By Randall Parrish in 1907
Sufferings of the Trappers
The history of the fur trade is filled with stories of adventure, daring, and savage warfare. What the hardy trappers suffered, isolated in the wilderness, battling constantly against wild beasts and wild men, can never be known. The majority died in the silence of remote regions, their very names long since forgotten, the heroism of their last fight untold. The records of the great fur companies alone contain brief mention of such incidents as appeared to them worthy of being written down.
These generally occurred in the great mountains, where the trappers made rendezvous and spent the larger part of their lives.
The disastrous Battle of Pierre’s Hole, the heroic exploration of Utah, and the first advance to California, are all full of dramatic incident; but the occurrences took place too far to the westward for the scope of this present work.
After the first years of exploration, and some beaver trapping along the streams, the Great Plains were used merely as a crossing from the region of civilization to the far more profitable mountain region beyond. Up the Missouri River by boat, or along the valley of the Platte River on foot, the hunters passed, alone or in companies, their destination those great ranges beyond. No doubt much of hardship, of adventure, of Indian-fighting, marked those long prairie miles, but not of sufficient interest to be recorded in the prosaic journals of the fur companies.
The Escape of Hugh Glass
The miraculous escape of Hugh Glass well pictures the endurance and suffering of these men. Glass was connected with Andrew Henry’s party in the expedition to the Yellowstone River. While he was out hunting somewhere along the Grand River, a grizzly bear dashed out of a thicket, threw him to the earth, tore out a mouthful of his flesh, and turning, gave it to her cubs. Glass sought to escape, but instantly she was again upon him. Seizing him by the shoulder she inflicted dangerous wounds on his hands and arms. At this moment some of his companions arrived and killed the bear. Although still alive, Glass was so terribly mangled that it was not believed he could possibly survive. They were in hostile Indian country, and it was necessary that the party should proceed without delay. Finally, Major Henry, by offering a reward, induced two of the men to remain with Glass, while the others pressed forward. One of the two was John S. Fitzgerald, and the other, a mere boy, was James Bridger, later a famous trapper himself. They remained with the wounded hunter five days. Then, despairing of his recovery, yet seeing no prospect of immediate death, they left him to his fate, taking with them his rifle and all accoutrements. When they reached the main party they reported him dead.
But, Glass was not dead. Reviving, he crawled to a spring. Close beside it he found wild cherries and buffalo berries on which he lived, slowly recovering his strength, until at last he ventured to strike out on his long and lonely journey. His objective point was Fort Kiowa, on the Missouri River, a hundred miles away. He started with hardly strength enough to drag one limb after the other, with no provisions or means of securing any, and in a hostile country where he would be the helpless victim of any straying Indian. But love of life, and a growing desire for revenge on those who had deserted him, urged him to the effort. Fortune seemed with him. He came to where wolves were attacking a buffalo calf. He let them kill it, and then, frightening them away, appropriated the meat, eating as best he could without either knife or fire. Bearing all he could with him, he pushed resolutely forward, and, after great distress and hardship, finally reached Fort Kiowa in present-day South Dakota.
Before his wounds had entirely healed, Glass was again in the field, starting east with a party of trappers bound down the Missouri River. When nearing the Mandan villages he decided to walk across where the river made a bend. Here, luck was with him, as the boats were attacked by Arikara Indians, and all those on board were killed.
Glass, too feeble to fight, had a narrow escape, and was taken by friendly Mandan Indians to Tilton’s Fort. His one purpose at this time was vengeance on those two who had deserted him in the mountains. Thus inspired, he left Tilton’s the same night, plunged into the wilderness, traveled alone for 38 days through hostile Indian country, and at last, reached Fort Henry, at the mouth of the Big Horn River in present-day Montana. Here, he discovered that the men he sought had gone east. Still seeking them, he at once accepted an opportunity to carry a dispatch to Fort Atkinson, Nebraska.
Adventures of Four Trappers
Four men started with Glass, leaving the Big Horn River on February 28, 1824. They went on foot, first into the valley of the Powder River, and then across the divide into the valley of the Platte River. Here, they made skin boats, and floated down the stream until they got beyond the foothills onto the open prairie.
Suddenly, they ran into a band of Arikara, with whom they attempted to hold council. However, the Indians made a treacherous attack, and killed two of the men; but, almost by a miracle, Glass managed to get away, although he lost all his equipment excepting a knife and a flint. He struck out again alone for the nearest post, Kiowa. It was at a season when buffalo calves were young, so he had plenty of meat, and his flint gave him fire. In fifteen days travel he made the fort, and, at the very first opportunity went down the river again. This time, he reached Fort Atkinson in safety, arriving there in June, 1824. Apparently, his desire for revenge had ceased, as he made no further effort to discover those who had deserted him. Glass was finally killed by Indians on the Yellowstone River in 1832.
Another pathetic incident of the wilderness is illustrative of the life led by these men. Six hundred and sixteen miles from Independence, Missouri, on what was later the Oregon Trail, was a landmark known as Scott’s Bluffs, in present-day Nebraska. The name arose from one of the most melancholy happenings in the history of the fur trade. A party of trappers were descending the Platte River in canoes, when their boats were upset in some rapids, and all their supplies and powder lost. Their plight was desperate, and rendered more so by the serious illness of one of their members named Hiram Scott. While scarcely knowing what to do they came upon a fresh trail of a party of white men, leading down the river. Anxious to overtake this party, and Scott not being able to move, they deliberately deserted him to his fate, reporting later that he had died.
A year later, the man’s skeleton was discovered beside these bluffs, proving that the wretched sufferer had actually crawled more than forty miles before he finally surrendered to the inevitable, and sank down in merciful death. The death of Jedediah S. Smith, who experienced a number of remarkable adventures while exploring a route to California, was one of the tragedies of the Plains. Smith was in many respects a remarkable man, deeply religious, of undaunted courage, and untiring energy. He enlisted in the fur trade when a mere boy, and, at seventeen, won distinction among these hardy men in the Arikara War. After William Ashley’s retreat, Smith carried dispatches to Fort Henry on the Yellowstone River, a mission of great peril.