- 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
In the Grande Ronde, a great oval valley of rich grass and marshland, the party came on a small camp of Shoshonis. They lingered with them only briefly, and on January 2, 1812, began to climb the forested Blue Mountains that hemmed the valley on the north and west. After five days of renewed struggle across wooded heights and through snow that was often waistdeep, they reached the northern rim of the cold wilderness and gazed down with cheer and relief on the plains of the Umatilla Valley near present-day Pendleton, Oregon. Before the party could descend from the mountains, the Dorion baby died, and the Astorians paused to bury it. Then they trooped down the hills and arrived at a sprawling village of mat-covered lodges belonging to a band of Cayuses and Nez Perces.
These Indians were bold and picturesque, said Hunt, and possessed huge horse herds and abundant food supplies. The Astorians rested among them for a week, buying horses from them and rebuilding their strength on a diet of roots and deer meat. When the travellers pushed off again, Hunt, considering the Cayuses and Nez Perces likely fur suppliers, promised to send men back to them to trade for beaver skins.
The worst of the journey was now over. Moving down the Umatilla Valley, the party finally reached the Columbia on January 21, 1812. It was, wrote Hunt, “for so long the goal of our desires. We had traveled 1,751 miles, we had endured all the hardships imaginable. With difficulty I expressed our joy at sight of this river.” The group crossed the Columbia to follow a trail along the northern shore, and near the presentday city of The Dalles took to canoes. On February 12, 1812, without further mishap, Hunt’s men reached the Columbia’s mouth to find that the members of the sea group had arrived almost a full year earlier, in March, 1811, and had built a post which they had named Fort Astor, or Astoria.
In a happy climax to his arrival, Hunt also found eleven of his own men at the fort. They were the members of the parties of McKenzie, McClellan, and Reed, who had preceded Crooks and himself into the great canyon of the Snake. Exhausted and in rags, they had reached the mouth of the Columbia on January 18, almost a month ahead of Hunt, and they, too, had a story of hardship to relate. After leaving Hunt on the Snake plains, where the combined group had abandoned its canoes, their three parties had searched separately for Indians and food. Failing to find assistance, they had eventually encountered each other and, rather than return and encumber Hunt, had decided to hasten forward and try to reach the mouth of the Columbia, where they had hoped to find the sea party and send back help.
Led by the bold and herculean McKenzie, they had trudged across the plains that bordered the northern edge of the Snake, suffering painfully from hunger and thirst. At some point, possibly just below the confluence of the Snake and Weiser rivers in southwestern Idaho, the men had apparently decided that they would have a better chance of survival if they again split into smaller groups and took different routes. Seeking the Flatheads, who, according to the Lewis and Clark report, lived somewhere north of where they then were, McClellan and several men had left the Snake and had climbed northeastward over the mountains.
Two groups under McKenzie and Reed had continued into the great canyon, but after a while they too had climbed the mountains and had run again into McClellan’s party along the divide between the Snake and the Weiser. Together once more, they had traversed rugged country for twenty-one days, urged on by McKenzie’s aggressive determination, and living solely on five beavers and two mountain goats that they had shot. During the last five days of their struggle through the high wilderness, they had existed entirely on the skins of the beavers. Finally, they had descended to the Little Salmon River, where they had come on some wild horses, a few of which they had managed to kill for food. Shortly afterward, they had reached the main Salmon River and settlements of friendly Nez Perce Indians, who had given them camas roots and other food and had guided them to the Clearwater River. From there, they had continued by canoe down the Clearwater and Snake to the Columbia and, at last, safely to Astoria. Their success in coming through the dangerous wilderness had been due to the determination and experience of the band’s three capable leaders, as well as to their head start, which had permitted them to get across some of the high country just ahead of the deep snows that had worn out and defeated the parties behind them.
The second crossing of the continent through what is now the United States had come to an end. In the months that followed, additional stragglers from Hunt’s party reached Astoria, and others were rescued by groups sent into the interior to search for them. Some were found sick, starving, or deranged. Others were robbed and killed by Indians before they reached the fort, or were never found.
The expedition had been a tragedy, but it had not been without its achievements. Although Hunt, the youthful businessman, had been unfit for its leadership, his bravery and persistence in forcing his way through to the Pacific had added greatly to men’s knowledge of the geography and terrain of the Northwest. His ordeals on the Snake River would show future travellers where not to venture, but his route as a whole did turn out to be shorter, faster, and easier than that of Lewis and Clark; almost all portions of the trail he blazed were used thereafter by western pioneers.