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The beginning of the Fur Trade in the United States

Walking behind Lewis and Clark

Posted: Tuesday, August 2, 2011

By Frank T. Pool

ASTORIA, Ore. — I visited the oldest American settlement west of the Mississippi, at the mouth of the Columbia River, in my quest to follow the trail of Lewis and Clark, and to escape the blistering Texas summer.

Astoria was named for John Jacob Astor, the entrepreneur who saw the potential of the new American possessions in Oregon to trade with the Native Americans for furs that were highly desirable in China. He became the wealthiest man in America, later shifting his investments to real estate. The town named after him was established in 1811.


The British had a head start on the fur trade, but were saddled with a major obstacle. All the furs they obtained had to be shipped to London first, to be taxed. Americans could get their wares to the Orient quicker, in better shape, and cheaper.

Astoria is a lovely little town, set on a hill near the sand bar that makes navigation of these waters tricky. I counted seven ships anchored near town, and saw several others under way. The town once thrived on commerce and canneries; nowadays it subsists on tourism. Once a wealthy place, downtown is now full of thrift stores, restaurants and other establishments directed toward the tourist dollar. It is a town compact enough for walking.

Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery certainly knew about walking. In two and a half years, from 1804 to 1806, they walked, rode, paddled, poled and portaged their way from St. Louis all the way up to Cape Disappointment on the Washington coast. I have been reading about their exploits, especially their time in the Pacific Northwest.

Fort Clatsop National Historical Park is a few miles from Astoria. This is where the Corps of Discovery spent its second winter. Exhausted and sick from their trek through the Bitterroot Mountains, they spent a quiet winter trading with the peaceful Clatsop and Chinook tribes, shooting elk, (they had missed the big salmon run) making salt and preparing for the return voyage.

I began my reading with Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage,” an engrossing popular history that tells a great story. (Ambrose was a popular historian whose “Band of Brothers” is a classic. I read his book “D-Day” on the 50th anniversary of that event, and it was a very moving experience.)

Ambrose’s book was evidently rushed into print at the height of the late author’s popularity. Even reading with a flashlight at a campsite, I saw several places where the editors could have been more diligent.

There are multiple abridged editions of the journals of Lewis and Clark. The complete edition runs to 13 volumes. After talking to a very helpful clerk in the Fort Clatsop gift shop, I bought Gary E. Moulton’s 2001 edition, which includes helpful maps, unobtrusive comments providing context, and includes the passages from the writings of other members of the expedition.

The journals preserve the voices and delightfully bad spelling of the authors. “Ocian in view, O the joy!” exclaims William Clark at approaching the end of his journey. Clark was the cartographer, Lewis the naturalist, both were ethnographers charged by President Jefferson with writing a scientific account of their discoveries for the benefit of the nation.

After a while, I put Ambrose aside and read from the journals. It is a great tale of adventure and scientific discovery, of the Enlightenment making first contact with native peoples.

The tale is both epic and on a human scale. It is about expansion and discovery and the possibilities that this nation grasped early in its history.

I took to the trails myself. They are well maintained.

Marc Kaufman (left) with legendary NY Jets quarterback “Broadway Joe” Namath

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