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Upper Mississippi Brigade articles; photo is UMB at Ft. Osage

The War of 1812 and the Oregon Country

by Edward L. Reidell

When people think of the Pacific Northwest they usually think of rain, salmon or mountains. Or if they are of a historical bent, they think of the Oregon Trail and the huge influx of American settlers it brought to this part of the world, or perhaps they remember Lewis and Clark and their very wet winter spent on the Oregon Coast. It is quite rare that people think of the Pacific Northwest and the War of 1812. Yet this one obscure war, perhaps most famous for producing the Star Spangled Banner, had a profound affect on the Pacific Northwest and its future political development.

But how is it that this war fought between the United States and Great Britain in the early nineteenth century had an impact in this area, an area that was to these two nations a remote part of the world? Especially when at the time, there were barely a handful of American and British citizens living in the region, and neither country had an official presence there. What could lead these two nations to spend valuable time and resources on this isolated region in an effort to fight for and control it? In short, the answer is money.

The source of this money was a business called the fur trade. Perhaps one of the oldest businesses that Europeans and Americans in North America participated in, the fur trade steadily moved west as Euro-American culture moved west. From its beginnings, the fur trade involved the exchange of goods of European or Asian origin-such as iron tools, wool blankets and glass beads-by European traders for furs such as beaver, otter and fox, gathered by Native American hunters from the forests of North America. While there were many different companies and individuals that worked in the fur trade, by the early nineteenth century two British companies dominated the business. The first was the Hudson's Bay Company, founded in 1670. This London based company had a charter from the British government that gave it exclusive rights and control of all land whose waters emptied into Hudson's Bay (Morrison 67-71). (The British government's policy was to give monopolistic trade rights for certain parts of the world to individual companies.) The other great fur trade enterprise was the North West Company, whose employees are commonly called Nor'westers. This Canadian company was based in Montreal and worked primarily in the waters around the Great Lakes and to the south and west of them, although they had fur post all across North America (Francis 50-53; Morrison 35-38). The North West Company's biggest weakness was their lack of a royal charter granting them exclusive trading rights in their area. This allowed competing companies to spring up and siphon business away from them. This also meant the North West Company was very eager and aggressive to find and exploit new lands for furs (Gough 9).

One of the lands the North West Company was interested in was the region west of the Rocky Mountains, an area that was known as the Oregon Country. The Oregon Country was bounded by the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Rocky Mountains on the east, by what is now the southern border of Oregon to the south, and by what is now the northern border of British Columbia to the north. From the 1780s to the early 1800s, fur traders and explorers for the North West Company began searching for routes to the west side of the Rocky Mountains. While initially unsuccessful, each exploration brought new information to light and opened more routes west (Francis 113).

However, there were several obstacles to the North West Company being able to establish control of the fur trade west of the Rocky Mountains and trade the furs directly to China. First, these trade routes were very long, difficult, and dangerous and it was hard to keep posts west of the Rockies supplied through an overland route. Second, the company was unable to trade directly with China. (Only the British East India Company had rights to trade in China and that company had no interest in allowing others access to the China markets.) Finally, the North West Company did not have a charter to control the Oregon country, which could lower profits to the point where the whole operation might not be worth the effort.

As an American, John Jacob Astor did not have the North West Company's charter and trade limitations. Astor was one of the leading and most powerful American businessmen in early nineteenth century and had a dream of empire. He was born in the Duchy of Baden in what is now Germany. He immigrated to the United States when he was 16 years old and began working in the fur trade in upstate New York (Oglesby 8). From these humble beginnings he eventually amassed a fortune based on the fur trade, overseas commerce (especially with China) and land speculation. Shortly after beginning his fur trade work, Astor made business contacts in Montreal and was an associate of a number of men who ran the North West Company (Oglesby 9-10; Ronda 24-29). Through these contacts he learned about the possibilities of the fur trade in the Oregon Country and the demand for fur in China. Combining his knowledge of the fur and China trade, Astor began to piece together a plan that would make him the richest man in the world (Oglesby 10-12).

It was believed by many in the fur trade that the lands from the Rocky Mountains to the west contained the last substantial holdings of beaver and other fur bearing animals in North America. By establishing a trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River where it enters the Pacific Ocean, Astor would be able to control this vast fur-bearing region. All of the furs from this area would be funneled into this post and loaded onto Astor's ships. From here the ships would carry the furs to Canton, China, the main port open to foreigners. Once in China the furs could be traded for many items the rest of the world was interested in, such as tea, silk, and porcelain. In addition, Astor's ships would be able to trade with and supply the Russian settlements and trading posts in Alaska (Ronda 37-41). The profits from this trade and the monopoly it would give him were truly staggering.

One of the problems with this plan was that Astor was not the first to think of it. Astor's plan was based heavily on the North West Company model. After so many decades of work and exploration, the North West Company was not about to lose the fur bearing lands of the Oregon country to Astor. When it became clear that Astor was going to push his Pacific plan forward, the North West Company leaders began to search for economic and political means to stop him (Gough 11).

In 1807, with the help of the New York Legislature and the Federal Government, John Jacob Astor incorporated the American Fur Company (Oglesby 11). The purpose of this company was to control the fur trade south of the border with British Canada, especially in the Great Lakes region. With the resources and contacts from the American Fur Company, Astor then formed a subsidiary company named the Pacific Fur Company (Oglesby 12). This was the company he would use to establish his Pacific commercial empire. The first task was to establish a trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River. To accomplish this, he organized and sent out two expeditions, one by land across the continent and one by sea.

The sea-borne expedition was the first to arrive. After leaving New York on September 10, 1810, Astor's ship Tonquin sailed for the Columbia River via the Horn of South America and the Hawaiian Islands (Ronda 101-103, 106, 110). On March 25, 1811, after a long and difficult journey, the Tonquin dropped anchor and began to off load men and material on the south side of the Columbia River. Without too much delay, the men (who became known as Astorians) began construction of Fort Astoria, the headquarters of the Pacific Fur Company in the Oregon Country (Ronda 115, 196). Even after the Tonquin sailed away on a trading voyage and disappeared, work continued at the new fort (Howay 83). Quarters for the men and storage for the trade goods were constructed, and gardens planted (Ronda 200-204). Approximately ten months after the Tonquin dropped off its passengers and cargo, the overland expedition began to arrive at Fort Astoria. After suffering incredible hardships, this group began to straggle into the post (Ronda 194-196). Despite the loss of the crew on the Tonquin the influx of new workers allowed the Pacific Fur Company to expand its operations. The company began to set up trade posts in the interior of the Oregon Country. Many of these posts were established close to existing North West Company posts such as Spokane (Elliot 9). From here the daily routine of repairing broken tools, gardening, trapping, trading and competing with the North West Company employees began in earnest.

While scholars disagree about the exact causes of the war of 1812, most of them agree that it was an offshoot of the larger conflict that had been raging in Europe since the 1790s. Napoleon's France had been fighting most of the rest of Europe, with Great Britain as one of the primary leaders of the coalition against the French Empire. In the midst of this, the United States was trying to make huge quantities of money trading with both countries. Obviously, neither France nor Great Britain was interested in letting their enemy be active in trading or having a healthy economy (Coles 1, 3-6; Stagg 557). Both sides began to seize United States merchant vessels if they were suspected of having been at or on their way to an enemy port. The United States vigorously protested this action. In addition, Great Britain began to take sailors off United States ships if they suspected they were British sailors that had deserted from their navy. Unfortunately, they took natural born American sailors also (Hickey 11-13). On top of these problems, many people in the western territories and states of the United States, such as Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois, suspected the British of supplying the Indians with weapons and encouraging them to attack American frontier settlements. The western politicians also were very interested in acquiring additional land in Canada and Florida to add to the United States (Coles 25). With Great Britain locked in a life and death struggle with France for the control of Europe, it seemed the perfect time for the United States to declare war and attack British territory in Canada. By conquering these areas the United States could redress past insults, end long standing economic problems, and add new territory to the country.

On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war against Great Britain (Hickey 46). The United States felt it would be relatively easy to accomplish its wartime goals, despite the fact that it was taking on the largest navy and one of the best trained armies in the world. The British Navy had the largest fleet of any country in the world, with over 600 warships of all sizes. By comparison, the American navy had only 16 ships (Coles 71-72). Fortunately for the Americans, much of the British fleet was tied up blockading European ports that were controlled by Napoleon. However, this did not keep the British from moving to begin to blockade most of the American ports. By the end of the war the British Navy had effectively sealed the American coast and prevented any ships from entering the ocean (Coles 88-92). In addition, any American merchant ship at sea could be boarded, captured, and claimed as a prize of war. The blockade of the American ports and the enormous strength of the British Navy presented huge problems to the plans of John Jacob Astor. If the British Navy captured Fort Astoria, all of Astor's plans and hard-earned efforts would be smashed.

Life continued normally at Fort Astoria and its satellite posts in the interior until late December 1812. A North West Company overland party from the company's depot on Lake Superior brought word that war had been declared between the two countries and that the British were sending a warship to capture Fort Astoria (Ronda 264). Remarkably, instead of keeping this information secret and allowing the British to surprise the American operation, it was given directly to the Pacific Fur Company trader at Spokane (Rhonda 265). After reading the American declaration of war, he closed his trading post and headed to Fort Astoria to tell them the bad news.

After paddling down the treacherous Columbia River, the Spokane trader arrived at Fort Astoria in mid January where the news of the war caused a great deal of despair and debate. A majority of the employees of this American company were Canadians of French or Scottish decent and therefore British subjects. For the most part, they had no desire to fight against their countrymen. In addition, there was the very real danger that if the British Navy arrived at the fort it would be captured easily. If that were to happen, the Pacific Fur Company would lose everything. The British Navy had a policy, as did most European and American navies of the time, that the value of any goods captured from an enemy would be paid to the crews as prize money. To avoid that fate, a decision was made to pack up all Pacific Fur Company property that could be carried, abandon the Oregon Country and return to the United States by the overland route. The hope was to accomplish this before the British Navy could arrive (Ronda 265-266).

After learning of the sailing of the Tonquin, the North West Company watched the developments of the Pacific Fur Company with growing alarm. With the outbreak of the war, they put into action a series of plans to destroy the Astorian operations in the Oregon Country (Ronda 244). The company first planned to send an armed merchant vessel named the Isaac Todd to the Pacific coast to capture Fort Astoria. The Isaac Todd was to carry supplies for the company's trade operations and a letter of marque (Ronda 255, 256). The letter of marque was issued to armed civilian merchant ships, by national governments, in order to make the ships privateers. Privateers were essentially legally sanctioned pirates who could capture merchant vessels of enemy nations. As a privateer, the Isaac Todd could legally capture Fort Astoria by force for the North West Company.

The second plan involved the British Government. After having twice tried and failed to achieve support and help from the British Government, the North West Company was finally successful after the war broke out (Ronda 256; Gough 11-13). What the North West Company wanted from the British Government was an armed escort to protect the Isaac Todd from the American Navy and privateers, and also naval help in capturing the Astorian fort. The British government complied by assigning the warship HMS Phoebe to escort the Isaac Todd to the mouth of the Columbia River (Gough 13).

On April 11, 1813 a group of Nor'westers arrived outside the gates of Fort Astoria. These were the same men who had brought word to Spokane of the declaration of war and the mission of the British ships coming to the Columbia River. Since the Astorians had no intention of defending the post, the Nor'westers were treated as guests rather than enemies. As for the Nor'westers, they expected the British ships to arrive in a few weeks. The problem for the Nor'westers was their lack of provisions. They did not have enough supplies to survive the winter and if the ships did not arrive soon, there would be none. A deal was struck when it became obvious that the Astorians would not be able to abandon their post in time to get across the mountains and reach the United States before snow buried the passes. The Pacific Fur Company agreed to provide food to the Nor'westers in exchange for the trade goods the North West Company had brought with them. Due to bad luck and the British blockade of the American ports Astor had been unable to get a supply ship to his post on the Columbia River. In addition the two companies agreed not to compete with each other for the year. Not only would this help conserve supplies until a supply ship did arrive, this plan bought time for both companies and the traders. The North West Company could await the arrival of the ships, and the Astorians had time to prepare for their evacuation. This situation continued all through the summer and into the fall (Ronda 277-280, 283).

There actually were warships on their way to the Oregon coast to capture the fort for the British Empire and the North West Company. After some delay the HMS Phoebe and the Isaac Todd did sail from England, stopping at Rio de Janeiro for supplies and orders. Once there, the British admiral who ran the Brazilian station assigned two smaller warships, the HMS Racoon and Cherub, to assist Phoebe in her protection duties and mission. Word had just been received of an American warship sailing in the Pacific and capturing British whaling ships (Gough 13-15). This American warship, the USS Essex, posed a threat to the North West Company's ship and the British plans to capture and hold Fort Astoria. What good would it do to capture the fort only to have it recaptured by the Americans a short time later?

After leaving the Brazilian port, the naval ships lost sight of the Isaac Todd, during one of the storms that hammered them as they rounded the Horn of South America. Fearing that she had been sunk in the storm or captured by the USS Essex, the British naval captain ordered the North West Company men and material transferred to the HMS Racoon. Knowing that entrance to the Columbia River was very dangerous because of the shifting sand bars he decided that a smaller ship would have better chance of success than his larger one would (Gough 16-17). In addition, the threat of the American warship had to be dealt with. His ship had the best chance of defeating it. So while his Phoebe and the smaller Cherub would search for the Essex, Racoon would continue up the coast to Oregon and capture Fort Astoria (Gough 17; Robotti 202-209).

On October 7, 1813 a large party of Northwest company men arrived outside the gates of Fort Astoria. This group was made up of men who had first visited Fort Astoria in April of 1813 and reinforcements sent over the Rocky Mountains later that year. They seemed to have expected that the Astorians would surrender their fort, especially since they had further proof that ships were coming to capture or destroy the post. Having been told this before and having no enemy ships appear, the Astorians were in no rush to give up immediately. Once again the prospect of being short of food and being in an exposed place to camp as the winter rains were beginning to fall heavily worried the Nor'westers. They needed to come up with a solution to these problems quickly. In addition, the North West Company leaders wanted to avoid a direct attack against the fort. Not only would this have probably failed and killed a large number of their workers, it would have brought the Indians in on the side of the Americans. In an unexpected move, the leader of the Nor'westers offered to buy all of the Pacific Fur Company's holdings and assets in the Oregon Country. After a few days of intense negotiation and haggling, the two sides came to an agreement and the North West Company completely bought out the Pacific Fur Company (Ronda 287-291). For the most part life at Fort Astoria returned to normal trade and work continued as it had under the Astorians. Yet there was still much concern among everyone at the fort. If an American warship or privateer arrived, the fort could be captured and returned to American control. If a British warship arrived, there could be hard feelings among its officers and crew. Since the fort was now in the hands of a British company, the crew would not be able to capture it for prize money and would have come a long way for nothing (Ronda 293).

The latter scenario is exactly what happened. On November 30, 1813, the HMS Racoon arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River. The crew and officers were upset to discover that the fort was already in British hands, and felt that the North West Company had acted improperly in purchasing the fort and its operations. In their opinion, this was giving aid and comfort to the enemy (Ronda 293,295; Hussey xvii-xviii). But the fact that the fort was already British did not prevent the captain of the ship from making a grand, if only symbolic gesture. The captain of the Racoon came ashore long enough to raise a British flag over the fort, smash a bottle of wine against the flag pole, declare "Astoria and the country all around for Britain by right of wartime conquest," and rename the establishment Fort George in honor of the British king, George III (Ronda 295-296). This was an action that would haunt British claims to the Oregon country for decades to come.

Finally in February of 1814, one of Astor's ships arrived off of the newly renamed Fort George, far too late to make a difference. It took on board those employees that wished to leave and traded at California, Russian Alaska, Hawaii and China before returning to New York in 1816 (Porter 225-230). The North West Company continued to operate Fort George as its headquarters in the Oregon Country, but they were never able to make it as profitable as they had intended - constant supply difficulties, cost, and a China market closed to them kept profits low (Morrison 115).

Astor's dreams of building a commercial empire in the Pacific had ended. After the war he tried desperately to win back through negotiation and politics what had been lost in war. For some time it looked like he might have a strong case for its return. The peace treaty that ended the war simply declared "status quo ante bellum" (Coles 237, 255). Everything was to return to how it was before the war broke out. Astor used this to bolster his argument that since Fort Astoria had been his before the war, it should be his again after the war (Ronda 308). In addition, the British naval captain on the HMS Racoon had declared the fort as a war time conquest, so Astor felt that it should be returned to him. The North West Company disputed this, stating that they had purchased the fort and it was not conquered. Unfortunately for Astor, the United States was too weak right after the war to send forces to recover the post and territory (Ronda 310). It would not be until the 1840s and the Oregon Trail that there would be a large American presence in the Oregon Country again. It was left to the North West Company and later the Hudson's Bay Company (with whom they merged in 1821) to develop and control the Oregon Country for the next thirty years. Ironically, it was with the help of the British Hudson's Bay Company that the thousands of American Oregon Trail settlers were able to establish homes and farms in the Oregon Country. After their grueling six-month journey across the prairies and deserts, the Hudson's Bay Company posts (especially at Fort Vancouver) were the only source of the supplies the settlers needed to survive the impending winter and to build their farms. In the end many of these goods were never paid for (Morrison 464).

The War of 1812 was the deciding factor in which way the Oregon country would be controlled for the early part of the nineteenth century. The inability of John Jacob Astor to resupply or protect his infant fur operations on the Pacific Coast from the British Navy is what ultimately cost him. If he had been able to get a supply ship to Fort Astoria or convince the United States Government to send a warship to protect it the outcome may have been completely different. Instead of becoming the richest man in the world, he had to settle for being the richest man in the United States. And with Astor's fate, the fate of the Pacific Northwest was changed forever.

Works Cited
  • Coles, Harry L. The War of 1812. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1965.
  • Elliot, T.C. "The Fur Trade in the Columbia River Basin Prior to 1811." Washington Historical Quarterly 6 (1915): 3-10.
  • Francis, Daniel. Battle for the West:Fur Traders and the Birth of Western Canada. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1982.
  • Gough, Barry M. Distant Dominion: Britian and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1810-1914:A Study of British Maritime Ascendency. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1971.
  • Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
  • Howay, Frederic W. "The Loss of the Tonquin." Washington Historical Quarterly 13 (1922): 83-92.
  • Hussey, John A. The Voyage of the Racoon : A Secret Journal of a Visit to Oregon, California and Hawaii, 1813-1814. San Francisco: The Book Club of California, 1958.
  • Morrison, Dorothy Nafus. Outpost: John McLoughlin and the Far Northwest. Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1999.
  • Oglesby, Richard E. "John Jacob Astor---a better businessman than the best of them." Journal of the West 25 (1986): 8-14.
  • Porter, Kenneth W. "The Cruise of Astor's Brig Pedler 1813-1816." Oregon Historical Quarterly 31 (1930): 223-30.
  • Robotti, Frances Diane, and James Vescovi. The USS Essex and the Birth of the American Navy. Holbrook, MA: Adams Media, 1999.
  • Ronda, James P. Astoria and Empire. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1990.

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