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. Located in Idaho, it is overhung on the east by that Grand Tetons in Wyoming. The valley extends in a direction from southeast to northwest. It is fully 30 miles long and from 5 to 15 miles wide. It appears like a broad, flat prairie almost destitute of trees except along its principal river and the various tributaries.
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 12 to 15 miles from Teton Pass. With their accustomed alacrity of movement, the managers of the 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 60 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. William Vanderburgh and Andrew Drips, of the American Fur Company, were also present. Lucien Fontenelle, who was coming from Fort Union, North Dakota with 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 150 men. According to Zenus Leonard, they carried a British flag which they had captured from a party of Hudson’s Bay Company 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’ss looking glass, they discovered that there were also Blackfoot Indians, and Milton Sublette at once sent two men to the rendezvous for assistance.
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 Sublette and Robert Campbell, upon receiving the news of the attack, immediately left the rendezvous and in short order, arrived on the field with a large force of whites and their Indian allies.
Sublette assumed the direction of the battle. He forbade both Wyeth’s men and his own raw recruits to engage in the fight and used only the seasoned trappers and the Indians. Wyeth himself, however, was present in the engagement, part of the time. The Blackfoot, when they saw the overwhelming force with which they had to reckon, withdrew within their entrenchments.
The whites and allied Indians promptly commenced the attack by random firing into the thicket. This accomplished nothing but gave the Blackfoot a chance to do some effective work in return. It was apparent that other measures would have to be adopted to dislodge them, and William Sublette proposed to storm the breastworks.
His men thought it too dangerous, but Sublette insisted. About 30 of the whites and as many Indians joined him, and together they entered the willow thickets. Pushing their way cautiously through the tangled shrubs, Sublette, Campbell, and Alexander Sinclair of Arkansas led the others toward the Indian “fort.” Sublette and Campbell and doubtless others had made their wills to each other in anticipation of the consequences that might ensue. After working their way on hands and knees through the dense line of willows they came to the more open ground, and then saw the rude fortification of the Indians. As they emerged into this open space they were more exposed to the fire of the Blackfoot. Sinclair was killed on the spot and Sublette was severely wounded. In the meantime, Wyeth with some Indians had gained nearly the opposite side of the fort, and one Indian near him was killed by a chance shot from Sublette’s party. The besieged Indians suffered little at this time, for they were well protected, although completely overmatched in numbers.
The attack continued for the greater part of the day without any substantial progress, owing to the secure position of the enemy and the evident reluctance of the attackers to storm it. Finally, Sublette decided to burn them out, although much against the wishes of the friendly Indians, who wanted to plunder the fort. A train of wood was laid and was about to be ignited when an incident occurred which brought immediate relief to the beleaguered garrison. One of the friendly Indians, who understood the Blackfoot language held some conversation with the besieged during the fight. They now told him that they knew that the whites could kill them, but that they had 600-800 warriors who would soon arrive and who would give them all the fighting they wanted. In the process of interpretation, the Blackfoot was made to say that this force was then actually attacking the main rendezvous. Such an attack would have been disastrous in the absence of the fighting force, and the whites, without waiting to verify the news, quickly hurried off to the rendezvous site. Before the mistake was discovered, it was too late to resume the attack. On the following morning, the Blackfoot fort was found abandoned. The casualties in this fight were, on the side of the whites were five killed, including Alexander Sinclair, and six wounded, of whom William Sublette was one. The allied Indians lost seven killed and six wounded. The loss of the Blackfoot was never fully known. They left nine dead warriors in the fort together with 25 horses and nearly all their baggage. Later, it was said that the Blackfoot admitted to having lost 26 warriors.
The Battle of Pierre’s Hole was not without its important sequels. On July 25th, seven men of Wyeth’s party, together with Alfred K. Stephens and four men, the joint party including a Mr. More of Boston, a Mr. Foy of Mississippi, and two grandsons of Daniel Boone, set out from the rendezvous to return East. They had intended to accompany William Sublette, but the latter’s departure had been postponed about ten days on account of his wound. Impatient of the delay, these men set out to the eastward, and on the following day, were attacked in Jackson’s Hole in Wyoming by a band of some twenty Blackfoot. More and Foy were killed and Stephens was wounded. He, with the rest of the party, returned to the rendezvous, where he lingered until July 30th, when he died just after starting for St. Louis, Missouri in company with William Sublette. His horses and traps were sold the same day, and his beaver fur was taken to St. Louis. Sublette with his party of about 60 men and the furs they had collected over the past year left the rendezvous on July 30th. The day after crossing the Snake River, on August 4th, they passed the large band of Blackfoot of whom they had been told by the Indian at the Battle of Pierre. These Indians had been hovering in the vicinity of the camps of Lucien Fontenelle and Benjamin Bonneville, but had not ventured to attack. In like manner, their recent experience in Pierre’s Hole made them hesitate about attacking Sublette’s party, and he was suffered to pass unmolested. This band of Indians finally left the country by the way of the Wind River Valley, where they were attacked and routed by some Crow Indians with a loss of 40 killed. The remainder were scattered like fugitives throughout the Crow country.
It will be remembered that it was Antoine Godin who killed the Blackfoot chief at Pierre’s Hole in revenge for the death of his father. But the account was not yet considered closed — at least on the part of the Blackfoot. At some time between September 1834 and September 1835, the exact date unknown, a party of Blackfoot appeared on the opposite bank of the Snake River from Fort Hall, Idaho. They were led by a desperado named James Bird, a former employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who, having been made a prisoner by the Blackfoot, in a skirmish with some of that tribe, had remained with them and had become an influential chieftain. From the opposite side of the Snake River, Bird requested Godin to come across and buy their furs. Godin complied, not suspecting treachery. He sat down to smoke with the company when Bird signaled to some Indians, who shot him in the back. While he was yet alive, Bird tore his scalp off and cut the letters ” N.J.W.,” Wyeth’s initials, on his forehead. Thus ended the tragedy of Pierre’s Hole.
About the Author: The Battle of Pierre’s Hole written by Hiram Martin Chittenden and included in his book, The American Fur trade of the Far West, published in 1902. Chittenden served in the Corps of Engineers, eventually reaching the rank of Brigadier General. During this time, he was in charge of many notable projects including work at the Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, and the Lake Washington Canal Project. He was also an author, penning historical volumes, tour guides, and poetry. The story, as it appears here, is not verbatim as it has been edited for clarity and ease of the modern reader.