BACK WHEN: The story of the Tonquin and Lieutenant Thorn

The Tonquin

WHEN I WAS a young teenager, my uncle, Dr. Harlan McNutt, told me the story of the Tonquin. The Tonquin was a ship that sailed along the Northwest coast in the early 19th century. Many nations were seeking to trade for otter pelts from the indigenous peoples. McNutt was intrigued by the story of its demise.

The Tonquin was a 290-ton merchant ship constructed in 1807. It was used to establish and supply trading posts in the Pacific Northwest. The Tonquin would trade with indigenous Northwest peoples for fur pelts. China was the primary market for the pelts because consumer demand was very high. There was money to be made.

The Tonquin departed New York in late 1810 for the Columbia River. At this time, the ship was owned by the Pacific Fur Company belonging to John Jacob Astor. By the end of May 1811, the trading post named Fort Astoria (Oregon) was completed.

Lieutenant Jonathon Thorn
The Tonquin’s commander was Lieutenant Jonathon Thorn of the U.S. Navy. Thorn was born on Jan. 8, 1779, in New York. Thorn was 32 when he received the Tonquin command. Yet he was already a career navy man. He was a hero of the Tripoli Wars involving Barbary Pirates.

Thorn was a difficult man to deal with. Fur traders criticized him. He was considered a strict disciplinarian with a quick and violent temper. He expected complete obedience and thought only of his duty. Thorn was a haughty man. He was rough and overbearing. It seemed no one regarded Thorn positively. It was noted that Thorn knew how others felt yet sought ways to humiliate and shame them.

When the Tonquin departed New York, a violent argument arose between Thorn and some passengers. Thorn warned them that he would blow out the brains of any man who dared question his orders.

Onboard the Tonquin was Thorn, Pacific Fur Company partner Alexander McKay and a crew of 24. The Tonquin departed on June 5, 1811, for Sitka, Alaska. Along the way, they would trade with indigenous peoples.

Almost immediately the Tonquin encountered an indigenous canoe. On board the canoe was a Quinault man named Joseachal. He spoke English and Chinook. He was also related through marriage to a Tla-o-qui-aht chieftain. (This would prove to be his salvation.) Joseachal had acted as navigator on previous Euro-American trade voyages. Thorn hired him as pilot and navigator.

Five days into their voyage, the Tonquin entered Clayoquot Sound and anchored off a community called Echachist. This community was part of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation.

The Tla-o-qui-aht had a reputation for being unpredictable and violent. McKay warned Thorn, but he dismissed it.

KcKay was invited by the Tla-o-qui-aht to spend time ashore. He was received cordially. McKay stayed with the Tla-o-qui-aht for several days. Meanwhile Thorn was engaged in trade activities. Trade was brisk, but it did not take long for Thorn’s overbearing nature to cause problems.

Thorn had a problem with a chief named Nookmis. Nookmis and Thorn could not agree on a price for certain goods. In fact, Nookmis believed he was being cheated.

This, of course, enraged Thorn. How dare anyone accuse him of cheating? Thorn called for Nookmis to be removed from the Tonquin. In the foray, Thorn took a roll of furs and slapped Nookmis on the face.

To the Tla-o-qui-aht, this was a grievous insult. From this time forward, they sought only vengeance. McKay learned of the incident and hastily returned to the Tonquin. McKay urged Thorn to set sail immediately. Thorn ignored his advice.

A few days later, the Tla-o-qui-aht came back to the Tonquin to trade. Everything appeared normal. First, one canoe was allowed to board and trade. Then another was given permission to board. Several more canoes followed.

It was not long before it was clear the Tla-o-qui-aht significantly outnumbered the crew. Joseachal could see that something was planned and warned McKay. McKay warned Thorn. Thorn, instead, felt secure because he had ample firearms on board. He saw no reason to fear even as the number of Tla-o-qui-aht continued to rise.

Joseachal continued to press Thorn to put out to sea. The number of Tla-o-qui-aht was increasing every minute. This finally gave Thorn enough concern that he ordered all Tla-o-qui-aht to disembark and ordered the crew to raise anchor and set the sails.

It was far too late. On signal, the Tla-o-qui-aht drew out knives and clubs they had concealed in the bundles of fur. McKay became the first victim. A group attacked Thorn and soon overwhelmed him. The crew suffered similar fates. Five sailors were aloft preparing to lower the sails. They managed to lower themselves by ropes into the ship’s hold. One crewman, possibly named Stephen Weeks, was stabbed in the back as he retreated.

Joseachal jumped overboard during the struggle. He surrendered himself as a slave.

Musket fire convinced the Tla-o-qui-aht to leave the Tonquin immediately.

The next day, the Tla-o-qui-aht saw four sailors lower a boat and pull away from the Tonquin. The Tla-o-qui-aht pursued the men. The four men also perished.

The Tonquin was now quiet of any activity. The Tla-o-qui-aht began to venture close to it. Soon everything seemed safe, and they began to board the Tonquin. The Tonquin became the spoils of a battle. Soon Joseachal estimated that four or five hundred Tla-o-qui-aht were on board.

Within the ship’s hold contained a shipment of black powder destined for Sitka. The injured sailor waited until many Tla-o-qui-aht were onboard the Tonquin and ignited the powder magazine. Debris, trade goods and bodies were blown high into the air. The Tla-o-qui-aht estimated over 200 people were killed in the explosion.

After two years, Joseachal was ransomed by some friends and returned to Astoria to recount the events. It was later determined that Thorn was guilty of unpardonable negligence and imprudence.

There is a lesson to be learned from all this. Thorn’s arrogance resulted in the death of his entire crew. Pride led others to believe insults justified murder. Finally, a second act of vengeance resulted in mass casualties. Egotism can be devastating.


John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at

John’s Clallam history column appears the first Saturday of every month.

The Tonquin

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