Astoria, Oregon is an interesting place.
Founded in 1811 by wealthy fur baron and New York real estate magnate John Jacob Astor, it’s the oldest United States settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. And even though its inhabitants sold “Fort Astoria” to a group of Canadians just two years later, Astoria played an integral role in what became the Oregon Territory.
From 1818 until 1846, what is now the Northwestern United States and British Columbia existed in a state of “joint control” by the British and the Americans. That is, no single country lay claim to this vast region.
When the two nations finally did agree on how to divide the territory, the British relinquished ownership of what is now Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Wyoming and Montana. A key reason the U.S. was able to claim that whole “Oregon Territory” was that the first non-native settlement there was an American settlement — Astoria. (In other words, humble Astoria helped secure possession of the American West. Astoria, Portland and Seattle might otherwise have become part of Canada!)
Astoria’s early history, however significant, has long been overshadowed by the adventures of Lewis and Clark five years earlier. Many people don’t know much about the rich past of this small, remote Oregon city. But Astoria and its American settlers were responsible for a lot of “firsts”:
- The Oregon Trail — the route that hundreds of thousands of American settlers traveled in the 1840s and ’50s to reach The West — was first charted by some of the men who founded Astoria.
- A group of the first Astorians, returning to the East, happened through the South Pass — the most wagon-friendly crossing in the Rocky Mountain Range — and thus established the route Americans would follow to settle the West.
- A hunter and trapper named John Day was one of the original Astorians. He never did anything very significant in his lifetime, but somehow an Oregon town, two rivers, a dam, a national park and a geologic formation are named after him. Few other members of the original expedition to Astoria found any such fame.
- The first U.S. Post Office west of the Rockies was established in Astoria in 1847, the year after the United States took possession from Great Britain.
- Astoria was home to the region’s first U.S. Customs office, a critical addition to this city on the edge of the continent.
Some of the early interest in Astoria may have been generated by American author Washington Irving, who wrote a book about the town in 1838. Well-received and widely read, Astoria was commissioned by John Jacob Astor himself. Irving’s book fueled the growing fires of “manifest destiny” that later drove the settlement of the West.
However, not all of Astoria’s “early tourists” were impressed with the town. Ulysses S. Grant, likely drawn to Astoria from Irving’s writing, was disappointed when he visited in 1852. He found some 30 houses there with little to support the community: “… only that it is near the outlet of the Columbia River and they have a custom house, distributing post office for the Territory, and a few pilots for vessels coming into the mouth of the river.”
When Rudyard Kipling went to Astoria in 1890, he found a more-evolved, higher-energy town. He perhaps captured the spirit of the place better than anyone else before or since, when he extolled that “Astoria is a fishing village near the mouth of the Columbia River, holding to the bank with one hand while wading out into the stream. Its inhabitants live on salmon and great and increasing expectations.”
But by that time, Astoria was more than a “fishing village.” Rather, it could lay claim to being the “Salmon-Canning Capital of the World.”
That might be achievement enough for most towns, but for decades, Astoria also thrived as a major timber center. The surrounding forests had grown some of the biggest trees anywhere, and the area became flush with sawmills. Astoria’s port shipped enormous quantities of logs and lumber to world markets.
Today, the city with one of the longest histories in the Pacific Northwest is reinventing itself as a tourist destination and a great place to retire. Cruise ships stop there now, and passengers partake of the city’s many museums and shops.
Oregon Experience: Astoria explores the multifaceted history of this city, tracking the economic ups and downs through the decades, and finding out where those two centuries of activity have brought Astoria today.
- Martin, Irene; Tetlow, Roger T. Flight of the Bumble Bee: The Columbia River Packers Association & A Century in the Pursuit of Fish, Chinook Observer, 2011
- Stark, Peter. Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Tale of Ambition and Survival on the Early American Frontier, Harper Collins, 2014
- Smith, Jeffrey H. Images of America: Astoria, Columbia River Martitime Museum, Arcadia Publishing, 2011
- Kirtley, Karen; Beckham, Stephen Dow; Pyle, Robert Michael; & others, Eminent Astorians, Oregon State University Press, 2010
- Kirtley, Karen; Trilling, Calvin; Cody, M. J.; & others, Astorians, Eccentric and Extraordinary, Oregon State University Press, 2010
- John Jacob Astor and the Fur Trade – A Lecture by Rex Ziak, recorded at the Mark O. Hatfield Distinguished Historians Forum, March 15, 2011
Funding Provided By:
Arlene Schnitzer and Jordan Schnitzer
Robert D. and Marcia H. Randall Charitable Trust
Additional Support By:
Decherd Charitable Trust