December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
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
On October 21, 1810, a large party of fur traders left St. Louis, bound up the Missouri River for the mouth of the Columbia. Before it reached its goal, its members experienced hunger, thirst, and madness, suffering perhaps the most extreme privations and hardships of any westering expedition in American history.
The group, the first to cross the present-day United States after Lewis and Clark, was an overland party of the Pacific Fur Company, which the New York merchant John Jacob Astor had organized to capture the fur trade of the Columbia country. Astor was both visionary and practical, a man quick to perceive an opportunity and quicker to take advantage of it. The reports of Lewis and Clark, confirming the existence of rich beaver streams in the Rockies and the Northwest, had excited him, and more than any other American he possessed the resources and the experience with fur markets to attempt to monopolize the new area before others could overrun it. From years of trading with Canadians, he was familiar with the dynamism and power of the Montreal-based North West Company, and at first he tried to interest that firm, whose fur posts already stretched as far west as the upper part of the Columbia River, in becoming a partner in his plan “to make settlements on the North West Coast of America, [and] to communicate with the inland N W Trade.” When the Canadians ultimately turned him down, he went ahead on his own, setting up the Pacific Fur Company and taking into partnership four Americans from the St. Louis area and five experienced Nor’Westers who, for various reasons, had severed connections with the Canadian company.
Astor’s plan was to dispatch two expeditions to the mouth of the Columbia, one by ship around Cape Horn, and the other by Lewis and Clark’s route up the Missouri River and across the Rocky Mountains. At the Columbia the two groups would meet and construct a coastal post. The ship would carry on a trade with Indians and with Russian fur posts along the northwest coast, and the land-based personnel would build other trading posts among tribes in promising fur regions found by the overland party in the interior. In time, the ship would take the furs collected in the Northwest to China, dispose of them there, and return to New York or Boston with tea, silk, and other goods for the American market. Other Astor vessels would continue to visit the Columbia River post at regular intervals, bringing supplies and trade goods from the east coast for the Indians and Russians, and taking furs to China.
To strengthen the entire arrangement, Astor planned to build a chain of company forts between the Columbia River and St. Louis so that his men could also move furs and supplies overland across the mountains and along the Missouri River. This highway, lying wholly within American territory, conformed with the idea of a transcontinental fur route conceived by Thomas Jefferson and supported by Lewis and Clark’s report. By using the overland route, especially in conjunction with his ships along the Pacific coast, Astor hoped not only to squeeze the Canadians from the Columbia River basin, but also to bring furs out of the Northwest to the eastern markets faster and cheaper than the Canadians could transport their peltry to Montreal over the difficult wilderness and Great Lakes route across Canada.
Astor’s sea party, including four of the five Canadian partners, sailed for the Columbia from New York Harbor on September 6, 1810, in Astor’s ship, the Tonquin (see “Bloody Trek to Empire” in the August, 1958, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). The following month, the overland group departed from St. Louis, wintered near present-day St. Joseph, Missouri, and started up the Missouri River in earnest in the spring of 1811. Its leader, an unlikely man for such a demanding assignment, was a youthful merchant of St. Louis, Wilson Price Hunt, who had moved to the Louisiana Territory from Trenton, New Jersey, in 1804. Intelligent, well-educated, and gentlemanly, he had been offered a partnership in the undertaking and the position of agent in charge of the company’s operations in the Northwest, as well as leadership of the overland party.
Hunt was brave, persevering, and considerate to his men; he was “a conscientious and upright man—a friend to all, and beloved as well as respected by all,” one of them said later. But he was town-bred, more a businessman than an outdoorsman, and he was cautious rather than bold and inspiring. Moreover, he had had no experience with the Indian trade or with wilderness life, and although entrusted with an expedition larger than that of Lewis and Clark, he lacked training, stamina, and ability to lead men. With him were the three other American partners, Ramsay Crooks, Robert McClellan, and Joseph Miller, all veterans of the Missouri River and Illinois fur trade, and the fifth Canadian partner, Donald McKenzie, a tempestuous, strong-willed goo-pounder, the cousin of the great Canadian explorer-trader, Alexander Mackenzie, and the most experienced and able man in the party.
Following Astor's instructions, Hunt planned to pursue Lewis and Clark’s route up the Missouri. But soon after the party set out, it met John Colter, a Lewis and Clark veteran who had since been a member of trapping expeditions on the upper reaches of the river. Recently returned from the Three Forks region of the Missouri, Colter told Hunt that conditions had changed since Lewis and Clark’s day. American trappers had clashed disastrously with Blackfoot Indians, and angry members of that tribe, he said, now made passage of the upper Missouri extremely hazardous. Hunt pondered the warning, but went on. Farther up the Missouri, on May 26, the expedition came on three Kentucky hunters, Edward Robinson, Jacob Reznor, and John Hoback, who had originally gone upriver with a large trapping party under Manuel Lisa of St. Louis in 1807. Robinson, a veteran backwoodsman who had been scalped by Indians in Kentucky and wore a handkerchief on his head to protect the ancient wound, was more than sixty-five years old. With his companions, he had recently lived through nightmarish attacks by Blackfeet and could give Hunt ample confirmation of Colter’s warning.
The grizzled trio proposed to Hunt an alternative route to the Columbia. Driven from the Three Forks the year before by the Blackfeet, they and some other Lisa men had made their way south to one of the headwaters of the Snake River, in what is now eastern Idaho, and built a post where they spent the winter in safety. With the coming of spring their group had split up, and Hoback, Reznor, and Robinson, heading for St. Louis, had struck out directly eastward across mountains and plains, staying south of Blackfoot country all the way, and arriving finally at the Missouri River well below the haunts of those Indians. If Hunt would shortly leave the Missouri, they now said, and take the same overland route they had followed, he would reach their old winter quarters on the Snake; then he could travel to the Columbia’s mouth by canoe.
Hunt considered the proposal carefully, reluctant to abandon the one cross-country path—Lewis and Clark’s—that had been explored and mapped. What the upper stretches of the Snake were like no one yet knew. Still, the Kentuckians’ route to the Pacific might be faster and more direct than that of Lewis and Clark, and the Astorians’ mission—to locate sites for a chain of interior trading posts among Indians who resided in good beaver country—would not suffer. Hunt finally decided to chance the new route, and, on invitation, the three Kentuckians agreed to guide the party across the country over which they had recently come.
The expedition went on up the Missouri to the mouth of the Grand River in present-day South Dakota, where they purchased horses from the Ankara Indians, and, abandoning the boats, started out across the plains. Altogether, the group now numbered sixty-five people, including the five partners; an Irishman named John Reed who served as clerk; eleven hunters, interpreters, and guides; forty-five French-Canadian engagés ; and an Indian woman and her two children. She was a stolid and uncomplaining Iowa known as Marie Aioe, the wife of Pierre Dorion, one of the expedition’s interpreters.
The travellers crossed South Dakota, guided by Hoback, Reznor, and Robinson, as well as by Edward Rose, a man of dubious character who had also come up the Missouri with Lisa in 1807, and had subsequently lived with the Crow Indians on the plains. The Astorians met a band of Cheyennes, skirted the slopes of the Black Hills, and, entering northeastern Wyoming, travelled across the rough, rolling grassland and the ravines of the Powder River’s tributaries toward the Big Horn Mountains. In the foothills of that range a band of Crows joined them, and Hunt was fearful at first that, perhaps assisted by Edward Rose, their former companion, those Indians would pillage the expedition. He and his men maintained their guard; and although Rose gave the others reason to believe he was plotting with the Crows against them, no conflict occurred. The Indians traded amicably, and then helped guide the party to a pass that led across the Big Horns. When the Crows rode away, Hunt offered Rose half a year’s wages, three horses, traps, and “some other things” if he would quit the expedition and stay with the Crows. Accepting the offer, Rose hurried after the Indians, and Hunt was glad to be rid of him.
On the west side of the Big Horns, the expedition came on the Bighorn River, and on September 9 turned up the valley of its tributary, the Wind River, down which the three Kentuckians had come earlier in the year. Near present-day Dubois, Wyoming, the men began to suffer from a scarcity of game. Learning from an Indian of a pass that led southwestward across the Wind River Mountains to another river where buffalo were plentiful, Hunt abruptly turned the group in that direction, despite the lateness of the season for mountain travelling and the fact that he was leaving a direct, shorter route to his goal for a longer and more uncertain one. Climbing the Wind River Mountains to present-day Union Pass, the men beheld an inspiring view of the Teton range, still far distant in the west. The Kentuckians told them that those snow-capped peaks overlooked the head of the river on which they had wintered, and the Astorians named them the Pilot Knobs, sighting on them repeatedly for the direction toward which they would eventually have to turn.
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.
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.
Following the Boise to its mouth, they arrived back on the Snake River and moved along it again as it flowed north through barren hills toward a formidable range of mountains capped with snow. At the entrance to a narrow passage where the river began to force its way through steep and rugged basalt cliffs, they paused among another band of Shoshonis, learning from them that white men, travelling on both sides of the river, had preceded them into the canyon. Hunt was cheered to know that Crooks and probably McClellan and Reed were safely ahead of him, and his spirits were roused further when Indians told him that after three sleeps in the mountains, he would meet another nation of people whom they called the Sciatogas, and that from the homes of those people it was only six more sleeps to the falls of the Columbia River.
The Sciatogas were Cayuses and Nez Perces who often raided the Shoshonis from the north, and the wild and dark defile into which Hunt’s people hopefully plunged on November 29 was the forbidding Grand Canyon of the Snake River, the deepest gorge on the North American continent (7,900 feet deep at its maximum)—and to this day one of the least accessible in the United States. No white man had yet been through this awesome mountain trench, which now forms part of the border between Oregon and Idaho, and no one who had known its extent of more than 100 miles would have tried forcing it in winter. But Hunt was unaware of its dangers, and he was in difficulty almost at once. The narrow benchland along the water, hemmed by walls that rose thousands of feet above him, became rocky and impassable, and Hunt tried to climb the cliff. The steep route was dizzying, and the travellers, already weak from hunger, moved along perilous ledges and basalt rimrock, edging close to the cliffsides to keep from falling. On the heights, “so high,” wrote Hunt, “that I would never have believed our horses could have got over them,” they ran into a snowstorm that “fell so densely on the mountains where we had to go that we could see nothing a half-mile ahead.”
At an earlier season they might have gotten through the canyon. But winter had struck, and they were now to pay dearly for their previous delays and false hopes. One whole day they were unable to move in the storm, and remained encamped, eating one of the horses they had traded from the Shoshonis and shivering in the bitter cold. When the weather cleared, they had a dismaying view of the country ahead of them—range upon range of mountains, all covered with snow and extending as far as they could see. They made only a few miles a day, returning occasionally to the river, but climbing again when the dark canyon walls rose close to the water and barred their progress. On December 4, they floundered in snow that came above their knees. The cold dulled their minds and made them sleepy, and on one occasion, Hunt noted, they escaped what seemed a sure death only by coming on a clump of pines that gave them the makings of a roaring fire. The next day the snowfall cut visibility to three hundred yards, and they returned again to the river, slipping and sliding down a rocky slope through a fog that obscured the bottom of the canyon. On December 6, when the fog cleared, they were startled to see a party of men coming through the gorge toward them, but on the opposite side of the river. It was Crooks’s group, so wasted from hunger that Hunt scarcely recognized any of them. They stood on the rocks, calling hoarsely across the stream for food, and Hunt had a boat hastily made from the skin of a horse that they had butchered the night before, and sent some meat across to them.
The boat returned with Crooks and one of his men, a Canadian named François LeClerc, who, weak-voiced and scarcely able to stand up unassisted, told Hunt that they had struggled three days farther down the river. There, near the most awesome part of the chasm, the narrowest and most rugged section, since that time given the name Hell’s Canyon, the rock walls had been so close together and the river so wild and frightening that they had climbed with difficulty to the mountain top, where the view of the snow-covered wilderness, still extending as far as they could see, had appalled them. Realizing that they could never get through alive, they had turned back in the hope of finding help before starvation overtook them.
They also had news of the other groups. Several days before their worst trials had begun, they had sighted the parties of Reed and Donald McKenzie trudging downriver along the opposite shore. The burly McKenzie had called across to them that McClellan’s men were also heading north, following a route farther east, which they thought would lead them to the land of the Flathead Indians.
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.”
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 present-day 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.
As for the full Astorian venture, it fell a victim to the War of 1812 and was eventually abandoned. But it lasted long enough to help establish the claim of the United States to the lower Columbia River and the Oregon country. Back in St. Louis, where he became the operator of a large farm, postmaster of the city, and a successful dealer in furs until his death in 1842, Hunt had the satisfaction of knowing that his trials on the Snake had provided a major basis for the American claim.