In early 1846, Lieutenant Neil M. Howison, commanding officer of the U.S. schooner Shark, was assigned to “make an examination of the situation in Oregon.” That year was momentous in Oregon’s history. The long-festering question of who would own the vast region known as the Oregon Territory was answered by the signing of a treaty on 15 June. Great Britain ceded claim to more than 286,000 square miles of land that included the present-day states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho and portions of Wyoming and Montana.
Indigenous peoples who inhabited the region had been usurped by the Spanish in the 1540s, then by the English, and later by the Russians before the nascent United States claimed a stake there as early as 1792. Sea captain Robert Gray, on board the Columbia Rediviva, entered the major river of the territory while exploring the Pacific Northwest for the maritime fur trade and named the waterway after his ship. In 1805–6 during the Corps of Discovery Expedition, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark wintered just south of the Columbia, and in 1811 John Jacob Astor established Fort Astoria as a trading post for his fur trade near the river’s mouth.
Meanwhile, England strengthened its claim with the entrenchment of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1818 the United States and Great Britain signed a 10-year joint occupation agreement that was extended indefinitely in 1827. By the mid-1830s, the first paths of what became the Oregon Trail were blazed, and a decade later the route was well worn. Ownership of Oregon became a major issue in the presidential election of 1844. Expansionists campaigned for U.S. annexation of a large disputed area, most of which is in present-day Canada. Tensions with Britain continued to increase over the next two years.
Amid this climate, the Shark received her assignment. She already had seen a quarter-century of Navy service with several notable highlights. The schooner was built at the Washington Navy Yard and launched on 17 May 1821. Her first commander—she also was his first command—was Lieutenant Matthew C. Perry. Their initial assignment was to transport Eli Ayers, the first colonial agent of the American Colonization Society, to West Africa, where he helped establish what would become Liberia. From there, the Shark and Perry sailed for the West Indies to suppress piracy and the slave trade.
The schooner next made her mark on 25 March 1822, when Perry literally planted the U.S. flag on what is present-day Key West, Florida, claiming it for the United States. For the next 11 years, broken only by a brief foray to the Newfoundland fishing grounds in the summer of 1827 to defend U.S. interests, the Shark patrolled the West Indies and Gulf of Mexico, with periodic cruises to the coast of Africa. In 1833 she was assigned to the Mediterranean and for the next five years protected U.S. commerce there.
On 22 July 1839, the Shark left Hampton Roads, Virginia, for service with the Pacific Squadron; en route she became the first U.S. man-of-war to pass through the Strait of Magellan from east to west. Over the ensuing half-decade, she patrolled the coast of Peru to protect U.S. interests after the 1836–39 War of the Confederation and during the Peruvian-Bolivian War of 1841 and subsequent civil war. Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur stated in his 1841 annual report to the President that “all who witnessed the operations of the Shark were inspired with increased respect for the American flag.”
On 1 April 1846, with Howison now in command, the Shark was ordered to the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii) “where she was thoroughly repaired and newly coppered” for an exploratory voyage up the Columbia River “to obtain correct information of that country and to cheer our citizens in that region by the presence of the American flag.” The ship and crew anchored off the coast of Oregon on 15 July 1846, but took three days to reach the mouth of the Columbia, some 30 miles to the south.
In his report, Lieutenant Howison noted that in the Sandwich Islands he had a chance encounter with two captains who had just come from the river. Both reported that the “sands about the mouth” of the Columbia had undergone “great changes within a short time past.” In 1841, during the U.S. Exploring Expedition, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes’ sloop-of-war Peacock had run aground and broken up on the river’s bar, for which he was later court-martialed. Markers placed after the disaster and warnings on charts of the area now were worthless.
Forewarned, Howison probed the mouth’s approaches in his “whale-boat,” as the Shark stood offshore and chose a path. “[A]t 2 p.m. got under way and stood in ENE. With the wind at west, weather clear, and tide young flood, we glided rapidly and safely into Baker’s Bay; and to those who were unacquainted with the dangers which closely and imperceptibly beset our passage in, nothing appeared more simple and free from danger.” But getting into the Columbia River would prove to be infinitely easier than getting out.
Navigating the river required a pilot, but none were to be had save one who claimed 20 years at sea and 6 living on the river. He had “an air that deceived me into the belief that he was fully competent to conduct the vessel,” Howison stated, but within “twenty minutes he ran us hard ashore . . . where we remained several hours thumping severely.” After working free and obtaining another pilot, the Shark anchored off Astoria on the 19th.
Ascending the roughly east-west river was quick enough, given the prevailing west winds. The schooner made Fort Vancouver, about 100 miles from the mouth, on 24 July. “Being under orders to come out of the river by the 1st day of September, my explorations were necessarily very limited,” Howison noted. “Many interesting portions of the country are still unvisited, which I greatly regret.” He added that while Wilkes’ visit was only five years past and that other travelers had since given “very comprehensive” descriptions of the country, “so rapid are the developments made of its productions and resources by the large annual emigration of inhabitants, that a statistical account two years old may be considered out of date.”
The Shark left Fort Vancouver on 23 August. The captain wrote that without a pilot to “feel my way through a devious channel of nearly 100 miles . . . I had not, nor could I procure, a map giving even an outline of the general direction of the stream.” After spending nearly three days assisting the barque Toulon, badly aground on a sand bar, and battling constant headwinds, the schooner anchored back at Baker’s Bay on 8 September. The 9th was “devoted to observations” of the bar and making preparations for crossing it. Disaster followed on the 10th.
In attempting to recross the bar to the open sea that afternoon, the Shark struck a shoal, lost headway, and was swept into breakers by the fast-running tide. Although the ship was a total loss, her entire crew survived. They were housed in Astoria until 16 November, when Howison chartered passage on the Hudson’s Bay Company schooner Cadboro. They reached San Francisco on 27 January 1847. The captain was subjected to a court of inquiry over the loss of his ship but was absolved of all blame.
In a 1 December 1846 letter to the provisional governor of the region, George Abernethy, Howison had included the ship’s ensign and jack, deeming it “highly proper that it should henceforth remain with you, as a memento of parental regard from the general government.” He added, “nor can I omit the occasion to express my gratification and pride that this relic of my late command should be emphatically the first United States flag to wave over the undisputed and purely American territory of Oregon.” What became of the flags is an unanswered question.
USS Shark Schooner
Displacement: 198 tons
Length: 86 feet
Beam: 24 feet, 7 inches
Draft: 10 feet, 4 inches
Armament: 10 18-pounder carronades, 2 9-pounder smoothbore guns
Complement: 70 officers and enlisted men