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This Nest of Dangers: Columbia fur trading came at a steep cost

By NANCY LLOYD

For the Observer

Published on March 28, 2017 4:19PM

H.M. Sloop of War, Racoon, Nov. 30, 1813, at Baker’s Bay, painting by Hewitt Jackson. Racoon had a mishap in the Columbia estuary in 1813, leaving behind debris now in the collection at the Columbia River Maritime Museum.

Oregon Historical Society, Ori-99184

H.M. Sloop of War, Racoon, Nov. 30, 1813, at Baker’s Bay, painting by Hewitt Jackson. Racoon had a mishap in the Columbia estuary in 1813, leaving behind debris now in the collection at the Columbia River Maritime Museum.

Fort George, now Astoria, was the site of a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post in the early 19th century.

Author’s collection

Fort George, now Astoria, was the site of a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post in the early 19th century.

Trade in sea otter pelts was one of the Lower Columbia River’s early economic drivers.

Author’s collection

Trade in sea otter pelts was one of the Lower Columbia River’s early economic drivers.

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The HMS Sulphur would have looked something like this ship, tentatively identified as the Erebus, one of her sister ships.

The HMS Sulphur would have looked something like this ship, tentatively identified as the Erebus, one of her sister ships.

The HMS Sulphur lost an anchor like these while attempting to exit Baker Bay near Ilwaco in 1837. These are from Sulphur’s sister ship, the HMS Fury.

ERIC RUEL PHOTO

The HMS Sulphur lost an anchor like these while attempting to exit Baker Bay near Ilwaco in 1837. These are from Sulphur’s sister ship, the HMS Fury.

Sir Edward Belcher had no love for navigating the Lower Columbia River, for which he coined the term “This Nest of Dangers” during an exploring voyage in 1837.

National Portrait Gallery, London, by Stephen Pearce

Sir Edward Belcher had no love for navigating the Lower Columbia River, for which he coined the term “This Nest of Dangers” during an exploring voyage in 1837.

The Racoon


The American fur-trading experiment known as Fort Astoria had a brief life. One expression of the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Great Britain was Canada’s North West Company buying out the assets of the Astor’s Pacific Fur Co. in 1813.

Later, in November 1813, the British sloop of war HMS Racoon arrived at the Columbia River intent on capturing Fort Astoria, only to find that their effort was unnecessary. When the sloop was sailing back out of the river in December 1813, under the command of an irritated Capt. William Black — “What! Is this the fort [Astoria] I have heard so much of? Great God, I could batter it down with a four-pounder [cannon] in two hours!” — the vessel slammed against the sandbar and lost her forefoot and parts of her stern and keel. “In a near-sinking condition, the ship was barely able to reach San Francisco where repairs could be made.”

She left behind fragments of herself for us to wonder at.


Racoon remnants


Timber on display in Astoria’s Columbia Maritime Museum, identified as having come from the Racoon, was picked up by donor David Megrath in 1973. He’d found the artifact a few miles south of the river’s entrance during a winter storm.

“It is assumed,” the museum label explains, “that the timber remained buried on the bottom until currents and wave action uncovered it and brought it ashore.”

How does the museum know for sure that the timber is from this particular ship? “Copper sheathing (used on the bottoms of wooden ships to prevent damage from marine borer worms) indicated a pre-20th century origin; the wood from which the timber was hewn is English elm, a species [of tree] widely used in Britain for keel timbers; the ‘broad arrow,’ a mark used to identify British Crown property, was found on the timber’s large copper fastenings; and, the shape of this timber conforms with original plans of the Racoon.”

That’s how good research is done!


Hudson’s Bay Company


In 1821 the Hudson’s Bay Company took over Canada’s NorthWest Company, thereby expanding its foothold on the Columbia River system. Not long after, HBC abandoned Fort George (formerly Fort Astoria) and moved its headquarters upriver to Fort Vancouver near the joining of the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

It was the company’s annual custom to have a supply ship come from London half-way around the world to the Pacific coast; those vessels carried the mail, visiting scientists, goods to trade with the Natives, and goods to supply the Fort’s operation for a year. It carried away the year’s accumulated furs.

In spring of 1829 that supply vessel was the brig William and Ann. It wrecked as it crossed the bar, with the loss of its entire crew and most all of its cargo. Maritime authority James Delgado quotes George Simpson, boss of the HBC in North America, as saying: “[T]he melancholy fate of the William & Ann deranges all our plans in regard to the business of the coast for this year.”

The following year the company sent the brig Isabella. It, too, was totally wrecked crossing the bar.

The Hudson’s Bay Company had a rough few years at Fort Vancouver because of these two disasters but the post soldiered on until 1846 when the division between British interests and American was fixed at the 49th Parallel and it moved north.

As for the company, it continues to this day. If you shop at Lord & Taylor or Saks Fifth Avenue, you are patronizing part of the oldtime “Company of Adventurers Tradeing into Hudson’s Bay.”


‘Awful and Magnificent Grandeur’


In December 1835 American naturalist John Kirk Townsend was aboard a vessel seeking to get to sea from the Columbia River. “The weather is almost constantly rainy and squally, making it unpleasant to be on deck; we are … anxious to get out to sea as soon as possible, if only to escape this. …

“Vessels have occasionally been compelled to lie in under the cape [in Baker’s Bay] for several weeks,” Townsend continued, “in momentary expectation of the subsidence of the dangerous breakers, and they have not unfrequently been required to stand off shore, from without, until the crews have suffered extremely for food and water.

“This circumstance must ever form a barrier to a permanent settlement here; the sands, which compose the bar, are constantly shifting, and changing the course and depth of the channel, so that none but the small coasting vessels in the service of the [Hudson’s Bay] Company can, with much safety, pass back and forth. …

“When we entered the channel, the water which had before been so smooth, became suddenly very much agitated, swelling, and roaring, and foaming around us …

“This is my first sea voyage, and everything upon the great deep is of course novel and interesting to me. … [A]lthough I was aware of our imminent peril … yet I could not but feel a kind of secret and wild joy at finding myself in a situation of such awful and magnificent grandeur. …

“In about twenty minutes we had escaped all the danger, and found ourselves riding easily in a beautiful placid sea. …”


A terrific appearance


In the winter of 1836, American diplomat William A. Slacum was discharging his commission from Pres. Andrew Jackson to gather information on the Oregon Country and the presence of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

”… I left Oahu in the American brig Loriot on the 24th of November [1836] last, and on the 22d of December made Cape Disappointment, the northern point of entrance to the Columbia.

“The wind was high from the westward, and the bar presented a terrific appearance, breaking entirely across the channel from the north to the south shoals. The wind blowing directly on shore, and believing it would be impossible to work off against the heavy westwardly swell, we attempted the passage at twelve M., and crossed the bar safely, in not less than five fathoms, and anchored, at two o’clock, in Baker’s bay.”

“…At present, vessels are kept outside for several days waiting for clear weather to run in, having neither beacon, buoys, nor lights to guide them when close in with the shore. This delay would be obviated in a great measure if the coast was surveyed and properly lighted.


Sulfurous experience


Why Capt. Sir Edward Belcher did not like the Columbia River:

Research approximates detective work. My 35-years-old, much-amended list of local shipwrecks includes a note, “1839, Sulphur.” Investigating that on the internet yielded a note from the Coast Pilot of Washington Territory of 1869, “Off Cape Disappointment between it and Sulphur Spit, (where Belcher grounded,) the under-current of the flood set north by east; …”

Belcher? I didn’t know the name. More internet work uncovered a wonderfully written book and yet another shipwreck, that of the Starling. (The phrase “shipwreck” is not limited to total disaster; many vessels suffered damage, courtesy of our regional waters, and lived to float another day. The Sulphur and the Starling were among them.)


‘Nest of Dangers’


Edward Belcher was appointed by England’s Admiralty office to captain the vessel HMS Sulphur and, in company with the HMS Starling, survey the Pacific coast. In March 1837 the ships set out from Panama.

One of Capt. Belcher’s orders from the Admiralty noted, “Political circumstances have invested the Columbia river with so much importance, that it will be well to devote some time to its bar and channels of approach, as well as to its inner anchorages and shores… .” The tussle in the Pacific Northwest between Britain and the U.S. (the War of 1812) over who would control the ‘Oregon Country’ was still under way.

Belcher had hoped to stop at the Columbia early in October, “[B]ut twenty-four hours after our departure [from Friendly Cove, Nootka] the weather proved boisterous, attended by a long westerly swell, which rendered it necessary to preserve our offing, and make the best of our way to San Francisco.”

In May 1839 the Starling made another pass at the mouth of the Columbia, while the Sulphur went on north. Late in July Sulphur joined Starling in surveying the mouth to the Columbia. It took six weeks.

“Being (as usual) unfortunate in our breezes,” Belcher wryly noted, “it was not until the 28th that we reached the mouth of the Columbia … Fortunately the weather admitted of our entering otherwise the very imperfect sailing directions might have led us into danger.

“The shoals in the entrance of this river have most materially changed their features within the last two years.

“Just at our last tack which would have taken us safely to our anchorage, the ship tailed [hit the sand with her stern] and the flood forced her instantly on the bank where it continued to press her inwards. Before any assistance could be rendered the tide fell and our anchors being already down we had to await the night tide when less sea prevails.

“She floated off on the flood, a breeze off shore having helped her, and anchored in security until the morning when we weighed and ran up to our berth in Baker’s Bay.

“Not so the Starling; in weighing in ten fathoms she tailed and instantly lost her rudder.” [Crews rigged a temporary rudder.]

“On the morning following we proceeded on our voyage [to Fort Vancouver for proper repair] through the intricacies of Tongue Point Channel and after grounding occasionally, which I take to be according to practice, managed by sunset to find a soft berth for the night on an unknown spot where no bank ought to have been, according to our pilots. …

“Having completed the Starling’s refit we commenced our return surveying the river downwards. We had reached Puget’s Island when she unfortunately drifted on a snag or stump of a tree under water and broke her rudder short away, taking with it the lower part with all the metal work.

“On this occasion I merely despatched [sic] the requisite officers to Fort Vancouver with fresh demands and moved downwards with the Starling to Fort George where I purposed bringing the ship up to assist in the survey …

“On the morning of the 14th September we quitted Baker’s Bay with light breezes but owing to the peculiarity of the currents did not clear the heads until the wind failed, compelling us to anchor. Before the tide had done the sea breeze came on strong; very fortunately I had taken the precaution to reef [the sails] and be in a condition to beat out and had just completed when the strength of the breeze parted our cable [losing the anchor].

“Sail was made in time to tack short of the dangers and, as the opposite course led to sea, I was heartily glad after this second escape to leave the anchor and get clear of this disastrous port.

“Any attempt to recover the anchor would have proved futile and probably resulted in losing the only one remaining with imminent risk to the ship. The Starling at the same instant met with a similar accident leaving also her last anchor but one.

Capt. Sir Edward Belcher concluded, wiping his hands of the Columbia, “Heartily sick of this nest of dangers we took our final look at Cape Disappointment and shaped our course for Bodega.”







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