Astorian Expeditions Explore the Pacific Northwest Coast Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The expeditions that John Jacob Astor sent to the Pacific coast to establish permanent trading posts ultimately failed, but the effort launched a new phase in the escalating American-British contest for control of the Pacific Northwest.

Summary of Event

In 1784, John Jacob Astor emigrated from Germany to the United States to make his fortune in a new land. Beginning as a clerk in a New York City furrier’s shop, he eventually became a major fur dealer and one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the United States. By 1800, he realized that further expansion of his business would bring him into direct competition with the great British fur companies of Canada—the Hudson’s Bay Company Hudson’s Bay Company[Hudsons Bay Company];trading posts and the North West Company North West Company —and that much more than his personal fortune was at stake. Where the trading companies built posts, the governments of their nations would follow, establishing outposts and claiming the region. Over the next few years, Astor devised a plan to create a transcontinental U.S. company that could compete with the British trading companies, establish a fur trade Fur trade monopoly across the center of the North American continent, and extend beyond to control trade with China and Russian Alaska. Alaska;trade Astor’s new company would not only make him a leader of the international fur industry but also establish the sovereignty of the United States in its trading sphere and prevent British expansion from Canada. Astorian expeditions Exploration;American West Astoria, Oregon Astor, John Jacob Fur trade;and Astorian expeditions[Astorian expeditions] American Fur Company;and Astorian expeditions[Astorian expeditions] [kw]Astorian Expeditions Explore the Pacific Northwest Coast (Sept. 8, 1810-May, 1812) [kw]Expeditions Explore the Pacific Northwest Coast, Astorian (Sept. 8, 1810-May, 1812) [kw]Explore the Pacific Northwest Coast, Astorian Expeditions (Sept. 8, 1810-May, 1812) [kw]Pacific Northwest Coast, Astorian Expeditions Explore the (Sept. 8, 1810-May, 1812) [kw]Northwest Coast, Astorian Expeditions Explore the Pacific (Sept. 8, 1810-May, 1812) [kw]Coast, Astorian Expeditions Explore the Pacific Northwest (Sept. 8, 1810-May, 1812) Astorian expeditions Exploration;American West Astoria, Oregon Astor, John Jacob Fur trade;and Astorian expeditions[Astorian expeditions] American Fur Company;and Astorian expeditions[Astorian expeditions] [g]Canada;Sept. 8, 1810-May, 1812: Astorian Expeditions Explore the Pacific Northwest Coast[0460] [g]United States;Sept. 8, 1810-May, 1812: Astorian Expeditions Explore the Pacific Northwest Coast[0460] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Sept. 8, 1810-May, 1812: Astorian Expeditions Explore the Pacific Northwest Coast[0460] [c]Exploration and discovery;Sept. 8,1810-May, 1812: Astorian Expeditions Explore the Pacific Northwest Coast[0460] Comcomly Hunt, William Price McDougall, Duncan Stuart, Robert Mackenzie,David Thompson, David

Hunt’s Route from St. Louis to Astoria





In 1808, Astor incorporated the American Fur Company and then proceeded to set up subsidiary regional companies to carry out specific parts of his plan. One of these, the Pacific Fur Company Pacific Fur Company , formally organized in the summer of 1810, was to establish a base of operations on the northwest coast of what would later become the western United States, explore and establish a trade monopoly in the rich fur regions west of the Rocky Mountains, manage a monopoly on trade with the Russian settlements in Alaska Alaska;Russian settlements , and corner the market on the fur trade Fur trade;and China[China] with China. To initiate this ambitious project, two expeditions of “Astorians” started out in 1810. One expedition, led by Duncan McDougall McDougall, Duncan and Robert Stuart Stuart, Robert , was to travel by sea around South America to the mouth of the Columbia River Columbia River;and fur trade[Fur trade] . In addition to clerks, craftsmen, and laborers, the expedition would take the tools and supplies needed to build and maintain a trading post on the Columbia. The second expedition, led by William Price Hunt Hunt, William Price , was to travel overland from St. Louis, blazing a trail to the Columbia River and selecting sites for the network of trading posts that Astor intended to build across the continent.

McDougall and Stuart’s expedition boarded the ship Tonquin and sailed from New York City on September 8, 1810. The voyage was plagued by bad luck, delays, and increasingly bitter quarrels between the Tonquin’s overbearing captain and the Astorians. In February, 1811, the Tonquin laid over in the Hawaiian Hawaii Islands, taking on stores of food, water, and additional laborers and livestock to support the new trading post. After battling ocean storms and the sand bars, whirlpools, and treacherous currents at the mouth of the Columbia River, the Tonquin finally found safe harbor in the river on March 24. McDougall and Stuart Stuart, Robert selected a site on the river’s south bank, and the heavy work of clearing away the dense forest began. By April 19, actual construction on the new post of Astoria had commenced.

Meanwhile, Hunt’s Hunt, William Price overland party was delayed by recruiting and supply problems and did not leave St. Louis until October 21, 1810. Facing the onset of winter after a grueling trip up the Missouri River Missouri River;and Astorian expeditions[Astorian expeditions] and uncertain about the best route west, the expedition camped on the Nodaway River, about five hundred miles above St. Louis. In March, 1811, the Astorians resumed their journey; however, poor luck with weather, equipment, and travel routes exacerbated personnel problems and slowed the expedition’s progress. A bit of good luck came from encounters with native communities, which provided food and geographical information.

British fur traders securing a peaceful surrender at Astoria.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Hunt followed native trade routes to the Rocky Mountains, crossing present-day South Dakota and Wyoming. West of the Continental Divide Continental Divide , the expedition got lost and suffered terribly from hunger, harsh weather, rough terrain, and the dangers of trying to navigate the wild Snake River Snake River . In late October, 1811, Hunt divided his party into smaller groups to search for food and the best route to the Columbia River Columbia River . The group led by David Mackenzie Mackenzie, David finally reached Astoria on January 18, 1812. On February 15, Hunt and forty-five of the original sixty members of the main party arrived there after a difficult and dangerous overland journey during which Shoshone Shoshone Indians helped them. The remaining overlanders straggled in a few weeks later.

By that time, Astoria was a growing trading post with a large store, living quarters, a blacksmith shop, and storage sheds, all enclosed in a ninety-foot-square palisade. McDougall McDougall, Duncan and the other Pacific Fur Company partners were planning to expand Astoria and establish satellite posts around the region. They, too, had been hampered by bad luck. Their lifeline to the outside world, the ship Tonquin, had left Astoria June 1, 1811, to trade with Indian communities along the coast. By early July, rumors reached them that Indians on Vancouver Island had destroyed the ship and its crew in revenge for the captain’s insults to their chief. A lone survivor eventually reached Astoria to confirm that the story was true.

Although tribes on the lower Columbia River Columbia River;Indian tribes welcomed the traders, the Astorians remained nervous about their neighbors’ intentions, particularly as they depended on the local people for food as well as furs. Although the newcomers immediately planted a garden at their post, it took time for them to learn how to grow crops in the unfamiliar climate and soil. Meanwhile, rations were short at Astoria. This situation suited the local Chinook Chinook chief, Comcomly. Comcomly As the most powerful native leader in the region, he claimed a monopoly on trade with Astoria. Through the traders’ first year, Comcomly saw to it that they had just enough food to survive and just enough trade to keep them from leaving, while ensuring that they remained dependent on him. Although the Astorians resented Comcomly’s manipulation of their business, they could rarely outwit him and dared not oppose him openly.

To further Astor’s grand plan and to break Comcomly’s control, Hunt Hunt, William Price McDougall, Duncan , McDougall, and the other partners planned expeditions to establish trading posts inland. Before they could act, however, a new challenge appeared. David Thompson Thompson, David , a North West Company North West Company partner, suddenly arrived at Astoria, on July 15, 1811. Renowned as an explorer of the far Northwest, Thompson had discovered the source of the Columbia River Columbia River;exploration of in 1807. In 1811, he became the first European to follow the river from its headwaters to its mouth. He had claimed the country he traversed for his company and Great Britain.

This unexpected appearance of an archrival spurred the Astorians to action: One Astorian led an expedition up the Columbia River to hold the region against the North West Company. Other parties explored the terrain and trade prospects up the coast and up the Willamette River. In May, 1812, a long-overdue supply ship arrived with abundant material and more people. Operations expanded rapidly west of the Rockies, while Robert Stuart Stuart, Robert started eastward with a party to find a good overland express route to St. Louis. During their crossing, east of Jackson’s Hole, they would discover the crucial South Pass through the Rockies, which would later open the floodgates to the settlement of the Oregon territory.

Fortune again turned against the Astorians, however. On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. In January, 1813, that news reached Astoria, with reports that the North West Company North West Company and the British Royal Navy Royal Navy;and Pacific Northwest[Pacific Northwest] planned joint expeditions to capture the U.S. outpost. Knowing that they could expect no help from Astor while the British controlled the seas, the partners began negotiations to sell Astoria to the North West Company before it was taken by force. The British sloop Raccoon arrived in November, 1813, and took possession of the post. In April, 1814, the Americans returned east. Most Astorians were Canadian, however, and many were former employees of the North West Company, who now went back to work for their old company.


After the North West Company North West Company took over Astoria, its leaders renamed the post Fort George and made it their West Coast headquarters. Although Astor failed to establish his trade empire, he did provoke U.S. concern about British expansion in the Northwest. The U.S. government based future claims to the region in part on the U.S. occupation at Astoria. Returning Astorians brought back a wealth of information about the Far West, and the route pioneered by Robert Stuart’s Stuart, Robert 1812-1813 expedition would later become the famous Oregon Trail Oregon Trail . In 1846, the United States and Great Britain would finally work out a settlement by which Oregon became U.S. territory.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haeger, John Denis. John Jacob Astor: Business and Finance in the Early Republic. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991. Study of Astor’s career as a merchant, fur trader, and speculator to examine American economic development between 1790 and 1860.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Irving, Washington. Astoria: Or, Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea and Blanchard, 1836. Available in many modern editions, this history was written from interviews and diaries of participants by one of the great authors in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jaeger, John D. “Business Strategy and Practice in the Early Republic: John Jacob Astor and the American Fur Trade.” Western Historical Quarterly 19, no. 2 (May, 1988): 183-202. Compares Astor’s business strategy with modern business practices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lavender, David. The Fist in the Wilderness. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964. Examines the history of the American Fur Company and the Pacific Fur Company.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Madsen, Axel. John Jacob Astor: America’s First Multimillionaire. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001. A conventional biography of Astor, with considerable attention to his business enterprises.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pole, Graeme. David Thompson: The Epic Expeditions of a Great Canadian Explorer. Canmore, Alta.: Altitude Publishing Canada, 2003. Examination of Thompson’s twenty-eight years in the western fur trade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rollins, Phillip A., ed. The Discovery of the Oregon Trail: Robert Stuart’s Narrative of His Overland Trip Eastward from Astoria in 1812-13. New York: Edward Eberstadt & Sons, 1935. Contains the overland diaries of Hunt and Stuart and other useful material.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ronda, James P. Astoria and Empire. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. Analyzes Astoria’s role in the struggle for national sovereignty in the Northwest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ross, Alexander. Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. Ross, one of the original clerks at Astoria, gives a colorful firsthand account of the venture.

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