VII. "The Fire Hole": Era of the American Fur Company, 1833-1840
By 1832 only fragments of the Yellowstone Park area
had apparently been explored, notably the Lake region. According to
Warren A. Ferris, one of the great geyser basins was visited in the
spring hunt of 1833 by a party of forty men under a Spaniard named
Alvaris (or Alvarez). They reached the area by going up Henry's Fork,
later returning to Green River for the rendezvous. This is the first
concrete evidence of white men in the Firehole Basin. The discoverer may
have been Manuel Alvarez, United States consul at Santa Fe from 1839 to
1846, who figures prominently in Josiah Gregg's journal.
The rendezvous of 1833 was held at Bonneville's fort
on Horse Creek, tributary of Green Riven, near Daniel, Wyoming. The St.
Louis supply caravan of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, led by Robert
Campbell, included young Charles Larpenteur, who wrote in his journal of
a side trip through Jackson's Hole:
The day after we reached the rendezvous Mr. Campbell,
with ten men, started to raise a beaver cache at a place called by the
French Trou a Pierre, which means Peter's Hole. As I was sick Mr.
Campbell left me in camp, and placed Mr. Fitzpatrick in charge during
his absence, telling the latter to take good care of me . . . after
seven or eight days Mr. Campbell returned with ten packs of beaver.
An epidemic of hydrophobia brought on by "mad wolves"
seems to have contributed to the early break-up of the 1833 meeting.
Campbell, Wyeth, and the partners of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company with
fifty-five packs of beaver and a strong guard circled down through South
Pass and up to the junction of the Shoshone and the Bighorn rivers,
where they embarked on bullboats for the mouth of the Yellowstone. Here
Wyeth was entertained at the palatial Fort Union by the famous Kenneth
McKenzie, and observed a powder flask which had belonged to the
unfortunate More, and which had found its way here from Jackson's Hole
by the devious channels of the fur trade.
While Bonneville outfitted an expedition under Joseph
R. Walker to explore California (and discover Yosemite Valley), the
American Fur Company brigades headed for the Snake River country. On
July 20 Warren A. Ferris and Robert Newell departed at the head of an
outfit destined for the Flathead trade. The little party consisted of
six "engages" with pack horses, and five armed Indians, amounting in all
to thirteen armed men. Their route was the usual one via Hoback Canyon
and Teton Pass. The ecstatic description of Jackson's Hole from the
summit of the pass, given by Ferris on this occasion is one which can be
appreciated by the modern tourist:
. . . Gazing down in the direction of Jackson's Hole,
from our elevated position, one of the most beautiful scenes imaginable,
was presented to our view. It seemed quite filled with large bright
clouds, resembling immense banks of snow, piled on each other in massy
numbers, of the purest white; wreathing their ample folds in various
forms and devious convolutions, and mingling in one vast embrace their
shadowy substance.Sublime creations! emblems apt of the first
glittering imaginings of human life! . . .
Turning with reluctance to things of a more
terrestrial nature we pursued our way down to Pierre's Hole, where we
fortunately discovered and killed a solitary bull. . . .
The rendezvous of 1834 was scheduled for June on
Ham's Fork of the Green near present Granger, Wyoming; and here
converged all the scattered trapper bands, with the exception of those
in the pay of Bonneville, who had his own private rendezvous on Bear
River. Drips hunted up the Snake River to Jackson's Hole, and apparently
crossed into the valley of the Green from there. Behind him came Ferris.
On his southward journey from Montana country, Ferris decided to make a
side trip from Henry's Fork to investigate strange rumors concerning the
upper Madison, a trip which resulted in the second known published
description of the Yellowstone Park wonders.
Ferris, a native of New York who later resided in
Texas, made his first western journey with the American Fur Company in
1830. Hardly a typical mountain man, he kept a journal of his travels
entitled "Life in the Rocky Mountains," which appeared serially in 1842
and 1843 in the Western Literary Messenger, an obscure weekly
published in Buffalo, New York. The piece containing an account of his
visit to the geyser region in 1834 appeared on July 13, 1842, attracted
no special attention at the time except that of the editors of the
Nauvoo, Illinois, Wasp, who ran it with out credit in their
edition of August 13, 1842. Olin D. Wheeler discovered it and
republished it in 1901. Its historical importance as the first adequate
description of the geysers by an eyewitness (and the second published
description of any portion of Yellowstone Park) was appreciated by
Chittenden, but his identity and the magnificent scope of his journal
was not fully understood until its republication with extensive
editorial notes by Dr. Paul C. Phillips in 1940. It was in May 1834,
while his brigade was traveling through Idaho country en route to the
rendezvous on Ham's Fork of the Green, that Ferris and two Indian
companions made a hurried side trip, going almost due east forty miles.
His object was to verify the rumors concerning "remarkable boiling
spring on the sources of the Madison" which he had heard at the
rendezvous of 1833. He soon realized that "the half was not told me." A
fragment of his vivid description follows:
From the surface of a rocky plain or table, burst
forth columns of water, of various dimensions, projected high in the
air, accompanied by loud explosions, and sulphurous vapors, which were
highly disagreeable to the smell. The rock from which these springs
burst forth, was calcareous, and probably extends some distance from
them, beneath the soil. The largest of these wonderful fountains,
projects a column of boiling water several feet in diameter, to the
height of more than one hundred and fifty feetin my opinion; but
the party of Alvarez, who discovered it, persist in declaring that it
could not be less than four times that distance in
heightaccompanied with a tremendous noise. These explosions and
discharges occur at intervals of about two hours.
Baling beaver hides inside stockade.
After this adventure, he returned to Henry's Fork and
thence to Pierre's Hole, crossing Teton Pass on May 24. In the Hoback
Canyon he found evidence that a party under Drips had preceded him.
Less well known than the vivid description by Ferris
but even more remarkable is his "Map of the Northwest Fur Country,"
drawn in 1836. Lying in the family trunk for over a century, unknown to
geographers and historians, it was made available in 1940 for
publication with the journals. This is, to quote Dr. Phillips, "the most
detailed and accurate of all the early maps of the region," far superior
in accuracy to the famous maps by Bonneville, Parker, John C. Fremont,
and others which were published contemporaneously. In addition to
mountain chains, valleys, and trails, it locates such fascinating
details as "Yellowstone L.," "Boiling water," and "Volcanoes" near the
south shore of the lake and "spouting fountains" within the "Burnt Hole"
at the head of Madison River, indicating the present West Thumb thermal
area and the Upper Geyser Basin on Firehole River, respectively. The
context of the journal, together with the evidence of the map, suggests
that Ferris beheld and described Old Faithful, the geyser which has
become the symbol of Yellowstone National Park.
In August of 1834 a party of fifty-five men in
Bonneville's employ led by Joseph H. Walker ascended Pacific Creek from
Jackson's Hole and after some debate "agreed to move down onto Wind
River," instead of descending the Yellowstone. Thus Walker, who had
previously discovered Yosemite Valley, and Zenas Leonard, the journalist
of the expedition, missed the big exploring opportunity which Ferris had
Section of "Map of the Northwest Fur Country." 1836. by
Warren A. Ferris. From Life in the Rocky Mountains, Old West
Publishing Company. Denver, 1940.
The quaint nomenclature bestowed on certain locales
and landmarks by the mountain trappers offer more than one clue to their
shadowy passage. The Gardner River Valley at Swan Lake Flats, between
Mammoth Hot Springs and Obsidian Cliff, seems to be the most likely
locale of the beaver-rich "Gardner's Hole" frequented by the mountain
men, probably named for Johnson Gardner, a freelance trapper who must
have frequented those parts at least as early as 1834, possibly as early
as 1830 as Chittenden suggests. His name appears in the Fort Union
account books of 1832, which include an agreement to purchase his stock
of beaver skins then cached on Yellowstone River. In 1834 he fell in
with Prince Maximilian of Wied on the Lower Missouri, revealing to that
distinguished traveler that "he was on his return from hunting beavers
on the Upper Yellowstone."
Three significant events occurred in connection with
the rendezvous of 1834. (1) En route from St. Louis, Sublette and
Campbell began the building of Fort Laramie (originally Fort William) on
the North Platte. (2) Nathaniel Wyeth, embarking on a second venture,
brought in trade goods which were not accepted, and so resorted to the
establishment of Fort Hall near the junction of the Snake and Portneuf.
The advent of these two fixed trading posts prophesied an end to the
traditional rendezvous system. Also (3), at the rendezvous the
partnership of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was dissolved, Fraeb and
Gervais selling out their interests. The remaining
partnersFitzpatrick, Bridger, and Milton Subletteformed a
new firm, but they made an agreement with Fontenelle which gave the
American Fur Company a virtual monopoly of the Rocky Mountain fur
Among those whom Nathaniel Wyeth had left at Fort
Hall in 1834 was a young man named Osborne Russell, whose subsequent
career as a trapper was hardly typical, for among his trapping
accessories were copies of Shakespeare and the Bible! Although later a
prominent pioneer of Oregon and California, his claim to fame rests on
his Journal of a Trapper, which "as a precise and intimate
firsthand account of the daily life of the trapper explorer . . . has no
equal," except that of Warren A. Ferris, who left the mountain scene
just as Russell arrived. On the 15th of June 1835 a party of fourteen
trappers and ten camp keepers was made up. Writes Russell:
Here we again fell on to Lewis' Fork, which runs in a
southerly direction through a valley about eighty miles long, there
turning to the mountains through a narrow cut in the mountain to the
mouth of Salt River, about thirty miles. This valley was called 'Jackson
Hole.' It is generally from five to fifteen miles wide. The southern
part where the river enters the mountains is hilly and uneven, but the
northern portion is wide, smooth and comparatively even, the whole being
covered with wild sage and surrounded by high and rugged mountains upon
whose summit the snow remains during the hottest months in summer. The
alluvial bottoms along the river and streams intersecting it through the
valley produced a luxuriant growth of vegetation, among which wild flax
and a species of onion were abundant. The great altitude of this place,
however, connected with the cold descending from the mountains at night,
I think would be a serious obstruction to the growth of most kinds of
cultivated grains. This valley, like all other parts of the country,
abounded with game.
After a nearly disastrous attempt to cross "Lewis
Fork" by bullboat and raft, the party discovered a ford, and then
ascended Gros Ventre Fork. The party became lost in the mountains for
several weeks, missing out on the Green River rendezvous. After
extricating themselves from the craggy wilderness of the Absarokas, the
party reached the Lamar River on East Fork of the Yellowstone, where
they encountered some woebegone Sheepeater Indians, and lost a hunter.
They apparently forded the Yellowstone at the lower end of the Grand
Canyon near the mouth of Antelope Creek, at a point just above the
spectacular Tower Falls and the Basaltic Cliffs where the river "rushes
down a chasm with a dreadful roar echoing among the mountains." From
"Gardner's Hole" the party then crossed the mountains to Gallatin and
Madison forks, where they fell in with a trapping brigade under Bridger.
Just below the Madison Canyon the combined forces were attacked by
eighty Blackfeet and narrowly escaped massacre.
The supply caravan under Fitzpatrick arrived at the
Green River rendezvous on August 12, 1835. Accompanying him were two
famous missionariesMarcus Whitman, who distinguished himself among
the trappers by extracting an Indian arrow from the back of Captain
Bridger, and Reverend Samuel Parker, who alienated them by his
overzealous moralizing. However, Parker made quite a hit with the
assembled Flatheads and was so enthusiastic over their eagerness for
Christian knowledge that it was decided that he would accompany them to
their homes, while Whitman would return to the states to recruit help
for a permanent mission in Oregon. Parker tells of his journey
August 21st, commenced our journey in company with
Capt. Bridger, who goes with about fifty men, six or eight days' journey
on our route. Instead of going down on the southwest side of Lewis'
river, we concluded to take our course northerly for the Trois Tetons,
which are three very high mountains, covered with perpetual snow,
separated from the main chain of the Rocky Mountains, and are seen at a
very great distance; and from thence to Salmon river. . . .
On the 22d . . . we . . . arrived at what is called
Jackson's Hole [Jackson's Little Hole] . . . .
Sabbath, 23d. Had an opportunity for rest and
devotional exercises. In the afternoon we had public worship with those
of the company who understood English. . .The men conducted with great
propriety, and listened with attention. . . .
Arose very early on the 24th, and commenced our way
through the narrow defile, frequently crossing and recrossing a large
stream of water [Hoback] which flows into the Snake river. . . .
. . . on the 25th, [we] encamped in a large pleasant
valley, commonly called Jackson's large hole. It is fertile and well
watered with a branch of Lewis' river coming from the southeast
[Hoback], and another of some magnitude coming from the northeast [Snake
River itself], which is the outlet of Jackson's lake, a body of water
situated just south of the Trois Tetons. . . .
We continued in this encampment three days, to give
our animals an opportunity to recruit, and for Captain Bridger to fit
and send out several of his men into the mountains to hunt and trap. . .
On the 28th, we pursued our journey and passed over a
mountain [Teton Pass] so high, that banks of snow were but a short
distance from our trail. When we had ascended two-thirds of the way, a
number of buffalo, which were pursued by our Indians, came rushing down
the side of the mountain through the midst of our company. . . .
In [Pierre's Hole] . . . I parted with Captain
Bridger and his party, who went northeast into the mountains to their
hunting ground, which the Blackfeet claim, and for which they will
According to the impious Joseph L. Meek, the sermon
on Sunday the 23rd in Jackson's Little Hole (the site of which has been
memorialized by the State of Wyoming as that of "the first Protestant
sermon in the Rocky Mountains") was not such a great success as Parker
makes out, for, "in the midst of the discourse, a band of buffalo
appeared in the valley, when the congregation broke up, without staying
for a benediction," and every man excitedly joined in the hunt.
Another who accompanied this expedition was Kit
Carson. Parker gave Carson his initial shove into immortality by
relating the story of his victory at the rendezvous oven a "great bully"
Marcus Whitman removing arrow from Jim Bridger.
. . . I will relate an occurrence which took place
near evening, as a specimen of mountain life. A hunter, who goes
technically by the name of the great bully of the mountains, mounted his
horse with a loaded rifle, and challenged any Frenchman, American,
Spaniard, or Dutchman, to fight him in single combat. Kit Carson, an
American, told him if he wished to die, he would accept the challenge.
Shunar defied him. C. mounted his horse, and with a loaded pistol,
rushed into close contact, and both almost at the same instant fired.
C's ball entered S's hand, came out at the wrist, and passed through the
arm above the elbow. Shunar's ball passed over the head of Carson; and
while he went for another pistol, Shunar begged that his life might be
spared. Such scenes, sometimes from passion, and sometimes for
amusement, make the pastime of their wild and wandering life.
Another rendezvous was held for the summer of 1836,
again on Horse Creek tributary of Green River. Fitzpatrick and
Fontenelle arrived with the supply caravan on July 3. with them were the
missionaries Marcus Whitman and H. H. Spalding, accompanied by their
wives, the first white women ever to attend a rendezvous of the mountain
men and doubtless the first to come within 100 miles of the future Grand
Teton and Yellowstone Parks. At this meeting Major Joshua Pilcher, as
agent for the American Fur Company, formally and legally took over the
interests of Bridger, Fitzpatrick, and Fontenelle, thus consolidating
the monopoly. The missionaries, accompanied by Hudson's Bay Company
agents, followed the Bear River route westward. The fur trappers were
left in the mountains with Drips, Fontenelle, and Bridger. Says Osborne
Mr. Bridger's party, as usual, was destined for the
Blackfoot country. It contained most of the American trappers and
amounted to sixty men. I started with a party of fifteen trappers and
two camp keepers, ordered by Mr. Bridger to proceed to the Yellowstone
Lake and there await his arrival with the rest of the party.
Trappers at Old Faithful.
Russell entered Jackson's Hole by way of the upper
Green and Gros Ventre rivers, followed the Snake River north to Jackson
Lake, and on August 7 started up Buffalo Fork, to reach Two Ocean Pass.
On August 13, he camped at the inlet of Yellowstone Lake, and on the
16th "Mr. Bridger came up with the remainder of the party." They
followed along the eastern shore of the lake to its outlet at present
Fishing Bridge, and camped again "in a beautiful plain which extended
along the northern extremity of the lake." Russell describes the lake as
"about 100 miles in circumference . . . lying in an oblong form south to
north, on rather in the shape of a crescent." His further description of
the boiling springs, hot steam vents, and the hollow limestone
crustation "of dazzling whiteness," apparently in Hayden Valley, ranks
him with Potts and Ferris as a pioneer journalist of the Park
Section of Father DeSmet ""map of the Indian country" of
1851, reflecting data given by Jim Bridger. From the Cartographic
Section, National Archives.
In 1837 Thomas Fitzpatrick again led the supply train
across the plains, picking up Fontenelle at Fort Laramie, and arriving
at the rendezvous on July 18. After the business of that year was
transacted, Drips returned east with Fitzpatrick's caravan, and
Fontenelle and Bridger made up a strong company of 110 men to invade the
hostile Blackfoot country. Osborne Russell and five others started off
separately "to hunt the headwaters of the Yellowstone, Missouri and
Bighorn Rivers." Going due north up Green River, they were attacked by
"sixty or seventy" Blackfeet, but managed to escape to the rendezvous.
Here they wisely decided to throw in with Fontenelle's party, as Russell
explains, "intending to keep in their company five or six days and then
branch off to our first intended route." After descending the Hoback,
Russell and three others left the main party at the ford of "Lewis Fork"
in "Jackson's Big Hole" and took the same route to Yellowstone Lake used
the preceding year, then went northeast over the mountains to gain the
In the spring of 1838 the company moved westward from
Powder River, trapping the Bighorn and other tributaries of the
Yellowstone. Russell and Meek report another fight with the Blackfeet on
the Madison, followed by a gathering of the brigade on the north fork of
the Yellowstone, near the lake. Afterward, Meek reports:
Bridger's brigade of trappers met with no other
serious interruptions on their summer's march. They proceeded to Henry's
Lake, and crossing the Rocky Mountains, traveled through the Pine Woods,
always a favorite region, to Lewis' Lake on Lewis' Fork of the Snake
River [Jackson Lake]; and finally up the Grovant Fork, recrossing the
mountains to Wind River, where the rendezvous was appointed.
Osborne Russell describes this rendezvous of
. . . [July] 4thWe encamped at the Oil Spring
on Popo-azia, and the next day we arrived at the camp. There we found
Mr. Dripps from St. Louis, with twenty horse carts loaded with supplies,
and again met Captain Stewart, likewise several missionaries with their
families on their way to the Columbia River. On the 8th Mr. F.
Ermatinger arrived with a small party from the Columbia, accompanied by
the Rev. John Lee, who was on his way to the United States. On the 20th
of July the meeting broke up and the parties again dispersed for the
The Captain Stewart referred to by Russell was an
English veteran of Waterloo, Sir William Drummond Stewart, ostensibly a
wealthy sportsman, who became a perennial visitor to the annual
conclaves of the "mountain men," beginning in 1833. He probably entered
Jackson's Hole on more than one occasion, in company with the trapper
bands, but of this there is no proof, except the following passage to be
found in Altowan, a romantic novel based on his experiences:
On the banks of a small stream, which ultimately
finds its way into the upper waters of Snake River, a rugged path, made
by the bison descending from a pass above, winds its way through the
dwarf willows and quaking asp that line its side . . . on a sudden turn
of the road round a projecting cliff, Altowan stopped to contemplate the
scene below, which, though not new to him, is one of undying wonder and
magnificence. Far over an extensive vale rise 'the three Tetons,' high
above surrounding mountains; their peaked heads shine white against the
azure sky, while other ranges succeed each other like waves beyond and
beyond, until they merge into the purple haze of the Western
By 1838, competition for beaver pelts was beginning
to exhaust the streams, and the law of diminishing returns was making
itself felt in the Rocky Mountain fur trade. Nevertheless, after the
rendezvous of that year, the field commanders of the company assembled
their trappers for an other invasion of the Jackson's Hole country.
Again Osborne Russell illuminates the scene:
I started, with about thirty trappers, up Wind River,
expecting the camp to follow in a few days. During our stay at the
rendezvous it was rumored among the men that the company intended to
bring no more supplies to the Rocky Mountains, and discontinue all
further operations. This caused a great deal of discontent among the
trappers and numbers left the party. 21stWe traveled up Wind River
about thirty miles and encamped. 22ndContinued up the river till
noon, then left it to our right, traveled over a high ridge covered with
pines, in a westerly direction about fifteen miles, and fell on to the
Grosvent Fork. Next day we traveled about twenty miles down Grosvent
Fork. 24thMyself and another crossed the mountain in a northwest
direction, fell on to a stream running into Lewis Fork, about ten miles
below Jackson's Lake. Here we staid and trapped until the 29th. Then we
started back to the Grosvent Fork, where we found the camp, consisting
of about sixty men, under the direction of Mr. Dripps with James Bridger
The next day the camp followed down the Grosvent Fork
to Jackson's Hole. In the meantime myself and comrade returned to our
traps, which we raised, and took over the mountain in a southwest
direction and overtook the camp on Lewis Fork. The whole company was
starving. Fortunately I had killed a deer in crossing the mountain,
which made supper for the whole camp. Aug. 1st We crossed Lewis
Fork and encamped and staid the next day. 3d.Camp crossed the
mountain to Pierre's Hole and the day following I started with my former
comrade to hunt beaver on the streams which ran from the Yellowstone. .
Trapper train in Teton Pass.
Russell's side trip appears to have been made cross
country from near the Cottonwood Creek tributary of the Gros Ventre over
the foothills of Mt. Leidy to Spread Creek, where he set traps, then
back along this same route to Bridger's camp on the Gros Ventre, then
back to Spread Creek, and later down the Snake River, rejoining the main
camp near the mouth of the Gros Ventre. Russell's account of the main
expedition fits in very well with the brief entry in Newell's
diary"up Wind River into Jackson's Hole, on to Pier's Hole.
Another trapper present was young Jim Baker, famous Wyoming pioneer, who
was making his first visit to the mountains.
An entry in Russell's journal indicates that a party
of trappers from Fort Hall reached Yellowstone Lake in 1838. Meek
alleges that he went alone to Gardner's Hole after the rendezvous and
later to Burnt Hole, the neighborhood of Hebgen Lake. Here he left a
joking message on a buffalo skull.
Some evidence of wintering in Jackson's Hole is given
by Robert Newell:
Capt. Drips left in December for Wind River with his
camp. Capt. Walker remained on Green River with a small party, where we
are now. Snow about one foot. January 26, 1839, buffalow scarce. I spent
last Christmas in Jackson's Hole. We spent the balance of the winter
down on Green River, over on Ham's Fork, the spring commencing to open
the first of March, 1839.
Kit Carson writes:
On the return of Spring we commenced our hunt,
trapped the tributaries of the Missouri to the head of Lewis Fork, and
then started for the rendezvous on Green River, near the mouth of Horse
Creek. . . .
In March, Meek, after wintering among the Nez Perces
on the Salmon River, and acquiring an Indian wife (apparently his
third), set out trapping again with a comrade named Allen to whom he was
They traveled along up and down the Salmon, to
Godin's River, Henry's Fork of the Snake, to Pierre's Fork, and Lewis'
Fork, and the Muddy, and finally set their traps on a little stream that
runs out of the pass which leads to Pierre's Hole.
Correlated with other data, the "pass which leads to
Pierre's Hole" sounds very much like Teton Pass. Here, according to
Victor, a horrible event occurred. Ambushed by Blackfeet, Meek managed
to escape in a thicket, but the hapless Allen was caught, shot, and then
gleefully dismembered within sight and sound of his companion. Meek is
supposed to have wriggled away during the night and, "after twenty-six
days of solitary and cautious travel," escaped to the place of
Information on the rendezvous of 1839 has survived
through the account of F. A. Wislizenus, a German doctor and political
refugee, who accompanied the St. Louis supply train in the interests of
curiosity and recreation. In addition to offering a vivid picture of
proceedings at the rendezvous, he also coments on the decline of the fur
trade in the Rocky Mountains. Wislizenus, Ermatinger of the Hudson's Bay
Company, the Munger-Griff in missionary party, and several hundred
Indians left the rendezvous for Fort Hall, going by the Bear River
route, which was soon to become a part of the Oregon Trail. As for the
trappers, it appears that some of them, yielding to fate, disbanded, but
Meek and Newell were among those who went to Fort Hall and later trapped
around Brown's Hole (a valley made by the Green River along the northern
base of the Uinta Range). Others were still attracted to Jackson's Hole,
the heart of the prime beaver country. An eminent pioneer of Montana, W.
T. Hamilton, got it from "old-timers" that:
In the year 1839 a party of forty men started on an
expedition up the Snake River. In the party were Ducharme, Louis
Anderson, Jim and John Baker, Joe Power, L'Humphrie, and others. They
passed Jackson's Lake, catching many beaver, and crossed the Continental
Divide, following down the Upper YellowstoneElkRiver to the
Free trapper under attack by Indians.
This party was attacked by the Blackfeet near the
outlet of Yellowstone Lake, suffering a loss of five men. The survivors,
while trapping the Park, witnessed "Sulphur Mountain," the Mud Volcano,
Yellowstone Falls at the head of the Canyon, and the pyrotechnic
displays of "Fire Hole Basin."
Early in 1839, Russell hunted mountain sheep and
trapped beaver along the Snake River below Jackson's Hole, returning to
Fort Hall in June. Making up a party of four for the purpose of trapping
in the Yellowstone and Wind River Mountains, he spent the Fourth of July
at the outlet of Jackson Lake, near present Moran, then followed the
Snake River northward to Lewis Lake and Shoshone Lake. The Shoshone
Geyser Basin is described by Russell in meticulous detail, including the
rhythmic "Hour Spring" which resembles present Union Geyser. From here
they crossed over to Hayden Valley via the Midway Geyser Basin, there
noting a "boiling lake" of deep indigo blue, about three hundred feet in
diameter, probably the present Grand Prismatic Spring. After an extended
camp at the outlet of Yellowstone Lake they went east to the head of
Clark's Fork, thence back to the Yellowstone at the ford near Tower
Falls, thence to Gardner's Hole and back to the lake outlet. En route
they saw disturbing evidence of "a village of 300 or 400 lodges of
Blackfeet" that had only recently been evacuated. In their camp on
Pelican Creek, just east of the present Fishing Bridge campground, they
were suddenly assailed by a horde of "70 or 80" Blackfeet "who rent the
air with their horrid yells" and inflicted severe arrow wounds on
Russell and one other. They fought off the Indians with their rifles,
but suffered great pain and hardship in making their way back to Fort
Hall via West Thumb, Snake River, Berry Creek and Conant Pass at the
north end of the Teton Range. This was Russell's final sorrowful exit
Two slim and shaky clues to other Yellowstone
expeditions in the late 1830's are available. In his journal of 1889,
while sojourning in the Utah country, apprentice trapper E. Willard
Smith reports: "The country around the head waters of the Yellowstone, a
tributary of the Missouri, abounds in natural curiosities. There are
volcanoes, volcanic productions and carbonated springs. Mr. Vasquez told
me that he went to the top of one of these volcanoes, the crater of
which was filled with pure water, forming quite a large lake." In his
Life in the Far West (1849), a fictionalized account of the
mountain men, with whom he had personally consorted in 1846, Lieutenant
Ruxton tells how, on one occasion, Old Bill Williams, "tough as the
parfleche soles of his moccasins," led seven of his hardy associates
into a little-known region, beckoned thence by "a lofty peak" which fits
the description of the Grand Tetons, entering "the valley lying about
the lakes now called Eustis and Biddle, in which are many thermal and
mineral springs, well known to the trappers by the name of Soda, Beer,
and Brimstone Springs, and regarded by them with no little awe and
curiosity, as being the breathing places of his Satanic majesty."
Skinning beaver in Jackson's Hole.
The year 1840 can be said to mark the formal demise
of the Rocky Mountain fur trade, for in that year was held the fifteenth
and last of these great conclaves of the wilderness, the trapper's
rendezvous on Horse Creek of the Green River. It also marks the end of
an epoch in the history of Jackson's Hole. The main chronicler of this
fateful year was the Belgian, Pierre-Jean De Smet, a Jesuit priest who
accompanied the American Fur Company's last expedition to the mountains
so that he might survey the prospects for a Catholic mission among the
Flathead Indians. This was the beginning of a series of epic pilgrimages
to the Far West which were to make him one of the dominant figures in
American frontier history. Andrew Drips headed the supply train. Also
present were several Protestant missionaries and "the first avowed
Oregon emigrant," Joel P. Walker, and his wife and five children. On
April 30, the caravan left Westport, Missouri, and, after two months of
traveling over the Great Plains in the midst of vast buffalo herds, it
reached its destination. Writes father De Smet:
On the 30th [June] I came to the rendezvous, where a
band of Flatheads, who had been notified of my coming, were already
waiting for me. . . . On the 4th of July, I resumed my travels, with my
Flatheads; ten brave Canadians also chose to accompany me. . . .
Three days we ascended Green river, and one the 8th
we crossed it, heading for an elevated plain which separates the waters
of the Colorado from those of the Columbia. On leaving this plain, we
descended several thousand feet by a trail and arrived in Jackson's Hole
[Jackson's Little Hole] . . . . Thence we passed into a narrow and
extremely dangerous defile, which was at the same time picturesque and
sublime. . . .
On the 10th, after crossing the lofty mountain, we
arrived upon the banks of Henry's Fork [Snake River], one of the
principal tributaries of Snake [Columbia] river. The mass of snow melted
during the July heat had swollen this torrent to a prodigious height.
Its roaring waters rushed furiously down and whitened with their foam
the great blocks of granite which vainly disputed the passage with them.
The sight intimidated neither our Indians nor our Canadians; accustomed
to perils of this sort, they rushed into the torrent on horseback and
swam it. I dared not venture to do likewise. To get me over, they made a
kind of sack of my skin tent; then they put all my things in and set me
on top of it. The three Flatheads who had jumped in to guide my frail
bark by swimming, told me, laughing, not to be afraid, that I was on an
excellent boat. And in fact this machine floated on the water like a
majestic swan; and in less than ten minutes I found myself on the other
bank, where we encamped for the night.
The next day we had another high mountain to climb
[Teton Pass] through a thick pine forest, and at the top we found snow,
which had fallen in the night to the depth of two feet.
Joe Meek relates that,
about the last of June . . . he started for the old
rendezvous places of the American Companies, hoping to find some
divisions of them at least, on the familiar camping ground. But his
journey was in vain. Neither on Green River or Wind River, where for ten
years he had been accustomed to meet the leaders and their men, his old
comrades in danger, did he find a wandering brigade even. The glory of
the American companies was departed, and he found himself solitary among
his long familiar haunts.
However, this sad story does not fit in with De
Smet's account nor with the testimony of Meek's own good friend, Robert
Newell, who in June 1840 also left Fort Hall for the rendezvous:
Mr. Ermatinger arrived 13th of June. I went to the
American rendezvous, Mr. Drips, Freab and Bridger from St. Louis with
goods, but times were certainly hard, no beever, and everything dull.
Some missionaries came along with them for the Columbia, Messrs. Clark,
Smith, Littlejohn. I engaged to pilot them over the mountains, with
their wagons and such used in crossing, to Fort Hall. There I bought
their wagons. . . .
Unless Meek's memory was at fault, the discrepancy
can only be explained on the assumption that Meek, approaching Green
River by way of Jackson's Hole, simply did not look hard enough. Be that
as it may, Meek avers that after his disappointed return to Fort
he set out on what proved to be his last trapping
expedition, with a Frenchman, named Mattileau. They visited the old
trapping grounds on Pierre's Fork, Lewis' Lake, Jackson's [Hoback]
River, Jackson's Hole, Lewis River and Salt River: but beaver were
scarce; and it was with a feeling of relief that, on returning by way of
Bear River, Meek heard from a Frenchman whom he met there, that he was
wanted at Fort Hall, by his friend Newell, who had something to propose
What Newell had to propose to Meek was something
revolutionary. On one of Newell's wagons Meek loaded his traps and his
Indian family, and together they performed the historic feat of taking
the first wagons through to the Columbia River. Their departure best
symbolizes the death of the Rocky Mountain fur trade and the birth of
the Oregon Trail. After Meek's visit in 1840, Jackson's Hole relapsed
into virgin solitude. For twenty years thereafter there is little
positive evidence of white men in this valley. It was forty-five years
before the arrival of the first permanent settler. For over a hundred
years the historic importance of Jackson's Hole as the continental
crossroads of the Western fur trade has been all but forgotten.
Section of Map accompanying Report on the Exploration of the
Yellowstone River, River, by Bvt. Brig. Gen. W. F. Raynolds.
Washington. 1868. Errors and omissions reflect failure of the Raynolds
expedition to reach the Yellowstone Park area in 1860.