Bloody Trek To Empire


The hills along the Snake stiffened into cliffs. Above the cliffs loomed white mountains with pinnacled summits. Now the expedition was in a prison of granite and lava rock. Return upstream was impossible. The river slanted through the gorge like a thing alive. Snow began to fall, plugging the side canyons which opened on the Snake. Precipices almost a mile high frowned down on the dark moat. This was Hell’s Canyon, deepest of all chasms on the continent, although the Argonauts could not know it at the time. No game fell to their rifles. It was a winter of famine, and they boiled their buckskin footgear and drank the fetid broth. Two more voyageurs were swallowed up by rapids and another went mad.

That more of the members of the party did not crumple may have been due, in Hunt’s opinion, to a remarkable Indian woman. The only female on this prodigious trek, she was the willowy Iowa wife of the half-breed interpreter, Pierre Dorion. With her were their two small sons. After ten days in the gloomy canyon with only a few crumbs of food apiece, the men endured their hunger impassively because this dark young Indian woman with long braids and lithe legs had uttered no word of complaint. “She is as brave as any among our group,” Hunt confided in his notes.

But escape from the abyss they must. To remain in its depths meant starvation or death in the brawling river. It took three desperate attempts to find a way over the slippery crags. And when at last, half-frozen and exhausted, they looked down on Hell’s Canyon, they had left behind in the yawning crevice practically all their trade goods, weapons, and tools. With barely enough strength to drag themselves up that terrible perpendicular mile, they had dumped their employer’s loads before they reached the first rim. But Dorion’s squaw had a cargo she could not jettison. Up the canyon wall she carried her two-year-old son and helped along the four-year-old by the hand.

Winter shrouded the land and still there was no food. Deer had fled the region, and fish did not rise to the lures the men desperately dropped through the ice. Hunt decided that in small parties they had a better chance of finding game. So they scattered in this uncharted wilderness, hoping to meet at the Columbia’s distant mouth.

One by one, in January and February, 1812, the members of the overland party tottered into the log outpost at Astoria. Some were so emaciated their friends could not recognize them. Now the remnants of the two shattered expeditions struggled to salvage something from their disasters on land and sea. A small schooner was built of fir timbers, the first ever launched on the Pacific Coast. It was named Dolly for the wife of John Jacob Astor. They sailed up the Columbia and trudged into the back country. Small trading posts were established on the sites of such present cities as Boise, Salem, and Spokane.

One of these expeditions brought a grim ordeal to Dorion’s squaw. Her party was attacked on the trail by Snake hostiles. She and the children escaped only because they were in camp at the time. Her husband perished with the nine white men.

Somehow, the slim squaw and the two little boys survived in a Wallowa Mountain defile for three months. She built a lean-to of pine boughs and butchered a horse stolen from the Indians. She crept out only at night to avoid the murderous Snakes. Many times she watched the slayers of her husband filing past to hunt. But her woodcraft exceeded theirs. Her hiding place was not found. When spring unlocked the fastnesses, she and the children picked their way silently down the tumbling creeks and so eventually came to the domain of the friendly Walla Walla tribe.

Wilson Price Hunt, eager to trade with the far-off Russians, had gone northward along the mountainous coast to New Archangel and was entertained by the czar’s high-living emissary, Lord Baranof. The horrified American merchant saw Indians wilt at the stake under the knout and their half-naked women fondled in the barbaric court which the Russian governor maintained. Hunt was shocked by the cruelty of the Russians, but impressed by the riches of the land of which New Archangel was the capital. He referred to it as Alakh-Skhah ; today we know it as Alaska.

Despite the lack of trade goods, skins were piling up in the crude warehouses at Astoria. The Astorians looked at them by lantern light—glistening bales of wealth. Perhaps, after all the tragic reverses, the Pacific Fur Company might yet succeed. Astor, learning of the loss of the Tonquin a year after its destruction, had not been dismayed. “Would you have me weep for what I cannot help?” he thundered to a friend. The Navy Department had been more stunned than the owner of the lost vessel. It could not believe the follies committed by Jonathan Thorn, protégé of the illustrious Commodore Decatur.

But further misfortunes were still to occur. England and the United States went to war in 1812. British ships of the line now cut off the long sea lanes to Astoria. John Jacob Astor, however, was one to take a gamble. He sent out a speedy, full-rigged merchantman, the Lark . Ironically, the Lark ran the British naval blockade, but capsized in a hurricane off an island in the Hawaiians. Five more men lost their lives in this disaster.