THORN, JONATHAN, merchant captain; b. 8 Jan. 1779 in Schenectady, N.Y., eldest of the 15 children of Samuel Thorn and Helena Van Slyck; d. c. 15 June 1811 in Clayoquot Sound (B.C.).
Jonathan Thorn was a sixth-generation descendant of William Thorne, who arrived in Massachusetts from England in 1638. Jonathan entered the United States Navy on 28 April 1800 as a midshipman and was promoted acting lieutenant on 7 Nov. 1803. He served with distinction in the Barbary Wars, in February 1804 participating in Stephen Decatur’s celebrated raid into the harbour of Tripoli (Libya) to destroy the grounded American frigate Philadelphia.
On 6 June 1805, at the early age of 26, Thorn was appointed commandant of the New York navy yard and on 16 Feb. 1807 received his lieutenancy. On 18 May 1810, at the request of John Jacob Astor, he was granted a two-year furlough. Astor had organized the Pacific Fur Company and had chosen him to command the ship that was to carry men and supplies to build Fort Astoria (Astoria, Oreg.) at the mouth of the Columbia River. The vessel selected was the Tonquin, 269 tons, which Astor purchased in August. She sailed from New York on 6 Sept. 1810.
Thorn was fitted neither by temperament nor by experience to command such an expedition. He was a strict disciplinarian and clearly despised the Scottish fur traders and Canadian voyageurs who were his passengers. The fact that several of the traders were partners in the company that owned the ship seems to have weighed with him not at all. Washington Irving, who remembered Thorn “in early life, as a companion in pleasant scenes and joyous hours,” characterized him in Astoria as “an honest, straightforward, but somewhat dry and dictatorial commander, who, having been nurtured in the system and discipline of a ship of war . . . was disposed to be absolute lord and master on board of his ship.” Further, he regarded his passengers “as a set of landlubbers and braggadocios, and was disposed to treat them accordingly.” There was evidently a callous streak in his nature. At the Falkland Islands he set sail while eight of his passengers were still ashore and they overtook the ship only after a desperate row of several hours. In the dangerous waters at the mouth of the Columbia he insisted upon attempts to take soundings from small boats, a measure that resulted in the loss of eight lives.
The Tonquin entered that river late in March 1811 and, having disembarked men and supplies for the construction of Fort Astoria, on 5 June sailed on a trading cruise up the northwest coast. About 15 June, evidently at anchor in Clayoquot Sound, she was seized by the local Nootka Indians and most on board, including the trader Alexander MacKay, were immediately slain. The only survivor of the entire incident was the interpreter, George Ramsay (called Jack Ramsay by Ross Cox*), son of an English sailor and an Indian mother, who was persuaded to come to Astoria and tell his story, which was recorded by Gabriel Franchère* in his journal. According to Ramsay, Captain Thorn, trading for the first time with Indians, lost patience and ended an attempt to bargain with an important chief by “rubbing his face with the skins that the latter had brought to trade, thus insulting him mightily and causing him to swear vengeance.” After lulling their intended victims by peaceful behaviour, Indians carrying concealed weapons contrived to board the vessel and the seizure followed. The next day, when natives swarmed on board seeking plunder, the ship blew up, killing or maiming a large number. It is said in some accounts that a wounded crew member who had managed to remain hidden revenged his comrades in this way.
The United States Navy Department has a portrait of Thorn, and his distinguished naval career has not been forgotten: the destroyer Jonathan Thorn was commissioned at the New York navy yard on 1 April 1943.
Gabriel Franchère, Journal of a voyage on the north west coast of North America during the years 1811, 1812, 1813 and 1814, trans. W. T. Lamb, ed. and intro. W. K. Lamb (Toronto, 1969). [For Ramsay’s account of the loss of the Tonquin and references to other versions of the story, see pp.123–28.] Washington Irving, Astoria, or anecdotes of an enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains, ed. E. W. Todd (new ed., Norman, Okla., 1964). C. E. Thorn, Heroic life and tragic death of Lieutenant Jonathan Thorn, United States Navy (New York, 1944) [a tribute by a great-grand-nephew].