Having departed St. Louis more than two years earlier, Wilson Hunt and his party stumble into the fur-trading post of Astoria, Oregon.
Later romanticized as the archetypal frontier hero in Washington Irving’s novel Astoria, which chronicled the early Far West fur trade, Wilson Hunt was actually a reluctant mountain man. Born in Asbury, New Jersey, in 1783, Hunt was interested in making money, not exploring vast reaches of unknown wilderness. Hunt recognized that the West offered untapped potential wealth for the crafty merchant, and in 1804 he moved to St. Louis where he opened a mercantile establishment. There he caught the eye of the German immigrant John Jacob Astor, who was looking for ambitious young merchants to help launch an American fur-trading operation on the Pacific Coast.
Like Astor, Hunt realized there was big money to be made in the western fur trade. When Astor asked him to lead an overland expedition to the mouth of the Columbia River to establish a fur-trading post, he agreed despite his lack of experience in wilderness travel. With a small party of other Astor employees, Hunt departed St. Louis on October 21, 1810, and headed up the Missouri along the route blazed by Lewis and Clark five years earlier.
Historians have often criticized Hunt’s leadership of the overland voyage. The inexperienced Hunt certainly made a number of blunders, such as losing the party’s horses while attempting to cross the treacherous Snake River. Yet, Washington Irving and others have suggested that Hunt made the best of difficult circumstances, and he was a cool and competent leader. At the very least, Hunt deserves credit for blazing a route between the Snake River and Columbia River that eventually became a part of the Oregon Trail.
On this day in 1812, Hunt and his party finally reached the newly founded town of Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River, about 60 miles northwest of modern-day Portland. An ocean-going party of Astor employees had arrived there nearly a year before and constructed the fur-trading post. Hunt remained at the post until 1814, when it was sold to the British, who had occupied the territory since the War of 1812.
Giving up the fur trade, Hunt returned to St. Louis, where he prospered in business and real estate and eventually won the job of city postmaster. The remainder of Hunt’s life was marked by none of the excitement he endured during his epic transcontinental journey, and the reluctant mountain man apparently preferred it that way.