By Jack Nisbet
An ancestor of the Wyeth lineage of New England artists, Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth built a flourishing business in Boston as an ice broker and inventor of tools for handling his product. In his late twenties he became fascinated with the prospect of importing salmon and furs from the Pacific Northwest. After chartering a vessel to ferry trade goods around the Horn to the Columbia River, he journeyed overland with a small party in spring 1832 to establish a trading post.
Upon arriving on the Columbia that October, Wyeth learned that his ship had wrecked en route. The trader found himself “afloat on the great sea of life without stay or support but in good hands, i.e. myself and providence and a few of the H.B.Co. who are perfect gentleman.” Determined to return to Massachusetts and outfit another ship, the American spent the winter months scouting the area for a suitable post site. He frequented Fort Vancouver, "eating and drinking the good things to be had there" and enjoying the hospitality of Chief Factor Dr. John McLoughlin, "a man distinguished as much for his kindness and humanity as his good sense and information."
Although business ventures were his primary interest on the Columbia, Wyeth proved to be a good observer of landscape and natural details. He described the extensive prairies of the Puget Trough “bound by a skirting of timber” that included Garry's oak, and studied the ducks and geese wintering on the river. Also residing at Fort Vancouver that winter was the Scottish naturalist David Douglas, with whom Wyeth "had some dispute" over the classification of grouse found in the interior. The two men also shared an interest in plants; Wyeth was friends with the botanist Thomas Nuttall, whose Genera of North American Plants Douglas often referenced for plant identification. It is possible that Douglas helped collect samples of flora and fauna along the Columbia that Wyeth shipped east for Nuttall:
"I have sent through my brother Leonard of New York a package of plants collected in the interior and on the western coast of America somewhere around Latt 46 degrees. I am afraid they will be of little value to you. The rain has been so constant where I have been gathering them that they have lost their colors in some cases, and they will be liable to further accident on their route home.... I have several times attempted to preserve birds to send you but have failed from the moisture and warmth."
When Wyeth returned to the Columbia in 1834, he invited his friend Nuttall and a young ornithologist, John Kirk Townsend, to accompany him. Though Wyeth’s Northwest business endeavors never returned a profit, together the three adventurers made significant contributions to the region's natural history.
Wyeth, John. "Nathaniel J. Wyeth and the Struggle for Oregon." Harpers New Monthly Magazine 85 (November 1892): 835-847.
__________. The Correspondence and Journals of Captain Nathaniel J.Wyeth 1831-36. Edited by F. G. Young. Eugene, OR: University Press, 1899.