The Oregon Country

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As Ross reflected on all of this, he found time to put down his observations on the western Indians as well. They struck him as a curiously improvident lot; an Indian would gladly trade five beaver skins, he wrote, for an awl or a knife, and would surrender furs worth much hard cash in Montreal for a handful of bullets or an ax worth only a tiny fraction of their value. But the Indian had logic on his side. He was giving up goods which he could easily get, and which were of comparatively little value to him, for articles that were enormously useful and which he could get in no other way. Five beaver pelts for a good knife represented, to the Stone Age man, a marvelously good bargain; from his point of view it was the whites who were daft.

One of the most fascinating chapters in this book tells how Ross led a large brigade far up the Columbia and clear across the Rockies into Montana, from which point he doubled back into Idaho. Few accounts of wilderness adventure in North America offer anything better than this tale of a winter in the remote Indian country, and Ross’s simple recital of the way he brought his party through safely, together with a substantial haul of furs, indicates that he himself must have been a leader of uncommon capacity. Yet even this remarkable expedition closes on a note that hints at final defeat for the British. Deep in the mountain wilds, Ross ran into a small party of Americans, led by the redoubtable Jedediah Smith. The mountain men were coming on; and as the beaver hat went out of fashion, knocking the old profits out of the fur trade, the knowledge they were piling up would pave the way for the great covered wagon trains which— less than twenty years later—would begin to turn the Oregon Country from pathless wilderness into a settled extension of the United States.