Tags: Pacific Fur Company, Fort Astoria, Tonquin,
Fate of the Tonquin
My last Blog described how Alexander Ross began his work as a fur trader, including his first expedition to the interior of what is now British Columbia and the construction of a simple shack as the first Fort Okanogan. Today we learn what happened back at Fort Astoria following Ross’ departure in July 1811 and the fate of the Tonquin, the ship on which Ross travelled from New York City to the Pacific coast. Today’s Blog, like the last one, is based on one of the books Ross wrote about his life — Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River — and all page numbers are from that book.
The men remaining at Fort Astoria believed that the local people were hostile to them. Ross wrote that “under the impression of danger, all other labour [was] suspended; the hands and minds of all were employed both day and night in the construction and pallisading of a stronghold for self-defense.” By the end of the summer, however, the indigenous people all left peacefully. [p. 152]
Immediately after building Fort Astoria, the men constructed a 25-ton schooner (the frame of which had been shipped on the Tonquin). It was intended for the coastal trade. They quickly learned that this schooner was both too small for the coastal trade and unsafe for river use, so after making two or three trips up the river, the schooner “was condemned and laid aside altogether as useless.” [p. 154]
JOHN JACOB ASTOR (portrait by John Wesley Jarvis)
Ross was very critical of the plans made by his employer John Jacob Astor, head of the Pacific Fur Company (PFC). In addition to complaining of the useless schooner, Ross also accused Astor of not shipping saleable goods for the West Coast market. Ross said that although Astor well knew what goods were suitable for the market they were entering, he did not send such items. For example, instead of guns, he sent old metal pots; and instead of beads and trinkets he sent white cotton. “In short, all the useless trash and unsaleable trumpery which had been accumulating in his shops and stores for half a century past, were swept together to fill his Columbia Ships. That these cargoes were insured need not be told; sink or swim, his profits were sure,” Ross charged. [p. 154] Finally, in Ross’ view the agreements the employees entered into with Astor were violated and Astor let the employees shift for themselves during the War of 1812 between the British and the Americans.
MAP OF CLAYOQUOT SOUND
In early August, rumours of the destruction of Tonquin first arrived at Fort Astoria. They were not confirmed until October, however, when a man named Kasiascall (also known as Jack) arrived with a detailed account of what happened. He stated that he was a member of the Wick-a-nook tribe from near Nootka Sound. He said that he had spent some 18 days on board Tonquin in June. One day large numbers of Indians arrived with plenty of sea otter skins; however they did not trade much that first day because they thought the prices offered were too low and the captain refused to give them any presents. That evening, one of the PFC traders, Alexander McKay, and Jack went ashore and were well-received by the chiefs. Next day the Indians came to trade. Captain Thorn would not let more than ten men on board at the same time. When one man was detected trying to sneak on board by cutting the netting placed around the deck, he escaped in a canoe. Captain Thorn ordered the chiefs to call him back, but they “smiled and said nothing”, irritating the captain who seized two of the chiefs and threatened to hang them unless they called the escapee back to be punished. The remainder of the Indians fled from the ship while the two who had been seized were kept prisoner over night. Next day the escapee was returned to the ship, stripped and tied up briefly before being released. The chiefs were also released, vowing vengeance for the insult they had received. [pp. 160-61]
The following day no one came to the ship to trade, but one of the chiefs asked McKay and Jack to visit his lodge. They did so and were kindly received. After McKay returned to the ship, the Indians told Jack they would come to trade the next day. When Jack told McKay, the latter was concerned. “I wish they would not come….After the captain’s late conduct to the chiefs, I do not like so sudden, so flattering a change.” [p. 161]. McKay told Thorn about his fears and warned him that all hands should be on alert when the Indians came aboard again, but Thorn ridiculed both McKay’s fears and suggestion. Jack admitted that he did not share McKay’s fears, especially since women accompanied the men to trade. On the other hand, he was surprised that Thorn did not put up the netting again to restrict people getting on board when they came to trade next day. Trading went on briskly with the goods thrown into the canoes looked after by the women. Then Jack and a sailor aloft noticed the Indians were armed with hidden knives. They warned the captain who “treated the suggestion as usual, with a smile of contempt.”
Soon the women paddled away and a short, but bloody, massacre began. Jack and several other Indians jumped over board and were picked up by the women. Less than 10 minutes later, the ship was blown up. Jack believed that it was blown up by the final survivor of the massacre, the ship’s armourer Stephen Weeks. Jack said about 175 Indians died as a result. [pp. 162-63]
UNNAMED SHIP ON FIRE ( 1804 )
The Astorians believed Jack’s story initially. Shortly afterwards, however, a number of other Indians arrived. They confirmed Jack’s description of the destruction of Tonquin, but they stated that Jack was not on board at the time and was actually involved in the plot against the ship and responsible for the massacre of six men from the ship whom he had convinced the captain to send ashore. Because Jack had beaten a hasty retreat from Fort Astoria when the other men arrived, the Astorians finally concluded that he had not told the truth about his role in the massacre.
For a modern account of the Tonquin tragedy, a Vancouver journalist named Claudia Cornwall interviewed the great-great grandson of a man named Nookmis, who was one of the key players in the event. While Ross does not mention either the name of the tribe or the location where the event occurred, Cornwall reports that the people involved were of the Tls-o-qui-aht or Clayoquot tribe and events occurred in Clayoquot Sound on the south coast of Vancouver Island. Nookmis was a war chief who was in charge of negotiations with Thorn. After a day’s negotiations, Thorn got frustrated and slapped Nookmis across the face with a pelt. Alexander McKay, likely the most experienced trader at Astoria, begged Thorn to leave at this point; he refused. Next day the Tls-o-qui-aht appeared ready to trade, and Thorn let more and more men board the ship. Then suddenly Nookmis gave the order to attack with knives and clubs they had hidden under their clothing. All but one trader were killed. Next day the Tls-o-qui-aht returned to the ship, thinking that the one seriously wounded man aboard was not a threat. He, however, laid a trail of gunpowder to the ship’s magazine and set fire to it once the men were all on board. A few men, including Nookmis, managed to escape; but about 80 were killed.
The next Blog will describe how the Pacific Fur Company was taken over by the North West Company and Ross’ first task as a Nor’Wester – that of horse trader.
Cornwall, Claudia, “The Suicide Bomber of Clayoquot Sound, Revived” https://thetyee.ca/Life/2008/03/14/SuicideIn1811
Ross, Alexander, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, London: Smith, elder and Co., 1849
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