From about 1780 to 1830, dozens of ships traded on the Pacific Northwest for sea otter pelts, selling the pelts in China and picking up silk, porcelain and jade to sell in North American and Europe. The trade was lucrative, and within 30 years sea otters were wiped out from Northern California to Alaska.
In 1811, John Jacob Astor, the wealthiest American of his era, with large land holdings in New York City and who owned much of the American land-based fur trade, formed the Pacific Fur Company to get into the sea otter trade. He hired the best Scottish Canadian and French Canadian fur traders, bought a 90-foot boat and hired Capt. Jonathan Thorn, a tough ex-US Navy captain.
The Tonquin left New York City on September 10, 1810 with a crew of 34 and packed with trade goods and provisions to build a fort at the mouth of the Columbia River to be called Astoria. The plan was to establish a land-based trading presence on the west coast and then to head north to trade for sea otters. Meanwhile, a second overland expedition left St. Louis to establish land-based fur trading opportunities and travel overland to Astoria.
The voyage was dominated by conflict and the autocratic decisions of Captain Thorn. Thorn left eight crew including a partner in the PFC on the Falkland Islands before having to return under threat of a gun. His orders to cross the Columbia River Bar in a gale led to the loss of an additional eight crew members.
In June 1811, the Tonquin left to trade for sea otter pelts. About three months later, reports reached Astoria that the crew had been massacred in an attack by Indigenous peoples when Capt. Thorn slapped a chief. The Tonquin was blown up in the attack. The loss of the Tonquin lead to the demise of Astoria and its sale to the North West Company in 1883. After the sale Astoria was renamed Fort George. Despite many searches, the Tonquin has not conclusively been found.
Tom Beasley has been on or led Tonquin search expeditions and has collected about two dozen ships’ logs from the sea otter trade to determine the fur trading routes and anchorages. His greatest passion is shipwreck research, exploration, documentation and preservation – primarily related to the sea otter trade in the Pacific Northwest and focused on the elusive Tonquin (1811).
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