Overland Astorians Across the Rocky
Mountains To The Oregon Country
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Wilson Price Hunt and Donald Mackenzie left New York soon after the Pacific Fur Company was formed. The two men went to Montreal, and then to Michilimackinac to hire French-Canadian voyageurs and trappers. Two of the men hired while in Mackinac were Ramsey Crooks, as a full partner, and Joe Gervias. Hunt and his men took the Green Bay, Fox, and Wisconsin rivers to Prairie du Chien, then down the Mississippi to St. Louis. Not wanting the expense of wintering his men in St. Louis, Hunt took the men up the Missouri to where they could live off the land, until the ice broke up in the spring. After his men were settled on the Nodawa River (Nodaway River), which was about fifteen miles above St. Joseph, Missouri, Wilson Hunt went back to St. Louis to hire more hunters and a Sioux interpreter.
During the fall and winter, several men joined up at the Nodawa camp, including Robert McClellan and John Day. A former partner of Ramsey Crooks, McClellan was given two and one-half shares in the Pacific Fur Company.
Hunt and the men hired over the winter left St. Louis in March, 1811. Accompanying him was another partner Joseph Miller with two and one-half shares, an interpreter Pierre Dorian Jr. with his wife Marie and two little boys. The boys were Jean Baptiste (five) and Jean (two). Two naturalists, John Bradbury and Thomas Nuttall—curator of the botanic gardens of Harvard University from 1825 to 1834—accompanied the westbound Astorians. After a few days at the Nodawa Camp, the Astorians started up the Missouri River on April 21, 1811.
Manuel Lisa of the Missouri Fur Company hotly pursued the Astorians. When the Astorians left the Nodawa, Lisa was nineteen days, and about two hundred and forty miles behind them. Covering a period of two months and a distance of about eleven hundred miles, this remarkable keelboat race is one of the notable events in early western history (Chittenden). On Lisa’s boat was Henry Marie Brackenridge another naturalist. He and Bradbury both published books on their travels up the Missouri River. These books are the two firsthand accountants of travel on the Missouri, and the surrounding country.
Five men joined the Astorians on the way upriver. Three of them, John Hoback, Edward Robinson, and Jacob Rezner, wintered with Andrew Henry of the Missouri Fur Company on Henry’s Fork of Snake River in Idaho. These three men reached the Missouri River by way of Jackson Hole, Togwotee Pass (elevation 9579 ft.), and the Bighorn Mountains. The other two, Benjamin Jones and Alexander Carson were returning from two years trapping on the upper Missouri. Wilson Price Hunt’s original plan was to follow the route of Lewis and Clark, but after talking to the new arrivals, he decided to follow the route of Hoback, Rezner, and Robinson through the Bighorn mountains, up Wind River, over Togwotee Pass, and into Jackson Hole.
Hunt’s party reached the Arikara Villages at the mouth of the Grand River on the 12th of June, and he immediately started to trade for horses. Wilson Hunt could not get enough horses from the Arikara, so he traded his keelboat to Lisa for horses. When Ramsey Crooks went above the Mandan villages on the Great Bend of the Missouri after Lisa’s horses, John Bradbury accompanied him.
By July 18, 1811, the Wilson Price Hunt Party had enough horses to start overland. After leaving the two naturalists with Lisa, Hunt’s party consisted of the five partners, John Reed a clerk, fifty-six men, a woman, two children, and eighty-two horses. Everyone walked except the company partners and the woman, Marie Dorian. Eighteen days later Wilson Hunt visited a Cheyenne camp.
Along the way, probably at the Arikara Village, Wilson Hunt hired Edward Rose as a Crow interpreter.
Rose stayed with the first Crow Indians Hunt encountered. A few days later, the Chief found out Hunt was following the wrong trail. The Chief sent Rose to put them on a shorter, easier trail across the Bighorn Mountains to the Valley of the Wind River.
The trail over Union Pass gave the party, its first view of the Teton Range. Hunt promptly named them the Pilot Knobs. From Union Pass, Hunt could have followed the Gros Ventre River into Jackson Hole, but the hunters knew there would be little or no game in Jackson Hole. The best place to find buffalo was the Green River Valley.
Once in the Green River Valley, Hunt hunted on the Horse Creek meadows for five days. During this time, the Astorians dried four thousand pounds of buffalo meat and traded with a band of Shoshone for another two thousand pounds.
The Astorians proceeded up North Beaver, over the rim into Hoback Basin, and then down the Hoback River to Snake River. At the junction of the Hoback and Snake rivers, Hunt left Alexander Carson, Louis St. Michel, Pierre Detaye, and Pierre Delaunay to trap the Jackson Hole and upper Snake River area, and then continue on to the mouth of the Columbia River.
These were the first men to trap what would become the geographical center of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. Hunt and the rest of the party turned down Snake River searching for cottonwood trees large enough to make hollowed-out canoes.
At present-day Astoria Springs, John Reed, John Day, and Pierre Dorian continued down Snake River while the rest of the men cut down cottonwoods for canoes. Reed returned in two days and told Hunt Snake River Canyon was impassable for canoes, or horses. After Reed's report, the Astorians referred to the rapid, roaring river as the Mad River. With two Snake Indian guides, the Astorian crossed Snake River and followed a well-traveled Indian trail up Fall Creek, over Teton Pass into Pierre’s Hole, and on to Fort Henry.
Back to the Astorians: Dissatisfied with his two and a half shares in the Pacific Fur Company, Joseph Miller resigned from the company. Miller, along with Edward Robinson, John Hoback, Jacob Rezner, and Martin Cass stayed to trap the Idaho-Wyoming area. Hunt noted in his journal:
The Astorians floated down Snake River which Wilson Price Hunt referred to as the Canoe River. With some difficulties and portages, they managed to reach an area near Milner, Idaho [Washington Irving's Caldron Linn] where Snake River entered a deep, straight-walled gorge. Crook’s canoe capsized, and a French voyageur, Antoine Clappine drowned.
After caching the goods, Ramsey Crooks started for Fort Henry to retrieve the horses. After a few days, he decided it was impossible to reach Fort Henry and return before snowfall. Hunt and Crooks divided the remaining men into two parties, each to proceed on its own. Hunt followed the north bank of Snake River with nineteen men, the woman, and two children, while Crooks and the rest of the men followed the south bank.
The rest of the journey for the westbound Astorian was one of continual starvation and misery. A point of interest was Marie Dorian.
Mackenzie, Reed, and McClellan left the main party and followed the north bank of Snake River to Lewiston, Idaho. On the way, they met another group of men, and floated down the Snake and Columbia rivers. The eleven men arrived at Fort Astoria on January 18th, 1812.
Hunt’s party reached Fort Astoria on Feb 15th, 1812. Hunt wrote in his journal.
Ramsey Crooks was too ill to keep up, and John Day stayed with him. Crooks and Day finally reached the banks of the Umatilla River and followed it to the Columbia River. A fur trading party of Astorians found them on the Columbia in early May. Both men were practically naked and starving. The last two stragglers of the westbound Astorians reached Fort Astoria on May 11th, 1812.
The Wilson Price Hunt 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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