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Lost empire

Peter Stark tackles forgotten history in Astoria

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The trouble started for the ship, Tonquin, on the first day of what was to be a six-month voyage, recounts adventure writer Peter Stark in Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire. Starting in Sept. 1810, the ship departed New York to round South America's Cape Horn and sail up to what's now Oregon. That first night of the trip, the strict American captain ordered everyone to bed at 8 p.m. The crew obeyed, but the passengers refused. A clerk told the captain that he wasn't allowed to boss them around. The captain answered, "I will blow out the brains of the first man who dares disobey my orders aboard my own ship."

This was the inauspicious start to the grand scheme concocted by then-President Thomas Jefferson and mogul John Jacob Astor, the wealthy merchant and landowner who dreamed of founding a global trading empire built on the strength of North American furs, which fetched exorbitant prices in Europe and China. Based on his travels and discussions with French Canadian fur trappers, Astor "quickly came to the realization that, one day, a wealthy trading empire would exist on the West Coast of North America. The Pacific Rim would emerge as a new world stage—a much larger version of what the North Atlantic was during his own era." But first, there'd be the minor detail of sending expeditions to explore the vast, unmapped western part of the North American continent, and establishing an American trading post where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific.

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  • Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific EmpirePeter Starkhardcover, Ecco384 pages, $27

Astor's dream was a hell of a lofty goal. Stark, a Missoula-based writer and Outside magazine correspondent, tackles the tale with equally ambitious enthusiasm, astounding breadth of knowledge and epic scope. In crisp writing and lively description, the book covers the forgotten patch of history between Lewis and Clark's 1804� trip and the mid-1800s beginning of the Oregon Trail. It all makes for engaging reading, the kind of adventure that's particularly satisfying when the reader is safely curled up on the couch with a blanket. There's even the occasional explosion.

The first group sent to settle Astoria, aboard the Tonquin, dealt with external struggles and internal fighting. Things only got more tense with the captain, who tried to ditch some men on the Falkland Islands and later deliberately sent a few out in a small boat in bad weather to a certain death.

Stark crafts historic records and educated guesses into a page-turning retelling, alternating between the Tonquin's voyage and the second expedition sent by Astor, the Overland Party. The explorers traveling by land were meant to roughly follow Lewis and Clark's path, find the Columbia and eventually meet up with the Tonquin crew. Imagine starting at St. Louis and intending to find western Oregon without a map or any idea of how far away it is. The Overland Party chose to avoid Lewis and Clark's route through Montana, since that was controlled by the Blackfeet, who were still pissed off and vengeful after Lewis had killed one of their tribe. Instead, the Overland Party wandered through Wyoming over the Rocky Mountains in winter, thinking they'd find the Columbia River any day. They were lost for months, starving and desperate, and the situation didn't greatly improve once they got to Astoria.

Astoria is about the goals of white men and colonialism, to be sure, but Stark is conscientious in includingthe perspectives of women and American Indians involved, especially Marie Dorion, an American Indian wife of a fur trapper with the Overland Party, similar to Sacagawea's position with Lewis and Clark. Stark notes that Marie and Sacagawea were documented to have been in the same place at the same time on a few occasions, and he wonders what they would have said to each other.

The Astoria expeditions aren't well-known today. In the epilogue, Stark writes that "Americans love heroes and winners," like Lewis and Clark, and in Astoria, "there are few clear-cut winners and no unblemished heroes." But the Astorians didn't suffer entirely in vain; the Overland Party's stumbling around the country established a path through the Rocky Mountains that became the Oregon Trail.

I was a little amused that in a book with such scope—even the footnotes in the back add interesting little remarks—Stark doesn't bring up what happened to the settlement of Astoria. Today it's a little tourist-trap town of less than 10,000 people, mostly known for being where The Goonies was filmed, not to mention other esteemed films like Kindergarten Cop, Free Willy and the third Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Talk about an illustrious result.

Peter Stark gives a presentation about Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire at the Roxy Theater Mon., March 3, at 7 PM. Free. Benefit for Five Valleys Land Trust.

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