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Peter Stark: The Interview

It's hard to believe that 200 years ago, the Pacific Northwest was one of the most remote and isolated regions in the world. In 1810, four years after Lewis and Clark's successful crossing of the continent, New York businessman John Jacob Astor organized and financed an expedition to establish the first commercial settlement on the West Coast. Two advance parties made up of 140 members set out on the long, arduous journey to the Pacific Coast. Three years later, nearly half of them had died. In Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire, author Peter Stark recounts this captivating tale of madness, starvation, and survival under extreme hardship.

In a Starred Review, Kirkus calls Astoria, "a fast-paced, riveting account of exploration and settlement, suffering and survival, treachery and death." Laurence Gonzalez (author of Deep Survival) raves, "Peter Stark weaves a spellbinding tale from this lost chapter of American history. Astoria gave me the sense all readers long for: that nothing exists but the riveting narrative unfolding in your head."

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Shawn Donley: This attempt to establish the first commercial settlement on the West Coast is a fascinating part of American history. How did you first become aware of this story?

Peter Stark: My previous book is called The Last Empty Places. It profiles four really unpopulated areas of the country. Five or six or seven years ago, I happened to be driving my car through Eastern Oregon down a long, lonely road. There was no habitation for miles and miles around. I pulled into a town after dark called John Day. You Oregonians are probably familiar with that town. I spent the night there. The next morning I got up and said, "Why is this town called John Day?" I started doing some research.

It turns out John Day was one of the original Astorians on the huge Overland Party sent from New York by John Jacob Astor. He endured incredible trials: starvation, being left behind, being accidently poisoned. He was helped by some Indians but then stripped and sent naked out into the wilderness by others. He was traumatized by the experience.

My interest in the story grew the more I read about John Day. That was just one little, tiny part of this huge, sprawling story. I've lived in Lewis and Clark country for 30 years, and I had never heard this history told.I've lived in Lewis and Clark country for 30 years, and I had never heard this history told. It was this major expedition that came after Lewis and Clark and has been more or less forgotten by the American popular consciousness.

Shawn: All American schoolchildren learn about Lewis and Clark. Why are more of us not aware of the Astor expedition?

Stark: That's something I've pondered quite a lot. One reason is that we love our heroes in this country, as every country does. Lewis and Clark are great heroes. Their success was very clear cut. They reached the Pacific and they came back. That was their mission.

This mission was much less clear cut. It was to establish a transpacific trade empire based at the mouth of the Columbia River. It was backed by Thomas Jefferson as well as John Jacob Astor. When it didn't succeed the way it was supposed to, there was no culminating moment. There was not one losing the Alamo epic battle. There was, rather, about 35 years or 40 years of limbo that followed this first American colony on the West Coast.

I think that's one of the reasons we don't really know the story. It was this heroic effort, way larger than Lewis and Clark, to try and start this colony, but it didn't resolve itself until many, many years later.

Shawn: You mentioned John Jacob Astor. He was the organizer and the financier of this expedition. What was his background?

Stark: He had a really interesting background. When you mention the Astor family, most people think of wealth, New York, East Coast.

Shawn: I think of the Waldorf Astoria.

Stark: Yes, that's exactly right, the Waldorf Astoria. It turns out that John Jacob Astor was born in a tiny little German town called Waldorf. That name still lives on in the Waldorf Astoria. John Jacob Astor left Waldorf as a young man. I think he was 16 or 17.

This was right after the Revolutionary War in this country. He went to England for a few years, worked with his brother, who was in the musical instrument–making business in London. Then Astor, at about age 21, came to the United States.

On board the ship over here, he met a fur merchant, who said, "You can make a lot of money in the fur trade, and you don't need much money to start." Astor started a business importing finely made musical instruments to the U.S. and exporting all these wild animal furs to Europe, where they sold for huge amounts of money.

Shawn: It seems like Astor looked to the West Coast for its untapped commercial potential. How did this compare to the goals Thomas Jefferson had for the region?

Stark: Well, that's been a dynamic that's never really resolved itself. But if Astor's colony had succeeded, it would be a very interesting dynamic to watch play out, because Jefferson saw Astor's colony on the West Coast as the beginnings of a democracy, a separate or sister democracy to the United States. Astor saw it as a huge commercial colony that would start this transglobal trade empire. So whose vision would finally win out was never resolved.

Shawn: Astor's ambition had a global scale that was much ahead of his time. He had this plan to try and connect the markets and the trading posts of the Pacific Northwest with China, London, and New York.

Stark: Exactly. It was really transglobal. He had a vision very early, essentially, taking trade goods from London and New York — manufactured goods, knobs, pots, beads — taking them around South America up to the West Coast, the Northwest, trading them for furs.

The sea-otter furs were extremely valuable in the emerging markets and especially in China. There was also an abundance of beaver pelts from the interior. He was going to collect these furs from the entire Western part of the North American continent, purchase them from Native Americans with manufactured trade goods, and funnel them through this colony at the mouth of the Columbia River.

He would have all those furs sent across the Pacific to China and sell them to the Chinese, where the Mandarins use sea-otter furs to trim their robes. Huge markups there. He would then use that money to purchase silks, porcelain, tea, and other Chinese luxury goods, take those back around the world to New York and to London, and sell them at another huge markup.

Shawn: It's ingenious and very ambitious.

Stark: Very ambitious. He'd have a fleet of ships circling the globe and carrying out this trade. He was trying to create a monopoly or near monopoly on the fur market. He realized that's where the serious money was.

Shawn: His plan for this expedition called for an overland party to be sent across the continent, and a seagoing party around the tip of South America.

Stark: Cape Horn, yeah.

Shawn: What was the rationale for this two-pronged approach?

Stark: There were, I think, a couple of rationales, that these two advance parties would establish the colony. The overland party was to create a communication route across the continent, and also to establish fur posts over the Rocky Mountains, down to the Pacific. It was supposed to set up this big network of interior fur posts that led down to the mouth of the Columbia.

It was like a huge net that he was throwing over what's now the Western United States and part of Canada, over the Rocky Mountains, gathering all these furs, and funneling them to the mouth of the Columbia.

The seagoing party could carry way more tonnage in terms of supplies. You needed a ship to bring the 8,000 pounds of gunpowder, cannons, trade goods. The ship, called the Tonquin, also carried timbers so they could build a small ship once they got to Astoria.

Shawn: The Tonquin was led by Captain Jonathan Thorn, who was a naval war hero. Could you describe his personality?

Stark: In battle he was great, and he was a war hero in the fight against the Barbary pirates, off the north coast of Africa. The Barbary pirates were preying on American commercial shipping and he sailed right into "the face of fire fearlessly," and became a big hero. He was very good in that type of situation. Astor hired him to be the captain of the Tonquin and called him, "my gunpowder fellow."

But Thorn had never been captain of a commercial ship before. This particular commercial ship, it had a regular crew of civilian sailors, which was fine — he knew how to command sailors. But the ship also carried this extraordinary load of passengers who were kind of a shaggy lot: French Canadian voyageurs, Spanish fur traders, and young Scottish clerks who were, I think, very smart-alecky guys. On the first night out of New York Harbor, Captain Thorn ordered all the lights out at eight o'clock before everyone had finished their pipe smoking and socializing on deck.

Shawn: Kind of a bad start, huh?

Stark: There were pistols drawn on that first night. It went downhill from there.There were pistols drawn on that first night. It went downhill from there. He kind of abandoned some of these guys on the Falkland Islands.

Shawn: The overland party was led by Wilson Price Hunt, who had a very different leadership style. How would you describe his approach?

Stark: He was wildly different, almost the antithesis of Thorn, and that's one of the things that attracted me to the story — these very different leadership styles, and how so much of the fate of this attempted empire hinged on these personalities and different leadership styles.

Of course, Thorn was rigidly militaristic and fearless and straight up. Hunt was universally regarded as a nice guy, consensus seeking, very serious minded, and conscientious.

One of the big drawbacks with Wilson Price Hunt was that, even though he learned quickly, he had never been in the wilderness before. Astor totally trusted him because Hunt was sober, serious minded, and an American. Many of the other expedition members were Scottish fur traders, British subjects, and Astor wasn't quite sure about their loyalty.

Shawn: If Astor could have taken characteristics of both Thorn and Hunt, and put them together, it might have created the perfect leader.

Stark: It might have been really helpful. It was great to have the wilderness experience of these Scottish fur traders. There were some who had tremendous experience in the wilderness and dealing with Indian tribes. Alexander McKay, who was on the Tonquin, had been with the McKenzie expedition that crossed the continent before Lewis and Clark.

Shawn: We didn't learn about that in school.

Stark: We don't learn much about Canadians [laughter].

Shawn: These expeditions were made up of a real eclectic mix. You mentioned the Scottish fur traders. There were also American woodsmen and a group that I knew very little about, the French Canadian voyageurs. They're almost like folk heroes in Canada. Can you tell us a little bit about the voyageurs?

Stark: They were really remarkable folks. When the early French came to Canada, they were much less reluctant about intermarrying with the Native Americans, so there was a real mixture of Indian/French blood. These French voyageurs were very much at home paddling canoes in the wilderness. They were well built, well suited, well trained for this trade, where they'd get in these canoes and paddle for up to 15 hours a day. They'd be paddling over 30,000 strokes a day. These canoes, which were about 40 feet long, could carry several tons of gear and up to 14 voyageurs. They were by far the fastest means of transportation to get into the wild interior of North America. They'd access the Great Lakes on these interior waterways, taking supplies to remote fur posts and returning with tons of furs in 90-pound packs.

These guys were so strong. On portages they could personally carry two packs at a time — that's 180 pounds. The serious ones, the strongest, would carry three… 270 pounds! They'd go a half mile at a time, and then they'd rest, and then they'd go another half mile. They had incredible endurance.

Shawn: As tough as these guys were, the toughest of the bunch might have been the only female member of the expedition party, Marie Dorion.

Stark: Marie Dorion is this incredible woman who crossed the continent with the Astorians. She had two toddlers, two young boys, and she was pregnant. She walked most of the way, even though the fur traders and some of these voyageurs were traveling on horses. She preferred to walk.

She ended up giving birth near the crest of the Blue Mountains in winter. Unfortunately, the baby died about a week later. In the end, she survived this tremendous massacre of one whole branch of the Astorians. She spent the winter hiding out in the Blue Mountains with her two young boys. They survived off of smoked horse meat and built a shelter out of horsehide. Then she settled in the Willamette Valley, so when the first settlers came up the Oregon Trail, she was there.

Shawn: Didn't Jane Kirkpatrick use her as a character?

Stark: Yeah, Jane Kirkpatrick has written novels about her. She's a very inspirational character.

Shawn: While you were researching this book, did you travel along the route of the expedition?

Stark: I did, yeah. That's one of the legacies of the Astorians, is that they were the explorers who found the Oregon Trail, and it ended up being the easiest route across the Rocky Mountains. I tried to follow in their footsteps in various places. I had quite a few adventures, including a father-daughter canoe trip down the South Fork of the Snake River. It was beautiful climbing around on the cliffs of Hells Canyon. I also did some sailing on Puget Sound to get a feel for that.

Shawn: It must have given you a new appreciation for what they had to endure.

Stark: Yeah. We got stuck in the cliffs of Hells Canyon. We were trying to climb up to the top of the rim. I can remember thinking, if we were on the overland party, we'd have 15 tons of gear to haul.

Shawn: That really puts it in perspective. During the first winter in Astoria, a lot of the settlers experienced these feelings of isolation and vulnerability. I think some of them even suffered symptoms associated with posttraumatic stress disorder. Do you think that was common experience for early American explorers?

Stark: I've been developing a theory that it's more common than was thought because in several cases there seemed to be clear-cut cases of PTSD. It makes sense that they would have that reaction.

John Day certainly looks like he had all the symptoms of PTSD. He'd been so traumatized by this incredibly difficult journey he had, and then he had to turn around and go back up the Columbia. He flipped out, started talking nonsensically. His companions didn't know what he was doing. Then he tried to shoot himself in the middle of the night. He didn't succeed. They finally had to send him back to Astoria.

They'd been traveling under very difficult circumstances in potentially hostile territory for months on end, not knowing what was going to happen to them. This constant state of awareness is one of the characteristics of PTSD. It seems to me that it played a bigger role in the exploration of North America than we have imagined.

Shawn: You describe the standard of living of some of the Native American tribes of the Pacific Coast as being superior in many ways to the populations of 18th-century London and New York. What were the reasons for the relative wealth of these tribes?

Stark: I found that to be such a fascinating topic to research. In fact, I wish I had included more of it in the book. The Northwest Coastal tribes had incredible wealth due to the richness of the coast itself. It's such a fertile area in terms of sea life. You have salmon runs. You have seals. You have whales. You have oysters and mussels and so on.

Shawn: A lot of protein.

Stark: Yeah, a lot of protein. The coast can be cold and rainy, but you're not in the Arctic with its winter-like conditions. They had an elaborate ceremonial culture and lived in big log houses. They had these large traveling war canoes and very sophisticated art. It's one of the great classic art traditions of the world, Northwest Coastal Art.

Shawn: Unfortunately the War of 1812 broke out while Astoria was still in its early stages of settlement. What effect did that have on its ultimate fate?

Stark: There was a rival fur company, the North West Company, based out of Montreal, which was British. They had already established posts at the northern headwaters of the Columbia. Astor had tried to join forces with them, but once the War of 1812 broke out, which was declared by the U.S. against Britain, suddenly everything was in doubt.

Because the North West Company had a voyageur route across the continent, they were able to get the news of the declaration of war out to their people long before Astor was able to get it to his people. They showed up in Astoria and said, "The U.S. has declared war on the British. We're sending war ships around to take Astoria."They showed up in Astoria and said, "The U.S. has declared war on the British. We're sending war ships around to take Astoria."

Eventually, the guy who was in charge of Astoria, Duncan McDougall, who was a Scottish fur trader, sold out Astor's business to the North West Company.

Shawn: And that was the beginning of the end.

Stark: The beginning of the end, yeah. He ended up being a partner, not for Astor, but for the North West Company. I say that he fashioned himself a golden parachute.

Shawn: You touch on something that was another big problem for them. Their isolated location made communicating with Astor extremely difficult. Do you think that played a large role in the inability to establish a settlement there?

Stark: I think it played a huge role. It was such an ambitious undertaking in terms of this global, worldwide empire. Astor lived in New York, so for him to communicate with his men, his seconds in command, it would take a year or more. It was more like two years to get a message back and forth.

It was very hard to have any control over what was going on. Astor was willing to put everything he had to establish this settlement. He had huge amounts of money. If he could have communicated with them, he would have told them not to give up.

Shawn: Astor was a business tycoon who was used to succeeding at everything that he put his mind and his vast fortune toward. What effect did the failure of Astoria, which ultimately was his most ambitious undertaking, have on the rest of his life?

Stark: I think it was a great regret for him that he didn't succeed. He felt very passionate about it. He got very emotionally involved even though he was very much a bottom-line guy.

I think that is was difficult for him when it failed, but as a businessman he was very far seeing and very focused. Instead of establishing a fur empire on the West Coast, he ended up establishing one in what's now the Upper Midwest of the Rocky Mountains. Plus, he was also investing in real estate in Manhattan. His wife was a very sharp businesswoman. She was from an old Dutch family in New York. I like to think that she pointed out to him the benefits of investing in New York real estate when New York was just at the lower tip of Manhattan Island. One of the early properties they bought was a place, a rural area, which was then called, as it is now, Greenwich Village [laughter]. Then they bought a place called Union Farm, which is now Times Square.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas...
    Used Hardcover $15.50

  2. Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies,...
    Used Trade Paper $6.50

5 Responses to "Peter Stark: The Interview"

    Shirley Goode March 19th, 2014 at 9:57 pm

    GREAT INTERVIEW with author Peter Stark! ALL of his books look good!

    Steve Wyrick March 21st, 2014 at 7:51 am

    Amazing interview. I grew up in Southwest Washington and took Northwest History in High School and as a college freshman and don't remember hearing anything about Astor's venture. Will have to get this book!

    Barbara April 6th, 2014 at 11:38 am

    'so appreciate of your interview with Peter Stark! Wonderful to have history of Northwest that incorporates seldom-shared background and color.

    Gm. April 10th, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    Really enjoyed the interview; feel like I almost read the book. Questions are astute and Donley follows up answers with relevant questions. One typo two questions up: "commuting" should be "communicating." Thank you for the back-story.


    Gm. April 10th, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    P.S. The interviewer (picture at top) looks like he was one of the overlanders himself! Keeping [Astoria] weird!

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