Considering it was on the far side of the world, Oregon Country was a happening place in the mid-1840s. Some settlers were pushing for it to become an actual nation in its own right, while the British Empire and the rising USA grappled for supremacy in a region containing a wealth of natural resources and potential wealth.

Into this political fray in August 1846 sailed the USS Shark, most recently in the independent Hawaiian Kingdom for repairs. Her orders were to proceed to the Columbia River, “to obtain correct information of that country and to cheer our citizens in that region by the presence of the American flag.” At 300 tons displacement and 86 feet in length, it was a pipsqueak. Her big sister in the American fleet, the USS Constitution, displaced 2,200 tons and was 175 long at the waterline.

Though nobody here had any way of knowing it, the U.S.-British boundary dispute was mostly resolved by a treaty signed in Washington, D.C., on June 15, 1846.

Having put in an appearance, the Shark made some rather hasty efforts to survey the river in the vicinity of Fort Vancouver. In the face of crew desertions, she began a hurried departure from the Columbia on Sept. 10. The capricious bar had shifted a bit in the meantime. The Shark zigged when it should have zagged. She was captured not by the British, but by the still chaotic waters of Clatsop Spit.

The ship broke apart in the wild surf, where the U.S. Motor Lifeboat School still conducts training drills of clenched-teeth intensity. A portion of Shark’s deck with cannons still in place was carried by southbound summer currents and deposited on the mostly uninhabited rocks and shore near what would become Cannon Beach, named in honor of one of the Shark’s carronades recovered in 1898.

Carronades are to cannons basically what derringer pistols are to handguns – short-range, relatively difficult-to-aim weapons used for close-in fighting. Their deployment on the Shark reflects the ship’s function as a sort of bantamweight fighter against slavers and pirates within the infamous triangular trade route linking Europe, West Africa and the West Indies. Her first mission was delivering an American diplomat negotiating the creation of Liberia, a colony for freed slaves.

Shark’s career also included claiming Key West, Florida for the U.S.; protecting American commercial shipping; and becoming the first U.S. man-of-war to navigate the notoriously difficult Straits of Magellan from east to west, en route to a long mission spent safeguarding American interests on the Pacific Coast.

In short, Shark was a highly newsworthy little ship, playing a surprisingly oversized role in the early U.S. Navy.

When two more of her carronades were discovered by lucky beachcombers in 2008, the Columbia River Maritime Museum, The Daily Astorian and a host of local partners worked hard to ensure they would be returned here, where Shark met her end. Now going on public display in the museum, which already possesses several other notable Shark artifacts, these little cannons will play a permanent role in helping future generations remember and celebrate a feisty little ship, and her crew’s role in making the U.S. a Pacific naval power.

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