The Fur Trappers
Trappers knew the Three Tetons and Jackson Hole well by the time Osborne Russell bivouacked at the outlet of Jackson Lake in 1836.  For a decade, mountain men had traversed the high passes into this valley. Almost 30 years had passed since John Colter set out on foot in 1807 from Fort Manuel, a fur-trading post at the junction of the Bighorn and Yellowstone Rivers, to become perhaps the first white person to enter Jackson Hole. The "Astorians "traveled through in 1811 and 1812. Unlike Colter, there is no doubt that Wilson Price Hunt and Robert Stuart led the Astorians through the valley, locating overland trails from St. Louis to the Columbia River. The Astorians, representatives of John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, had ventured west to locate a trading post on the Columbia, just one step in Astor's grandiose dream to establish a fur trade empire from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Coast. The War of 1812 thwarted Astor's scheme, his partners at Astoria sold the post to Britain's North West Company before a British warship could take it. For the next ten years, the British went unchallenged in the Pacific Northwest, until Jedediah Smith, the great American explorer, turned up at Flathead Post on the Salmon River in 1824. As part of that same journey. Jed Smith had crossed South Pass from the east, leading American trappers to the rich trapping grounds that lay beyond the Continental Divide. For the next five years, an American companythe Rocky Mountain Fur Companydominated the fur trade in the West, trapping fine beaver country at the headwaters of several great river systems.
There were four general centers of exploitation in the western fur trade: the British Northwest headquartered on the Columbia River, the Southwest centered at Taos and Santa Fe, the upper Missouri River and, finally, the South Pass area. Beneath the Tetons, trails intersected in Jackson Hole. Mountain men crossed significant passes en route to trapping grounds at the headwaters of the Green, Snake, Yellowstone, Three Forks of the Missouri, and Wind Riversall located within 100 air miles of Jackson Hole and the Teton Range. Thus, the Tetons were a major landmark for trappers, and the valley became the crossroads of the fur trade in the northern Rockies. 
The fur trappers frontier spanned four decades in the Trans-Mississippi West, beginning with the explorations of Lewis and Clark in 1804-1806 and ending with the last rendezvous held in 1840. The fur trade was intimately tied to European exploration and expansion in North America. The rise of the fur trade coincided with the rise of capitalism and nation-states in Europe.  Furs have been a valuable commodity for much of recorded history, being practical garments in the temperate climate of Europe. During the Middle Ages, fur clothing represented high fashion and high social status. Excessive trapping and hunting of fur-bearing animals in Western Europe led to serious shortages by the 1400s. Extremely high prices resulted, making fur garments available only to the rich. European merchants sought other sources to meet the demand, and a significant trade developed with Russia and eastern European countries. When Europeans began probing the coast of North America seeking a sea route to Asia, they initially failed to recognize its potential as a source of furs.  But, within ten years after Christopher Columbus's first voyage to the New World in 1492, Europeans began to appreciate North America's fur-bearing resources.
The first European fur traders in the New World were Spanish and Portuguese fishermen. They often traded with the Indians they encountered, exchanging manufactured trinkets for furs. Following Spain and Portugal, France and England explored the North American coast, seeking a Northwest Passage as well as gold and silver. In 1534, the French explorer Jacques Cartier traded with the Micmac Indians in what is now Canada, exchanging ironware for furs. After 1598, the fur trade expanded rapidly in North America. Colonization coincided with this development, serving as the vanguard of European expansion. Through trade with Indians and the establishment of trading posts in remote territory, the French and British competed for an empire. Imperial rivalry caused a series of wars that resulted in the expulsion of the French from Canada.  By the late eighteenth century, the British Hudson's Bay Company and North West Company had expanded as far west as the Mandan villages on the Missouri River.
Spain claimed the Louisiana Territory in the eighteenth century, although its hold was tenuous at best. Alarmed at the appearance of British traders on the Missouri River, Spain tried to use its fur trade to consolidate its hold on this vast territory. Spanish authorities offered the equivalent of $3,000 to the first trader to reach the Pacific coast. No one succeeded. However, Spain did establish trade with Indians on the central Missouri in the 1790s from the small town of St. Louis, which became the principal outfitting center for the western fur trade. From St. Louis, trappers and traders traveled three major routes: the Missouri River, the Platte River to South Pass (the Oregon Trail), and the Santa Fe Trail. 
After France acquired the Louisiana territory from Spain, Napoleon Bonaparte sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803. President Thomas Jefferson selected Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead an expedition up the Missouri River to the Pacific coast to explore these newly purchased lands and to locate a water route, if possible. The expedition, which departed from St. Louis in 1804, succeeded in spectacular fashion. Lewis and Clark returned to St. Louis in 1806, reporting a country rich in beaver, friendly Indians, and a transportation route up the Missouri River. This news generated a small stampede in 1807, as entrepreneurs prepared outfits to ascend the Missouri River. A trader named Manuel Lisa led the way. 
Leading a party of 42 trappers and voyagers, Lisa and his brigade manhandled a keelboat up the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. Lisa constructed a fort where the Bighorn River flows into the Yellowstone. For the next year, Lisa directed trapping and trading operations from Fort Manuel before returning to St. Louis with a fortune in furs and new wisdom. He concluded that only large trading companies could operate efficiently and profitably. Soliciting a group of St. Louis merchants, Lisa formed the Missouri Fur Company in 1809, the first of the large American fur trading companies to work the upper Missouri. 
While traveling up the Missouri in 1807, Lisa met John Colter, a veteran of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Colter was the prototypical mountain man. An experienced frontiersman, he honed his skills with the Lewis and Clark expedition. Both officers considered him a reliable man.  Colter had been discharged at the Mandan villages in 1806 at his request, after two trappers named Hancock and Dixon persuaded him to return to the Rockies. Hancock, Dixon, and Colter spent the next year trapping the Yellowstone River, perhaps wintering on Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone. Colter broke up the partnership and was canoeing down the Missouri in 1807 when he met Manuel Lisa. Again, the mountains beckoned, and for the next three years Colter worked for Lisa's Missouri Fur Company. 
In the winter of 1807-1808, Lisa persuaded Colter to travel west to locate bands of Crow Indians and inform them of the trading post at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Bighorn Rivers. Colter completed a 500-mile trek in the middle of the winter of 1807-1808, possibly traveling through Jackson Hole. Henry Brackenridge left the only contemporary account, based on information obtained from Manuel Lisa. "He shortly after dispatched Coulter [sic], the hunter before mentioned, to bring some of the Indian nations to trade. This man, with a pack of thirty pounds weight, his gun and some ammunition, went upwards of 500 miles to the Crow nation; gave them information and proceeded from them to several other tribes."  Colter must have used snowshoes to make this journey in the winter, but there is no evidence to verify this conclusion. Some believe a Crow Indian accompanied him as a guide but, again, this is conjecture.
In 1810, William Clark produced a map of his route across the West. The map was published in 1814 in Paul Allen's History of the Expedition Under the Command of Lewis and Clark. A circular track appears on the map bearing the legend "Colters Route in 1807." The map shows Colter cutting a circular route around Lake Biddle, generally accepted as Jackson Lake, and Lake Eustis, widely believed to be Yellowstone Lake. Colter apparently met with Clark when he returned to St. Louis and gave information regarding his trip. It is not known whether Colter described the route or drew a rough map for Clark. (No journal or map by Colter is known to exist.) In any event, Clark's map provides the primary evidence that John Colter was the first white to enter Jackson Hole, Teton Basin (Pierre's Hole), and Yellowstone. But the map's topographical inaccuracies and imprecise scale make it impossible to determine Colter's route with absolute certainty. 
Other evidence helps establish Colter's route. The Missouri Historical Society possesses a manuscript map drawn by William Clark in 1808. Another Lewis and Clark veteran, George Drouillard, provided information for this map, which shows that Colter definitely reached the boiling springs at present-day Cody. Wyoming. No longer active, these geothermal features were the original Colter's Hell, rather than Yellowstone.  Yale University also possesses another map attributed to Clark that documents Colter's route. This manuscript map shows Colter crossing Teton Pass. The map also documents Wilson Price Hunt's Astorians route in 1810-1811, who exited Jackson Hole via Teton Pass. 
Artifacts provide other evidence. In 1931, William Beard and his son discovered a curious block of stone while clearing scrub timber from their land, five and one-half miles east of Tetonia, Idaho. The stonea block of rhyolite lava 13-inches-high, eight-inches-wide, and four-inches-thickwas clearly carved into a crude face. One side bears the inscription "John Colter," the other "1808." Beard placed the stone on his porch, where it remained for two years. When neighbor A. C. Lyon learned of the stone, he traded a used pair of boots for it. In turn, Lyon donated it to Grand Teton National Park in 1934. Geologist Fritiof Fryxell, the park's first naturalist, concluded that the inscriptions had been exposed to weathering consistent with the 1808 date. Further inquiries also established that the Beards were not familiar with John Colter. Thus, Fryxell ruled out a hoax by the Beard family. 
Yet doubts about the authenticity of the Colter Stone persist today. In recent years, writer W. C. Lawrence has alleged that A. C. Lyon planted the stone to curry favor with the National Park Service in order to secure the horse concession at Jenny Lake.  But this is an unlikely motive because Lyon acquired that concession in 1929, and the stone was discovered in 1931. (Lyon lost the concession for poor service in 1937.)  If the stone is not authentic, the more likely culprits were pranksters with the Hayden Surveys. The Colter Stone is one of six such stones found within a 25-mile radius in Teton basin. Two are obvious frauds; both bear the legend "Clark1805," although Lewis and Clark did not pass through this area. Other stones were found at the possible site of Henry's Fort. The inscription reads, "GOD CAMP 1818 H.WELLS," "AL THE COOK BUT NOTHING TO COOK," and "FORT HENRY 1811 BY CAP HUNT." A retired Episcopal minister, J. Neilson Barry, studied this puzzle for years and concluded that "campfire doodlers" with the Hayden Surveys carved the inscription in 1877. Thus, rather than put it to rest, the Colter Stone fueled the controversy over John Colter's route. 
Another inscription was found on a tree on Coulter Creek in northern Teton Basin in the 1880s. The initials "JC" were carved under a large "X." Western writer Philip Ashton Rollins and two guides examined the carvings, and concluded they were about 80 years old. Around 1890, Yellowstone National Park employees cut the tree down and salvaged the portion bearing the initials. The log was to be placed in the park museum, but disappeared. Historian Aubrey Haines, who noted that there was no park museum in 1890, offered the theory that the lost inscriptions were for John Merle Coulter, a botanist with the Hayden Surveys and for whom Coulter Creek is named.  Haines also identified one place in Yellowstone where Colter with "reasonable assurance" passed through. This is where the Bannock Trail crosses the Yellowstone River. The Clark Map shows Colter's crossing with a note "Hot Spring Brimestone," where there are clear geothermal features such as tepid springs and fumaroles today. It is the only such crossing for miles in either direction. 
Even though the evidence remains inconclusive, the consensus of most historians is that John Colter did pass through Jackson Hole. Stallo Vinton, Colter's first biographer, believed Colter crossed Union Pass, then made his way into Jackson Hole via the Gros Ventre River. According to Vinton, Colter left Jackson Hole via Teton Pass, traveled north through Pierre's Hole, returned to the northern end of Jackson Hole via Conant Pass, and moved on to Yellowstone. Another theory is that Colter entered the valley and simply traveled north along the eastern shore of Jackson Lake. By contrast, J. Neilson Barry concluded that Colter crossed Two Ocean Pass and traveled northwest into Yellowstone, bypassing Jackson Hole. However, Colter's latest biographer, Burton Harris, believed Colter crossed Togwotee Pass into Jackson Hole, traveled south, and left via Teton Pass. Harris also theorized that Colter may have carved the Colter Stone while holing up to avoid unfriendly Indians, then fled south back across Teton Pass, and then traveled north past Jackson Lake into Yellowstone. David Saylor believed Colter took the Togwotee Pass, Jackson Hole, Teton Pass, Pierre's Hole, Conant Pass route. Aubrey Haines, in his biographical sketch of Colter, concluded that his route beyond Cody, Wyoming, is debatable, and questioned the authenticity of the Colter Stone.  Colter's exact route will probably never be determined. Did he enter Jackson Hole and Teton Basin? It remains an intriguing story, but one that will hardly alter the course of American history. John Colter left the West for good in 1810, moving near the present town of Dundee, Missouri. There, he settled down and married. He died of jaundice in 1812. 
Whether or not John Colter reached Jackson Hole, other trappers working for the Missouri Fur Company explored and trapped in Jackson Hole. In 1810, Andrew Henry, a partner in the company, led an expedition from Fort Manuel to the Three Forks of the Missouri River, the heart of Blackfeet and Gros Ventre territory. This formidable confederacy drove Henry's brigade out of this beaver-rich land into Pierre's Hole. The trappers retreated to the Henry's Fork of the Snake River, where they established a fort. From Henry's Fort, the rivers and streams of Jackson Hole were trapped for the first time in 1810-811.  In 1811, Henry disbanded the starving company, after a miserable winter at the first American post west of the Continental Divide. Three trappers, John Hoback, Edward Robinson, and Jacob Reznor headed east, crossing Teton Pass into Jackson Hole and exiting the valley via Togwotee Pass.  On the Missouri River, the veteran trappers met Wilson Price Hunt's brigade of Astorians bound for the Pacific Coast.
Hunt represented John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, formed in 1806. Astor planned to establish a chain of forts from the Great Lakes to the mouth of the Columbia River. All furs would be shipped to the headquarters post on the Columbia and thence to the Orient. Astor not only hoped to realize large profits, but sought to drive the rival British Hudson's Bay Company and North West Company from the Pacific Northwest. He envisioned a worldwide commercial empire from St. Louis through the northern Rockies, to the mouth of the Columbia, and across the Pacific to China. In 1810, a group of Astor's traders began a journey by sea through the straits of Magellan to the mouth of the Columbia. There, in 1811, they began the construction of Astoria.
Wilson Price Hunt was one of the "Overland Astorians" who were traveling by land from St. Louis to meet up with their fellow trappers at Astoria. Upon meeting up with Hoback, Robinson, and Reznor, Hunt was impressed with their experience and persuaded them to serve as guides and hunters. Because of reports of hostile Indians on the upper Missouri, Hunt abandoned the river and traveled overland. Hoback and his partners led Hunt's party up the Wind River Valley and over Union Pass in September 1811. "The hunters who served as guides to the party in this part of their route assured Mr. Hunt that, by following up the Wind River, and crossing a single mountain ridge, he would come upon the headwaters of the Columbia." From Union Pass, the Astorians saw the Teton Range for the first time. "Here one of the guides paused, and, after considering the vast landscape attentively, pointed to three mountain peaks glistening with snow, which rose, he said above a fork of the Columbia river. They were hailed by travelers with that joy which a beacon on a seashore is hailed by mariners after a long and dangerous voyage." This is the first reference to the Tetons as the celebrated landmark of fur trappers. Washington Irving noted that by the 1830s these peaks were known as the Tetons, but "as they had been guiding points for many days to Mr. Hunt, he gave them the name of Pilot Knobs." 
The Astorians descended Union Pass to the upper waters of the Green River, then traveled to "a stream about 50 feet in width, which, Hoback, one of their guides, who had trapped about the neighborhood when in the service of Mr. Henry, recognized for one of the headwaters of the Columbia." This was Hoback River. Irving's description of the trail down the Hoback Canyon to the Snake River is unmistakable, it "meandered among rocks and precipices," forcing several dangerous river crossings. "Sometimes the banks advanced so close upon the river, that they were obliged to scramble up and down their tugged promontories, or to skirt along their bases where there was scarce a foothold."  Horses scrambled on the slopes, lost their footing, and sometimes fell. One horse rolled 200 feet into the river, load and all, but to everyone's amazement was unhurt.
After two days travel, the Astorians reached the confluence of the Hoback and Snake Rivers, where "their united waters swept off through the valley in one impetuous stream."  At what is known as Hoback Junction today, Hunt and his followers debated the possibility of abandoning their horses and traveling down the Snake River by dugout canoes. Hoback, Robinson, and Reznor were unfamiliar with this portion of the Mad River, as the Snake was known in 1811. Hunt dispatched three men down the Snake River Canyon to determine if it was navigable, while the others began constructing dugout canoes. Two Shoshone Indians entered their camp, saw what they were doing, and in sign language informed Hunt that it was not possible to canoe down the river. The scouts returned with a similar discouraging report. Therefore, Hunt decided to continue overland. In early October, the brigade broke camp, forded the Snake River, and trekked over Teton Pass. Guided by Hoback, Robinson, Reznor, and the two Shoshone, the expedition proceeded north through Pierre's Hole to Andrew Henry's abandoned post on the Henry's Fork of the Snake.
Promising trapping grounds interested Hunt nearly as much as locating a route to Oregon. While they camped at Hoback Junction, Hunt's party noticed favorable beaver sign in the area. Hunt detached four men to trap the upper waters of the Snake River, Alexander Carson, Louis St. Michel, Pierre Detaye, and Pierre Delaunay. They were to trap a load of pelts and then make their way to Astor's new post on the Columbia. At Henry's Fort, Hoback, Robinson, Reznor, and a man named Cass agreed to stay and trap the waters in the Henry's Fork area. A malcontent named Miller also remained. 
Hunt then led the remainder of the brigade to Astor's post on the Columbia. The Overland Astorians were the first Americans to cross the continent since Lewis and Clark. They pioneered a new route of which Union and Teton Passes were important links. Although the Overland Astorians were a commercial venture, their arrival on the Columbia challenged the British for sovereignty in the British Northwest. As such, they were a vanguard of American expansion.
In June 1812, Robert Stuart led a party of seven traders from Astoria to St. Louis carrying dispatches for John Jacob Astor.  Stuart's party followed the Port Neuf River from the Snake across a divide to the Bear River. There, they encountered a band of Crow Indians. Friendly trade degenerated into a confrontation when a Crow chief demanded that Stuart trade away his horse and some gunpowder. Stuart refused the first, but made a gift of 20 loads of gunpowder to avert violence.  To avoid further contact with the Crow, the Astorians traveled north from the Bear River to more familiar country. They eventually made their way down the Grey's River to its confluence with the Snake. On the morning of September 19, 1812, the same band of Indians rushed Stuart's camp, successfully stampeding and stealing all of the horses. The Crow chief "checked his horse, raised himself in the saddle, and clapping his hand on the most insulting part of his body, uttered some jeering words." Without horses, Stuart understood their vulnerability and refused to allow one of his men, Ben Jones, to fire at "the mark so fair and the insult so foul."  This incident occurred on McCoy Creek near present day Alpine Junction, Wyoming.
Now on foot, the returning Astorians constructed a raft and floated down the Snake for 100 miles. They abandoned the raft and crossed the Snake River Range into Pierre's Hole. The eight men stalked south, keeping to the foothills of Pierre's Hole to avoid Blackfeet. They crossed Teton Pass on October 7, 1812:
Stuart's party followed Hunt's route up the Hoback Canyon. Finding no food in Jackson Hole and on foot, starvation threatened them. So desperate was their plight, one of the party proposed casting lots, the loser becoming the evening meal. Stuart dissuaded the man with his rifle and restored order. They crossed the river and entered the Green River Valley, where through good fortune they killed an old bull buffalo, possibly saving their lives. Stuart and his comrades crossed South Pass from the west, following the Platte River east. They reached St. Louis in 1813. The Astorians "discovered" South Pass, but there is no evidence in Stuart's journal that he understood the significance of the pass. Also, they had traveled much of the route of the Oregon Trail, with the exception of their diversion into Jackson Hole. 
By the time Stuart and the seven members of the party reached St. Louis, Great Britain and the United States were at war. American Fur Company officials at Astoria sold the post to the British North West Company as a British warship was poised to seize it. Astor's grand plan was dashed. The War of 1812, the successful resistance of the Blackfeet to the encroachment of trappers in the Upper Missouri, and government indifference persuaded Americans to abandon the northern Rockies for the next decade. The British were winning the competition for dominion in the Pacific Northwest. 
Two licensed British companies competed against each other in western North America prior to 1821, the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company. The North West Company was very successful, largely because of its policy of trade with the Indians. This aggressive company established itself first in the Pacific Northwest.  In 1818, Donald MacKenzie led a party of North Westers from Fort Nez Perce on the Walla Walla River. A competent bourgeois, MacKenzie led 55 men on a long journey that may have included Jackson Hole. MacKenzie reported his route to Alexander Ross who, in turn, recorded it in his Fur Hunters of the Far West (1855). Ross's narrative provides the primary information on MacKenzie's route. Although historian Merrill Mattes recognized that Ross's description was "admittedly vague," he concluded that the available evidence "strongly suggested that MacKenzie did reach Jackson Hole in 1819." MacKenzie described his route as follows:
Contemporary references to the Spanish River are generally understood to be the Green River. The "headwaters of the great south branch" may well be the upper Snake River in Jackson Hole. In his book, Ross described the Jackson Hole area, possibly based on MacKenzie's knowledge:
Also, Ross wrote a fantastic account of boiling springs and hot springs in the Yellowstone area, which could only come from a first-hand account. Mattes further pointed out that, since MacKenzie had been with the Astorians in 1811, he "would hardly miss the opportunity to investigate Upper Jackson Hole."  The Tetons and Pierre's Hole may have been named by Iroquois or French-Canadian trappers in MacKenzie's brigade.  Finally a tree carving was discovered in Yellowstone in 1880 (yes, another tree carving), which read "JOR Aug 19 1819." Could "JOR" have been a member of MacKenzie's North Westers? Mattes cautioned that no absolute proof of MacKenzie's trip exists, but that he passed through Jackson Hole is a reasonable conclusion. 
MacKenzie returned to Fort Nez Perce with a fortune in furs. Encouraged, other British brigades were dispatched to trap the waters of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. In addition to trapping beaver for profit, the British hoped to trap out an arc running roughly from the Snake River drainage through to northern California. They thus hoped to keep Americans out of the Oregon country, reasoning that American trappers, finding a swath of country devoid of beaver, would become discouraged and turn back. In 1821, the North West Company and Hudson's Bay Company merged, ending decades of fierce rivalry that had escalated to murder.
Last Updated: 24-Jul-2004