Diver's discovery prompts new research into ship linked to Astoria's foundingA rusty anchor found off the coast of British Columbia may prove to be a historic link to Astoria's earliest days.
A veteran Canadian diver believes he's found the location of the Tonquin, the sailing ship that delivered the first members of John Jacob Astor's fur-trading post on the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811.
There's still considerable work to be done to definitively link the anchor to the vessel, but the find has sparked new interest in the ship and its violent end off the coast of Vancouver Island.
Next to the Columbia Rediviva, the ship of explorer Robert Gray that gave the Columbia River its name in 1792, the Tonquin is probably the most famous vessel connected with Astoria's early history. The 96-foot, three-masted brig brought a group of clerks, craftsmen and hunters to establish a trading post on the Columbia, part of the scheme by New York entrepreneur Astor to corner the fur market. The outpost that would eventually become the town of Astoria was the first permanent American settlement in the Pacific Northwest.
But the Tonquin met a tragic end. After dropping off the settlers, it sailed north with orders to barter with coastal Indian tribes for furs, which it was then to carry to China. Somewhere off the coast of Vancouver Island, however, the vessel was sunk after its ill-tempered captain prompted a confrontation with a local Native American tribe that led to the deaths of its entire crew and dozens of Indians.
How it came aboutRod Palm said he'd made peace with the fact that his three-decade search for the historic ship might never be successful, when the veteran diver was asked by a local crab fisherman last April to untangle a trap caught on an underwater snag.
Palm, 61, has made the Tonquin his mission since the late 1960s, when he was commissioned by Portland businessman Ed Hayes, then-president of the Oregon Historical Society, to help lead a private expedition to find the historic vessel. That brought Palm, a veteran diver, to the village of Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He's been involved in almost all of the dozens of Tonquin expeditions that followed that first project, and has become so attached to the quest he's made Tofino his home.
When Palm and his son went down to retrieve that crab trap last spring, they found it snagged on a large piece of buried metal that turned out to be a ship's anchor. After hauling up the piece and knocking off some of the accumulated rust, Palm knew he'd found something important.
Photo courtesy Tonquin Foundation
Rod Palm checks out the anchor hauled from the bottom of Clayoquot Sound with Ivy Martin, Carl Martin and Joseph Martin. Palm believes the anchor belonged to the fur-trading vessel Tonquin."It was such a great passion for so many years, and when we kept coming up empty, I had to console myself that, well, maybe it's better that it's never found, every place needs a mystery," he said. "Now, I'm dusting off my old files."
Clues that show the anchor may have belonged to the Tonquin include its design, the same as others used by sailing ships in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. More than 100 blue trade beads were also encrusted in the rust that formed around the metal.
Most telling for Palm, though, is the anchor's location in Clayoquot Sound. It's the historic home the Tla-O-Qui-Aht Native American tribe, whose oral history includes accounts of the destruction of a trading ship passed down through the generations.
According to those accounts, the Tonquin met its demise when its captain, Jonathan Thorn, gravely insulted the tribe's chief by rubbing a sea otter pelt in his face during a failed effort to barter for furs on board the vessel. The Indians left the ship but returned the next day and, in the guise of bartering, came aboard in large numbers, then attacked and killed most of the crew.
A surviving crew member, however, managed to set off the ship's store of gunpowder, and the resulting explosion ripped the vessel apart and killed as many as 150 of the natives.
Canadian significancePalm's find has created a stir in the village of Tofino, where further research into the discovery is being promoted by the Tonquin Foundation, a group made up of local business owners, the Tla-O-Qui-Aht tribe and interested archeologists.
The group has secured the use of a depth-finder that will scan under the sea floor for signs of a vessel, said executive director David Griffiths. Test drillings then may be done for evidence of wood or other telltale materials, and if they're found, a complete excavation of the site, a project that could take 10 years or more, may be launched, he said.
Buried under eight feet of sand, the anchor's eight-foot wooden stock was remarkably preserved, Griffiths said, which gives hope that much of the rest of the ship can be found intact.
The Tonquin is important to Canadian lore, but with its links to Astoria, it's an especially significant part of American history, and for that reason the foundation hopes that some U.S. agencies may join the project, Griffiths said.
The attack on the Tonquin is illustrated in this 1838 sketch by Edmund Fanning, the ship's original owner.James Delgado said it's still far too early to start using the word "Tonquin" in relation with Palm's find. Director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum and a recognized expert in West Coast shipwrecks, Delgado was part of a team in the 1980s that researched the wreck of the schooner Isabella, lost at the mouth of the Columbia in 1830.
Delgado was called in to study the Tofino anchor last week, and said while it is of the type used by ships during the Tonquin's era, that's no proof of its origin.
"That only tells us when the anchor was made, not when it was lost," he said, adding that samples from the wooden stock will be analyzed to determine where the wood may have come from.
Another fur trader vessel is recorded as having been sunk in the same area as the Tonquin in 1808, Delgado noted. And the Tonquin wasn't the only such ship lost in a violent encounter with Native American peoples on the Canadian coast, he said.
Delgado recommended the sonar depth readings and test diggings as the best way to determine whether a ship lies where the anchor was found. The dimensions of the vessel, samples of goods it carried, and evidence of what caused its sinking are all clues that might prove its identity, he said.
The anchor itself is going into a chemical bath, where it will sit for a year or more to preserve the metal. Its fate after that is unclear - the question of its ownership is "murky and muddy," Griffiths said.
The Canadian Heritage Conservation Act covers historic artifacts like the anchor, and some people have called for it to be removed to a larger research facility. The village of Tofino, however, sees the anchor as the centerpiece for its own proposed maritime heritage center, he said.
Then there are the Tla-O-Qui-Ahts, who have their own stake in the artifact.
"Some tribal members view it as a war prize - after all, they lost 150 people on the ship," Griffiths said. "It's a very sensitive issue."
The next stageAt a meeting last week in Tofino, representatives of the British Columbia provisional government, which administers the heritage act, agreed to allow the anchor to remain in the village, where the chemical treatment will take place. Under the law, Palm would have been required to go through a long permitting process before removing the anchor from the ocean floor, Delgado said, but the province officials worked with the other participants to map out the next steps in the project.
"They could have come and taken the anchor," he said. "It's heartening that everyone in the room had common goals."
Aside from the search for the wreck, the Tonquin Foundation also hopes to construct a full-scale replica of the vessel that will serve as an "floating ambassador" in 2010 - the year of the Olympic Games in Vancouver, and the 200th anniversary of the Tonquin's departure from New York to Oregon.
"That particular story is absolutely germane to this community and this institution," said Jerry Ostermiller, executive director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum.
In the late 1980s the museum hosted a symposium dedicated to research on the Tonquin, and the interest ignited by the Tofino discovery could be the spark for another such project, he said - whether or not the anchor is conclusively tied to the ship.
"They're still a long ways" from proving the anchor belonged to the Tonquin, he said. "There were dozens of vessels from that period that rounded Cape Horn and worked the coastal trade that were never heard from again."
The tribal story of the Tonquin's demise, as well as an eyewitness version provided to the Astoria company months later by a native hired as an interpreter on the Tonquin, are generally accepted as accurate accounts. But Clayoquot Sound is just one of three locations believed to be plausible locations of the wreck, Ostermiller said.
Palm said he took part in many Tonquin expeditions at other locations, but always believed the Clayoquot Sound site was the most promising. During one of the first expeditions in the 1960s, a metal-detecting device was dragged several times over the very site where the anchor was found without registering a blip, he said. Only on the last day of the project was it discovered that the machine was broken, but for years that spot was largely ignored in subsequent expeditions.
Despite his own confidence he's found the ship, Palm knows there's much more work to be done before others agree with him.
"As every bit of evidence comes in, the circumstantial evidence piles up, and at some point someone will finally say they believe it's the Tonquin," he said. "Of course I already do, but it needs to be more than just me saying it."