Trade seeking the Northwest. Hunt and the "overland Astorians." Ashley and Wyeth. Bonneville’s journeys. Explorations by Frémont.

Of the many adventurous journeys to the vague western boundaries of Louisiana and beyond, the most remarkable for the first decade of the American fur trade was the expedition of Wilson Price Hunt, leader of the "overland Astorians." This expedition was due to the commercial enterprise of John Jacob Astor. The journey of Lewis and Clark had shown that the upper Missouri and the country beyond the mountains was rich in furs. Mr. Astor saw a tempting opportunity for trading posts from the mouth of the Columbia to its source and along the Missouri, an opportunity which offered not only trade with our East but a most profitable commerce with China and Japan. In a word, this German "captain of industry" saw a practicable northwest passage, — a possible means of reaching that rich Oriental trade which had tempted the voyages of Columbus and of later seekers for a route to the Spice Islands and Cathay.

In 1808 Mr. Astor organized the American Fur Company, and later the Pacific Fur Company, the latter merely a name for the branch of the first company which was to operate on the Pacific coast. Two expeditions were planned, one to go by sea and one by land. The ship carrying the former left New York in 1810, reaching the mouth of the Columbia the following spring. The foundation of Astoria1 was accomplished under unfortunate auspices, and the result was a failure that need not be dwelt upon, since our present concern lies with Hunt’s overland journey, which may be said to have opened the Oregon trail.

In March, 1811, Hunt left St. Louis with his party and ascended the Missouri. His original purpose was to continue up the Missouri and the Yellowstone. But tidings of hostile Blackfeet on the route induced him to leave the river at the country of the Arikaras, thirteen hundred and twenty-five miles above the mouth of the Missouri, and to make the journey by land. His party, sixty-four in number, turned westward into an unknown country. They passed near the Black Hills, and made their way through the Big Horn and Wind River mountains to the valley of Green River. Thence they crossed the divide to the Snake River, and after many bitter experiences in the mountain winter they reached the Columbia late in January, 1812, and on February 15 arrived at Astoria.

This journey occupied three hundred and forty days, and the distance according to Hunt's estimate was thirty-five hundred miles. That summer there was sent back from Astoria a party which, owing to various blunders, spent nearly as long a time on its return journey, so that it was nearly two years before news of Hunt reached St. Louis. These two expeditions showed the way to Oregon. But various mistakes in management, the war with Great Britain, and the approach of an English war vessel resulted in the abandomnent of Astoria and the end of Mr. Astor’s dream of a northwest trading route to the Orient.2

The character of the men who were the first to learn the secrets of the Louisiana wilderness is illustrated in the experiences of General William H. Ashley. A Virginian by birth, he was elected lieutenant governor of Missouri in 1820, but for a time fortune seemed to forsake him. He was the head of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, but in his first expedition he lost a keel boat and cargo of furs valued at ten thousand dollars. In 1823 his men were overwhelmed by hostile Arikaras, and in 1824 he was defeated for governor of Missouri. But in the end the indomitable will which conquered the West for Americans brought him substantial results as explorer and trader. He planned and led expeditions into the interior. Once he journeyed to the mouth of the Yellowstone, and again to the country of the Arikaras. In 1824 he led his men to the Green River valley, in 1825 to Great Salt Lake, and the following year he made his way again to the mountains. His adventurous career and romantic journeys have invested his name with a peculiar distinction in the early history of Missouri.

Among the premature prophets of the greatness of the West was one Hall J. Kelley, a Boston school teacher, who began to preach the rich opportunities of Oregon as early as 1815. Through his influence Nathaniel J. Wyeth of Cambridge learned the fascination of the vaguely known West, and presently there came to him an idea not unlike the Astor plan for a trading company on the Columbia. After various difficulties he organized an expedition and started from St. Louis in 1832, under the guidance of the famous fur traders, the Sublettes. They crossed the plains to Pierre’s Hole, now Teton Basin in Idaho, and journeyed on to Fort Walla Walla in Washington, reaching Fort Vancouver near the mouth of the Columbia on October 29. Wyeth returned to the East and in 1834 led a second expedition across the plains and mountains to Oregon. So far as commercial results were concerned, Wyeth’s efforts met with failure. But his journeys, remarkable in themselves, are worth citing to illustrate not only the courage and the spirit of adventure which impelled these explorers and traders, but also because Wyeth attracted public attention to the overland route to Oregon and aided in its early occupation by Americans.3

In spite of their careful notes on fauna and flora and meteorological and other phenomena, Lewis and Clark were not professional scientists, but scientific explorers in the vanguard of Western discovery. As early as 1809—1811, John Bradbury, an English naturalist, traveled up the Mississippi and the Missouri, frequently risking his life in his search for specimens. Bradbury, Thomas Nuttall, J. K. Townsend, an ornithologist, and H. M. Brackenridge were with Hunt and Lisa before the former left the Missouri for his overland journey, and they published the results of their studies. The famous painter and student of Indians, George Catlin, ascended the Missouri in 1832, and painted many portraits of Indians which are preserved in the United States National Museum at Washington. In 1833 Maximilian, Prince of Wied, traveled up the Missouri and spent a winter in the Northwest. His book, "Travels in the Interior of North America," remains the most elaborate work published upon this section of the West. Another scientific explorer was J. N. Nicollet, whose studies in the far West between 1836 and 1840 have a permanent value.

The explorations of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A., from 1832 to 1835, owe much to the genius of Washington Irving. Bonneville had obtained leave from the War Department to make the journey at his own expense, in order to observe the country and the people. He himself seems to have thought more of the possibilities of trade.

He ascended the Platte to Green River, following the usual route of the trappers, and made a camp on Green River, west of South Pass, but his trapping was a failure. He sent out an expedition, which was the second party of American trappers to cross from the neighborhood of Great Salt Lake to California. Bonneville himself, after much journeying in the mountains, crossed into Oregon, but the Hudson Bay Company controlled the trade. After another winter in the mountains he returned in the summer of 1835.

Bonneville’s long stay in the mountains yielded scanty results. He made a map of the head waters of the Missouri, Yellowstone, Snake, and other rivers and the country around Great Salt Lake, and another map of the country westward to the Pacific. In many of their features, however, Gallatin had anticipated him. Captain Chittenden credits Bonneville with the discovery of Humboldt River and lakes, the location of San Joaquin River, California, and the mapping out of the country around the sources of the Big Horn and Green rivers. He was the first to take wagons through South Pass to Green River. But, through his meeting with Washington Irving, Bonneville was enabled to be more useful to literature than to science or commerce.

Although the government was prompt in organizing the first exploration of the Louisiana territory under Lewis and Clark, and another under Pike, it was not until 1842 that official explorations were resumed. Lieutenant J. C. Frémont, U.S.A., who had already traveled with Nicollet in the West, was commissioned to explore the mountains. Most of his work lay to the westward of the Louisiana Purchase, but it is inseparably connected with it, since his object was largely to find the best routes from Louisiana territory westward through the mountains. In June, 1842, he started from the mouth of the Kansas River and made his way up the Platte, through a country alive with hostile Indians, to the South Pass. He explored the Wind River Mountains, and the highest bears his name.

In 1843 he led a second expedition to the heart of the mountains. He found the head waters of the Colorado, reached Salt Lake, and ascended to the Columbia. He returned through the mountains in winter, and after many hardships led his exhausted followers west to Sutter’s Fort on the Sacramento in California. In the spring he returned through the mountains.

In 1845-1846 he made another journey through the midst of the Rockies. At this time there was trouble with the Mexicans, who held California. Congress, on May 13, 1846, had declared that war with Mexico existed, but long before government troops reached California, Frémont led the settlers in an uprising which resulted in the freedom of northern California. Frémont was elected governor. His troubles with General Kearny who commanded the American troops, his arrest, and his enthusiastic reception on his return east form no part of this history. Subsequently he led two more expeditions, one in 1848 along the upper Rio Grande in a finally successful effort to find a route to California, and another in 1853, when he crossed the continent, finding passes through the mountains on the lines of latitude 38° and 39°.

The glamour of Frémont's "pathfinding,’ which brought him the first Republican nomination for the presidency in 1856, has not sustained the more critical examination of later years. In some of his discoveries Frémont had been anticipated, but the knowledge of passes and mountain routes which he in a sense popularized has proved of value in many different ways. Aside from this and the fact that he really explored much new territory, the courage, endurance, and on the whole the good management shown in his various expeditions are sufficient to make them memorable in Western annals.

After Frémont came an era of government explorations, reconnaissances, and surveys which established routes, indicated the lines of future railroads, and chose the sites of the forts — the frontier posts of order and of law. The West was becoming better known, but before Frémont there was a literature of Western exploration, English and American, which may be roughly described as beginning with Jonathan Carver’s "Travels," published in 1778. This curious literature4 was rare and fragmentary before the Biddle edition of Lewis and Clark and the meetings of Bradbury and Brackenridge upon the first stages of the overland Astorian expedition, but it expanded to considerable proportions later. All these additions to knowledge of the West stimulated curiosity in the older states.

1 Washington Irving’s classic "Astoria" needs no recommendation. Chittenden, "History of the American Fur Trade," Vol. I, chap. xiv, furnishes some judicial comments upon Irving’s accuracy and answers the criticisms of H. H. Bancroft.
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2 Perhaps Mr. J. .J. Hill, the father of the Great Northern Railroad, has come nearer the realization of the dream than any of Mr. Astor's successors.
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3 Wyeth’s first expedition was described by the ornithologist., J. K. Townsend, who accompanied him with the botanist, Thomas Nuttall. In 1898 Wyeth’s own letters and journals were published by the Oregon Historical Society, edited by Professor F. G. Young.
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4 In 1823 John D. Hunter published in Philadelphia his "Manners and Customs of Several Indian Tribes located West of the Mississippi." The author was a captive among the Kickapoos, and claimed to have crossed the continent with some Osage Indians and to have seen the Pacific. Samuel Parker’s "Journal of an Exploring Tour across the Rocky Mountains" appeared in 1838. Wyeth’s Memoir was included in Cushing’s Report in 1839. J. K. Townsend’s "Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains" was published in 1839. Farnham’s well-known "Travels in the Great Western Prairies," etc., was issued in 1843, and was followed in 1849 by G. F. Ruxton’s "Life in the Far West." The early memoirs of travelers and hunters, the tales of Indians, the various personal narratives, and the recollections of Colonel R. B. Marcy and other army officers afford an inviting field for the curious. Among the number may be cited Jacob Fowler’s "Journal," relating this surveyor’s journey to the sources of the Rio Grande and his varied adventures in 1821—1822; Josiah Gregg’s "Commerce of the Prairies," an account of the Santa Fé trail, published in 1844; Charles Larpenteur’s " Forty Years a Fur Trader" (1833—1872); and Father Pierre Jean de Smet’s "Oregon Missions" (1847). The library of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, the Mercantile Library in St. Louis, the Lenox Library (now a branch of the New York Public Library), and certain private libraries like those of Edward E. Ayer of Chicago, H. H. Bancroft of San Francisco, and the Hon. Peter Koch of Bozeman, Montana, are rich in examples of this early literature. The introduction to "Tales of an Indian Camp," published in London in 1829, offers this quaint passage: "In the year 1695 a number of savants associated in Paris for the purpose of procuring information regarding the Western Indians. They were called shortly ‘The Theoretical and Speculative Society of Paris,’ but their title at large was ‘The Society for prosecuting Researches in the Western Hemisphere and for procuring Speculations to be made and History drawn up of the Origin and History of the Ancient and Present Inhabitants.’ Madame Maintenon became a member, forbidding, however, the Society to speculate upon her affairs."
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© 2001, Lynn Waterman