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J. J. Astor, Building Ft. Astoria and the Shipwreck of the Tonquin

The Tonquin 1811

The Tonquin 1811

Captain Jonathan Thorn

Captain Jonathan Thorn


Ft. Astoria and the Pacific Fur Company

Financier John Jabor Astor (1763-1848) and his fur trading company made millions from the Great Lakes are but wanted to establish a fur trading business along the west coast. His goal was to have two separate ways to accomplish this—one by land and one by sea.

In September 1810, along with partners Duncan McDougal, Alexander McKay, David Stuart, and Robert Stuart formed the pacific Fur Company. Astor purchased the ship Tonquin, a 269-ton ship, and hired Captain Jonathan Thorn. Thorn was ill-equipped by temperament and experience to lead this part of the expedition. Although he was in the U.S. Navy, he arranged a leave of absence to accept the position. Thorn was a brutal tyrant and had little regard for the Astor traders. Neither the crew nor the partners, though much of Thorn and Thorn, was well aware of this.

The expedition departed New York and headed for the Falken Islands for freshwater. Thorn ordered a crew of seven men to go ashore in search of water. The ship departed, marooning the men on the island. It was only through Robert Stuart's threatening Thorn by holding a gun to his head that the ship returned to retrieve the men. Another stop in Hawaii to again get water, fruit, and vegetables.

Before long, the captain spotted the mouth of the Columbia River. He was unfamiliar with the area and the dangerous sea around the giant sans bar and shoal. The mouth of the Columbia River would later be a part of the Graveyard of the Pacific. All along the west coast are hundreds of shipwrecks that have been lost. Again, another conflict erupted when Thorn ordered longboats with eight men to go ashore and find safe passage into the mouth of the river. All the crew drowned but another group made it to shore and started clearing land and building the fort. Ft. Astoria would be the first permanent settlement of the U.S. on the Pacific Coast.

Shipwreck of Columbia River

Shipwreck of Columbia River

Clayoquot Sound

Clayoquot Sound

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Attempts to Establish Fur Trading With the Indians

The order for Thorn and the Tonquin were to sail north establishing and bartering with the coastal Indians for furs it would take to China. Again, ill-tempered Thorn had another confrontation with the chief of the Tla-O-Qui-Aht tribe. The Indians had been on board to trade but suddenly after Thorn had rubbed the chief's face with some otter furs they immediately departed. Returning the next day and onboard they seemed to be friendly and trading. But, it was a ruse. Suddenly, the Indians attacked killing most of the crew and captain. Four men escaped by boat and traveled for 2-3 days before being pushed ashore by the weather. The Indians attacked, tortured, and massacred them. There was a wounded crew member still on board the ship who managed to light the gunpowder causing an explosion killing over 100 of the Indians Only one man, the interpreter managed to escape and made it back to Ft. Astoria to tell the tale.

Second Part of the Expedition, the Overland Route

Astor's second part of his quest for the Pacific Fur Company overland portion began with Wilson Price Hunt departing from St. Louis with his crew. Wilson had no experience to lead the group. They headed out and reached the Snake River around Twin Falls, Idaho. After losing one man and boats full of supplies, it was decided to split up into two groups and go on foot. One group wintered with the help of the Nez Perz Indians. The first group arrived at Ft. Astoria in January 1812. In February, Hunt and thirty-three others reached the fort via the north route of Ontario. Others came in May and seven more n the fall.

It seemed Astor's great expedition was plagued by mismanagement, and conflicts with the Native Indians were at fault. But even more significant was the War of 1812. The partners were now fearful of attacks by the British ships. In October 1813, seventy-five traders from Montreal and the Northwest Trading Company came to Ft Astoria and offered to buy the Pacific Fur Trading Company. By the summer, the partners agreed to the sale and to abandon the fort.

Astor himself never visited Ft. Astoria, and after abandoning it, he turned to other investments such as real estate and the China trade. Astor died in 1848 and is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery, Manhattan, New York. The Astor expedition left a lasting legacy when Robert Stuart, on his return to St. Louis, made his trip through South Pass, which would become the infamous Oregon Trail, thus benefiting thousands of pioneers heading west.

The ship Tonquin has never been found as yet. However, in 2003, a diver, Rod Palm, uncovered an anchor in Clayquot Sound off Vancouver Island. Palm had been searching for decades for the wreck of the Tonquin and believes the anchor is part of the ship. It is considered the Holy Grail of shipwrecks. Archaeologists will determine if it does, in fact, belong to the Tonquin. This discovery would be important to Canadian history and part of American history and the settlement of Astoria, Oregon.


fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on September 30, 2020:

Thanks for your visit. I appreciate it.

Rosina S Khan on September 30, 2020:

J.J. Astor was indeed a great explorer. The shipwreck of Tonquin was rather tragic. All in all an interesting account. Thank you, Fran, for a good article.

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