Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Trappers Clash with Indians at the Battle of Pierre’s Hole [otd 07/18]

On July 18, the great mountain man rendezvous of 1832, at Pierre's Hole, was breaking up. The only Idaho location where the fur companies held their annual conclave, Pierre's Hole is known to us today as the Teton Valley.
Teton Valley – view of the three Tetons from the west.

While they were preparing to hit the trail, one trapper party noticed a column of Indians approaching. The band consisted of 150-200 individuals, including many women and children. Perhaps fifty to sixty qualified as warriors. The Gros Ventre, which these were, were allies of the notoriously hostile Blackfeet tribe. Although the Gros Ventre shared neither lineage nor language with the Blackfeet, Americans almost invariably lumped the two together.

The presence of entire family groups meant this was not a war party, and a chief rode out to parley under signs of peace. Two men, both of whom harbored virulent hatred for "the Blackfeet," went out to meet him. One, a Flathead Indian, had lost many relatives and friends to incessant Blackfeet attacks. A Blackfeet war party had also killed the father of the other intermediary, Métis Antoine Godin.

The two met the chief with all the usual signs of accommodation, and Godin accepted the other's proffered handshake. Then, in what was clearly a pre-planned moved, the Flathead shot the chief dead. One of them then grabbed the chief's bright red blanket and they raced triumphantly back to the trappers' camp.

It's not clear if the Gros Ventres knew how many whites they were up against. There is general agreement that the families began throwing up a crude palisades of soil and deadfall timbers.

By some accounts – and many were recorded – warriors began organizing an attack on the small band that had instigated the treacherous killing. Other witnesses said the Gros Ventres only formed a skirmish line to delay any further attack by the whites.

Soon however, the distinction became moot. More trappers and their Indian allies (Nez Percés and Flatheads) arrived to reinforce the first group and a hot exchange of fire ensued. Captain William L. Sublette tried to organize a general attack on the Gros Ventre's position.

Most held back, so the Captain pushed ahead with a smaller party. They retreated after several men, including Sublette himself, were wounded, and another was killed. Zenas Leonard, one of those who gave an account of the battle, helped carry one wounded man out of danger. This, he said “met my approbation precisely, for I was glad to get out of this unpleasant situation under any pretext.”
Mountain Man. Frederic Remington

Without overall leadership or proper discipline, the trappers and their allies could not mount a tight, organized siege. Someone suggested fires to burn the crude fort. Although Indian allies objected to destroying all the possible loot, the whites began to gather fuel. Then a (false) rumor spread that more Blackfeet were attacking the main trapper encampment. Many trappers rushed off, allowing the Gros Ventre to flee during the night.

Four whites were killed during the battle, along with seven of their allies. They found nine slain warriors inside the fort, along with a couple dozen dead horses, and most of the Gros Ventres baggage. Writer Washington Irving said, "The Blackfeet afterward reported that they had lost twenty-six warriors in this battle."
                                                                               
References: [B&W],
H. M. Chittenden, The American Fur Trade of the Far West, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1986).
W. A. Ferris, Leroy R. Hafen (ed), Life in the Rocky Mountains, Old West Publishing Company, Denver (1983).
Washington Irving, Edgeley W. Todd (ed.), The Adventures of Captain Bonneville U.S.A., in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West. Digested from his journal. University of Oklahoma Press (1961).
Zenas Leonard, Milo Milton Quaife (ed.), Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard, written by himself, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1978).
“Pierre’s Hole Battleground," Reference Series No. 745, Idaho State Historical Society.

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