History of Portland Oregon Commerce

In approaching the subject of the commerce of Portland, it will be found that it divides itself most naturally into three periods. The first of these begins in the most remote times, dating, indeed, as far back as the year 1811, when Astor projected his fur enterprise from New York upon our shores. This extends as far down as to 1848 and the first months of 1849-the period of gold in California.

The period from 1811 until 1849 may be termed the age of commercial adventurers and independent shippers, or the period of our primitive commerce. The second stage, beginning with 1849, continues until 1868, and may be styled the period of dependence, or ‘ at least sub-dependence, upon San Francisco. The third, beginning with 1869, and extending up to the present time may be styled the period of independent commerce with the Atlantic seaports, Europe, and all the world.

Recurring to the primitive age we find included in this the enterprise of Winship, of Astor, a long regime of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the ineffectual attempts of Kelley, Wyeth, and Couch ; with, perhaps, a few independent ventures of other bold but unlucky Americans. It is not necessary here more than to refer to the scheme of Astor. It is well enough, however, to bear in mind that in days so early as 1809 and 1810, commercial men upon the Atlantic sea-board were looking toward the Columbia River as the next great opening for their enterprise. Looking upon the map of North America, they saw how the Columbia river and its tributaries made an open way from the heart of the continent so that the products of the interior might readily float thence to the sea, and were therefore impressed that at the mouth of this stream would rise the great emporium of the Pacific Coast and command the trade of the Orient. Astor’s proximate object was to nourish a trade in furs and to thereby gain a foothold for American institutions. There is every reason to believe that he intended to so far extend his plans and operations as to include the planting of colonies, the development of agricultural and pastoral pursuits, and thereby to insure the conditions by which a great commerce such as then was crystalizing about New York City, should be developed upon the western waters. It is well enough known how his enterprise failed, how his ships were blown up or wrecked, and how his agents upon this toast betrayed his interests to his British rivals. Nevertheless, in the two years during which his business flourished, in spite of all his disasters, he succeeded in establishing the first settlement on the North Pacific coast, and in collecting furs worth something like two hundred thousand dollars.

The Hudson’s Bay Company, which succeeded to this enterprise, was a well established business corporation, and for a quarter of a century and more-1818 to 1846-carried on a commerce worth on the average a quarter of a million dollars per annum. This was, in the first years, almost exclusively devoted to the export of peltfies and to the import of only such articles as were necessary to secure them-that is clothes, gew-gaws, trinkets, beads and a modicum of powder and shot. For more than ten years their commerce was thus restricted, and one ship a year from London was amply sufficient to bring all imports and to carry off all exports. About 1829, however, McLoughlin, the chief factor at Fort Vancouver, found that he might advantageously supply the Russian post at Sitka, or New Archangel, as then denominated, with wheat; and settling, therefore, a number of his servants upon lands in the Willamette Valley, and in after years encouraging the American settlers to engage in the cultivation of the cereals, he built up a considerable commerce in the Northern waters. As early as 1835, or 1836, it was found that an incidental commerce of much value might be conducted with the Sandwich Islands. And at this time began our first real export of salmon, lumber, and hoop-poles and staves. The annual ship passing by Honolulu on her voyage to the Columbia left at that point a portion of her cargo to be sold to the Islanders. Taking on here a supply of molasses, she proceeded to the Columbia river, and after discharging at the little fort at Vancouver, took on some salt salmon, lumber, hoop-poles and staves to leave at the Islands as she went on back to London. This amounted to as much as sixty thousand dollars per annum. This British circuit of trade flourished until 1845, when Nathaniel Crosby, a Yankee sea captain, began to make inroads upon it; and, as by the treaty of 1846, Oregon as far north as the parallel of 49 degrees fell to our nation, the Hudson’s Bay Company relinquished, all this business to the Americans.

It was in 1830 that Hall J. Kelley began his unlucky series of enterprises, and although he met nothing but failure from beginning to end, and contemplated a system of colonization rather than commerce, the agitation into which the Eastern States, and especially the commercial circles of Boston were thereby thrown, produced fruit later on. Nathaniel J. Wyeth, of Boston, a clever, mettlesome, idealistic, but nevertheless sagacious New Englander, conducted his expedition across the continent to the mouth of the Willamette river. His plan was to establish forts on the upper waters of the Columbia, which were to be supplied with goods for the Indian trade, while at the mouth of the Willamette he was to have a central station. To this point should be gathered the pelts collected from the Indians, and hither a ship should come every year bringing a supply of goods sufficient for the interior posts. A system of salmon fishing was also to be conducted on the lower Columbia, and as his vessel sailed away with the product of the year’s labor of the trappers and the traders, she was also to carry a cargo of salt fish to be traded at the Sandwich Islands for whale oil or other products of that region. This brilliant scheme proved equally disastrous with that of Kelley’s. Wyeth’s little band, which he left at Fort Hall, had much ado to escape extermination at the hands of the red men. His fishermen on the lower Columbia had bad luck in taking salmon-some of them being drowned; and he was only too willing, after a struggle of less than three years, to sell out to his rivals and accept passage home in one of their ships. Captain Couch, in 1839, under the direction of John and Caleb Cushing, of Newburyport, Massachusetts, entered upon a scheme very similar to that of Wyeth’s, with the exception that he did not contemplate dealing to any extent in furs. With the brig Maryland he sailed around Cape Horn, arriving at the month of the Columbia river and passing up its waters to the Willamette, and thence to Oregon City on the solsticial freshet of May, 1840. He had on board an assorted cargo for trade with the American settlers in Oregon, and intended to load up with salmon and return to the Sandwich Islands and there exchange his cargo for whale oil and return via the Cape of Good Hope to Massachusetts. His plans, however, totally failed from his inability to sell his goods at Oregon City at prices to compete with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and from the impossibility of obtaining a cargo of fish. He sailed empty to Honolulu, and there had to sell the Maryland in order to get home.

In 1845, however, the persevering attempts of Americans to control this trade met with success. It was in that year that Captain Nathaniel Crosby came around the Horn from Massachusetts, and entering the Columbia river, sailed up to Portland, and, anchoring here, began to sell off his stock of goods. By means of batteaux, or flat boats, his goods were lightened up to Oregon City and there disposed of as the settlers found need. It was in connection with this bark, the Toulon, that the name of Portland began to be known. People at the thriving city of the falls inquired when they learned that Crosby’s ship was in the river where she would unload, and the answer was made “At Portland.” This venture was measurably successful, and thenceforward Crosby began a regular trade between Portland and the Sandwich Islands, carrying away salmon, hoop-poles, staves, and a little whip-sawed lumber, or perhaps something of the product of the saw-mills at Oregon City, near Vancouver, or the Hunt’s mill on Cathlamet bay. In 1846 this success of Crosby’s was followed up by the arrival of the Chenamus, from Newburyport, under Captain Couch, on his second venture.

In 1847, as the supremacy of the United States in the western waters began to he fully assured, other ships with cargoes of goods began to arrive. One of these was the bark Whitton, of New York, under Captain Ghelstom. She came up to Portland, and, after discharging, took on a considerable supply of produce, making a temporary wharf by drawing up near to the shore and placing poles from the bank to her deck, and upon these laying planks. At the same time the brig Henry was in the river on the East Portland side; the American bark Parsons is also mentioned as having entered the Columbia, and the Eveline from Newburyport.

The Star of Oregon, a schooner, built in the early forties by Joseph Gale and other Americans, on Swan Island, was run down to San Francisco, but of course exported nothing, unless she herself be considered an export-for she was sold at San Francisco, and the money thus obtained was invested in cattle, which were driven to Oregon. It is not known that there were any other exports from Oregon, or, at least, that any passed Portland during those early times. This whole epoch, at least so far as concerns Americans, was that of commercial adventurers, and old-time traders, such as flourished on every sea from about the year 1790 to 1850.

Coming now to the second epoch we find a commercial revolution consequent upon the discovery of gold in California. Thenceforth the objective point of the commerce of Oregon and of Portland as her principal shipping point was the Golden Gate. At the time that the discovery of gold was announced in Oregon in August, 1848, the brig Henry happened to be lying in the river, and her captain believing that the discovery of gold would produce permanent industries on the most gigantic scale, seized the opportunity, before the news became general, to buy up as many as possible of the spades, shovels and pans, that were to be found among the householders and farmers of young Oregon. With these he sailed off, and, although experiencing a long delay on the bar of the Columbia, and passing through a storm at sea, by which he was well nigh shipwrecked, he made the port of San Francisco without great loss, and realized a fortune. Other craft going down the coast to the same place carried produce of various kinds and some deck loads of ]umber which had been cut out by whip saws, or at Hunt’s mill. From 1849 until about 1855, and even later, the trade in Oregon produce and lumber became exceedingly remunerative. One of the ship captains who made it a great success was Couch. He arrived on his third trip from Massachusetts at San Francisco in 1849, with the Madonna, and sold what lumber he had on board at the fabulous price of six hundred dollars per thousand feet. Five hundred dollars a thousand was for some time the regular market price. The Madonna came up to Portland and thereafter made regular trips under command of Captain Flanders, now of our city. Stimulated by the great demand for lumber, mills began to spring up along the lower Willamette, and a heavy export trade was continued. Lot Whitcomb and Captain Kellogg, at Milwaukie, operated a saw mill and regularly despatched vessels to the Golden Gate, carrying their own lumber and also that of other mills, for which they received a hundred dollars a thousand as freight. The exact amount of lumber thus exported during thee years is not known, but, together with shingles, puncheons, poles, timbers, hoop-poles, shooks and staves, aggregated a value of many thousand dollars.

Under the stimulus of enormous prices and unlimited demand Oregon produce began to be gathered likewise and sent below. Butter at two dollars a pound, beef at one dollar; wheat, potatoes and other vegetables, at corresponding figures, were eagerly brought from all parts of the Willamette valley and shipped at Portland or other points on the lower Willamette and Columbia. To meet this growing commerce sailing craft became multiplied, and steam communication was soon demanded. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company, of New York City, under the presidency of Aspinwall, had in 1849 sent the old Pacific through the straits of Magellan for Astoria, but she stopped at San Francisco. In 1851 she was followed by the old Columbia, a side-wheeler of about six hundred tons, which reached the mouth of the Columbia river and stopped at Astoria. After this she made regular trips between San Francisco and the Columbia river, coming finally as far up that stream as St. Helens. In the latter part of the same year the Gold Hunter came up from San Francisco, and being purchased by the town proprietors and other citizens first connected our city by steam with the outer world.

There was no product of our valley which met with a greater demand than the Oregon apple. Orchards were exceedingly few, and in 1850 to 1855 the trees were so young that even the total aggregate of the entire Willamette valley was not large. People from the Eastern and Middle States, who had been accustomed to this fruit, and in crossing the plains or sailing around the Horn, or via the Isthmus, when they had been compelled to live upon fried bacon or salt beef, with little or no fruit or vegetables, were ravenous for the beautiful red or golden apples that grew large and fair in the Oregon rain and sunshine. They were willing, especially if their belts were full of ” dust,” to give almost their weight in gold for the pomes. A dollar apiece, and even five dollars for a big one, was a regular price in the earliest days. The first shipment was made from the nursery of Luelling & Meek, at Milwaukie, in 1853. This was a consignment of two hundred pounds for the San Francisco market, from which they realized five hundred dollars. In 1854 they sent forty bushels down, making twenty-five hundred dollars by the trans-action. About the same time Mr. J. A. Strowbridge, now one of our most substantial citizens, began making collections and consignments, going about from orchard to orchard, and encouraging the farmers to plant trees as rapidly as possible. His returns were large, and the encouragement which he gave the farmers resulted in the extension of the early orchards. In 1855 the export reached fifteen hundred boxes, which sold at fifty cents to a dollar a pound; in 1856, five thousand boxes, selling at twenty-five to fifty cents a pound; in 1857, fifteen thousand boxes, at fifteen cents to fifty cents; in 1858, twenty-nine thousand, one hundred and ninety boxes, at seven cents to thirty-five cents; in 1859, seventy-two thousand boxes, at three cents to twenty-five cents; in 1860, eighty-six thousand boxes, at three cents to nineteen cents. In the winter of 1861, owing to the severity of the season, the orchards suffered a great loss, many of them being completely ruined, so that the exports did not for many years come up to their early productiveness. Even in 1863 we find the exports only forty-two thousand and thirty-one boxes. Yet it is to be noticed that after the discovery of gold and silver in Eastern Oregon and Idaho, quite considerable shipments were made thither, of which no record is found; and it was becoming customary also to turn the product into dried fruit, which subsequently exceeded in value the shipments of the green. Moreover, as prices fell, the crops were not fully gathered and thousands of bushels were suffered to rot under the trees, or were fed to the cattle and hogs.


Harvey Whitefield Scott. History of Portland, Oregon: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens and Pioneers. Portland, Oregon. D. Mason & Company, 1890.

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