Few know that Astoria was once called Fort George. How did that come to be and what is the fascinating twist to the story? Astoria is known as the oldest settlement on the west coast. It was named after John Jacob Astor in 1811 (even though he never actually visited the area) and was called Fort Astoria. But – it didn’t always have that name.
During the War of 1812, amid rumors that two warships were coming to take over the outpost, two competing fur companies began negotiating the sale of the land. In October of 1813 members of the British Northwest Fur Company and the U. S. Pacific Fur Company agreed on terms and Fort Astoria was sold to the British for $58,000.
Two months later the British ship, the Racoon, arrived under Captain William Black, who had orders to seize the fort. He was disappointed to find out how small the fort was and that it was already under British control, but he wasn’t about to ignore his orders. So he demanded a formal surrender ceremony. The American flag was ordered to be hoisted back up the flag pole, just so it could be lowered and replaced with the British flag. Then it was re-named Fort George in honor of the English king.
Then in October of 1814, the war was coming to an end, and the Treaty of Ghent was signed. The provisions of the treaty meant that each side could keep the land they had before the war, not any land they took during the war. And therein lies the twist – Fort Astoria was sold to the British so they should get to keep it. But is that actually correct? Captain Black made the fort participate in a formal surrender ceremony, so it could be considered spoils of war, and therefore not rightfully owned by the Britains.
Since there was disagreement about this, it was determined that both countries were to be considered in joint possession of the land. It wasn’t until 1846 that the Oregon Treaty was signed and the United States received full control over all land south of the 49th parallel.
Lisa Penner, archivist at the Clatsop County Heritage Museum felt sorry for the people living in Fort Astoria during the time. “They were waiting for help to come, with food and materials, but ships were having problems and not arriving,” she shares. “The people living here were quite concerned about it and that’s when they started talking about turning the fort over to the British. I think this place was so distant that when people needed help and started getting low on provisions, they thought they couldn’t hold out any longer. It was extremely difficult for people here to survive. It must have been very nerve-wracking for them.”
The location of the fort was lost over time, until remnants of the fort were found many years later. In 1924, the Lovell Company built an auto repair shop on the property. The local newspaper at the time, The Astoria Budget, reported on October 20, 1930 that ruins of the northern wall of the old stockade were dug up by steam shovels clearing land for a basement for St. Mary’s Hospital. According to the report, the shovels “hit a row of uprights, made from logs, which old timers assert to be the northern wall of the famous fort.”
The find helped determine that the northern wall ran from 15th Street to 16th Street, and between Duane Street and Exchange Street.
In addition, in February of 1950 a rock-lined well was found, under the Lovell Auto company, the building now housing the Fort George Brewery and Public House. It was located near what was known to be the northwest corner of the fort. “It was found a few feet from the east wall and only a few more feet from the spot where charred stockade timbers and other Fort Astoria relics were found several years ago when a new parking lot was excavated behind the Lovell building,” the Astoria Budget reports.
To recap this confusing story:
- Fort Astoria was established in 1811 and owned by the United States
- It was sold in 1813 to the British
- It was also “captured” by the British in 1813 and renamed Fort George
- After the War of 1812 ended it became a joint possession of both England and the U.S. since no one was sure what to do with it.
- Around 1818 it went back to being called Astoria.
- The fort was abandoned in 1925
- In 1846 the land became the sole possession of the United States.
In 1962 the site became a Designated Registered National Historic Landmark. Today, you can see the outline of the fort by way of green lines painted on the streets to show the boundaries. Now you also know why it was known as Fort George for a few short years.