- Historic Sites
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
Descending the mountains, they arrived at the headwaters of the Green River, which the trappers called the Spanish River because they believed that Spaniards lived along its banks somewhere to the south. The high valley, stirring with herds of buffalo, was beautiful, carpeted with grass and cut by sparkling streams that tumbled from the mountains. The area was a favorite summer hunting ground and rendezvous area for Shoshonis, and in one of the narrow side canyons the expedition came on a camp of Indians drying buffalo meat for the winter. Some of the natives had had previous contact with parties of Lisa’s men, and they were pleased to trade meat and a few beaver skins with the newcomers. Hunt was quick to recognize the area as excellent beaver country. He urged the Shoshonis to continue to hunt beaver, and promised to send a party of his men to live among them and trade for the furs they gathered.
Leaving the Indians on September 24, the expedition moved northwestward over a rugged and difficult divide between the waters of the Green and the Snake and reached a stream which Hoback, one of the Kentuckians, recognized: he had trapped it the previous winter. Following that river, which is still known as the Hoback, the men arrived at the Snake near presentday Jackson, Wyoming, and realized that they would have been there much earlier it they had remained on the Kentuckians’ route all the way up the Wind River valley and over the present Togwótee Pass to what is now called Jackson Hole.
The Snake, viewed as a headwater of the Columbia, was greeted with joy. Many of the men, notably Joseph Miller, one of the partners, had had their fill of horseback travel over the rugged, precipitous terrain, and they regarded the rest of the journey as a relatively easy one by water. Hunt spent several days, however, having his men search for trees large enough for the construction of dugout canoes. In the meantime, he sent out four men of the company with orders to stay in the Jackson Hole area and trap its streams. When they had collected a sufficient stock of furs, they were to make their way to the mouth of the Columbia or to any intermediate post that the company might build in the interior.
On October 1, Hunt's men were still trying to find timber suitable for canoes. That day Hunt wrote in his journal, “It rained in the valley and snowed in the mountains.” Two days later it rained and sleeted all day. An unexpected crisis arose when an exploratory party under John Reed reported impassable rapicls and narrow canyons on the river below them. Despite Miller’s objection, Hunt now decided to abandon the plan to take to the river and, instead, to continue by horseback and hurry across the Teton Mountains ahead of him, which he believed were the last on their route. On October 5 the party left the river and, guided by the Kentuckians and two Shoshoni Indians, climbed the mountains and crossed the snow-whitened summit of Teton Pass into present-day Idaho. Three days later, hoping they had seen the last of the menacing snowy heights, the travellers rode through “a beautiful plain” and reached the deserted log huts in which the Kentuckians and their companions, under the leadership of Andrew Henry, had spent the previous winter. Nearby was the north fork of the Snake, known ever since as Henrys Fork, more peaceful and promising than the fork east of the mountains. Timber thick enough for canoes was also available, and Hunt set his men to work constructing craft for the descent of the river. Meanwhile, deciding to use the cabins for a company post, he retained the two Shoshonis to care for the expedition’s horses and to watch over the huts until he could send a permanent party back to the area.
Hoback, Reznor, and Robinson, joined by another hunter, now detached themselves from the expedition, planning to trap streams with which they were familiar and to explore new ones. At the same time, Joseph Miller, apparently still smarting from Hunt’s failure to take his advice on the eastern side of the Tetons, suddenly announced that he too would remain in this region and try his luck trapping with the Kentuckians. Hunt was crestfallen, but was unable to deter Miller, who was determined to go no farther with him.
The desertion cast a pall over the company, but on October 19 the travellers bade farewell to the five who would stay behind and, leaving the cabins, embarked in fifteen canoes on Henrys Fork, at that point a fast but placid stream. As it turned out, the decision to give up horses and to take to the river was a tragic mistake; but no white man had been on this stretch of the Snake River before, and none of the Astorians could foresee the perils that lay between them and the river’s lower section, which they knew that Lewis and Clark had successfully navigated.