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Ordeal in Hell’s Canyon
The first men to follow Lewis and Clark across the continent to the Pacific were John Jacob Astor’s fur traders. They discovered the formidable chasm of Idaho’s Snake River—and almost never got out
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
Following Astor's instructions, Hunt planned to pursue Lewis and Clark’s route up the Missouri. But soon after the party set out, it met John Colter, a Lewis and Clark veteran who had since been a member of trapping expeditions on the upper reaches of the river. Recently returned from the Three Forks region of the Missouri, Colter told Hunt that conditions had changed since Lewis and Clark’s day. American trappers had clashed disastrously with Blackfoot Indians, and angry members of that tribe, he said, now made passage of the upper Missouri extremely hazardous. Hunt pondered the warning, but went on. Farther up the Missouri, on May 26, the expedition came on three Kentucky hunters, Edward Robinson, Jacob Reznor, and John Hoback, who had originally gone upriver with a large trapping party under Manuel Lisa of St. Louis in 1807. Robinson, a veteran backwoodsman who had been scalped by Indians in Kentucky and wore a handkerchief on his head to protect the ancient wound, was more than sixty-five years old. With his companions, he had recently lived through nightmarish attacks by Blackfeet and could give Hunt ample confirmation of Colter’s warning.
The grizzled trio proposed to Hunt an alternative route to the Columbia. Driven from the Three Forks the year before by the Blackfeet, they and some other Lisa men had made their way south to one of the headwaters of the Snake River, in what is now eastern Idaho, and built a post where they spent the winter in safety. With the coming of spring their group had split up, and Hoback, Reznor, and Robinson, heading for St. Louis, had struck out directly eastward across mountains and plains, staying south of Blackfoot country all the way, and arriving finally at the Missouri River well below the haunts of those Indians. If Hunt would shortly leave the Missouri, they now said, and take the same overland route they had followed, he would reach their old winter quarters on the Snake; then he could travel to the Columbia’s mouth by canoe.
Hunt considered the proposal carefully, reluctant to abandon the one cross-country path—Lewis and Clark’s—that had been explored and mapped. What the upper stretches of the Snake were like no one yet knew. Still, the Kentuckians’ route to the Pacific might be faster and more direct than that of Lewis and Clark, and the Astorians’ mission—to locate sites for a chain of interior trading posts among Indians who resided in good beaver country—would not suffer. Hunt finally decided to chance the new route, and, on invitation, the three Kentuckians agreed to guide the party across the country over which they had recently come.
The expedition went on up the Missouri to the mouth of the Grand River in present-day South Dakota, where they purchased horses from the Ankara Indians, and, abandoning the boats, started out across the plains. Altogether, the group now numbered sixty-five people, including the five partners; an Irishman named John Reed who served as clerk; eleven hunters, interpreters, and guides; forty-five French-Canadian engagés ; and an Indian woman and her two children. She was a stolid and uncomplaining Iowa known as Marie Aioe, the wife of Pierre Dorion, one of the expedition’s interpreters.
The travellers crossed South Dakota, guided by Hoback, Reznor, and Robinson, as well as by Edward Rose, a man of dubious character who had also come up the Missouri with Lisa in 1807, and had subsequently lived with the Crow Indians on the plains. The Astorians met a band of Cheyennes, skirted the slopes of the Black Hills, and, entering northeastern Wyoming, travelled across the rough, rolling grassland and the ravines of the Powder River’s tributaries toward the Big Horn Mountains. In the foothills of that range a band of Crows joined them, and Hunt was fearful at first that, perhaps assisted by Edward Rose, their former companion, those Indians would pillage the expedition. He and his men maintained their guard; and although Rose gave the others reason to believe he was plotting with the Crows against them, no conflict occurred. The Indians traded amicably, and then helped guide the party to a pass that led across the Big Horns. When the Crows rode away, Hunt offered Rose half a year’s wages, three horses, traps, and “some other things” if he would quit the expedition and stay with the Crows. Accepting the offer, Rose hurried after the Indians, and Hunt was glad to be rid of him.
On the west side of the Big Horns, the expedition came on the Bighorn River, and on September 9 turned up the valley of its tributary, the Wind River, down which the three Kentuckians had come earlier in the year. Near present-day Dubois, Wyoming, the men began to suffer from a scarcity of game. Learning from an Indian of a pass that led southwestward across the Wind River Mountains to another river where buffalo were plentiful, Hunt abruptly turned the group in that direction, despite the lateness of the season for mountain travelling and the fact that he was leaving a direct, shorter route to his goal for a longer and more uncertain one. Climbing the Wind River Mountains to present-day Union Pass, the men beheld an inspiring view of the Teton range, still far distant in the west. The Kentuckians told them that those snow-capped peaks overlooked the head of the river on which they had wintered, and the Astorians named them the Pilot Knobs, sighting on them repeatedly for the direction toward which they would eventually have to turn.