South American Fights and Fighters - Cyrus T. Brady

The Cruise of the Tonquin

A Forgotten Tragedy in Early American History

On the morning of the 8th of September, 1810, two ships were running side by side before a fresh southwesterly breeze off Sandy Hook, New York. One was the great United States ship Constitution, Captain Isaac Hull; the other was the little full-rigged ship Tonquin, of two hundred and ninety tons burden.

This little vessel was captained by one Jonathan Thorn, who was at the time a lieutenant in the United States Navy. He had obtained leave of absence for the purpose of making a cruise in the Tonquin. Thorn was a thoroughly experienced seaman and a skilled and practised navigator. He was a man of magnificent physique, with a fine war record.

He was with Decatur in the Intrepid when he put the captured Philadelphia to flames six years before. In the subsequent desperate gunboat fighting at Tripoli, Midshipman Thorn had borne so distinguished a part that he received special commendation by Commodore Preble. As to his other qualities, Washington Irving, who knew him from infancy, wrote of him to the last with a warm affection which nothing could diminish.

Mr. John Jacob Astor, merchant, fur-trader, financier, had pitched upon Thorn as the best man to take the ship bearing the first representatives of the Pacific Fur Company around the Horn and up to the far northwestern American coast to make the first settlement at Astoria, whose history is so interwoven with that of our country.

Mr. Astor already monopolized the fur trade of the Far West south of the Great Lakes. His present plan was to form a fur company and establish a series of trading posts along the Missouri River, reaching overland across the Rocky Mountains until they joined the posts on the Pacific. The place he selected for his Pacific depot was the mouth of the Columbia River.

The principal rival of the Astor Fur Trading Company was the Northwest Company. Astor tried to persuade the company to join him in his new venture. When it refused to do so as an organization, he approached individual employees of the Company, and in 1810 formed the Pacific Fur Company. Among the incorporators were four Scottish Canadians, Messrs. McKay, McDougall, David Stuart, and Robert, his nephew. There were several other partners, including Wilson Price Hunt, of New Jersey.

It was planned that Hunt should lead an overland expedition from St. Louis, while the four Scotsmen mentioned went around the Horn, and that they should meet at the mouth of the Columbia River, where the trading post was to be situated. Most of the employees of the company were Canadians who had enjoyed large experience in the fur business. Among these were included a large number of French voyageurs.

Thus the Tonquin, owned by a German, captained by an American, with a crew including Swedes, French, English, Negroes, and Americans, carrying out a party of Scottish and French Canadians and one Russian, started on her memorable voyage to establish a trading post under the American flag! The crew of the Tonquin numbered twenty-three men. The number of passengers was thirty-three.

The story of her voyage is related in the letters of the captain to Mr. Astor, and more fully in a quaint and curious French journal published at Montreal in 1819, by M. Gabriel Franchere, one of the Canadian clerks who made the voyage.

The Tonquin was pierced for twenty guns, only ten small ones being mounted. The other ports were provided with imposing wooden dummies. She had a high poop and a topgallant forecastle. The four partners, with James Lewis, acting captain's clerk, and one other, with the two mates, slept in the cabin or wardroom below the poop. Forward of this main cabin was a large room extending across the ship, called the steerage, in which the rest of the clerks, the mechanics, and the Canadian boatmen were quartered.

Thorn seems to have felt to the full all the early naval officer's utterly unmerited contempt for the merchant service. It is also the habit of the Anglo-Saxon to hold the French in slight esteem on the sea. The Canadians were wretched sailors, and Thorn despised them. Thorn also cherished a natural hatred against the English, who were carrying things with a high hand on our coast. He began the voyage with a violent prejudice against the four partners on his ship. Indeed, the Constitution had convoyed the Tonquin to sea because it was rumored that a British brig-o'-war intended to swoop down upon her and take off the English subjects on board. It was quite evident that war would shortly break out between England and the United States, and the Scottish partners had surreptitiously consulted the English consul as to what they should do if hostilities began. They were informed that in that case they would be treated as British subjects—a fine situation for an American expedition!

With such a spirit in the captain, and such a feeling on the part of the passengers, the relations between them were bound to become strained. Hostilities began at once. The first night out Thorn ordered all lights out at eight bells. This in spite of all the remonstrances of the four partners, who, as representing Mr. Astor, considered themselves, properly enough, as owners of the ship. These gentlemen did not wish to retire at so early an hour, nor did they desire to spend the intervening time in darkness. They remonstrated with Thorn, and he told them, in the terse, blunt language of a seaman, to keep quiet or he would put them in irons. In case he attempted that, they threatened to resort to firearms for protection. Finally, however, the captain allowed them a little longer use of their lights. Thus was inaugurated a long, disgraceful wrangle that did not cease while life lasted.

There was doubtless much fault on both sides, but, in spite of the brilliant advocate who has pleaded Thorn's cause, I cannot but admit that he was decidedly the more to blame. He carried things with a high hand, indeed, treating the partners as he might a graceless lot of undisciplined midshipmen.

A voyage around the Horn in those days was no slight matter. The Tonquin was a remarkably good sailer, but it was not until the 5th of October that they sighted the Cape Verde Islands. There they struck the Trades, and went booming down the African coast at a great rate. There, also, they were pursued by a large man-o'-war brig. On the third day she drew so near that Thorn prepared for action, whereupon the brig sheered off, and left them.

On the 11th of October they ran into a terrific storm, which prevailed until the 21st, when they found themselves off the River Plate. While the storm was at its height the man at the wheel was thrown across the deck by a sudden jump of the wheel and severely injured, breaking three of his ribs and fracturing his collar-bone. Thorn's seamanship during the trying period was first class. After the gale blew itself out, a fresh breeze succeeded, which enabled them rapidly to run down their southing. The water supply had grown very low, and it was determined to run in to the Falkland Islands to fill the casks.

They made a landfall on the 3rd of December, got on shore on one of the smaller islets on the 4th, found no water, and were driven to sea to seek an offing on the 5th by a gale. On the 6th they landed at Point Egmont on the West Falkland, and found a fine spring of fresh water. As it would take several days to fill the casks, all the passengers went ashore and camped on the deserted island. They amused themselves by fishing, shooting and rambling about. On the 11th of the month the captain, having filled his water-casks, signalled for every man to come aboard, by firing a gun. Eight passengers, including McDougall and Stuart, happened to be on shore at the time. They had wandered around to the other side of the island, and did not hear the report of the gun. Thorn, after waiting a short time, weighed anchor and filled away from the island, firmly resolved to leave the men ashore, marooned and destitute of supplies on that desolate and uninhabited spot, where they must inevitably perish of starvation and exposure.

Some of the abandoned passengers happened to see the Tonquin fast leaving the island. In great alarm they hastily summoned all the other wanderers, and the eight got into a small boat twenty feet long, which had been left with them, and rowed after the rapidly receding ship. They had not the slightest hope of catching her unless she waited for them, but they pulled for her with furious energy, nevertheless. As the Tonquin got from under the lee of the land the breeze freshened and she drew away from them with every passing moment in spite of their manful work at the oars. When they had about given up in exhaustion and despair, the ship suddenly changed her course and stood toward them.

Franchere says that it was because young Stuart put a pistol to the captain's head and swore that he would blow out his brains unless he went back for the boat. The captain's account to Mr. Astor is that a sudden shift of wind compelled him to come about and this gave the boat an opportunity to overhaul him. There was a scene of wild recrimination when the boat reached the ship, shortly after six bells (3 P. M.), but it did not seem to bother Thorn in the least.

On the 18th of December, they were south and east of Cape Horn. The weather was mild and pleasant, but before they could make headway enough against the swift easterly current to round that most dangerous point it came on to blow a regular Cape Horn gale. After seven days of hard beating they celebrated Christmas under pleasanter auspices in the southern Pacific.

Their run northward was uneventful, and on the 11th of February, 1811, they sighted the volcano of Mauna Loa in the Sandwich Islands. They landed on the 12th and spent sixteen days among the different islands, visiting, filling the water-casks, and buying fresh meat, vegetables, and live-stock from Kamehameha I.

While Captain Thorn was hated by the passengers, he was not loved by his officers. Singularly enough, he seems to have been well liked by the crew, although there were some exceptions even there. Anderson, the boatswain, left the ship at HawaSUBTITLE There had been difficulties between them, and the captain was glad to see him go. A sample of Thorn's method of administering discipline is interesting.

The day they sailed a seaman named Aymes strayed from the boat party, and was left behind when the boat returned to the ship. In great terror Aymes had some natives bring him aboard in a canoe. A longboat loaded with fodder for the live-stock lay alongside. As Aymes clambered into the long-boat, the captain, who was furiously angry, sprang down into the boat, seized Aymes with one hand and a stout piece of sugar-cane with the other. With this formidable weapon the unfortunate sailor was beaten until he screamed for mercy. After wearing out the sugarcane upon him, with the remark that if he ever saw him on the sloop again, he would kill him, the captain pitched him into the water. Aymes, who was a good swimmer, made the best of his way to the shore, and stayed there with Anderson. Twenty-four natives were shipped at Hawaii, twelve for the crew and twelve for the new settlement.

On the 16th of March they ran into another storm, of such violence that they were forced to strike their topgallant masts and scud under double-reefed foresail. As they were nearing the coast, the ship was hove to at night. Early on the morning of the 22nd of March, they sighted land, one hundred and ninety-five days and twenty thousand miles from Sandy Hook. The weather was still very severe, the wind blowing in heavy squalls and the sea running high, and the captain did not think it prudent to approach the shore nearer than three miles. His navigation had been excellent, however, for before them lay the mouth of the Columbia River, the object of their long voyage. They could see the waves breaking over the bar with tremendous force as they beat to and fro along the coast.

Thorn, ignorant of the channel, did not dare take the ship in under such conditions. He therefore ordered First-Mate Ebenezer Fox to take Sailmaker Martin and three Canadians into a boat and find the channel. It was a hazardous undertaking, and the despatch of the small boat under such circumstances was a serious error in judgment.

There had been bad blood between the captain and the mate, and Fox did not wish to go. If he had to go, he begged that his boat might be manned with seamen instead of Canadians. The captain refused to change his orders. Fox appealed to the partners. They remonstrated with the captain, but they could not alter his determination. The boat was pulled away and was lost to sight in the breakers. Neither the boat nor any member of the crew was ever seen or heard of again. The boat was ill-found and ill-manned. She was undoubtedly caught in the breakers and foundered.

The next day the wind increased in violence, and they cruised off the shore looking for the boat. Every one on board, including the captain, stern and ruthless though he was, was very much disturbed at her loss.

On the 24th the weather moderated somewhat, and running nearer to the shore, they anchored just outside Cape Disappointment, near the north shore of the river mouth. The wind subsiding, Mumford, the second mate, with another boat, was sent to search for the passage, but finding the surf still too heavy, he returned about noon, after a terrible struggle with the breakers.

In the afternoon McKay and Stuart offered to take a boat and try to get ashore to seek for Fox and the missing men. They made the endeavor, but did not succeed in passing the breakers, and returned to the ship. Later in the afternoon a gentle breeze sprang up from the west, blowing into the mouth of the river, and Thorn determined to try and cross the bar. He weighed anchor, therefore, and bore down under easy sail for the entrance of the river. As he came close to the breakers he hove to and sent out another boat, in charge of Aitkin, a Scottish seaman, accompanied by Sailmaker Coles, Armorer Weeks and two Sandwich Islanders.

The breakers were not quite so rough as they had been, and Aitkin proceeded cautiously some distance in front of the ship, making soundings and finding no depth less than four fathoms. In obedience to his signals, the ship came bowling on, and the fitful breeze suddenly freshening, she ran through the breakers, passing Aitkin's boat to starboard in pistol-shot distance. Signals were made for the boat to return, but the tide had turned, and the strong ebb, with the current of the river, bore the boat into the breakers in spite of all her crew could do. While they were watching the boat, over which the waves were seen breaking furiously, the ship, the wind failing, was driven seaward by the tide, and struck six or seven times on the bar. The breakers, running frightfully high, swept over her decks again and again. Nothing could be done for the boat by the ship, their own condition being so serious as to demand all their efforts.

Thorn at last extricated the Tonquin from her predicament. The wind favored her again, and she got over the bar and through the breakers, anchoring at nightfall in seven fathoms of water. The night was very dark. The ebb and current threatened to sweep the ship on the shore. Both anchors were carried out. Still the holding was inadequate and the ship's position grew more dangerous. They passed some anxious hours until the turn of the tide, when in spite of the fact that it was pitch dark, they weighed anchor, made sail, and succeeded in finding a safe haven under the lee of Cape Disappointment, in a place called Baker's Bay. The next day the captain and some of the partners landed in the morning to see if they could find the missing party. As they were wandering aimlessly upon the shore, they came across Weeks, exhausted and almost naked.

He had a sad story to tell. The boat had capsized in the breakers and his two white companions had been drowned. He and the Kanakas had succeeded in righting the boat and clambering into her. By some fortunate chance they were tossed outside the breakers and into calmer waters. The boat was bailed out, and the next morning Weeks sculled her ashore with the one remaining oar. One of the Sandwich Islanders was so severely injured that he died in the boat, and the other was probably dying from exposure. The relief party prosecuted their search for the Kanaka and found him the next day almost dead.

The loss of these eight men and these two boats was a serious blow to so small an expedition, but there was nothing to be done about it, and the work of selecting a permanent location for the trading-post on the south shore, unloading the cargo, and building the fort was rapidly carried on, although not without the usual quarrels between captain and men. After landing the company, Thorn had been directed by Mr. Astor to take the Tonquin up the coast to gather a load of furs. He was to touch at the settlement which they had named Astoria, on his way back, and take on board what furs the partners had been able to procure and bring them back to New York. Thorn was anxious to get away, and on the 1st of June, having finished the unloading of the ship, and having seen the buildings approaching completion, accompanied by McKay as supercargo, and James Lewis of New York, as clerk, he started on his trading voyage.

That was the last that anybody ever saw of Thorn or the Tonquin and her men. Several months after her departure a Chehalis Indian, named Lamanse, wandered into Astoria with a terrible story of an appalling disaster. The Tonquin made her way up the coast, Thorn buying furs as he could. At one of her stops at Gray's Harbour, this Indian was engaged as interpreter. About the middle of June, the Tonquin entered Nootka Sound, an ocean estuary between Nootka and Vancouver Islands, about midway of the western shore of the latter. There she anchored before a large Nootka Indian village, called Newity.

The place was even then not unknown to history. The Nootkas were a fierce and savage race. A few years before the advent of the Tonquin, the American ship Boston, Captain Slater, was trading in Nootka Sound. The captain had grievously insulted a native chieftain. The ship had been surprised, every member of her crew except two murdered, and the ship burned. These two had been wounded and captured, but when it was learned that one was a gunsmith and armorer, their lives were preserved and they had been made slaves, escaping long after.

Every ship which entered the Sound thereafter did so with the full knowledge of the savage and treacherous nature of the Indians, and the trading was carried on with the utmost circumspection. There had been no violent catastrophes for several years, until another ship Boston made further trouble. Her captain had shipped twelve Indian hunters, promising to return them to their people on Nootka Sound when he was finished with them. Instead of bringing them back, he marooned them on a barren coast hundreds of miles away from their destination. When they heard of his cruel action, the Nootkas swore to be revenged on the next ship that entered the Sound. The next ship happened to be the ill-fated Tonquin.

Now, no Indians that ever lived could seize a ship like the Tonquin if proper precautions were taken by her crew. Mr. Astor, knowing the record of the bleak north-western shores, had especially cautioned Thorn that constant watchfulness should be exercised in trading. Thorn felt the serenest contempt for the Indians, and took no precautions of any sort. Indeed, the demeanor of the savages lulled even the suspicions of McKay, who had had a wide experience with the aborigines. McKay even went ashore at the invitation of one of the chiefs and spent the first night of his arrival in his lodge.

The next day the Indians came aboard to trade. They asked exorbitant prices for their skins, and conducted themselves in a very obnoxious way. Thorn was not a trader; he was a sailor. He offered them what he considered a fair price, and if that was not satisfactory, why, the vendor could go hang, for all he cared. One old chief was especially persistent and offensive in his bargaining for a high price. He followed Thorn back and forth on the deck, thrusting a roll of skins in front of him, until the irascible captain at last lost the little control of his temper he ordinarily retained. He suddenly grabbed the skins and shoved them—not to say rubbed them—in the face of the indignant and astonished Indian. Then he took the Indian by the back of the neck and summarily rushed him along the deck to the gangway. It is more than likely that he assisted him in his progress by kicking him overboard.

The other Indians left the ship immediately. The interpreter warned McKay that they would never forgive such an insult, and McKay remonstrated with the captain. His remonstrances were laughed to scorn, as usual. Not a precaution was taken. Ships trading in these latitudes usually triced up boarding nettings fore and aft to prevent savages from swarming over the bulwarks without warning. Thorn refused to order these nettings put in position. McKay did not think it prudent to go on shore that night.

Early the next morning a large canoe containing some twenty Indians, all unarmed, came off to the ship. Each Indian held up a bundle of furs and signified his desire to trade. Thorn in great triumph admitted them to the ship, the furs were brought on deck, and bargaining began. There was no evidence of resentment about any of them. Their demeanor was entirely different from what it had been the night before. On this occasion the Indians were willing to let the white men put any value they pleased on the furs.

While they were busily buying and selling, another party of unarmed Indians made their appearance alongside. They were succeeded by a second, a third, a fourth, and others, all of whom were welcome to the ship. Soon the deck was crowded with Indians eager to barter. Most of them wanted hunting or butcher knives in return, and by this means, no one suspecting anything, nearly every one of the savages became possessed of a formidable weapon for close-quarter fighting. McKay and Thorn appeared to have gone below temporarily, perhaps to break out more goods to exchange for furs, when the Indian interpreter became convinced that treachery was intended. Whoever was in charge at the time—perhaps Lewis—at the interpreter's insistence, sent word to the captain, and he and McKay came on deck at once.

The ship was filled with a mob of Indians, whose gentle and pleasant aspect had given way to one of scowling displeasure and menace. The situation was serious. McKay suggested that the ship be got under way at once. The captain for the first time agreed with him. Orders were given to man the capstan, and five of the seamen were sent aloft to loose sail. The wind was strong, and happened to be blowing in the right direction. With singular fatuity none of the officers or seamen were armed, although the ship was well provided with weapons. As the cable slowly came in through the hawse-pipe, and the loosed sails fell from the yards, Thorn, through the interpreter, told the Indians that he was about to sail away, and peremptorily directed them to leave the ship. Indeed, the movements of the sailors made his intentions plain.

It was too late. There was a sharp cry—a signal—from the chief, and without a moment's hesitation the Indians fell upon the unprepared and astonished crew. Some of the savages hauled out war-clubs and tomahawks which had been concealed in bundles of fur; others made use of the knives just purchased. Lewis was the first man struck down. He was mortally wounded, but succeeded in the subsequent confusion, in gaining the steerage. McKay was seriously injured and thrown overboard. In the boats surrounding the ships were a number of women, and they despatched the unfortunate partner with their paddles. The captain whipped out a sailor's sheath knife which he wore, and made a desperate fight for his life. The sailors also drew their knives or caught up belaying-pins or handspikes, and laid about them with the energy of despair, but to no avail. They were cut down in spite of every endeavor. The captain killed several of the Indians with his knife, and was the last to fall, overborne in the end by numbers. He was hacked and stabbed to death on his own deck.

The five sailors aloft had been terrified and helpless witnesses to the massacre beneath them. That they must do something for their own lives they now realized. Making their way aft by means of the rigging, they swung themselves to the deck and dashed for the steerage hatch. The attention of the savages had been diverted from them by the melee on deck. The five men gained the hatch, the last man down, Weeks the armorer being stabbed and mortally wounded, although he, too, gained the hatch. At this juncture the Indian interpreter, who had not been molested, sprang overboard, and was taken into one of the canoes and concealed by the women. His life was spared, and he was afterward made a slave, and eventually escaped. The four unhurt men who had gained the steerage, broke through into the cabin, armed themselves, and made their way to the captain's cabin, whence they opened fire upon the savages on deck. The Indians fled instantly, leaving many of their dead aboard the ship. The decks of the Tonquin had been turned into shambles.

The next morning the natives saw a boat with four sailors in it pulling away from the ship. They cautiously approached the Tonquin thereupon, and discovered one man, evidently badly wounded, leaning over the rail. When they gained the deck, he was no longer visible. No immediate search appears to have been made for him, but finding the ship practically deserted, a great number of Indians came off in their canoes and got aboard. They were making preparations to search and pillage the ship, when there was a terrific explosion, and the ill-fated Tonquin blew up with all on board. In her ending she carried sudden destruction to over two hundred of the Indians.

It is surmised that the four unwounded men left on the ship realized their inability to carry the Tonquin to sea, and determined to take to the boat in the hope of reaching Astoria by coasting down the shore. It is possible that they may have laid a train to the magazine—the Tonquin carried four and a half tons of powder—but it is generally believed, as a more probable story, on account of the time that elapsed between their departure and the blowing up of the ship, that Lewis, who was yet alive in spite of his mortal wounds, and who was a man of splendid resolution and courage as well, realizing that he could not escape death, remained on board; and when the vessel was crowded with Indians had revenged himself for the loss of his comrades by firing the magazine and blowing up the ship. Again, it is possible that Lewis may have died, and that Weeks, the armorer, the other wounded man, made himself the instrument of his own and the Indians' destruction. To complete the story, the four men who had escaped in the boats were pursued, driven ashore, and fell into the hands of the implacable Indians. They were tortured to death.

Such was the melancholy fate which attended some of the participants in the first settlement of what is now one of the greatest and most populous sections of the Union.