March 25, 1813, the ship Isaac Todd, owned by the North West Company of Montreal, departs Portsmouth in eastern Canada en route to the Columbia River with supplies for the company’s fur trading posts in the Northwest. The War of 1812 renders the passage extremely perilous.
When the Isaac Todd raised anchor in Portsmouth, North West Company partners Donald McTavish (1755-1815) and John McDonald of Garth (1771-1866) were on board, along with six Canadian voyageurs, four clerks, and a Hawaiian worker called John Coxe. The Nor’Westers had sailed from Montreal to London in the fall of 1812 with the annual shipment of furs from their North American operations, then had loaded the Isaac Todd with trade goods and supplies.
Sea Powers at War
Because the War of 1812 rendered sea travel extremely dangerous, the partners lobbied the British government for protection, arguing that “the territorial possession of the Countries bordering on the Columbia River, and finally the whole Northwest coast of the Continent of America, will depend upon the measures to be adopted by His Majesty’s government on the present occasion” (Ronda, 255).
Upon obtaining a letter of marque, McTavish and McDonald refitted the Isaac Todd’s decks to accommodate 20 cannon in case she met with American ships en route. They made arrangements to sail with the Atlantic Convoy, a large fleet of merchant vessels guarded by Royal Navy warships. In addition, the British Admiralty agreed to provide a 36-gun frigate, H.M.S. Phoebe, to escort the Isaac Todd all the way through the Pacific to the Columbia.
In an attempt to keep any American spies or sympathizers from learning the destination of the two ships, the Admiralty issued sealed orders, marked Most Secret, to the captain of the Phoebe, to be opened in the South Atlantic after he cleared the port of Rio de Janeiro. When the captain broke the seal on July 10, he learned that his mission was to
“render every assistance in your power to the British traders from Canada and to destroy and if possible totally annihilate any settlements which the Americans may have formed on the Columbia River or on the neighboring coasts” (Gough, 14).
He and his crew were also to assist the Nor’Westers “in the formation of any new settlement that they may wish to form for carrying on their trade and destroying any force of the Enemy which you may find in that Quarter” (Gough, 15).
After opening his orders, the captain requested that John McDonald come aboard the Phoenix to serve as a representative of the Pacific Fur Company in case she arrived first on the Columbia. The 20 cannons with which McTavish and McDonald had fitted the Isaac Todd rendered her a slow sailor, and she became separated from her escort in a gale off the coast of South America.
When she failed to arrive at the appointed rendezvous off the coast of Chile, the Phoenix’s captain decided to transfer McDonald, part of his cargo, and his orders to the Raccoon, one of two additional warships that the Admiralty representative in Rio had added to the escort. But by the time the Raccoon reached the Columbia in November, 1813, there was no longer any American settlement to annihilate, for the Pacific Fur Company partners in residence had sold all the company’s holdings on the Columbia to the rival North West Company.
The Isaac Todd did not arrive for another five months, and when she finally anchored near the mouth of the Columbia in late April,1814, she found the Union Jack flying over the former Fort Astoria. It had been rechristened Fort George.