“American Enterprise”

Newspaper Scoop of the Year 1813 by the Missouri Gazette, May 15, 1813

The Tonquin, 1811

In 1813, St. Louis was a little town, and not quite yet “Gateway” to the West, for, for much of the nation, St. Louis was the farthest west a town could be found.  But in May, 1813, the Missouri Gazette published a story “as collected from the Gentlemen themselves,” of a journey to the Pacific, the foundation of Astoria, and return of a few men to report to Astor:  the first such journey accomplished since Lewis and Clark.  This was a story that foreshadowed many a subsequent trek through St. Louis to points west. The story also included the tale of the loss of the Tonquin, the supply ship sent from New York for Astoria that was taken over by Indians, and tales of Hawaii, which foreshadowed its role as the United States’ stepping stone to China and the Far East.  It was a remarkable scoop, and the editor of the Gazette had a remarkable sense of the journey’s importance.  Evidence that the rest of the nation recognized the importance of the story lies in the fact that it was reprinted in almost every newspaper in the United States.

The story begins uneventfully at first:  “On the 29th of June, 1812, Mr. Robert Steuart, one of the partners of the Pacific Fur company, with two Frenchmen, Messrs. Ramsey Crooks and Robert M’Clellan, left the Pacific Ocean with despatches for N. York.”  All goes well, they “pursued their journey for the Atlantic world, without any uncommon accident,” when, “within about 200 miles of the Rocky mountains,” they met a party of Crows, who stole all their horses.  The editor apprizes us of their danger:  “Some idea of the situation of those men may be conceived, when we take into consideration that they were now on foot and had a journey of 2000 miles before them, 1500 of which entirely unknown, as they intended and prosecuted it considerably south of Messrs. Lewis and Clark’s route; the impossibility of carrying, any quantity of provisions on their backs, in addition to their ammunition and bedding, will occur, at first view.”  Having crossed the Rockies, they were able to purchase a horse from the Snakes, and wintered on the river Platte, then canoed down that river, reaching St. Louis “in perfect health.”

Having given this brief synopsis of their trek, the editor draws this conclusion:  “By information received from these gentlemen it appears that a journey across the continent of N. America might be performed with a waggon, there being no obstruction in the whole route that any person would dare to call a mountain, in addition to its being much the most direct and short one to go from this place to the mouth of the Columbia river.”  He then gives the account of Hunt’s party, who left St. Louis in March, 1811, and went to the Columbia across country; finding, on their way, a party of hunters who instructed them as to a better way to the Columbia than that used by Lewis and Clark. They arrived at Astoria, “the principal establishment of the Pacific Fur Company,” on May 10, 1812.

On October 2, 1813, the Missouri Gazette gave further information it had collected from “a gentleman belonging to the Fur company established at the mouth of the Columbia river, who lately arrived here, overland from the establishment, informs us, that frequent trips are made to Owhyhee for provisions.”  What follows may be the first published American account of Hawaii, including this description of Tamahamah:  “Tamahamah, king or despot of Owhyhee and all the neighboring Isles, is esteemed the ‘Peter the Great’ of the south sea.  He has taken into his service, about 50 [or 30] Americans, and eight or ten English, Irish and Scotch adventurers . . . .  His prime minister, whom he calls Billy Pitt is a fellow of great sagacity; with this man he superintends the carpenters, shipwrights and blacksmiths, attends the lading and unlading of his schooners, which trade as far as China.”  One paragraph is devoted to the women of Owhyhee, including a description of Tamahamah’s principal wife:  “She was, as well as her husband, extremely hospitable to strangers; her majesty accompanied by her nymphs, would often dash amid the foaming billows, swim round the ship and reach the shore in safety, after sporting with the angry waves for hours.”  Thus the Gateway to the West, which became part of the twenty-fourth state, was introduced to what would become the 50th state of the United States.

The University of Texas at Austin hopes, in the next year, to post on its digital repository some of its holdings of rare early issues of the Missouri Gazette (originally named the Louisiana Gazette, so named for the Louisiana Territory).
________________________________________________________________The Headliners Foundation appreciates and supports efforts to preserve our national journalistic legacy and suggests that Texans and others who love journalism and its rich history in this country consider donating to their state’s efforts to put these early newspapers online.  Contact your state library, historical society or university.  For a list of historic newspapers online, use this link: http://guides.library.upenn.

About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden