This Week in the Mercury

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Oregon Wants to Kill You, and Other Lessons from Peter Stark's Astoria

Posted by Joe Streckert on Thu, Mar 20, 2014 at 3:59 PM

As any kid who tooled around on an Apple IIe knows, getting to Oregon used to be highly awful. Starvation, cholera, and (of course) dysentery turned a whole lot of pioneers into dead pioneers, and given the harsh conditions of both overland and sea travel, one wonders why British and American settlers ever bothered with this corner of the continent.

Peter Stark’s Astoria, published earlier this month, answers that question. The earliest settlements in this state had nothing to do with pioneer optimism or stalwart settlers looking for a promised land. Initially, Brits and Yankees came to Oregon to make big buckets of cash. This region was filled with lots of cute animals with nice fur, and a few gigantic corporations really wanted to turn them into hats, ruffs, and sundry other fancy things that could be sold in mostly China. Later in the 1800s the Oregon Territory would indeed become fur country, but in the early part of the 19th century the initial missions here did not go well at all.

John Jacob Astor, with the support of Thomas Jefferson, had dreams of setting up a private fur empire based at the mouth of the Columbia River. Throughout the book, Stark goes out of his way to paint Astor as a removed and naïve leader, oblivious to the suffering of the men he’s sent to found his commercial empire on the far side of North America. The author also seems to revel in everything that went wrong with the Astoria mission. Disease and starvation were obvious problems, but so were cultural misunderstandings with the Native Americans, failures of leadership on the part Astor’s lieutenants, and infighting amongst early pioneers themselves. Everything gets so bad that, at one point, a ship explodes and kills hundreds of people. Again: It did not go well.

Astoria is ultimately worth reading not just because it’s about Oregon history, but because it contextualizes Oregon’s past within American history. Stark does a very good job of explaining exactly why Astor bothered with such a dangerous and expensive mission, why his employees had the problems that they did, and what it meant for the U.S. as a whole and Oregon in particular. The book is a welcome departure from romanticized tales of Lewis and Clark or of later pioneers. Settling Oregon didn't happen because Americans are self-starting pioneers. No, it happened because a rich man in New York had a lot of money, a lot of ambition and, most importantly, a whole lot of hubris.


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