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Battle of Pierre's Hole

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By Hiram Martin Chittenden, 1902


Pierre's Hole, as it was then called, or Teton Basin, its present name, is one of those valleys which are veritable oasis in the desert of rugged mountains. Very few of these valleys exceed that of Pierre's Hole in beauty. It is overhung on the east by that noble range of mountains whose culminating peak is the Grand Teton. The valley extends in a direction from southeast to northwest. It is fully thirty miles long and from five to fifteen miles wide. It appears like a broad, flat prairie almost destitute of trees except along its principal river and the various tributaries.


These typical mountain streams descend mostly from the Teton range, where they are fed by perennial snows and almost daily summer rains.


Pierre's Hole, Idaho

Pierre's Hole, Idaho, photo courtesy The Fur Trapper.com


The course of these streams can be traced for great distances by the ribbons of lush greenery which cross the plain here and there and unite with a larger line of trees along the central stream. These forests are more extensive than the observer from a distance would imagine. The more considerable cottonwood groves are often so filled with tangled growths of willows and creeping vines as to be almost impenetrable, and in many places it is a physical impossibility to get through them until the brush has been cut away.

In the summer of 1832 the Rocky Mountain and American Fur Companies had their rendezvous in the upper part of the valley of Pierre's Hole some twelve or fifteen miles from Teton Pass. With their accustomed alacrity of movement, the managers of the Rocky Rocky Mountain Fur Company had excelled their rivals in reaching the rendezvous with their annual supplies. William L. Sublette arrived there with a party of about sixty men on July 6th. Nathaniel Wyeth was with him and so were the remnants of Jefferson Blackwell's and John Gannt's parties of the previous year whom Sublette had found on the Laramie River. Vanderburgh and Drips, of the American Fur Company, were also present. Lucien Fontenelle, who was coming from Fort Union, North Dakotawith supplies, was still far behind in the Bighorn Valley. Captain Benjamin Bonneville, likewise headed in the same direction, was still in the valley of the Platte River.

In the valley of Pierre's Hole were also many hundreds of Indians, mostly of the
Salish and Nez Percé tribes. The Gros Ventre, ever hostile to the whites, were this year particularly troublesome around the headwaters of the Snake and Green Rivers. Although a post had been built in the Blackfoot country scarcely a year before -- Fort Piegan, Montana at the mouth of the Marias River -- this fact seems not at all to have tempered the ferocity of the tribe. They were at this time returning home from a visit to their kindred, the Arapaho. Sublette had had a sharp brush with them on the way to the rendezvous, and Thomas Fitzpatrick, who had gone on ahead, was unhorsed and forced to hide  in the mountains, and wandered for five days without food, reaching the rendezvous more dead than alive.


When the business of the rendezvous was nearly completed, a party of trappers under Milton G. Sublette set out on July 17th, in the direction of the main Snake River toward the southeast. Nathaniel Wyeth embraced this opportunity to secure a good escort out of the Blackfoot country for the remnant of his party who had decided to continue on to the Pacific Coast. The joint party proceeded just a short distance, six or eight miles, and encamped for the night. Just as they were setting out the next morning they discovered a party of horsemen approaching. They were in doubt for a time whether it was white or Indian, but they soon found that it was a band of Gros Ventre. They were approaching in two parties, and numbered about a 150 men. According to Zenus Leonard, they carried a British flag which they had captured from a party of Hudson Bay trappers, whom they had recently defeated. The Indians came down into the valley with such fierceness that the trappers could not, at first, tell whether they were buffalo, white men or Indians. Finally, by the aid of Wyeth's looking glass, they discovered that there were also Blackfoot Indians, and Milton Sublette at once sent two men to the rendezvous for assistance.


Blackfoot Indians, 1913

Blackfoot Indians, 1913.

This image available for photographic prints & downloads HERE!


In the meantime, a tragedy of revenge had been enacting on the plain. The Blackfoot, discovering that the force before them was larger than they had supposed, made signs of peace, displaying, it is said, a white flag.


But, such was their general reputation for disloyalty that no confidence was placed in their friendly advances. There were, moreover, in the white camp two men who cherished inextinguishable hatred toward the Blackfoot. One of these was Antoine Godin, whose father had been murdered by these Indians on Godin Creek. The other was a Salish chief whose nation had suffered untold wrongs from the tribe. When these two men advanced to meet the overtures of peace, a Blackfoot chief came forward to meet them. By a previous arrangement made between Godin and the Salish chief, the latter shot the Blackfoot dead at the instant when Godin grasped his hand in friendship. Seizing the chief's scarlet robe, Godin and his companion beat a hasty, though safe, retreat.


The Indians then withdrew into some timber nearby, surrounded by a copse of willows, and immediately entrenched themselves by digging holes in the ground, and building a breastwork of timber in front of their rifle pits. This work was mostly done by the women, the Indians maintaining a skirmish line in front of the fort. While some of the men had gone to the rendezvous for reinforcements, Milton Sublette's trappers held the Indians within the woods, and Wyeth fortified his own camp, where he ordered his men to remain.


William L. Sublette and Robert Campbell, upon receiving the news of attack, immediately left the rendezvous and in short order, arrived on the field with a large force of whites and Indians.



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