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'Forgotten' war played major role in Oregon history.

Byline: Douglas Card

As we prepare to celebrate the 4th of July and our successful Revolutionary War, there's another early war we should reflect upon, for it's sometimes called "America's Second War of Independence."

It has also been called America's "most bumbling, most confusing, and most forgotten conflict." We began our national "celebration" of its bicentennial in June, though it's unlikely many noticed.

Most of us remember hardly a thing about the War of 1812 - perhaps the British burning Washington, Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, and certainly the "Star Spangled Banner." The war's ending was so inconclusive that under the Treaty of Ghent, it was "status ante bellum," as all territory seized by either America or England and Canada had to revert to prewar boundaries.

But who recalls that this obscure little war back East had a major impact on Oregon? This strange story goes back to the expansionist conflict between Great Britain and the United States over control of the wealth of the fur trade of the Northwest.

While America had a strong claim to the Oregon Territory thanks to Lewis and Clark's travels and Capt. Robert Gray's exploration of the Columbia River, the powerful British-Canadian North West Company was sweeping west through Canada, searching for ground free from its bitter rival, the British Hudson's Bay Company, with whom it was engaged in deadly conflict back East.

When the North West Company arrived at the mouth of the Columbia in 1811, however, it found an American fort already there - Astoria. This had recently been established by the Pacific Fur Company, a subsidiary of John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company. Though mainly owned by the fabulously wealthy Astor, his junior partners who actually ran the Pacific Fur Company included both Canadians such as Donald Mac kenzie and Americans such as Wilson Price Hunt.

The colorful story of Fort Astoria was romantically narrated in the American literary classic "Astoria" by Washington Irving, author of the famous "Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

The Americans had quickly achieved success with Astor's well-financed plan to ship their Oregon furs to China, trading for Chinese goods to bring to America. Besides Fort Astoria, the Pacific Fur Company established a string of posts throughout the Northwest, as far as today's Montana and British Columbia.

However, various problems occurred, and the company was short of food and supplies. In 1812, Donald Mackenzie led a Pacific Fur Company exploring party up the Willamette Valley, an event whose bicentennial was recently celebrated locally. From a historical perspective, the most significant aspect of his trip was to open the Willamette Valley to the Americans - for though Scottish-led, it was an American enterprise.

But then came the news of the war back East between England and America. Suddenly Fort Astoria was vulnerable to roving British ships and pressure from the North West Company. The partners staffing the fort feared that at any time an English ship might enter the bay and seize the fort as a prize of war.

Thus, Duncan McDougal, supported by Mackenzie, made the controversial decision to sell the fort and its string of outposts to the North West Company for whatever money could be obtained before a British ship could claim it for free.

From here on, the story takes a twist more in line with a Gilbert and Sullivan opera than serious history. A British ship, the Raccoon under Capt. William Black, did arrive with visions of the spoils of war. In spite of the fact that Fort Astoria had already been sold by the Pacific Fur Company to the British-Canadian North West Company, the frustrated crew proceeded to seize it as an act of war anyway.

Big mistake - for when the treaty ended the War of 1812 on the principle of status ante bellum, the United States successfully claimed that it deserved the fort back.

An American ship eventually arrived, briefly raised the flag over "Fort George," as the North West Company had renamed Astoria, and then sailed away. It was purely symbolic, however, for by this time the North West Company had given England almost total control over the Northwest fur trapping industry. Astor realized his time here had passed unless he could get great American help, which was not forthcoming.

When the North West Company merged with Hudson's Bay Company in 1821, the latter, through its series of forts including Vancouver and Umpqua, increased British dominance. Thanks to the War of 1812, Oregon would be controlled by England rather than the United States for the next three decades, though there was official "joint occupancy."

Irving lamented the loss with nationalistic fervor: "In a word, Astoria might have realized the anticipations of Mr. Astor, so well understood and appreciated by Mr. Jefferson, in gradually becoming a commercial empire beyond the mountains, peopled by 'free and independent Americans, and linked with us by ties of blood and interest.'"

It should be noted that there were grievous human as well as geopolitical elements to these struggles. That indecisive little war back East did kill 2,200 Americans in battle, and an estimated 20,000 died of other causes. This places the War of 1812 among the top eight in the number of U.S. war deaths.

England's Indian allies suffered especially heavy casualties, and the lands they lost were not returned. Out West, all this tramping around the Northwest by these Europeans and Americans led to massive numbers of deaths of Native Americans from many diseases new to them, and led as well to the eventual loss of their land.

As The Register-Guard's Bob Welch aptly noted in his recent column on the McKenzie River Celebration, bicentennials are rare enough in Oregon to cause our "brows to furrow" at the thought. So true, for the next likely occasion for a local bicentennial won't come until 2026, to honor another pair of Scottish travelers, Alexander McLeod and botanist David Douglas. However, this time the Scots were carrying the British, not the American, flag.

As historian Charles George Davis concluded, "In 1826 Chief Trader Alexander Roderick McLeod opened the territory south of the Columbia for Hudson's Bay Company, which Donald McKenzie had opened for the Americans 15 years earlier."
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Title Annotation:Local Opinion; The War of 1812 affected the Northwest as a factor in conflicts over the fur trade
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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