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(Photo credit: www.gotofino.com)

The above is a depiction, by Mark Myers, of the Tonquin, a 290-ton bark, une barque, used by John Jacob Astor‘s ill-fated Pacific Fur Company. John Jacob Astor bought the Tonquin on 23 August 1810 from Fanning and Coles. (See The Tonquin, Wikipedia).

Although Alexander Ross described the sinking of the Tonquin, he was not aboard the ship when it was attacked by Nootka Amerindians at Clayoquot Sound, in June 1811. It seems an Astorian left aboard the ship blew it up. As the story was conveyed to Alexander Ross, “one hundred and seventy-five Amerindians perished[.]” (Ross reprint, p. 170.) Alexander Ross writes that Captain Thorn’s temper “was cruel and over-bearing,—and his fate verifies the sacred decrees, that ‘he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath showed no mercy.’” (Ross reprint, p. 171.) According to Ross’ report, not only had Captain Thorn (8 January 1779 – 15 June 1811) insulted the Amerindians, but he had also detained two chiefs.

On the 12th Day of December

Young Alexander Ross had remained at Fort Astoria when the Tonquin set sail to the north, its crew and passengers hoping to collect precious pelts. However, on 12 December 1813, he witnessed Fort Astoria’s “death-warrant:”

“On the 12th Day of December [1813], the death-warrant of short-lived Astoria was signed.” (Ross reprint, p. 250.)

On that day, Captain Black, who arrived on the Racoon, took possession of Fort Astoria and renamed it Fort George, in honour of his “Britannic Majesty” George III. However, men employed by the Montreal-based North West Company had preceded Captain Black by more than a year, nearly two. The soon-to-be Fort George had already become the property of the North West Company. Captain Black acted graciously, but there was no reward for him and his men at Fort George.

Let us now trace our way back to the beginning of Gabriel Franchère’s Narrative, a year before the Tonquin’s demise on the west coast of Vancouver island, at Clayoquot Sound, but also, a year before, to her losses at the entrance to the Columbia River.

Franchère’s Story Begins …

The Pacific Fur Company (est. 24 June 1810)
Gabriel Franchère
Voyageurs to New York

Gabriel Franchère (3 Nov. 1786 in Montreal – d. 12 April 1863 in St Paul, Minn.) was entrusted by John Jacob Astor to take voyageurs to the Columbia River and the Oregon Country. He is the author of a Narrative of a Voyage to the Northwest Coast of America in the Years 1811, 1812, 1813, and 1814; or, the First American Settlement on the Pacific. Born in Quebec, he was the son of Gabriel Franchère, merchant, and Félicité Morin (Miron, Marin). Franchère joined the Pacific Fur Company, founded on 24 June 1810, as a clerk.

Franchère travelled down Lake Champlain in a canoe. There must have been some portage, but, by and large, rivers were found all the way to Long Island. The canoe was in fact put on a wagon (une charette) and the voyageurs went down the Hudson River. (Gabriel Franchère’s Narrative, 24-25)

Gabriel Franchère

Franchère takes Astorians from New York to the Oregon Country
Narratives of the Voyage

As John Jacob Astor’s employee, Gabriel Franchère is remembered for his taking Canadiens voyageurs around Cape Horn and up to Fort Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River, today’s Astoria, Oregon (US).

But more importantly, Franchère kept notes on the Astor Expedition and, as mentioned above, he wrote a narrative of his epic journey, which was used by Washington Irving, the author of Astoria (1836), a book commissioned by John Jacob Astor. However, Franchère’s book has now been recognized as a very fine and accurate account of the Astor Expedition. It is a good book, reflecting uncommon understanding and sensitivity on the part of its author.

Aboard the Tonquin

Aboard the Tonquin when she left New York on 8 September, 1810, were partners Duncan McDougall, Robert Stuart and his uncle David Stuart, and Alexander MacKay, who took along his 13-year son, Alexander Ross (9 May 1783 – 23 Oct. 1856), not a partner (See Alexander MacKay, Wikipedia.) Alexander MacKay co-founded Fort Astoria. Also aboard were 12 clerks and 13 Canadian voyageurs, plus four tradesmen: Augustus Roussel, a blacksmith; Johann Koaster, a carpenter; Job Aitkem, a boat builder; and George Bell, a cooper. (See Tonquin, Wikipedia.)

The Falkland Islands

Stopover: fresh water
Captain Thorn’s callousness

I should include the ship’s crew and captain Jonathan Thorn (8 January 1779 – 15 June 1811) who was nearly shot to death by Robert Stuart when he set sail off the Falkland Islands, leaving behind Robert’s uncle, David Stuart, and 8 men (See Robert Stuart, Wikipedia.) Gabriel Franchère and other Astorians were nearly abandoned. In his Narrative, Gabriel Franchère writes that “nothing could excuse the act of cruelty and barbarity of which he was guilty.” (Franchère’s Narrative, pp. 48-49.)

Until it reached Fort Astoria, the story of the Tonquin is, by virtue of its subject-matter, an extraordinary story, but not a tragedy, except for Jonathan Thorn’s callous behaviour. The ship stopped at the uninhabited Falkland Islands because it needed small repairs and because its crew and passengers were nearly out of fresh water. However, had it not been for Robert Stuart, Jonathan Thorn would have caused the death of David Stuart and 8 men, one of whom was Franchère. In one description of Captain Thorn, Franchère states that:

“[h]is haughty manners, his rough and overbearing disposition, had lost him the affection of most of the crew and all the passengers.” (Franchère’s Narrative, pp. 48-49.)

Naukane, by Paul Kane

Naukane, by Paul Kane, 1847 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hawaiian Islands, or  Sandwich Islands

Hawaiian Islands (formerly, the Sandwich Islands)

The Tonquin also stopped in the Hawaiian Islands, then called the “Sandwich Islands” and “Karakakooa.” It took aboard Naukane (ca. 1779 – 2 February 1850), the son of high chief Tamanawa. At Oahu, 20 men, called kanakas, were also taken aboard and placed under the care of Naukane (ca. 1779 – 2 February 1850). Other explorers had stopped at the Sandwich Islands. Captain James Cook was murdered on one of the Islands, in 1779.

Naukane’s name was changed to John or George Cox(e). Naukane sailed to England twice. In 1812, he travelled to Britain on the ship Isaac Todd. Later, in 1823, King Kamehameha II, of Hawaii, and Naukane were both sent to England to meet George IV, who ascended to the throne when George III grew mentally incapable of functioning as King of the United Kingdom.

After the demise of the Pacific Fur Company, in late 1813, Naukane returned to Hawaii. However, he would journey back to the Pacific Northwest and join the North West Company, as would Alexander Ross. He married a very young Aboriginal woman and lived at Kanaka, near Fort Vancouver. He died at Fort Vancouver. (See Naukane, Wikipedia.)

The Tonquin at the Columbia Bar,

The Tonquin at the Columbia Bar  (Photo credit: Internet Archives)


Astoria, as it was in 1813 (Photo credit: Internet Archives)

The Tonquin’s Sorry Fate

The Columbia Bar
Men died

There are two endings to the story of the Tonquin. When the boat arrived at the entrance of the Columbia River, it faced a deadly obstacle: the Columbia bar, known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. Three boats were dispatched on successive days to find an entrance to the Columbia River. This search claimed some eight lives, including the life of one the kanakas.

Astorians began building Fort Astoria, but the Tonquin sailed north to her death at Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. By leaving Fort Astoria, Captain Thorn had also imperiled the men he left behind. They could no longer escape, which meant that they were at the mercy of Amerindians and facing difficult circumstances. The characteristics that make Oregon a fine destination, its gigantic trees in particular, were a nightmare to men building a fort. How could such trees be felled?

You know the rest of the story. Insulted and otherwise provoked by Jonathan Thorn, the Nootka Amerindians retaliated.


As written above, Fort Astoria was renamed Fort George after the War of 1812, when Captain Black, aboard the Racoon, claimed Fort Astoria for George III. A few months later, on 4 April 1814, Gabriel Franchère and other Astorians (Internet Archives, p. 263), left Fort George.

“We quitted Fort George (or Astoria if you please) on Monday morning, the 4th of April, 1814, in ten canoes, five of which were bark and five of cedar wood, carrying each seven men and crew, and two passengers, in all ninety persons, and all well armed.” (Narrative, p. 263)

Gabriel Franchère returned to Montreal. As noted above, Alexander Ross joined the North West Company and then the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), when the North West Company was merged with the HBC, in 1821. Ross married an Okanagan Amerindian princess and eventually settled in the Earl of Selkirk‘s Red River Colony, present-day Winnipeg. His descendants are Métis.

The Astor Expedition was not a complete failure. The Oregon Trail was traced, giving settlers a road to follow as they travelled west of the former Louisiana. The Oregon Trail allowed them to circumvent impassable terrain: a terrifying mountain range.

As for Franchère’s Narrative, it is, as I wrote above, a fine book written by a fine man. It stands on its own merit. What Franchère wrote about Captain Jonathan Thorn corroborates Alexander Ross’ description.

As he concludes his narrative, Gabriel Franchère points out that Irving did not give a completely accurate account of Astoria.

Washington Irving was a writer of fiction. It is therefore unlikely that he conveyed the real truth about Astoria. The truth he conveyed would be “poetical.” It may in fact resemble the truth about the demise of the Tonquin. 

The truth about the Tonquin’s final moments is not the truth an eye-witness would tell, yet we know that Ross’ account reveals a more profound truth, which is that Captain Thorn’s death,

“verifies the sacred decrees, that ‘he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath showed no mercy.’” (Ross reprint, p. 171)

With kindest regards.


Sources and Resources

  • Washington Irving, Astoria, Gutenberg [EBook #1371]
  • Gabriel Franchère and J. V. Huntington, Narrative of a Voyage to the Northwest Coast, Gutenberg [EBook #15911] EN
  • Gabriel Franchère and J. V. Huntington, Narrative of a Voyage to the Northwest Coast of America in the Years 1811,1812,1813, and 1814; or, the First American Settlement on the Pacific, Internet Archives EN
  • Gabriel Franchère, Relation d’un voyage à la côte Nord-Ouest de l’Amérique septentrionale dans les années 1810, 11, 12, 13 et 14 (Montréal : C.B. Pasteur, 1820) (Internet Archives) FR
  • Ross, Alexander: Ross’s Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813 (Internet Archives) EN
  • Alexander Ross, Ross’s Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813 (London: Smith, Elder and Co. 1849 [Reprint Carlisle Massachusetts: Applewood Books]). 

The Tonquin Ship

The Tonquin Ship

© Micheline Walker
10 June 2015