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Fort George (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

On Gabriel Franchère

In 1846, Gabriel Franchère (1786 – 1863), a humble and probably “submissive” Canadien from Montreal was praised by American Senator Thomas H. Benton and spoken of as a “gentleman of Montreal,” with whom Senator Benton had “the pleasure to be personally acquainted.”

“In 1846, when the boundary question (that of the Oregon Territory in particular) was at its height, the Hon. THOMAS H. BENTON delivered in the United States Senate a decisive speech, of which the following is an extract:

‘Now for the proof of all I have said. I happen to have in my possession the book of all others, which gives the fullest and most authentic details on all the points I have mentioned—a book written at a time, and under circumstances, when the author, himself a British subject and familiar on the Columbia) had no more idea that the British would lay claim to that river, than Mr. Harmon, the American writer whom I quoted, ever thought of our claiming New Caledonia [British Columbia]. It is the work of Mr. FRANCHERE, a gentleman of Montreal, with whom I have the pleasure to be personally acquainted, and one of those employed by Mr. ASTOR in founding his colony. He was at the founding of ASTORIA, at its sale to the Northwest Company, saw the place seized as a British conquest, and continued there after its seizure. He wrote in French: his work has not been done into English, though it well deserves it; and I read from the French text. He gives a brief and true account of the discovery of the Columbia.’” [EBook #15911][1]

∗ I have underlined certain portions of my quotations. The authors I am quoting did not. They, however, used capital letters.

Moreover, J. V. Huntington, the translator and editor of Franchère’s account of his sea voyage from New York to the short-lived Fort Astoria, preferred Franchère’s Relation, published in French in 1820, to Washington Irving’s Astoria, based on Franchère’s French-language Relation. Astoria was published in 1836 and it is a Project Gutenberg publication [EBook #1371]. J. V. Huntington writes that:

“[w]ithout disparagement to Mr. IRVING’S literary, fame, I may venture to say that I found in his work inaccuracies, misstatements (unintentional of course), and a want of chronological order, which struck forcibly one so familiar with the events themselves. I thought I could show—or rather that my simple narration, of itself, plainly discovered—that some of the young men embarked in that expedition (which founded our Pacific empire), did not merit the ridicule and contempt which Captain THORN attempted to throw upon them, and which perhaps, through the genius of Mr. IRVING, might otherwise remain as a lasting stigma on their characters.”[EBook #15911][2]

Franchère’s Claim to Fame: his Book

Had Franchère not written an accurate narrative of the Tonquin‘s journey to the northwest coast of the current United States, and of events related to this sea expedition, such as the incident at the Falkland Islands and the demise of the Tonquin, I doubt that future generations would remember Gabriel Franchère. He was a simple clerk but a witness and his book, the proof. He told Astoria.[3]

In many footnotes, the editor of a reprint of Ross’s Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813 (London, 1849) refers his readers to Gabriel Franchère’s 1820 Relation.

Moreover, although Franchère seems to have emerged from the annals of history recently, he is a familiar figure to readers of Grace Lee Nute’s The Voyageur, published in 1931.

The Many Stories

War of 1812
American Expansionism
Fur trade

Given its many links: the War of 1812American Expansionism, ethnography, Gabriel Franchère’s Relation d’un voyage à la côte du Nord-Ouest de l’Amérique septentrionale dans les années 1810, 11, 12, 13 et 14 is a book that is difficult to overlook. It is moreover a fine narrative and could be considered both a récit de voyage (a traveler’s tale) and, to a certain extent, a coming-of-age story.[4] Gabriel Franchère was not in his teens, but he was young, 24, and he had never left home or met so evil a man as Captain Jonathan Thorn.

Franchère’s récit is linked to many events, but let us situate his narrative in its immediate context: the fur trade and, specifically, John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company. Franchère (Internet Archives) wrote about:

  1. the Tonquin sailing from New York to the Columbia River (Chapters I to VI);
  2. the incident at the Falkland Islands (pp. 47-49);
  3. the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) (beginning p. 54);
  4. the Sandwich Islanders taken aboard (p. 84);
  5. the deadly Columbia Bar (beginning p. 88)
  6. the naming of Mount St. Helens (p. 109);
  7. the arrival of David Thomson (p. 120);
  8. rumours of the demise of the Tonquin (p. 124);
  9. the arrival of the overland Astorians (p. 144);
  10. the account of Captain Black claiming Fort Astoria for Britain (beginning p. 166); (12 December 1813)
  11. the departure from Fort George (p. 263); (4 April 1814)
  12. an account of the Astorians’ trip north.
Gabriel Franchère

Gabriel Franchère (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Main Story

Yet the main story could be the story of Gabriel Franchère himself who, in the eyes of Senator Thomas H. Benton, was a “gentleman of Montreal” and a hero to Americans.

On 12 December 1813, the Canadien clerk (un commis) did see Captain Black of the Racoon (or Raccoon) claim Fort Astoria for Britain and rename it Fort George, in honour of George III, the reigning British monarch. Yet, Gabriel Franchère is an unlikely hero to Americans and, truth be told, an unlikely hero. He was a clerk, not a partner and, as a Canadien, he was a British subject. However, he was a witness to history and told the tale.

In a post about voyageurs, I quoted Ramsay Crooks, John Jacob Astor’s successor. In his opinion, Congress “had to make an exception in the case of voyageurs when passing a law excluding all foreigners from the American fur trade,” which is how, i.e. almost accidentally, Gabriel Franchère became an American. According to Ramsay Crooks:

“tis only in the Canadian we find that temper of mind, to render him patient docile and preserving. in [sic] short they are a people harmless in themselves whose habits of submission fit them peculiarly for our business and if guided as it is my wish they should be, will never give just cause of alarm to the Government of the Union[.][5]

Be that as it may, J. V. Huntington, Gabriel Franchère’s translator and editor, tried “[t]o preserve in the translation the Defoe-like [Robinson Crusoe] simplicity of the original narrative of the young French Canadian.”

Gabriel Franchère’s Relation was published in his life time, in 1820, but it was not republished in Quebec until 2002. Gabriel Franchère may have been an unlikely American, but he retired in Minnesota, USA, because of the Treaty of 1818, or accidentally (again).

It so happens that under the terms of the Treaty of 1818, the 49th parallel would be the boundary between Canada and the United States, which meant that territory that was American became Canadian, and territory that was Canadian ended up “south of the border.” (See Treaty of Ghent and Treaty of 1818, Wikipedia.)

The map below can be enlarged by clicking on the image.


Treaty of 1818: the Boundary between Canada and the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Grace Lee Nute writes that:

“[t]he Astorians have been famous in American history for over a century. Ramsay Crooks, W. P. Hunt, Robert McLellan, Gabriel Franchere, and the two Stuarts, Robert and David—who does not know of their heroic adventures in crossing the great West and navigating around the Horn to found near the mouth of the Columbia an American trading post named in honor of the master spirit of the enterprise, John Jacob Astor?”[6]


Sources and Ressources

  • 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, Project 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 du Nord-Ouest de l’Amérique septentrionale dans les années 1810, 11, 12, 13 et 14 (Montréal : C. B. Pasteur, 1820) (Internet Archives) FR
  • Washington Irving’s Astoria, Project Gutenberg [EBook #1371] EN
  • Ross’s Adventures of the First Setters on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813 (London, 1849) (Internet Archives) EN

With my kindest regards.

[1] Gabriel Franchère and J. V. Huntington, translator and editor, Preface to the second edition of a Narrative of a Voyage to the Northwest Coast of America in the Years 1810, 1811, 1813 and 1814, or the First American Settlement on the Pacific (New York, 1854).

[2] Ibid.

[3] See They had Witnesses To Prove It (tkmorin.com)

[4] This may also be the case with Alexander Ross‘ narrative. Ross’s Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813 (London, 1849). (Reprint, Carlisle, Massachusetts: Applewood Books).

[5] See John Jacob Astor & the Voyager as Settler and Explorer (michelinewalker.com)

[6] Grace Lee Nute, The Voyageur (St. Paul: Reprint Edition Minnesota Historical Society, 1955), p. 173. 

Gabriel Franchère (en français)



Eyewitness to Astoria by Rex Ziak

David Thomson

David Thompson

© Micheline Walker
20 June 2015