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Tag Archives: John Jacob Astor

They had Witnesses To Prove It

English: Fort Astoria, 1813

English: Fort Astoria, 1813 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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His Maps … Were Accurate!

1814 map of the Pacific Northwest and central ...

1814 map of the Pacific Northwest and central Canada by David Thompson. The Kootenay River is shown near the bottom left as McGillivray’s River. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On July 15, 1811, David Thompson reached the mouth of the Columbia River only to find that John Jacob Astor‘s fur company had established a post there late in March.  This was a great disappointment to Thompson, who had hoped to claim the territory for Britain.  Nevertheless, this is an opportunity to present a  few highlights in the life of the man who was probably the greatest geographer in the world.

David Thompson was of Welsh extraction and came from a poor family.  He was only fourteen years of age when he was apprenticed to the Hudson’s Bay Company and sent to Fort Churchill, Hudson Bay, in 1784.  He spent thirteen years there and at other company posts in Saskatchewan, and also a winter with Natives at the present site of Calgary.  Surveying, which he studied with Philip Turner, became his favourite hobby.

In 1797 he transferred to the Northwest Company and made a 4,000 mile journey of exploration that included the headwaters of the Mississippi.  Later he was made a partner in the company.  Years were spent tracing the crazy course of the Columbia River, which curves back and forth between Canada and the United States, almost entwining itself with the Kootenay.  Thompson was the first man to travel the full length of the Columbia and back again.  He began his final assault on the Columbia in 1810.  He manufactured snowshoes and sleds and started from the Athabaska River on December 29 in weather 32 ° F ( 0 º C) below zero!  He travelled through the Rockies under these conditions to the junction of the Canoe and Columbia Rivers.

After Thompson finished his work in the West, he went to live at Terrebonne, near Montreal, where he prepared a map of Western Canada which is now in the Ontario Archives.  His maps were not like those of the early explorers.  They were accurate.

When Thompson arrived at Churchill in 1784, the map of Canada was blank from Lake Winnipeg to the west coast of Vancouver Island.  When he departed from the West in 1812, he had mapped the main travel routes through 1,700,000 square miles of Canadian and American territory!  It is tragic to remember that David Thompson died in 1857, in poverty and nearly blind.

To learn more of David Thompson and his work, I can direct you to a few sites to get you started. To begin, I suggest a new-to-me website, InterpScan.ca for an interesting video about today’s post – really interesting! And then there’s his Biography – I’m not sure who the author is, though. Another place to go is the David Thompson Columbia Brigade. And lastly, I suggest the Canadian Encyclopedia – you can never go wrong there!

 

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The U.S. Might Have Owned 1/2 of B.C.!

Contour of Vancouver Island with Regional Dist...

Contour of Vancouver Island with Regional Districts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If Washington Irving, author of Rip van Winkle, had not been asleep at the switch, the United States might own half of Vancouver Island!

In 1790, Britain and Spain nearly went to war over an incident at Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Spain backed down, paid reparations and agreed to share Vancouver Island equally with Britain. Britain regained possession of Nootka officially on March 23, 1795.

In 1819, the United States bought Florida from Spain. The deal included all Spanish territory west of the Mississippi and north of latitude 42. Washington Irving was American ambassador to Spain at the time. He was supposed to have made a thorough search of documents in Madrid to find out exactly what territory was involved. Somehow, he missed the agreement giving Spain equal rights to Vancouver Island.

Fortunately for Britain and Canada, the Americans did not find out about this until years after the Oregon Boundary Treaty had been signed in 1846. It established the present boundary between Canada and the United States, dipping to give Canada all of Vancouver Island.

Another strange feature about the story was that Washington Irving was greatly interested in the romance of fur trading in Canada. He had visited the famous “Beaver Club” in Montreal, where the great fur traders gathered. He also wrote a story about Fort Astoria on the Pacific coast, when it was involved in the rivalry among the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Northwest Company and John Jacob Astor.

If it seems far-fetched that the States might own half of Vancouver Island, look at a map of the southern tip of the mainland of British Columbia. The strict boundary of the 29th parallel leaves Point Roberts as part of the States although for all practical purposes it is Canadian.

It is always a joke for residents of Greater Vancouver to go to the United States by entering the few square miles that form Point Roberts.

For an interesting biography of Washington Irving, go to Biography.com, and there’s another one at Wikipedia.

 

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