Why you should care
Because hope springs eternal … and drives the American spirit.
References to Lewis and Clark are ubiquitous in Oregon. But the name on my mind while traveling the Beaver State is James MacKay, the explorer who provided them the maps for the first full year of the duo’s famous journey. It is “the natural desire of all persons to know their pedigree,” the Scottish fur trader wrote, tracing his genealogy in a letter sent to his son — and unknowingly sending a message to me, his four-times-great-grandson. Standing in Astoria, the first permanent American settlement on the Pacific Ocean, is the culmination of a journey my ancestor contributed to — even if he never finished it himself.
The port today is a lovely if marginal seaside community. But it was once poised to become a crucial West Coast juncture. That was the aim of John Jacob Astor, the New York investor whose American Fur Company broke ground here five years behind Lewis and Clark. Driven by the promise of a straight trade route — from Native American country to Chinese markets without interference — many saw the appeal of settling the land that would become Astoria.
Paris, London — they are all discussing: What do we do about Astoria?
McAndrew Burns, executive director of the Clatsop County Historical Society
Which is what led to a heated competition, a race of sorts, to the Oregon Coast between Astor and famed British cartographer David Thompson. Astor, who had been born into poverty in Germany and managed to build an American empire after the Revolutionary War, wasn’t one to leave things to chance: He sent a troop by both land and sea. Thompson had the advantage early on but was delayed when he refused to leave behind a sick member of his group. He arrived in 1811 but was a few months late — the Tonqin, commissioned by Astor, by then had already started work on a fort, thus claiming the territory.
But it didn’t take long for struggle to overshadow Astor’s victory. After dropping off the area’s first settlers, the Tonqin and its captain, Jonathan Thorn, went north to negotiate with Native Americans near Vancouver Island, where a squabble broke out. This is where the historical record falls apart, says McAndrew Burns, executive director of the Clatsop County Historical Society. Thorn was talking with a chieftain when he either “slapped him with a beaver pelt,” took “a fork and shoved the tongs on his face” or “rubbed his face in beaver pelts,” Burns says. Regardless, the chieftain took offense, and a couple hundred tribal warriors arrived the next day. The ensuing brawl left most of Thorn’s crew dead and resulted in an explosion that scuttled the ship.
Similar fireworks became part and parcel with Astoria’s development, but the settlement still succeeded despite these early setbacks. Albeit small, there “really weren’t any” other cities of note in the region, says Burns. Its status was only enhanced when Great Britain and the United States squabbled over who could lay claim to it during the global negotiations ending the War of 1812. “Paris, London — they are all discussing: What do we do about Astoria?” Burns says. The world essentially threw up its hands: Brits and Americans in Astoria could claim either nationality (until the Brits were eventually forced out). The prominent author Washington Irving spent three years in the city, and his penning of Astoria in 1833 — an instant best seller that would become required reading in some schools — is enshrined in its cultural lore.
Poor planning, however, felled Astoria’s momentum. Astoria relied heavily on wood pilings, which raised buildings off the marshy ground, and in 1883 a fire devastated much of downtown. Ever industrious, residents rebuilt, but they used the exact same model, which proved foolish when the city was once again set alight in 1922 — some grew so desperate that they even used dynamite to blow up buildings in an attempt to stem the flames. By then, Portland and Seattle to the north had overtaken Astoria. That second fire sparked the start of the Great Depression a bit earlier in Astoria than elsewhere. And geography, Burns says, was another key factor: Built on a peninsula, the city soon ran out of space for a growing population.
Yet Astoria has proved durable, a mentality British poet Rudyard Kipling alluded to when describing its inhabitants as living “on salmon and great and increasing expectations.” Today, its faltering industries — fishing, manufacturing, forestry — have been buoyed by their willingness to embrace tourism and moviemaking, with films such as The Goonies and Free Willy.
The sense of possibility has forever been a part of Astoria. In 1928, a marketing agency published pamphlets for “Greater Astoria,” depicting a skyscraper-laden metropolis replete with floating blimps and gravity-defying bridges. “The Future New York of the Pacific,” they read, and the best part is that “they actually believed this,” Burns says. “That was pretty late in the game to still have those kinds of aspirations and dreams.” And yet they held that starry-eyed optimism, as had Lewis, Clark and MacKay before them.
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