Botanist's alcohol-preserved specimens ruined by thirsty man
Stranded for the winter on Sauvie Island, the members of Nathaniel Wyeth's trading post struggled to get enough to eat. But for some of them, the greater problem was finding something to drink.
By Finn J.D. John — July 23, 2017
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in April 2009, which you’ll find here.
The history of 1800s Oregon is full of the influence of good old Demon Rum — and from the “Blue Ruin” that inspired America’s first prohibition law in 1844, to the “Temperance Riots” that pitted hymn-singing ladies against a saloon-owning police chief 30 years later, booze has changed the course of state history not once but many times.
And then there was that one time when it changed the course of zoology as well.
The story starts with a man named Nathaniel Wyeth, a successful entrepreneur from Boston who had made a fortune in ice production and distribution. Wyeth, in 1832, tried to parlay this fortune into empire by traveling to Oregon to set up a trading post in competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The expedition was a flat failure; but he tried again two years later.
Unlike John Jacob Astor, the other wealthy East Coaster who had tried something like this 20 years earlier, Wyeth actually accompanied his expeditions. And unlike Astor’s party (and Wyeth’s first expedition), Wyeth’s second expedition had a relatively uneventful overland journey; in fact, the path they followed would, within the decade, become known as the Oregon Trail.
But when the party arrived in the Oregon country and set up a trading post on Sauvie Island, things got rather bad.
Wyeth’s men had come with the express intention of challenging the Hudson’s Bay Company trappers and traders; their new trading post, Fort William, was just eight miles from Fort Vancouver. So, help was not to be expected from the British. The HBC, which was on excellent terms with the natives, encouraged local Indian tribes not to trade with the newcomers; and, for the most part, they didn’t. The year’s salmon run had already gone, so no easy relief was to be expected from the river. Soon the supplies the party had brought from home were exhausted, and hunger became a real problem.
And, for some members of the party, thirst.
Thirst wasn’t a problem for John K. Townsend, though; not at first, it wasn’t. Townsend was an English naturalist whom Wyeth had brought with him on the expedition, along with Thomas Nuttall, a professor from Harvard.
For Nuttall, this was the second time out; he had accompanied the Astorian Party twenty years earlier, and the voyageurs had nicknamed him “Le Fou” (a French word meaning, essentially, “the nut job”) for his singleminded pursuit of botanical specimens.
Now, as winter tightened its soggy grip on Fort William and people started getting really hungry, “Le Fou” lost his singlemindedness. One day, when Townsend returned to the fort with the day’s collection of flora and fauna, he found Nuttall dining on one of his specimens — an owl which he had shot, intending to preserve it for further study.
Nuttall, of course, knew better; but hunger is a pitiless master.
Still, the owl was no great loss. It was of a fairly common type, and another could be found without too much difficulty.
But in his chambers, Townsend had some other specimens that were a different story.
They were crawly things: lizards and snakes and salamanders and newts of various description, which Townsend had caught and killed and preserved in a small keg of whisky. Most likely he bled the specimens out before placing them in the alcohol, so that their blood would not dilute the potent preservative liquor. At least, we can hope he did.
Among these specimens was a particularly interesting sort of large newt, the like of which Townsend had not seen before. He was very much looking forward to getting back to his home in Philadelphia with it and doing some more careful studies upon it.
Meanwhile, Fort William’s tailor (whose name I have not been able to learn) was having a very difficult time transitioning to an alcohol-free environment. The tailor, though very good at his job, liked a drink or six of an evening, and had an unfortunate habit of going into alcohol-fueled rages when he drank. No doubt all his colleagues were quite relieved when the fort ran out of liquor, and the tailor was forced to quit drinking.
All of them, that is, except Townsend, who had in his possession the last drop of booze in the fort. All the tailor had to do was wait until the naturalist was out, slip into his room, and strain out all the dead snakes and lizards.
This he proceeded to do.
The concoction must have been pretty revolting. You know what happens to strong liquor when fruit is left to soak in it, right? Now imagine that “jungle juice” made with shotgunned snakes, drowned salamanders, and, oh yes, one large unknown species of giant newt.
But the tailor slugged it down, and it probably hit him pretty hard, being as his stomach was empty.
Townsend no doubt learned of the raid when his specimen keg started to stink. He was furious. Months of work had been ruined; and much as he tried, he never was able to find another giant newt. Today, there is a Townsend’s Chipmunk and a Townsend’s Warbler, and every Willamette Valley resident is probably familiar with Townsend’s Vole, which is pretty much the standard-issue field mouse in these parts. But if there’s a Townsend’s Newt, nobody has found one yet.
As for the tailor, he made it through the hungry and thirsty winter with his taste for alcohol intact. Some time later, after the fort’s supply of food and drink had been restored, he learned to his great dismay that the fort’s blacksmith, Thomas Hubbard, had taken up with a Native American girl whom the tailor fancied. The tailor, having taken his customary wee dram or two, worked himself into a towering jealous rage, armed himself with a knife and pistol, and went to Hubbard’s room late at night to settle the matter.
And that is how the tailor learned that Thomas Hubbard slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow.
What followed was the first murder trial — and, for that matter, the first European-American criminal trial of any kind — in the Oregon territory. After hearing the evidence, the jury pronounced Hubbard’s actions to be a case of justifiable homicide, and he was acquitted.
Which probably was not unwelcome news for the presiding magistrate at the trial: The Hon. John K. Townsend.
Fort William, like Fort Astoria before it, didn’t last long. Like Fort Astoria, it was sold to the British, and everyone involved either went back home to the East or settled in the new country. By 1837, when the fort was sold, there was plenty of room in Oregon country; the diseases carried by Europeans and European-Americans had wiped out village after Native American village, leaving only empty homes and scattered bones.
Wyeth slunk back home to Boston, thousands of dollars in debt, and set himself back to work in the ice business. By the time he died, he’d remade his fortune, and he never ventured west of the Mississippi again.
Nuttall returned to Boston by sea, and some time after arriving he inherited his uncle’s estate in England, the terms of which required him to live at least nine months of every year in the family estate in Lancashire. He moved there in 1842 and died in 1859.
As for Townsend, he died young, at age 41, of arsenic poisoning. It seems he had developed a special secret formula used in preparing specimens for taxidermic preparation. The key ingredient in the formula was arsenic.
(Sources: Townsend, John K. Narrative of a Journey Across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2001 (written 1836); oregonhistoryproject.org)