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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Old John Jacob Astor—American Fur Company—The Missouri Company—A line of posts—Approaches the Russians—Negotiates with Nor'-Westers—Fails—Four North-West officials join Astor— Songs of the voyageurs—True Britishers—Voyage of the Tonquin —Rollicking Nor'-Westers in Sandwich Islands—Astoria built— David Thompson appears—Terrible end of the Tonquin—Aster's overland expedition—Washington Irving's "Astoria, a romance" —The Beaver rounds the Cape—McDougall and his small-pox phial—The Beaver sails for Canton.

Among those who came to Montreal to trade with the Nor'-Westers and to receive their hospitality was a German merchant of New York, named John Jacob Astor. This man, who is the ancestor of the distinguished family of Astors at the present time in New York, came over from London to the New World and immediately began to trade in furs. For several years Astor traded in Montreal, and shipped the furs purchased to London, as there was a law against exporting from British possessions. After Jay's treaty of amity and commerce (1794) this restriction was removed, and Astor took Canadian furs to the United States, and even exported them to China, where high prices ruled.

While Astor's ambition led him to aim at controlling the fur trade in the United States, the fact that the western posts, such as Detroit and Michilimackinac, had not been surrendered to the United States till after Jay's treaty, had allowed the British traders of these and other posts of the West to strengthen themselves. Such daring traders as Murdoch Cameron, Dickson, Fraser, and Rolette could not be easily beaten on the ground where they were so familiar, and where they had gained such an ascendancy over the Indians. The Mackinaw traders were too strong for Astor, and the hope of overcoming them through the agency of the "American Fur Company," which he had founded in 1809, had to be given up by him. What could not be accomplished by force could, however, be gained by negotiation, and so two years afterward, with the help of certain partners from among the Nor'-Westers in Montreal, Astor brought out the Mackinaw traders (1811), and established what was called the "South-West Company."

During these same years, the St. Louis merchants organized a company to trade upon the Missouri and Nebraska Rivers. This was known as the Missouri Company, and with its 250 men it pushed its trade, until in 1808, one of its chief traders crossed the Rocky Mountains, and built a fort on the western slope. This was, however, two years afterward given up on account of the hostility of the natives. A short time after this, the Company passed out of existence, leaving the field to the enterprising merchant of New York, who, in 1810, organized his well-known "Pacific Fur Company."

During these eventful years, the resourceful Astor was, with the full knowledge of the American Government, steadily advancing toward gaining a monopoly of the fur trade of the United States. Jonathan Carver, a British officer, had, more than thirty years before this, in company with a British Member of Parliament named Whitworth, planned a route across the continent. Had not the American Revolution commenced they would have built a fort at Lake Pepin in Minnesota, gone up a tributary of the Mississippi to the West, till they could cross, as they thought would be possible, to the Missouri, and ascending it have reached the Rocky Mountain summit. At this point they expected to come upon a river, which they called the Oregon, that would take them to the Pacific Ocean.

Johaan Jacob Astor and Casanov, trader and chief

The plan projected by Carver was actually carried out by the well-known explorers Lewis and Clark in 1804-6. Astor's penetrating mind now saw the situation clearly. He would erect a line of trading posts up the Missouri River and across the Rockies to the Columbia River on the Pacific Coast and while those on the east of the Rockies would be supplied from St. Louis, he would send ships to the mouth of the Columbia, and provide for the posts on the Pacific slope from the West. With great skill Astor made approaches to the Russian Fur Company on the Pacific Coast, offering his ships to supply their forts with all needed articles, and he thus established a good feeling between himself and the Russians.

The only other element of danger to the mind of Astor was the opposition of the North-West Company on the Pacific Coast. He knew that for years the Montreal merchants had had their eye on the region that their partner Sir Alexander Mackenzie, had discovered. Moreover, their agents, Thompson, Fraser, Stuart, and Finlay the younger, were trading beyond the summit of the Rockies in New Caledonia, but the fact that they were farther north held out some hope to Astor that an arrangement might be made with them. He accordingly broached the subject to the North-West Company and proposed a combination with them similar to that in force in the co-operation in the South-West Company, viz. that they should take a one-third interest in the Pacific Fur Company. After certain correspondence, the North-West Company declined the offer, no doubt hoping to forestall Astor in his occupation of the Columbia. They then gave orders to David Thompson to descend the Columbia, whose upper waters he had already occupied, and he would have done this had not a mutiny taken place among his men, which made his arrival at the mouth of the Columbia a few months too late.

Astor's thorough acquaintance with the North-West Company and its numerous employes stood him in good stead in his project of forming a company. After full negotiations he secured the adhesion to his scheme of a number of well-known Nor'-Westers. Prominent among these was Alexander McKay, who was Sir Alexander Mackenzie's most trusted associate in the great journey of 1793 to the Pacific Ocean. McKay had become a partner of the North-West Company, and left it to join the Pacific Fur Company. Most celebrated as being in charge of the Astor enterprise on the coast was Duncan McDougall, who also left the North-West Company to embark in Astor's undertaking. Two others, David Stuart and his nephew Robert Stuart, made the four partners of the new Company who were to embark from New York with the purpose of doubling the Cape and reaching the mouth of the Columbia.

A company of clerks and engages had been obtained in Montreal, and the party leaving Canada went in their great canoe up Lake Champlain, took it over the portage to the Hudson, and descended that river to New York. They transferred the picturesque scene so often witnessed on the Ottawa to the sleepy banks of the Hudson River, and with emblems flying, and singing songs of the voyageurs, surprised the spectators along the banks. Arrived at New York the men with bravado expressed themselves as ready to endure hardships. As Irving puts it, they declared "they could live hard, lie hard, sleep hard, eat dogs—in short, endure anything."

But these partners and men had much love for their own country and little regard to the new service into which desire for gain had led them to embark. It was found out afterwards that two of the partners had called upon the British Ambassador in New York, had revealed to him the whole scheme of Mr. Astor, and enquired whether, as British subjects, they might embark in the enterprise. The reply of the diplomat assured them of their full liberty in the matter. Astor also required of the employes that they should become naturalized citizens of the United States. They professed to have gone through the ceremony required, but it is contended that they never really did so.

The ship in which the party was to sail was the Tonquin, commanded by a Captain Thorn, a somewhat stern officer, with whom the fur traders had many conflicts on their outbound Journey. The report having gone abroad that a British cruiser from Halifax would come down upon the Tonquin and arrest the Canadians on board her, led to the application being made to the United States frigate Constitution to give the vessel protection. On September 10th, 1810, the Tonquin with her convoy put out and sailed for the Southern Slain.

Notwithstanding the constant irritation between the captain and his fur trading passengers, the vessel went bravely on her way. After doubling Capo Horn on Christmas Day, they reached the Sandwich Islands in February, and after paying visits of ceremony to the king, obtained the necessary supplies of hogs, fruits, vegetables, and water from the inhabitants, and also engaged some twenty-four of the islanders, or Kanakas, as they are called, to go as employes to the Columbia.

Like a number of rollicking lads, the Nor'-Westers made very free with the natives, to the disgust of Captain Thorn. He writes:—"They sometimes dress in red coats and otherwise very fantastically, and collecting a number of ignorant natives around them, tell them they are the great chiefs of the North-West. . . . then dressing in Highland plaids and kilts, and making bargains with the natives, with presents of rum, wine, or anything that is at hand."

On February 28th the Tonquin set sail from the Sandwich Islands. The discontent broke out again, and the fur traders engaged in a mock mutiny, which greatly alarmed the suspicious captain. They spoke to each other in Gaelic, had long conversations, and the captain kept an ever-watchful eye upon them; but on March 22nd they arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River.

McKay and McDougall, as senior partners, disembarked, visited the village of the Chinooks, and were warmly welcomed by Comcomly, the chief of that tribe. The chief treated them hospitably and encouraged their settling in his neighbourhood. Soon they had chosen a site for their fort, and with busy hands they cut down trees, cleared away thickets, and erected a residence, stone-house, and powder magazine, which was not, however, at first surrounded with palisades. In honour of the promoter of their enterprise, they very naturally called the new settlement Astoria.

As soon as the new fort had assumed something like order, the Tonquin, according to the original design, was despatched up the coast to trade with the Indians for furs. Alexander McKay took charge of the trade, and sought to make the most of the honest but crusty captain. The vessel sailed on July 5th, 1811, on what proved to be a disastrous Journey.

As soon as she was gone reports began to reach the traders at Astoria that a body of white men were building a fort far up the Columbia. This was serious news, for if true it meant that the supply of furs looked for at Astoria would be cut off. An effort was made to find out the truth of the rumour, without success, but immediately after came definite information that the North-West Company agents were erecting a post at Spokane. We have already seen that this was none other than David Thompson, the emissary of the North-West Company, sent to forestall the building of Astor's fort.

Though too late to fulfil his mission, on July 15th the doughty astronomer and surveyor, in his canoe manned by eight men and having the British ensign flying, stopped in front of the new fort. Thompson was cordially received by McDougall, to the no small disgust of the other employes of the Astor Company. After waiting for eight days, Thompson, having received supplies and goods from McDougall, started on his return journey. With him journeyed up the river David Stuart, who, with eight men, was proceeding on a fur-trading expedition. Among his clerks was Alexander Ross, who has left a veracious history of the "First Settlers on the Oregon." Stuart had little confidence in Thompson, and by a device succeeded in getting him to proceed on his journey and leave him to choose his own site for a fort. Going up to within 140 miles of the Spokane River, and at the junction of the Okanagan and Columbia, Stuart erected a temporary fort to carry on his first season's trade.

In the meantime the Tonquin had gone on her way up the coast. The Indians were numerous, but were difficult to deal with, being impudent and greedy. A number of them had come upon the deck of the Tonquin, and Captain Thorn, being wearied with their slowness in bargaining and fulness of wiles, had grown impatient with the chief and had violently thrown him over the side of the ship. The Indians no doubt intended to avenge this insult. Next morning early, a multitude of canoes came about the Tonquin and many savages clambered upon the deck. Suddenly an attack was made upon the fur traders. Alexander McKay was one of the first to fall, being knocked down by a war club. Captain Thorn fought desperately, killing the young chief of the band, and many others, until at last he was overcome by numbers. The remnant of the crew succeeded in getting control of the ship and, by discharging some of the deck guns, drove off the savages. Next morning the ship was all quiet as the Indians came about her. The ship's clerk, Mr. Lewis, who had been severely wounded, appeared on deck and invited them on board. Soon the whole deck was crowded by the Indians, who thought they would secure a prize. Suddenly a dreadful explosion took place. The gunpowder magazine had blown up, and Lewis and up-ward of one hundred savages were hurled into eternity. It was a fierce revenge! Four white men of the crew who had escaped in a boat were captured and terribly tortured by the maddened Indian survivors. An Indian interpreter alone was spared to return to Astoria to relate the tale of treachery and blood.

Astor's plan involved, however, the sending of another expedition overland to explore the country and lay out his projected chain of forts. In charge of this party was William P. Hunt, of Trenton, New Jersey, who had been selected by Astor, as being a native-born American, to be next to himself in authority in the Company. Hunt had no experience as a fur trader, but was a man of decision and perseverance. With him was closely associated Donald McKenzie, who had been in the service of the North-West Company, but had been induced to join in the partnership with Astor.

Hunt and McKenzie arrived in Montreal on June 10th, 1811, and engaged a number of voyageurs to accompany them. With these in a great canoe the party left the church of La Bonne Ste. Anne, on Montreal Island, and ascended the Ottawa. By the usual route Michilimackinac was reached, and here again other members of the party were enlisted. The party was also reinforced by the addition of a young Scotchman of energy and ability, Ramsay Crooks, and with him an experienced and daring Missouri trader named Robert McLellan. At Mackinaw as well as at Montreal the influence of the North-West Company was so strong that men engaged for the Journey were as a rule those of the poorest quality. Thus were the difficulties of the overland party increased by the Falstaffian rabble that attended the well-chosen leaders.

The party left Mackinaw, crossed to the Mississippi, and reached St. Louis in September.

At St. Louis the explorers came into touch with the Missouri Company, of which we have spoken. The same hidden opposition that had met them in Montreal and Mackinaw was here encountered. Nothing was said, but it was difficult to get information, hard to induce voyageurs to join them, and delay after delay occurred. Near the end of October St. Louis was left behind and the Missouri ascended for 450 miles to a fort Nodowa, when the party determined to winter. During the winter Hunt returned to St. Louis and endeavoured to enlist additional men for his expedition. In this he still had the opposition of a Spaniard, Manuel de Lisa, who was the leading spirit in the Missouri Company. After some difficulty Hunt engaged an interpreter, Pierre Dorion, a drunken French half-breed, who was, however, expert and even accomplished in his work.

A start was at last made in January, and Irving tells us of the expedition meeting Daniel Boone, the famous old hunter of Kentucky, one who gloried in keeping abreast of the farthest line of the frontier, a trapper and hunter. The party went on its way ascending the river, and was accompanied by the somewhat disagreeable companion Lisa. At length they reached the country of the Anckaras, who, like the Parthians of old, seemed to live on horseback. After a council meeting the distrust of Lisa disappeared, and a bargain was struck between the Spaniard and the explorer by which he would supply them with 130 horses and take their boats in exchange. Leaving in August the party went westward, keeping south at first to avoid the Blackfeet, and then, turning northward till they reached an old trading post Just beyond the summit.

The descent was now to be made to the coast, but none of them had the slightest conception of the difficulties before them. They divided themselves into four parties, under the four leaders, McKenzie, McLellan, Hunt, and Crooks. The two former took the right bank, the two latter the left bank of the river. For three weeks they followed the rugged banks of this stream, which, from its fierceness, they spoke of as the "Mad River." Their provisions soon became exhausted and they were reduced to the dire necessity of eating the leather of their shoes. After a separation of some days the plan was struck upon by Mr. Hunt of gaining communication across the river by a boat covered with horse skin. This failed, and the unfortunate voyageur attempting to cross in it was drowned. After a time the Lewis River was reached. Trading off their horses, McKenzie's party, which was on the right bank, obtained canoes from the natives, and at length on January 18th, 1812, this party reached Astoria. Ross Cox says: "Their concave cheeks, protuberant bones, and tattered garments strongly indicated the dreadful extent of their privations; but their health appeared uninjured and their gastronomic powers unimpaired."

After the disaster of the horse-skin boat the two parties lost sight of one another. Mr. Hunt had the easier bank of the river, and, falling in with friendly Indians, he delayed for ten days and rested his wearied party. Though afterward delayed, Hunt, with his following of thirty men, one woman, and two children, arrived at Astoria, to the great delight of his companions, on February 15th, 1812.

Various accounts have been given of the journey. Those of Ross Cox and Alexander Ross are the work of actual members of the Astor Company, though not of the party which really crossed. Washington Irving's "Astoria" is regarded as a pleasing fiction, and he is very truly spoken of by Dr. Coues, the editor of Henry and Thompson's journals, in the following fashion:—"No story of travel is more familiar to the public than the tale told by Irving of this adventure, because none is more readable as a romance founded upon fact. . . . Irving plies his golden pen elastically, and from it flow wit and humour, stirring scene, and startling incident, character to the life. But he never tells us where those people went, perhaps for the simple reason that he never knew. He wafts us westward on his strong plume, and we look down on those hapless Astorians; but we might as well be ballooning for aught of exactitude we can make of this celebrated itinerary."

In October, 1811, the second party by sea left New York on the ship Beaver, to join the traders at the mouth of the Columbia. Ross Cox, who was one of the clerks, gives a most interesting account of the voyage and of the affairs of the Company. With him were six other cabin passengers. The ship was commanded by Captain Sowles. The voyage was on the whole a prosperous one, and Cape Horn was doubled on New Year's Day, 1812. More than a month after, the ship called at Juan Fernandez, and two months after crossed the Equator. Three weeks afterward she reached the Sandwich Islands, and on April 9th, after a further voyage, arrived at the mouth of the Columbia.

On arriving at Astoria the new-comers had many things to see and learn, but they were soon under way, preparing for their future work. There were many risks in thus venturing away from their fort. Chief Trader McDougall had indeed found the fort itself threatened after the disaster of the Tonquin. He had, however, boldly grappled with the case. Having few of his company to support him, he summoned the Indans to meet him. In their presence he informed them that he understood they were plotting against him, but, drawing a corked bottle from his pocket, he said : "This bottle contains small-pox. I have but to draw out the cork and at once you will be seized by the plague." They implored him to spare them and showed no more hostility.

Such recitals as this, and the sad story of the Tonquin related to Ross Cox and his companions, naturally increased their nervousness as to penetrating the interior.

The Beaver had sailed for Canton with furs, and the party of the interior was organized with three proprietors, Ramsay Crooks, Robert McLellan, and Robert Stuart, who, with eight men, were to cross the mountains to St. Louis. At the fort there remained Mr. Hunt, Duncan McDougall, B. Clapp, J. C. Halsey, and Gabriel Franchere, the last of whom wrote an excellent account in French of the Astor Company affairs.

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