Friday, July 14, 2017

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.

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 finished fort consisted of a roughly 80-foot square with 8-foot square bastions at two diagonal corners.

A few weeks after they began the fort, trapper Osborne Russell [blog, Dec 20] said that “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.”

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."

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).

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