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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
Hunt had persevered bravely, but the end seemed to have been reached. Discouraged by Crooks’s report, he determined to turn the whole party around and get out of the terrifying mountains before they all died. During the night, the skin boat was swept away by the current, and the next day an attempt to ferry Crooks and LeClerc back across the stream with some meat for their men failed when a hastily constructed raft proved unmanageable in the torrent. There was no time to build another craft. Now that the men knew they were going back, out of the canyon, they were impatient to start moving, and Hunt finally ordered the two parties to travel abreast of each other on opposite sides of the river. At first the enfeebled Crooks and LeClerc managed to keep up, but their strength soon gave out, and they began to hold up Hunt’s group. As the pace slowed, some of the men became panicky and urged Hunt to abandon Crooks. Hunt refused to do so, but could not prevent his party from breaking up as some men, alone or in small groups, slipped away from him. Desperate to save themselves before it was too late, they hurried southward along the rushing river and over the ledges on the canyon walls.
For a while, Hunt and several of his men continued to assist Crooks and LeClerc. But, finally, it was evident that everyone would perish unless Hunt hurried on and found an Indian village where he could secure food to send back to the starving men. He pushed ahead and, after existing for two days on a solitary beaver skin, came suddenly on a band of Shoshonis who had descended from the mountains to camp along the river. He had meanwhile overtaken the rest of his men; and the sight of so many strangers appearing unexpectedly from the direction of the homeland of their Nez Perce enemies terrified the Shoshonis, who fled in fright, leaving some of their horses behind them. The weakened men managed to catch five of the animals and, after making a meal of one of them, sent a mounted messenger back to Crooks and LeClerc with a supply of meat. The food arrived in time, and shortly afterward they appeared at Hunt’s camp.
An attempt was now made to feed the starving men of Crooks’s original band, who had arrived on the opposite shore of the river. Another crude boat was made from the skin of a horse, and the food was ferried over to them. On a second trip across the turbulent water, one of Crooks’s men, crazed by his suffering, jumped into the craft and, clapping his hands and leaping about in delirium, upset the skin boat. While the others watched in horror, he was swept away by the current and drowned.
When the men’s hunger was appeased, the disheartened parties set off again, continuing their doleful retreat from the mountains. Crooks was still too weak to travel; and a Canadian, Jean Baptiste Dubreuil, and a tall, forty-year-old Virginia frontiersman named John Day, who were also too emaciated and feeble to keep up with the rest, stayed behind with him, hoping to regain their strength and eventually catch up with the expedition. The rest of Hunt’s men hastened south and on December 16, after three weeks in the canyon, emerged from the mountains and camped near the lodges of a band of Shoshonis on Idaho’s Weiser River.
The Shoshonis were surprised to see them and told them that they could never have gotten all the way through the canyon. The information made Hunt worry about the fate of Donald McKenzie and the other men whom Crooks had sighted along the river. The Shoshonis also revealed that there was another, more westerly route to the country of the Sciatogas and the Columbia River; but since it too crossed mountains, it would be unwise to take it at this time of the year. Hunt was impatient to be off, however, and alter many pleas and threats, he secured three Indians as guides and ferried his men across the Snake River in a boat made of two skins. Three French Canadians decided to remain among the Shoshonis, where there was at least some food and the possibility of trapping, but they promised to try to find Crooks and his two companions and eventually make their way with them to the Columbia River. On December 24, Hunt and his men again struck off overland, following an Indian route that led northwest from the country of the Shoshonis to the Grande Ronde Valley of northeastern Oregon. That part of the journey was to be of considerable significance, for it amounted to the discovery by white men of a feasible, short-cut route between the Snake River country of southern Idaho and the Columbia River. In Hunt’s wake, trappers, traders, and other travellers came to use it regularly, and in time it became an important leg of the famous Oregon Trail.
The Astorians’ hardships, however, were not ended. For several days they travelled through rain and snow, crossing cold, blustery plains and high hills; and another Canadian, Michel Carrière, gave up and had to be left behind. On December 30, near the Grande Ronde Valley, Marie Dorion, still plodding along with the others, paused to give birth to her baby. The Dorion family waited with her, while the rest of the party pushed ahead. The next day, the doughty woman and her family caught up, and Hunt wrote in his journal that the Indian mother “was on horseback with her newborn infant in her arms; another, aged two years, wrapped in a blanket, was slung at her side. One would have said, from her air, that nothing had happened to her.”