Robert Stuart from the Oregon Country to St. Louis
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This oil painting of Robert Stuart by an unknown artist is through the courtesy of Jane Stuart Vander Poel, great-great granddaughter of Robert Stuart.
On June 29th 1812, Robert Stuart, Benjamin Jones, François LeClerc, André Vallé, John Day, Ramsay Crooks, and Robert McClellan left Astoria for St. Louis with two other Astorian parties. Crooks and McClellan had given up their partnership shares in the Pacific Fur Company, and wished to return to St. Louis. As the Stuart party approached the Willamette River, John Day become incoherent. Robert Stuart realized it would be impossible to keep Day with the St. Louis party. John Day was placed under the care of several Wapato Indians and set back to Astoria.
The Robert Stuart party left the two other parties of Astorians at the mouth of the Walla Walla River. After trading for ten horses, Robert Stuart and five men proceeded over the Blue Mountains to the Grande Ronde Valley. In the area where the Owyhee River emptied into Snake River, a Shoshone Indian approached the party. The Shoshone told Robert Stuart he had guided Wilson Hunt and the Overland Astorians over Teton Pass to Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. The Indian told Stuart there was an easier route through the mountains than Hunt had used.
Two days later the Indian disappeared with Stuart’s riding horse.
Above Salmon Falls on the Snake River, Robert Stuart encountered John Hoback, Edward Robinson, Jacob Rezner, and Joseph Miller. After being left at Fort Henry by Hunt, these four and Martin Cass had trapped along the Idaho-Utah border and a good portion of Wyoming. Joseph Miller told Stuart the Arapahoe had robbed them twice, and Cass had abandoned them with the last of their horses. Living on what fish they could catch, the destitute trappers were trying to reach Astoria.
Robert Stuart's party arrived at Hunt’s caches near Caldron Linn four days later. Six of the caches had been plundered. Stuart opened the three remaining caches and outfitted Hoback, Rezner, and Robinson to trap the area, until John Reed arrived to retrieve the cached goods. Miller stayed with the Stuart party.
Crossing Idaho, the party lived primarily on fish they could trade for and catch. There were occasional sightings of Antelope and Mountain Sheep.
The first signs of buffalo were tracks along Bear River near the Idaho-Wyoming line, but there were no buffalo in the area. At Dingle, Idaho, Stuart met twenty-one Crow warriors. The warriors wanted to trade for gun powder. At first, Stuart refused to trade, but afraid the Indians would steal his horses, he finally agreed to twenty loads.
The next morning smoke columns were spotted on the surrounding mountains. Afraid the Indians were going to steal his horses, the Astorians turned north along Thomas Fork Creek. Before turning north at Thomas Fork, Stuart had basically traveled over what became the Oregon Trail. The next four hundred miles, or so, Stuart's travels are off the Oregon Trail, except for briefly being on the Lander Cutoff.
Stuart’s movement through this section of Wyoming is where I was born and presently live. On a horse, I have crossed and re-crossed Stuart’s trail many, many times, and on pack trips my camps have been on or close to his campsites. Because of my interest in this section of the trail, the next four hundred miles is given in more detail. If the reader wants to go directly to South Pass where Stuart picks up the future Oregon Trail again click here.
In this section the text provided by Rollins are mixed with my comments. The material from Rollins is italicized. Stuart proceeded up Thomas Fork into Salt Creek canyon. Turning north at possibly Packsaddle Creek, he went over the mountain to the bend of Spring Creek. From there, he crossed over the mountain to the head of Fish Creek and followed Fish Creek to Salt River near Forest Dell, Wyoming...It would be easier to follow Salt Creek over a low pass through open country to Forest Dell.
According to Rollins, from Forest Dell, Stuart turned up Salt River to where it bends to the north, and then, followed a trail up Mt. Wagner, over Sheep Pass, and down onto Greys River.
It seems unlikely Stuart would climb over Sheep Pass to reach Greys River. An Indian trail continued to the east which was the direction Stuart wanted to go. Going east, Stuart reached the head of Greys River in a couple of miles.
At this point, Rollins stated Stuart turned north down Greys River.
It is hard to understand why Stuart did this. The best guess is he was totally lost and decided to find Hunt’s westbound trail…none of his party was familiar with these mountains. Instead of turning north down Greys River, the Astorians could go nearly straight east and follow La Barge Creek, or South Piney Creek into the Green River Valley directly opposite of the Wind River Mountains and South Pass. If they were following an Indian trail up Salt River, this is where the trail would have gone. Joseph Walker used this trail to the 1833 Horse Creek Rendezvous.
Another place the Astorians could turn east from Greys River was up Sheep Creek and over McDougall Gap. This is a relative low divide in the Wyoming Range roughly ninety miles due east of the Wind River mountains. South Pass is clearly visible. The only logical explanation as to why Stuart didn’t go east on one or the other of these two routes is he was lost.
Stuart followed Greys River to the area of the confluence with the South Fork of Snake River and Salt River near present-day Alpine, Wyoming. Proceeding across Salt River, the Astorians stopped at the mouth of McCoy Creek for the night.
With the horses gone, the party built a raft and floated down Snake River. As they floated down Snake River, the Astorians saw several deer, a wolverine, and killed a wounded elk swimming the river. The elk had an arrow and a lead ball in it. Afraid Blackfeet warriors were close by, Stuart abandoned the raft at either present day Table Rock, or Kelly Canyon, and proceeded up over the mountains to Moody Creek. Stuart was high enough to see the Grand, Middle, and South Teton...Hunt’s Pilots Knobs or Mackenzie’s Trios Tetons.
The Stuart party followed Canyon Creek to the area of Pincock Springs, where they stopped to rest; Ramsey Crooks had been sick several days. Disgusted with the slow pace, Robert McClellan set off on his own towards the Pilot Knobs. Afraid for their safety, some of the men wanted to abandon Crooks, but Stuart refused. The party slowly made its way down Canyon Creek to the Teton River. Back on Hunt’s trail, the Astorians proceeded into Pierre’s Hole. The travelers camped near Bear Creek (about 4.5 miles northwest of Driggs, Idaho), and Stuart built an Indian sweat lodge for Crooks. After two days, Crooks was well enough to proceed.
The Stuart party made its way over Teton Pass into Jackson Hole.
Stuart crossed Snake River (Mad River) near Wilson, Wyoming.
Stuart’s party continued down Snake River then over a low ridge to where Willow Creek emptied into the Hoback River. The Astorians followed the Hoback to the mouth of Shoal Creek. Continuing up Shoal Creek, Stuart reached the Hoback Basin (Little Jackson Hole), and camped near the town of Bondurant, Wyoming. From there, the Astorians followed the North Fork of Fisherman Creek over the Hoback Basin Rim and onto the Green River near Black Butte. Not finding any game, the hungry Astorians continued down Green River.
The Astorians found Robert McClellan lying on the river bank trying to catch a fish. He was about three miles above where Highway 189 crosses Green River over Warren Bridge. McClellan told Stuart he had had little to eat since leaving them. McClellan was emaciated to the point he could hardily move. Stuart had no food to offer McClellan, but after talking with him, McClellan was able to move to the next campsite.
The next day, the Astorians saw three old buffalo bulls. One of the bulls was weak enough they managed to kill it. The men wolfed down the raw meat; Stuart was afraid it would make them sick. The party laid over the next day to cook and eat the meat. This was the first time in weeks the Astorians ate all they wanted.
Two days later at a creek lined with pine trees (Pine Creek near Pinedale, Wyoming), the party found:
The Astorians followed the New Fork River to its confluence with the Big Sandy River which drained the south end of the Wind River mountains. Along the way, Stuart traded for an old horse from a small band of Shoshone Indians living in four brush huts.
Rollins gives the coordinates for Stuart’s camp on the 21st of October 1812 as N42° 20' W108° 56'. If Rollins coordinates are accurate, this places Stuart’s camp within a half-mile of where the Stage and Pony Express station and the old Halter and Flick hay ranch were later located.
Stuart was two- and a half-miles west and a little to the south of the Old Oregon Trail Marker. The trail marker was erected on South Pass in 1906 by Ezra Meeker to commemorate the emigrant wagons crossing from Atlantic to Pacific waters.
This entry may explain why, when Stuart actually crossed the Continental Divide (October 22, 1812), his course was to the Southeast. Stuart followed the base of the Seminoe Mountains to Muddy Gap, and hit the Sweetwater just below the mouth of Muddy Creek. During the Oregon Trail migrations, there were many wagon roads and cut-offs across the twenty-mile wide South Pass. Stuart’s path was somewhat parallel to the Seminoe Cut-Off.
The Astorians followed the Sweetwater River passed Devils Gate and Independence Rock to the North Platte River.
Stuart followed the North Platte River to Bessemer Bend near present-day Casper, Wyoming Where Poison Spider Creek emptied into the North Platte at Bessemer Bend, Stuart built the first cabin in Wyoming.
The day after building the cabin, twenty-three Arapahoe approached the camp. The warriors were after a band of Crow that had stolen horses and women from their village. The Arapahoe were friendly, but Miller recognized some of them as the ones that stole his, Hoback, Robinson, Cass, and Rezner’s horses the previous winter.
The Indians left the next day, but afraid the Arapaho would return, Stuart abandoned the cabin of two days and proceeded down the North Platte. The Astorians reached the plains of Nebraska, near Chimney Rock where Stuart wrote in his journal:
After the vote was taken, the Stuart party turned back to where there was game and trees. On the 31st of December 1812, Stuart recorded:
Stuart’s winter camp was between Torrington, Wyoming and Scotts Bluff, Nebraska. Stuart writes little about the winter except the men hollowed out two cottonwood trees for canoes. On the 7th of March, 1813, Stuart noted:
The North Platte did not have enough water to float the hollowed-out canoes. After several days of struggling with them, the canoes were abandoned. The Astorians continued on foot with the horse obtained from the Shoshone near South Pass. Reaching an Otto Village, near Yutan, Nebraska, Stuart traded the old horse to a Mr. Dorouin for the materials to make a new canoe. Dorouin confirmed what two Otto Indians told Stuart two days before. There was war between the British and Americans.
Stuart described the canoe as:
With the new boat, the Astorians floated the Platte River to the mouth of the Missouri River, and then down the Missouri to Fort Osage where Stuart wrote:
Continuing down the Missouri, the Astorians arrived in St. Louis, on the 30th of April 1813. From Fort Astoria in June of 1812, the Robert Stuart party of Ramsey Crooks, Benjamin Jones, François LeClerc, André Vallé, and Robert McClellan had traveled close to thirty-eight hundred miles.
Robert Stuart left St. Louis on the 16th of May. He met with Astor on the 23rd of June 1813. One year and twenty-five days after leaving Fort Astoria. In a letter dated July 13th, Astor stated, "Mr. Stuart arrived here 14 days ago and the account he gives is satisfactory."
Robert Stuart with six Astorians discovery of South Pass and the future Oregon Trail contributed more to America’s Manifest Destiny than did the government sponsored Lewis and Clark Expedition. With the exceptions of longitude and latitude measurements, Robert Stuart’s observations on Indian tribes, geography, plants, and animals were comparable to the observations made by Lewis and Clark. Stuart's discovery of South Pass and the Oregon Trail provided a feasible wagon route to the Oregon Country. The route of Lewis and Clark was of no practical value in terms of western expansion.
The Robert Stuart article was written by O. Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming. Permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.
Citation: Eddins, Ned. (article name) Thefurtrapper.com. Afton, Wyoming. 2002.
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***The quotes from Stuart are from Rollins, the Hunt quotes are from Franchère and Rollins, and the ones on Astor and Fort Astoria are primarily from Ronda.
Bradbury, John. Travels in the Interior of America in the Years 1809, 1810, and 1811. Bison Books. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. 1986.
Chittenden, Hyrum Martin. American Fur Trade of the Far West. Volume I. The Press of the Pioneers, Inc., New York, New York. 1935.
Cox, Ross. The Columbia River, Edited by Edgar I. Stewart and Jane R. Stewart. 1831. Reprint. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma. 1957.
Ewers, John C. The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D. C. 1969.
Franchère, Gabriel. Adventures at Astoria 1810-1814. Translated and Edited by Hoyt C. Franchère. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma. 1967.
Gowans, Fred. Rocky Mountain Rendezvous. Perrigrine Smith Books, Layton, Utah. 1985.
Hunt, Wilson Price. The Overland Diary of Wilson Price Hunt, Translated From The French and Edited by Hoyt C. Franchère. The Oregon Book Society. Ashland, Oregon. 1973.
Irving, Washington. Astoria; or, Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains. Bison Books. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. 1982.
Lavender, David. Westward Vision. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. 1985.
Lindsley, Margaret Hawkes. Andrew Henry: Mine and Mountain Major. Jelm Mountain Publications. Laramie, Wyoming. 1990.
Ronda, James P. Astoria & Empire. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. 1990.
Ross, Alexander. Adventure of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810 - 1813. Bison Books. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. 1986.