Woven almost invisibly into the ethnic fabric of the Lower Columbia is a fine thread of colorful explorers: Native Hawaiians. Though frayed by time and neglect, their story is a source of inspiration and human interest.

When I moved here 20 years ago, someone mentioned that Waikiki Beach at Cape Disappointment State Park was named after a Hawaiian sailor whose body washed ashore there during a colossal fiasco at the time of Astoria’s founding in 1811. 

This was close to the truth, but the actual facts are far richer.

During this heady year of Astoria’s bicentennial, even the most fanatical off-the-grid hermit would be hard-pressed to remain ignorant of the misadventures of Capt. Jonathan Thorn of the Tonquin. Our modern caricature of him as a blundering bully may be overly simplistic or unfair, but it’s difficult to give him much benefit of the doubt. He managed to lead his ship and crew to utter destruction off Vancouver Island soon after dropping off the Astorian settlers.

Before this screw-up of literally historic proportions, Thorn begrudgingly participated in recruiting some of the early Pacific Northwest’s most useful and hard-working citizens. During a February 1811 stop at Waikiki on Oahu, about two dozen young Hawaiian men joined the Tonquin expedition. 

The Hawaiians were “remarkable for their skill in managing light craft and able to swim and dive like waterfowl,” according to merchant leaders of the Astoria party. They agreed to three-year contracts in return for food, clothes and a payment of $100 each in merchandise payable at the end of their enlistments.

 

As all local schoolchildren recall even if we adults do not, the first small boat sent by Capt. Thorn to find the Columbia entrance channel on March 22, 1811, disappeared in the bar’s life-chomping tumult. All five white crewmen perished. The next day, three more of the ship’s crew were marginally reassured by having two competent Hawaiians accompany them on another semi-suicidal probe of the river’s mouth.

Thorn again showed his rotten mettle by abandoning this jolly boat when it turned back for help amidst the breakers around Cape Disappointment — “without a Rudder & only an old broken oar to steer her,” according to the headquarters logbook of the Pacific Fur Company. A vast breaker “came rolling after them and broke right over the stern of the Boat which ingulphed them all in an instant.” Tonquin armorer Stephen Weekes and Hawaiians Harry and Peter gasped to the surface alive, while the other two men drowned.

“I saw the two Sandwich Islanders struggling through the surf to get hold of the boat, and being expert swimmers they succeeded. After long struggles they got her turned on her keel, bailed out some of the water, and recovered one of the oars,” Weekes reported. “The poor fellows tried to haul me into the boat, but their strength failed them. At last, taking hold of my clothes in their teeth, they fortunately succeeded. We then stood out to sea as night set in, and a darker one I never saw.”

Before dawn, Peter died of what we now call hypothermia, while Harry “seemed to court death.” At first light, Weekes managed to steer through the surf north of the cape, where the boat was thrown high and dry. He pulled Harry to safety and covered him with leaves, expecting him to die. After crashing through the underbrush for hours, Weekes was awestruck to see the Tonquin comfortably riding at anchor inside the lee of cape. 

 

The next day, Harry “was found half-dead with cold and fatigue, his legs swollen and his feet bleeding. After much care he was restored to life,” expedition member Gabriel Franchere later recalled. In what strikes me as one of the most amazing set pieces in the history of West Coast exploration, six of the other Hawaiians honored Peter — perhaps at the beach that now bears their homeport’s name. Franchere, who also paid his respects, wrote this account:

The Islanders carried “the necessary implements to render the last rites to their compatriot.” Upon locating the body, the men dug a deep hole in the sand and then performed “the ceremonies that they observe according to their tribal customs. Each before leaving the ship had taken an offering of biscuit, pork, or tobacco. They put the biscuit under the arm of the deceased, the pork under the chin, and the tobacco under the testicles.” 

After placing Peter’s body in the grave and covering it, they formed a double line facing eastwards. “One officiating as a priest went to fetch water in his hat and having sprinkled the two rows of Islanders, began a prayer to which the others responded. Then they rose and departed and made their way towards the ship without looking back.” 

How remarkable it is to think about these men so far from home, all bearing Christian names, carrying out a funeral ceremony for their kinsman rooted in the rituals of their old gods.

The company logbook indicates that Harry had a long convalescence but was still alive at least several months later. Weekes recovered but was doomed to die a few weeks after the Tonquin sailed from Baker Bay. Some historians believe he was the last survivor who set the Tonquin’s powder magazine alight as an Indian war party bore down on him — blowing himself, his attackers and the ship to smithereens. This came after Thorn’s final fatal mistake of insulting a chief on the shore of Clayoquot Sound.

 

The “priest” who officiated at Peter’s ceremony was most likely King Kamehameha’s personal representative, Naukane, known to whites as Old Cox. Like hundreds of other Hawaiians who came after him, he ended up working for Hudson’s Bay Company in Vancouver, dying there in 1850. He claimed to have been present when Capt. James Cook was killed in Hawaii in 1779. In any event, what a life he led!

Hawaiians often intermarried with local Indian people along the Columbia and Puget Sound, until eventually their descendents forgot great-great-grandpa was from Hawaii. But their names live on here and there. Kalama, is named for a Hawaiian settler, as is Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands. In Astoria, they were largely gardeners and swineherds. In Vancouver, they formed the core workforce at our region’s first large sawmill.

As for Peter, his last name appears to be lost to history. But now I’ll always think of it as Peter’s Beach whenever I surreptitiously play with my dogs there — off-leash, joyous and wild on a noisy winter day.

Thanks to Professor Jim Ronda for sparking my interest in this subject.


Observer editor Matt Winters lives in Ilwaco with his wife and daughter. An archive of his columns is available at http://mythtown.blogspot.com.

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