A Princess, Pirates, a Samurai... & a man named MacDonald
By Robert Lewis Knecht
Published: 09/14/2012  Updated: 06/21/2019
When Japan opened to the West, the exchange rate on the island between gold and silver was 5 to 1.  The rest of the world, due in large part to the Spanish treasure fleets, traded gold and silver at 16 to 1.  When Western merchants and sailors started coming into Japan after Perry's visit, they soon discovered they could trade their silver Spanish "pieces of eight" for Japanese gold, then take that gold out of the country and trade it again for silver and make a quick and handsome fifty percent profit.  With the Meiji restoration, the type and shape of the coins also changed, and the Edo Period coins were buried and hoarded.
When Japan opened to the West, the exchange rate on the island between gold and silver was 5 to 1. The rest of the world, due in large part to the Spanish treasure fleets, traded gold and silver at 16 to 1. When Western merchants and sailors started coming into Japan after Perry's visit, they soon discovered they could trade their silver Spanish "pieces of eight" for Japanese gold, then take that gold out of the country and trade it again for silver and make a quick and handsome fifty percent profit. With the Meiji restoration, the type and shape of the coins also changed, and the Edo Period coins were buried and hoarded.  Photo courtesy CannonBeachTreasure.com

What does a Princess, the pirates of the Caribbean, a proud Samurai warrior and Astoria have in common? Robert Lewis Knecht, an historian and treasure hunter tells the story.

I have worked in or around the lost treasure business for a quarter of a century, and I never cease to be amazed at how history's tapestry is interwoven, especially when a cache of coins is discovered.

Not long ago a package arrived here in Cannon Beach. In it were gold and silver coins once used by the samurai during the Edo Period at the end of their 700-year old culture. I was very familiar with the type of coins, how they had been used, and why many had been buried or cached over a hundred years ago.

Sometimes, as I hold objects like that in my hand, I can't help being touched by the magnitude of what they represent. It's almost as if I were shaking hands with the people who had made them... and even perhaps with the man who had made it possible for me to communicate, in English, with Japanese visitors to my store.

The samurai trace their origins to Japan's Heian Period (794 to 1185), over 800 years before Cannon Beach was founded, and thousands of miles across the Pacific. During that time wealthy landowners had grown independent of the emperor and central government and were hiring warriors to build armies for their own protection against other powerful landowning clans. These landowners, known as shoguns (literally "a commander of a force"), became the hereditary military dictators of Japan from 1192 to 1867. The samurai were their warriors. Often well educated and literate, they lived by a legendary moral code that is romanticized even today.

Following the "Warring States" Period, the Tokugawa shogunate came to power in 1600, and the Edo Period began. For the next 268 years, Japan experienced the longest period of peace and stability in its history. During this time art flourished, and coins took on a more ornate and detailed design.

Prior to the Edo Period, Japan had regulated contact with the outside world through trade. This included Catholic Jesuit missionaries who where welcomed in Kyoto in 1549. Within 25 years, hundreds of thousands of Japanese had converted to Christianity. But after Tokugawa took control, the shogunate suspected that foreign traders and missionaries were actually forerunners of a military conquest by European powers. If the way these foreign powers and missionaries had taken over other cultures and countries was any indication, Japan was next.

After a bloody rebellion in 1638 due in part to outside influences, progressively tighter restrictions were put in place, and traders, missionaries, and foreigners were expelled, with the exception of the Dutch and Chinese merchants who were restricted to the man-made island of Delima in Nagasaki Bay and several small trading outposts outside the country. This "isolationist" policy remained in place until 1853. During this time, no one dared try to enter or leave the country on pain of death.

Fifty years into the Edo Period in Japan, the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean was in full swing. This lasted until roughly 1730. Piracy then ebbed until the American Revolution. Then the French Revolution (1789-1799) and Napoleon's armies wreaked havoc in Europe (1803-1815), and the War of 1812 (1812-1815) once again pitted the British Empire against the United States, with many of the battles taking place at sea between warships and privateers ("legal" pirates attacking their enemy's merchant ships). As in the past, when kings made "peace," many of their privateers found it hard to go back to sailing the seven seas legally, and so they continued to relieve merchant ships of their valuables, but this time not under a king's flag, but under the freedom of the Jolly Roger.

In 1804, another history making event was unfolding. Lewis and Clark began the first transcontinental expedition from the Midwest to the mouth of the Columbia (1804-1806), where Chinook Native American chief Cumcumly welcomed them. He also assisted the Astor Expedition and offered to help the U.S. during the War of 1812, but Astoria was sold to the British instead.

At this time the ownership of slaves was still legal, but both Britain and the United States made the slave trade illegal in 1807. And, Spain's hold on her colonies in the Americas was weakening. By 1821, Spain lost Spanish Florida to the U.S., and New Spain became Mexico. Other South and Central American countries quickly followed.

And throughout the Caribbean, the Jolly Roger was again flying... nearly unchecked.

Infuriated with the constant threat to trade, Congress acted, and in 1819, the United States enacted the anti-piracy law, which in 1820 was amended to include the now illegal slave trade. It was titled, "An Act to continue in force 'An act to protect the commerce of the United States and punish the crime of piracy,' and also to make further provisions for punishing the crime of piracy." (Congress liked to use a lot of words in those days. No wait! They still do!)

To that end, in 1820, four U.S. Navy schooners were commissioned to fight piracy and the slave trade in the Caribbean and off the coast of Africa: USS Grampus, USS Dolphin, USS Alligator and USS Shark. They soon joined Commodore James Biddle and his West Indies "Pirate" Squadron and sailed into infamy.

In 1821, Lt. Matthew C. Perry became the first master of USS Shark and in March of 1822 he sailed to South Florida and took formal possession for the United States of what is now called Key West.

In February of 1824, Shark was hunting slavers and pirates in the warm and balmy tropical waters of the West Indies. Some 3,500 miles to the northwest, in Fort George (present day Astoria), Oregon, a winter storm howled up "the Columbia like all the dead Chinooks from the ocean to the Dalles," and Ranald MacDonald was born to Princess Sunday and Archibald MacDonald. MacDonald was a Scottish fur trader for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), and Princess Sunday (sometimes called Princess Raven) was Chief Cumcumly's daughter. Sadly, the Princess died bringing Ranald into the world.

As a factor (fort manager) for the HBC, the senior MacDonald remarried and helped found Fort Colville, Washington, near Kettle Falls, far up the Columbia River. Ranald grew up hearing stories from the traders, and from Native American tribes, of how the Indians' ancestors had come from Asia. Eva Emery Dye, author of Ranald's biography, McDonald of Oregon [sic], writes that when he was ten years old he spent a "never-to-be-forgotten Summer with Ewa and Kioko and Oto" at Ft. Vancouver, three Japanese shipwreck survivors. This only fueled his fascination with his connection to Asia and Japan, and for the next eleven years, this was never far from his mind.

In December 1845, while Commodore Biddle was ratifying the Treaty of Wanghia (the first treaty between China and the United States) MacDonald, now a well-educated man, was working as a banker in Elgin, Canada. It was a job for which he was imminently unsuited. He had reached the point at which he could no longer ignore the "wild strain for wandering freedom," Dye writes. "With no one to consult in confidence, he resolved to follow his own bent, to go forth with the firm purpose of adventure. Long had the evolution of his plan deeply engaged him; sitting there on the high stool of the Bank of Elgin, Ranald McDonald had resolved to break into Japan."

On December 2nd, 1845, from Long Island, New York, "he shipped before the mast on board the whaler Plymouth, of Sag Harbor, Captain Lawrence B. Edwards, for the Sandwich Islands." His plan was to get close to Japan and make himself appear as a castaway from a whaling ship in hopes of entering without being killed. If he succeeded, he then dreamed of learning Japanese and teaching English, in hopes of being an interpreter when Japan opened to trade.

He had a "special stipulation" with Captain Edwards. "I shall be free to leave the ship off the coast of Japan whenever and wherever I shall desire," he said.

At first, Edwards shook his head and refused. "That coast 'o Japan is death to sailors – they'll never permit your landing alive. We're warned never to come within gunshot, not even [for] water. Handsome country, too – groves and gardens and hilltops."

Ranald wouldn't hear this. "Then I shall find a captain that will take me," he said and turned away.

Being short of crewmembers, Edwards accepted MacDonald's "special stipulation," quipping, "You'll weaken when you see the barelegged brown men shakin' their swords at ye! They're barbarians, the Japanese."

For the past five years, USS Shark had been patrolling the Pacific Ocean waters of Peru, protecting American trade interests. In April of 1846 she was ordered to make an exploratory voyage up the Columbia River in Oregon Country "to obtain correct information of that country and to cheer our citizens in that region by the presence of the American flag."

In July of 1846, Shark crossed the Columbia River bar with Lt. Neil Howison as her master. A world away, Shark's former squadron leader, Commodore Biddle, commanding two U.S. warships, attempted to open trade with Japan as he had done with China only one year before. This was ultimately unsuccessful.

On 10th of September 1846, USS Shark became an inadvertent part of Cannon Beach history when she attempted to cross the Columbia River bar without a pilot, going back into the Pacific. She was torn apart on one of the many shifting sand bars. Part of her decking, with three cannons and the capstan, sheared off and drifted south, coming ashore at Arch Cape, just a few of miles south of present day Cannon Beach. While one cannon and the capstan were pulled higher on the beach by some of Shark's crew, the capstan and all of the guns soon disappeared in the shifting sands and were forgotten.

For three years MacDonald had saved his wages and bade his time on board Plymouth. Then in mid 1848, just beyond site of the misty line of the fabled island, Ranald bought a small boat from the reluctant Captain Edwards. With his "brother tars" begging him to reconsider one last time, he loaded it with provisions, navigational tools, and a small chest of books that could be used for teaching English, and "with a spanking breeze on the starboard beam," set sail for Japan in Little Plymouth. "With a light hand on the tiller, a thrill shot through the bosom of Ranald McDonald; again he was Cumcumly on the fathomless ocean, free as a sea-bird at home on its heaving bosom."

Several days later, after self-capsizing Little Plymouth off a small island, he was spotted by Japanese fisherman and brought ashore. In spite of the tales of death and woe for foreigners, he was treated with reverence and respect, and thus began his adventure in Japan. Nagasaki was the only port allowed to conduct limited trade with the Dutch, and MacDonald was brought there, where he spent the next ten months learning Japanese.

As Ranald had surmised, no one in Japan spoke English with any fluency. And since trade on the world's oceans was increasing, and more British and American ships were coming into Japanese waters, 14 samurai were sent to learn English from the former castaway whaler.

In April of 1849, Ranald MacDonald and fifteen other sailors boarded USS Preble, an American warship that had been sent to rescue shipwrecked sailors. MacDonald left behind his samurai friends, especially one Einosuke Moriyama, who many regarded as a language genius.

"History," in its often edited, sanitized fashion, records that USS Preble 's master, Captain James Glynn, later urged that a treaty should be ratified with Japan, "if not peaceably, then by force." MacDonald also provided his own report to the 32nd Congress (March 4, 1851 to March 3, 1853) regarding Japan. In history's notes, no connection between the two is ever made.

Four years later, Shark's first master, now Commodore Mathew C. Perry, arrived at the entrance to Edo Bay with four U.S. warships. When the Japanese demanded they leave, he ordered his ships to train their guns on a village and threatened to use force if the Japanese failed to accept a letter from President Millard Fillmore.

They capitulated, and Perry returned in February of 1854 to find a delegation and a treaty embodying virtually all the demands in Fillmore's letter. Among the delegates was "a new and superior interpreter," Einosuke Moriyama. Samuel Wells Williams, a member of Perry's group, later wrote, "He asked if Ronald McDonald [sic] was well, or if we knew him .... giving us all a good impression of his education and breeding." (Ahh, the arrogance of white men.)

On March 31, 1854, the proud samurai and friend of MacDonald watched Perry ratify the Kanagawa Treaty ("Japan-U.S. Treaty of Amity and Friendship") with the Tokugawa shogunate. I am sure that little did Moriyama realize that he would see his 700-year-old culture come to an end in only 15 years.

Commodore Mathew C. Perry died nearly four years to the day after he had put his mark to a piece of paper that forever changed Japan... and the world.

Ten years later, almost to the month, the Meiji Restoration was underway and the Tokugawa shogunate was officially stripped of all power. The samurai were soon to follow. The Imperial government had taken back control of the island with the plan to bring Japan into the modern age, combining "western advances" with traditional "eastern" values. The word Meiji means "enlightened rule."

In 1891, a destitute man in the autumn of his life, having traveled the world over, MacDonald had returned to the old family homestead in Ft. Colville. "The aristocratic old man in the tumbled-down buildings of what was once Fort Colville received many guests in his later years, among them Mrs. Elizabeth Custer...widow of the famous General," Dye writes.

"Yes, I flatter myself that I was the instigator of Commodore Perry's expedition to Japan." Ranald's stately language, in the style of Sir Charles Grandison, impressed Mrs. Custer even more than the old fort. He took her into the old hall, and before the adobe fireplace, where he had listened to his father spin yarns as a child, he told the story of Japan. "You will find my deposition in the executive document number fifty-nine of the Thirty-second Congress. That started Perry," he said softly. "I suggested to Captain Glynn of the ship 'Preble' that, in the event of another visit to Japan for the purpose of opening trade, models of Western ingenuity should be taken and exhibited. And Commodore Perry did that. After having girdled the globe and come across people many, civilized and uncivilized, there are none to whom I feel more kindly than to my old hosts of Japan." Ranald paused and gazed into the adobe hearth. "I broke the seal that made Japan a closed empire – at all events, cracked it; so it was easy for Commodore Perry to do the rest."

"I have been all over the world, madam – to India, China, Japan, Australia – everywhere," he said to the lady Custer, ever so wistfully. "But my home has always been Colville. Here in its cherished ruins I sit in my father's old arm-chair, my battles over, save with the wolves at my door."

In 1894, Ranald MacDonald passed from this land to the next. "To the day of his death the images of those pupils remained with Ranald," Eva Emery Dye writes. "Glimpses of the high thatched roofs of steeply sloping houses lingered in his dreams, and the moon through Fort Colville windows would now and then give precisely the dim light of his pupils' lanterns on winter eves at Nagasaki. With them the youth came back, and a longing to return to Japan ... The billowing boom of the Buddha bells stirred strangely his last dreams with their soft thunder in the dark. 'Sayonara,' he whispered, 'Sayonara...'"

Four years later, as the winds and waves from another winter storm crashed upon the shore in Arch Cape, the sand was cut away from the beach and the long lost cannon and capstan from USS Shark were revealed. They were pulled from the beach, and for the next 100 years they changed hands many times and were on display in various locations, from Arch Cape to Astoria. In 1922, the community of Elk Creek, along the beach just north of where Shark's decking came ashore, took the name of Cannon Beach, and the original cannon and capstan can now be viewed at the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum.

Today we live in a changed world because of the intertwined destiny of two men who never met. There are no more pirates to fight, no more samurai, and the fur traders have all gone. The gold and silver coins that had just arrived in my post box had been minted in Edo (now Tokyo) and had perhaps been secreted in a compartment in a proud warrior's katana sword during those last, waning years of the samurai.

Yes, the world has most certainly changed, but the memory of Ranald's misty and fabled Japan lives on in the intricate beauty of its coins, cached by a samurai or merchant so long ago, and now held in my hand in Cannon Beach. I felt like I was shaking hands with Ranald MacDonald, and I couldn't help but bow my head and whisper, "Sayonara, my friend, sayonara."

Robert Lewis Knecht is an historian and treasure hunter with over 900 dives made around the world. He is co-owner of Cannon Beach Treasure Company in Cannon Beach, Oregon.

Explore more about Ranald MacDonald in Oregon and Washington

The adventurer MacDonald rests in the Ranald McDonald Cemetery, Ferry County, Washington. His grave is 18 miles northwest of Curlew Lake State Park on Mid Way Road and is a satellite of Osoyoos Lake State Park. The grave marker bears the inscription:

Ranald MacDonald 1824-1894
Son of Princess Raven and Archibald MacDonald
His was a life of adventure sailing the Seven Seas
Wandering in far countries but returning at last to rest in his homeland.
Sayonara -- Farewell

Today, Ranald MacDonald is revered in Japan as the man who brought English to the Japanese people. Monuments to Ranald MacDonald can be found in Nagasaki, Japan, and at the corner of 15th and Exchange Streets in Astoria, Oregon, behind the Fort George Brewery building.

In 1988, Friends of MacDonald was organized as a Clatsop County Historical Society Chartered Committee; its purpose to honor Ranald MacDonald, a native Astorian who, in 1848, risked his life on a mission of friendship to forbidden Japanese shores.

USS Shark's cannon and capstan can be seen at the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum in Cannon Beach. Their exhibit, "Who put the cannon in Cannon Beach," examines the history of USS Shark, and features numerous historical artifacts from shipwrecks of that period.

A Princess, Pirates, a Samurai... & a man named MacDonald