Bookmonger: New book examines the start of full-scale Pacific Coast trade

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 27, 2014 

In 2014, it may be hard to picture Astoria as anything other than a delightful destination filled with art galleries, bed-and-breakfasts and the Columbia River Maritime Museum, but 200 years ago, it was a mere speck of incipient civilization.

A consuming new book by Montana-based journalist Peter Stark probes the beginnings of the town, which can claim the distinction of being the first American colony on the West Coast. It was established in the Spring of 1811 - an aggressive commercial venture bankrolled by capitalist John Jacob Astor and encouraged by Thomas Jefferson when he had been president.

Stark's "Astoria" is a bifurcated tale that probes the ambition of a self-made millionaire who envisioned basing a global trade network thousands of miles away from any of the world's major trade centers at the time.

Astor bankrolled two westward expeditions - one overland and one by sea - with the plan that they would meet at the mouth of the Columbia River to establish a new American trading hub on the Pacific. He handpicked the leaders for each of his expeditions, but as thoughtful as his selections were, the traits that were seen as positives by the shrewd New York tycoon became more problematic once those leaders left civilization behind.

Captain Jonathan Thorn, an American naval hero, turned out to be a harsh and humorless master at sea, vengefully intolerant of the cultural differences displayed by the diverse passengers and crew aboard his ship.

On the other hand, the Overland Party was led by the resolutely diplomatic Wilson Price Hunt, a businessman who consistently erred on the side of caution. Hunt's indecisiveness ultimately cost both time and lives as his party westered across the vast continent.

Plumbing the journals of original participants, drawing upon scores of additional resources, and spending his own time out in the field, Stark retraces the steps and missteps all along the way as these parties struggled to get to their assigned destination. More than half of the men perished violently, and "Astoria" is filled with vivid accounts of their terrible demises. Meanwhile, the survivors endured grueling physical hardships, extreme psychological duress, bouts of starvation and miscellaneous other miseries.

From our 21st century perspective of workplace safety and anti-discrimination laws, the conditions that early 19th century explorers had to contend with at their employer's behest seem unfathomably capricious and at times outright brutal.

But there were also many instances of generosity and self-sacrifice.

In addition to fleshing out the complicated personalities of these dozens of explorers, Stark also takes time to paint the big picture for his readers - the events that were occurring on the world stage at that time that helped to shape matters even in the remote Pacific Northwest.

Perhaps the biggest take-away "Astoria" provides is that, for better or worse, the precedents set by Astor and his expeditions created a tangible American legacy of entrepreneurship, risk-taking, and manifest destiny.

This book is carefully researched and splendidly written - an utterly spellbinding account.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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