Ordeal in Hell’s Canyon

On October 21, 1810, a large party of fur traders left St. Louis, bound up the Missouri River for the mouth of the Columbia. Before it reached its goal, its members experienced hunger, thirst, and madness, suffering perhaps the most extreme privations and hardships of any westering expedition in American history.

The group, the first to cross the present-day United States after Lewis and Clark, was an overland party of the Pacific Fur Company, which the New York merchant John Jacob Astor had organized to capture the fur trade of the Columbia country. Astor was both visionary and practical, a man quick to perceive an opportunity and quicker to take advantage of it. The reports of Lewis and Clark, confirming the existence of rich beaver streams in the Rockies and the Northwest, had excited him, and more than any other American he possessed the resources and the experience with fur markets to attempt to monopolize the new area before others could overrun it. From years of trading with Canadians, he was familiar with the dynamism and power of the Montreal-based North West Company, and at first he tried to interest that firm, whose fur posts already stretched as far west as the upper part of the Columbia River, in becoming a partner in his plan “to make settlements on the North West Coast of America, [and] to communicate with the inland N W Trade.” When the Canadians ultimately turned him down, he went ahead on his own, setting up the Pacific Fur Company and taking into partnership four Americans from the St. Louis area and five experienced Nor’Westers who, for various reasons, had severed connections with the Canadian company.

Astor’s plan was to dispatch two expeditions to the mouth of the Columbia, one by ship around Cape Horn, and the other by Lewis and Clark’s route up the Missouri River and across the Rocky Mountains. At the Columbia the two groups would meet and construct a coastal post. The ship would carry on a trade with Indians and with Russian fur posts along the northwest coast, and the land-based personnel would build other trading posts among tribes in promising fur regions found by the overland party in the interior. In time, the ship would take the furs collected in the Northwest to China, dispose of them there, and return to New York or Boston with tea, silk, and other goods for the American market. Other Astor vessels would continue to visit the Columbia River post at regular intervals, bringing supplies and trade goods from the east coast for the Indians and Russians, and taking furs to China.

To strengthen the entire arrangement, Astor planned to build a chain of company forts between the Columbia River and St. Louis so that his men could also move furs and supplies overland across the mountains and along the Missouri River. This highway, lying wholly within American territory, conformed with the idea of a transcontinental fur route conceived by Thomas Jefferson and supported by Lewis and Clark’s report. By using the overland route, especially in conjunction with his ships along the Pacific coast, Astor hoped not only to squeeze the Canadians from the Columbia River basin, but also to bring furs out of the Northwest to the eastern markets faster and cheaper than the Canadians could transport their peltry to Montreal over the difficult wilderness and Great Lakes route across Canada.

Astor’s sea party, including four of the five Canadian partners, sailed for the Columbia from New York Harbor on September 6, 1810, in Astor’s ship, the Tonquin (see “Bloody Trek to Empire” in the August, 1958, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). The following month, the overland group departed from St. Louis, wintered near present-day St. Joseph, Missouri, and started up the Missouri River in earnest in the spring of 1811. Its leader, an unlikely man for such a demanding assignment, was a youthful merchant of St. Louis, Wilson Price Hunt, who had moved to the Louisiana Territory from Trenton, New Jersey, in 1804. Intelligent, well-educated, and gentlemanly, he had been offered a partnership in the undertaking and the position of agent in charge of the company’s operations in the Northwest, as well as leadership of the overland party.

Hunt was brave, persevering, and considerate to his men; he was “a conscientious and upright man—a friend to all, and beloved as well as respected by all,” one of them said later. But he was town-bred, more a businessman than an outdoorsman, and he was cautious rather than bold and inspiring. Moreover, he had had no experience with the Indian trade or with wilderness life, and although entrusted with an expedition larger than that of Lewis and Clark, he lacked training, stamina, and ability to lead men. With him were the three other American partners, Ramsay Crooks, Robert McClellan, and Joseph Miller, all veterans of the Missouri River and Illinois fur trade, and the fifth Canadian partner, Donald McKenzie, a tempestuous, strong-willed goo-pounder, the cousin of the great Canadian explorer-trader, Alexander Mackenzie, and the most experienced and able man in the party.