Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Mountain Man Osborne Russell Becomes a "Free" Trapper [otd 12/20]

On December 20, 1835, trapper Osborne Russell said he “bid adieu to the ‘Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company’ and started in company with 15 of my old Messmates to pass the winter at a place called ‘Mutton Hill’.”

The precise location of “Mutton Hill” is uncertain, but Russell said it was on the Portneuf River about 40 miles southeast of Old Fort Hall.

Born in Maine, Russell joined Nathaniel Wyeth’s second fur trade venture [blog, Jan 29] in April 1834. Osborne was then about three months short of his twentieth birthday. Wyeth had also contracted with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company (RMFC) to supply the 1834 Green River rendezvous.

When the RMFC reneged on the contract, Wyeth took his supplies on into Idaho and built Old Fort Hall. For August 5th, Russell wrote, “Mr Wyeth departed for the mouth of the Columbia River with all the party excepting twelve men (myself included), 10 who were stationed at the Fort.”

Lacking experience, the Wyeth men did not attempt a fall trapping expedition. They did, however, traipse through the nearby ranges hunting game to supply the Fort for the winter. During the latter part of September, Russell had his first encounter with a Grizzly bear, prompting the reaction: “Oh Heavens! was ever anything so hideous?”

Too green to know better, he and a hunting partner pursued the animal and killed it, after an extremely close call. Osborne wrote that they “returned to the Fort with the trophies of our bravery, but I secretly determined in my own mind never to molest another wounded Grizzly Bear in a marsh or thicket.”

During the 1835 season, Osborne worked with a trapper party that trekked through eastern Idaho, western Wyoming, and southern Montana. The results were disastrous: two substantial battles with hostile Blackfeet Indians, loss of most of their horses, and a minimum return of furs. Some of these problems arose from inexperience, but Russell decided that the greater cause was their leader’s ineptitude.
Old Fort Hall. Library of Congress.

“I determined not to be so green as to bind myself to an arbitrary Rocky Mountain Chieftain to be kicked over hill and dale at his pleasure,” Osborne wrote, and refused to sign up again with the Company.

Russell learned quickly, and was soon able to sustain himself comfortably. He attended the 1836 rendezvous held on the Green River west today’s Pinedale, Wyoming. Also there were missionaries Henry Harmon Spalding and Marcus Whitman, and their wives [blog, Nov 29]. Osborne said, “The two ladies were gazed upon with wonder and astonishment by the rude Savages, they being the first white women ever seen by these Indians and the first that had ever penetrated into these wild and rocky regions.”

Russell spent the next seven years as a free trapper, mostly in eastern Idaho and western Wyoming. However, even in 1840, he observed that “Beaver also were getting very scarce.”

He struggled along for almost another two years. Then, in August, 1842 an emigrant party arrived at Fort Hall, headed for Oregon. Deciding he’d had enough, Russsell wrote, “I started with them and arrived at the Falls of the Willamette river on the 26 day of Septr. 1842.”

The following spring, Russell helped form the Provisional Government of Oregon and served as a judge under that organization. In 1848, he moved to California. He passed away there in 1892.
References: Osborne Russell, Aubrey L. Haines (ed.), Journal of a Trapper, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1965).
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).


  1. There is some uncertainty about the location of the Mutton Hill but it is my opinion that it is just downstream from Lava Hot Springs near East Topaz Rd. off of Hwy 30. There is a pretty good-sized juniper-covered hill that rises between the main highway (Hwy 30) and the Old Oregon Trail Highway just to the north. The river meanders a lot there and the east side of the hill, along the river, would have probably have been a good place to camp. You can see it on the drive between McCammon and Lava. I have been told it was called sheep island because it was surrounded by an oxbow that is now barely visible. Jim Bridger is also said to have used it for a camp. This is about the most sheltered and advantageous place to camp for a long way around. And I suppose this would be about 40 miles southeast of where old Fort Hall stood. I can't think of a better candidate for the site of old Mutton Hill.

  2. Marcus: I think you’ve nailed it! Took me awhile to find it on my topo map (I was looking too close to Lava), but the knoll shows up clearly when I found it. (It is also very obvious on the Google satellite image.) According to the elevations, the high point of the hill is about 150 feet above the river plain. Of course, the likely connection between Mutton Hill and “Sheep Island” is pretty suggestive. On my topo map, the sloughs left from the older river course also show up very clearly. But here’s the clincher in my mind: That spot is very close to 40 miles from the location of Old Fort Hall. Osborne Russell was often amazingly accurate in his estimations of distance -- I spent a lot of time with his Journal and my topo maps proving it for several other cases.