Today, the Oregon State Quarter Coin remembers the British supposedly returning Astoria or Fort George, Oregon to the United States 97 years ago.
In the History of Oregon, published in 1922, Charles Henry Carey included details of the return of the land:
In September, 1817, the United States sloop of war, Ontario, under command of Capt. James Biddle, United States Navy, with whom was associated special commissioner, J. B. Provost, was ordered to the Columbia River with instructions “to assert the claim of the United States to the sovereignty of the adjacent country, and especially to reoccupy Astoria or Fort George.”
On receiving information of this, the British government notified the North West Company that “due facility should be given to the reoccupation by the officers of the United States” but this was “without, however, admitting the rights of that government to the possession in question.”
The Ontario arrived in the river in August, 1818, although Provost who was detained in Chile on other Government business was not to arrive until later.
Without waiting for him Captain Biddle raised the American flag over the fort August 19, 1818.
Soon after, the British frigate Blossom arrived, and Mr. Provost was on board, besides whom James Keith, a partner of the North West Company, was a passenger.
A formal writing was then drawn up, signed by Capt. F. Hickey of the Blossom and Mr. Keith, dated October 6, 1818, and delivered to Mr. Provost purporting to restore to the United States Government “the settlement of Fort George on the Columbia River. ”
The surrender was intended as a surrender of the settlement or fort, and did not purport to restore or release sovereignty of the country.
But this was not stated to the American representative at the time or claimed by the British government in its diplomatic correspondence with the United States until after the event.
Captain Biddle, before the arrival of Provost and the Blossom, had already posted some sort of a notice upon the river bank making claim apparently to more than the mere property in question.
The fort had been changed and enlarged. There were twenty-three white men there at the time, besides twenty- six Kanakas, twenty Canadian half-breeds and a number of women and children.
A few years later, however, the British chose once again to claim Oregon as their territory.
In his book, Oregon; Our Right and Title, published in 1846, Wyndham Robertson described the habitation of the area and gives details of the supposed return of the territory in 1818:
The claims of the United States are briefly these:
Robert Gray, esq., of Boston, Massachusetts, of the 17th of May, and named his vessel the “Columbia.”
In 1804 Lewis and Clark, in an expedition approved and re commended by Mr. Jefferson, explored this river, giving its coast and tributaries a careful examination, from its source to the Pacific ocean, and took possession, which no one pretended at that time to deny, claiming and calling it a part of the United States.
Some time afterwards, in 1810, we think, John Jacob Astor, of the city of New York, sent a colony over by the ship Tonquin, the unfortunate history of which is familiar to all, which arrived at the mouth of the Columbia in March, 1811, and founded several large establishments in the territory.
These were the first settlements that were made, the first step taken to civilize the country, which is a strong ground of our present claim under the law of nations.
Previous to this, all subsequent history proves that no civilized man ever inhabited the coast of the country, or that which is contiguous, except a few scattered Indians.
In the last war it so happened that these posts, those established by the colony, were taken possession of by the British, but were afterwards fully surrendered by the treaty of Ghent to the United States, unconditionally, and the validity of the title was duly acknowledged by Great Britain in 1814, in the following terms:
“That all territory, places, and possessions, whatever, taken by either party from the other during or after the war, except certain islands in the Atlantic, claimed by both, should be restored without delay.”
Astoria, under this agreement, was in due form delivered by the British authorities to Mr. Prevost, appointed by the United States as agent to receive it.
The act of delivery is as follows:
“In obedience to the commands of his royal highness, the Prince Regent, signified in a dispatch from the right honorable the Earl of Bathurst, addressed to the partners or agents of the Northwest Company, bearing date the 27th of January, 1818, and in obedience to a subsequent order, dated the 26th of July, from W. H. Sheriff, esq., captain of his Majesty’s ship Andromache, we, the undersigned, do, in conformity to the 1st article of the treaty of Ghent, restore to the Government of the United States, through its agent I. B. Prevost, esq., the settlement of Fort George, on the Columbia river. Given under our hands, in triplicate, at Fort George, Columbia river, this 6th day of October, 1818.
“F. HICKEY, Captain of H. .M. ship Blossom. “J. KEITH, Of the Northwest Company.”
Acceptance from Mr. Prevost:
“I do hereby acknowledge to have this day received, in behalf of the Government of the United States, the possession of the settlement designated above, in conformity to the first article of the treaty of Ghent. Given under my hand, in triplicate, at Fort George, Columbia river, this 6th day of October, 1818.
” I. B. PREVOST, Agent for the United States.”
It appears from this transfer that Astoria is designated as Fort George, from the fact that it was so called from the time of striking the American and hoisting the British flag, by Captain Black, of the ship Raccoon.
This restoration of Astoria, or Fort George, is another powerful reason in the support of our title, which is founded on priority and contiguity; the former of which rights is established as a plain broad principle by all of the first diplomatists of the world. In Vattel, p. 99, sec. 207, we find the following language touching this point:
” All mankind have an equal right to things that have not yet fallen into the possession of any one; and these things belong to the person who first takes possession of them. When, therefore, a nation finds a country uninhabited, and without an owner, it may lawfully take possession of it; and after it has sufficiently made known its will in this respect, it cannot be deprived of it by another nation.
“Thus, navigators going on voyages of discovery, furnished with a commission from their sovereign, and meeting with islands or other lands in a desert state, have taken possession of them in the name of their nation; and this title has been usually respected, provided it was soon after followed by a real possession.”
Mr. Robertson went on to describe the various discussions between the United States and Great Britain regarding the Oregon Territory.
In 1846, the two countries finally agreed upon the boundaries.
The Oregon State Quarter Coin shows against an artist’s view of Astoria, Oregon with its American flag, circa 1844.