Monday, September 5, 2016

Astorian Fur Trade Party Led by Robert Stuart at American Falls [otd 9/5]

On September 5, 1812, fur trader Robert Stuart wrote in his journal, “The whole body of the stream is here scarcely 60 feet wide, but immediately above expands to the breadth of half a mile, with little or no current and the banks sufficiently covered with Willows to afford a plentiful supply of food for the incredible numbers of furred animals who inhabit its borders.”
American Falls before dam construction. Library of Congress.

Stuart's note referred to the Snake River as it constricted into the cascades at Idaho's American Falls. Stuart and the six men with him camped about three miles above the Falls. The band worked for the Pacific Fur Company, an affiliate of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company (AFC) [blog, July 17]. The men carried dispatches from Astoria, the company’s base at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Stuart had traveled to Astoria by sea and had never seen (the future) Idaho before this trip. However, Ramsey Crooks and at least two of the other men with Stuart had explored it during the earlier Wilson Price Hunt east-to-west crossing [blog, October 5 and others]. The men’s misfortunes began less than a week after they re-entered Idaho in mid-August: An Indian guide, who had seemed trustworthy, stole their best horse and disappeared.

After that, other problems plagued them: oppressive summer heat, mosquitos and other insect pests, lack of reliable water sources, and a rugged countryside almost devoid of trails. Still, Stuart and Crooks are credited with the earliest descriptions of much of what became the Oregon Trail. Pioneers trudging the Trail at mid-century would endure the same conditions, but they at least had a marked track to follow.

The returning Astorians found the area above American Falls more agreeable. Stuart wrote: “The country passed since yesterday morning has improved greatly – the sage, and its detestable relations, gradually decrease, and the soil, though parched, produces provender in abundance.”

Robert Stuart, by unknown artist.
Robert Stuart House Museum.
They next trekked up the course of the Portneuf River, and then crossed a regional divide to Soda Springs. Along the Idaho-Wyoming border, disaster struck: A band of Crow Indians ran off all their horses. Forced to walk, they could not escape the mountains before heavy snows caught them. They spent the winter in a crude camp on the North Platte River about twenty-five miles upstream from Scotts Bluff.

Several months later, they built canoes and floated down the river. The Astorians reached an outlying trading post in mid-April, 1813, and learned “the disagreeable news of a war between America & Great Britain.”

The War of 1812 ruined Astor’s venture in the Far West, but not his overall fur trade empire. Stuart went on to become an influential leader in the AFC. When the company established a major post on Mackinac Island, in northern Michigan, Stuart was placed in charge.

After that post closed in 1835, Stuart moved to Detroit. He played a prominent role in the development of Michigan, before his death in 1848.
                                                                                                                                     
References: [B&W]
O. C. Comstock, “Sketch of the Life of Hon. Robert Stuart,” Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan, Vol. III, Robert Smith Printing Co., Lansing (1881 issue, reprinted 1903).
Robert Stuart, Kenneth A. Spaulding (ed.), On The Oregon Trail: Robert Stuart’s Journey of Discovery, University of Oklahoma Press (1953).
Stuart House Museum, Mackinac Island, Michigan.

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