The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume V, Number 3, Pages 10-23
Summer, 1980

The Columbia: The Mis-understood River

Murray Morgan

Murray Morgan, historian, teacher, and writer, is Chairman of History at Tacoma Community College. His most recent book is Puget's Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979). This paper was presented at a symposium on "The Columbia: An Inexhaustible Resource?" at Eastern Washington University.

A river is a living thing, flowing through time as well as space. A river has a personality that reflects past circumstance as well as condition. The Columbia though shackled now in concrete traces, a wild creature turned workhorse, retains an aura of power. And of controversy. Throughout its recorded history, it has been misunderstood, misinterpreted, misplaced. For centuries even its existence was disputed.

In the Era of Reconnaissance, when geography was an art and a philosophy rather than a science, men theorized that there must be a great River of the West, some majestic stream that collected much of the rainfall and snowmelt from the west side of the continent and carried it to the Pacific.

Tales brought back by explorers and fur traders who reached the Indian country east of the Rockies supported the theory of a river across the continental divide. They even supplied it with a name - the Oregon - but they placed its mouth anywhere from the Sea of Cortez to the Strait of Anian.

For two and a half centuries after the Spanish reached the west coast of the Americas there was only rumor and speculation, claim and refutation. The survivors of the Juan Cabrillo expedition that sailed north from Acapulco in 1541 and returned the following year reported visiting San Diego harbor, the Channel Islands. To the north lay a rock-bound coast and a land without precious metals. They had been near, but not in, the Bay of San Francisco.

Cabrillo's expedition did not report the mouth of any great river. Nor, in 1579, did Francis Drake of Plymouth, who, raiding and looting, sailed northward along the coast of Spanish America until he found an area with nothing precious enough to take back to England. Somewhere south of Oregon, Drake paused for six weeks, proclaimed the land Nova Albion New England - and the Indians subjects of Queen Elizabeth, then sailed on around the world to home, knighthood and lasting fame - but not as the discoverer of a River of the West or a Northwest Passage through the continent.

Juan de Fuca allegedly found a strait at 48 degrees north latitude and it took him across the continent in twenty days to the North Sea, but that was a strait, not a river, at least as his story was told by the Englishman Michael Lok, the only man who ever claimed to have talked to Juan de Fuca, who in all probability did not exist.

The equally-improbable Admiral Bartholomew de Fonte was said to have sailed north from Peru to just below the Alaska border - 54 degrees north latitude - where he entered a great river up which he sailed boldly, across the Rockies, into a lake in the middle of North America where he encountered an English ship from Boston which had reached the same lake sailing westward. After consultation with the British commander (it was said), de Fonte came to the conclusion that there was no navigable water passage through the continent, so he went back to Acapulco and the Boston captain went back to Boston. But de Fonte was the figment of a journalist's imagination, as was the River of the Kings he was said to have found. Though, in truth, the Skeena does pour into the Pacific at 54 degrees.

So went the science fiction of the 17th and 18th centuries, tales combining rumor and possibility with imaginative detail, enjoyed by multitudes and accepted by the credulous.

There were in this time of what Captain Cook called "mapped imagination" some real voyages which led to the reported sightings of rivers we can presume real. But the ships' instruments were poor, surviving accounts secondhand at closest, and it is impossible to match the outlets described with existing river mouths. Zizcaino and Aguilar, who reached the Oregon-California border at the turn of the 17th century, were said to have found, somewhere south of 42 degrees, "a voluminous river and an island at the mouth of a very good and secure port, and another great bay at a latitude of 40 degrees 30 minutes in which another very large river entered." These could have been the Klamath and the Eel. Neither was the great river of the west, the opening to the continental interior.

The Columbia is Sighted

Not until 1775 was there a definite sighting of the Columbia. That year Bruno Hezeta was sent north from San Blas in Mexico in the frigata Santiago to determine whether Russian or English interlopers had settled on the coast which Spain claimed without having visited. Hezeta sailed as far as Vancouver Island without sighting Europeans. He was returning southward to Monterey when, late in the afternoon of August 17, he found himself off an extensive bar stretching between two capes.

Breakers crashed heavily on a long stretch of shoaled-up sand. Hezeta tried to come in close to look for a passage into the broad bay that stretched inland to the horizon. The current drove the Santiago offshore, leading the Spaniard to believe he must be "at the mouth of some great river, or of some passage to another sea." He speculated that Juan de Fuca might have misjudged the latitude of the strait he was supposed to have seen long before.

The Spaniards were short-handed after the loss of seven men during a skirmish with the Quinault Indians. The surviving crewmen were weak with scurvy. Hezeta decided to wait until morning before risking a crossing of the bar. During the night, wind and current carried his ship far to the south. The captain decided not to go back. All that came of the Spanish sighting was the notation on some Spanish charts of a "bayia de la suncion de Nuestra Senora" (The Bay of the Assumption of Our Lady, sometimes called "Entrade de Hezeta - Hezeta's Entrance), with a possible "Rio de San Roque" opening vaguely into an amorphous hinterland.

Three years after the unventuresome Hezeta, the great Captain Cook came to North West America. Cook sailed past the mouth of the river in bad weather. He held too far off the coast to sight the bar or detect the silty plume of fresh water. But Cook's visit led to the start of the trade in sea otter skins between the North West Coast and China. In 1788, John Meares, the black Irish captain of a British trading vessel, came down the coast from Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island to check on the rumor that a Spanish explorer had found the mouth of a great river opening into the interior of the continent.

Meares sighted and named the highest mountain on the Washington Coast. Olympus, he called it, and the name replaced that given by Perez, EI Cerro de la Santa Rosalia. Meares also discovered and probed Willapa Harbor, which he called Shoal water Bay. He then coasted south along a sandy spit which dropped off into the breaker shrouded sands that had repelled Hezeta. Beyond the crashing waves, quiet water. In the gray distance, mountains. Meares, like Hezeta, saw no path through the turbulence and decided there was none. Nor, he thought, was there a river. "We can now safely assert," he wrote after his visit, "that no such river as that of San Roc exists, as laid down on Spanish charts." Meares named the bay beyond the bar Deception, and the cape to the north Cape Disappointment.

Gray and Vancouver

Four years later, in 1792, the British sent George Vancouver to North West America to complete the charts begun by Captain Cook. Vancouver had with him a copy of the book John Meares wrote about his voyages in the North Pacific. Meares may have misled Vancouver about the mouth of the Columbia. In April when Vancouver's Discovery was off the bar he too decided the bay behind the breakers was fed not by a major river but by numerous small streams flowing from the coastal mountains. Though his instructions from the Admiralty were to try to find a river system opening eastward to lake of the Woods, today's Minnesota, he did not risk the bar.

A few days farther north, while off Cape Flattery on the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver encountered an American ship, the Columbia Redeviva captained by Robert Gray of Boston. Gray too had just come north along the coast. He too had studied the line of breakers and the bay behind. He too had failed to find an entrance. But unlike Meares and Vancouver he was of the opinion that a great river stretched eastward from the head of the bay.

Comparing notes, the British and American officers disagreed, perhaps quarreled. When the vessels parted, Vancouver went on and discovered Puget Sound. Gray went back south.

On May II, Gray's Columbia Redeviva was off the mouth of the Columbia again. The wind was light and the day clear. Gray decided to chance it. The Columbia crossed the bar without incident. "When we were over the bar," says a copy of the log. "We found this to be a large river of fresh water up which we steered. At one P.M. came to with the small bower (anchor), in ten fathoms, black and white sand...Vast numbers of natives came alongside...So ends."

So ended the long search for the mouth of the Columbia, but so began a new round of argument and conjecture and misunderstanding. Gray spent eight days inside the bay at the mouth of the river. He made a brief attempt to ascend the stream itself but ran aground and, since no sea otters were anticipated upriver, he tried no more. Before leaving the river he named it Columbia for his ship. On his arrival later in the summer at Nootka he was pleased to let the British know that he had been in the great river they said wasn't there. Gray did not show his charts to Vancouver, but he did give copies to the Spanish commander, Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, who let Vancouver make copies of the copies.

The Chatham and a Longboat

When the British expedition ended its work for the year on the North West Coast (they planned to winter in Hawaii), Vancouver checked on Puget's claim. His Journal says:
Having nearly reached cape Disappointment, which forms the north point of entrance into Columbia River, so named by Mr. Gray, I directed the Chatham (his consort, a smaller ship) to lead into it, and on her arrival at the bar should no more than four fathoms water be found, the signal for danger was to be made, but if the channel appeared to be further navigable, then to proceed...
We soon arrived in three fathoms, and as the water was becoming less deep, and breaking in all directions around us, I hauled to westward in order to escape the threatened danger. In doing this we were assisted by a very strong ebb tide that set out of the river, and which opposing a very heavy swell that rolled from the westward directly on shore, caused an irregular and dangerous sea.

Vancouver spent the night outside the bar, wondering what had become of the Chatham. The next morning it was seen inside the bay, but still amid breakers. During the night the waves broke so heavily on the Chatham's deck that they smashed her small boat to pieces. The English believed that had the Discovery entered the bay and anchored alongside, she must have struck bottom with great violence.
Under this circumstance we undoubtedly experienced a most providential escape in hauling from the breakers. My former opinion of this port being inaccessible to vessels of our burthen was now fully confirmed, with this exception: that in very fine weather, with moderate winds, a smooth sea, vessels not exceeding four hundred tons might, so far as we were able to judge, gain entrance.

Vancouver ordered Lieutenant William Broughton to explore the river. The Chatham went aground several times while still in the estuary. Broughton decided to explore by long boat. He managed in a week's time to get 100 miles beyond where the Chatham was anchored, and about 84 miles up what he considered to be the true, free-flowing river. That brought him to a point, which he named for Vancouver, about seven miles upstream from the present city of Vancouver, Washington.

"Previously to his departure," Vancouver wrote, "he formally took possession of the river, and the country in its vicinity, in His Britannic Majesty's name, having every reason to believe, that the subjects of no other civilized nation or state had ever entered this river before."

What of Gray, a copy of whose chart the British carried? The British conceded that he had entered the bay at the mouth of the river but contended that his chart showed that he had been only in the tidal estuary and that "it does not appear the Mr. Gray either saw, or was ever with 5 leagues of, its entrance."

Misconceptions Compounded

There was further confusion. On October 29, from a point near the mouth of the Willamette River, Broughton saw a "very distant high snowy mountain ... rising beautifully conspicuous in the midst of an extensive tract of low, or moderately elevated, land, lying S 67 E, and seemed to announce a termination of the river."

Broughton's notion that the Columbia had its source in the Cascades found its way onto maps, especially the great Arrow smith map of 1795, and compounded misconceptions that plagued Lewis and Clark in their mountain crossing.

A year after the Gray and Vancouver discoveries, which brought to a climax the maritime exploration of North West America, Alexander Mackenzie of the North West Company completed the first crossing of North America above the Spanish possessions.

Mackenzie's little party pushed up the Peace River, which flows eastward from the Rockies into Lake Athabasca. When they ran out of water they carried their birch bark canoe less than a mile between the headwaters of the Peace and the tributary of a great westward flowing river - which means they portaged across the continental divide.

The main stem of the west-flowing river proved fast and rough. Indians warned Mackenzie that he was still far from the "sinking waters of the endless lake," and that the river ahead was more turbulent than that he had ascended. So he left the canoe and marched westward to the Bella Bella, bought a dug-out and paddled down to Dean Channel, which opens into the Pacific north of Vancouver Island. "On this day, ~ he wrote in his journal, "I perceived the termination of the river in an arm of the sea. ~

When Mackenzie returned to Montreal the following year he learned of the Vancouver-Gray reports of a great river emptying into the Pacific slightly north of the 46th parallel. Mackenzie assumed it was the same river he had been unable to follow to the sea. So did some cartographers. The confusion continued until another North West Company explorer, Simon Fraser, descended the river to salt water, in 1808, only to find himself three degrees farther north than the mouth of the Columbia. "This river is, therefore, not the Columbia," he wrote glumly in his journal on July 2, 1808, "If I had been convinced of this when I left my canoes, I certainly would have returned."

The disappointment was bitter - but at least they named the river for him, the Fraser, and his trip cleared up some misconceptions about the Columbia.

Fraser's discovery came too late to be of help to Lewis and Clark. Their crossing of the continent was planned after the publication of Mackenzie's book about his travels, a book with the wonderful title Voyages from Montreal on the River St. Laurence through the Continent of North -America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in the Years 1789 and 1793 with a preliminary account of the Rise, Progress and Present State of the Fur Trade of that Country.

Mackenzie's description of his short portage across the Rockies near the 55th parallel reinforced the idea of the speculative geographers that the headwaters of the Missouri and the Columbia lay close together in the Rockies. As early as 1793, Thomas Jefferson had written of "a river called Oregon in locked with the Missouri for a considerable distance." In his message to Congress proposing the Lewis and Clark expedition, Jefferson said that the Missouri offered "according to the best accounts a continued navigation from it's source, and, possibly with a single portage, from the Western Ocean."

It was not realized how sharply the Rockies slant southeastward away from the Pacific Coast below the point where Mackenzie crossed, nor that the mountains broaden and divide into a series of ranges. The maps drawn after the Mackenzie and Vancouver discoveries, including one in Mackenzie's book, show the Rockies as a narrow wall running almost straight north and south and several hundred miles closer to the Pacific than they in fact are. Mackenzie's map showed firmly the portion of the Fraser that he had canoed, showed equally firmly the hundred miles of the Columbia that Lieutenant Broughton's long boats had ascended, but connected the two with a dotted line called the "TacoutcheTesse" or "Columbia" river, which had it existed - would have flowed along the crest of the Cascade Mountains.

This version had the disadvantage of having the source of the Columbia too far north to interlock with the supposed source of the Missouri. So the Americans conceptualized a branch or tributary of the Columbia, which rose farther south, close to the headwaters of the Missouri. The primary mission of the Lewis and Clark expedition was to locate what Jefferson described as the "water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce."

As we know, Lewis and Clark made it to the Pacific - but the portage between the head of navigation on the Missouri and the Clearater River, which they descended to the Snake, which joins the Columbia, was 521 miles long and took them six weeks. Its difficulty necessitated their wintering over at Fort Clatsop before starting back. On the return trip Lewis found a shorter route, but nothing like the short haul Mackenzie had reported to the north.

A "Garden Passage"

The Lewis and Clark expedition exploded many myths, including the notation that their trip would be, in Jefferson's phrase, "a Passage through the Garden." It provided the Americans with a west the mind could deal with in terms of reality, not speculation. Still there remained misconceptions based on wishful thinking, an example of which is in Lewis's letter to Jefferson from S1. Louis: "In obedience to your orders, we have penetrated the Continent of North America to the Pacific Ocean, and sufficiently explored (16) the interior of the country to affirm with confidence that we have discovered the most practicable route which does exist across the continent by means of the navigable branches of the Missouri and Columbia rivers."

That "most practicable route" had a gap of 340 miles from below the great falls of the Missouri to the area of Kamiah in Idaho. "This passage by land of 340 miles," Lewis conceded to be "the most formidable part of tract proposed across the Continent; of this distance 200 miles is along a good road, and 140 of tremendous mountains which for 60 miles are covered with eternal snows."

Lewis and Clark Start a Race

The Lewis and Clark reports of a "practicable route" across the continent and of abundant beaver on the Missouri and Columbia river systems touched off a race to exploit the discoveries. The North West Company, for which Mackenzie had made the pioneer trans-continental crossing, sent Simon Fraser and David Thompson across the Rockies to establish trade. Fraser, as already mentioned, proved that the Tacoutche-Tesse was not the Columbia.

Thompson - the lame explorer, the greatest of land geographers, and one of the nicest men in North West history - crossed the Rockies in 1807 with his half-Indian wife, Charlotte, and their three children, the youngest only fifteen months old. They emerged above the Kootenay plain. "Here," Thompson wrote, "among the stupendous and solitary wilds covered with eternal Snow, and mountain connected with mountain by immense glaciers, the collection of Ages, and on which the Beams of the Sun makes hardly an impression when aided by the most favorable weather, I stayed fourteen days more, impatiently waiting for the melting of the Snows of the Height of Land."

The Thompsons followed the melting snow, rivulet to creek, creek to a small river, the Blueberry, which he reasoned must be a tributary of the Columbia, as indeed it is. But Thompson had expected to come to a river flowing south by west, toward a meeting with 'the ocean at 46 degrees north latitude as reported by Vancouver. This stream was heading north by west, toward Russian America. He decided it could not be the Columbia and called it the Kootenay. He followed the river not downstream to the north but upstream to the south and came to its source on Canal Flats a mile or so from Columbia Lake.

It took four years for Thompson to decipher the peculiar geography of the Upper Columbia which rises north of the Idaho-Montana border and flows along the eastern face of the Selkirk Range before making a hairpin turn and plunging south to the Arrow Lakes and the Big Bend in eastern Washington.

During the period that Thompson was trading for beaver and making maps on the upper Columbia, John Jacob Astor, the leading American fur trader, followed up the Lewis and Clark reports by establishing a fur post at the mouth of the river. Astor was a shrew businessman - "a moneymaking machine" as an obituary later described him. - but his Pacific Fur Company proved to be a miscalculation compounded by mischance.

The expedition was two-pronged. One group was sent by ship around Cape Horn, the other was to follow the Lewis and Clark trail. The sea-borne party quarreled with the ship's captain, who was perhaps insane and certainly incompetent. He lowered longboats into the wild water at the Columbia bar, ordered crewmen to find a path through the tumult or be hanged, and lost eight men in the murderous waves. Later he lost his ship, his entire crew and his own life to the Indians on Vancouver Island.

The overland party was forced to detour south of the Lewis and Clark route because of the hostility of the Blackfeet. They came out on the Snake River, made canoes and tried to float down it. Too rough. They went on by foot and straggled into the post at the mouth of the river in small parties across several months.

Fort Astor

But the Astorians did manage to build a base. On July 15, 1811, when David Thompson rounded Tongue Point on the Columbia estuary at the climax of his river exploration, it was to find what he described as "the fur trading post of Mr. J. J. Astor of the city of New York, which was four low log huts, the far-famed fort Astor of the United States; the place was in charge of Messrs McDougall and Stuart who had been clerks of the North West Company; and by whom we were politely received."

Among Astor's many miscalculations had been the hiring of former North West Company people to run the enterprise. True, they were experienced in the beaver trade, but nearly all were British subjects. When the United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812, these former Nor-westers found themselves isolated at Astoria, with the British navy controlling the seas. In 1813 a party of North West Company men arrived by canoe to establish a rival post. They brought word that a British warship was en route to capture Astoria. That left the Astorians with the prospect of being killed by their own countrymen in what was sure to be a vain effort to defend the interests of John Astor and the United States, or selling out. They sold out, turning Fort Astoria over to the British who renamed it "Fort George," in honor of King George the Third. Most of the Astorians then went back to work for the North West Company.

Fun and Games with Flags

Astor was not the only one to miscalculate. When His Majesty's Ship Raccoon arrived on the Columbia, having sailed half-way around the world to capture the American outpost, Captain Black was disgusted to find it no more than a scattering of log huts with a modest picket wall more suited for keeping out deer than for defense. Worst of all, the Union Jack was flying over it.

Denied the glory of battle, he went ashore, ran down the British flag, ran up the American flag, lowered the American flag, ran up the British flag, broke a bottle of Madeira against the flagstaff and announced he was taking possession of the country for Britain.

When the peace treaty was negotiated between the warring powers at Ghent in Belgium, the commissioners did not know of events at the mouth of the Columbia. The State Department, however, instructed the American delegation to try to get a clause in the treaty that no property should change hands as a result of the war. Everything should return to status quo ante. The British agreed. After the treaty was signed the Americans demanded the return of Astoria. The British said it had not been taken in war but purchased. The Americans cited Captain Black's fun and games with the flags. A compromise was worked out under which the British raised the American flag at Astoria to symbolize that whatever claims the U.S. had possessed by right of exploration and development had not been compromised by events during the war. But the North West Company remained in possession of the post itself. The overall effect was to support American claims on the south bank of the Columbia.

With Thompson having descended the length of the main stem of the Columbia and the Astorians having followed the portions of the Snake that Lewis and Clark had not seen, the basic geography of the Columbia was understood. The next generation of misunderstandings involved the Columbia's role in the diplomatic and political arguments over possession of the Oregon Country.

The United States and Britain each had claims by right of exploration and development in the land lying between the Rockies and the Pacific, and between Russian America to the north and Spanish America to the south.

First Attempt at Division

The first attempt to work out an equitable division was made in 1818. The United States proposed extending the boundary along the 49th parallel to the Pacific, which would divide the territory almost equally and give each country the area it had been most active in exploring. But the British would not, could not, agree. The Columbia was the problem. Thompson had shown that it was nature's way, the gravity route through the mountains, by far the best line of communication between the Pacific and the interior of the continent. The Fraser was too turbulent to serve as an artery of commerce. The British would not relinquish control of the lower Columbia to the Americans. But they suggested that if the Americans would propose running the boundary along the 49th parallel from the crest of the Rockies to the Columbia River at today's Trail and then using the river as the boundary to the Pacific they might accept. The Americans refused to put forward such a proposal, which would leave the United States with no western harbor except that behind what one sea captain described as "the seven fanged horror of the Pacific, the bare bones of the continent, the dread Columbia River bar." Albert Gallatin and Rich Rush, the American negotiators, reported to Secretary of State John Quincy Adams that with regard to the Columbia River:
... this subject was, during the whole negotiation, connected by the British plenipotentiaries with that of the boundary line (east of the Rockies). They appeared altogether unwilling to agree to this in any shape, unless some arrangement was made with respect to the country westward of the Stony mountains. This induced us to propose the extension of the boundary line due west, to the Pacific ocean. We did not assert that the United States had a perfect right to that country, but insisted that their claim was at least good against Great Britain. So far as discovery gave a claim, ours to the whole country on the waters of the Columbia was indisputable.

The diplomats finally agreed to leave the Oregon country open to use by the people of either nation for ten years to see how things worked out.

The developments during the next decade favored Britain. The Hudson's Bay Company absorbed the North West Company, creating a transcontinental monopoly of British fur interests against which the American traders could not successfully compete. Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, gave orders to trap out the Snake River area and create "a fur desert" across which the American fur brigades would hesitate to advance. The policy succeeded, and there was little American activity on the Columbia between 1818 and 1827.

A Fur Desert and Round Two

In the second round of negotiations, the British Foreign Office had the great advantage of knowing much more about the country than did the American State Department. Albert Gallatin, head of the American negotiating team, wrote to Ramsay Crooks, who had been on the Columbia with the Astorians, to ask in particular about the area most in dispute, that lying north and west of the Columbia and south of the 49th parallel. Crooks replied that the country was "extremely worthless; along the sea shore rocky and poor, with little other timber than pine and hemlock, father inland sandy and destitute of timber, a very small portion of the whole fit for cultivation and in the meanwhile affording hardly any furs. "

This remarkable assessment of the land west of the Columbia in today's Washington state led Gallatin to suggest to President Adams that some of it at least could be ceded to facilitate an arrangement, but President John Quincy Adams replied: "If the land on the Northwest Coast, between the mouth of the Columbia River and the parallel of 49 be bad, and, therefore we should lose but little in relinquishing it, the same (consideration) will apply to the British. The President cannot consent to vary the line proposed in your instructions."

George Simpson, the governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, reported to the British government that the districts north and south of the Columbia produced together between 30 and 40 thousand pounds worth of furs a year, $200,000 at most. This was hardly impressive, less than the gross of many an English textile factory - but Simpson claimed the trade was "in its infancy." He warned that if the Americans controlled access to the Columbia, and thus to the interior drained by the river, the Hudson's Bay Company "must abandon and curtail their trade in some parts, and probably be constrained to relinquish it on the West side of the Rocky Mountains altogether. "

British Foreign Secretary George added the charming argument that "It is not what our trade is now, that the question is to be estimated. It is when China shall be open to English as well as American commerce that the real value of settlements on the Northwest coast of America will become apparent."

"We cannot yet enter this trade," he continued, on account of the monopoly of the East India Company. But ten years hence that monopoly will cease; and though at that period neither you nor I shall be where we are to answer for our deeds, I should not like to leave my name affixed to an instrument by which England would have foregone the advantages of an immense direct intercourse between China, and what may be, if we resolve not to yield them up, her boundless establishments on the N.W. Coast of America.

In return for control of the north bank of the Columbia, the British offered to concede the Americans a strip of land along the north shore of the Olympia peninsula. The Americans refused to yield an inch below 49 degrees, though they offered to promise the British navigation rights up the river to the 49th parallel if the Columbia were under American control.

In the end they could not agree to a division. The period of joint occupation was extended indefinitely - until a new treaty could be concluded, or until either nation withdrew after giving a year's notice of its intention, an action which would be a tacit statement of willingness to resort to arms to settle the issue.

Technology Changes the Picture

Ink was hardly dry on the 1827 agreement to disagree when technology began to change the situation. In 1829 the first locomotive ran on the first American stretch of tracks. It worked. Realization spread that sooner or later rails would cross the continent, reducing travel time by 90 percent, speeding communication, making possible not Jefferson's idea of sister republics across the continent but a continental nation. Interest in the Oregon country among Americans was vastly increased. At the same time, the role of the Columbia was changed. If rails could cross the mountains, the river system would not be needed for access to the Canadian interior. This magnified the danger of the Columbia bar and increased the value of the alternate harbors both north and south of the 49th parallel.

During the l830s the situation changed further when the American fur traders found a route for wagons through the Rockies. The canoe system of the British fur trade, pioneered by the explorers of the North West Company perfected by the Hudson's Bay Company under Simpson, was an elegant construction. It delicately balanced the lightness of birch bark canoes, the endurance of the French Canadian paddlers, the portability of the ninety pound pieces into which all canoe cargo was divided, the length and slope of innumerable portage trails, the strength of currents in the river systems, the prevailing winds on the open water traverses, and the depth of snow in a thousand defiles. All these came together into a pattern lovely and serviceable as a spider's web, capable of moving men and supplies across a continent, capable of supporting a fur empire.

There was precious little elegance to the Oregon Trail, which started on the Mississippi and ended on the lower Columbia. Its merit was brute practicality. The Americans had found they could roll wheels over the Rockies at South Pass in Wyoming. Where Americans could go on wheels, they went as families: the missionaries first, then the land-hungry farmers.

To the north, the swift birch bark of the British, driven by hardy paddlers, moving trade goods. To the south, the awkward wagons of the Americans, pulled by oxen, carrying families. The race was to the slow. With American families moving into the Columbia country, a Congressman answered demands for a firm action against the British with a call for patience. We need not fight the British for possession of the Columbia, he said, pointing out that few British women were coming to the disputed land. "We will win Oregon in our bedrooms. We will outbreed them." An early version of make love not war.

American Mapping Expeditions

With Americans moving into the area in numbers, the government became interested in obtaining more accurate information about the area than had been provided by Ramsay Crooks. In 1836 President Andrew Jackson instructed Secretary of State John Forstye to find someone who might "obtain some specific and authentic information in regard to the inhabitants in the country in the neighborhood of the Oregon or Columbia River." Forstye found William A. Slacum, a 34-year-old Virginian on leave of absence from the navy, who was on his way to Mexico on a business trip. He agreed, in return for expenses, to drop up to the Oregon country and report on conditions there.

The dreams of rails were still far in the future, and Slacum had a terrible time getting to the Columbia. He eventually chartered a brig in Hawaii and, as the only passenger, reached the river on Christmas Day 1836. Posing as a businessman, he wrote McLoughlin at Ford Vancouver asking for an interview. McLoughlin was not deceived; his men told him that Slacum's ship had arrived almost without cargo, an inconceivable waste of opportunity for a businessman. "This," he wrote in his private journal, "must be an agent of the American government come to see what we are doing."

But McLoughlin felt that the British were so firmly established on both sides of the river that it would do the Americans good to see for themselves. He assigned a canoe and six Hawaiian paddlers to carry him about the river system. Slacum was not so much impressed as alarmed by what he saw. He reported the Columbia valuable for fur, timber and agriculture, and he warned that a boundary even as far north as the 49th parallel would leave the British in possession of Puget's Sound, which he said would endanger the Columbia.
With the influence she could command (through the Hudson Bay Company) over the Indians at the north on those magnificent straights of Juan de Fuca, a force of 20,000 men could be brought by water in large canoes to the Sound, Pugitt's, in a few days, from thence to the Columbia; the distance is but two days' march via the Mowility. I hope our claims to 54 degrees of north latitude will never be abandoned; at all events, we should never give up Pugitt's sound, nor permit the free navigation of the Columbia...

The next American agent to inspect the area did not come in disguise. Lieutenant Charles Wilkes came as commander of the U.S. Naval Exploring Expedition of 1838-42. He arrived in 1841, lost one of his ships on the Columbia River bar, sent a party overland from Nisqually on Puget Sound through Naches Pass to the Columbia River, made handsome charts of the mouth of the river and upstream to the Cascades - charts which he acknowledged were outdated almost as soon as they were laid down on paper because of the shifting sands - and he returned to Washington D.C. He reported that the Navy should never be left with the Columbia as its main port on the Pacific, that Puget Sound was valuable, that a boundary at Russian America was desirable since it would exclude the British from the coast, but that the Bay of San Francisco was worth all other ports put together.

Mounting Tensions

Increasing American migration, and James K. Folk's proposal during the 1844 election campaign that "All Oregon" - meaning Oregon from 42 degrees to 54 40 degrees - be claimed as U.S. Territory to balance the proposed admission of Texas, led the British to send agents to assess the situation on the Columbia.

In 1845, Lieutenants Henry Warre and Mervin Vavasour, both engineering officers, came across country disguised as "young gentlemen of leisure traveling for sport and science." They went in a Hudson's Bay canoe as far as Fort Gary (Winnipeg) and then by horse to see if Governor Simpson's contention that an army could be supplied by the canoe route was justified. Their guide across the Rockies, the experienced Peter Skene Ogden, found them to be poor companions, especially, he noted, when Vavasour had been putting opium in his brandy.

They met Father De Smet, the great Catholic missionary, in the Kootenays, and immediately blew their cover. De Smet wrote to his bishop in St. Louis that these were British secret agents with designs on securing the mouth of the Columbia against the Americans.

Warre and Vavasour were unimpressed with eastern Washington. "The barrenness of the soil, the total absence of wood and water completely excludes all hope of its ever being adapted to the wants of men." Nor, on reaching Fort Vancouver some 73 days after leaving Winnipeg and losing more than half of their horses en route, did they think much of Governor Simpson's notion of sending an army across the continent by canoe and Cayuse. "Quite impractical," they reported. "Facilities for conveying troops to the Oregon Territory by the route we have lately passed do not exist to the extent Sir George represents." But the lower Columbia impressed them not only as a path to the interior but for its agricultural possibilities. They recommended that Britain use military force if necessary to hold the Columbia.

Meanwhile a major British warship, H.M.S. America, had arrived on the coast to show the flag and impress the Americans, whom Governor Simpson considered lawless types, "more given to rely on the bowie-knife and revolving pistol than the constable's button."

The America's mission merely added to the confusion about the Columbia. She proved to draw too much water to enter the river. Her commander, Captain the honorable John Gordon, brother to both the Foreign Secretary and the First Lord of the Admiralty, decided to proceed to Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island instead, but he couldn't find the entrance to the harbor and was forced to anchor at Discovery Bay. Gordon spent some time fishing for salmon and was skunked - he had been fly fishing during the spawning run. His experiences so soured him on the area adjacent to the Columbia that he reported to the British government his belief that the American government's encouragement of immigration to this area was a devious plot. At the end of the Oregon trail, he said, the immigrants would find streams where the salmon won't take the fly, a river bar impassable to ships of importance, harbors hidden by perpetual mist, and land suitable for nothing. Rather than return home, he predicted, the emigrants would go south and capture San Francisco.

When the great decision was made deciding the nationality of the Columbia River region - it was made far away and for reasons that had little to do with reports from the scene.

Robert Peel, confronting troubles caused by the Irish potato famine, wanted peace with Britain's traditional rivals, the U.S. and France. President Polk, after the admission of slaveless Texas, was willing to drop the demand for "All Oregon" and settle for half. The U.S. conceded that the 49th parallel would be the border to the Strait of Georgia, rather than to the Pacific, which left all of Vancouver Island in British control and gave them the north side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Columbia was American to the 49th parallel, but its development remained a matter for conjecture, for argument, and for decisions often based - as in the past - on preconception, misinformation, guesswork, good will and hope.