Tags: Alexander Ross, Pacific Fur Company, Columbia River, Captain Jonathan Thorn, the Tonquin, Falkland Islands, voyaging from New York to the Columbia River via Cape Horn
In my last Blog I introduced you to retired fur trader Alexander Ross and his family. This was the last of a series of six Blogs on the topic of education of girls in the Red River Settlement. The name Alexander Ross is familiar to many Manitobans because he was the author of a well-known history book (The Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress and Present State) and because he was active in political and religious affairs at the Red River for nearly 30 years.
Alexander Ross in later life (Provincial Archives of Manitoba)
In the process of writing this education Blog, however, I learned that Ross led an interesting (and sometimes exciting) life as a fur trader in what is now southern British Columbia and the US northwest before retiring to the Red River. He also wrote two books describing his fur trade life. As a result, I have decided to do a series of Blogs on Ross as a fur trader. With luck, they may form the basis of a book on the life of Ross and his family.
Today’s Blog describes Ross’ trip aboard the sailing ship Tonquin from New York to the Columbia River via Cape Horn in 1810-1811 after he was hired as a clerk for the Pacific Fur Company. All quotes in this Blog are from his book Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River Being a Narrative of the Expedition Fitted Out by John Jacob Astor to Establish the “Pacific Fur Company”. This book was published in London in 1849.
The Tonquin set sail from New York on September 6, 1810, with a crew of 22 and 33 passengers. Almost immediately, Ross began to disapprove of the captain, Jonathan Thorn, formerly of the American Navy. A group of mechanics, who had signed contracts with the Pacific Fur Company (PFC) indicating that they were entitled to the same treatment as the clerks, were ordered to accommodations on the Tonquin among the common sailors. When they complained and showed Captain Thorn their contracts, he punished them by ordering them to work as common seamen during the voyage.
The PFC partners on board remonstrated with the captain to no avail, both parties “getting into a violent passion.” Alexander MacKay of the PFC said that his people would defend themselves “rather than suffer such treatment.” The captain responded that “he would blow out the brains of the first man who dared to disobey his orders on board his own ship.”
Another of the PFC men named David Stuart “by his gentle and timely interference put an end to the threatening altercation.” However, bad feelings continued throughout the entire voyage. The captain restricted the partners to the starboard side of the quarter-deck; the clerks were forbidden to set foot on the quarter-deck altogether; and “as for the poor mechanics and Canadians, they were ruled over with a rod of iron,” according to Ross. [pp. 14-5]
Ross also had a poor opinion of the crew and their management of emergencies. One evening an alarm of fire was given. Ross, gave a farcical description of what happened next.
[Everyone assembled on deck] in a state of wild confusion, some calling out to broach the water casks, others running to and fro in search of water, some with mugs, others with decanters, while the mȃitre de cuisine was robbed of his broth and dishwater – no one, in the hurry and bustle of the moment, ever thought of dipping the buckets alongside. [p. 17]
On November 10, a violent gale began which lasted for 50 hours “without intermission”. It caused considerable damage. A second and worse storm also occurred in November. Many sails were blown to rags; six of the ship’s guns were dismounted and rolled like thunder on the deck for some time. On the second day of the storm a huge wave “like a rolling mountain, passes over her deck ten feet high, and broke with a tremendous crash about the mainmast.” No lives were lost for everyone clung to the rigging. [p. 20]
On December 5 they were happy to reach the Falkland Islands because they were running short of drinking water. They also made repairs to damage done to the ship in the two storms. The captain originally said that they would set sail from the Falklands on December 11, but then (according to the partners) he changed the date to the 12th. As a result, nine men (including Ross) were ashore when about 2 p.m. on the 11th they saw the ship leave without them. It took them half an hour to reach the shore and the ship was three miles to sea by that time. They squeezed into a small boat which was scarcely large enough for half of their number. In this boat they followed the ship against wind and tide. Then the man who was bailing lost his bailing pail and one of their oars was broken in trying to recover the pail. The wind grew more violent and darkness was coming. Then, just as “every ray of hope” vanished, the ship turned back toward them. “At length, after many ineffectual attempts and much manœuvring, we succeeded in getting on board,” Ross wrote.
The men then learned that Captain Thorn was only prevented from abandoning them by a man named Robert Stuart, who seized a brace of pistols and told the captain to order the ship to go about; otherwise, he said, “You are a dead man this instant.” [p. 25]
Cape Horn and the Falkland Islands
On December 19 they saw Cape Horn, but due to adverse winds, they could not round it until Christmas morning. They spent several weeks on the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) before leaving on the final leg of their journey to the mouth of the Columbia River on March 1, 1811. Ross wrote that the first sight of the Columbia “filled every heart with gladness.” Little did they know how premature such feelings were because the worst was yet to come. The weather was stormy and Captain Thorn lay-to until he had satisfied himself that they had reached the entrance to the river. Then, despite First Mate Fox protesting that sea was too rough to go out even with experienced men, Thorn sent Fox out in a small boat with five men — only one of whom was experienced in handling small boats — to locate the proper channel to enter the river. None of the men were ever seen again. [pp. 54-5]
Mouth of Columbia River – Map from Ross’ 1849 book
Mouth of Columbia River – Modern map
Several more unsuccessful attempts were made to find the navigable channel. In the last attempt, five men set out and three drowned. Finally, on March 26, they reached shore with a loss of nine lives – which Ross blamed entirely on Thorn.
Tonquin at the mouth of the Columbia (from Wikipedia)
My next Blog will describe the beginning of Ross’ fur trade career.
Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website at http/www.ireneterniergordon.ca or by e-mailing me at email@example.com
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