Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Fur Traders, the "Overland Astorians," Enter Idaho Via Teton Pass [otd 10/5]

On October 5, 1811, a column of whites led by American Wilson Price Hunt mounted the slope out of Jackson Hole toward Teton Pass: “We climbed it, following an easy and much-traveled trail.  Snow whitened the summit and the northern slopes of the heights.  The Snakes served as our guides … ”

J. J. Astor. Library of Congress.
The Hunt party represented the Pacific Fur Company, founded by fur trade magnate John Jacob Astor [blog, July 17]. Astor, with one American and several British-Canadian partners, created the PFC to exploit the riches described in the reports from the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Over a year earlier, the PFC had sent a shipload of men to establish a Pacific Coast base, Astoria, near the mouth of the Columbia River. Hunt’s “Overland Astorians” had been dispatched from St. Louis, Missouri to explore the country further and then continue on to Astoria. In late May, they encountered three white men traveling down the Missouri River in two small canoes.

The newcomers had spent the winter at a “fort” a few miles west of today’s Ashton, Idaho, on a branch of the Snake River. Andrew Henry, a partner in the St. Louis-based Missouri Fur Company, led the party that built the scattering of huts. For their own reasons, the three men had quit the company and headed east. They had originally traveled west by the route the Astorians planned to use. Now they persuaded Hunt that their more southerly return route was easier, and less exposed to possibly-hostile Indians.

This southern path took them out of the Dakotas into the northeast corner of Wyoming. From there they headed west, then south. In mid-September, Hunt wrote, “One of our hunters who had been on the banks of the Columbia pointed out three immense and snow-covered peaks which, he said, bordered a tributary of the river.”

This was the first recorded observation of les trois tétons, “the Three Tetons,” a famous landmark even to this day. (John Colter [blog, Aug 17] had surely seen them, but he did not keep a journal.)

Finally, a zig-zag trek led them into Jackson Hole. Concerned by the precipitous country and the wildness of the Snake – they called it the “Mad River” – Hunt sent a few explorers downstream. Soon, these men confirmed his worst fears: The river was too dangerous and the ranges practically impassable.

Fortunately, they encountered the Snake (Shoshone or Bannock) Indians who led them over Teton Pass. The Astorians then marched to “Henry’s Fort.” Happy to have reached a tributary of the Columbia, Hunt had the men construct dugout canoes from the abundant cottonwood trees. He assumed, quite erroneously, they could now cruise down the Snake and Columbia to reach their Pacific base.
Snake River upstream from the Idaho Falls. National Archives.

But even before the voyagers reached Idaho Falls (the actual Falls, not the present city), whitewater upset two canoes and cost them vital supplies. They were then wise enough to portage their gear around the Falls and lead their canoes through on long ropes. Hunt wrote, “The river narrows between two sheer mountain walls to not more than sixty feet, in a few places to even less.”

They had to portage again at American Falls, but also found long stretches that fed their unwarranted complacency about the river. That would change before the month was out [blog, Oct 28].
                                                                                                                                     
References: [B&W]
Wilson Price Hunt, Hoyt C. Franchère (ed. and translator), Overland diary of Wilson Price Hunt, Ashland Oregon Book Society (1973).
James P. Ronda, Astoria and Empire, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1990).

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