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Smith-Jackson-Sublette Expedition
Smith-Jackson-Sublette Expedition of 1830.
William H. Jackson sketch in Oregon Trail Museum.

The First Wagons

In 1827 Ashley had sent a wheeled cannon up the Platte route to impress the Indians at Great Salt Lake. However, the first bona fide wagons on the Oregon Trail were those of the Smith-Jackson-Sublette caravan of 1830, headed for the rendezvous scheduled in the Wind River Valley, near present Lander. In a famous letter to Secretary of War Eaton, the partners reported

a caravan of ten wagons, drawn by five mules each, and two dearborns drawn by one mule each . . . eighty-one men in company, all mounted on mules. . . .

For our support, at leaving the Missouri settlements, until we should get into the buffalo country, we drove twelve head of cattle, beside a milk cow . . . . We began to fall in with the buffaloes on the Platte, about three hundred and fifty miles from the white settlements; and from that time lived on buffaloes, the quantity being infinitely beyond what we needed. . . . The country being almost all open, level, and prairie, the chief obstructions were ravines and creeks, the banks of which required cutting down, and for this purpose a few pioneers were generally kept ahead of the caravan. This is the first time that wagons ever went to the Rocky mountains; and the ease and safety with which it was done prove the facility of communicating over land with the Pacific ocean.

At Wind River the parties sold their interest to another group of seasoned trappers—Fitzpatrick, Bridger, Fraeb, Gervais, and Milton Sublette. Thus far the Rocky Mountain Fur Company had a monopoly of the choice beaver country, except for occasional brushes with the Hudson's Bay Company in the Snake River country. Now an ominous rival presented itself, Astor's powerful American Fur Company, which sought to regain the trading empire lost during the War of 1812. In a brief time Astor's company would outmaneuver the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, absorb its leaders, and take over the monopoly. But first there would be fierce competition. In the vanguard of this invasion came a pack train headed by Joseph Robidoux and William Vanderburgh. They passed Scotts Bluff on May 27, on the north side of the river, just a few days behind their rivals. Robidoux and Vanderburgh's adventures have been chronicled by Warren Ferris.

Hiram Scott was not the only casualty in this dangerous fur trading. Jedediah Smith was slain by Comanches in 1831 on the Cimarron River, en route to Santa Fe. Vanderburgh was soon killed by Blackfeet Indians near the Three Forks of the Missouri. Kit Carson later killed a fellow trapper in a duel over an Arapahoe maiden on the Upper Hoback River, and Thomas Fitzpatrick suffered serious injuries from a near-fatal encounter with the Gros Ventres. The mortality rate among the mountain men was high, but the survivors continued their annual rendezvous. The decade of the 1830's was the golden age of the fur trade.

Captain Bonneville, who launched the Hiram Scott legend, made history in 1832 by taking his loaded wagons across the Continental Divide at South Pass, foreshadowing the mighty covered wagon migration that would begin within a decade. While Bonneville built a fort on the Upper Green, the rendezvous of 1832 was held in Pierre's Hole, on the west slope of the Tetons, and here the assembled trappers had a famous pitched battle with the Gros Ventres, which resulted in several fatalities.

Among those in Sublette's train in 1833 was Sir William Drummond Stewart of Scotland, a wealthy adventurer, the first of a series of notable Britishers to travel through the West, recording their impressions. We are indebted to him, as well as to Warren Ferris, Osborne Russell, and Joe Meek for vivid pictures of the wild and colorful rendezvous scenes. From 1833 until 1840, these rendezvous were held on the Upper Green, near present Daniel, Wyo.

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