The ship Tonquin out of New York City sights the mouth of the Columbia River on March 22, 1811.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 7/01/2008
  • Essay 8673

On March 22, 1811, the ship Tonquin out of New York City sights the mouth of the Columbia River. The Tonquin is owned by fur baron John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) of New York and carries charter members of the Pacific Fur Company, who intend to establish the first American trading post on the Columbia. The ship struggles for two days to cross the perilous bar, losing eight sailors before anchoring in Baker’s Bay.

Commanded by Captain Jonathan Thorn  (1779-1811), a 32-year-old lieutenant on leave from the U. S. Navy, the Tonqin was 94 feet long with a burden of 269 tons, and was known as a “first-rate ship” (Ronda, 94). She had departed New York harbor in September 1810, and from the beginning, her voyage was marked with dissension between the captain and several of his Pacific Fur Company passengers, who included clerks, workmen, and voyageurs, as well as three senior partners of the enterprise: Duncan McDougall (178?-1818), Alexander McKay (ca. 1770-1811), and David Stuart (1765-1853). After a stop in the Hawaiian Islands to take on fresh water, livestock, and extra crew, the  Tonquin endured three weeks of stormy weather crossing the North Pacific.  

When the crew sighted land about three miles away on the morning of March 22, the captain felt certain they had reached the Columbia. With a fresh gale blowing from the northwest, Thorn thought it would be prudent to examine the notoriously treacherous bar before venturing any closer in the Tonquin. In the early afternoon he ordered his first mate, J. C. Fox (d. 1811), and four of his crewmen to launch a longboat and sound the channel.

According to three eyewitness accounts, the first mate objected to setting out in such stormy weather and rough seas, to which Captain Thorn replied, “Mr. Fox, if you are afraid of water, you should have remained at Boston” (Ross, 76). At least two of the Pacific Fur Company partners also questioned the wisdom of dispatching a skiff under such conditions, but the captain would not be dissuaded. After accepting a sheet from one of the partners to use as a sail, Mr. Fox resignedly ordered his boat to be lowered, remarking as he went, “My uncle was drowned here not many years ago, and now I am going to lay my bones with his” (Ross, 77).  

Mr. Fox had been well-liked aboard the Tonquin, and his friends watched anxiously from deck as his little boat was tossed about by the boisterous sea, but they soon lost sight of it among the expanse of breaking waves. The following day the Tonquin stood off and on the bar all day “with anxious solicitude” (McDougall, 4), but there was no sign of the longboat. As evening approached, the crew of necessity steered the ship a safe distance from shore, “all with long faces, even the Captain looking worried” (Franchere, 71).  

The morning of March 24 proved clear, and the Tonquin anchored in a calm area to the north of Cape Disappointment. Pacific Fur Company partners Alexander McKay and David Stuart and a number of clerks volunteered to accompany second mate William  Mumford in an attempt to reach shore and search for Mr. Fox and his crew. The party set forth in the ship’s pinnace, but according to one of the men on board, they soon encountered a chain of breakers that “completely overpowered us with dread; and the fearful suction became so irresistibly great, that, before we were aware of it, the boat was drawn into them” (Ross, 79). A group of natives observing from Cape Disappointment motioned to the boat to row around the Cape rather than trying to come directly ashore, but upon seeing the waves breaking on the reef near the Cape, Mumford decided to turn about, ordering all hands to pull for their lives. For 12  minutes the terrified oarmen struggled “between hope and despair” until they managed to clear the breakers and return to the ship (Ross, 79).  

Soon thereafter, a fine breeze sprung up, and Captain Thorn decided to weigh anchor and stand in for the entrance to the river. According to his charts, the deepest and most reliable channel lay close in to Cape Disappointment, on the north edge of the shifting sandbars that rendered the river’s mouth so perilous. This channel was narrow, intricate, and constantly changing, and Thorn “became so alarmed at the appearance of the breakers that he hove to” (McDougall, 4). He ordered second mate Mumford to re-launch the pinnace and sound the waters ahead. Mumford succeeded in locating five fathoms of water, but with the surf breaking all around him, he retreated to the ship.  

Dissatisfied with Mumford’s efforts, the captain instructed his third mate, Job Aitken (d. 1811), to take the jolly boat and try his luck closer to the north shore; if he found more than three fathoms of water, he was to hoist a flag as a signal. Manned by armorer Stephen Weeks (d. 1811), sailmaker John Coles (d. 1811), and two Hawaiians called Harry and Peter, the jolly boat proceeded ahead, and soon hoisted the signal flag. Captain Thorn again weighed anchor and stood in for the channel under an easy sail.  

The subsequent events were recorded by three eyewitnesses, whose accounts vary on key details. In his personal journal, clerk Gabriel Franchere (1786-1863) described the Tonquin entering the breakers along the outer edge of the bar at about the same time that the jolly boat was returning to the ship. “We came within pistol range of the long-boat and made a signal to them to come aboard, which they were unable to do, the suction of the ebbing tide carrying them away with incredible speed” (Franchere, 72).  Partner Duncan McDougall, who kept the official company log, noted that the Tonquin began to drift fast to the southward shortly after the departure of the jolly boat. Captain Thorn quickly made sail, “and either forgot or neglected to make a signal for their return; by the time the Ship got abreast of them the ebb tide was making so strong ahead that we could not take them on board without heaving to or standing out to sea again” (McDougall, 5). And so the captain “left them to their fate” despite the vociferous protests of the partners (McDougall, 5).

Another clerk, Alexander Ross (1783-1856), recounting the scene in dramatic detail years later, insisted that the jolly boat was the victim not of an ebb tide and poor timing but of  the captain’s indifference. According to Ross, the jolly boat returned to the ship in calm water about half a mile beyond the breakers, only to have the Tonquin pass it by. “Everyone now called out, ‘The boat, the boat!’ The partners, in astonishment, entreated the captain to take the boat on board, but he coolly replied, ‘I can give them no assistance’” (Ross, 81).  

Attempting to explain Thorn’s behavior, Ross speculated that “the mind of the captain was so absorbed in apprehension, and perplexed with anxiety at the danger which stared him in the face, and which he was about to encounter, that he could not be brought to give a thought to anything else but the safety of the ship” (Ross, 81). Indeed, the safety of the Tonquin was soon imperiled, for as she made her way across the bar in the face of the outgoing tide, she struck repeatedly on reefs and shoals. Waves broke over the deck. “Everyone who could, sprang aloft, and clung for life to the rigging ... she struck again and again, and, regardless of her helm, was tossed and whirled in every direction” (Ross, 82). The wind suddenly died, leaving the ship at the mercy of the surf, in danger of being dashed against the rocks at the foot of Cape Disappointment. Thorn threw out two anchors to counter the pull of the tide.  But “darkness soon fell to add to the horrors of our predicament” (Franchere, 73).

When the tide eventually turned, the ship was still intact, and an ocean breeze sprang up to usher her away from the cape’s rocky shore, across the rest of the bar, and into the shelter of Baker’s Bay in the lee of the Cape, where the weary sailors dropped anchor just before midnight.  

The jolly boat, meanwhile, had been carried outward by the ebb tide, then upended by an enormous wave. Aitken and Cole were swept away, but Stephen Weeks and the two Hawaiians, Harry and Peter, managed to right the little boat. Peter died during the night, but Weeks and Harry were able to struggle ashore the next morning.

Despite extensive searches over the next several days, Stephen Weeks and Harry were the only survivors of either of the small boats ever found. “The loss of eight of us within two days was deeply felt,” wrote Franchere. “In the course of such a long voyage, among men who see one another every day, live in the same quarters, share the same dangers, ties form which make such a sudden and unforeseen separation doubly painful” (Franchere 75).

Sources: Gabriel Franchere, Journal of a Voyage on the North West Coast of North America During the Years 1811, 1812, 1813, and 1814, ed. by W. Kaye Lamb (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1969);  Annals of Astoria: The Headquarters Log of the Pacific Fur Company on the Columbia River, 1811-1813 edited by Robert F. Jones (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999); James Ronda, Astoria and Empire (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990);  Alexander Ross, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986).

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