IRVING, Washington

Author Tags: 1800-1850, Forts and Fur

Praised by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe for writing the most authoritative and readable depiction of the founding of Fort Astoria, American essayist and novelist Washington Irving more famously invented Rip Van Winkle and achieved lasting reknown with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. "I was a demanding critic in my time," Edgar Allan Poe wrote, "and many aspiring authors felt the lash of my pen, including that New England windbag Longfellow. I was fair, however, and quick to recognize exceptional talent when I saw it. One such talent was Washington Irving."

A friend of Charles Dickens, Irving lived much of his middle-age in Europe, from where he gained international literary fame. Returning to New York, he depended on a researcher for access to various Fort Astoria journals (by Gabriel Franchère, Robert Stewart, Ross Cox, Bradbury and Brackenbridge) from which he liberally culled their contents for Astoria, or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains, published in 1836. Following its success, Irving similarly obtained the notes of fur trader and explorer Captain Bonneville, who had led more than 100 men with loaded wagons from Missouri to the Rocky Mountains, in order to publish The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, an oft-reprinted bestseller that was originally entitled Rocky Mountains: Or, Scenes, Incidents, and Adventures in the West; Digested from the Journal of Captain B. L. E. Bonneville, of the Army of the United States, and Illustrated from Various Other Sources.

A more direct literary connection to British Columbia concerns Irving's role in perpetuating the false claim that three Japanese sailors were shipwrecked on the Queen Charlotte Islands (or, variously, somewhere near Juan de Fuca Strait) in 1834.

It is now known that three Japanese men named Iwakichi (age 28), Kyukichi (age 15) and Otokichi (age 14) were marooned and captured as slaves by Indians near Port Grenville, south of Cape Flattery, in Washington state. According to coastal historian Grant Keddie, a Japanese ship called the Hojun-maru sailed from Toba, Japan on October 11, 1832, carrying rice and gifts from the Owari clan for the Shogun. Disabled by a typhoon, it drifted on the Kuroshio Current until reaching the Olympic Peninsula between February and May of 1834. As arranged by the Hudson's Bay Company, the three men reached England on the ship Eagle on November 15, 1834. Washington Irving was quick to speculate the plight of these three men was evidence as to how America was originally 'peopled', but Washington Irving mis-reported their locale. As someone who rarely let the truth stand in the way of a good story, Washington Irving himself once observed, "I am always at a loss to know how much to believe of my own stories."

Grant Keddie has traced the earliest misinformation about the Japanese shipwreck to an 1837 letter by Washington Irving in which Irving quotes Captain Wyeth's assertion that, "In the winter of 1833, a Japanese junk was wrecked on the north-west coast, in the neighborhood of Queen Charlotte's Island, and all but two of the crew, then much reduced by starvation and disease, during a long drift across the Pacific, were killed by the natives? The two fell into the hands of the Hudson's Bay Company and were sent to England. I saw them on my arrival at Vancouver in 1834."

Three Japanese were indeed retrieved by Captain William McNeill. The proof that they were washed ashore on the Olympic Peninsula is found within the correspondence of John McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver. McLoughlin wrote to Hudson's Bay Company officials on November 18, 1834, "A Japanese junk was wrecked last winter in the vicinity of Cape Flattery and out of the crew of fourteen men only three were saved and redeemed from the Indians by Captain McNeill on his voyage this summer to Fort Langley... They were first driven from their course by a Typhoon and subsequently a sea unshipped their rudder or broke their rudder irons, when the vessel became unmanageable, and that they were about a year from the date they left their home when they were wrecked, at which time they had plenty of rice and water yet on board but that a sickness had broke out among the crew which carried off all except these three. A little after the vessel grounded and before the natives could get anything worth while out of her a storm arose and broke her up."

In order to be rescued, the Japanese had written a letter to describe their situation. This missive was transferred from tribe to tribe until it was delivered into the hands of McLoughlin. He also obtained "a piece of carved wood with Chinese characters on it" that he believed to indicate the name of the the vessel. An earlier written report of the Japanese sailors also appeared in the Fort Nisqually journal for June 9, 1834 in which McNeill's arrival aboard the Llama is noted. It records the presence of 'two Chinese' that McNeill had "picked up from the natives near Cape Flattery, where a vessel of that nation had been wrecked not long since." The third Japanese sailor was rescued later.


Irving, Washington. Astoria: Or, Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains (Philadelphia: Charey, Lea and Blanchard, 1936). Two volumes. (Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 1982). Edited by Richard Dilworth Rust.

Irving, Washington. Rocky Mountains: Or, Scenes, Incidents, and Adventures in the West; Digested from the Journal of Captain B. L. E. Bonneville, of the Army of the United States, and Illustrated from Various Other Sources (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, & Blanchard, 1837; Paris, Baudry's European Library, 1837). Adventures of Captain Bonneville (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1850; New York: G.P. Putnam, 1851; Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961).

Irving, Washington. Astoria; or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains (with) The Adventures of Captain Bonneville USA in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West (New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1897 & 1898).

[BCBW 2005] "1800-1850" "Forts and Fur"