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
At first there was no sign of danger, and Hunt looked forward confidently to a short and swift journey. Then, as the men passed the junction of the two forks of the Snake and the main river broadened, they met rapids and falls that filled their canoes with water, carried off some of their possessions, and forced them to make difficult portages. On October 28, near present-day Burley in southern Idaho, they entered an awesome canyon and shot through a frightening stretch of roaring white water. One of the canoes smashed into a rock, and its French-Canadian steersman was toppled into the water and swept away. The accident brought the expedition to a sober halt. While most of the men waited with the canoes, Hunt and three members of the party climbed laboriously to the top of the basalt cliffs that hemmed the stream and walked thirty-five miles downriver, surveying what lay ahead of them. The river was unlike any they had ever seen or heard about before. It ran fast at the bottom of a deep gash in the level plain, boiling and tossing below barren and precipitous canyon walls that were so high and dangerous that there were only two places where Hunt could climb down to get water to drink. A reconnoitering group that explored along the opposite rim of the canyon came back with a more optimistic report; but four canoes that were portaged six miles down on that side of the river were immediately thereafter swept away with equipment and guns, and the men concluded that further travel by water was impossible.
The expedition was suddenly in a perilous position, without horses, running out of food, and isolated in the vast, unexplored Snake plains, apparently empty of game and as bleak and arid as a desert. In a hurried attempt to solve the problem, Hunt impulsively split up his party and sent out four small groups. One, under Ramsay Crooks, was to walk all the way back to Henry’s cabins, which they estimated to be about 340 miles behind them, and return with their horses. Two other groups, under Reed and McClellan, were to continue downriver on foot and search for Indians who could provide them with food. The fourth, under Donald McKenzie, was to strike north across the desolate plain and try to find the Columbia River. The fragmentation of the party seemed the only hope, but it was the start of a breakdown of discipline and morale that would lead eventually to Hunt’s loss of control over the men.
Remaining in the canyon with the rest of the party, Hunt buried the company’s baggage and equipment in caches and tried unsuccessfully to increase the supply of food by catching fish or beaver. After several days, Crooks’s group and two of Reed’s men straggled back to camp. The former reported that the travel by land back to Henry’s huts had been so slow and disheartening that they had abandoned the attempt. Reed’s men were equally discouraging. They had found neither Indians nor food on the route ahead, and had turned back when Reed and the fourth member of their party, arguing that they could be of no help to Hunt, had insisted on pressing ahead.
Hunt and his companions were now alarmed. Winter was approaching rapidly, and none of them knew how far they still had to go, or what mountains and other perils were still ahead of them. But to remain where they were would mean certain starvation. Deciding to follow the direction of McClellan and Reed, the men divided into two bands, to give each one a better chance of survival, and on November 9 started forward on foot along opposite rims of the canyon. Ramsay Crooks, with nineteen men, proceeded down the south side, and Hunt, with twenty-two others, including Marie Dorion and her two children, followed the north rim. The hardy Iowa woman, well advanced in pregnancy, carried a two-year-old on her back and led a four-year-old by the hand, keeping up with the men without a murmur of weariness. The total food supply for all forty-three people, divided between the two groups before they separated, amounted to forty pounds of dried corn, twenty pounds of grease, about five pounds of bouillon tablets, and enough dried meat to allot each person five and a half pounds.
Day after day, the Astorians struggled along through the sagebrush and lava-scarred wastes of the Snake plains, using up their food and suffering from thirst. The river was always below them, but, except on rare occasions, they were unable to make their way down the canyon walls to its banks. The members of Crooks’s party were reduced to eating the soles of their moccasins. Hunt’s group, lagging behind, finally came on an Indian trail that led them to a miserable straw-hut settlement of impoverished and frightened Shoshonis. The Indians traded them some dried salmon and a dog to eat, and the travellers continued on, passing similar wickiup camps of Shoshonis whose small offerings of food served to keep them alive, but did little to ease their hunger. At length they found Indians with horses and were able to bargain for several animals, on one of which they placed Dorion’s wife. Almost due south of present-day Boise, they took the advice of an Indian and, leaving the Snake River, turned north, plodding across a seemingly endless desert and almost dying of thirst. Some of the Canadians in anguish had begun to drink their urine before the party finally reached the banks of the Boise River, near the site of Idaho’s future capital city.