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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Old China Trade

Foster Rhea Dulles

published by
The Riverside Press
Cambridge, Massachusetts

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p50  Chapter IV
The Northwest Coast

Toward the end of the eighteenth century it became evident that ginseng and the other miscellaneous products which the Americans were carrying to Canton had but a limited market, while too great a reliance upon specie constituted a heavy drain on the slender resources of the United States. Something else had to be found which the American merchants could sell to the Chinese in sufficient quantity to lade their vessels with the tea and silks for which the demand at home was so pressing. Consequently the history of the China trade for the next two decades is that of an indefatigable search for articles of trade which would meet the exacting tastes of the merchants and mandarins of the Chinese port.

One such product was found in the rich furs of the sea otter which could be bought from the Indians of the Northwest Coast of America for a few trinkets. When it became generally known that these pelts fetched high prices in Canton, American vessels were every year skirting the rugged coast-line of what is now Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia and carrying on vigorous barter with its savage and often treacherous indian tribes. It was a trade which for a time was the most important branch of the commerce with China, and one of its ultimate results was greatly to strengthen American claims to the territory now constituting our Northwest States through the discovery of the Columbia River and the settlement at Astoria.

The chance discovery that sea‑otter furs were so valuable in the eyes of the Chinese was made at the time of the  p51 voyages of the English explorer, Captain James Cook. On his last expedition along the uncharted shores of America, a number of his seamen bartered with the Indians for some of the glossy black skins for their own use. A great many of these furs were lost or spoiled on the voyage across the Pacific, but when the ships reached Canton, the English sailors were amazed at the fabulous prices which the Chinese merchants offered them for whatever skins they had left. They quickly sold all they had for a total of ten thousand dollars and then almost mutinied in a vain attempt to force their officers to return to the Northwest Coast and take on a full cargo.

One of these seamen was American born, a corporal of marines named John Ledyard, whose adventurous life has been recorded by Jared Sparks. After the conclusion of the voyage, Ledyard deserted from the British Navy and returned to his own country, there to publish in 1783 a journal of his travels. In it he tells of the great wealth of furs to be found in the Northwest and of the excitement of his fellow seamen when they found in Canton that 'skins which did not cost the purchaser sixpence sterling, sold in China for 100 dollars.'

Never was there a more vigorous promoter of a new trade than this John Ledyard. In New York, Boston, Paris, and London he tried to urge hesitant and skeptical merchants to undertake an experimental voyage between the Northwest Coast and Canton, but persistent ill‑luck followed every move he made. In this country his scheme was called wild and visionary, although at least once he was within an ace of success. Robert Morris was persuaded of the practicality of his idea and went so far as to commission Ledyard to find a ship to undertake the voyage. Then at the last moment the plans were changed and the vessel Ledyard  p52 had obtained, in all probability the Empress of China, was dispatched directly to Canton with a cargo of ginseng instead of attempting the passage about Cape Horn and up the American coast.

After this disappointment, Ledyard went to Paris, where he talked with Thomas Jefferson, who seems to have approved of his plans despite his aversion to foreign commerce. Then he reached an agreement with John Paul Jones for a Northwest voyage, only to have it too fall through, like the project planned with Robert Morris. Ledyard sorrowfully went on to London. Here he actually started on a voyage for his El Dorado, with the idea of returning overland to Virginia, but his ship was recalled.

We next find him setting out, upon Jefferson's advice, on a land journey across Siberia with the intention of making his way to Kamchatka, across the Bering Sea, and then down the American coast to Nootka Sound. He got as far east as Yakutsk, but was then arrested, supposedly on orders instigated by the jealousy of the Russian-American Fur Company, and, after being held a prisoner for some time, he was escorted back to the European border. For all his persistence, his enthusiasm, and his daring, Ledyard was not to see the beginning of the trade he had fought for so energetically. He gave up hope of persuading the world to believe in him and, having turned his zeal for exploration into new channels, he died at Cairo in 1788.

The seed he had helped to sow was bound to grow. No sooner had he deserted the Northwest for Egypt than both English and French vessels began to find their way to the coast, and in Boston a group of six merchants — John Barrell, Charles Bulfinch, Samuel Brown, John Derby, Crowell Hatch, and John Marden Pintard — were planning to follow the advice which just a few years before they had  p53 so casually scorned. The publication of Cook's journals and the reports brought home by Shaw had at last convinced them that Ledyard had known what he was talking about when he had so enthusiastically sung the praises of his precious coast.

Having raised fifty thousand dollars capital, these six Boston merchants prepared to send to the Northwest two vessels, the Columbia, two hundred and twelve tons, Captain John Kendrick, and the Lady Washington, a sloop of ninety tons, Captain Robert Gray. Both officers had served on privateersmen and both ships were heavily armed. A cargo of iron tools and such trinkets as buttons, beads, jews'-harps, earrings, and snuffboxes was obtained, special sea letters secured from Congress, and a medal struck off to commemorate the occasion. On September 30, 1787, the two vessels started upon a voyage which in the course of time was to lead to the establishment of an American empire in the Northwest far beyond the dreams of the statesmen who that very year were passing the Northwest Ordinance.

Making their way about Cape Horn, the first American vessels ever to attempt this dangerous passage, the Columbia and the Lady Washington ran into one of the fierce storms for which this part of the world is famous. Fighting their way amid drifting ice and blinding snow, the two ships became separated and did not meet again until eleven months after they had left Boston, when first the Lady Washington and then the Columbia crept into Nootka Sound. The little sloop under Captain Gray had already lost one man through Indian treachery when a shore party was ambushed at a cove, which they thereupon named Murderers' Harbor. The Columbia had escaped savage attack, but its crew were so stricken with scurvy by the time it reached the coast that the seamen of the Lady  p54 Washington had to come to their aid before they could take down sail and anchor the ship.

After such misadventures it was too late to attempt any trade that season. These pioneers of the Northwest set up a camp on shore at Friendly Cove and put their armorers to work making their scrap iron into "chisels" — rough tools about eight inches long — which among the Indians passed for currency. A prime sea‑otter skin was found to be worth from six to eight of these pieces of iron, a blanket, or a looking-glass; six furs were the trading equivalent for a musket. At one harbor, where the Indians flocked off to trade in a veritable fleet of canoes, two hundred skins were obtained for two hundred chisels, and this rich haul proved in Canton to be worth more than six thousand dollars.

In July, 1789, Captain Gray, who had now assumed command of the expedition, although Kendrick had been its first leader, changed to the Columbia, and leaving the Lady Washington on the coast sailed for Canton. In the Chinese port the firm which had been established by Shaw and Randall disposed of his cargo of furs and the Columbia was loaded with some three hundred and fifty chests of Bohea tea. Sailing again in February, it kept on its westward course and on August 10, 1790, proudly entered Boston Harbor. It had logged more than fifty thousand miles and carried the American flag around the world for the first time.

The Columbia's cargo failed to realize the profits its owners had expected, but its voyage had proved that the fur trade held out tremendous possibilities. The vessel was no sooner in port than preparations were commenced for a second voyage, and before the year was over, it had set out again for the coast on the expedition which discovered  p55 the great river of the Northwest to which the Columbia lent its name.

Furthermore, the Columbia's first venture inspired other Boston merchants to follow its lead, and in the same year in which it returned to the Coast, four other vessels were on its trail. Another decade and in 1801 fifteen American ships carried to Canton eighteen thousand skins worth more than half a million dollars. Boston had initiated the trade; Boston kept a virtual monopoly of it. Rivals from both England and other American ports found it hard to compete successfully. From 1790 to 1818 there were one hundred and eight American vessels on the Coast as compared with twenty‑two from England, and in a list in which the names of sixty-three of these ships are given, fifty-three prove to be from Boston. To the Indians who knew the English as 'King George men,' the Americans were known as 'Boston men.'

It was a venturesome, exciting, and profitable trade, this three-cornered commerce in which iron chisels were exchanged for the furs of the sea otter and they in turn traded at Canton for teas and silks. Rounding Cape Horn was a first challenge to the seamanship and courage of the crews of vessels which averaged from one hundred to two hundred and fifty tons, but the wild and rugged coastline of Northwest America presented even greater hazards. 'Its mountains, rising in magnificent amphitheatres, covered with evergreen forests, with here and there a verdant plain near the shore, and a snow‑capt mountain in the background,' may have offered, as one captain rhapsodized in his sea journal, 'a view grand and sublime in the highest degree,' but there was another side to the picture. It was to be found in the 'sunken rocks, strong tides, fogs, calms, no bottom for anchoring, and a large proportion of bad weather' which  p56 was just as typical of the austere shore-line which stretches from Alaska to the mouth of the Columbia.

It was the custom of the Nor'westmen to spend one or two seasons on the coast, putting into any cove or inlet where they might find an Indian village or slowly drifting along the shore in the hope that the Indians would find them and come out to the vessel in fur‑laden canoes. Prices for the otter pelts naturally went up as more and more ships came out and soon it was a shrewd trader who could always be sure of his profits.

There were certain staples in the trade — cutlery, ironware, tin, chisels, knives, nails, clothing, blankets, beads, molasses, sugar, muskets, and rum — but fashions changed. Sometimes the Indians scorned blue cloth and would buy only red, or insisted upon greatcoats or muskets at a rate of exchange which made trade impossible. Again, the very next village might be almost willing to give its furs away. On one occasion green glass beads were in such demand that they sold two for a skin, while another time the members of an iron-impoverished tribe enthusiastically hailed the approach of an American vessel and 'instantly stripped themselves, and for a moderate quantity of large spike nails, we received sixty fine skins.'

On the voyage of the Hope, Joseph Ingraham, who in 1790 had been home only five weeks from the Columbia's first voyage before setting out again, found that the Indians on his first stop at the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the coast of what is now British Columbia, were all wearing jackets and trousers. Consequently they had no use for his cloth until he had the brilliant idea of sewing bright brass buttons on it. Nor did inspiration stop here. He set his armorer to work making iron collars and established a vogue so popular that it profited him to the extent of three skins,  p57 worth about forty dollars each at Canton, for each of these clumsy necklaces which his forge could turn out.

Thanks to this ingenuity and to the thoroughness with which he bargained for every skin in every village he visited, Ingraham collected eight hundred and fifty skins in his first month and in another three weeks had a full cargo of fourteen hundred. Prices unfortunately were low at the time he reached Canton, but he sold his furs for thirty thousand dollars. This sum he invested in tea, which was freighted back to America, while he returned to the coast to make another haul.

The fad he had introduced had changed before he arrived. His rivals had copied his popular style of iron collars and had overdone it. Too many ships were on the coast, trade was slow, and in three months' cruising about the shores of Vancouver Island he could obtain only five hundred and fifty skins.

In 1802, William Sturgis, a sea captain who wrote that a prime sea‑otter fur was the most beautiful natural object he had ever seen 'excepting a beautiful woman and a lovely infant,' collected no less than six thousand skins. But he had also noticed, with an eye for still greater profits, that the Indians were using ermine pelts for currency. On his return to Boston, he promptly sent to the Leipsic Fair and bought five thousand of these skins which were included in the cargo for his next voyage to the coast. He found the Indians glad to exchange a sea‑otter skin, worth that year fifty dollars at Canton, for five of his ermine pelts, the latter having cost Captain Sturgis exactly thirty cents apiece!

Trade under these conditions did not make for stability. Sometimes a voyage would prove to be a losing venture; another time an investment of a few thousand dollars might mean furs worth a hundred thousand in China. The cargo  p58 of the Columbia on her second voyage netted $90,000 at Canton. Captain Sturgis once turned $50,000 into $284,000, and Captain John Suter on a single voyage obtained enough skins to invest $156,743.21 in Chinese tea which at home sold for $261,343.18. But what made the Northwest trade far more of a speculative undertaking than any fluctuation in the price of furs were the risks which the American vessels ran from Indian treachery. There were many occasions when the natives were not content to satisfy their lust for iron collars or glass beads by peaceful barter.

On his first voyage Captain Gray had lost one man at Murderers' Harbor; on his second, three of the crew were killed in a surprise attack at Massacre Cove. Captain Kendrick in the Lady Washington had a lucky escape from a situation which might have taken an even greater toll of life. The Indians, whom on one occasion he had too trustingly allowed aboard his sloop, suddenly seized his arms chest and, holding him captive on his own quarter deck, drove the crew into the hold. But while the savages were gayly proceeding to divide up the articles of trade which the Lady Washington carried, Captain Kendrick laid his plans. He shouted down to his men in the hold to muster whatever weapons they could — which amounted to two pistols, a musket, and two cutlasses — and to make a dash for the deck when he should call out 'Follow me.' Soon the Indian chief, who had been on the quarter deck, started below. Kendrick immediately sprang on the savage and shouted his command. His men rushed out and within five minutes had won possession of the deck, broken open the arms chest, and killed forty of the Indians without losing a man.

These lessons were not lost upon the later traders. Every ship was heavily armed — cannon, muskets, pistols, cutlasses,  p59 and pikes — and when trade was in progress boarding-nets would be tied up and only a few unarmed Indians allowed on shipboard at a time. Yet no precaution could entirely do away with the danger of attack. Should a vessel become becalmed or run on one of those sunken rocks with which the coast was studded, it lay almost at the mercy of the Indians, who could muster their long war canoes by the hundred.

Captain Cleveland was once becalmed in his little fifty‑ton cutter and suddenly found his vessel surrounded by twenty‑six native war canoes with some five hundred savages armed to the teeth with muskets, spears, and daggers. He had only two four‑pounders and a pair of blunderbusses mounted on the stern to defend his ship against attack, but he immediately had his cannon loaded with bags of musket balls and served out two muskets and two pistols to each member of his crew. All day they lay helpless, standing by their guns with lighted matches, expecting each moment the onslaught they could not long hope to resist.

But the Indians hesitated and when that night they went ashore, Cleveland took quick advantage of a light breeze which sprang up toward morning and got his ship under way. It was just in time. They soon met a number of additional Indian canoes hurrying to the cove they had just left. It was doubtless because the attack had been delayed for the arrival of these reënforcements that the cutter had been able to escape.

A few days later and the vessel was again faced with the same danger under even more helpless conditions. It struck a sunken reef, and as the tide went on the cutter heeled over more and more until it was hanging on the rocks at an angle of forty-five degrees. Unable to stand on deck, the crew crowded into a sixteen-foot boat, where with muskets  p60 loaded they watched fearfully for the approach of any Indians.

'Our situation,' Cleveland wrote in the narrative of his voyages, 'was now one of the most painful anxiety, no less from the immediate prospect of losing our vessel, and the rich cargo we had collected with so much toil, than from apprehension of being discovered in this defenceless state by some of the hostile tribes by which we were surrounded.'

More than ten hours were spent in this 'agonizing state of suspense' when a sudden wind meant the loss of the vessel and sight of a canoe meant immediate attack, but at last the tide came in. No Indian canoes had appeared and Cleveland thankfully wrote that 'at half past twelve in the night we had the indescribable pleasure of seeing her afloat again.'

In 1805, Captain John D'Wolf in the Juno, two hundred and fifty tons, also ran on the rocks during the night. In his case morning brought not the tide but a fleet of canoes by which the stricken vessel was quickly surrounded. D'Wolf boldly told the Indians that he had merely put his vessel ashore to mend its copper sheathing and set his men to work calking the jagged holes which his misadventure had made in the bottom of his ship. He then cleverly enticed one of the Indian chiefs aboard the Juno and held him as a hostage against any treachery. When the tide at last came in, the ship was righted and with high water the chief was returned to his canoe and the Juno sailed off safely.1

Not always was escape so easy, however. In 1802, the Boston, Captain John Salter, which was cruising along the  p61 coast with a cargo of English cloth, Dutch blankets, beads, looking-glasses, rum, and molasses, was suddenly attacked as it lay in Friendly Cove on Nootka Sound. The mistake had been made of allowing too many Indians on board ship, and when their chief, incensed by some fancied insult, gave his men the signal to attack, it found the crew of the Boston totally unprepared. Only two of the Americans survived, and one of them, John Jewitt, the ship's armorer, has left an exciting account of his 'adventures and sufferings.'

Working in the ship's hold, Jewitt heard a fierce struggle going on above him and ran up. 'Scarcely was my head above deck,' he wrote, 'when I was caught by the hair by one of the savages, and lifted from my feet; fortunately for me, my hair being short, and the ribbon with which it was tied slipping, I fell from his hold into the steerage. As I was falling, he struck at me with an axe, which cut a deep gash in my forehead, and penetrated the skull, but in consequence of his losing his hold, I luckily escaped the full force of the blow; which, otherwise, would have cleft my head in two. I fell stunned and senseless upon the floor.'

When he later regained consciousness and was hauled on deck, he was greeted by six naked savages covered with the blood of his murdered comrades and threatening his own life with upraised daggers. On the quarter deck in a grisly row lay the heads of Captain Salter and twenty-five of the crew. The intervention of the chief saved Jewitt's life. He was known to be the armorer and the Indians intended to put his skill at the forge to work for their own advantage. So he was carried off as a prisoner, and when later another survivor of the massacre was discovered hiding in the hold, Jewitt also managed to save him by representing the man as his father. Together the two men lived as slaves of their  p62 captors for some three years until finally rescued by the brig Lydia, Captain Hill.

[image ALT: zzz. It is a depiction of the attack on the 'Boston' by North American Indians in Nootka Sound in 1805.]

In 1811, the New York ship Tonquin was sent out by John Jacob Astor, under the command of Lieutenant J. Thorn, of the United States Navy, with a crew of twenty‑one and thirty-three passengers, to establish what Astor hoped would be a permanent colony on the Columbia River. After various adventures, which included the loss of eight men while making their way across the bar at the Columbia's mouth, the settlement of Astoria was founded. Leaving the colonists to open up their trade with the Indians and to assemble a cargo of furs which another of Astor's ships was expected to take to Canton, the Tonquin then proceeded up the coast toward Nootka Sound.

On the way Captain Thorn, who seems to have been of an irascible temper, quarreled with one of the native changes while in the Straits of Juan de Fuca and drove him from his ship. The next day trading continued as usual, and so confident was Thorn of the peacefulness of the Indians, despite the incident of the day before, that all ordinary precautions were omitted. The Indians were allowed on board in great numbers and the ship's officers did not even wear their side-arms. They were helpless when with blood-curdling war cries the Indians at a given signal drew out knives and bludgeons from beneath their bundles of furs and rushed upon the crew.

[image ALT: zzz. It is a depiction of the attack on the 'Tonquin' by North American Indians on the 'Boston' in in the Straits of Juan de Fuca in 1811.]

Captain Thorn tried to defend himself with his pocket knife, but was struck down. The rest of the crew struggled as best they could, and after a fierce fight, in which many of them lost their lives, the Indians were finally driven off. An ominous calm settled down over the ship. That night there was no move either at escape or at a second attack, but in the morning four sailors tried to get away  p63 in a small boat. Several Indian canoes started off in pursuit and the fate of the sailors was never known.

About the same time the savages again attacked the strangely still vessel and it was boarded by some five hundred wildly yelling Indians. Then suddenly there was a terrific explosion. The ship was totally destroyed, some two hundred Indians killed, and not a single member of the Tonquin's crew of twenty-one left to tell the tale. The only survivor of the tragedy, and the man from whom the fate of the vessel was finally learned by the settlers at Astoria, was the Indian interpreter. But he could not tell whether that final explosion was accidental or whether some wounded member of the crew took this final revenge upon the Indians by firing the ship's magazine.

Back at the mouth of the Columbia, Astor's colonists escaped Indian attack, but their venture came to a sad end. With the outbreak of the War of 1812, the settlers were fearful of capture by the British and, consulting their own interests rather than those of Astor, who had made every effort to keep them supplied despite the danger of seizure of his vessels by the British, they sold out the American company to its British rivals. Astoria as an American colony was no more and its founder's grandiose scheme to establish a great settlement on the Columbia River which might forever supply the furs for Canton, 'that great mart for peltries,' died stillborn.

But it was not only for Astoria that the War of 1812 proved to be such a disruptive influence. The fur trade as a whole never recovered from the effect of Britain's interference and many of the ships driven off the coast by English sloops-of‑war never returned. Between 1790 and 1812 the average importation of sea‑otter skins into Canton by the American traders was about twelve thousand each  p64 year; after the war this figure quickly dropped and the period from 1812 to 1834 showed average annual imports of about two thousand skins. Then the trade was practically over. Another decade and we find that statistics on sea‑otter skins have disappeared.

The war, of course, was not wholly responsible for the end of the fur trade. If its prospects had been brighter, the American vessels would have hurried back to the coast as soon as the hostilities were over, but such poor reports were made by those vessels which did return that we find Perkins and Company as early as 1815 abandoning a proposed Northwest voyage. The simple fact was that furs were becoming scarce and the Indians putting such a high price on those they still offered for sale that the trade was no longer profitable. It was so dependent upon cheap barter that the gradual increase in the prices demanded by the Indians destined it to a slow and lingering death which the events of 1812 had simply accelerated.

The Author's Note:

1 The damage done the Juno had one curious result. Captain D'Wolf decided to sell his ship at the Russian settlement at New Archangel (Sitka) and to set off for Europe overland. He was thus the first American to cross Siberia.

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