Friday, July 20, 2018

Poor Roads and Blistering Weather Hobble Traffic to the Idaho Gold Camps [otd 07/20]

On July 20, 1863, The Oregonian reported, “Increased facilities are offering daily for transportation to the Boise mines. We are informed that John Slavin & Co. have established a stage line to run from the Dalles to Bannock City.”

Mining around Bannock City, soon to be re-named Idaho City, was then on the upswing compared to placer fields over the ridge along Grimes Creek. Where Grimes had little water, streams around Idaho City still provided a good flow.

However, the stage line announcement was, at best, premature. Of course, emigrants on the Oregon Trail did get wagons across Idaho and then the Blue Mountains in Oregon. However, the trip took a horrific toll on their draft animals. Even freighters, who knew the road and its dangers, lost stock.
Stagecoach on Steep Grade. U. S. Forest Service photo.

The Oregonian published (August 8, 1863) a letter from the gold country that said, “There is a terrible mortality existing among the teams on the Boise road, and the dead cattle line the road from Burnt river to the Boise basin, so that more than two weeks since I was told by a gentleman returned from there that he was not out of sight of them the whole distance.”

Steep grades and the rutted track were not the worst problem, the correspondent went on: “The alkali dust on the Burnt and Snake rivers is deadly in its effects on the heated and toiling oxen, and sometimes they fall down dead when the yoke is taken off them.”

No transport company could afford to lose stock at those rates. So, for much of 1863, pack trains – horses and mules – carried substantial amounts of supplies to the Idaho mines. But when weather conditions were favorable, teamsters brought freight wagons from depots in Umatilla and Walla Walla. They were very careful, however, to husband the strength of their animals.

As one might expect, the slow pace of these freight trains did not suit eager prospectors. So-called “saddle trains” catered to that impatience. John Hailey, who would play a prominent role in Idaho history [blog,  August 29], is credited with the first saddle train operation, in 1863. Hailey later wrote, “On the 18th day of April, I left Walla Walla with a saddle train of sixteen passengers and four pack animals for Placerville in the Boise Basin. This was the beginning of the saddle train business in the Boise Basin mines.”

Hailey and his partner, William Ish, ran a profitable passenger operation through the summer, although they did have to reduce their fare as competitors appeared. And, he said, “By September, the travel to the Basin was almost over for the season, so we engaged in packing.”
John Hailey. Library of Congress.

Ish & Hailey did not attempt even a partial stagecoach run until spring of the following year. They first ran the stage about fifty miles, from Umatilla to the west side of the Blue Mountains. That early in the season, the road beyond that would not support the stage, so the company’s saddle trains took over. They did build (future) stage stations, which allowed saddle passengers to eat, rest, and change to fresh horses.

They had the stage route from Umatilla to Placerville “ready for passengers about the 1st of June, 1864.” It does not appear the Slavin & Company operation, mentioned above, ever materialized. The Ish-Hailey outfit did  have one competitor on routes over the Blues, but traffic over the next few years remained high enough to support both.
References: John Hailey, History of Idaho, Syms-York Company, Boise, Idaho (1910).
“To the Mines,” The Oregonian, Portland (July 20, 1863).
Oscar O. Winther, The Old Oregon Country: a History of Frontier Trade, Transportation and Travel, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California (1950).

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Shoemaker, Contractor, and Probate Judge Thomas A. Johnston [otd 07/19]

Versatile pioneer and Probate Judge Thomas A. Johnston was born July 19, 1848 in Ontario, Canada. At the age of thirteen he was apprenticed to a shoemaker. Around 1868, he crossed over into the U. S. to work in a shoe store in northern New York. He was then briefly attracted to the oil boom in western Pennsylvania, but moved on to Nebraska in the summer of 1869. 
Thomas A. Johnston. [French]

Besides operating a shoe shop, he tried his hand at farming near a small town about 23 miles northeast of Grand Island. Of the next seven years or so, he spent one as a “drummer” (traveling salesman) for a wholesale shoe company. Around 1876, he decided that Rawlins, Wyoming, offered better prospects for his shoe business.

Rawlins held him until early 1882, when he went to work for the Oregon Short Line Railroad. The OSL was then laying track westward into Idaho, crossing the border during the summer. Johnston helped build the needed railway stations and shops. Finally, in November 1884, OSL tracks reached Huntington, Oregon, and connected with a line from Portland. The major work done, Johnston returned to Rawlins and his shoe store.

However, during his stint with the OSL, Thomas became acquainted with Pocatello station. As the point where the OSL and the Utah & Northern rails crossed, a thriving town was bound to grow there. The fact that the spot was inside the Fort Hall Indian Reservation complicated matters, however. The railroads had paid the tribes for a track right-of-way, but that allowed little room for a station, much less a town.

So they had bought enough additional land to build a small depot. Later, they squeezed a hotel onto the plot. But that wasn’t enough and squatter cabins soon spread beyond the company land. Finally, in the spring of 1888, a new agreement provided enough land for more growth. At that point, Johnston closed his shoe store in Rawlins and moved to the new town.

Actually, he left the shoe business for good and ran a cigar shop. Meanwhile, a town was incorporated and, by 1890, had an estimated population of about 3,000. Surely sensing that the area would continue to grow, Johnston closed his cigar store and engaged in carpentry and general building construction. Two years later, the legislature acknowledged the town’s growth from a village to a city “of the first class” and authorized city elections.

In 1895, Johnston won a close election for Police Judge, an office charged with enforcing city ordinances. Thomas continued his construction business, perhaps because the judgeship did not pay that well. Voters re-elected him to the position for the next five years, although the 1899 election was again close (he won by less than 50 votes out of about eleven hundred).
Pocatello, 1895. Bannock County Historical Society.

The election in late 1900 saw Johnston move up to the position of Probate Judge, although he won by only 10 votes. Thomas, of course, had only a “common school” education and had never studied law. An Idaho Legal History Society article noted that such men were “schooled in life” and got elected because they were highly respected in the community.

The Probate Judge position offered enough income so Johnston could close his construction sideline. And he was, indeed, respected enough to be re-elected for the next twelve years. He chose to retire voluntarily at the end of 1912. Such was his influence by then that he essentially hand-picked his successor.

Johnston passed away on the last day of 1914.
References: [B&W], [French]
“Early Probate Judges Schooled in Life,” Idaho Legal History Society, Boise, Idaho (Fall 2010).
Progressive Men of Bannock, Bear Lake, Bingham, Fremont and Oneida Counties, Idaho, A. W. Bowen & Co., Chicago (1904).
“[TA Johnston News],” Idaho Statesman, Boise; Idaho Falls Times, Idaho Falls; Deseret News, Salt Lake City; The Journal, Logan, Utah (April 1895 – January 1915).

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Trappers Clash with Indians at the Battle of Pierre’s Hole [otd 07/18]

On July 18, the great mountain man rendezvous of 1832, at Pierre's Hole, was breaking up. The only Idaho location where the fur companies held their annual conclave, Pierre's Hole is known to us today as the Teton Valley.
Teton Valley – view of the three Tetons from the west.

While they were preparing to hit the trail, one trapper party noticed a column of Indians approaching. The band consisted of 150-200 individuals, including many women and children. Perhaps fifty to sixty qualified as warriors. The Gros Ventre, which these were, were allies of the notoriously hostile Blackfeet tribe. Although the Gros Ventre shared neither lineage nor language with the Blackfeet, Americans almost invariably lumped the two together.

The presence of entire family groups meant this was not a war party, and a chief rode out to parley under signs of peace. Two men, both of whom harbored virulent hatred for "the Blackfeet," went out to meet him. One, a Flathead Indian, had lost many relatives and friends to incessant Blackfeet attacks. A Blackfeet war party had also killed the father of the other intermediary, Métis Antoine Godin.

The two met the chief with all the usual signs of accommodation, and Godin accepted the other's proffered handshake. Then, in what was clearly a pre-planned moved, the Flathead shot the chief dead. One of them then grabbed the chief's bright red blanket and they raced triumphantly back to the trappers' camp.

It's not clear if the Gros Ventres knew how many whites they were up against. There is general agreement that the families began throwing up a crude palisades of soil and deadfall timbers.

By some accounts – and many were recorded – warriors began organizing an attack on the small band that had instigated the treacherous killing. Other witnesses said the Gros Ventres only formed a skirmish line to delay any further attack by the whites.

Soon however, the distinction became moot. More trappers and their Indian allies (Nez Percés and Flatheads) arrived to reinforce the first group and a hot exchange of fire ensued. Captain William L. Sublette tried to organize a general attack on the Gros Ventre's position.

Most held back, so the Captain pushed ahead with a smaller party. They retreated after several men, including Sublette himself, were wounded, and another was killed. Zenas Leonard, one of those who gave an account of the battle, helped carry one wounded man out of danger. This, he said “met my approbation precisely, for I was glad to get out of this unpleasant situation under any pretext.”
Mountain Man. Frederic Remington.

Without overall leadership or proper discipline, the trappers and their allies could not mount a tight, organized siege. Someone suggested fires to burn the crude fort. Although Indian allies objected to destroying all the possible loot, the whites began to gather fuel. Then a (false) rumor spread that more Blackfeet were attacking the main trapper encampment. Many trappers rushed off, allowing the Gros Ventre to flee during the night.

Four whites were killed during the battle, along with seven of their allies. They found nine slain warriors inside the fort, along with a couple dozen dead horses, and most of the Gros Ventres baggage. Writer Washington Irving said, "The Blackfeet afterward reported that they had lost twenty-six warriors in this battle."
References: [B&W]
H. M. Chittenden, The American Fur Trade of the Far West, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1986).
W. A. Ferris, Leroy R. Hafen (ed), Life in the Rocky Mountains, Old West Publishing Company, Denver (1983).
Washington Irving, Edgeley W. Todd (ed.), The Adventures of Captain Bonneville U.S.A., in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West. Digested from his journal. University of Oklahoma Press (1961).
Zenas Leonard, Milo Milton Quaife (ed.), Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard, written by himself, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1978).
“Pierre’s Hole Battleground," Reference Series No. 745, Idaho State Historical Society.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Fur Trade and Real Estate Multimillionaire John Jacob Astor [otd 07/17]

J. J. Astor. Library of Congress.
John Jacob Astor, who became America’s richest man, was born July 17, 1763 in Waldorf (near Heidelberg, Duchy of Baden, before the creation of Germany). He was born into a lower middle class family: His father was a butcher.

With no prospects at home, Astor left as a teenager. He spent four years in London, where he learned to speak English (with a heavy accent). Then, in 1784, John Jacob emigrated to the new United States.

He learned the fur trade and opened a shop in New York before 1790. Over the next decade, he expanded the fur business and used it to build an international shipping network, dealing also in teas and sandalwood. Then reports from the Lewis and Clark Expedition about the fur riches available in the Rocky Mountains drew his attention.

He created the American Fur Company, with the Pacific Fur Company (PFC) as a subsidiary. In 1810, the PFC launched a two-pronged thrust. First, Astor’s ship, the Tonquin, carried a team to the mouth of the Columbia River, where they established a base, called Astoria. Second, a party led by Wilson Price Hunt trekked west from St. Louis, Missouri.

The Hunt party became the second group of fur trappers from the U. S. to enter Idaho, crossing Teton Pass in October 1811 [blog, Oct 5]. All but five of Hunt’s men continued on to Astoria. Those five remained behind to trap in eastern Idaho. Later, more trappers returned to Idaho from Astoria.

Thus, between then and 1813, the PFC tasked a dozen men to trap across southern Idaho. One man fled Idaho with Robert Stuart’s column when it passed through carrying dispatches for Astor [blog, September 5]. Of the rest, one died from an accident, a second sickened and died, seven were known to have been killed by Indians, and two simply vanished.

But other expeditions fared much better. It was the War of 1812 against Great Britain that ruined Astor’s first western venture. Astoria became the property of the rival North West Company, and many of his employees went to work for that firm. Even so, first-hand reports from Astor's expeditions spurred a fur trade war that would last over a quarter century.

Although Astor dissolved the Pacific Fur Company, his American Fur Company continued to compete in the west and around the Great Lakes. By 1830, his Company was the most powerful American fur trade competitor throughout the region, including Idaho.

Hard work and determination built Astor’s fortune, but he also had the ability to spot trends and position his enterprises to exploit them. In an 1833 letter, he wrote, “I very much fear beaver will not sell very soon unless very fine. It appears that they make hats of silk in place of beaver.”
New York City, ca 1840. Library of Congress.
The following year, Astor withdrew from the fur trade, and the shipping interests that were so much a part of it. After that, he invested in many industries – railroads, insurance companies, hotels, and more. However, for Astor “the next big thing” was real estate, especially New York City real estate. As the City grew, so did Astor’s net worth.

When he died in 1848, he was by far the wealthiest man in the United States. In fact, when fortunes are compared to the national economy of their day, Astor ranks as the third or fourth richest American ever. By that measure, he is outranked only by John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt, with Andrew Carnegie inserted by some analysts. (Bill Gates trails by a couple of spots.)
References: [Brit]
Peter W. Bernstein, Annalyn Swan (eds.), All the Money in the World, Random House, Inc. in collaboration with Forbes magazine (2007).
H. M. Chittenden, The American Fur Trade of the Far West, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1986).
Axel Madsen, John Jacob Astor: America's First Multimillionaire, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York (2001).

Monday, July 16, 2018

Fruitland Physician and Army Medical Veteran Crispin Wright, M. D. [otd 07/16]

The biography of physician Crispin Wright in French’s History of Idaho states that he was born July 16, 1882 in Chatham, Virginia (about 43 miles southeast of Roanoke). That date may be off by a couple days, but it does provide an opportunity to discuss a young man who made a notable impression in just two or three years.
Dr. Crispin Wright.[French]

After high school, Wright enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute for the 1900-1901 term. However, in 1902 he switched to the University College of Medicine in Richmond to pursue a medical degree. He continued there into the 1905 term, but then had to withdraw due to poor health.

After a period of recuperation, Wright took a job with the U. S. Forest Service. He spent a good many months working in what is now the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. But in 1909, he enrolled at the Medical Department of the University of Denver. He completed his M. D. degree in 1910 and immediately began an internship at Denver’s St. Luke’s Hospital. That summer, he also got married, with a ceremony in Colorado Springs. They had a son the following spring.

They moved to Fruitland, Idaho in the summer of 1911. By the time French’s History was published in 1914, Crispin had already made an impact. Not only was he local Health Officer, he was Deputy Health Officer for all of Canyon County. Wright had also completed the process to obtain a license to practice in Oregon, to go along with his licenses for Colorado and Idaho.

Finding himself far from the activity of Boise, Dr. Wright joined with physicians in the region to create the Idaho-Oregon District Medical Society in late 1915. Members included doctors from Ontario and three other Oregon towns, as well as three towns in Idaho. Crispin was also active in local politics. In September 1916, he was named the Democratic Party Committeeman for the South Fruitland precinct.

Sadly, in February 1917, his wife died. She was just 34 years old. A few months later, Dr. Wright applied for a position in the Army Medical Corps. Oddly enough, while he waited for a reply, he attained another responsibility. Earlier in the year, the legislature had split off a new county, Payette, from Canyon County. On June 1, the governor appointed Dr. Wright to fill the County Coroner’s position, pending elections in the fall.

But before the month was out, Crispin received word that he had been recommended for a commission in the Medical Corps. He quickly made arrangements for his son to live with a brother back in Virginia. That fall, he traveled east with the First Idaho Field Hospital to join the newly-constituted 41st Infantry Division. Elements of the division began sailing to France in late November. The trip across on the over-crowded troopship was grim, with rampant sickness and one death due to pulmonary tuberculosis.
Troopship USS Madawaska. U. S. Navy photo.

In early January 1918, the medical contingent began operating a hospital in south-central France. The weather was “bitterly cold” and only part of their medical supplies had arrived. Worse yet, they were swamped with thousands of sick soldiers, many of whom were contagious and had to be quarantined.

It’s hardly a surprise that Lieutenant Crispin Wright, M. D., became a victim himself. He was sent back to the U. S. at the end of April on the troopship Madawaska and transferred to an Army hospital near Ashville, North Carolina. He died there in February 1920 from pulmonary tuberculosis.
References: [French]
“[News for Crispin Wright],” Ontario Argus, Ontario, Oregon; Idaho Statesman, Boise (November 1915 – June, 1917).
“Obituary Record,” Virginia Medical Monthly, Medical Society of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia (March 1920).
Report of the Surgeon General, U. S. Army, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (1920).
The Kynewisbok [Yearbook] of the University of Denver, Denver, Colorado (1911).

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Naturalist John Kirk Townsend Describes Fort Hall Area [otd 07/15]

Naturalist Townsend.
Oregon Historical Society.
On July 15, 1834, naturalist John Kirk Townsend described the site selected by Nathaniel Wyeth for the Fort Hall trading post [yesterday's blog].

Townsend wrote, "This is a fine large plain on the south side of the Portneuf, with an abundance of excellent grass and rich soil. The opposite side of the river is thickly covered with large timber of the cottonwood and willow, with a dense undergrowth of the same, intermixed with serviceberry and currant bushes."

The Philadelphia-born Townsend was one of two naturalists who accompanied Wyeth's second trip west of the Rockies. He had been invited along by Thomas Nuttall, a well-known naturalist who had resigned a position at Harvard University to join the expedition. The much younger Townsend – he was 25, Nuttall 48 – had a growing reputation as an ornithologist. The year before, he had collected a previously-unknown species, which was later called the Townsend's Bunting.

The primitive conditions of the march made sample preservation difficult. Even so, Townsend recorded many detailed observations, not just of birds but also other natural history features. About a week before the party reached the Fort Hall site, he recorded his first observations about Idaho birds.

Camped near Beer (Soda) Springs [blog, July 8], he wrote, "in a thicket of common red cedars, near our camp, I found, and procured several specimens of two beautiful and rare birds which I had never before seen – the Lewis woodpecker and Clark's crow, (Picus torquatus and Corvus columbianus.)"
Audubon Society image,

The naturalist was known as an expert marksman. Thus, as construction of the fort began, he joined the hunting party Wyeth sent out. Townsend decided to test the claim that a shot directly to the forehead would not harm a bull buffalo. Using a double-barrelled weapon, he planted one bullet to the forehead, then killed the “monster” when it turned to escape. He found his first 0.8-ounce (350 grain) slug “completely flattened against the bone” having not produced “the smallest fracture.”

Townsend left Fort Hall with Wyeth's party early in August. He wrote, “We crossed the main Snake or Shoshone river, at a point about three miles from the fort. It is here as wide as the Missouri at Independence, but, beyond comparison, clearer and more beautiful.”

His Narrative records many natural history features observed as they marched west across Idaho. On August 19, after a “hard days travel," they descended into the Boise Valley and camped along the river, which he described as "a beautiful stream."

He also wrote, "it is literally crowded with salmon, which are springing from the water almost constantly. Our mouths are watering most abundantly for some of them."

He recorded nothing about birds until they reached the Columbia River in Oregon. There, Townsend commented, “The mallard duck, the widgeon, and the green-winged teal are tolerably abundant in the little estuaries of the river. Our men have killed several, but they are poor, and not good."

The descriptions that Townsend, and Nuttall, made of southern Idaho flora and fauna were the first recorded by trained observers. Based at Fort Vancouver, the ornithologist traveled extensively in Oregon and southern Washington, collecting numerous bird specimens.

He took ship in 1836 and returned to Philadelphia by way of Hawaii and Cape Horn. To defray costs, Townsend sold over ninety specimens to John J. Audubon. In fact, Townsend collected over one-seventh of the species shown in Audubon's famous Birds of America book. Townsend died in 1851, apparently poisoned by an arsenic-based specimen preservative he had concocted.
References: John Kirk Townsend, Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River (1839), reprinted, Reuben Gold Thwaites (ed)., in Early Western Travels, Vol. VIII, Arthur H. Clark Company, Cleveland (1905).
“John Kirk Townsend (1809-1851),” The Oregon History Project, Oregon Historical Society (2002).

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Fur Trader Nathaniel Wyeth Selects Old Fort Hall Site [otd 07/14]

On July 14, 1834, Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth wrote in his journal: "Went down the river about 3 miles and found a location for a fort."

This event occurred on Wyeth's second fur trading and trapping expedition west of the Rockies, discussed in my blogs for January 29 and December 20. After his customer at the rendezvous reneged on their contract, he took his unsold supplies on into Idaho. By then, defections had reduced his column from seventy to about forty men.

Explaining this move to his long-suffering backers, Wyeth wrote, "I shall proceed about 150 miles west of this and establish a fort in order to make sale of the goods which remain on my hands."

Old Fort Hall, interior. Library of Congress.
He selected a spot on the sandy plain a few miles from what was then the confluence of the Portneuf and Snake Rivers. They built the original structure from the abundant cottonwoods. Each log was sunk about 30 inches into the ground and stood 15 feet above the surface. The work proceeded well, considering that Wyeth had to send off a hunting party of a dozen men. Others had to maintain a guard against the hostile Blackfeet Indians. The finished fort consisted of a roughly 80-foot square with 8-foot square bastions at two diagonal corners.

The job was completed on August 4, and the next day trapper Osborne Russell [blog, Dec 20] wrote “the ‘Stars and Stripes’ were unfurled to the breeze at Sunrise in the center of a savage and uncivilized country over an American trading Post.”

On the 6th, Wyeth wrote, "Having done as much as was requisite for safety to the Fort and drank a bale of liquor and named it Fort Hall in honor of the oldest partner of our concern, we left it." Twelve men remained at the Fort while the rest continued on to Fort Walla Walla  in Washington.

Initial prospects for the Fort seemed promising. However, costs for resupply proved too high for Wyeth's venture to make a profit. He finally sold the site to the rival Hudson's Bay Company, which took over operation during the summer of 1838.

Business with religious missionary parties grew in importance after that. Then, more and more wagon trains full of settlers passed through after the first small party in 1841. That flow soon became the major source of income for Fort Hall. The fur trade dwindled to a minor sideline.

The discovery of gold in California boosted traffic to vastly greater levels, peaking at around 60 thousand in 1852 alone. Most of them – 80-90 percent – went to California, but substantial numbers also ended up in Oregon. Amusing today, but deadly serious then, early “boosters” for the two destinations fought a propaganda war near the Fort. Each offered glowing accounts, and sometimes promised inducements, to persuade trains to come their way.
Wagons on the Oregon Trail. Utah State Historical Society.

At first, the native inhabitants, mostly Shoshone and Bannock tribes, actually welcomed travelers. That changed, however, as they saw the emigrants taking more and more game and cutting a wider swath through the forage grasses along the Trail. As the decade passed, friction between Indians and emigrants escalated.

The increased danger of attack made operations at Fort Hall more and more costly. Finally, changes in the Trail route reduced emigrant traffic. The HBC abandoned (Old) Fort Hall in 1856.

Fourteen years later, the U.S. Army built a new Fort Hall, but it was located about 25 miles away from the old site.
References: [B&W]
“Fort Hall,” Reference Series No. 121, Idaho State Historical Society (January 1968).
Osborne Russell, Aubrey L. Haines (ed.), Journal of a Trapper, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1965).
John D. Unruh, Jr, The Plains Across, University of Illinois Press, Urbana (1979).
Nathaniel J. Wyeth, Don Johnson (ed.), The Journals of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth's Expeditions to the Oregon Country 1831-1836, Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, Washington (1984).