Oregon: Fort Astoria

A fur trading post, Fort Astoria was the first permanent settlement in the Northwest by citizens of the United States and came to symbolize the young nation’s desire for westward expansion and a commercial empire.

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The idea for Fort Astoria came from the dream of empire. The political and commercial currents of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, never wholly distinct, merged in the Pacific Northwest. Explorers searching for a fabled Northwest Passage linking the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic discovered a wealth of beaver and sea otter. Both were prized in China, a market having vast promise for intrepid European merchants. Whatever country owned the Northwest would have the best access to lucrative trade routes and a blue chip commodity. Accordingly, British, French, Spanish, and Russian government agents and entrepreneurs schemed to control the Northwest fur trade. None was as able and visionary as John Jacob Astor of the young United States.

Growth Based on Commercial Competition

In 1807, Astor envisioned a series of trading posts from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean, approximately along the trail blazed two years earlier by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. He used his immense wealth and political influence to obtain the official backing of the New York state government and the promise of quasi-official support from President Thomas Jefferson for the Pacific Fur Company, created in 1810. He argued that his initial goal, establishment of a trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River, would help the nation dominate the largely unexplored territory while providing a strategic port for the China trade. He also concluded a mutual-support agreement with the Russian-American Fur Company, headquartered in Alaska. Astor needed the help. His main rival in the fur trade, the North West Company of Canada, was backed by the power of the British Empire.

Astor dispatched two expeditions to the Columbia; both were nearly disastrous. The first sailed on the Tonquin around Cape Horn. The ship arrived in March, 1811, after its captain and the traders had made enemies of each other. Despite the captain’s enmity and the loss of eight men, the traders built a large trading center, dwelling house, blacksmith shop, and storage shed, surrounded by a wooden palisade ninety feet on a side, about ten miles inside the river’s mouth on its south side. On April 12, 1811, they named this compound Fort Astoria in honor of Astor. Soon afterward the Tonquin, the fort’s link to civilization, sank during a battle with Native Americans off Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Meanwhile, an expedition left St. Louis in March, 1811, to establish an overland route. Personnel conflicts, supply problems, and misunderstanding of the topography nearly led to catastrophe. The exhausted party did not reach Fort Astoria until February, 1812.

War Drives Astor Out

After a bad beginning, the Astorians managed to establish satellite trading posts and enjoyed fairly good trading relations with local American Indian tribes. Alarmed that Astorians might monopolize the fur trade, the North West Company rushed to establish posts of its own, and a trade war was in the offing. The United States and England were on the verge of military conflict too. Not long after Congress declared war in 1812, the Astorians learned that a Royal Navy flotilla was on its way to capture the fort. To make the best of a bad situation, the senior partners of the Pacific Fur Company sold Fort Astoria to the North West Company before the British could take it away from them by force. In December, 1813, it was renamed Fort George and flew the Union Jack. Although outraged by the deal, Astor could do little about it until the war ended. Even then an 1818 treaty gave joint control of the area to the British and American governments, and the North West Company retained day-to-day administrative control of the fort. Astor dissolved the Pacific Fur Company and abandoned his dream of a fur-trading empire.

In 1834 British traders moved their headquarters upriver from Fort George to Fort Vancouver, across the Columbia River from present-day Portland, Oregon. Fort George gradually turned into the fishing village of Astoria, and the original trading post fell into decay. Although the fort belonged to Americans for less than two years, its existence was a crucial step for the young republic. According to historian James P. Ronda in Astoria and Empire (1990), Fort Astoria came to symbolize its aspiration for commercial and territorial expansion into the West.

For Further Information

  • Dodds, Gordon B. Oregon: A Bicentennial History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. A general state history with a cogent chapter on fur trading companies, including John Jacob Astor’s.
  • Franchère, Gabriel. Adventure at Astoria, 1810-1814. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967. An account, based upon journals of a member of the Tonquin expedition, of the establishment of Fort Astoria.
  • Irving, Washington. Astoria. Portland, Oreg.: Binfords and Mort, 1967. An early, dramatic history of Fort Astoria, written with the help of Astor and some of the original Astorians; originally published in 1836.
  • Jones, Robert F., ed. Astorian Adventure: The Journal of Alfred Seton, 1811-1815. New York: Fordham University Press, 1993. A journal of a voyage to the Columbia River and life at Fort Astoria by a Pacific Fur Company clerk.
  • O’Donnell, Terence. That Balance So Rare. Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1988. A concise history of Oregon that captures the essence of Astor’s scheme in a few pages, with abundant illustrations.
  • Ronda, James P. Astoria and Empire. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. A thorough, readable account of the exploitation of the Northwest and its roots in international poltical-economic rivalry.