'Forgotten' War Played Major Role in Oregon History
Byline: Douglas Card
As we prepare to celebrate the 4th of July and our successful Revolutionary War, there's another early war we should reflect upon, for it's sometimes called "America's Second War of Independence."
It has also been called America's "most bumbling, most confusing, and most forgotten conflict." We began our national "celebration" of its bicentennial in June, though it's unlikely many noticed.
Most of us remember hardly a thing about the War of 1812 - perhaps the British burning Washington, Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, and certainly the "Star Spangled Banner." The war's ending was so inconclusive that under the Treaty of Ghent, it was "status ante bellum," as all territory seized by either America or England and Canada had to revert to prewar boundaries.
But who recalls that this obscure little war back East had a major impact on Oregon? This strange story goes back to the expansionist conflict between Great Britain and the United States over control of the wealth of the fur trade of the Northwest.
While America had a strong claim to the Oregon Territory thanks to Lewis and Clark's travels and Capt. Robert Gray's exploration of the Columbia River, the powerful British-Canadian North West Company was sweeping west through Canada, searching for ground free from its bitter rival, the British Hudson's Bay Company, with whom it was engaged in deadly conflict back East.
When the North West Company arrived at the mouth of the Columbia in 1811, however, it found an American fort already there - Astoria. This had recently been established by the Pacific Fur Company, a subsidiary of John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company. Though mainly owned by the fabulously wealthy Astor, his junior partners who actually ran the Pacific Fur Company included both Canadians such as Donald Mac kenzie and Americans such as Wilson Price Hunt.
The colorful story of Fort Astoria was romantically narrated in the American literary classic "Astoria" by Washington Irving, author of the famous "Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
The Americans had quickly achieved success with Astor's well-financed plan to ship their Oregon furs to China, trading for Chinese goods to bring to America. Besides Fort Astoria, the Pacific Fur Company established a string of posts throughout the Northwest, as far as today's Montana and British Columbia.
However, various problems occurred, and the company was short of food and supplies. In 1812, Donald Mackenzie led a Pacific Fur Company exploring party up the Willamette Valley, an event whose bicentennial was recently celebrated locally. From a historical perspective, the most significant aspect of his trip was to open the Willamette Valley to the Americans - for though Scottish-led, it was an American enterprise.
But then came the news of the war back East between England and America. Suddenly Fort Astoria was vulnerable to roving British ships and pressure from the North West Company. The partners staffing the fort feared that at any time an English ship might enter the bay and seize the fort as a prize of war.
Thus, Duncan McDougal, supported by Mackenzie, made the controversial decision to sell the fort and its string of outposts to the North West Company for whatever money could be obtained before a British ship could claim it for free. …