Saturday, October 12, 2013

Traders,Trappers, Mountain Men and Miners

".....nothing worthy of record occurred until the evening of the 11th, when four of our trappers, who had been absent from camp for some time, returned in a state of perfect nudity and most unparalleled misery. Their bodies were broiled by the heat of the sun to that degree, that the pain produced by coming in contact with our clothes was almost unsupportable." (Warren Angus Ferris, "Life in the Rocky Mountains", 1843)

These trappers had come upon a raging river and in an attempt to cross it, swam their horses across then built a raft and packed all their supplies, including their clothes on the raft before setting off in the roiling water. The raft capsized throwing them all off and then became entangled deep in a log jam. Finding it impossible to salvage anything they were able to save themselves and swim to the opposite shore. Riding naked in the broiling sun, rain, hail and nights of freezing temperatures it took them four days to find their comrades. By the time they arrived at camp their bodies were absent flesh from rubbing on the horse hide. They had no choice but to ride the horses because the rocks and prickly pear would have torn their feet to the bone in a matter of a few miles. "Add to the complications of the woes above enumerated, the knawing (sic) pangs of hunger  ...that they must have experienced in no slight degree, from the fact that they did not taste a morsel of food during these four days of agony, and we have an aggregate of suffering hardly equaled in the history of human woe." Yet this account is only one of many documented that describes more than one can imagine the human body surviving, as the trapper and mountain man plied his trade.

Exploration and mapping of the west (see above) is credited to a small group of men who exemplified courage, tenacity and wanderlust.  Historical documents give major credit of early exploration to Lewis and Clark and their journey to find the Northwest Passage during 1804-1806. But Jacques D' Eglise obtained a license from the Spanish, to trade with the Indians on the Missouri in 1790. Also Manuel Lisa (1772-1820) realizing that the unknown area in the west could not be explored without supplies began as an itinerant trader on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers in 1790. By 1796 he had set up a store on the Wabash River in the Northwest Territory. In June 1802 he and his partners received a five year agreement from the Spanish government to trade with the Osage Indians. Thus began the Missouri Fur Company. Rapidly this land claim changed from Spanish to French to American which provided Lisa with many opportunities. Lisa married Milain the daughter of a prominent Omaha Chief, which furthered his relationship amongst the Indian tribes. Lisa is credited with assisting the U.S. government in keeping the Indian tribes peaceful during the War of 1812. He returned to St. Louis with an unknown illness in 1820 and died there shortly after on August 12 at the age of 48.

Trapping and the fur trade became profitable only because of a fashion fad for felt hats in Europe. The price for beaver pelts during this era were:
1800-$1.00 a pound in St. Louis
1809-$2.00 a pound  "
1811-$4.00 a pound  "
1812 to 1815-$1.50 per pound in St. Louis
1825-$3.00 a pound at St. Louis
1834-$4.00 a pound at Fort Union
1848 $1.00 a pound for large beaver pelts at Fort Vancouver (O'Neill & Winthrop "Fort Connah", page 20, 2002),
By 1840 silk had replaced beaver with the silk top hat in vogue and buffalo was the fur of choice.

John Colter (1775-1813) was with the Lewis and Clark Expedition and asked for an early release on the return trip to become an explorer and fur trapper. He and another Lewis and Clark companion George Drouillard (1773-1810) joined Manuel Lisa and provided a large amount of geographical knowledge of the northwest, while trapping the many rivers and tributaries of the Yellowstone, Teton and Bighorn. Both of these men met with an early death; Colter died in Missouri of jaundice in 1813 and Drouillard was killed by Blackfoot Indians near Three Forks in 1810.

Jedediah Smith (1798-1831), David Jackson, William Lewis Sublette, William Ashley, Jim Bridger, Black Harris and Lucien Fontenelle were all American trappers who contributed greatly to the fur trade and geographical knowledge. Smith traveled from Kansas City through the South Pass to the farwest. Smith and 74 men (including his brothers) with 22 wagons left St Louis in April 1831 on a trip to Santa Fe. Jedediah was shot by Comanches while searching for water to supply their wagon caravan north of Santa Fe on an unknown date shortly after May 27, 1831.  He had not yet celebrated his 33rd birthday. In his memory was written the following:
                      Song of Jed Smith
But where he died his brothers, even, didn't rightly know.
Recalling, with already seasoned woe,
How he went hunting water for the train,
And how they watched until the lonely plain
Went empty in the shiver of the sun
Forever (Neihardt, J.G., 1941)

William Sublette (1799-1845) although a member of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was known as a mountain man, explorer, politician, bank director, corporate executive, land speculator, resort proprietor and progressive farmer (Sunder, "Bill Sublette: Mountain Man", p. v, 1959). During the years 1829-1833 Bill spent extensive time in the Yellowstone and Wind River regions. His route to the area was the Platte and Sweetwater River, passing Independence Rock. Fort William was built on the Missouri just below the mouth of the Yellowstone in honor of Sublette (the site was later named Fort Buford). He died July 23, 1845 of tuberculosis in Pittsburg and his wife and sister-in-law returned his body to St. Louis to be interred on his farm near his beloved Sulfur Springs. Sublette's biography states he probably contracted tuberculosis from the many Indians he had befriended during his explorations.

Christopher "Kit" Carson (1809-1868) explored the Santa Fe route in 1826 and became one of the most known pioneers. One story tells of him in the process of rescuing a damsel in distress and during the ordeal finding a page from a dime store novel about him. Kit, born in Kentucky spent a lot of his travels in the south and around the Bent Fort area on the Colorado River. He married an Indian woman who died and then married a Mexican woman named Josepha Jarmilla. To this union was born three children. Kit died at Fort Lyon, Colorado from a ruptured aneurysm (probably esophageal varices) at 425 p.m. on May 23, 1868.

Nathaniel Wyeth (1802-1856) was an inventor and business man who decided the fur trade was a profitable venture.  He traveled from Boston to the Columbia River before he opened Fort Hall on the south branch of the Columbia River also known as the Snake River in 1834 and Fort William near Portland, Oregon. Realizing the Hudson Bay Company was not going to allow him to succeed he sold both forts to them in 1837. He returned to the east and amassed a large fortune before his death.

David Thompson at the age of 14 apprenticed for the Hudson Bay Company and after working there 7 years (1797) joined the Northwest Fur Company. From August 1797 to June 1798 he traveled 4,000 miles; visiting Mandan Indians on the Missouri; searching for sources of the Mississippi and explored the Lake Superior region. In 1807 he came to the Columbia River region with his wife and three children. He sent Finnan McDonald to establish trading posts on the Kootenai River and in 1808 established Kullyspell House on Lake Pend Oreille. In 1809 he built the Saleesh House near present day Thompson Falls on the Clark Fork River in Montana. After multiple mappings of the Columbia River region he escorted large quantities of furs to Montreal, when the war of 1812 broke out. He did not return to the western slope after that. He and his half-breed wife had a total of 13 children before he died at the age of 87 on February 10, 1857. His wife died 3 months later. His contribution was numerous maps of the U.S. and Canada for historical record.

McLean McArthur began building a new fort in the Flathead in 1846, just as the country became American land. McArthur left the fort due to Indian troubles in 1847 and Angus McDonald who had assisted in building the structure took over. Completing the establishment, McDonald and his Nez Perce wife and two children (John and Cristina) made it their home and named it Fort Connen. Francois Finlay had trouble pronouncing the name and it became known as Fort Connah. Located near Charlo west of the Mission Mountains and south of the Flathead Lake, this Fort remained property of the Hudson Bay Company and traded with American trappers and Indians until 1871. During this period it also was on an Indian Reservation. Sons Duncan and Donald were born to Catherine and Angus, while living at Fort Connah. In 1853 Angus was promoted to Chief Factor at Fort Colville. He continued supervising Fort Connah with the daily duties taken over by Michel Ogden (son of Peter) who was married to Catherine McDonald's half sister Angelina. When Fort Hall closed Michel was in charge of transferring all the supplies to Fort Connah. He had amicable relations also with Major Owen at Fort Owen. The last person in charge of Fort Connah was Duncan McDonald, the son of Angus. He served as clerk for the fort from 1867 to 1871.
The Hudson Bay Fur Company owned by the British government and the Northwest Fur Company which ultimately merged with the HBC were both instrumental in charting the Canadian and northwest geography. Most notable among these men was Peter Skene Ogden. Because his life mirrors the dangers and tenacity of all the others this article will use his biography (Binns, Archie, 1967) to attempt to reveal the manner in which these individuals lived and how they overcame monumental obstacles of hunger, thirst and bodily harm.

Born in Quebec in 1794, Ogden was a "reckless young firebrand" (p. ix) when he joined the Northwest Fur Company in 1810 as a clerk  He had been working in a very dull job for John Astor, a German-American fur merchant in Montreal. Peter was assigned first to Fort Williams (north of Lake Superior) and then went with a brigade to Fort Ile a la Crosse, three thousand miles into the Canadian wilderness. The fort and lake were located northeast of the current town of Edmonton in Saskatchewan Province. There he spent 7 years as a clerk earning 15 pounds a year. During this period Peter took a Cree wife and had 2 sons. At the age of 22 Peter and a friend became involved in an incident that labeled him "the terror of the Indians"(p.49) and he was charged with murder in 1819. Before the indictment could be served Peter left the Fort and headed out over the Rockies to the Wood River and then to the Columbia River and Fort George (previously known as Fort Astoria) at the mouth of the Columbia River.

By the summer of 1821, Peter was a shareholder in the Northwest Fur Company and had accepted an assignment at Fort Thompson located in the current British Columbia Province. This was when the Northwest Fur Company merged with the Hudson Bay Company and the Companies name became HBC. Peter stayed on at Fort Thompson until the spring of 1822 and then took his Cree wife and 2 sons back to Ile a la Crosse and headed for the eastern coast to catch a boat to England. His father was in England and ill plus Peter believed he needed to meet with the head of Hudson Bay to secure a good position with the new company.

Peter's mother was not pleased with his taking of an Indian wife but believed that before long he would return to the civilized world and marry appropriately.  By July of 1823 Peter was at the York Factory on Hudson Bay. There he was given the important assignment of Spokane House and the express to the Columbia River.  During the visit to England an unknown circumstance had happened to his Cree wife. The young boys were safe with her family at Ile a la Crosse.

On the long journey to Spokane House Peter met Alexander Ross and his Flathead wife and children at Wood River. Ross was planning on moving to civilization but was given the request to take the Snake River expedition over from Finnan McDonald. Ross agreed to the appointment and traveled with Peter to the Spokane House. The route he would take to the Snake would be a march from Spokane House to  Pend Oreille waterway, follow the Clark Fork River to Flathead House, travel southeast through the Jocko area to Hellgate, follow the Bitterroot Valley south, cross the Continental Divide, then go south and cross the Divide again before traveling across barren land to the Snake River.

The interpreter at the Spokane House was Francios Rivet a French Canadian (Metis). Peter became entranced with his step daughter Julia Rivet, a full blooded Flathead Indian. After an appropriate courtship in the Flathead tradition, Peter took a herd of fifty horses and sent one offering after another to the teepee door of Julia and her mother. Her mother accepted each horse then would close the teepee flap. Finally, the last horse, a beautiful cream and gold mare was sent to the teepee. The horse was again accepted,  then shortly, Julia, in all of her finery came out astride the mare. The marriage rites were completed by the couple racing around the encampment on their horses. Shortly after the marriage, Peter sent for his 2 son's from his Cree wife, with Julia immediately taking over the role of mother.

This union was probably the most important thing Peter ever did. As with most of the other mentioned men, their lives were made easier and much safer by taking an Indian wife. During the dangerous expeditions not only men and horses were involved. They included many wives and children. Often expeditions lasted more than a year, where babies were conceived and born. Julia and Peter buried an infant son David, close to the Snake River, near the current town of Pocatello, Idaho.  This union produced at least 6 children and their descendants still reside near Lac la Hache in British Columbia.

Besides numerous other valuable expeditions and mapping excursions, Peter made six trapping journeys through the Snake River country. Some of these travels included the Great Salt Lake and the Ogden River and town now named after him.  A trip through Granite County in 1825 is the first known by white explorers. At least one excursion included the San Joaquin River, the Humbolt River and the Klamath.  Many Indian battles and periods of starvation were encountered. During these trips there was never a cry from the women or babies who accepted each day as it came. During one of them Julia jumped into a partially frozen lake to catch a goose as she needed goose grease to rub on a sick baby's chest. She survived as did the infant. (The Lewis and Clark journey was also saved by the medicinal knowledge of Sacajawea. Recognizing the signs of Vitamin C deficiency in herself and the men while stranded in the snow drifts on the Bitterroot Mountains, she found a denned badger; dug it out of it's hole; killed and butchered it; rendered the fat and mixed this with Kinnikinnick berries and fed the brigade. They all survived this incident.)

In 1834 Ogden became Chief Factor for HBC at Fort St. James on the Stuart Lake. This life was far from the stress of expeditions and the family thrived. Ogden still continued excursions and transacted various negotiations with Indian tribes and the American government. By 1846 the family was resettled at Fort Vancouver where Peter took over Dr. McLoughlin's post. It was not long before the British posts were located on American soil as the governments agreed the "Medicine Line" would be at the 49th parallel. This news reached Oregon Territory on November 4, 1846.

The HBC continued operating while trying to negotiate with the American government for a settlement on their properties. Even though Ogden had strived to make his properties self sufficient, by now, most if not all of the posts were operating deeply in the red but the Canadian/British governments believed this was preferred over leaving the posts without any reimbursement from the Americans. During this period (1847-48) Ogden traveled to the Walla Walla area and negotiated with the Cayuse Indians involved in the massacre at the Whitman Mission. (Helen Meek daughter of mountain man Joseph Meek was killed during this hostility). He was successful in rescuing all of the prisoners plus Reverend Spalding and returning them from Fort Walla Walla  to the Willamette Valley.

By 1849 trappers and farmers were catching the "gold fever" and began leaving the fur companies and the Willamette Valley for the gold fields in California. After one last trip to Washington D.C. in an attempt to get the American's to pay for the British forts, Ogden retired and bought a farm near Oregon City.  During this period Ogden had received comments and then a letter from his brother Charles Richard stating Peter needed to take steps to prevent his "Indian mistress and bastards from claiming any of his money." (p.350) His unpublished reply ended any further correspondence with this brother. Ogden had a will drawn up that he believed would protect Julia and the children giving them all of his estate. In doing this Peter adopted his sons for their legal protection and willed each of them 200 pounds, plus his watch and seal to young Peter. Julia received his belongings, houses, horses, cattle and all property in the county of Champoeg and along the Columbia. Daughters and grand daughters received cash and stock in the Puget Sound Agriculture Company, and orphan Fabian Rivet received 100 pounds.

Peter Skene Ogden died at his home in Champoeg County near Oregon City on September 27, 1854. Almost immediately Charles Richard Ogden wrote to Sir George Simpson reminding him that by English law the common law child had no rights. He demanded that "Peter Skene Ogden's Indian paramour and bastards be cut off with nothing and that the estate be divided among his brothers and sisters." After much legal wrangling a compromise was finally reached and Julia and the  children received some of what was willed to them. Major anger centered around daughter Euretta who was developmentally handicapped and called everything from "weak minded to an idiot." While this battle was taking place Julia and Euretta moved with son-in-law and daughter (Archibald and Sarah Julia McKinlay) to a wheat farm in Lac la Hache, British Columbia. Julia died there in January 1886 at the age of ninety eight.  
What occurred with Ogden was repeated in many of the fur trapper and mountain man's lives. Wives and children were seldom welcomed by the family and often rejected by the Indians leaving them caught in a state of limbo. Society did not recognize the Native American as equals in the white world and men such as Fred Burr and Granville Stuart ended up returning to society and married white wives. Johnny Grant did not and lived his life out in Canada with his many offspring and adopted children.

Once the fur trade bottomed out and mining became the trade of choice there also appeared a third wave of men such as Captain John Mullan, Major William Graham, Fred Burr, Major John Owen, E.R. Purple, Jim Mesinger and the Stuart brothers. Some were miners and others well educated men from the east, sent to survey and build the roads to ease the westward immigrants travel. To all of these hardy souls the population and history owes a deep debt of gratitude. Without them development from the  Northwest Territory to Louisiana Territory (1805) Missouri Territory (1812) Oregon Territory (1848), Washington Territory (1853), Idaho Territory (1863) to Montana Territory (1864) would have never occurred. 


  1. Loved seeing all the Fur Trade forts of the West on one map. Another Fort you might want to add is Fort Okanogan near the confluence of the Columbia and Okanogan rivers. Also Fort Whoop-up (formerly Fort Hamilton) and the Whoop-up trail were significant in the 1870's, and preceded the establishment of Fort McLeod.

    1. Sharon, I appreciate your comment. Yes Fort Okanogan and Fort Hamilton were also important fur forts. Because there were so many forts I selected only the ones utilized and visited by the fur traders in the article and were important in Montana history. By all means the map does not represent all of the forts. For a comprehensive depiction I refer you to the hard back copy of "Peter Skene Ogden: Fur Trader" by Archie Binns. It was published in 1967 by Binfords and Mort of Portland, Oregon. there are maps on the cover plates and an inset between pages 116 and 117 that are excellent references covering all of Canada and the northern part of America during the fur trade.
      (Loraine M. Bentz Baker Domine member of Granite County Historical Society)