Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Wilson Price Hunt Fur Trade Party Reaches Boise Valley [otd 11/21]

In November 1811, Wilson Price Hunt recorded in his journal, “On the 21st at daybreak we saw ahead of us a river that flowed to the west, its banks lined with cottonwood and willow trees. Some Indians who had pitched camp there had many horses and were far better clothed than those whom we had seen recently."

Hunt’s party thus became the first whites to report seeing the Boise Valley. (A smaller group led by Hunt’s associate Donald Mackenzie had probably seen it earlier, but the details of Mackenzie’s route are uncertain.) As noted before, Hunt’s expedition represented John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company [blog, Oct 5].
Snake River canyon below Caldron Linn. Idaho Tourism.

They had built dugout canoes and attempted to voyage down the Snake River, but lost a canoe and one French-Canadian boatman at Caldron Lynn [blog, Oct 28]. Although the immediate prospect looked grim, Hunt did not give up right away. The next day, he wrote, “For thirty-five miles I went along the banks of the river, which continues to carve a passage northwest through the mountains. Its bed is no more than sixty to ninety feet wide, it is full of rapids, and its course is broken by falls ten to forty feet high. Except at two spots where I went down to get water, the banks are precipitous everywhere.”

So the explorers abandoned their canoes, cached the goods they couldn’t carry, and started walking across Idaho. To make foraging easier, Hunt divided the group into several smaller parties. Hunt’s contingent generally followed the north bank of the Snake, barely avoiding starvation by trading with local Indians for dogs and dried salmon.

Finally, somewhere near today’s Glenns Ferry, tribesmen advised Hunt to leave the river and head more directly north and west. That route indeed proved shorter, but they found no water. Before light rains after two days relieved their thirst somewhat “several Canadians had begun to drink their urine.”
Boise River, fall. Idaho Tourism.

The next day was November  21st, when they reached the Boise River. They traded with several Indian bands for food and a couple of horses. Hunt said, “They told us that farther upstream beaver were plentiful, though in the vicinity of our camp there were very few.”

Hunt’s party spent a few days resting and trying to puzzle out a route based on confusing advice from the Indians. Finally, they headed generally northwest and then, in the vicinity of present-day Weiser, turned north into the mountains. From there, Hunt’s party staggered through some of Idaho’s worst country, where many peaks rise to eight or nine thousand feet. Low on food, they were lashed by snows squalls mixed with rain. Finally, they were forced to turn back, returning to the Weiser area about three weeks after they had left it. Hunt said, “Ice floated on the river and the weather was extremely cold.”

Knowing they didn’t have enough supplies to last through the winter, Hunt’s party finally headed due west to where guides said they could cross the Snake River. It took them most of three days to get across using one crude raft made from horsehide. They marched away from the river on the day before Christmas, only to struggle through more mountains in eastern Oregon.

They finally reached the Columbia just under a month after they left the Snake, and were happy to reach Astoria a few weeks after that. The Astorians had learned a good deal about the beaver country west of the Rockies, but the Pacific Fur Company would not benefit from that knowledge.
References: Wilson Price Hunt, Hoyt C. Franchère (ed. and translator), Overland Diary of Wilson Price Hunt, Ashland Oregon Book Society (1973).
Washington Irving, Astoria, or Anecdotes of an enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains, G. P. Putnam and Son, New York (1868). Author’s revised edition.
James P. Ronda, Astoria and Empire, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1990).

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