If a British naval captain had not been so wide awake, to put it politely, Canada might now own what is American territory as far south as Portland, Oregon. The Columbia River would be the “St. Lawrence of the West.”
Fort Astoria, near the mouth of the Columbia River, had been established by John Jacob Astor in 1811. The fort’s only link with the outside world was a ship which visited the fort while on trading trips to Vancouver Island and dropped necessary supplies. Unfortunately the captain was a rough character, and on one occasion struck an Indian chief who came on board to trade. The next day members of the tribe came on board, ostensibly to trade, drew their knives and killed the captain and most of the crew. The ship’s clerk, mortally wounded, crawled down to where the ammunition was stored, and set off a blast that killed the Indians and sent the ship to the bottom.
As a result, the people at Fort Astoria were isolated and without supplies. They were starving when a party of Nor’Westers appeared, after travelling David Thompson’s route down the Columbia, and they were glad to sell the post to the North West Company. They would be assured of supplies, and protection from any British naval unit that might appear.
In the meantime, such a unit had been sent to capture Fort Astoria. It was H.M.S. Raccoon under the command of Captain William Black. After sailing all the way from Britain he was greatly disappointed to find that Fort Astoria was already British territory, through purchase by the North West Company and not through a brilliant naval action of his own. So Captain Black put on a show. On December 12, 1813, he hauled down the British flag and raised it again, while the Americans and Indians watched the performance.
When the War of 1812 ended, it was agreed that all territory taken by military action would be returned. Britain claimed Fort Astoria because it had been purchased from the Astor Company. “Oh no,” said the Americans. “The fort was taken by military action by the captain of H.M.S. Raccoon.” They had witnesses to prove it, and their case held good. The fort was returned to the States on October 6, 1818, and Canada lost the territory from the British Columbia border to Portland, Oregon.
If you would like to read more about Fort Astoria, I would suggest the Great Battles of the war of 1812 – there’s a great timeline there.