Maritime Fur Trade: The Americans In The Northwest


Between 1785 and 1794 about thirty-five British vessels traded on the Northwest Coast; in the next decade there were nine, and between 1805 and 1814, three. This decline can be explained in part by the East India Company's iron grip on British trade in the Orient, but chiefly by the prolonged European wars which grew out of the French Revolution and affected British manpower and investment capital.

As British trade declined, Americans entered the field. Two vessels pioneered the New England-Northwest-Orient trade in 1788. At least fifteen ships followed in the next seven years, and there were seventy between 1794 and 1805.

Americans were free traders; their economy had no privileged corporations. A proposal to create one comparable to the East India Company for trading with the Indians was rejected in 1786 when the Continental Congress expressed the popular opinion that "commercial intercourse between the United States and the Indians would be more prosperous if left unfettered in the hands of private adventurers, than if regulated by any system of national complexion."

At that very time, the newly independent Americans found their postwar prosperity blighted. Business houses were failing, trade stagnated, and merchants complained of the "languor" of direct trade with Europe. But, the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Wars gave the United States an opportunity to enter a worldwide market, despite efforts of the warring powers to curtail neutral enterprise. In 1790 President Washington wrote to Lafayette of a developing trade with India and of ships profitably trading at Canton. It was furs from the Pacific Northwest that gave American merchants a commodity to trade in the Orient and helped to set the new nation's economy on its feet.

John Ledyard's "Great Adventure"

The initial project to bring American ships into western waters never got out of the planning stage, yet it gave direction to the search for markets. Its originator was John Ledyard, a precocious New Englander born in 1751. His restless search for adventure--and for wealthy family connections to support him--had taken him to London, "hungering for fame." He had sailed in 1776 as a corporal of marines on Cook's momentous third voyage. Six years later, deserting the British navy, he returned to Connecticut and the following year published what purported to be his own journal of that voyage. He wrote enthusiastically of the richness and variety of sea otter pelts Cook's men had bought which "did not cost the purchaser six pence sterling," but sold in China for $100 or more.

Failing to interest American merchants in a trading voyage to exploit these resources, Ledyard went to Europe and in the capitals of Spain, France, and England, unsuccessfully sought financial backing for his scheme. In Paris he told his story to Thomas Jefferson, United States minister to France, who was immediately interested, having already considered exploring the West for reasons of state. With John Paul Jones, naval hero of the American Revolution, Ledyard worked out a plan in which they hoped French merchants would invest. It was practical, foreshadowing the pattern later used for large-scale trading enterprises. It call for

. . . two vessels . . . to proceed in company to the Northwest Coast, and commence a factory there under the American flag. The first six months were to be spent in collecting furs, and looking out for a suitable spot to establish a post, either on the main land, or on an island. A small stockade was then to be built, in which Ledyard was to be left with a surgeon, an assistant, and twenty soldiers; one of the vessels was to be despatched, with its cargo of furs, under the command of Paul Jones, to China, while the other was to remain in order to facilitate the collecting of another cargo during his absence. Jones was to return with both the vessels to China, sell their cargoes of furs, load them with silks and teas, and continue his voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to Europe, or the United States. He was then to replenish his vessels with suitable articles for traffic with the Indians, and proceed as expeditiously as possible . . . to the point of his departure in the Northern Pacific.1

They were soon discourage. They learned that Portlock and Dixon had sailed from England for the Northwest. They "have actually sailed on an expedition which was thought of by Mr. Ledyard," complained Jones, "which I should suppose must interfere with, and very much lessen the profits of any similar undertaking by others." Also, the French government frowned upon the enterprise. Jones was informed that Spain would resent any enterprise encroaching upon its interests in the Pacific. Since France had already aroused Spanish suspicions by sending out Laperouse, the French government apparently wished to avoid further complications by appearing to encourage Ledyard and Jones. Jones thereupon withdrew from the scheme.

Ledyard also gave up the idea of a trading voyage. He would win fame as an explorer of heroic dimension; he would go to the Northwest Coast and make his way alone to the sources of the Missouri and thence to "the shores of Kentucke." He found a patron in Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society of London and, by virtue of office as well as his own wide interests, a patron of world travelers and explorers. Through the assistance of R. Cadman Etches, Banks got Ledyard passage on a ship preparing to leave England for Nootka in the spring of 1786. But after Ledyard had outfitted himself at Banks' expense with a pistol, knife, hatchet, and some new clothes, he was vastly disappointed to learn that the ship was not permitted to sail. As an alternative, Ledyard decided to go via Russia and Siberia.

Ledyard's subsequent story is only remotely related to the history of the Pacific Northwest, but it serves to illustrate the complex interactions which make history. With Sir Joseph's letters of introduction to the right people, Ledyard went to Hamburg, Germany, then to Sweden, with the idea of crossing to Russia on the frozen waters of the Gulf of Bothnia. In the middle of the Gulf, he found open water, so returned to Stockholm. In a second start he traveled into frigid lands in the Arctic Circle, rounded the head of the Gulf, and descended its eastern shore to St. Petersburg. There at the end of March (1787), with the help of Banks' friends, Ledyard was able to join a party carrying supplies to the Billings expedition in Siberia.

It will be recalled that in 1778-1779 Ledyard and Billings had been shipmates on Cook's flagship, the Resolution; Ledyard, a corporal of marines; Billings, a seaman. On November 13, 1787, Captain Billings was astonished to meet "Colonel" Ledyard 6000 miles east of St. Petersburg, at Yakutsk in Siberia, and was informed that Ledyard wished to cross with the expedition to the American continent "for the purpose of exploring it on foot."

It is interesting that as Ledyard was making his way to Yakutsk, Ferdinand de Lesseps, the sole survivor of Laperouse's expedition, was en route from Kamchatka toward Yakutsk, with the dispatches, journals, and maps of the Frenchmen's Northwest explorations. Their paths did not cross.

With Billings, Ledyard traveled to Irkutsk where the expedition waited for the ice to break up. But on a February evening in 1788 two hussars appeared at Ledyard's dwelling with order to take him into custody and return him to Moscow for an inquiry. Ledyard evaded the inquiry and in the early summer was back in London at the door of his benefactor, Sir Joseph. Next he applied to the Society for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa for a commission to explore that dark continent. Asked when he could start, Ledyard replied, "Tomorrow morning." In August Ledyard wrote Jefferson from Cairo that if he survived Africa, he would yet go "to America and penetrate from Kentuske [sic] to the Western side of the continent." The following January (1789) "mad, dreaming, romantic" John Ledyard was dead.

Others were to make the continental crossing of North America; others were to reap fortunes from Northwest Coast sea otter. In the year Ledyard died, Dixon and Portlock published accounts of their two-year voyage to that coast; Charles Barkley discovered the Strait of Juan de Fuca; Billings reached the Asian coast of the Pacific; and the Canadian Alexander Mackenzie was at Lake Athabaska planning the first of two expeditions which would earn him fame as the first to cross the North American continent. And as Ledyard lay dying of fever in Cairo, the first American vessels to the Northwest Coast of America were wintering near Nootka.

Opening The China Market

Ledyard had pointed out the possibilities of the fur trade but his plans were premature. His countrymen had not yet explored the other angle of the trade--China. Robert Morris, who had rejected Ledyard's project in favor of a China voyage to see if Americans could compete with British dealers in Chinese goods, was one of several merchants who outfitted the Empress of China which sailed from New York in February, 1784. She carried a cargo of ginseng, wine and brandy, tar and turpentine, and $20,000 in specie, representing a total investment of $120,000. The liquors, tar, turpentine, and specie were traded in India for items in demand in China, such as lead, raw cotton, cotton cloth, and pepper.2

At Canton the Americans and their goods were well received, and the proceeds were invested in Chinese goods for the American market: tea, nankeens, chinaware, woven silk, and cassia, an inferior grade of cinnamon. The voyage returned a profit of 30 percent on the investment, only about one-tenth of what was reported on some later ventures, but sufficient to start a rage for East India voyages and peculations in East India goods.

The Americans made their profits by buying Chinese goods, especially nankeens, and selling them in the ports of Europe, in the West Indies, and in the markets of luxury-hungry Americans. The problem, however, was to find commodities with which to purchase Chinese goods. The only American product in demand at Canton was ginseng, which, badly prepared for shipment, brought a low price. Hence the larger part of a China investment had to be bought with scarce specie. In 1788, for example, four Canton-bound ships carried ginseng, India cotton, and "62 chests of treasure" probably amounting to $248,000. The Americans did not have enough specie to keep this up.

Captains Kendrick And Gray

Lack of specie and other high-value merchantable stock prompted six merchants to try Ledyard's idea of buying Chinese goods with furs from the Northwest Coast. They subscribed $50,000 to outfit two vessels.3

Command of the 212-ton Columbia Rediviva was given to Captain John Kendrick, who had spent most of his forty-seven years at sea. Kendrick was impressive in size and courage. His ideas were bold and unconventional; he looked upon the Northwest as a theater for great deeds. "Empires and fortunes broke on his sight," wrote his clerk, John Howell. "The paltry two-penny objects of his expedition were swallowed up in the magnitude of his Gulliverian Views. North East America was on the Lilliputian, but he designed N. W. America to be on the Brobdignagian scale." Unfortunately Kendrick lacked the persistence and stability to execute his plans. It would appear that he was intemperate in habit and disposition, a poor trader, and not to be trusted with other people's property.

The consort of the Columbia was a 90-ton sloop, the Lady Washington. Like Kendrick, her 32-year-old captain, Robert Gray, had served as a privateer during the American Revolution. Gray had neither the colorful personality nor the special weaknesses of his superior. He was a hard man, strictly attentive to the "two-penny objects" of his business--to get sea otters skins and invest them in China goods.

The two vessels left Boston on September 30, 1787, heavily armed, carrying special papers issued by the Continental Congress, and a cargo of goods ill fitted for the Northwest trade.

In the first week of August, 1788, Gray approached Oregon's southern coast. On the fourteenth he dropped anchor in a bay, probably Tillamook. The Indians brought presents of berries and boiled crabs, and traded some otter skins while the crew took on wood and water. Two days later the apparently friendly situation was reversed in an instant. An Indian killed Marcus, Gray's Negro servant; the crew escaped to the ship and, with the changing tide, the Lady Washington sailed out of Murderer's Harbor. Since it was too late in the season for extended trade, the two ships wintered in Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island.

The next summer Gray and Kendrick were at Nootka when Martinez seized Meares's ships. Kendrick assured Martinez that he and Gray were at Nootka only to make repairs to their vessels, a standard excuse of mariners attempting to enter Spain's colonial ports. Martinez was not taken in by this subterfuge; he knew that the visitors' principal object was furs. He reported that he might have taken the Americans prisoners if his orders and his situation had permitted. Since they did not, he treated them as friends and, provisioning them form Colnett's stock, permitted them to trade on the coast on condition that they make no settlement.

Apparently Kendrick tried to keep up the appearance of being a neutral bystander. On the Fourth of July, the Columbia fired several salvos of thirteen guns to celebrate thirteen years of American independence, and at noon Kendrick entertained the Spanish priests, Martinez and his officers, and the English prisoners at a splendid banquet. "For his pretended intercession for my Vessel's release," Colnett reported that he gave Kendrick a gold watch, a gesture he regretted when he found that Kendrick had received favors from Martinez.

While the Americans were still at Nootka, troubles arose between them, probably because Kendrick had an idea of developing an independent trade between the Northwest Coast, the Hawaiian Islands, and China. Gray assumed command of the Columbia and Kendrick took the Lady Washington as his own ship. He sailed to China in the fall of 1789, used the proceeds from his cargo to rerig his ship, and subsequently made voyages only in Pacific waters. Two years later Kendrick and Gray met once more, but as rival traders.

At Macao, Gray sold his furs for something more than $21,000; at Canton, he took on a cargo of tea. In February, he sailed for Boston where he arrived in August, 1790, having made a complete encirclement of the globe in the course of his three-year voyage. Boston received the Columbia with a salute of thirteen guns. A crowd of people swarmed to the wharf to welcome her and to gawk at Gray's Hawaiian boy who had replaced the Negro, Marcus. But while patriots and the curious were pleased, the Columbia's owners were disappointed to find their investment barely refunded. According to the report that was circulated, the losses were charged to Kendrick whose reputation was "suspended between the qualifications of egregious knavery and incredible stupidity."

Gray, on the other hand, was taken into the partnership. Outfitted with a suitable cargo of blue cloth, copper, iron, and a knockdown keel and frame for a small sloop, he left Boston on September 28, 1790. A quick voyage brought him to the Pacific coast in June of the following year.

Gray wintered at Adventure Cove in Clayoquote Sound, an ideal spot both for protecting the ship and for assembling the sloop. A clearing was made on the shore and within a fortified log shelter were erected a blacksmith shop and a boat builder's shed. Two saw-pits were constantly in use to cut plank sheathing from logs towed to the spot. Adventure Cove had the appearance of a "young" shipyard, reported John Boit.

In March, 1792, the sloop christened the Aventure, was hauled down the ways and supplied for a four months' cruise among the Queen Charlotte Islands under Robert Haswell, Gray's first mate. The Columbia was rigged, stowed, and made ready for sea again. But before it sailed on April 2, Captain Gray made his contribution to steadily deteriorating relations with the natives.

While the Indians in the Queen charlotte Islands had already begun to take their toll of white men--Gray lost three in a fight with them--those about Nootka and Clayoquot had remained friendly until Gray's long stay wore out their hospitality. During the winter there were signs of increasing hostility; at the end of February, a critical threat of attack.

Gray chastised the Indians severely for their unfriendliness, much to the regret of young John Boit, who was order to carry out the punishment.

. . . it was a Command I was no ways tenacious of, and am greived to think Capt. Gray shou'd let his passions go so far. This village was about half a mile in Diameter, and Contained upwards of 200 Houses, generally well built for Indians, ev'ry door that you enter'd was in resemblance to an human and Beasts head, the passage being through the mouth, besides which there was much more rude carved work about the dwelling some of which was by no means innelegant. This fine Village, the Work of Ages, was in a short time totally destroy'd.

In April, Gray sailed almost to the California line, then hauled to the north to examine the shoreline for river mouths and bays which he might enter for trade. But squally weather and strong southerly currents kept the ship beating about for safe anchorages that were few and far between. In the vicinity of 46 degrees, 10 minutes north latitude Gray noticed evidence of a large river. The outflowing current was too strong to enter.

On April 27, a calm day, he anchored on the Washington coast in a shallow bay, abreast a village Boit called Kenekomitt, probably Neah Bay, where he traded a fine lot of skins. With a storm blowing up, the Columbia weighed offshore for the night. From this position next morning, Captain Vancouver's ships, the Discovery and Chatham were sighted.

It was then that Vancouver sent Lieutenant Peter Puget and Dr. Archibald Menzies to confer with Gray, particularly about the Strait of Juan de Fuca which, it will be recalled, was one of the prime objects of his exploration. As mentioned, Vancouver was not impressed with Gray's report of a large river to the south. After amenities were exchanged, he sailed on to his exploration of Puget Sound, and negotiations with Bodega at Nootka. Gray turned south once more on the chance that good weather would permit him to examine the coast more carefully.

On May 7, he saw an inlet "which had a very good appearance of a harbor." With the small boat signaling depths, the Columbia stood for the bar. A quick run between the breakers took her into a comfortable harbor with Gray called Bulfinch, but which the Columbia's officers named Gray's Harbor.

A large number of Indians put out in their canoes. Boit noted that their language was different from that of others they had met, and that "Without doubt we are the first Civilized people that ever visited this port. . . ." A brisk trade followed, but in the late evening the natives began to act hostile. In the moonlight, Gray saw their war canoes approaching. After several warning shots, he ordered a broadside on the nearest canoe, containing about twenty men, and "dash'd her all to pieced and no doubt kill'd every soul in her." But artillery fire seemed to have no damaging effect upon trade. The next day a number of Chehalis came to trade salmon, beaver skins, and otter for cloth, iron, and copper.

Toward sunset, May 10, 1792, the Columbia cleared Grays Harbor, her course set for the bay where Gray had seen signs of a river several weeks before. The next morning according to his official log:

At four, A.M., saw the entrance of our desired port bearing east-south-east, distance six leagues; in steering sails, and hauled our wind in shore. At eight A.M., being a little to windward of the entrance of the Harbor, bore away, and run in east-north-east between the breakers, having from five to seven fathoms of water.

It was a fresh clear morning, the wend from the north. If Gray had not been so intent upon the progress of the pinnace that guided his ship over the bar, he might have noted that the river lay before him like a widening stream of silver in the morning sun; that the hills were flushed with the sunrise; that wisps of fog were caught in the trees that crowed close to the water's edge. If Gray had had the compulsions of a discoverer, he would have felt the thrill of his life as he ran into the broad estuary of the river about whose existence men had speculated so long. But he was a trader and whatever exploration he made was to find unspoiled Indians eager to exchange furs for beads and bright bits of cloth and metal.

The natives "appear'd to view the Ship with the greatest astonishment," reported John Boit, yet Gray's hope of a brisk trade in this previously unvisited spot was only partly fulfilled. The Indians traded cheaply enough: two salmon for a nail, four otter skins for a sheet of copper, a beaver skin for two spikes, and less valuable furs for one. But during his stay in the river, Gray traded only 150 sea otter, 300 beaver skins, and numerous other of less value. There was no reason to believe that this was a profitable stop for otter.

A short run upriver, jeopardized by sand bars, satisfied whatever curiosity Gray had about the river's course. There is no evidence that he thought it important. John Boit recorded that he ". . . landed abrest the Ship with Capt. Gray to view the Country." Modern scholarship has shown that three words "and take possession" were inserted at a later date and by a different hand. The fragment remaining of the official log of the Columbia says nothing about taking possession.

On May 20 Gray put out to sea. He returned to Nootka where he gave a sketch of the river's entrance to Bodega who later passed it along to Vancouver. From Nootka, Gray went to Canton where he sold his furs and bought a modestly profitable cargo of China goods. He dropped anchor in Boston July 29, 1793.

Gray's discovery later gave the United States a tenuous claim to these parts of the Northwest. But his chief contribution to history was his pioneering of the New England-Northwest-Canton trade which the sea otter made possible.

The Sea Otter

The fur of the sea otter was especially beautiful and highly prized by those who could afford it. A thick, fine underfur tipped to brown-black and sprinkled with a few long silver guard hairs gave a shimmering effect when moved by so little as a breath of air. The adult make pelt was about five feet long and twenty-five to thirty inches wide, that of the female somewhat smaller. A number of these carefully pieced together made royal robes for wealthy mandarins; tails and oddments were used for caps and for borders on elaborate gowns. Indians too valued the sea otter skin above all others; only chiefs could afford to wear robes made of them and two skins would purchase a slave.

These gregarious aquatic mammals (Lutra enhydris marina) were found only on Pacific shores where reefs or rocks gave them protection from storms and heavy surf, and where in floating beds of kelp they bore and raised their pups.4 Some traders of uncommon sensibilities spoke of the animals as if they had personalities. They were friendly and fearless until they discovered that men were their enemies. Both male and female guarded their pups from danger, and when they felt secure, gamboled and played with them in almost human fashion.

California, British Columbia, northern Washington, and Alaskan shores provided favorable habitats. The Oregon coast was, on the whole, unfavorable. Gray traded a few skins at Cape Orford and Tillamook Bay and only 150 in the Columbia River. Foster Dulles, in The Old China Trade (1930), estimated that between 1790 and 1812 Canton's imports from the "Northwest Coast of America" averaged about 12,000 skins a year. William Sturgis, who participated in the trade, says that in 1802 15,000 skins were carried to Canton, and he implies that this was a peak year both in number of ships and of furs. Probably less than half of these cargoes were marketed at Macao. The total number of skins taken from the Pacific Coast may have been as high as 200,000.

The sea otter pelt brought higher prices than any other fur in the China market. The top price of $100 for a complete skin paid to Cook's men in 1779, was bettered by Captain Hanna six years later, when he was said to have received $140 a pelt. In 1790 the price ranged from $25 to $45. Sometimes the market was glutted and the Hong merchants prohibited imports; in 1800 and 1804 there was a shortage and the price rose to $50. Using a rough estimate of 200,000 pelts and an average price of $30, the total value may have been about $6,000,000. Invested in Chinese goods that were sold in Europe, the West Indies, and the United States, the proceeds from the maritime fur trade were a stimulus to the American economy, and the foundation of several New England family fortunes.

The Schedule Of Voyages

The great period of the Pacific Northwest maritime trade was from 1787 to the outbreak of the war between Great Britain and the United States in 1812, when it practically ceased. During these years the trade had so largely fallen into the hands of Boston traders that the Indians called all Americans "Boston men" to distinguish them from the British, "King George's men."

The small vessels engaged in the trade usually set out in the early fall, stopped at the Falkland Islands and at San Juan Fernandez, or some South American Pacific port, and with good luck reached the Hawaiian Islands the following spring. Refitted and replenished, they caught the prevailing winds to the Oregon coast.

After 1795 traders seldom visited Nootka. Their first stop was at Newettee on the northwestern promontory of Vancouver Island, or Kygarney (Kargahnee) on one of the Queen Charlotte Islands. According to John D'Wolf, in 1804-1805 this was "the best place of resort for ships on their first arrival, to obtain information for establishing a rate of trade."5

Most traders returned to the more congenial climate of the Hawaiian Islands for the winter. A few, particularly in the early days of the trade, wintered wherever they found a protected port and friendly Indians. Nootka had once been so favored and we have seen how Gray and Kendrick wintered in Clayoquot Sound. Apparently Puget Sound was seldom visited because the Indians had the reputation of being "bandity."

A second summer was spent cruising the northern islands or the California shores. In the autumn, the captain headed once more for the Hawaiian Islands en route to China where the furs were sold and the returns invested in Chinese goods. The voyage home was by way of the Cape of Good Hope, sometimes with leisurely port-to-port detours through the Mediterranean before continuing to the West Indies, then home to Boston or Salem.

The Columbia As A Port Of Call

Although there were relatively few otter in the Columbia River it became a port of call and a few traders wintered in the river. Captain James Baker of the little 78-ton Jenny hove his ship into Baker's (Ilwaco) Bay shortly after Gray left the river in May, 1792. He was there again when Lieutenant Broughton arrived in October. The Jenny's sister ship, the Ruby, arrived in the spring of 1795 and Captain Charles Bishop, preparing to winter, planted a small sandy island with peas, beans, potatoes, radishes, mustard, cress, and celery seeds. When he returned in October, he found the potatoes plentiful and good but the "reddishes" had gone to seed, and with the exception of several bean plants, the rest of the garden stuff had disappeared.

In 1805, Lewis and Clark obtained from the Indians a list of thirteen traders who visited the Columbia; but the explorers' interpretation of the native rendering of these names make most of them difficult, of not impossible, to identify. In 1813 Alexander Henry saw the names of traders carved on the trees at Cape Disappointment, giving him reason to suppose this harbor had been "much frequented" by Americans. The Indians' vocabularies reflected considerable contact with white men. Lewis and Clark reported that they used "many blackguard phrases" and common profanities with ease and had a vocabulary of such words as musket, powder, shot, knife, and file.

A commercial people themselves, the Chinooks of the lower river quickly adapted themselves to the white man's commerce. So long as he wanted what they had in abundance and did not value, and so long as there was no rival to bid up prices, trading was a simple matter. In the early days, a nail, a piece of iron or copper, castoff jackets, mirrors, or strings of thimbles bought prime otter skins. But those times passed quickly. Captain Bishop found the Indians of the Columbia considerably wiser than they had been three years before when Gray and Baker first opened trade. His journal tells that:

. . . we expected of course from the Information we hitherto had of these People that with the choice goods that compose our cargo, we should have been able to procure them [furs] in ways of Barter readily and with ease, but our disappointment might be better conceived than expressed when after bartering and shewing them a great variety of articles for the whole day we did not purchase a single Fur. Tea Kettles, sheet Copper, a variety of fine cloths and in short the most valuable articles of our Cargo were shewn without producing the desired Effect, and in the Evening the whole of them took to their cannoes, and paddled to the shore, leaving us not more disappointed then surprized. . . .6

The next day the natives "began to set their own Price on the Skins which as may be seen from their behaviour yesterday was not moderate." On the third day, Bishop "broke trade," but not at prices he wanted.

In one interesting respect the Columbia River trade apparently differed from that of other coastal localities. Bishop found a local product of Chinookan handicraft, the clamon, valuable in trading for furs with other natives of the northern coast:

. . . the best trade is the Leather War Dresses, articles to be disposed of, on other parts of the Coast, to great advantage, we procured such a Quantity, that at the least estimation is expected will procure us near 700 Prime Sea otter Skins. These dresses are made from the Hide of the Moose Deer which are very large and thick, this is dressed into a kind of White leather, and doubled, & is when properly made up, a complete defence against a Spear or an Arrow, and sufficient almost to resist a Pistol Ball.

When guns were put into the hands of the Indians, leather war dresses were useless and no longer manufactured.

By 1805, demands of both whites and natives had expanded. The traders brought guns, outmoded British and American muskets, powder, balls, and shot, brass kettles and pots, blankets, scarlet and blue cloth, sheets of copper, wire knives, buttons, beads, tobacco, sailor clothing, and rum. They took in exchange skins of all animals, dressed or undressed elk hides, packed dried salmon, and a baked breadstuff made from pounded wapato root.

At Kargahnee, ermine skins were highly prized by the natives. In 1804 shrewd William Sturgis imported 5000 ermine from Leipzig, worth less than 30 cents in the Boston market, and traded them to the Indians at the rate of five ermine skins for one sea otter. In one afternoon he bartered 560 prime otter, worth $50 a skin in the China trade.

Wherever competition was strong, as it usually was on the British Columbia coast, firearms were bartered, and as a result, the Indians became more hostile. Furthermore, they were encouraged to overkill furbearing animals so that the sea otter was practically extinct in the north by 1800.

California's shores had a rich supply but the Spanish prohibited foreigners from trading with their Indians. In 1805 Captain John D'Wolf, master of the Juno, while a guest of Governor Baranov at the Russian settlement on Norfolk Sound, invited his host to share in an expedition to California, using Kodiak Indians to hunt otter offshore in order to avoid Spanish restrictions. Baranov's superior, Baron Resanov, fearing to offend the Spanish because the Russians were dependent upon them for supplies, refused. In 1810 the Winship family of Boston, with enterprising leadership and large capital resources, enlarged on D'Wolf's plan. They contracted with the Russians to use Aleut hunters on the California coast, to supply the Russians with goods, and to market their furs in China.

To carry on such an enterprise, the Winships needed a depot in neutral waters, located midway between the Russian posts and the California hunting grounds. The Columbia River was such a site. It could be claimed as an American river since Lewis and Clark had wintered at its mouth in 1805-1806; it was navigable; and its shores could provide enough foodstuff to support the settlement and the Russians as well.

In late May, 1810, the Albatross, with supplies and livestock, arrived in the river, and Captain Nathan Winship chose a site some forty miles upriver on the south shore opposite present Oak Point, Washington. Some of the crew had started to hew logs for a fort, while others cleared a garden spot, when flood waters forced them to move their location a quarter-mile downstream. Work had hardly resumed when a massing of Indians signified trouble; the natives' repeated warning that the white men should leave were finally heeded and the project was abandoned.

The Winships' attempt at settlement was significant not simply because it was the first effort to build an American post in the Pacific Northwest, but because enterprising merchants saw the Columbia River as a vital link in an enlarged commerce involving American seaports, Russian Alaska, Spanish California, the Hawaiian Islands, and the Orient. The Winships were pioneers by only a matter of months. Their idea, born of the maritime trade, was to become effective with the development of the land fur trade. When that happened, the Columbia River became the western depot of a trade that spanned the continent.


1Jared Sparks, Life of John Ledyard (1828), 155.

2Samuel E. Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860 (1921); H.B. Morse, Chronicles of the East Indian Company Trading to China, 1635-1834, 5 vols. (1926-1929).

3They were Joseph Barrell, Samuel Brown, and Charles Bulfinch, Boston, Crowell Hatch, Cambridge, John Derby, Salem, and John Pintard, New York.

4Karl Kenyon, The Seals, Sea-Lion, and Sea Otter of the Pacific Coast, U.S. Department of the Interior (1955); Alan May, "The North Sea Otter," Natural History, June 1943; Adele Ogden, California Sea Otter Trade, 1784-1848 (1941); Victor B. Scheffer, "The Sea Otter on the Washington Coast," PNQ, October 1940.

5John D'Wolf, Voyage to the North Pacific . . . (1861), 18.

6"Journal of the Ruby," T.C. Elliott, ed., OHQ, September 1927, 262.