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


FOR some days, much time was spent in examining both sides of the inlet, with the view of choosing a suitable place to build on. At last it was settled that the new establishment should be erected on the south side, on a small rising ground situate between Point George on the west and Tonquirt Point on the east, distant twelve miles from the mouth of the inlet or bar.

On the 12th of April, therefore, the whole party, consisting of thirty-three persons, all British subjects excepting three (eleven Sandwich Islanders being included in that number), left the ship and encamped on shore.

However pleasing the change, to be relieved from a long and tedious voyage, and from the tyranny of a sullen despotic captain, the day was not one of Pleasure, but of labour. The misfortunes we had met with in crossing the fatal bar had deadened all sensibility, and cast a melancholy gloom over our most sanguine expectations. In our present position, everything harmonized with our feelings, to darken our future prospects. Silent and with heavy, hearts we began the toil of the day, in clearing away brush and rotten wood for a spot to encamp on.

The person who now assumed the command was the deputy-agent, Duncan M'Dougall Esq., an old north-western, who, in the absence of Mr. Hunt, held the first place in Mr. Astor's confidence. He was a man of but ordinary, capacity, with an irritable, peevish temper; the most unfit man in the world to head an expedition or command men.

From the site of the establishment, the eye could wander over a varied and interesting scene. The extensive Sound, with its rocky shores, lay in front; the breakers on the bar, rolling in wild confusion, closed the view on the west; on the east, the country as far as the Sound had a wild and varied aspect; while towards the south, the impervious and magnificent forest darkened the landscape, as far as the eye could reach. The place thus selected for the emporium of the west, might challenge the whole continent to produce a spot of equal extent presenting more difficulties to the settler: studded with gigantic trees of almost incredible size, many of them measuring fifty feet in girth, and so close together, and intermingled with huge rocks, as to make it a work of no ordinary labour to level and clear the ground. With this task before us, every man, from the highest to the lowest, was armed with an axe in one hand and a gun in the other; the former for attacking the woods, the latter for defence against the savage hordes which were constantly prowling about. In the garb of labourers, and in the sweat of our brow, we now commenced earning our bread. In this manner we all kept toiling and tearing away, from sunrise till sunset— from Monday till Saturday; and during the nights we kept watch without intermission.

On our first arrival, the natives of the place appeared very friendly towards us, owing no doubt to some trifling presents which they now and then received from us; but still, circumstances occurred occasionally which indicated treachery, and kept us always on our guard, against the more distant tribes in particular, for their attitude was invariably shy and hostile. Our ill opinion of them proved but too true in the sequel; but we had all along received every assurance of fidelity and protection from Comecomly, the principal chief of the place, and in him we reposed much confidence.

The frame of a coasting vessel, to be named the Dolly, was brought out on board the Tonquin, and as soon as we had got a spot cleared, the carpenters were set to work, to fit her up for immediate service; but the smallness of her size, of only thirty tons, rendered her useless for any purpose but that of navigating the river.

It would have made a cynic smile to see this pioneer corps, composed of traders, shopkeepers, voyageurs, and Owhyhees, all ignorant alike in this new walk of life, and, the most ignorant of all, the leader. Many of the party had never handled an axe before, and but few of them knew how to use a gnu, but necessity, the mother of invention, soon taught us both. After placing our guns in some secure place at hand, and viewing the height and the breadth of the tree to be cut down, the party, with some labour, would erect a scaffold round it; this done, four men—for that was the number appointed to each of those huge trees—would then mount the scaffold, and commence cutting, at the height of eight or ten feet from the ground, the handles of our axes varying, according to circumstances, from two and a half to five feet in length. At every other stroke, a look was cast round, to see that all was safe; but the least rustling among the bushes caused a general stop; more or less time was thus lost in anxious suspense. After listening and looking round, the party resumed their labour, cutting and looking about alternately. In this manner the day would be spent, and often to little purpose: as night often set in before the tree begun with in the morning was half out down. Indeed, it sometimes required two days, or more, to fell one tree; but when nearly cut through, it would be viewed fifty different times, and from as many different positions, to ascertain where it was likely to fall, and to warn parties of the danger.

There is an art in felling a tree, as well as in planting one; but unfortunately none of us had learned that art, and hours together would be spent in conjectures and discussions: one calling out that it would fall here; another, there; in short, there were as many opinions as there were individuals about it; and, at last, when all hands were assembled to witness the fall, how often were we disappointed! the tree would still stand erect, bidding defiance to our efforts, while every now and then some of the most impatient or fool-hardy would venture to jump on the scaffold and give a blow or two more. Much time was often spent in this desultory, manner, before the mighty tree gave way; but it seldom came to the ground. So thick was the forest, and so close the trees together, that in its fall it would often rest its ponderous top on some other friendly tree; sometimes a number of them would hang together, keeping us in awful suspense, and giving us double labour to extricate the one from the other, and when we had so far succeeded, the removal of the monster stump was the work of days. The tearing up of the roots was equally arduous, although less dangerous: and when this last operation was got through, both tree and stump bad to be blown to pieces by gunpowder before either could be removed from the pot.

Nearly two months of this laborious and incessant toil had passed, and we had scarcely yet an acre of ground cleared. In the mean time three of our men were killed by the natives, two more wounded by the falling of trees, and one had his hand blown off by gunpowder.

But the labour, however trying, we were prepared to undergo It was against neglect and ill-treatment that our feelings revolted. The people suffered greatly from the humidity of the climate. The Sandwich Islanders, used to a dry, pure atmosphere sank under its influence; damp fogs and sleet were frequent, and every other day was a day of rain. Such is the climate of Columbia at this season of the year, and all this time we were without tents or shelter; add to this the bad quality of our food, consisting solely of boiled fish and wild roots, without even salt, and we had to depend at all times on the success or good-will of the natives for our daily supply, which was far from being regular; so that one-half of the party, on an average, were constantly en the sick list; and on more than one occasion I have seen the whole party so reduced that scarcely one could help the other, and all this chiefly owing to the conduct of Mr. Astor; first, in not sending out a medical man with the party; and, secondly, in his choice of the great pasha, M'Dougall, whom he placed at the head of his affairs. The sick and the sound both fared alike; the necessities of both were overlooked, while he, himself was served in state for a good many articles of provision had been put on shore before the ship sailed.

Our hard labour by day, with the watching during night, had not only reduced our party by sickness to a mere nothing, but raised a spirit of discontent, and plots and plans were set on foot to abandon all, and cross the continent by land. This extravagant resolution was, however, overruled by the more moderate of the malcontents, yet it resulted in a party waiting on M'Dougall with the view of bettering the existing state of things, and opening his eyes to his own situation; but this produced no good effect; it rather augmented the evil: and a second deputation proved equally unsuccessful. At last four men deserted, and had proceeded eighty miles up the river when they were laid hold of by the Indians and kept in a tent; nor would the stern and crafty chief of the tribe deliver them up until he had received a ransom for them.

Yet all this could not open the eyes of M'Dougall, nor was it till he had rashly ventured to provoke all classes, that he began to see dearly that bhe was standing on the verge of a precipice. Everything at this moment seemed at a stand; the folly and imprudence of the man in power had nearly extinguished all hopes of success. Another party of six men, headed by one of the Americans, deserted, but were brought back the third day by our friendly chief, Comecomly. We had some time ago found out that the sordid hope of gain alone attached this old and crafty chief to the whites.

The desertion of these parties, and the number confined by sickness, began now to admonish the man at the head of affairs that he had probably gone a step too far, and that it is much easier to destroy than restore confidence. He suddenly changed for the better; tents were distributed among the sick, and more attention was paid to their diet; still there was no medical man to attend the sufferers. In this case we surely look in vain for that sagacity and forethought which Mr. Astor was thought to possess. His own interest was involved in the result, and nothing could more clearly prove his reckless indifference for the lives of his people than his not providing a medical man of some kind or other, either for his ship or his infant colony.

But feuds and petty grievances among ourselves, arising chiefly from our minds being soured by hardships, were not the only obstacles we had to contend with; our weakness and forlorn situation began to open our eyes to. a sense of common danger, and fear began to exercise its influence, so that unanimity alone could enable us to oppose a common enemy. Rumours from all quarters and suspicious appearances had raised an alarm that the distant tribes were forming some dark design of cutting us off, and reports countenancing this belief were daily brought us by Comecomly and his people. We now established a regular patrol of six men, which diminished our labouring body to a mere nothing, but under such circumstances self-preservation obliged us to adopt every precaution. Comecomly, was sent for, and questioned on the occasion; but all we could learn from him was, that the hostile tribes were a very, bad people, and ill-disposed towards the whites, and this we had no reason to disbelieve, because Comecomly and his people were the only Indians who had regularly traded with us; consequently, we were anxious to ascertain the cause of this rupture between us and the distant tribes.

We had now begun to pick up a few words of the language, and- were given to understand that the crafty Chinookes, like the cat in the fable, had fomented and nourished the misunderstanding between' us and the distant tribes; that they had artfully impressed the latter with the idea that we were hostile towards them, and, by the same crafty policy, assuring us of their enmity. By this stratagem, they kept them from coming near us—thereby monopolizing all' the trade themselves, by buying up all the furs, and selling them again to us at double their first cost. As soon, however, as we were convinced of the intrigues of old Comecomly and his people, we set about counteracting them. For this purpose, several parties were sent up the country in different directions, to do away with the unfavourable impressions, and to convince the natives, far and near, of our friendly intentions to all.

On the 2nd of May, Mr. M'Kay, accompanied by Mr. Robert Stuart, in a small canoe, and four men, proceeded up the river to sound the dispositions of the Indians, and to assure them of our good-will to. wards them; and likewise to gain some information respecting the surrounding country and state of the water. Having proceeded as far as the cascades, a distance of 180 miles, made some presents to the principal men, and convinced all the different tribes they saw of the friendly intentions of the whites, the party returned again at the end of twelve days, reporting most favourably of both natives and country.

Mr. M'Kay had figured in the north-west as an Indian trader—was very active, but whimsical and eccentric. An anecdote will picture the man :—It is a habit among the grandees of the Indian trade to have May-poles with their names inscribed thereon on conspicuous places, not to dance round, but merely to denote that such a person passed there on such a day, or to commemorate some event. For this purpose, the tallest tree on the highest ground is generally selected, and all the branches are stripped of excepting a small tuft at the top.

On Mr. M'Kay's return from his reconnoitring expedition up the river, he ordered one of his men to climb a lofty tree and dress it for a May-pole. The man very willingly undertook the job, expecting, as usual on these occasions, to get a dram; but he had no sooner reached the top than his master, through love of mischief, lighting a fire at the bottom, set the tree in a blaze. The poor fellow was instantly, enveloped in a cloud of smoke, and called out for mercy. Water was dashed on the tree; but this only increased the danger by augmenting the smoke, for the fire ran up the bark of the gummy pine like gunpowder, and was soon beyond our reach, so that all hope of saving the man's life was at an end. Descending a little, however, he leaped, in despair, on to a branch of another tree, which fortunately offered him a chance of safety; and there he hung between earth and heaven, like a squirrel on a twig, till another man, at no small risk, got up and rescued him from his perilous situation.

Soon after M'Kay's return from the cascades, Mr. Robert Stuart, myself, and five men, proceeded on an excursion to the north. It was here that we became fully acquainted with the dangerous effects of the Chinooke policy. The Indians, on our approach, flew to arms, and made signs for us to keep at a distance. We halted, and tried to moderate their ferocity by a display of presents; but they would not listen to us. Their forces were collecting fast; every moment's delay increased our danger; and, fearful of being surrounded, we were deliberating on a hasty retreat, when, fortunately, a friendly Indian happened to arrive, by means of whom we got into conversation with the others; and the result was, that they, explained and cleared up the matter to our utmost satisfaction, and showed us several piles of furs laid up in store waiting the Chinooke traders; but when they saw and compared the prices we paid with that which the Chinookes were in the habit of giving them, they put their hands on their mouths in astonishment, and strongly urged us to return again, saying they would never more trade with the one-eyed chief. We got back again to the establishment on the fifteenth day; yet, notwithstanding the apparent friendly impression we had made on these sordid and' treacherous rogues, we had a very narrow escape in crossing one of the rivers—for a party of them had got before us, taken up a strong position on the opposite bank, and disputed the passage; but, by a little manoeuvring, we defeated their intentions. Soon afterwards, however, oie of our men was killed by them; and on another occasion, a Mr. M'Kenzie and his whole party, consisting of eight men, were cut to pieces by them.

But we shall now return, for a moment, to notice what was going on at the establishment. On the fourth day after our landing, we planted some potatoes and sowed a few garden seeds, and on the 16th of May we laid the foundations of our first building; but in order to procure suitable timber for the purpose, we had to go back some distance—the wood on the site being so large and unmanageable; and for want of cattle to haul it, we had to carry it on our shoulders, or drag it along the ground—a task of no ordinary difficulty. For this purpose, eight men were harnessed, and they conveyed in six days all the timber required for a building or store of sixty feet long by twenty-six broad. On the 18th, as soon as the foundation was completed, the establishment was named Astoria, in honour of Astor, the projector of the enterprise.

The Ton quin, in the prosecution of her voyage along the coast, left Astoria on the 1st of June, and crossed the bar on the 5th, when we saw her for the bat time. The captain had landed but a small part of the cargo, intending on his return to put the rest on shore; but with the ship all was lost, and Astoria, in consequence, was left almost destitute of the necessary articles of trade. Mr. M'Kay, as supercargo, went on board with Mr. Lewis and two Canadians; but Mr. Mumford, the second oilicer, was dismissed and sent on shore. On M'Kay's embarking, he called me aside, and taking me by the hand recommended his son to my care; then adding— "You see," said he, "how unfortunate we are: the captain, in one of his frantic fits, has now discharged the only officer on board," alluding to Mr. Mumford. "If you ever see us safe beck, it will be a miracle." So saying, we parted, and he slept on board. The departure of the ship unfolded to us the danger of our situation. It is allowed by all experienced fur-traders, that in forming an establishment among savages, the first consideration is safety; and although we had been aware that the ship's stay protected the embryo settlement, and that her departure would proclaim to all the hostile tribes around our defenceless state, yet was there any preparation made for the event ?—None. When the ship left us, not a gun was mounted; not a palisade raised; nor the least precaution taken to secure either life or property. Such was the character of the man whom Mr. Astor placed at the head of his affairs.

The Indians from all quarters now began to assemble in such swarms, that we had to relinquish all labour, and think only of defence. We naturally put the worst construction on so formidable an array of savages in arms. On the other hand, the arrival of the different tribes might have been produced by the steps we had lately taken in regard to the Chinooke policy, of assuring them of our friendly intentions; but the departure of the ship had left us so powerless and weak, that we could not help suspecting their intentions; and our suspicion was strengthened by the absence of Comecomly and his people, who had avoided coming near us ever since the arrival of the strangers. We had frequently sent for the crafty chief, but he as frequently disappointed us, until he was given to understand that a large present would be the reward of his good offices in the present emergency, for we had reason to believe that now, as on former occasions, he was very busy in labouring to conceal the truth, or, in other words, sowing the seeds of alienation, in order that he and his people might as usual engross all the foreign trade themselves.

At length Comecomly arrived; necessity compelled us to dissemble our opinion of his conduct: he was received with open arms, behaved well, and rendered us essential services. We now opened a friendly intercourse with the strangers; traded with each tribe in turn; made some presents; and they left us, apparently well satisfied with the friendly reception they had experienced, while we were no less agreeably relieved by their departure. The guard was reduced, and the people set to work as usual. Comecomly and his two sons received each a suit of chief's clothing; nor did they omit to insinuate, that to their influence and good offices we not only owed our safety, but were indebted for all the furs obtained from our distant visitors.

Some days afterwards, however, an awkward circumstance took place, which threatened to involve us again in serious troubles. While in the act of removing some leaf tobacco, an Indian was detected in the act of pilfering—for they are notorious thieves; the tobacco was taken from him, and he was reprimanded for his conduct. "What!" said the fellow, indignantly, "do you say I am a thief?" at the same time drawing his bow. M'Dougall then ordered him to be hand-cuffed and imprisoned, with a sentinel over him, in one of the deep but open pits, out of which a large tree had been dug. In the night however, be contrived to effect his escape, carrying off not only his irons, but the sentiners gun along with him. Next day Comecoinly, accompanied by a large retinue, arrived at Astoria; the great mufti, as usual, was ushered into the tent of state. Here M'Dougall was showing the Chinooke Tye-yea, among other things, the properties of a blunderbuss, and in so doing made a woful blunder, for off went the piece unexpectedly, shattering a corner of his majesty's robe. The report and the dense smoke issuing from the place proclaimed danger, and the affrighted chief, darting out of the tent without his re, cap, or gun, began calling to his people, who in a moment, giving the war-whoop and arming themselves, fiercely menaced the whites with destruction. In the mean time one of our sentinels, hearing the report of the gun, and seeing the tent enveloped in a cloud of smoke, and the chief running off at full speed from it, supposed that he had murdered M'Dougall, and fired after him, calling out treason murder! at the sound of which our people flew to arms; and every man, with his finger on the trigger of his gun, advanced to the spot. M'Dongall and myself, who fortunately knew the circumstances, hastened to run in between the hostile ranks, making signs of peace, and after a tumultuous moment, the mysterious affair was explained without bloodshed; yet long afterwards the chief retained some suspicion that a plot had been formed against his life.

Among the many visitors who every now and then presented themselves, were two strange Indians, in the character of man and wife, from the vicinity of the Rocky Mountains, and who may probably figure in our narrative hereafter. The husband, named Ko-come-ne-pe-ca, was a very shrewd and intelligent Indian, who addressed us in the Algonquin language, and gave us much information respecting the interior of the country.

On the 15th of July, we were rather surprised at the unexpected arrival of a north-west proprietor at Astoria, and still more so at the free and cordial reception given to an opponent. Mr. Thompson, northwest-like, came dashing down the Columbia in a light canoe, manned with eight Iroquois and an interpreter, chiefly men from the vicinity of Montreal. M'Dougall received him like a brother; nothing was too good for Mr. Thompson; he had access everywhere; saw and examined everything; and whatever he asked for he got, as if he had been one of ourselves. Mr. Thompson at once recognised the two strange Indians, and gave us to understand that they were both females. His own visit had evidently no other object but to discourage us--a manoeuvre of the North-West policy to extend their own trade at the expense of ours; but he failed. The dangers and difficulties, which he took great pains to paint in their worst colours, did not deter us. He forgot that in speaking to us, he was speaking to north-westerns-men as experienced and as cunning as himself. The North-West had penetrated to the west Bide of the mountains as early as 1804, and had in 1811 two or three small posts on the waters of the Columbia, exclusive of the New Caledonia quarter. Every one knew this, and knowing it, how could we account for the more than warm and unreserved welcome Mr. Thompson met with from Astor's representative. Unless, as some thought at the time, M'Dougail was trying to pay, Mr. Thompson back with his own coin, by putting on a fair face, so as to dupe him into an avowal of his real object. This is more than probable, for in point of acuteness, duplicity, and diplomatic craft, they were perhaps well matched.


 


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