By Henry Howe in 1857
The western coasts of North America were first partially explored by the Spaniards in the century succeeding the discovery of America. Their explorations were later followed by the English. In 1578, Sir Francis Drake ranged this coast from 38 to 48 degrees. This region was called by the English, New Albion. The name Oregon is from Oregano, the Spanish name for wild marjoram; and it is from this word, or some other similar, that its name is supposed to have arisen. But, little was known of even its coast up to the latter part of the last century [1700’s]. Immediately after the last voyage of the renowned navigator, Captain Cook, the immense quantities of sea otter, beaver and other valuable furs to be obtained on the northwest coast of America, and the enormous prices which they would bring in China, was communicated to civilized nations, and created as much excitement as the discovery of a new gold region. A large number of people rushed at once into this lucrative traffic; so that in the year 1792, it is said that there were 21 vessels under different flags, but, principally American, plying along the coast of Oregon, and trading with the natives.
Up to this period, nothing was positively known of the Columbia River, the greatest stream which enters the Pacific from America. The Spanish navigator, Bruno de Heceta, in August 1776, first saw the opening through which its waters discharge into the ocean, and it was accordingly marked on the Spanish charts as the mouth of the river San Roque. In July 1788, Lieutenant John Meares, of the British Navy, examined it, and left with the conviction that no river was there; yet, this was the claim which the British set up to possession by the right of discovery. Vancouver, another British navigator, who was exploring the coast in 1792, confirmed this opinion. He stated that from Cape Mendocino, in California, to the Straits of Fuca, the southern boundary of Vancouver’s Island, there was not a single harbor, “the whole coast forming one compact and a nearly straight barrier against the sea.”
On May 7, 1792, Captain Robert Gray, of the ship Columbia of Boston, discovered and entered the river, which he named after his vessel. He was, in reality, the first person who established the fact of the existence of this great river, and this gave to the United States, the right to the country drained by its waters by the virtue of discovery.
In the autumn of 1792, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, with an exploring party, left Fort Chippewayan, on Athabasca Lake, midway between Hudson’s Bay and the Pacific Ocean, in the high northern latitude of 59 degrees, and reached the Pacific Ocean in July, 1793, being thus the first white man who had ever crossed the American continent in its widest part. His route appears to have been some distance north of what is now the northern boundary of Oregon. In 1804-05, Lewis and Clark explored the country from the mouth of the Missouri River to that of the Columbia River. This exploration of the Columbia River, the first ever made, constituted another ground of the claim of the United States to the country. In 1806, the British North West Fur Company established a trading-post on Fraser’s Lake, which was the first settlement of any kind made by British subjects west of the Rocky Mountains. Other posts were established by them soon after in that region, to which was then given the name of New Caledonia.
In 1808, the Missouri Fur Company, through their agent, Andrew Henry, established a trading-post on Lewis River, a branch of the Columbia, which was the first establishment of civilized people in what is now Oregon. An attempt was made that year by Captain Smith, of the Albatross, of Boston, to found a trading-post on the south bank of the Columbia River, forty miles from its mouth. It was abandoned the same season and that of Andrew Henry’s in 1810.
In the year 1810, John Jacob Astor, a German merchant of New York, who had accumulated an immense fortune by commerce in the Pacific and China, formed the Pacific Fur Company. His first objects were to concentrate in the company, the fur trade in the unsettled parts of America, and also the supply of merchandise for the Russian fur trading establishments in the North Pacific. For these purposes, posts were to be established on the Missouri River, the Columbia River, and vicinity. These posts were to be supplied with the merchandise required for trading by ships from the Atlantic coast, or across the country by the way of the Missouri River. A factory or depot was to be founded on the Pacific, for receiving this merchandise, and distributing it to the different posts, and for receiving, in turn, furs from them, which were to be sent by ships from thence to Canton. Vessels were also to be sent from the United States to the factory with merchandise, to be traded for furs, which would then be sent to Canton, and there exchanged for teas, silks, etc., to be in turn distributed in Europe and America.
This stupendous enterprise at the time appeared practicable. The only party from whom any rivalry could be expected, was the British North West Fur Company, and their means were far inferior to those of Astor. From motives of policy, he offered them one-third interest, which they declined, secretly intending to forestall him. Having matured his scheme, John Jacob Astor engaged partners, clerks, and voyageurs, the majority of whom were Scotchmen and Canadians, previously in the service of the North West Fur Company. Wilson P. Hunt of New Jersey was chosen the chief agent of the operations in Western America.
In September 1810, the ship Tonquin, Captain Samuel Thorn, left New York for the mouth of the Columbia River with four of the partners, Alexander McKay, Duncan McDougall, and David and Robert Stuart, all British subjects, with clerks, voyageurs, and mechanics. In January 1811, the second detachment, with Wilson Hunt, Robert McClellan, Kenneth McKenzie, and Ramsey Crooks, also left New York to go overland by the Missouri River to the same point, and in October, 1811, the ship Beaver, Captain Cornelius Sowles, with several clerks and attaches left New York for the North Pacific. Prior to these, in 1809, John Jacob Astor had dispatched the Enterprise, Captain John Ebberts, to make observations at the Russian settlements, and to prepare the way for settlements in Oregon. He also, in 1811, sent an agent to St. Petersburg, who obtained from the Russian American Fur Company, the monopoly of supplying their posts in the North Pacific with merchandise, and receiving furs in exchange.