Saturday, September 24, 2016

Astoria by Peter Stark

Astoria by Peter Stark tells the story of millionaire John Jacob Astor's attempt to establish a global trade network with a foothold in the Northwest. The effort, blessed by then President Thomas Jefferson and starting shortly after Lewis and Clark's voyage concluded in 1806, included sea otter pelts from the region and trade with both the East Coast of the U.S. and for goods across the Pacific.

The attempt to create a settlement in modern-day Oregon included an overland party led by Wilson Price Hunt and one via the ship Tonquin and Captain Jonathan Horn sailing from New York around the bottom of South America in the Tonquin. The story of Horn felt the more fascinating of the two, with him being the first to arrive, reaching the Columbia River Bar on March 22, 1811. He faced incredibly dangerous water conditions exiting the Pacific Ocean and eight of the roughly sixty men aboard the Tonquin perished in the water. Thorn later journeyed with a group of around thirty to trade with Pacific Northwest Coast Indians off what is now Vancouver Island, with disastrous results.

Hunt's party travelling overland also experienced an extremely hard path and interesting from Stark was mention of people from both parties suffering from what centuries later would be known as post traumatic stress disorder, brought of by the constant exposure to potential calamity. The two leaders were interesting case studies, with Hunt a consensus seeker, good in some respects, not good in others, and Thorn well equipped for battle as a sea Captain, but without the diplomacy required to interact well with Indian populations.

War between America and Britain with the War of 1812 brought about the end of Astoria, with Astor's plan to fortify and defend the settlement ultimately unsuccessful as a ship he dispatched became disabled off Hawaii and Hunt was away from Astoria at a time leadership desperately needed. While Hunt was gone, those who remained decided to abandon Astoria and sold the remaining furs and goods to the British North West Company for around $.30 on the dollar. The success or failure of the venture is up for debate, with roughly sixty of the hundred and forty men Astor sent losing their lives, but the trip also helped pave the way for a later move westward, with the overland path an important precursor to exploration in large part due in part to them finding the what would become known as the Oregon Trail. Really a compelling story well told in the book.