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Two Expeditions Set on Foot
Two Expeditions Set on Foot.—The Tonquin and Her
Crew.— Captain Thorn, His Character.—The Partners and Clerks—
Canadian Voyageurs, Their Habits, Employments, Dress, Character,
Songs—Expedition of a Canadian Boat and Its Crew by Land and
Water.—Arrival at New York.—Preparations for a Sea Voyage.—Northwest
Braggarts.—Underhand Precautions— Letter of Instructions.
IN prosecuting his great scheme of commerce and
colonization, two expeditions were devised by Mr. Astor, one by sea,
the other by land. The former was to carry out the people, stores,
ammunition, and merchandise, requisite for establishing a fortified
trading post at the mouth of Columbia River. The latter, conducted
by Mr. Hunt, was to proceed up the Missouri, and across the Rocky
Mountains, to the same point; exploring a line of communication
across the continent and noting the places where interior trading
posts might be established. The expedition by sea is the one which
comes first under consideration.
A fine ship was provided called the Tonquin, of two hundred and
ninety tons burden, mounting ten guns, with a crew of twenty men.
She carried an assortment of merchandise for trading with the
natives of the seaboard and of the interior, together with the frame
of a schooner, to be employed in the coasting trade. Seeds also were
provided for the cultivation of the soil, and nothing was neglected
for the necessary supply of the establishment. The command of the
ship was intrusted to Jonathan Thorn, of New York, a lieutenant in
the United States navy, on leave of absence. He was a man of courage
and firmness, who had distinguished himself in our Tripolitan war,
and, from being accustomed to naval discipline, was considered by
Mr. Astor as well fitted to take charge of an expedition of the
kind. Four of the partners were to embark in the ship, namely,
Messrs. M'Kay, M'Dougal, David Stuart, and his nephew, Robert
Stuart. Mr. M'Dougal was empowered by Mr. Astor to act as his proxy
in the absence of Mr. Hunt, to vote for him and in his name, on any
question that might come before any meeting of the persons
interested in the voyage.
Besides the partners, there were twelve clerks to go out in the
ship, several of them natives of Canada, who had some experience in
the Indian trade. They were bound to the service of the company for
five years, at the rate of one hundred dollars a year, payable at
the expiration of the term, and an annual equipment of clothing to
the amount of forty dollars. In case of ill conduct they were liable
to forfeit their wages and be dismissed; but, should they acquit
themselves well, the confident expectation was held out to them of
promotion, and partnership. Their interests were thus, to some
extent, identified with those of the company.
Several artisans were likewise to sail in the ship, for the supply
of the colony; but the most peculiar and characteristic part of this
motley embarkation consisted of thirteen Canadian "voyageurs," who
had enlisted for five years. As this class of functionaries will
continually recur in the course of the following narrations, and as
they form one of those distinct and strongly marked castes or orders
of people, springing up in this vast continent out of geographical
circumstances, or the varied pursuits, habitudes, and origins of its
population, we shall sketch a few of their characteristics for the
information of the reader.
The "voyageurs" form a kind of confraternity in the Canadas, like
the arrieros, or carriers of Spain, and, like them, are employed in
long internal expeditions of travel and traffic: with this
difference, that the arrieros travel by land, the voyageurs by
water; the former with mules and horses, the latter with batteaux
and canoes. The voyageurs may be said to have sprung up out of the
fur trade, having originally been employed by the early French
merchants in their trading expeditions through the labyrinth of
rivers and lakes of the boundless interior. They were coeval with
the coureurs des bois, or rangers of the woods, already noticed,
and, like them, in the intervals of their long, arduous, and
laborious expeditions, were prone to pass their time in idleness and
revelry about the trading posts or settlements; squandering their
hard earnings in heedless conviviality, and rivaling their
neighbors, the Indians, in indolent indulgence and an imprudent
disregard of the morrow.
When Canada passed under British domination, and the old French
trading houses were broken up, the voyageurs, like the coureurs des
bois, were for a time disheartened and disconsolate, and with
difficulty could reconcile themselves to the service of the
new-comers, so different in habits, manners, and language from their
former employers. By degrees, however, they became accustomed to the
change, and at length came to consider the British fur traders, and
especially the members of the Northwest Company, as the legitimate
lords of creation.
The dress of these people is generally half civilized, half savage.
They wear a capot or surcoat, made of a blanket, a striped cotton
shirt, cloth trousers, or leathern leggins, moccasins of deer-skin,
and a belt of variegated worsted, from which are suspended the
knife, tobacco-pouch, and other implements. Their language is of the
same piebald character, being a French patois, embroidered with
Indian and English words and phrases.
The lives of the voyageurs are passed in wild and extensive rovings,
in the service of individuals, but more especially of the fur
traders. They are generally of French descent, and inherit much of
the gayety and lightness of heart of their ancestors, being full of
anecdote and song, and ever ready for the dance. They inherit, too,
a fund of civility and complaisance; and, instead of that hardness
and grossness which men in laborious life are apt to indulge towards
each other, they are mutually obliging and accommodating;
interchanging kind offices, yielding each other assistance and
comfort in every emergency, and using the familiar appellations of
"cousin" and "brother" when there is in fact no relationship. Their
natural good-will is probably heightened by a community of adventure
and hardship in their precarious and wandering life.
No men are more submissive to their leaders and employers, more
capable of enduring hardship, or more good-humored under privations.
Never are they so happy as when on long and rough expeditions,
toiling up rivers or coasting lakes; encamping at night on the
borders, gossiping round their fires, and bivouacking in the open
air. They are dextrous boatmen, vigorous and adroit with the oar and
paddle, and will row from morning until night without a murmur. The
steersman often sings an old traditionary French song, with some
regular burden in which they all join, keeping time with their oars;
if at any time they flag in spirits or relax in exertion, it is but
necessary to strike up a song of the kind to put them all in fresh
spirits and activity. The Canadian waters are vocal with these
little French chansons, that have been echoed from mouth to mouth
and transmitted from father to son, from the earliest days of the
colony; and it has a pleasing effect, in a still golden summer
evening, to see a batteau gliding across the bosom of a lake and
dipping its oars to the cadence of these quaint old ditties, or
sweeping along in full chorus on a bright sunny morning, down the
transparent current of one of the Canada rivers.
But we are talking of things that are fast fading away! The march of
mechanical invention is driving everything poetical before it. The
steamboats, which are fast dispelling the wildness and romance of
our lakes and rivers, and aiding to subdue the world into
commonplace, are proving as fatal to the race of the Canadian
voyageurs as they have been to that of the boatmen of the
Mississippi. Their glory is departed. They are no longer the lords
of our internal seas, and the great navigators of the wilderness.
Some of them may still occasionally be seen coasting the lower lakes
with their frail barks, and pitching their camps and lighting their
fires upon the shores; but their range is fast contracting to those
remote waters and shallow and obstructed rivers unvisited by the
steamboat. In the course of years they will gradually disappear;
their songs will die away like the echoes they once awakened, and
the Canadian voyageurs will become a forgotten race, or remembered,
like their associates, the Indians, among the poetical images of
past times, and as themes for local and romantic associations.
An instance of the buoyant temperament and the professional pride of
these people was furnished in the gay and braggart style in which
they arrived at New York to join the enterprise. They were
determined to regale and astonish the people of the "States" with
the sight of a Canadian boat and a Canadian crew. They accordingly
fitted up a large but light bark canoe, such as is used in the fur
trade; transported it in a wagon from the banks of the St. Lawrence
to the shores of Lake Champlain; traversed the lake in it, from end
to end; hoisted it again in a wagon and wheeled it off to
Lansingburgh, and there launched it upon the waters of the Hudson.
Down this river they plied their course merrily on a fine summer's
day, making its banks resound for the first time with their old
French boat songs; passing by the villages with whoop and halloo, so
as to make the honest Dutch farmers mistake them for a crew of
savages. In this way they swept, in full song and with regular
flourish of the paddle, round New York, in a still summer evening,
to the wonder and admiration of its inhabitants, who had never
before witnessed on their waters, a nautical apparition of the kind.
Such was the variegated band of adventurers about to embark in the
Tonquin on this ardous and doubtful enterprise. While yet in port
and on dry land, in the bustle of preparation and the excitement of
novelty, all was sunshine and promise. The Canadians, especially,
who, with their constitutional vivacity, have a considerable dash of
the gascon, were buoyant and boastful, and great brag arts as to the
future; while all those who had been in the service of the Northwest
Company, and engaged in the Indian trade, plumed themselves upon
their hardihood and their capacity to endure privations. If Mr.
Astor ventured to hint at the difficulties they might have to
encounter, they treated them with scorn. They were "northwesters;"
men seasoned to hardships, who cared for neither wind nor weather.
They could live hard, lie hard, sleep hard, eat dogs!—in a word they
were ready to do and suffer anything for the good of the enterprise.
With all this profession of zeal and devotion, Mr. Astor was not
overconfident of the stability and firm faith of these mercurial
beings. He had received information, also, that an armed brig from
Halifax, probably at the instigation of the Northwest Company, was
hovering on the coast, watching for the Tonquin, with the purpose of
impressing the Canadians on board of her, as British subjects, and
thus interrupting the voyage. It was a time of doubt and anxiety,
when the relations between the United States and Great Britain were
daily assuming a more precarious aspect and verging towards that war
which shortly ensued. As a precautionary measure, therefore, he
required that the voyageurs, as they were about to enter into the
service of an American association, and to reside within the limits
of the United States, should take the oaths of naturalization as
American citizens. To this they readily agreed, and shortly
afterward assured him that they had actually done so. It was not
until after they had sailed that he discovered that they had
entirely deceived him in the matter.
The confidence of Mr. Astor was abused in another quarter. Two of
the partners, both of them Scotchmen, and recently in the service of
the Northwest Company, had misgivings as to an enterprise which
might clash with the interests and establishments protected by the
British flag. They privately waited upon the British minister, Mr.
Jackson, then in New York, laid open to him the whole scheme of Mr.
Astor, though intrusted to them in confidence, and dependent, in a
great measure, upon secrecy at the outset for its success, and
inquired whether they, as British subjects, could lawfully engage in
it. The reply satisfied their scruples, while the information they
imparted excited the surprise and admiration of Mr. Jackson, that a
private individual should have conceived and set on foot at his own
risk and expense so great an enterprise.
This step on the part of those gentlemen was not known to Mr. Astor
until some time afterwards, or it might have modified the trust and
confidence reposed in them.
To guard against any interruption to the voyage by the armed brig,
said to be off the harbor, Mr. Astor applied to Commodore Rodgers,
at that time commanding at New York, to give the Tonquin safe convoy
off the coast. The commodore having received from a high official
source assurance of the deep interest which the government took in
the enterprise, sent directions to Captain Hull, at that time
cruising off the harbor, in the frigate Constitution, to afford the
Tonquin the required protection when she should put to sea.
Before the day of embarkation, Mr. Astor addressed a letter of
instruction to the four partners who were to sail in the ship. In
this he enjoined them, in the most earnest manner, to cultivate
harmony and unanimity, and recommended that all differences of
opinions on points connected with the objects and interests of the
voyage should be discussed by the whole, and decided by a majority
of votes. He, moreover, gave them especial caution as to their
conduct on arriving at their destined port; exhorting them to be
careful to make a favorable impression upon the wild people among
whom their lot and the fortunes of the enterprise would be cast. "If
you find them kind," said he, "as I hope you will, be so to them. If
otherwise, act with caution and forebearance, and convince them that
you come as friends."
With the same anxious forethought he wrote a letter of instructions
to Captain Thorn, in which he urged the strictest attention to the
health of himself and his crew, and to the promotion of good-humor
and harmony on board his ship. "To prevent any misunderstanding,"
added he, "will require your particular good management." His letter
closed with an injunction of wariness in his intercourse with the
natives, a subject on which Mr. Astor was justly sensible he could
not be too earnest. "I must recommend you," said he, "to be
particularly careful on the coast, and not to rely too much on the
friendly disposition of the natives. All accidents which have as yet
happened there arose from too much confidence in the Indians."
The reader will bear these instructions in mind, as events will
prove their wisdom and importance, and the disasters which ensued in
consequence of the neglect of them.
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Astoria; Or Anecdotes Of An Enterprise Beyond The