V. "Les Trois Tetons": The Golden Age of Discovery, 1810-1824
In the spring of 1810, after Colter had departed, the
Missouri Fur Company fort at Three Forks was so besieged by the
Blackfeet that Andrew Henry was forced to flee with his trappers
southwestward. They crossed the Continental Divide to the north fork of
Snake River, since known as Henry's Fork. A few log shelters built here
near present St. Anthony, Idaho, called "Henry's Fort," became the first
American establishment on the Pacific slope. During the rigorous winter
of 1810-1811 it may be reasoned that these men explored the country
within a wide radius of the Teton Mountains. Any belief that they
touched Yellowstone Park must be conjectural, but that they were
acquainted with Jackson's Hole is quite evident from the testimony of
the Astorians. In the spring of 1811 the starving company disbanded.
Henry and others returned down the Missouri via Three Forks, while John
Hoback, John Robinson and Jacob Reznor went eastward via Teton Pass,
Jackson's Hole, Twogwotee Pass, and overland to the Arikara villages on
the Missouri, where they shaped a dugout and proceeded downstream.
In 1808 John Jacob Astor secured a charter from the
state of New York creating the American Fur Company. The most ambitious
of his schemes was the establishment of a trading post at the mouth of
the Columbia River, to exploit the wealth of the Northwestern
wilderness. To promote this enterprise, Astor organized the subsidiary
Pacific Fur Company and sent out two expeditions, one of which went by
sea around Cape Horn, while the other was to proceed overland along the
route of Lewis and Clark. The overland Astorians achieved fame as the
first transcontinental expedition after Lewis and Clark, but fate
decreed that they should blaze their own trailthrough Jackson's
Early in 1811 the overland party, under the command
of Wilson Price Hunt of New Jersey, left St. Louis and sailed by
keelboat up the Missouri River. On May 26, near the mouth of the
Niobrara River, they met Hoback, Robinson, and Reznor. This trio was
persuaded to join the outfit as guides and hunters, and it appears that
it was their reports of hostile Indians on the Upper Missouri that
prompted Hunt to abandon his boats on July 18 at the Arikara villages
and proceed on dry land. From this point on the expedition consisted of
82 horses, 62 men, and the squaw and two children belonging to the
interpreter Pierre Dorion.
The hopeful caravan retraced the route that Hoback
and his companions had followed across the trackless plains and the
Bighorn Mountains, then started up Wind River. Here, on September 14,
according to Irving's Astoria, the guides
assured Mr. Hunt that, by following up Wind River,
and crossing a single mountain ridge, he would come upon the headwaters
of the Columbia. The scarcity of game, however, which already had been
felt to a pinching degree, and which threatened them with famine among
the sterile heights which lay before them, admonished them to change
their course. It was determined, therefore, to make for a stream [Green
River] which, they were informed, passed the neighboring mountains to
the south of west, on the grassy banks of which it was probable they
would meet with buffalo. Accordingly about three o'clock on the
following day, meeting with a beaten Indian road which led in the proper
direction, they struck into it, turning their backs upon Wind River.
In the course of the day they came to a height that
commanded an almost boundless prospect. Here one of the guides paused,
and, after considering the vast landscape attentively, pointed to three
mountain peaks glistening with snow [the Tetons], which rose, he said,
above a fork of Columbia River. They were hailed by the travellers with
that joy with which a beacon on a sea-shore is hailed by mariners after
a long and dangerous voyage. . . .
After a buffalo hunt on the "Spanish" or Green River,
the Astorians crossed the dividing ridge to the head of the Hoback River
(presumably then named in honor of their guide), which they followed
into Jackson's Hole.
The Hunt cavalcade paused at the confluence of the
Hoback and the Snake rivers, and debated. "Should they abandon their
horses, cast themselves loose in fragile banks upon this wild, doubtful,
and unknown river; or should they continue their more toilsome and
tedious, but perhaps more certain wayfaring by land?" After some
tentative exploring of the Snake River Canyon, and upon the advice of
the three hunters, they wisely decided in favor of the latter course.
They forded the Snake, and on October 5 as they crossed "the mountain
[Teton Pass] . . . by an easy and well-beaten trail, snow whitened the
summit . . ." On the 8th they arrived at Andrew Henry's abandoned post.
Here Hoback, Robinson, Reznor, and two others left the party on a
separate exploring trip; and here it was that Hunt yielded to the
demands of his followers, which he previously had resisted, and
abandoned his horses in favor of passage by canoe flotilla down the
Snake, a tragic mistake which brought great suffering to the Astorians
before they reached their goal.
While the main body passed on, four men remained in
Jackson's Hole to "catch beaver." This was the first known actual
trapping of that area. Even more important, it was the first actual step
in the great commercial project of Astoria. Irving recognized the
significance of this move:
[The expedition] had now arrived at the headwaters of
the Columbia, which were among the main points embraced by the
enterprise of Mr. Astor. These upper streams were reputed to abound in
beaver, and had as yet been unmolested by the white trapper. The
numerous signs of beaver met with during the recent search for timber
gave evidence that the neighborhood was a good 'trapping ground.' Here
then it was proper to begin to cast loose those leashes of hardy
trappers, that are detached from trading parties, in the very heart of
the wilderness. The men detached in the present instance were Alexander
Carson, Louis St. Michel, Pierre Detaye, and Pierre Delaunay.
Snake River crossing. Photo by Author.
These men were instructed to "trap upon the upper
part of Mad (Snake) River, and upon the neighboring streams." Whether
they entered Yellowstone Park at this time is entirely conjectural. In
the spring of 1812 they were attacked by Crow Indians near the Three
Forks, and Detaye was killed.
On June 29, 1812, seven men led by Robert Stuart left
Astoria carrying dispatches overland to Astor. The party arrived at St.
Louis on April 30, 1813. They were the first organized transcontinental
expedition eastbound after the return of Lewis and Clark, and the first
to discover South Pass and the great Platte on Central route which was
destined to become the main highway of the covered-wagon migrations.
This journey again took them through Jackson's Hole.
Stuart had gone out to Astoria by sea, but his fellow
travelers had all been members of the Hunt expedition. These were John
Day, Benjamin Jones, Francois Lecllerc, Andre Valle, Ramsay Crooks, and
Robert McClellan. Soon after setting out up the Columbia River John Day
became violently deranged because of his sufferings from the previous
winter and had to be sent back to Astoria. To the six remaining
travelers, however, was eventually added Joseph Miller, who had been
with Hoback, Robinson, and Reznor after they left Hunt in October 1811.
The Stuart party reached Bear River intending to go due east; but there
Crow Indians got on their trail. To elude them Stuart went north to the
Snake and thus struck Hunt's route of the preceding year. At Snake or
"Mad River" near the present Idaho-Wyoming boundary, Crows stampeded
their horses. They built a raft and descended the Snake for over a
hundred miles, then crossed over the Snake River Range to Pierre's Hole
at the foot of the "Pilot Knobs," where they reached familiar
Here, in order to avoid a chance encounter with a
Blackfoot war party, Stuart kept to the foothills, but the cantankerous
McClellan, complaining of sore feet, refused to detour and went his own
way. He was not to be seen again for thirteen days. Crooks, who had been
ailing for some time, fell desperately ill, and despite recourse to
castor oil and "an Indian sweat," tied up the expedition in Pierre's
Hole for four days. On October 5 they set out again and on the 7th
crossed "the summit of Pilot Knob Mountain [Teton Pass]" and reached the
east bank of "Mad River." Their stock of venison was by this time
depleted. On the 9th they started up the precipitous Hoback Canyon and
on the 12th reached Green River drainage, where they found McClellan.
Warding off starvation by slaughtering an "old rundown buffalo bull,"
the travelers journeyed from here to South Pass and down the Platte,
wintering in the vicinity of Scotts Bluff.
For a few years after Stuart's party disappeared up
Hoback Canyon, the Tetons and Jackson's Hole were left in solitude. Due
to the hostility of the Blackfeet, the loss of Astoria in the War of
1812, and the indifference of the Federal Government, American interest
in the Western Fur trade suffered a relapse. British interests now took
the initiative. In 1816 the Northwest Company, licensed by the Crown to
trade in Oregon, put Donald McKenzie in charge of the Snake River
division. From Fort Nez Perce at the mouth of the Walla Walla, he set
forth in September of 1818 at the head of an expedition "composed of
fifty-five men, of all denominations, 195 horses and 300 beaver traps,
besides a considerable stock of merchandise." He reported his course to
From this place [the "Skamnaugh" or Boise] we
advanced, suffering occasionally from alarms for twenty-five days, and
then found ourselves in a rich field of beaver, in the country lying
between the great south branch and the Spanish waters [Bear River?]. . .
. I left my people at the end of four months. Then taking a circuitous
route along the foot of the Rocky Mountains, a country extremely dreary
during a winter voyage, I reached the headwater of the great south
branch regretting every step I made that we had been so long deprived of
the riches of such a country. . . .
"The British Threat"Exhibit in Fur Trade Museum,
Grand Teton National Park.
In a description of the Snake River country,
presumably furnished him by McKenzie, Ross continues:
The Rocky Mountains skirting this
country on the East, dwindle from stupendous heights into sloping
ridges, which divide the country into a thousand luxurious vales,
watered by streams which abound in fish. The most remarkable heights in
any part of the great backbone of America are three elevated insular
mountains, or peaks, which are seen at the distance of one hundred and
fifty miles: the hunters very aptly designate them the Pilot Knobs they
are now generally known as the Three Paps or 'Tetons'; and the source of
the Great Snake River is in their neighborhood. . ."
Boiling fountains, having different degrees of
temperatures, were very numerous; one or two were so very hot as to boil
meat. In other parts, among the rocks, hot and cold springs might
alternately be seen within a hundred yards of each other, differing in
McKenzie's exact route can only be conjectural, but
the context suggests passage through Jackson's Hole into a corner, at
least, of Yellowstone Park. It was apparently on this occasion that the
"Trois Tetons" and "Pierre's Hole" were given their names by Iroquois or
French-Canadians who accompanied McKenzie.
Chittenden reports the discovery in 1880 by Colonel
P. W. Norris of a tree near the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone with the
inscription "JOR Aug 19 1819." Although of course the initials prove
nothing as to identity, Chittenden accepts this as proof of white men in
the Park at that time.
Stimulated by McKenzie's success in acquiring
peltries, the Northwest Company followed up with other Snake River
expeditions. The threat of British domination of Oregon was aggravated
when, in 1821, the Northwest Company was absorbed by the powerful
Hudson's Bay Company.
Shortly after the consolidation of the British
companies, the prospects for a revival of American interest in the
mountain fur trade were awakened in the frontier town of St. Louis by
the formation of a partnership that would evolve into the Rocky Mountain
Fur Company. In 1822 General William H. Ashley and the veteran Major
Andrew Henry enlisted the aid of "one hundred young men to ascend the
Missouri River to its source" on a trapping expedition. Among those who
joined the enterprise, then on subsequently, were men destined to make
history in the WestJames Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Jedediah
Smith, William Sublette and David E. Jackson. They were green
boys,hardly fit material for an epic invasion of the unchartered Rocky
Mountains; yet they were destined to become continental explorers.
Henry took his young men in keelboats up the Missouri
to the mouth of the Yellowstone, where they spent the winter. In the
spring of 1823 he set out for the Blackfoot country to the west. Again,
as in 1810, these Indians proved to be most inhospitable, scalping four
of his recruits and driving him back to his fort. Meanwhile General
Ashley organized another expedition and proceeded upriver without
incident until he arrived at the villages of the Arikara. There his
plans were upset by a treacherous attack in which thirteen of his men
were killed and many others were wounded. Colonel Leavenworth hastened
to the rescue but his campaign against the Indians was something of a
fiasco. Soon afterward Ashley returned to St. Louis, Henry returned to
his post on the Yellowstone, and a third contingent started overland
under the command of Jedediah Smith. In February 1824 this last group
made the first crossing of South Pass from east to west, their discovery
of rich beaver fields in Green River Basin opening a new era in fur
trade history. In June they split into four parties. Fitzpatrick,
heading east for Fort Atkinson to report the situation to Ashley,
rediscovered the Platte route of the returning Astorians; Sublette,
Bridger, and others went southwest to explore the Bear River country and
lay claim to the discovery of Great Salt Lake; and Smith, with six
unidentified companions, went north. The details of their course are
given in Washington Hood's Original draft of a report of a
practicable route for wheeled vehicles across the mountains, written
at Independence, August 12, 1839.
After striking the Colorado, or Green river, make up
the stream toward its headwaters, as far as Horse creek, one of its
tributaries, follow out this last mentioned stream to its source by a
westerly course, across the main ridge in order to attain Jackson's
Little Hole, at the headwaters of Jackson's fork [Hoback River]. Follow
down Jackson's fork to its mouth and decline to the northward along
Lewis's fork [Snake River], passing through Jackson's Big Hole to about
twelve miles beyond the Yellowstone pass [sic], crossing on the route a
nameless beaver stream. Here the route passes due west over another
prong of the ridge [Conant Pass], a fraction worse than the former,
followed until it has attained the headwaters of Pierre's Hole, crossing
the Big Teton, the battleground of the Blacksmith's fork; ford Pierre's
fork eastward of the butte at its mouth and Lewis fork also, thence pass
to the mouth of Lewis fork.
Subsequently the Smith party encountered a Hudson's
Bay Company brigade under Alexander Ross, giving first notice that
Americans would actively contest British claims to Oregon. This
expedition to the Jackson's Hole country was also significant as the
first in an amazing series which has established Jedediah Smith as
perhaps the foremost explorer of Western America.
We have noted the visit of McKenzie's brigade of
British Canadians to the Upper Snake and a region of boiling fountains,
in 1818-1819, as reported by Ross. Now, in 1824, Ross himself conducted
the second British invasion of Yellowstone Park, while crossing from
Okanagon to the headwaters of the Missouri. In the foolscap folios which
make up his official report, the entry for April 24 reads: "We crossed
beyond the Boiling Fountains. The snow is knee-deep half the people are
snow-blind from sun glare." So British traders have supplied the first
clear record of Yellowstone thermal wonders to follow the hazy notations
along Colter's route on The Clark Map of 1810.
Rocky Mountain men setting traps.