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The Oregon Trail: An American Sagaby David Dary
Before the first Europeans arrived, people had lived in Oregon for more than 10,000 years. Anthropologists believe as many as 180,000 natives in about 125 tribes once made modern Oregon their home. Of these the best known today are the Chinooks who lived along the lower Columbia River and on the narrow coastal plains between the rugged Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean from Shoalwater Bay north of the Columbia to Tillamook Head, about fifty miles south of the river's mouth. They also ranged inland from the mouth of the Columbia to a large rapids first called The Dalles by French-Canadian trappers, who gave it a French name meaning "rapids of a river going through a narrow gorge."
The Chinooks, named for the warm, moist southwest wind blowing in from the Pacific Ocean, included the Cooniac, Cascade, Clatsop, Clackamas, Multnomah, and Wasco tribes, which all spoke the same language. Many lived in multifamily cedar-plank houses forty to sixty feet long and twenty feet wide that were roofed with bark or boards. Trading with other tribes was their pleasure. Their livelihood came from fishing, hunting, and gathering nuts, berries, and plant food. They hunted game with bows and arrows, and they were skilled boat builders, shaping their canoes from single cedar logs. Their smallest canoe carried only one person and the largest as many as sixty. Using a homemade twine seine made from nettles, the crew of a large canoe could catch two tons of salmon on a single outgoing tide on the Columbia River.
The Chinook women wore skirts of deerskin thongs fastened to a braided belt. In the winter both men and women wore furs for warmth. They flattened the temples of their children's heads with headboards on their cradleboards. Their society was highly stratified and based on voluntary cooperation and association. They were among the wealthiest natives north of Mexico, so wealthy that they could afford to devote two months each winter to artistic and spiritual pursuits. Their culture was rich.
But then the Europeans came. The events leading to their discovery of Oregon began centuries earlier when Marco Polo, at the age of seventeen, joined his father and uncle, both Venetian merchants, on a long overland journey to China. They left Venice in 1271 and were gone about twenty-four years, seventeen of which were spent in China. They returned to Venice in 1295, and when they recounted stories of their travels, the Venetians found them difficult to believe, many thinking they were fables. Marco Polo soon entered the military and about three years later was taken prisoner while commanding a Venetian galley during a battle in a war between Venice and Genoa. While in a prison at Genoa, Polo dictated the story of his travels to another prisoner, a writer of romances named Rustichello da Pisa. After Venice and Genoa made peace in 1299, Polo and Rustichello were released from prison. Polo's manuscript was widely copied, translated, and circulated in many versions. When mass printing developed late in the fifteenth century, Polo's manuscript appeared in book form and reached an even wider audience. His descriptions of jewels, silks, porcelain, and spices such as cinnamon, pepper, and cloves, plus paper money, eyeglasses, ice cream, spaghetti and other Oriental discoveries, fascinated readers. These Europeans found it difficult to believe that there was a civilization larger and more advanced than theirs. In fact, it took nearly a century before Polo's account was accepted as more fact than fiction. His book became the basis for some of the first accurate maps of Asia produced in Europe.
The fifteenth century marked the beginning of the great age of Western discovery and exploration that took place along with the Renaissance, the revival of the classical forms developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the intensified concern with secular life, humanism, and the importance of the individual. Apparently inspired by Polo's belief that the Orient and its riches might be reached by sailing west from Europe, Christopher Columbus set sail in three small caravels, the Santa María, the Niña, and the Pinta, in 1492. Columbus carried with him a copy of Marco Polo's book in which he had made notations on the margins of some pages. Columbus, of course, found the Americas and not the Orient, but believing he had reached India or the East Indies, he labeled the natives as "Indians." It was a few years later that Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian navigator, sailed along the northern coast of South America and concluded in 1499 that the lands discovered by Columbus belonged to a new continent and not the Orient. Martin Waldseemüller, a German geographer and mapmaker, read Vespucci's journal and suggested the new lands be called America, an adaptation of Vespucci's first name. By then King Henry VII had sent John Cabot, the English navigator and explorer, to find a direct western route to the Orient. Aboard his ship the Matthew with a crew of eighteen, Cabot left Bristol in May 1497 and in late June landed on what must have been Cape Breton Island, now part of Nova Scotia, and then sailed along what is today the coasts of Labrador, Newfoundland, and New England. Cabot claimed his discovery for England.
As the sixteenth century began, the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan sailed around the tip of Africa to India and later followed the same route on a voyage to the East Indies. By then Magellan had concluded that one should be able to sail southwest from Europe around or through South America to the Orient. After the Portuguese king turned down Magellan's request for a fleet of ships with which to prove his theory, Magellan renounced his Portuguese citizenship and persuaded the king of Spain to finance the journey. Magellan got his ships, left Spain, and sailed southwest to South America and then along its coast. He found no passage through the continent, but at the tip of South America he discovered a passage around the continent that became known as the Strait of Magellan. Once on the west coast of South America, he named the calm ocean he had entered the Pacific.
Although Magellan did not find a water route through South America, for the next two centuries Europeans continued to believe that such a passage existed. Spaniards came to call the imagined route the Strait of Anian, while English and French explorers, searching in North America, called it the Northwest Passage. King Francis I of France sent Jacques Cartier in search of the route in 1534. After twenty days at sea, Cartier sighted Newfoundland and soon discovered the Saint Lawrence River, giving France a claim to what is now Canada. Beginning in 1576, a succession of English explorers searched for the Northwest Passage starting with Sir Martin Frobisher, who was followed in 1585 by John Davis. Next was Henry Hudson, who in 1610 found Hudson Bay but no Northwest Passage. Robert Bylot followed about 1615, with Luke Fox and Thomas James sailing into Hudson Bay in 1631. All of them had been encouraged to seek such a passage by English merchants and statesmen who wanted to establish trade with the Orient, but none found it.
As the French and English were exploring the east coast of North America, the Spanish were searching the east coast of Central America for the Strait of Anian. In September 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa found the Pacific Ocean after crossing the swampy Isthmus of Panama. Spain then sent Hernando Cortés around the tip of South America and up the west coast of North America seeking the Strait of Anian. In 1532, Cortez discovered the southern tip of what is now Baja California, but he probably did not name it California. The earliest known reference to the name California appears in a 1539 diary written by a Spaniard on one of three ships sailing up the Pacific coast under the command of Francisco de Ulloa, who apparently believed Baja California was an island. Whether the writer of the diary, Ulloa, or someone else named it California is not known, but most authorities believe the name was taken from an early-sixteenth-century novel written by a Spaniard, García Rodríguez Ordoñez de Montalvo. The novel's English title is The Exploits of Esplandian, and one of the characters is beautiful Calafia, the queen of California, a mythical island inhabited solely by black women who lived in the manner of Amazons.
In 1542 another explorer, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, began sailing up the coast of what is now California, mapping the coast, naming prominent landmarks, and going ashore in some areas. But on what is now Catalina Island, Cabrillo suffered a broken limb and soon died from complications. Cabrillo's chief pilot, Bartolomé Ferrer, took control and continued north, perhaps reaching the coast of modern Oregon. But Ferrer, like the others, failed to find the fabled Northwest Passage. Most of the names Cabrillo gave to landmarks have since been forgotten because about sixty years later, the Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno, sailing north from Acapulco, renamed the places named by Cabrillo in order to give himself credit for new discoveries. Vizcaíno and his men went ashore at the fine bay and held mass. Since it was the day of St. Didacus, who in Spanish is called San Diego, Vizcaíno so named the bay. San Diego was also the name of his ship. Sailing up the coast, Vizcaíno named modern San Pedro Bay after the saint who had been martyred in Constantinople; gave an island off the coast the name Santa Catalina, after St. Catherine, patron of Christian philosophers; and named Santa Barbara after the patron of artillerymen and all men in danger of sudden death. Later he named Monterey Bay after the viceroy who had sent him on the voyage. Nearby, his Carmelite friars named the Carmel River after their own order. Aside from Monterey Bay, Vizcaíno used little imagination in naming places and things. He either looked at the religious calendar or asked his friars which saint's day it was and gave the places that name. Because Vizcaíno's names were hallowed, the padres who came later preserved them in reverence, while those given by Cabrillo disappeared.
At the time Vizcaíno was sailing up the coast, ship traffic in the waters off California was pretty much limited to the somewhat regular Spanish vessels loaded with riches returning from Manila in the Philippines. The Spanish navigators found Pacific currents favorable for reaching North America just north of Baja California. There they turned their ships south and sailed to their destinations. It was the treasure these Spanish ships carried that attracted Sir Francis Drake to these waters aboard his ship the Golden Hind in 1579. Drake was secretly commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I to undertake an expedition against Spanish colonies on the Pacific coast and also to seek the Northwest Passage. After sailing through the Strait of Magellan into the Pacific, Drake plundered Valparaiso and other Spanish ports. He then captured Spanish treasure ships returning from the Philippines before sailing as far north as the present U.S.-Canadian border looking for an inland passage across North America. Not finding one, he sailed south and anchored his ship for repairs at an inlet north of modern San Francisco which is now called Drake's Bay. He claimed the region for England and named it New Albion.
By then European explorers were sailing in ships much larger than those used earlier by Columbus and others. The ships had four or five masts, high forecastles, poop decks, and two or more tiers of guns. They were the great ships that traveled the oceans during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Drake's Golden Hind was such a ship. The maps Drake and other early explorers brought with them from Europe were of little help. In fact, they were not reliable and contained mostly imagined details of the Americas. Some of these maps showed North America as no more than a land extension of Asia, with the Gulf of Mexico opposite the Bay of Bengal. Cuba was even portrayed as an island off Asia. Only after explorers returned to Europe with their charts did mapmakers begin to produce more accurate maps. When Sir Francis Drake captured Spanish treasure ships in the Pacific during the late sixteenth century, he took their charts, since they were more accurate than his own. The belief that America was an extension of Asia disappeared early in the eighteenth century when Vitus Jonassen Bering proved that the Asian and North American continents were not joined. Bering, who entered the Russian navy under Czar Peter the Great in 1724, explored the water routes between Siberia and North America, sailing through what became known as the Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean in 1728. Bering and another Russian explorer, Alexi Chirikov, discovered rich furs in the region, which quickly overshadowed their quest for the mythical Northwest Passage. Their discoveries led Catherine the Great, ruler of Russia, to organize a trading company in 1766 to establish a trading post on Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska.
The arrival of Russians along the far northwest Pacific coast prompted Spain to send Juan Pérez to the area in 1774, and the following year Bruno de Hezeta and Bodega y Quadra sailed into the region from the south. As Hezeta sailed near the mouth of what is now known as the Columbia River, he felt a strong current and saw discolored water, but with the fog and because his men were sick with scurvy, he did not discover the river. Next came Captain James Cook. After two successful voyages in the Pacific the English Parliament offered to give him 20,000 pounds if he discovered the Northwest Passage. With two ships, the Resolution and the Discovery, Cook sailed south from England in July 1776, around the continent of Africa, across the Indian Ocean, and into the Pacific and then northward. He discovered and named the Sandwich Islands in honor of his friend and sponsor, the Earl of Sandwich. These islands later became known as the Hawaiian Islands. Cook then sailed toward the east and sighted the coast of modern Oregon in March 1778, but he never found the fabeled Northwest Passage. He did land on the west coast of modern Vancouver Island and established a fort and spent time repairing his ships, obtaining supplies, and trading with the natives. He bought furs at sixpence each and later sold them in China for about 160 percent profit. John Ledyard, an American sailing with Cook, would later inform Thomas Jefferson, the United States minister to France, of the fur-trading potential of the Pacific Northwest.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2004 by David Dary
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