“Aug. 19 will be the bicentennial of the day in 1818 when the Navy sloop USS Ontario, commanded by Capt. James Biddle, came into the Columbia River and he nailed plaques to trees on the north and south shores of the Columbia River, claiming sovereignty of the Columbia River Country for the U.S.,” Sue Glen of the Astoria Daughters of the Revolution wrote.
A little research revealed that Capt. Biddle set out to reclaim these territories for the U.S. from Great Britain after the War of 1812. Several incorrectly attribute the year as 1817. As he approached the Columbia River Bar, he noted in his ship’s log that he found it impossible for a vessel as large as the Ontario to enter because of “its sinuous channel,” among other problems.
Consequently, he anchored and took three boats loaded with more than 50 well-armed men to shore at a small cove at Cape Disappointment (current Waikiki Beach, perhaps?).
“… In the presence of several of the natives, displaying the flag of the U.S., turning up a sod of soil, and giving three cheers, I nailed up against a tree a leaden plate in which were cut the following words: ‘Taken possession of in the name and on the behalf of the United States by Captain James Biddle, commanding the U.S. Ship Ontario, Columbia River, August, 1818.’” The Ontario fired a salute to celebrate.
After the ceremony, Biddle headed to the “Chinoake” village to visit the chief, then crossed the river, landing near Fort George, and “took possession” there, too.
Biddle also makes note in his log that the ship not being able to cross the bar caused a bit of a crisis on board the Ontario, as they could not get access to much-needed wood, water and fresh provisions. Mission accomplished, it was time to move on.
Capt. Biddle died Oct. 1, 1848 in Philadelphia. Although his actions reclaiming local U.S. territories were certainly laudable, he also received a War of 1812 Congressional Gold Medal and negotiated one of the first treaties between the U.S. and China.