Grand Teton
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The Fur Trappers (continued)

Two years later, in 1823, Finnan McDonald led the Hudson's Bay Company's annual expedition to the Snake River country. McDonald guided his brigade over the Salmon Mountains, then south to the Bear River. Stanley Morgan believed he traveled through Pierre's Hole, where the Three Tetons guided his route south. From the Bear River, McDonald may have crossed the mountains to the "Spanish River" or Green River. McDonald may have led his band of trappers north through the Hoback Canyon into Jackson Hole and on to Henry's Fork of the Snake. The British trappers crossed the Continental Divide again and traveled as far east as Great Falls, Montana. [41]

McDonald was a superb field leader. Not only did he lead his brigade the farthest east of any British bourgeois, challenging Americans on the Missouri River, he thrashed a band of Blackfeet near Lemhi Pass in Montana and returned to Spokane House with nearly 4,500 beaver pelts. It was a very successful season. But, when offered the command of the 1824 expedition to the Snake River, McDonald refused. "I got Safe home from the Snake cuntre . . . and when that Cuntre will see me agane the Beaver will have a Gould Skin." [42]

The appearance of British trappers on the upper Missouri did not go unchallenged. American fur traders prepared to reenter the beaver-rich upper Missouri after abandoning the field for a decade. In 1822, General William Ashley and Missouri Fur Company veteran Maj. Andrew Henry formed a new fur trading company. They recruited "one hundred young men to ascend the Missouri River to its source." [43] The men who enlisted were often little more than boys, and virtually all were mangeur de lard or "pork-eaters," a term for newcomers to the West. Yet, some became ideal mountain men. The Ashley-Henry employees list is a "Who's-Who" of the fur trappers frontier. On the list were Jim Bridger, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jed Smith, Etienne Provost, Bill and Milton Sublette, David E. Jackson, and Robert Campbell. [44]

Andrew Henry ascended the Missouri River by keelboat and established a fort at the mouth of the Yellowstone in 1822. Setbacks dogged the company in 1823. First, Henry led a party into Blackfeet country, where four of his men were killed. As in 1810, the Blackfeet confederacy drove Henry from the headwaters of the Missouri. Then, disaster struck on the Missouri. General Ashley led a party of green recruits up the river to join Henry. While camped at the Arikari villages, the Indians attacked Ashley's brigade, killing 13 trappers in a fierce fight. Ashley's brigade retreated down the river.

Taking a gamble, Ashley dispatched a party overland. Led by Jed Smith, the trappers traveled west from Fort Kiowa on the Missouri and wintered among the Crows in the Wind River Valley east of Jackson Hole. From the Crow, Smith learned of plentiful beaver across the mountains. He attempted to cross Union Pass, but snow blocked the way. Smith then followed the Popo-Agie River south and crossed South Pass from the east in February 1824. Smith's feat began a new chapter in the fur trappers' frontier. He reopened the abundant beaver streams west of the Continental Divide to American trappers. Just as important, the British faced their first serious competition since the Astorians in 1811. After trapping the Green River Basin, the brigade divided into four parties. Tom Fitzpatrick returned east with dispatches, rediscovering the Platte River route, which became the Oregon Trail. [45]

Smith traveled north with six companions. Based on Washington Hood's manuscript in the Missouri Historical Society Archives, Merrill Mattes and Harrison Dale believed Smith passed through Jackson Hole:

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, 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, 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 Perre's fork eastward of the butte at its mouth and Lewis fork also, thence pass to the mouth of Lewis fork. [46]

Mattes believed that Smith traveled down the Hoback, called Jackson's Fork in this account, to Jackson's Big Hole and crossed the Teton Range via Conant Pass. The exact route is impossible to determine, because the place names in Hood's manuscript are confusing. Smith could have crossed Teton Pass, but the identity of Yellowstone Pass in the narrative is unknown. It became known as the route from the upper Snake into Yellowstone. [47] Jed Smith's biographer, Stanley Morgan, suggested that Smith did not pass through Jackson Hole at all, but traveled north via the Bear River, crossed the divide to the Blackfoot River, then followed it to the Snake River in present day Idaho. [48] Most historians believe that Jed Smith entered Jackson Hole in 1824, although whether he crossed Teton Pass or Conant Pass is uncertain. [49] At any rate, Smith went on to the Snake River in Idaho, where he met a group of Iroquois trappers employed by the Hudson's Bay Company. He then traveled to Flathead House, much to the discomfort of Alexander Ross, the bourgeois.

Smith's adventure in 1824 is significant for several reasons. A new overland route via the Platte River and South Pass was established, enabling trappers to trespass into Blackfeet country from the south. For the next 15 years, Jackson Hole served as an important crossroads for trappers. Trails intersected in the valley that led to important trapping grounds at the head of several great rivers. Americans challenged the British for control of the Pacific Northwest. Moreover, General William Ashley devised a different strategy for the Ashley-Henry fur-trading operation. He determined to rely on company trappers, rather than trade with Indians to obtain beaver plews. Instead of establishing trading posts, Ashley decided to bring goods and supplies to a predetermined location and gather the year's catch of beaver pelts. These gatherings became the famous "rendezvous." This system allowed trappers to stay in the field year-round, eliminating the need to haul their plews to forts on the Missouri River. The first rendezvous was held on the Henry's Fork of the Green River in 1825. [50]

Historian Merrill Mattes evaluated the evidence and believed four expeditions of the Ashley-Henry company passed through Jackson Hole between 1825 and 1828, but the lack of sound documentation makes it difficult to determine exact routes. [51] In 1825, Jim Bridger and Tom Fitzpatrick returned to the Rockies, after escorting Smith and Ashley to the Missouri River with the first year's catch of the "Rocky Mountain Fur Company." Leading 30 trappers, they may have crossed into Jackson Hole via Togwotee or Union Passes, then followed the Snake River into Yellowstone. They may have dispersed in Jackson Hole and trapped the valley intensively for the first time. Based on Jim Beckwourth's biography, William Sublette and other trappers traveled from the Blackfeet country to "Lewis' Fork on the Columbia" and "all moved on together for the head of the Green River" in 1826. The Teton Pass-Hoback trail would have been a logical route from the Lewis' Fork (Snake River) to the Green River. [52]

America and The West, 1790 to 1860

While 1,000 trappers at most waded icy streams setting traps, the vast majority of Americans preoccupied themselves with building a new nation. Jackson Hole and the Teton Range were forgotten after the demise of the trappers' frontier. Attention shifted to the Oregon Trail. Tom Fitzpatrick guided the first emigrant wagon train to Oregon in 1841. By 1846, 5,000 Americans had settled in Oregon's Willamette Valley. In 1847, Mormon pioneers located their own trail from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to the Salt Lake Valley. Both trails crossed South Pass. Then in 1848, workers discovered shiny flakes of gold in a millrace at Sutter's Mill in California, precipitating the greatest gold rush in American history. Meanwhile Americans fought a two-year war with Mexico beginning in 1846, wresting the Southwest from their southern neighbor.

Most Americans remained east of the Appalachians, where colonists had won their independence from Great Britain in 1783. They faced a myriad of problems: How far would the reluctant revolution go toward reform? Should there be a national government? If so, how much power would be given the new national government? How much power would individual states possess? How would revenues be raised? Should there be a standing army and navy? What about the vast lands west of the Appalachians? How would they be incorporated into the United States? How could a nation founded on principles of equality and individual rights uphold the institution of slavery? Americans grappled with all of these issues and dealt with them, some more successfully than others.

By 1790, the Constitution had been ratified and a new nation established. The nation grew rapidly from 1790 to 1860. The population increased from 3,929,000 in 1790, to 31,443,000 in 1860. In 1790, the Mississippi River was the western boundary of the United States. By 1860, the United States boundaries stretched from ocean to ocean, its territory more than doubled. Several developments were especially important to the West.

After the War for Independence, the United States controlled vast tracts of public domain between the Appalachian Range and the Mississippi River. Two problems loomed across the Appalachians. Settlers squatted on lands, while speculators hatched grandiose schemes to buy and sell western lands for substantial profits. An orderly way had to be devised to transfer public domain to private ownership. The second problem centered on the ultimate political status of the public domain. American territories were really colonies, and the congress of the Confederation recognized that somehow equal political status must be granted, or they would separate just as the 13 colonies had with Great Britain. Congress enacted two landmark pieces of legislation to address these problems, the Ordinance of 1785, and the Ordinance of 1787.

The Ordinance of 1785 divided federal lands into square townships, an area of 36 square miles. Each township was divided into 36 sections, each totaling one square mile or 640 acres. The government sold land at regularly scheduled auctions for a minimum price of $1 per acre. The government reserved one section to find schools. Not only did this act provide for an orderly transfer of land from public to private ownership, it brought much needed revenue to the nation's treasury.

The Ordinance of 1787 established a process whereby territories could eventually become states rather than remain colonies. When the population of a territory reached 60,000, citizens could draft a state constitution and apply to Congress for statehood. Between 1791 and 1860, 20 new states entered the Union. Both ordinances set laws that lasted until the public domain closed in the twentieth century.

The United States was an agrarian society, its people tied to the soil. Urbanization and industrialization began and accelerated between 1790 and 1860. Urban centers grew rapidly along the eastern seaboard as the nation's commerce developed. The Industrial Revolution began in the early nineteenth century with Slater's Mill in Rhode Island and the textile mills at Lowell, Massachusetts. New technology and industry had a profound impact on the West. Cities and industry demanded raw materials and foodstuffs; the West could fill some of those needs. Improved transportation in the form of steamships, canals, and later, railroads cut costs and shipping time dramatically, which promoted internal trade. The first settlers in the Old Northwest and Mississippi Valley were isolated and largely self sufficient, producing few exports. By 1860, as a result of improved transportation, American farmers produced most of the world's cotton and production of wheat for export increased substantially.

Some Americans believed that the North American continent was a divine gift. As such, they perceived that Americans had not only the right, but the duty to settle, develop, and expand a continental republic. This belief became known as Manifest Destiny. The doctrine rationalized the growth of a continental empire and the displacement of native peoples. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 initiated the expansion of the United States. Florida and the Gulf Coast were acquired in 1819. Americans rebelled and established a republic in Texas in 1836. Great Britain and the United Stated ended their joint occupation of Oregon in 1846, settling on the 49th parallel as a boundary. Texas joined the Union in 1845. Mexico ceded the entire Southwest and California as a result of the Mexican War. The Gadsden Purchase added a tract in the Southwest in 1853. The United States seemed blessed.

Behind all of these issues and events loomed slavery. When a Dutch trader sold 20 blacks into slavery at Jamestown in 1619, he planted the seeds of bitterness and bloodshed. Slavery was permitted in all 13 colonies, but ideas generated by the American Revolution had significant implications for slavery. If all men were created equal, how could one human being own another? By 1804, all states north of Maryland had abolished slavery, while in the South, cotton and slavery flourished.

As always, America remained a land of contradictions. Even as a sense of nationalism developed, sectionalism fed on the slavery issue. The question of extending slavery to western territories caused the pot to boil over. Southerners maintained that slavery was a dynamic institution that required expansion. To preserve parity in the Senate; they also knew that new slave-holding states would have to keep pace with new free soil states. The Compromise of 1850 seemed to settle the problem in the West. But, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the Dred Scott decision in 1857, and bloody warfare between abolitionists and slavery advocates in Kansas opened unhealable wounds. Increasing emotions on both sides polarized the North and South, fired by John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859 and his subsequent execution. In 1860, the American people enjoyed their last year of peace; war was their future.

Such was the character of the nation as the explorers and miners crossed the Mississippi River into the American West.*

*This section is a synthesis of Ray Allen Billington's Westward Expansion; A History of the American Frontier, 4th ed; and The Americans: A Brief History, by Henry F. Bedford and Trevor Colbourn, ed. John Morton Blum (New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, ca. 1976).

In 1826, a reluctant Daniel Potts probably crossed Conant Pass into Jackson Hole, followed the upper Snake River to Two Ocean Pass, and then traveled along the Yellowstone River into Yellowstone. Potts would have joined brigades headed for other parts, rather than venture into Blackfeet country, but events conspired to make him the first to describe the Yellowstone country in his letter published in the Niles Register in 1827. [53]

Meanwhile, General Ashley had made a fortune from furs. He decided to quit the mountains and sold the company to three reliable employees, Jedediah Smith, David E. Jackson, and William Sublette, in 1826. [54] At the Bear Lake rendezvous in 1827, Smith, Jackson, and Sublette agreed to meet at the headwaters of the Snake, or Jackson Hole. Smith, having just returned from his remarkable trek to California, set out again. Sublette assumed the responsibility for transporting pelts to St. Louis and returning with supplies. Davey Jackson commanded the trapping brigades for the next two years. He dispatched trappers to the Green River Basin, the upper Snake, and the Bear River country. Trappers probably entered Jackson Hole in 1827 and 1828, but there are no reliable records to confirm this conclusion.

In 1829, Bill Sublette led a pack train and 60 men from St. Louis to Jackson Hole. A young recruit named Joe Meek accompanied Sublette. Years later, Meek recounted the trip to his biographer, Frances Fuller Victor:

Sublette led his company up the valley of the Wind River, across the mountains, and onto the very headwaters of the Lewis or Snake River. Here he fell in with Jackson, in the valley of Lewis Lake, called Jacksons Hole, and remained on the borders of this lake for some time, waiting for Smith. . . . [55]

Based on this description, Sublette undoubtedly crossed Togwotee Pass. When Smith failed to arrive from California, Jackson and Sublette set out to find him. They were reunited in either Pierre's Hole or southwest Montana. The sources are contradictory on this point. This passage may be the source of the story that Sublette named Jackson Hole for Davey Jackson in 1829. But Jackson, through four years of trapping, probably knew this valley well by 1829. [56]

Significant changes occurred after 1829. First, encouraged by Ashley's financial success, other American companies entered the field in the 1830s. Astor's giant enterprise, the American Fur Company, sent a brigade into the Rockies in 1830. Jackson Hole figured prominently in this competition. Second, Smith, Jackson, and Sublette sold the company to their longtime companions Jim Bridger, Tom Fitzpatrick, Milton Sublette, Henry Fraeb (pronounced Frap), and Baptiste Gervais in 1830. The new owners dubbed the partnership the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. After 1829, mountain men entered Jackson Hole regularly. No rendezvous were held in the valley, nor did anyone contemplate building a trading post here, but several important trapper trails converged in the valley. Mattes believed that at least 30 expeditions passed through Jackson Hole between 1830 and 1840. [57]

In contrast to the 1820s, several fine accounts exist describing the fur trade in the 1830s, a decade that encompassed its heyday and precipitous decline. The Teton Range and Jackson Hole are mentioned frequently in many of these descriptions. [58] Osborne Russell's Journal of a Trapper and Warren A. Ferris's Life in the Rockies are two excellent memoirs of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. Both authors were well-educated men who became experienced trappers. Both waded icy streams setting traps; both were wounded in skirmishes with the Blackfeet. Owing to a combination of mountain skill and luck, both survived to retire from the mountains. Their journals establish the relationship between the trappers' frontier and Jackson Hole. [59]

The Three Tetons, known today as the South, Middle, and Grand, were among the most significant landmarks in the fur trade era. By the 1820s, the mountains were known as the "Trois Tetons," the Three Paps, or the Three Tetons. Iroquois or French Canadian trappers from the Pacific Northwest may have been responsible for the new name. In 1831, Warren Ferris saw the Three Tetons for the first time from the Gray's River south of Jackson Hole. He described them as "three inaccessible finger-shaped peaks of a lofty mountain overlooking the country to a vast distance. . . . Their appearing [sic] is quite singular, and they form a noted landmark in that region." Osborne Russell saw the Tetons for the first time from Pierre's Hole, where they are most visible and distinct. From Russell's vantage point, the range appeared as "Mountains piled on Mountains and capped with three spiral peaks which pierce the cloud. These peaks bear the name of Tetons or Teats—The Snake Indians called them the hoary headed Fathers." [60]

The Three Tetons guided trappers to passes and trails through the valley. Two passes provided access through the Teton Range, Conant Pass, and Teton Pass. The latter pass was the most important. Other important passes were Togwotee, Union, and Two Ocean. Significant routes through the valley were the Hoback Trail, the Yellowstone, and the Gros Ventre River route. Because Jackson Hole is located between South Pass and the upper Snake River country, it was common for trappers to follow the Hoback or Gros Ventre Rivers from the Green River Basin, then cross Teton Pass. Parties traveling from the Bighorn Mountains in the east followed the Wind River and crossed into Jackson Hole via Union or Togwotee Pass. At Union Pass, trappers could turn south, strike the Green River and head south to other profitable trapping grounds. Mountain men entered or exited the Yellowstone country via the Lewis River (today's South Gate of Yellowstone) or Two Ocean Pass.

In 1832, the experienced bourgeois, William Sublette and Robert Campbell, led a pack train loaded with supplies over the Hoback trail to the rendezvous in Pierre's Hole in 1832. Nathaniel Wyeth and 18 green Yankees accompanied Sublette and Campbell. Wyeth recorded the trip down the Hoback and over Teton Pass.

We passed along a wooded River and through a very difficult road by its side so steep that one of my Horses loosing his foothold in the path was rooled [sic] down about 100 feet into the river he was recovered but so much injured as we had to leave him shortly after: Made this day 20 miles. [61]

The next day the large caravan entered Jackson Hole. On July 7, 1832, "we proceeded up a small brook coming from a gap of the mountain due south of the Trois Tetons." They crossed Teton Pass "without much difficulty it is a good pass for such a range and fresh animals would have no difficulty in passing through it." [62]

Following the rendezvous of 1832, Warren Ferris recorded the passage of the American Fur Company brigade through Jackson Hole. The trappers, led by Andrew Drips and William H. Vanderburgh, sought the company supply train that had failed to arrive at the rendezvous. After crossing Teton Pass and the Snake River, "we entered a dark defile, and followed a zig-zag trail along the almost perpendicular side of the mountain, scarcely leaving space in many places for the feet of our horses"; the trappers walked and guided their horses over the worst portions of the trail, "but notwithstanding this precaution, three of them lost their footing, and were precipitated sixty or seventy feet into the river below." Miraculously, two of the horses were only slightly injured. [63]

In 1835, two Protestant missionaries, Marcus Whitman and Samuel Parker, accompanied Tom Fitzpatrick to the annual rendezvous in the Green River Basin. Parker continued with Jim Bridger through Jackson Hole en route to establishing a mission among the Flathead Indians in the Northwest. Crossing the divide between the Green River Basin and the Hoback drainage, Bridger and Parker camped in Jackson's Little Hole. On Sunday, August 23, 1835, Parker conducted "public worship with those of the company, who understood English." The next day the brigade passed "through a narrow defile, frequently crossing and recrossing a large stream of water [Hoback] which flows into the Snake river. . . ." [64] The Hoback River Canyon was a key route in spite of rugged terrain.

The Gros Ventre River drainage provided an alternate route between Jackson Hole and the Green River-South Pass country. Although longer in distance, the Gros Ventre was an easier trail and more versatile route. For example, trappers had access to the Wind River Valley and the Bighorn Mountains to the east via Union Pass. Or, like Wilson Price Hunt, one could cross Union Pass and travel south to the Green River Valley. After the rendezvous of 1832 in Pierre's Hole, William Sublette and Robert Campbell led their pack train back to St. Louis via the Gros Ventre River.

Osborne Russell first visited Jackson Hole in 1835 and, after nearly drowning in the Snake River, exited the valley "up a stream called the Grosvent fork." As they were trying to get to the Yellowstone country, this choice proved to be a mistake. Their guide got them hopelessly lost. [65] Two Ocean Pass and the Lewis River were the correct routes from Jackson Hole into Yellowstone and the dangerous but profitable trapping grounds in Blackfeet country. Conant Pass was the only other convenient crossing in the Teton Range. (Historian Merrill Mattes believed Jed Smith may have exited the valley through this pass in 1824.) In 1839, Osborne Russell hobbled back to Fort Hall in Idaho via the Lewis River and Conant Pass, after being wounded and robbed by Blackfeet near the outlet of Yellowstone Lake. [66] Togwotee Pass provided a relatively easy way into Jackson Hole from the headwaters of the Wind River, although this did not seem to be a primary route based on limited contemporary records.

The Snake River Canyon, where the mountain man's Lewis River exited Jackson Hole, does not seem to have been used. Wilson Price Hunt not only learned from two Shoshone Indians and three scouts that the river was unnavigable through the canyon, but that it was difficult for horses. Warren Ferris stated that the Snake River left the valley "through a deep cut in the mountains, impassable for pack horses." [67] Indeed, there is only one known account of trappers entering the Snake River Canyon. In June 1837, Osborne Russell and a party of trappers crossed Teton Pass into Jackson Hole. In Russell's own words, "The next day myself and another trapper left the Camp crossed Lewis fork and travelled down the valley to the south end. The next day we travelled in a SW direction over high and rugged spurs of Mountain and encamped on a small stream running into Gray's river. Russell and his partner travelled down a portion of the Snake River Canyon to cross into the Gray's River drainage." [68]

In Jackson Hole, the Snake River was an obstacle to travel. According to tradition, the trapper ford was located near the present Jackson-Wilson Bridge. Rather than one location, there were probably a series of fords across braided channels of the river east of Teton Pass. The Snake River could be treacherous. John B. Wyeth recounted the dramatic fording of Nathaniel Wyeth's brigade and Sublette and Campbell's pack train in July 1832. The crossing took all day; "one man unloaded his horse, and swam across with him leading two loaded ones, and unloading the two, brought them back, for two more,. . ." Wyeth himself was thrown from his mule, when it stumbled on a round cobble. Pitched into the torrent, "the current was so strong, that a bush which I caught hold of only saved me from drowning." [69]

Osborne Russell ran into similar difficulties on July 4, 1835. Entering Jackson Hole, Russell and a party of trappers attempted to cross the Snake in a bullskin boat. When it sank after one crossing, Russell and his party constructed a log raft. As soon as they launched, the river current swept the raft, laden with ten men and gear, downstream out of control. Abandoning the raft, Russell "would fain have called for help but at this critical period everyone had to Shift for himself fortunately I scrambled to shore among the last swimmers." [70] The group spent a miserable night along the Snake River, pondering the loss of their weapons and gear. They were lucky, for the next day, they discovered the raft lodged on a gravel bar with all their gear intact.

Several locations in Jackson Hole were regular bivouacs, as they were conveniently spaced along well-traveled trails. The junction of the Hoback and Snake Rivers, fords on the Snake River, and the base of Teton Pass near Wilson, Wyoming, were all mentioned as camping locations. Osborne Russell found the outlet of Jackson Lake a good site, except for the innumerable "swarms of horse flies and musketoes." [71] In general, documents suggest that stays in Jackson Hole were limited. Mountain men trapped the streams and rivers in the valley, but most often were enroute to other destinations.

Tradition has it that Davey Jackson wintered along the shores of Jackson Lake. However, this is unlikely, as there were much better places to spend the winter, where game and forage for horses and mules were more reliable. There are no documented accounts of trappers wintering in Jackson Hole. Like the Indians who adopted the horse culture, trappers found Jackson Hole poor country for spending a winter.

There were few conflicts with Indians in Jackson Hole. The best documented battle between trappers and Indians occurred in Pierre's Hole in 1832. A band of Gros Ventres, implacable enemies of the mountain men, happened to be returning from a prolonged stay with the Arapaho on the Arkansas River. Crossing Teton Pass, they clashed with trappers in Pierre's Hole. The battle resulted in a stand off and casualties on both sides. The Gros Ventre escaped under the cover of night, slipping over Teton Pass. [72] Several days later, seven men quit Wyeth's company to return east. Somewhere in southern Jackson Hole, or perhaps the lower Hoback, they were attacked by Indians, most likely the Gros Ventres. Joseph More and a Mr. Foy were killed. Alfred Stephens was wounded and died several days later in Pierre's Hole.

Joe Meek recalled a harrowing encounter with Blackfeet that may have occurred near Teton Pass. In 1839, Meek trapped the Snake River country with a comrade named Allen. They "finally set their traps on a little stream that runs out of the pass which leads to Pierre's Hole." Collecting their traps one morning, they discovered Blackfeet approaching them. Meek succeeded in concealing himself in a thicket of willows, but the Blackfeet spotted Allen, wounded and captured him. The Blackfeet tortured and dismembered Allen, nearly driving Meek "insane through sympathy, fear, horror, and suspense as to his own fate." [73]

Fur rendezvous sites, 1824-1839. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window) National Park Service (The Fur Trade, The National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings)

In the 1830s, emphasis switched from exploration to trapping and trading in Jackson Hole and the surrounding region. Cutthroat competition in the region accelerated the decline of the trappers' frontier. [74] In 1830, the American Fur Company entered the Rockies to compete with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Others entered the field, notably Nathaniel Wyeth and Capt. Benjamin L. E. Bonneville, but were not much of a threat compared to Astor's giant company. In 1833, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and American Fur Company negotiated an accord, dividing the northern Rockies between them. The American Fur Company trapped the Flathead country, the Tetons, and Salt Lake Valley, while the Rocky Mountain Fur Company trappers restricted their trapping forays to the Green River, Yellowstone, and Three Forks of the Missouri. Only a year later, the partners dissolved the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Three of the partners, Fitzpatrick, Bridger, and Milton Sublette joined the American Fur Company. [75]

In 1841, Osborne Russell travelled to the headwaters of the Port Neuf River in Idaho. Now a seven-year veteran, he observed the ominous changes that had taken place in a few short years:

In the year 1836 large bands of Buffaloe could be seen in almost every little Valley on the small branches of this Stream at this time the only traces which could be seen of them were the scattered bones of those that had been killed. Their trails which had been made in former years deeply indented in the earth were over grown with grass and weeds. The trappers often remarked to each other as they rode over these lonely plains that it was time for the White man to leave the mountains as Beaver and game had nearly disappeared. [76]

Osborne Russell quit the mountains in 1842. Along with his counterparts, the Rocky Mountain fur trappers left a significant stamp on this country's history. The trappers' frontier was the first of the successive waves of Europeans to sweep across the West. Geographic exploration was the greatest contribution of the mountain men. In their search for lucrative trapping grounds, they discovered the trails and passes and showed others the way west. Although the fur trade was a business, first and foremost, it was the cutting edge in the American-British competition for empire in the Pacific Northwest. Jed Smith's crossing of South Pass from the east in 1824 proved decisive. His old companion, Tom Fitzpatrick, guided the first wagon train of emigrants over the Platte River-South Pass route to Oregon in 1841, and the British lost their bid to secure a border on the Columbia River.

The Indians lost too. Fur traders and mountain men were the first whites to contact the American Indian tribes in the West. Tribes such as the Shoshone and Flathead were renowned for their friendliness. Others, notably the Blackfeet and Gros Ventres, were implacable foes of the mountain man. The Arikari and Crow were unpredictable at best. Mountain men introduced manufactured goods and alcohol, which caused cultural disruption among these tribes. Trappers also brought disease. Smallpox, measles, cholera, and venereal disease swept through the tribes of the West, reducing already small populations. The impact of this contact impaired the ability and will of Native Americans to resist the subsequent encroachment of later frontiersmen. [77]

The Ashley-Henry partnership of 1822 gathered a group of inexperienced young men and boys, who became the ultimate mountain men. They crossed the Continental Divide and stayed in the field year-round. Combining the skills and experience of the American backwoodsman, the British-French trapper, and the Indian, the best of them surpassed all of the former in mountain skills. [78] Jed Smith, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Bill Sublette, James Clyman, and Bill Williams represent the image of the mountain man, and the mountain man became a significant figure in American folklore. [79]

Who were these men? There were never very many; estimates vary between 600 to 1,000 in the business at any one time. [80] In the late 1960s and early 1970s, historian Leroy Hafen assembled 292 biographical sketches of trappers and traders. The result was a ten-volume work titled Mountain Men and the Fur Trade. Hafen prepared a statistical sketch of mountain men based on these biographies, cognizant that most mountain men left no records. [81]

beaver trap
This beaver trap, found in the Conant Pass area, is believed to have been used by Richard "Beaver Dick" Leigh. Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Most trappers were born between 1793 and 1810. More than 50 percent hailed from Canada, Kentucky, Virginia, and Missouri. The majority left for the mountains between 1825 and 1830. Forty-one percent worked at one time as free trappers, the top of the heap in the trapper's social hierarchy. They worked for themselves, selling their plews to the highest bidder. There are several surprises in Hafen's essay. The majority married white women rather than Indians. Most could read and write, which is contrary to the perception of mountain men as illiterate bumpkins. Finally, most lived to retire from the mountains; only 11 percent were killed by Indians. [82] Most of the subjects of the biographies left the mountains between 1810 and 1850, with 30 percent turning to farming and ranching. Missouri, California, and Oregon were the most popular places of retirement. [83]

Several figures who were known to have passed through Jackson Hole typify the range of personalities and experiences of mountain men. David E. or Davey Jackson remains an enigma. Though a prominent partner of Bill Sublette and Jed Smith, little is known of his life or activities. While Smith explored much of the West and Sublette supplied goods from St. Louis, Jackson directed the trapping operations of the partnership from 1826-1830. He was a capable field leader who was responsible in great part for the partnership's profits. During this period, Jackson Hole acquired its name. Whether this valley was Davey Jackson's favorite haunt is questionable, and the claim that he wintered in Jackson Hole is doubtful, but he used the trails through the enclosed valley to conduct trapping operations. Thus, it is likely that Jackson Hole acquired its name from Jackson, based on his role as a field manager for Ashley, Smith and Sublette. [84]

Robert Campbell was another graduate of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company's "school." Campbell was one of the few to profit from the fur trade. Born in Ulster, Ireland, he accompanied Jed Smith west to improve his health. Well-educated, Campbell served first as a clerk, and by 1832, earned the respect and right to be a bourgeois, leading trapping brigades into the heart of the wilderness. He experienced several close calls with the Blackfeet, proving his courage and sound judgment. Campbell later joined Bill Sublette supplying goods to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. This provided the basis of his fortune in St. Louis, where he became a wealthy merchant, banker, and landowner. After the battle in Pierre's Hole in 1832, Campbell wrote "to confess the truth, I am heartily sick of it." True to his word, he abandoned the mountains for good in 1833. [85]

If Robert Campbell represented sound judgment seasoned with courage, Mark Head symbolized the image of the mountain man as a hell-raising wild-man dressed in buckskin. Mark Head went to the mountains in the trade's later years. He may have accompanied Sublette and Campbell's pack train west in 1832. It was late enough in the trappers' era that Head may have tried to live up to the developing image of a mountain man as a reckless and fearless frontiersman. At any rate, he attracted trouble. One contemporary recalled that his body was covered with scars from injuries and wounds. Mark Head took people literally. In 1834, an Englishman, Sir William Drummond Stewart, stormed about camp when he learned that an Indian named Marshall had stolen his favorite rifle and horse. Stewart rashly offered $500 for Marshall's scalp. Mark Head returned the next day with Stewart's favorite horse, prize rifle, and Marshall's scalp. Stewart appraised Head as "the best and most reckless trapper save one." One contemporary recollected that:

he possessed the most remarkable aptitude for getting into scrapes and out of them in a damaged condition of any man I ever knew. He had gunshot and arrow wounds, had been clawed by bears and horned by a buffalo bull. His endurance and recuperative powers were equalled only by his pluck and misfortune. I saw him once just as he had been brought out of a plum thicket into which he had followed a wounded cinnamon bear. When rescued he looked, to use his own expression, "as if he had been chewed up and spit through a rail fence."

Head drifted to the Southwest and was killed during the Pueblo revolt in 1847. His biographer concluded he "seems to have made an impression by reason of his rash temerity and that alone." [86]

Jedediah Strong Smith was not a typical trapper, but he stood head and shoulders above the rest. Largely forgotten until after 1900, Smith earned praise as one of the most accomplished explorers in American history. Only Lewis and Clark overshadow him. In eight short years, Smith rediscovered South Pass, became the first to reach California over land from the American frontier, was the first Euro-American to cross the Sierra Nevada, and was the first to journey across the Great Basin. Finally, partially owing to good luck, Smith survived three major disasters, the fight with the Arikari in 1823, the Yuma massacre on the Colorado River, and the massacre on the Umpqua in Oregon. More than 40 trappers were killed in these baffles.

Smith was unusual for a mountain man. He remained clean-shaven, while his comrades grew beards. He was literate and kept notes, something very few trappers bothered with, assuming they were literate. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Smith did not smoke or use profanity, and he drank only sparingly. Life in the wilderness did not diminish his strong religious convictions, rather it may have reinforced that faith. Smith's singular appearance, education, and manners were so extraordinary that Alexander Ross, the factor of the British Flathead House, was convinced that his American guest was a spy. Smith's comrades found him different, yet accepted him as a leader. Always to be counted on in a tight fix, he had the "har of the bar" in him, a trappers phrase for courage and reliability.

Jed Smith sold his interest in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1830 and entered the Santa Fe trade in 1831. While scouting for water on the trail, he disappeared without a trace. The caravan moved on to Santa Fe without him. Only later was his fate learned. At an isolated water hole, he had been attacked by Comanches and killed. It was a lonely and ironic death, given the scrapes he had survived. Jed Smith's accomplishments as an explorer remain one of the great stories in American exploration. [87]

In seeking prime beaver country, mountain men came to know a West that is gone today. This West exists only in our imaginations, inspired by the wonderful artwork of Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, and Alfred Jacob Miller, or scarce contemporary accounts. It was a vast country of diverse and startling landscapes—plain, mountain, and desert—populated with abundant wildlife and occupied by free peoples. Perhaps the mountain mans' environment explains in part their stature as American folk heroes.

Yet, the fur trapper began the successive waves of Euro-American frontiers that altered the ecology of the West so drastically. Some of them knew it, too. The lack of beaver and buffalo on the Port Neuf River alarmed Osborne Russell in 1841, a short 17 years since Smith had first crossed South Pass. Once there were an estimated 200,000,000 beaver in North America. Mountain men trapped them to near extinction in many places. Today, the beaver population has recovered to an estimated 2,000,000 animals. There were once an estimated 60,000,000 buffalo in North America. Wild game provided the trapper with virtually all of his food. Buffalo was the favored meat. Bighorn sheep and dog (an Indian favorite) ran a distant second. What the mountain man began, later frontiersmen nearly finished. By 1900, fewer than 600 buffalo were believed to exist. [88]

The mountain man's frontier ended about 1840, the year of the last rendezvous. The trade declined abruptly after its peak in the early 1830s. Prime trapping grounds had been picked clean; beaver were scarce and easy profits a memory. More important, changes in fashion caused the price of beaver plews to plummet from as high as $6 a pound to less than $3 per pound in 1841, after silk hats became the rage in Europe. Moreover, rabbit felt also displaced beaver felt as material for hats. Last, intense competition crippled the trade. A brisk trade in buffalo hides continued after 1840, but the shining times of the 1820s and 1830s were gone. Isolation returned to Jackson Hole for 20 years until civilian and military explorers followed the trappers' tracks across the high passes.

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Last Updated: 24-Jul-2004