The position of the Tsinuk was… most important. Occupying both sides of the great artery of Oregon for a distance of two hundred miles, they possessed the principal thoroughfare between the interior and the ocean, boundless resources of provision of various kinds, and facilities for trade almost unequaled on the Pacific.

— George Gibbs, 1877

Engraving of the ship Tonquin crossing the Columbia River bar, March 25, 1811. Image courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society Research Library, ba006960

In 1811, the Americans built a fur trade post on the south side of the Columbia, just across the river from Chinook Village. With major financing from businessman John Jacob Astor, two parties arrived in just less than a year–one by sea and one by land—to establish Fort Astoria.

The first group came aboard the Tonquin and included partners in Astor’s Pacific Fur Company, Duncan McDougall, Alexander McKay, and Robert and David Stuart. The partners, who recorded their experiences, were accompanied by a crew of clerks, voyageurs, sailors, craftsman, and twelve Hawaiians, whose names are not listed on the company roll.

Theirs was a treacherous landing, preceded by a two-day wait to cross the roiling waters of the Columbia River bar. Before crossing, Captain Jonathon Thorn ordered First Mate, J.C. Fox to launch a longboat and sound the channel. Mr. Fox protested the order, grimly declaring, “My uncle was drowned here not many years ago, and now I am to lay my bones with his” . He and his crew of four never were seen again.

Two days later, with the Tonquin anchored north of Cape Disappointment, several others set out in a pinnace seeking the lost Mr. Fox, but were overcome by breakers and turned back to the ship.

Third mate Job Aitken made the next attempt in a jolly boat, accompanied by armorer Stephen Weeks, sailmaker John Coles, and two Hawaiians named Harry and Peter. Meanwhile, the ship tried to enter Baker’s Bay, repeatedly striking shoals and reefs as waves broke over the deck. Eventually, on March 25, the wind died and the ship entered the bay in the lee of the Cape. Eight crew members were lost in the three-day struggle to cross the bar. Only the bodies of Stephen Weeks and Harry were ever found. The following year, during its first trading voyage for the Astorians, Natives of Clayoquot Sound blew up the Tonquin, still under the command of Captain Thorn. Only their Chinook interpreter, survived.

While anchored in Baker’s Bay, Duncan McDougall and David Stuart came into contact with the Chinook along the north shore. Gabriele Franchere recounted one of the first meetings:

“On the seventh, desirous of reaching the ship as they had promised, they had left Chinook Point, in spite of the remonstrances of the chief, Concomly, who sought to detain them by warning them of the danger to which they would expose themselves by crossing the bay in such a great wind as then blew in. They had made scarcely more than half a mile before a wave broke over their boat and capsized it. The Indians, well aware of the danger, had followed, and but for them, Mr. McDougall, who could not swim, would surely have drowned. After the Chinooks had kindled a large fire and dried their clothes, they led them back to the village. The principal chief received them with all possible hospitality, regaling them with the best he could offer. In fact, if they got back safe and sound to the ship, they owed it to the timely aid and humane care of the Indians whom we saw before us”

McDougall, who became chief factor at Fort Astoria would later marry Comcomly’s daughter Ilchee.

Meanwhile, local Natives strongly “discouraged” the overland group of traders, led by Wilson Price Hunt, arrived on February 15, 1812. By then Fort Astoria already had a trading store, a blacksmith’s shop, a house, and a storage shed for pelts, as well as cannons around the perimeter of a fort, complete with a stockade.

That same year, the U.S. and Great Britain went to war. As a result, the  American traders sold the fort to the British Northwest Company. It then became Fort George, the name that Chinook people used for it well into the twentieth century.

These arrivals mark a heightened rivalry between the U.S. and Great Britain over claims to the Pacific Northwest, a contest begun without the knowledge of the Chinook people. The Chinook, already expert traders, engaged in commercial competition with these new arrivals without hesitation. Leaders like Comcomly strategically managed trade for many years. Comcomly controlled upriver trade for the first several years of occupation and several of his daughters married fur traders, which strengthened economic relations between the Chinook and non-Native fur traders.

In 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Company took over Fort George, moving its headquarters upriver to establish Fort Vancouver three years later.

Excerpts from Gabriele Franchere

For more on the Tonquin, see the Oregon Encyclopedia Project and Historylink