The global business ambitions of John Jacob Astor collide with the reality of one of the corners of the earth farthest from European civilization.
Launched in 1810, the idea was to create the seed of a colony on the west coast of North American - which belonged to no country in that day and age - to take advantage of the fur trade, and, perhaps, to found a new country or further the reach of the nascent United States.
The expedition was not the success Astor had envisioned, and it would be nearly another 30 years before the Oregon Trail came to see larger numbers of emigrants headed for the Oregon territory.
The book was especially interesting for me, having been born and raised in western Oregon. As something of a failure, the expedition doesn't get mentioned nearly as much as the Lewis and Clark expedition, or the Oregon Trail of later years. But it's a fascinating bit of Oregon history. Part of what did not work out for the expedition was the horrible, gray, damp weather that dominates the northern Oregon coast during winter.
Indeed, the Spanish, who were already in California, apparently were not much interested in the area to the north:
Spaniards first had sailed northward from their colonies in Mexico as far as today’s Oregon in the 1600s. But the cool, wet, rugged Northwest Coast inhabited by Indian tribes living in wooden longhouses and traveling in large cedar canoes didn’t compel them like the benign climates and monumental, gold-encrusted civilizations of the Aztecs and Incas far to the south.The expedition was a two-pronged approach, with a boat going around Cape Horn and an overland expedition. It took the overland expedition more than a year to finally reach Astoria, after much wandering. As was often the case with the earliest white explorers, they very likely would have all perished had it not been for the kindness and hospitality of local Indians at various points on their route.
Without spoiling the story, there was also a fair amount of conflict with other Indian groups.
When both groups had finally arrived at their destination, and settled in, their existence was a bleak one:
Then imagine the rude shock of arrival in the coastal winter or early spring: It’s cold, it’s raining—as it is nearly two hundred days a year at the mouth of the Columbia; the infinite gray coastline stretches away, backed by the thick, dark rain forest—soggy, choked with rotting cedar logs, prehistoric sword ferns, and the dark columns of towering fir and spruce whose outstretched limbs are draped with lichen in giant, ghostly cobwebs. This was a far cry from the euphoric expanses and brilliant starry skies of the high plains, or even the snowy sparkle of the Rockies.
...set the mood of life on the Northwest Coast—the anxious, paranoid, exposed life in the dripping rain forest, along the swashing tidal rivers and surf-pounded headlands. This was not a warm, friendly place. In this dank, dark setting, fringed by violent death, personalities like McDougall spied malevolence lurking behind every tree.As a now former resident of western Oregon, I think these descriptions do the place justice: if you like the sun and aren't a fan of damp weather, it's not a good place to be!
What put the nail in the coffin of the attempted settlement was the war of 1812 and the arrival of a British/Canadian group who (peacefully) took control of the fort and oversaw it for the next 30 some odd years, when the US/Canadian border was settled at its present location.
A few of the French-Canadian members of the expedition, including Marie Dorion, settled in the upper Willamette valley, becoming some of the first non-natives in the area.
An interesting footnote is that ships going around the horn would, rather than crawl up the coast, go to Hawaii and then double back. The seagoing expedition took on some Hawaiians as crewmen on their way to Oregon. One can only imagine the shock of going from a tropical paradise to the cold rain of the Pacific Northwest.
I found the book to be a very interesting read and would recommend it, especially if you have any connections to the places involved.
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