Wednesday, October 10, 2018

British and American Fur Trapper Bands Have Friendly Meeting in Central Idaho [otd 10/10]

On October 10, 1830, a party of trappers working for the American Fur Company met the bulk of the “Snake Brigade” – trappers and camp keepers of the British-Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company. The encounter apparently took place on the Little Wood River, west of the lava flows and probably not too far from today’s Carey. (One must account for travel time estimates and reconcile different geographical names to locate the probable meeting place.)
HBC Leader John Work.
British Canadian Archives.

Such encounters did not happen every day, but they were not uncommon during the height of the region’s fur trapping era. What made this event unusual was the fact that it was documented by members of both of the respective parties.

Irish-born John Work, a sixteen-year HBC veteran, had been appointed in August to lead the Brigade [blog, Oct 23]. They crossed from Oregon into Idaho in late summer. On September 9th, Work wrote, “Reached the discharge of Payette’s River, up which we proceeded.”

After trapping the Payette and Boise rivers, they moved east to the Camas Prairie, down the Big Wood, and then up the Little Wood.

On October 10th, Work said that a few of his trappers had met the Americans, who had “just arrived from Snake River across the plains.” His daily note ends with the statement: “Americans are encamped within a short distance of us.”

A day or so later he wrote, “Crooks & Co. are the outfitters. A Mr. Fontenelle, who manages this business, is now at Snake River with 50 men.”

American trapper Warren Ferris mentioned “Mr. Fontenelle” several times in his account of Life in the Rocky Mountains. Born in New York state, Ferris joined the American Fur Company and headed west early in 1830. Besides the hope for adventure, he said his motives were economic: “For times are hard, and my best coat has a sort of sheepish hang-dog hesitation to encounter fashionable folk.”
Lava near Craters of the Moon. State of Idaho photo.

Lucien Fontenelle was one of the principals for the AFC. According to Ferris, a band of AFC trappers “travelled north of west, through a barren desert, destitute of every species of vegetation, except a few scattering cedars, and speckled with huge round masses of black basaltic rock. … It was doubtless lava, which had been vomited forth from some volcano, the fires of which are now extinct.”

This is an accurate description of the lava plain that covers great tracts south of the Craters of the Moon National Monument. Almost too late for some of the men, the Americans staggered out of the barrens onto a “pure cool reviving stream, a new river of life.”

Although Ferris himself was not with this particular party, he recorded a detailed account based on talks with several men who were there. A day after escaping the lava, they heard gunshots in the distance and sent a scout to investigate. Ferris then reported that the scout "shortly after returned, accompanied by several trappers who belonged to a party of forty, led by a Mr. Work, a clerk of the Hudson Bay Company.”

After this chance encounter, the Brigade headed north along the Little Wood. Knowing the country, Work then succeeded in ditching the Americans somewhere deep in the mountains. They continued to the prime beaver country along the Salmon River. The AFC party had to settle for stumbling upon the Little Lost River, which disappears into the ground southeast of today’s Arco.
References: [B&W]
W. A. Ferris, Leroy R. Hafen (ed), Life in the Rocky Mountains, Old West Publishing Company, Denver (1983).
William R. Sampson, “John Work,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
John Work, T. C. Elliott (Ed.), “The Journal of John Work,” Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society, Vol. X, No. 3 (1909).

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