon, seemed to say, "Prepare for your last." Mr. Mumford was now ordered to the mast-head, to point out the channel The water decreasing from 8 to 2 fathoms, she struck tremendously on the second reef or shoal; and the surges breaking over her stern overwhelmed everything on deck. Every one who could, sprang aloft, and clung for life to the rigging. The waves at times broke ten feet high over her, and at other times she was in danger of foundering: she struck again and again, and, regardless of her helm, was tossed and whirled in every direction, and became completely unmanageable. Night now began to spread an impenetrable gloom over the turbulent deep. Dark, indeed, was that dreadful night. We had got about a mile into the breakers, and not far from the rocks at the foot of the Cape, against which the foaming surges wreaked their fury unceasingly. Our anxiety was still further increased by the wind dying away, and the tide still ebbing. At this instant, some one called out, "We are all lost, the chip is among the rocks." A desperate effort was then made to let go the anchors—two were thrown overboard; the sails kept flapping for some time: Doe was the danger diminished by learning the fact that the surf dragged ship, anchors, and all, along with it. But there is a limit to all things: hour after hour had passed, and terrific was the sight; yet our faithful bark still defied the elements, until the tide providentially beginning to flow—just at a time when it appeared as if no earthly power could save us from a watery grave—brought about our deliverance by carrying the ship along with it into Baker's Bay, snug within the Cape, where we lay in safety.

Here are two points for consideration; first, the time of sounding: and, secondly, the time chosen for entering the breakers. In respect to both, there wa an unwarrantable precipitation—a manifest want of sound judgment. We made the land in the middle of a storm, the channel and coast both unknown to us, and without either pilot or guide: under such circumstances, it was evident to all that no boat could live on the water at the time, far less reach the shore; and our entering the breakers at so late an hour, the sun at the time not being fifty minutes above the horizon, the channel also being unexplored, was certainly a premature and forlorn undertaking: but there existed such disunion—such a spirit of contradiction on board—that the only wonder is how we ever got so far. But I must now inform the reader what became of the boat.

In the morning of the 26th, Captain Thorn, Mr.. M'Kay, myself, and a few men, left the ship, to take a view of the coast from the top of Cape Disappointment, to try if we could learn any tidings of the • coats. We had not proceeded fifty yards, when we saw Steven Weeks, the armourer, standing under the shelter of a rock, shivering and half-dead with cold. Joy for a moment filled our hearts, and running up to the poor fellow, we inquired for his comrades, but could get no satisfactory reply; we then brought him to the ship, and, after giving him some food, resumed our inquiries; but he appeared so overpowered with grief and vexation, that we could scarcely get a word from him; in short, he seemed to reproach us bitterly. "You did it purposely," said he, in great agitation; but after some time, and when we had first told him what we had suffered, be seemed to come round, as if his feelings were soothed by the recital of our dangers; and then he related his melancholy tale, in the following words:-

"'After the ship passed us we pulled hard to follow her, thinking every moment you would take us on board; but when we saw her enter the breakers we considered ourselves as lost. We tried to pull back again, but in vain; for we were drawn into the breakers in spite of all we could do. We saw the ship make two or three heavy plunges; but just at this time we ourselves were struck with the boiling surf, and the boat went reeling in every direction; in an instant a heavy sea swamped her—poor Mr. Aikens and John Coles were never seen after. As soon as I got above the surface of the water, I kept tossing about at the mercy of the waves. While in this state I saw the two Sandwich Islanders struggling through the surf to get hold of the boat, and being expert swimmers they succeeded. After long struggles they got her turned upon her keel, bailed out some of the water, and recovered one of the oars. 1 made several attempts to get near them, but the weight of my clothes and the rough sea had almost exhausted me. I could scarcely keep myself above water, and the Owhyhees were so much occupied about the boat, that they seemed to take no notice of anything else. In vain I tried to make signs, and to call out; every effort only sank me more and more. The tide had drawn the boat by this time out to sea, and almost free of the breakers, when the two islanders saw me, now supporting myself by a floating oar, and made for me. The poor fellows tried to haul me into the boat, but their strength failed them. At last, taking hold of my clothes in their teeth, they fortunately succeeded. We then stood out to sea as night set in, and a darker one I never saw. The Owhyhees, overcome with wet and cold, began to lose hope, and their fortitude forsook them, so that they lay down despairingly in the boat, nor could I arouse them from their drowsy stupor. When I saw that I had nothing to expect from them, I set to sculling the boat myself; and yet it was with much ado I could stand on my legs. During the night one of the Indians died in despair, and the other seemed to court death, for he lost all heart, and would not utter a single word. When the tide began to flow I was roused by the sense of my danger, for the sound of the breakers grew louder and louder, and I knew if I got entangled in them in my exhausted state all was lost; I, therefore, set too with might and main, as a last effort, to keep the boat out to sea, and at daylight I was within a quarter of a mile of the breakers, and about double that distance short of the Cape. I paused for a moment, 'What is to be done?' I said to myself; 'death itself is preferable to this protracted struggle.' So, turning the head of my boat for shore, I determined to reach the land or die in the attempt. Providence favoured my resolution, the breakers seemed to aid in hurrying me out of the watery element; and the sun had scarcely risen when the boat was thrown up high and dry on the beach. 1 had much ado to extricate myself from her, and to drag my benumbed limbs along. On seeing myself once more on dry land, I sat down and felt a momentary relief; but this was followed by gloomy reflections. I then got into the boat again, and seeing the poor islander still alive, but insensible, I hauled him out of the boat, tuid with much ado carried him to the border of the wood, when covering him with leaves I left him to die. While gathering the leaves I happened to come upon t beaten path, which brought me here." Such was Weeks's melancholy story: himself and the Indian being the only survivors of the last boat, it follows that eight men in all lost their lives in entering this fatal river.

In the evening the Sandwich Islander who died in the boat was interred on the beach where the boat came ashore; the other poor fellow was carried to the ship, and afterwards recovered.

On the 27th I was appointed to head a party to go in search of the boat that was lost on the 22nd; but after examining the coast for upwards of forty miles southwards, not a trace of our missing friends was discovered, nor did we ever learn any tidings of them.

We had on this occasion a specimen of Chinooke navigation. While crossing the river in an Indian canoe, on our way back to the ship, we were suddenly overtaken by a storm, and our craft was upset in the middle of the passage. The expertness of the natives in their favourite element was here put to the test. At this time we were upwards of two miles from the shore, while eight persons unable to swim were floating in every direction; coats, hats, and everything else adrift, and all depending on the fidelity of the four Indians who undertook to carry us over; yet, notwithstanding the roughness of the water, and the wind blowing a gale at the time, these poor fellows kept swimming about like so many fishes, righted the canoe, and got us all into her again, while they themselves staid in the water, with one band on the canoe and the other paddling. In this manner they supported themselves, tossing to and fro, till we bailed the water out of our frail craft, and got under weigh again. Here it was that the Indians showed the skill and dexterity peculiar to then. The instant the canoe rose on the top of a wave, those on the windward side darted down their long paddles to the armpits in the water to prevent her from upsetting; while those on the leeside at the same moment pulled theirs up, but kept ready as soon as the wave had passed under her to thrust them down again in a similar manner, and thus by their alternate movements they kept the canoe steady, so that we got safe to shore without another upset, and with the loss of only a few articles of clothing; but we suffered severely from wet and cold.

During this time the Indiana from the village which we had left, seeing our critical situation, had manned and sent off two canoes to our assistance, One of the boats from the ship was also despatched for the same purpose; but all would have proved too late had we not been fortunate enough of ourselves to weather the storm.

The Indians all the time never lost their presence of mind. Indeed, it was supposed, from the skilful manner in which they acted afterwards, that the sordid rascals had upset us wilfully, in order to claim the merit of having saved us, and therewith a double recompense for their trip. The boat which had put off to our assistance was upset on her return to the ship; and had it not been for the two Indian canoes that followed us, its crew would have all perished.

On the 4th of April the long boat was swamped off Chinooke Point, when ten persons were saved by Comecomly and his people. On this occasion, however, many articles of value were lost, so that every - hour admonished us that we stepped on insecure and slippery ground. Every succeeding day was marked by some new and alarming disaster; but a few remarks will now suffice to conclude the account of our voyage, in which we sailed, according to the ship's log, 21,852 miles.

Captain Thorn was an able and expert seaman; but, unfortunately, his treatment of the people under his command was strongly tinctured with cruelty and despotism. He delighted in ruling with a rod of iron; his officers were treated with harshness, his sailors with cruelty, and every one else was regarded by him with contempt. With a jealous and peevish temper, he was easily excited; and the moment he heard the Scotch Highlanders speak to each other in the Scottish dialect, or the Canadians in the French language, he was on his high horse, making every one on board as unhappy as himself; and this brings us down to the period of our departure from the ship, a period to which we all anxiously looked forward, and the satisfaction both felt and expressed was universal, when the general order was read that all the passengers should prepare to land on the blowing day.


 


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