Royal Navy vessel HMS Racoon departs the Columbia River after taking possession for Great Britain on December 31, 1813.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 3/22/2011
  • Essay 9769

On December 31, 1813, in the midst of the War of 1812, the Royal Navy warship HMS Racoon departs the Columbia River after taking possession of the region for Great Britain. During a month anchored at Bakers Bay, the ship's Captain William Black re-surveyed the mouth of the Columbia and updated the 1792 charts made by Lieutenant William Broughton (1762-1821) under Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798).

Reaching the Columbia

Commanded by Captain William Black, the Racoon had sailed from Rio de Janeiro with orders to seize all American property on the Columbia River. She reached the mouth of the river on November 30, 1813, and two weeks later Captain Black officially took possession of the Columbia drainage and Fort Astoria, headquarters of the Pacific Fur Company of New York.

Having completed his mission, Black was anxious to put back to sea and "endeavor to destroy" any American vessels he met along the Pacific coast or enroute to the Hawaiaan Islands (Black, 148). But stormy weather prevented the Racoon's departure for the entire month of December while she lay at anchor on the north side of the Columbia (near present-day Ilwaco). In the lee of Cape Disappointment, the water remained calm even when the main channel was impassable. Bakers Bay was "considered in war time the best and most convenient anchorage for a Man of War, as water can be easily procured and not only wood for fuel but spars for any purpose in abundance. The whole country seems one entire forest of Pine trees" (Hussey, 11). A clerk aboard the Racoon described a prime watering place just inside Cape Disappointment, "where you land your Casks on a sandy Beach and roll them about twenty Yards to a small stream of excellent water coming from the top of a Hill and by the appearance of it I believe never dry" (Hussey, 11).

Recharting the River Mouth

Captain Black had brought from London a copy of William Broughton's chart of the lower Columbia from his explorations in 1792 under Captain George Vancouver. While waiting for almost constant gales to abate sufficiently to cross the bar, Black's officers re-charted parts of the river's mouth, admiring the accuracy of Broughton's work and noting several changes in the two decades since his visit: "The three islets mentioned by Captain Broughton can now hardly be called so" -- one was almost completely washed away, and the other two not easily discerned (Hussey, 11). They also observed that a new bar had formed between Chinook Point and Grays Bay, and advised future sailors wishing to venture upriver from Bakers Bay to send a cutter to sound the changeable channel.

After observing conditions at the mouth of the river for four weeks, one of the sailors wrote that "the Bar of this River ought never to be attempted but with the greatest caution, either to enter it or get out, particularly by strangers. The rapid tides and very heavy swell, which often breaks right across the channel, makes it very dangerous" (Hussey, 10).

A Perilous Situation

Just how dangerous the bar could be became obvious when Captain Black took advantage of a break in the weather on December 30 to set sail. The ship's master took the pinnance "to view the Channel and report if he thought the Ship could go out with safety. About 8 o'clock he returned & said the channel appeared safe and clear, on the information of which we trip'd our anchor & made a few tacks to weather Cape Disappointment. But the Racoon's exit was not to be as smooth as her entrance had been. When she reached the bar, one of her officers described that they encountered "a tremendous Sea, the Ship pitching heavy & scarcely making head way presented a perilous aspect and caused in the features of many brave men a gloomy appearance ... . I believe few in the Ship expected any other than going to davy's locker in a crack"  (Hussey, 14).

Despite the officer's fears, the Racoon survived the crossing, but not without considerable damage from several hard blows to the keel. The men were congratulating themselves on "having escaped the perilous situation" when they realized that the ship was taking on water at an alarming rate from a leak near her keel. The sailors manned the pumps day and night for the next 14 days, barely preventing the ship from sinking. She had seven feet of water in her hold when she reached the safe harbor of San Francisco on January 14, 1814.

Sources: "Captain Black's Report on Taking of Astoria," Oregon Historical Quarterly Vol. 17 (1916), pp. 147-148; Gabriel Franchere, Journal of a Voyage on the North West Coast of North America during the Years 1811, 1812, 1813 and 1814 (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1969); Barry M. Gough, The Royal Navy and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1810-1914 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1971); Alexander Henry, The Journal of Alexander Henry the Younger, 2 vols., ed. by Barry M. Gough (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1992); Voyage of the Racoon: A "Secret" Journal of a Visit to Oregon, California, and Hawaii, 1813-1814 ed. by John A. Hussy (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1958).

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