Friday, October 23, 2009

Oct 23: John Work in Idaho

On October 23, 1830, John Work, leader of the Snake Brigade of the Hudson’s Bay Company, wrote in his Journal, “The women availed themselves of the hot springs to wash their clothes.” (John Work photo, British Canadian Archives)

Their location was almost certainly near Barney Hot Springs, 40 miles or so up the Little Lost River from Howe, Idaho. During the 1830 campaign, the Brigade had trapped beaver along the Payette River, some on the Boise, and then Big and Little Wood rivers. They then prospected for beaver sign along the Big and Little Lost rivers, which is when they encountered the hot springs.

Irish-born, John’s family name was actually “Wark,” but that changed when he joined the HBC. By the time Bay Company officers appointed him to lead the Brigade, in August 1830, he had been with the firm 16 years. He was fated to be the last head of the Snake Brigade.

By the early 1830’s, well over a decade of heavy trapping had severely depleted beaver colonies in Idaho and the surrounding region. With many American trappers pouring into the watersheds, intense effort won only meager profits. As the campaign continued into 1831, Work led the Brigade south into Nevada and then into southeast Oregon.

Yet with all that effort, as the campaign closed he wrote, “from the height of the water and scarcity of beaver we have very little for the labor and trouble which we experienced.”

Although Work recommended against further trips into Idaho, he was again sent there (and into Montana) in 1831-32. That too garnered very little profit. The last Brigade expedition ventured into northern California, then it was disbanded and Work was transferred to a post in British Columbia.

The cessation of large bands did not end the HBC fur trade in Idaho. They now depended more on trading with the Indians, and with the many American mountain men that had entered the area. In fact, the Company had a near monopoly on the Idaho fur trade during the latter half of the 1830’s.

After that, it didn’t matter because the trade had become a sideline carried on by isolated individuals. (Mountain Man drawing, Frederic Remington, 1889.)

Merrill D. Beal and Merle W. Wells, History of Idaho, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc. New York (1959).

William R. Sampson, “John Work,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.

T. C. Elliott, “Journal of John Work, Covering Snake Country Expedition of 1830-31,” Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society, Vol. XIII (1912) and Vol. XIV (1913).

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