MoboReader> Literature > The Way to the West / and the Lives of Three Early Americans: Boone—Crockett—Carson


The Way to the West / and the Lives of Three Early Americans: Boone—Crockett—Carson By Emerson Hough Characters: 42131

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

It is customary to read and to teach history in the time-honored fashion which begins at the beginning and comes on down until to-day, not skipping the battles and not forgetting the tables of dynasties, royal or political. Without wishing to be eccentric or iconoclastic, none the less one may venture to suggest that there may be a certain virtue in beginning with events well within our reach and comprehension, and then going backward, which is to say going forward, in our knowledge of our field. This is especially useful as a method in studying the history of the West of the trans-Missouri.

We have seen that the first Frémont expedition had no feature of discovery attached to it beyond the climbing to the top of a mountain that had been known by many for years, but which no one else had wanted to climb, because of the general knowledge of the fact that buffalo and beaver did not reside on the mountain tops. We know that Frémont, when he stood at the South Pass, was in the middle of a country that had been well known when he was a child. We have seen that his journey across the plains was over a country perfectly understood and fully charted. There were hostile Indians on the plains in those days, to be sure, yet Indians are far simpler as a problem if you yourself know the exact distances between grass and watering places and cover and good game country. All this information Frémont received ready prepared. Frémont commanded; Kit Carson led.

For Kit Carson we may feel a certain reverence as a man of the real West; but shall we believe that even Kit Carson divided with Frémont the experience of setting foot in a new and virgin world? Not so. Kit Carson himself, great man as he was, never claimed to be a great explorer. He is properly to be called a great traveler, not a great discoverer. He perhaps found some beaver streams at first hand, but he himself would have been the first to admit that he got all the great features of the Rockies at second hand. Before him there were discoverers and pseudo-discoverers, actual as well as false prophets of adventure.

If we go by dates alone we shall find ourselves presently concerned with Captain Bonneville, sometime famous as an "explorer" of the Rocky Mountains. Him we may class as one of the pseudo-discoverers. He was an army officer, who discovered nothing, but who obtained a great reputation through the chronicling of his deeds in the Rocky Mountains; so great that, having grossly exceeded his leave of absence, he was eventually reinstated in the Army after he had lost his commission, the president of the United States remarking that he "could not fail so to reward one who had contributed so much to the welfare of his country"! Bonneville was a lucky man. He lost but few mules and but few men. He brought back a map on which was founded the greater part of his reputation, maps and scientific nomenclature having been ever, in the estimation of some, held to surpass any original discoveries in geography and natural history.

Bonneville's map had a certain value at the time, yet it held little actual first hand information, because it was built upon knowledge derived from Gallatin, from that big man, General Ashley, the fur trader, and from the latter's gallant associate, Jedediah Smith.[44] As to Bonneville himself, he was, unless we shall except Frémont, the first great example of the class later to be known as "tenderfoot." A certain glory attaches to him, because he was the first man to take a wagon train through the South Pass, which he did ten years before Frémont "discovered" that country.

Bonneville went West in 1832, two years before Kit Carson stopped trapping beaver for the reason that it no longer paid him. The lucky captain traveled up the Platte valley to Fort Laramie, then broke across on the old mountain road of the West, up the Sweetwater, to the South Pass, thence getting upon the Pacific waters, the headwaters of the Green River; one of the two great arms of the Colorado, and an important stream in fur trading days. Obviously, Bonneville wanted to grow rich quickly in the fur trade, being more intent on that than on exploration for geographical purposes. He discovered that there was already a West beyond him, even then a distinct region, with ways of its own and men of its own. He continued to move about in the mountains for a couple of years more, the South Pass serving as the center of his operations; but really it is of little concern what Bonneville did during the remainder of his long stay in the West. We may, none the less, after a fashion, call Bonneville one of the predecessors of Carson, if we shall date Carson's earthly existence only from his connection with Frémont. How, then, did the lucky captain indirectly serve as predecessor of quiet and valid Kit Carson?

It was in this way. Bonneville had with him an old Santa Fé trail man named J. R. Walker; for we must remember that in 1832 the Santa Fé trail had really seen its best days. Walker wanted to go to California, and Bonneville was eager to have him do so, for the worthy captain was far more concerned about beaver than about geography; and there was, as we shall presently discover, a very good reason to foresee an abundance of beaver in California. Bonneville and his lieutenant, when these plans first matured, were still on the Green River, this being the year after they had first reached the Rockies. The fur trade was not prosperous; even thus early they found competition in the Rocky Mountains. The country was not new enough. The West, as viewed from the headwaters of the Green River, lay still farther forward in the course of the setting sun. Walker must go to California and bring back from it its beaver peltry.

Walker, therefore, on July twenty-seventh, 1833, left Bonneville on the Green River and started on the tremendous journey toward the Pacific Ocean. He took with him forty men, and perhaps later picked up a dozen wandering trappers or so, who desired to join the California venture. Here, then, was a discoverer who started for California more than a decade before Frémont did; more than sixteen years before any one suspected California to be a land of gold. The trapping of beaver, and not the digging of gold, was the first cause of Californian exploration by the Americans of the upper West. The beaver was a fateful animal.

Walker dropped down the Green River into the valley of the Great Salt Lake, which was at that time a perfectly well known country, though it had not been described in any official reports. Thence he headed westward across the Great Basin, whose terrors had so long held back even the hardy trappers of the mountain region. He gave the name Barren River to the stream now called the Humboldt. He gave his own name to another stream. After some fashion he won across the great desert, and crossed also the Sierra range, accomplishing this latter feat about October twenty-fifth. He was, perhaps, the first man to see the Yosemite valley, though as to that we can not be certain. By the end of November, 1833, he was within view of the Pacific Ocean.

After all, then, it did not seem to be so hard to get across the country in those early times. Nor was it so difficult to return. Walker had fifty-two men and three hundred and sixty-five horses when he started eastward in February, 1834. He had, of course, met that Spanish civilization which first explored the Colorado River and first settled the Pacific slope. Walker now had guides, Indians of the land, who led him eastward across the Sierras, somewhat south of the place where he crossed going west.

Once over the mountains, he headed northward along the eastern edge of the range, until he intercepted his own west-bound trail, which he followed back until he reached what is now known as the Humboldt River. Thence he went north to the Snake River, and so on back to the rendezvous on the Bear River. At the rendezvous he made public what information he could add to the general store. Thus it was, perhaps, that Carson and his confrères learned more than they had known before of the beaver country beyond the Sierras. That rendezvous of the old mountain men-ah! who will one day understand it and immortalize it? That was a great market, a great journal, a great college! There indeed maps were made! There indeed geography grew! That was where the West was really learned ab initio.

This mountain market, this map-making college of a primeval West, was first established in 1824; hence we may say that Walker, in 1834, had no license to be called an old-timer in the West. In 1834 the old West of the adventurers was done.[45] He was before Frémont, before Carson's leadership of Frémont; but there was some one else before him, a man who had crossed the continent and had seen the western sea even before Kit Carson made his first journey thither with the men of Taos and Bent's Fort neighborhood; even before Walker's successful expedition was conceived.

Who was this earlier man, this first man to cross to the Pacific by the land trail? No less than one Smith, Jedediah Smith, a man of no rank nor title, and all too little station in American history. This was the man that first led the trappers from the Rockies west to California. This man, Jedediah Smith, is indeed a hero. Not a boaster but an adventurer; not a talker but a doer of deeds; the very man fit to be type of the Western man to come. Smith himself was the product of a generation of the American West, and though we search all the annals of that West, we shall find no more satisfying record, no more eye-filling picture, nor any greater figure than his own. He is worthy of a place by the side of that other Smith, the John Smith who explored Virginia, near the starting place of the American star of empire. What pity that Washington Irving did not find Jedediah Smith rather than the inconsequent Bonneville, and so immortalize the right man with his beautifying pen! There is a great hero story left untold!

Our Smith was a member of that firm of young men, Smith, Sublette and Jackson, who bought out the business of that first great fur trader, General Ashley. It goes without saying that Smith knew all the upper country of the Yellowstone, the Missouri, the South Pass region, the Sweetwater, the Green, the Bear, long before he first resolved to gratify his love of initial adventure and to head out across that unknown country of the far Southwest.

We are getting close to the first of new-American things when we come to the story of his journey. There had been early Spaniards, there had been Indians perhaps, who knew the way across, but there was none to pilot Smith. He started of his own resolve and traveled under his own guidance. They had not told him, as they had told Kit Carson, of the excellent beaver country of the Sacramento. The vast country beyond the Great Salt Lake had been too forbidding for even that later hardy soul to undertake as yet; and the reaches of the Rockies above and below the eastern edge of that desert had contented all of Bridger's hardy companions. The more reason, therefore, thought Smith, that he and his little party of fifteen men should cross the desert; and he did so, quite as though it were a matter of course.

Having no guide, he simply went west as well as he could, clinging to grass and water as he went. He left the rendezvous near Salt Lake in 1826, crossed the Sevier valley, struck the Virgin or Adams River, followed the Colorado for a time, and at length broke boldly away over the awful California desert, until, in such way as we can but imagine, he reached at length the Spanish settlements of San Diego. This was in the month of October. Smith crossed the Sierras near the point where runs to-day the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé Railroad. He was somewhat in advance of the engineers.

Although we do not learn that Smith had any guide or any advance information, it seems that the Spaniards did not appreciate the difficulties under which he had visited them. They bade him leave the country at once. Perhaps Smith was not quite candid with the Spaniards, for, though he promised compliance, instead of starting directly back to the eastward, he went north four hundred miles, put out his traps and wintered on the San Joaquin and Merced rivers. He found there a trapper's El Dorado.

This information, of course, would be more valuable when imparted to his friends eastward in the Rockies. Hence we observe Smith leaving his party, and taking with him only two men, seven horses and two mules, calmly starting back again to the Rockies, which by this time must have seemed to him an old and well settled country. In the incredible time of twenty-eight days he was back again at the southwest corner of Salt Lake. We can not tell just how he made this journey. Perhaps he crossed the Sierras near the Sonora Pass, thence went east, far to the south of the Humboldt River, and south also of what is now called Walker Lake. We must remember that neither this river nor lake had any name when Smith was there. Jedediah Smith antedated all names, all maps, all geography! Yet all this was not so very long ago, if we reflect that it took three hundred years to find the source of the Mississippi River after its mouth had been discovered. It is not yet one hundred years back to Smith.

Jedediah Smith was no man to waste time. He told his friends what he had found beyond the snowy range. By July thirteenth, 1827, he was ready with eighteen men of a new party to start back for California. Now he began to meet the first of his extraordinarily bad luck, the first of a series of misfortunes that must have stopped any man but himself. The Spaniards seem to have had some notion of Smith's intentions, and they set Indians to watch the trails down the Virgin and the Colorado. These met Smith near the Colorado River and killed ten of his men. Almost destitute, Smith reached the Spanish settlements of San Gabriel and San Diego only to meet with further misfortune. His native guides-for now he had learned how to secure Indian guides-were imprisoned, and he himself was thrown into jail at San José. He was released on condition that he leave the country; which he proceeded to do after a fashion peculiarly his own. He traveled three hundred miles to the north and wintered on a stream now called, from that fact, the American Fork.

All this time he was finding good beaver country, and the packs of the little party grew heavier and heavier. Why he did not now cross the Sierras and get back home again we do not know; but instead of going east, he struck northwest, until he nearly reached the Pacific Ocean. Thence he turned inland, and headed due north,-which meant Oregon. It is easy to-day, but Smith had no map, no trail, no transportation save that of the horse and mule train. All the time he and his party continued to pick up a greater store of beaver.

At last, on July twenty-fourth, 1828, somewhere near the Umpqua River, they established a temporary camp. On that day Smith left camp for a time, and as he returned he met Indians, who fired upon him. He got back to the bivouac, only to find it the scene of one of those horrible Indian butcheries with which the trapper of that day was all too familiar. Ten men out of his new party had been killed on the Colorado. Here, about the camp in Oregon, lay fifteen more of his men, dead, scalped and mutilated. The horses were gone. Three of his companions had escaped, but these had fled in a panic, each on his own account. The discoverer, Smith, was there alone in the mountains, without map, without guide, without counsel. There was a situation, simple, primeval, Titanic! There indeed was the West!

Smith was a religious man, a Christian. His was an inner and unfailing courage not surpassed by that of any known Western man. Perhaps he sought Divine counsel in this his extremity; at least he lost neither courage nor calmness. He knew, of course, that there was a Columbia River somewhere; for this was in 1828, and by that time the Columbia was an old story. He knew that this great river was north of him, and knew that there were settlements near its mouth, as we shall presently understand. He further knew that the North Star pointed out the north. Alone, with his rifle as reliance, he made that tremendous journey northward which Frémont, with his full party, made in an opposite direction, on a parallel line farther to the eastward, only after untold hardship, though Frémont had men and animals and supplies. Sustained by Providence, as he believed, Smith at length accomplished his journey and reached the Hudson Bay post at Fort Vancouver.

We may now see the strange commercial conditions of that time. We say that Jedediah Smith was the first to cross from the Rockies to the Pacific; but this, of course, means only that he was the first to cross at mid-continent. There had been others on the Columbia before Smith. The Hudson Bay factor, Doctor McLaughlin, a great and noble man, a gentleman of the wilderness, meets the wanderer as a friend, although he is in the employ of a rival company. He sends out a party to recover Smith's lost packs of beaver at the abandoned camp far to the southward. Almost incredible to say, these men do find the furs.

McLaughlin gives Smith a draft on London for twenty thousand dollars, it is said, in payment for these furs! Strange contrast to the treatment Ashley and his men accorded the Hudson Bay trapper, Ogden, some years earlier, when the latter was in adversity in the Rockies! Strange story indeed, this of the adventures of Jedediah Smith! Survivor of thirty of his men, escaped from a Spanish prison, robbed, nearly killed, after one of the most perilous journeys ever undertaken in the West, Smith emerges from this desperate trip across an unmapped country with twenty thousand dollars, and none of his men left to share it!

In March, 1829, Smith started east from Fort Vancouver to find his partners, Sublette and Jackson. When he reached the Flathead country he was much at home, for he had been there before. Thence he headed to the Snake River, where he met Jackson, "who," says our historian, na?vely, "was looking for him!" The ways of that time were, after all, of a certain sufficiency. Sublette he finds on the Henry Fork on August fifth, also much as a matter of course. Strange lands, strange calling, strange restoration after unusual and wild experiences-so strange that we find nothing in the life of Crockett to parallel it in valor and initiative, nothing in Boone's to surpass it, nothing in Carson's to equal it, and nothing in the story of any adventurer's life to cast it in the shade.

This was indeed authentic traveling, authentic discovering, and upon this was based the first map of a vast region in what was really the West. After all this was done, the knowledge spread rapidly, we may suppose. This was how Carson's friends learned of the Sacramento. This is how the discoveries of Frémont were forerun; for the latter, under Carson's guidance, simply circumnavigated the vast region which Smith both circumnavigated and crossed direct. Readers would not receive the plain story of Jedediah Smith as fit for fiction. It would be too impossible.

We might pause to tell the end of so great a man as this. At last Smith and his historic partners found the fur trade too much divided to be longer profitable. In 1830 the three went to St. Louis to take a venture in the Santa Fé trade, this being two years before Captain Bonneville sallied out into the West. Contemptuous of the dangers of the prairies, after facing so long those of the mountains, these three hardy Westerners started across the plains with a small outfit of their own. Far out on the Arkansas they were beset by the Comanches. Fighting like a man and destroying a certain number of his enemies before he himself fell, Jedediah Smith was killed. He met thus the logical though long deferred end of a life that had always been careless of danger.

Gregg, in his "Scenes and Incidents in the Western Prairies" (the book later known as "The Commerce of the Prairies"), mentions the death of Smith, but of his life and character he seemed to have had but little knowledge. The historian of the Santa Fé trade was just starting West when Smith closed his own career. Smith was dead before Bonneville saw the Rockies. We see that he antedated Walker and Carson and Frémont. The fatal prairie expedition of these great fur traders, Smith, Sublette and Jackson, went on westward up the Arkansas with the mountain trader, Fitzpatrick, who was bound for a rendezvous far to the north of Bent's Fort-the same Fitzpatrick whom Carson met above Bent's Fort in one of his own expeditions. Now we may begin to see the trails of our trappers and adventurers interlacing and crossing, and can understand who were the real adventurers, who the actual explorers.

Great and satisfying a figure as Jede

diah Smith makes, we may not pause with him too long, and may not believe him to have been at the very first of things. He was the first to cross over the Rockies and the Sierras in mid-America, yet he was not the first white man to stand on the soil of the dry Southwest. Examine the older maps and you shall see along the Virgin and the Colorado the line of the old Spanish trail from California to the mission settlements of New Mexico.

It can not accurately be told who first made this trail, crossing the valley of the Colorado, whose flood drains two hundred and twenty-five thousand square miles of mountain and desert. In 1781 Father Garcés built a mission on the Colorado near the mouth of the Gila. But he was not the first. Cardenas, a fellow-soldier with Coronado, is perhaps the first man to write of the Grand Ca?on of the Colorado; but he was not the first to discover it nor the first to see that stream. Alarcon, a member of the party of the sea captain Uloa, was the first man to reach the Colorado. This was in the year 1540, the ship of Uloa reaching the Gulf of California in 1539.

This was a small matter of three hundred years before Frémont saw the South Pass, some three hundred years before Jedediah Smith crossed the desert to California, and something like three hundred years before the upper sources of the Mississippi River were known! So thus we may leave this portion of the West to await the Gadsden Purchase, and the addition of the land won by Houston and Crockett and Fannin and Travis and other hero friends to the south and east of the purchased territory.

As for the transportation employed during these early times, we may repeat a few facts by way of insistence. The Santa Fé trade began with pack trains, but saw wagons used in 1822. In 1826 General Ashley took his little wheeled cannon through the South Pass to his fort on Utah Lake. In 1830 Smith, Sublette and Jackson made the journey from the Missouri River with mule teams and wagons as far as the Wind River; and they said they could have gone on over the South Pass with their wagons had they wished to do so. Poor Bonneville! His distinction of taking the first wagon through the South Pass is as empty as that of Frémont in climbing his mountain peak near that same South Pass. Both accomplishments had been left undone by earlier visitors simply because they did not want to do these things. We see that, before Carson or Walker or Smith, the courses and headwaters of the Yellowstone and the Missouri and the Columbia rivers were all very well known. We have noted that Smith knew of the Columbia settlements. This he knew because he had learned it at the rendezvous. How came these settlements on the Columbia? We shall have to go to New York to find the answer to that question.

Everybody knows the story of Astoria and the beginning of the American Fur Company. John Jacob Astor of New York secured a New York charter for that company April sixth, 1808, very soon after hearing the results of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He had a great purpose in his mind. He had fought out and bought out competitors in the fur trade all along the Great Lakes; had met and gaged the resources of the Northwest Company, then beginning to rival the ancient Hudson Bay Company in the wild race across the continent.

It was Astor's idea to beat the Northwest Fur Company to the mouth of the Columbia, and hence command what was supposed to be the rich fur trade of that new and unknown region. He intended to send ships laden with trading supplies to the mouth of the Columbia River, there to take on the cargoes of furs caught by his own men or secured in trade with the Indians. These ships, laden with furs, were to go thence across the Pacific to China, and were to return from China to New York, laden with the products of the Orient, which our old-time historian, Henry Howe, thought must some time come across the American continent by rail. Here, then, was a commercial undertaking of no small dimensions.

Mr. Astor attached two strings to his bow. He fitted out one expedition by sea, and one by land, the objective point of each being the mouth of the Columbia River. He relied largely upon men he had known in the fur trade of the Great Lakes for the leadership of his land party, but he made the great mistake of placing three men in practically equal command. Unfortunately, he made another mistake in establishing the leadership of his sea expedition. There was but one leader there, the captain of the ship Tonquin, Thorne by name, a man by no means fitted to command any company of adventurers. The Tonquin left New York September sixth, 1810. It reached the mouth of the Columbia River March twenty-second, 1811. A party was soon thereafter detached for the erection of the proposed post to be known as Astoria. The Tonquin then proceeded northward up the coast. Its commander, domineering, overbearing, not fitted to trade with the Indians, succeeded in exciting the wrath of the Coast Indians. The latter attacked his ship and practically destroyed his crew, one of whom, an unknown fighting man, whose name is lost by reason of events, blew up the ship, killing many savages and destroying all vestige of the encounter. This was about June thirteenth, 1811.

As to the land party under its three leaders, we may say that the winter was spent near St. Joseph, Missouri, but on April twenty-first, 1811, about a month after the ship Tonquin had reached the mouth of the Columbia, this land party started out on its long and arduous western journey. By June twelfth they had traveled thirteen hundred and twenty-five miles up the Missouri River, being then in the neighborhood of the Arickaree villages. There they bought horses and started boldly westward, leaving the waterway of the Missouri, the first of the great companies of transcontinental travelers to proceed along the cord of the great bow of the Missouri.

There were sixty-four of these Astorians, and they had with them eighty-two horses. They must have passed to the north of the Black Hills. They crossed the Big Horns and on September twenty-ninth were on the Wind River, a stream later to be so well known by trappers and traders. They ascended the Wind River about eighty miles, seeking for a place to cross the Rocky Mountains. They had Crow Indians as guides through the Big Horns, and west of the Big Horns the Shoshones had guided them. These Indians detected signs of other Indians on ahead, and hence did not present to these travelers the natural and easy way, through the South Pass,-an ascent so gentle that one can scarcely tell when he has reached the actual summit. The Astorians crossed the mountains probably at what is now known as the Union Pass, a little to the north of the South Pass.

On September twenty-fourth they started from the Green River to the Snake River, and on October eighth, 1811, reached Fort Henry, which, at the time the Astorians reached it, was an abandoned post. It seems that even these early travelers found a West in which there had been some one before them! Thence, scattered and disorganized, on foot and by boat, this party undertook to go down the Snake River to the Columbia. By January first, 1812, they reached the valley known as the Grande Ronde. By January eighth some of them were on the Umatilla River, and some of them reached the Columbia by January twenty-first. Here they met Indians, who told them of the destruction of the Tonquin and the loss of a great number of their associates-an incident that shows well enough the strange fashion in which news travels in the wilderness.

Some parties under Mackenzie, McLellan and Reed separated, came down the Clearwater to the Lewis or Snake River, and thence voyaged on down-stream as best they could. Some of these reached Astoria January eighteenth, 1812, ahead of others of their scattered companions, who seem to have wandered aimlessly about the upper tributaries of the Columbia. The party under Hunt reached Astoria February fifteenth, 1812. Crooks and Day, others of the expedition, did not come in until May eleventh. A party of thirteen trappers, who had been left behind to pursue their calling, did not reach the post until January fifteenth, 1813. The trip, measuring by the time of the first arrivals at the mouth of the Columbia, had required three hundred and forty days. Thirty-five hundred miles of country had been covered. The Northwestern Company had been beaten in the race to the mouth of the Columbia by just three months. It was beaten by a gait of about ten miles a day! We build railroads almost as rapidly as that to-day.

Discovering that, ten years before Jedediah Smith made his journey northward across Oregon to Fort Vancouver, there were well established lines of travel and well established settlements on the Columbia and its tributaries, we may think that by this time we are close to the first of things in Western history. Of course we know that ahead of the Astoria party was the Lewis and Clark expedition. Before Lewis and Clark came the Louisiana Purchase, which offered us this territory for exploration; and the Lewis and Clark expedition will serve as the starting point of our scheme of the history of the trans-Missouri.

We may, perhaps, reinforce these salient points in memory if we go back once more well upon this side of our former starting point, and work to it again upon slightly different lines. For instance, we may ask, who built Fort Henry, the fort that the Astorians found abandoned, west of the Rocky Mountains? The answer is, Major Andrew Henry, some time partner of that energetic early merchant, General Ashley. Henry was at the Three Forks of the Missouri in 1810. He crossed southward through the mountains and built Fort Henry in the fall of that year. This was the first post built west of the Continental Divide. It was erected on what is now known as the Henry Fork of the Snake River.

But was Major Henry himself the first man to penetrate into the Rockies? He was not. Who, then, was ahead of Henry? The answer is, Manuel Liza, that strange character of Spanish, French and American blood, who was perhaps the first of the Western merchants to catch the full significance of the Lewis and Clark expedition. We have heard of one William Morrison, of Kaskaskia, Illinois, who sent a representative to far-off Santa Fé. This same William Morrison was the partner of our strange genius, Manuel Liza, in the first fur trading venture up the Missouri. They fitted out one keel-boat for the Northwest trade in the spring of 1807.

Did Liza and his hardy crew of keel boatmen find an untracked and uninhabited wilderness? Not altogether such; for, as they were ascending the ancient waterway, they met coming down one John Colter, that hardy soul who had left the Lewis and Clark expedition to return to the Yellowstone River for the purpose of doing a little beaver trapping on his own account. Colter, it may be remembered, is thought to have been the first discoverer of the region now included in the Yellowstone National Park. This country was discovered and forgotten, to be later officially "discovered" on the same basis that Frémont discovered other portions of the Rockies. Colter is the last link in this chain. He brings us back again to Lewis and Clark, the first of the up-stream adventurers to penetrate the region of the trans-Missouri.

We may all the better strengthen the backward-running chain by one or two more links extending from comparatively recent dates, to those that we may consider as marking the beginning of things in the West. For instance, we have heard much of General Ashley, that enterprising and fortunate early fur trader, whose success was the first to call the attention of the capital of the East to the enormous profits of the fur trade in the West when properly conducted. Ashley's first partner was Major Andrew Henry.

The first rendezvous of the mountain men was that arranged in 1824 for Ashley and Henry's men. Ashley himself undertook to explore the Green River, a stream then thought to empty into the Gulf of Mexico, no less an authority than Baron Humboldt having made this particular error in Western geography. Shipwrecked, Ashley none the less escaped, and somewhere near the point where he met his disaster, he cut his name on a rock, together with the date, 1825. Major Powell, later an official discoverer, in his expedition down the Colorado River, found the place where Ashley was wrecked on that stream just forty-four years earlier. Major Powell read the engraved inscription as 1855 instead of 1825. In his account he sends some of Ashley's men, survivors of the wreck, over to Salt Lake City, and has them go to work upon the Temple! "Of their subsequent history," remarks Major Powell, gravely, "I have no knowledge."

This, as Mr. Chittenden points out in his admirable work, "The American Fur Trade," is one of the jests of Western history, for Ashley was on the Green River thirty years before the Mormons left Missouri! We shall need to allow a few years to pass before we come to the transcontinental migration of the Mormons and the building of their Temple. Ashley foreran all that. He was at Salt Lake and on the Green River, and quite across the Mormon country, a short time after the first Astorian party had passed on west.

Thus, if we begin to study too closely into the early history of the trans-Missouri, we begin to lose all respect for its mysteries, and come to think of it as a country that was never new, but was always well known. Indeed, there is much warrant for this. Witness again the journeys of that straightforward character, Lieutenant Pike, the first American officer to reach the headwaters of the Mississippi River, and to arrange for the proper respect for the American flag in that far-off country. After Pike had returned down the Mississippi River and had been ordered to explore the country near the Rockies, around the headwaters of the Red River, he began to cross the trails of some of these earlier adventurers of whom we have been speaking. Thus, in 1806, while Pike is making his way across the plains, he hears of Lewis and Clark's descent of the Missouri. On August nineteenth, 1806, he states that he finds the "place where Mr. Chouteau formerly had his fort." Chouteau was one of these same early fur traders, as we shall find if we care to go into the minuti? of history. Lieutenant Pike describes this fort as "already overgrown with vegetation;" so it could not have been new in 1806.

From this point Lieutenant Pike goes to "Manuel Liza's fort," which then marked another advance post of the trans-Missouri travel. Next he heads westward, touches the Grand and White rivers and reaches the Solomon Fork. Here he meets the Pawnees, discovers that they are wearing Spanish medals, learns that the Spaniards have sent an expedition into that country from the New Mexican settlements, and finds a "very large road" over which the Spaniards have returned to the westward. Thus it seems that not even good Zebulon was to have a West all his own.

Forsooth, Lieutenant Pike might have gone back more than two hundred years, and have bethought himself of the old Spaniard Coronado, who in the year 1540 journeyed from Mexico across the plains until he stood on the banks of the Missouri River, from which Pike himself started forth. And strange enough, if we seek for coincidences, is the fact that Coronado himself recounts that he met on the Missouri River, that is to say, on the stream that is now called the Missouri, an Indian who wore a silver medal that was evidently the work of a white man. There is something singular for you, if you seek a strange incident! Where did Coronado's Indian get his medal? This was closer to the first of things. It must have come from the settlements of the whites on the lower Atlantic slope. But by what process of travel? Are we indeed to have any mysteries in the West, and shall we ever be able to set any date in our scheme of transportation properly to be called initial?

If we look at a map of the trans-Missouri as it existed in 1840, prior to the official exploration of the West, we shall indeed find that "hardly one of the great geographical features was unknown." We shall find the Missouri and the Yellowstone rivers dotted thick with the stockades of the fur traders. We shall find, if we search in the records of those days, that the whites had long lived among the Indians and had come to know their ways. We shall discover, if we care to believe such apochryphal history as that offered by the ostensible Indian captive, John D. Hunter,[46] that the Indian himself has been something of an explorer. Hunter tells of plains Indians, dwellers of the prairie country near the Missouri, who themselves made the transcontinental journey and saw the mouth of the Columbia. He states that this journey was traditional at that time, and adds that he himself, with a party of plains Indians, likewise made this journey to the Columbia, crossing the Rockies at a different pass in coming back from that met with in the western journey.

We may believe his story or not, as we like; but we are bound to believe that these plains Indians antedated the first white men in the discovery of the South Pass and of many other features of the Rocky Mountains. It is doubtful, indeed, whether any party of white men in those early days ever crossed the mountains excepting under the entire or partial guidance of Indians, who took them over country known to themselves.

We may believe, therefore, that the native Indian savages furnished the source of original knowledge to our first explorers. If you be familiar with the Rockies of to-day, you shall now and again see the old Indian trails, overgrown and unused, sinking back into the earth. In the valley of the Two Medicine, on the reservation of those same Blackfeet who once fought the trappers so boldly, the writer once found, high up on the mountain side, a plainly traceable trail that led down to the summit of a high ridge, whence one could look far to the eastward, to where the Sweet Grass hills loomed out of the level sweep of the prairies. There was a hunter with me, a man married among the Blackfeet, of whom I asked regarding this trail. "It is the old Kootenai trail," said he; "and if you follow this back to the West, it will take you through a pass of the Rockies and into the country of the Flatheads."

Here, then, was indeed an ancient and historic pathway, one not used to-day by any rails of iron, nor followed even by the pack trains of the "adventurers" of to-day. Here was a pass discovered, no man may tell when, by Indians who wandered eastward and westward across the upper Rockies. Perhaps the old trappers also know this trail; though there are not wanting those who believe that less than a double decade ago the valleys at the headwaters of the St. Mary's Lake still lay untouched by the foot of white man. Here, along this forgotten mountain trail, came the Kootenais with their war parties against the Blackfeet. Here, perhaps, came, from the upper Pacific coast, the first horses used by the plains Indians in the far North. Be that as it may, my companion and I without doubt stood on one of the original or aboriginal pathways; and he had been dull indeed who did not find an interest in that fact and in the surroundings.[47]

"Who made the first Indian trails?" I asked of my friend, as we stood at the eastern end of this old pathway. He pointed to similar paths crossing the sides of the ridge near to us, and other little paths leading up the valley along the sides of the mountains.

"It was the elk and the deer and the mountain sheep," said he. "They found the easiest ways to travel; they found the grass and the water."

* * *


All of these maps, by the way, must have been at the disposal of Frémont; yet we do not learn that he believed the east and west course of the Buena Ventura was an impossibility, although Jedediah Smith had long since shown the inaccuracy of this old idea, which later was to cost Frémont so much suffering in the mountains of upper California.


Again, remember this significant date of 1834.


This story of an alleged captivity among the Indians, extending from childhood to young manhood, is by some considered unauthentic. The volume, a curious one, was printed in London, in 1825.


The trail of the white race over the Appalachians was but the trail of the red men. The Sioux Indians, for generations inhabitants of the upper plains country of the West, formerly lived east of the Appalachians. The first settlers of Kentucky and Tennessee simply followed the ancient ways by which the Indians crossed into the valley of the Mississippi. And there, as in the West, the Indians but followed the paths of the wild animals, which clung nearly as possible to the courses of the streams.-V. "The Indians of To-day;" Grinnell.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top