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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 trail—through Jackson's Hole.

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.

Fort Astoria
Fort Astoria.

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
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 territory.

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 Alexander Ross:

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. . . .

museum exhibit
"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 their temperature.

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 West—James 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.

setting traps
Rocky Mountain men setting traps.


Colter's Hell and Jackson's Hole
©1962, Yellowsone Association
Grant Teton Natural History Association

colter/chap5.htm — 05-Mar-2004