By Randall Parrish in 1907
While the Government was virtually neglecting the western country of the Plains, private enterprise had been slowly prying open its secrets, and individuals were finding their uncertain way along its watercourses, or across its sun-browned prairie. The fur trade was the powerful magnet which thus early drew westward hardy adventurers by the score. Very few of the names of those who first trod the Plains have been preserved even upon the records of the great fur companies. They were generally obscure, illiterate men, possessing little except their rifles and traps, living for long years in the depths of the wilderness, only occasionally appearing amid the haunts of pioneer civilization with their packs of furs. Sometimes they traveled in independent parties for protection against Indians, some were free trappers, others were enrolled upon the lists of the organized fur companies and worked under orders. In either case, they necessarily led hard, wild lives, continually filled with adventure and personal peril.
These men, roughly clothed, living on wild game, their safety constantly menaced, were the true Western pathfinders, digging continually deeper year by year into the vast wilderness, and from their ranks, came those competent guides who were later to lead organized expeditions to the Western Ocean. During the forty years following the Louisiana Purchase, the people of the East possessed hardly the slightest conception of its immense value. The one considerable commercial attraction it offered during this period was its wealth of furs, and during nearly half a century this was its sole business of importance.
Hiram Martin Chittenden, in his book, The American Fur Trade of the far West, said:
“The nature of this business determined the character of the early white population. It was the roving trader and the solitary white trapper who first sought out these inhospitable wilds, traced the streams to their sources, scaled the mountain passes, and explored a boundless expanse of territory where the foot of the white man had never trodden before. The far West became a field of romantic adventure and developed a class of men who loved the wandering career of the native inhabitant rather than the toilsome lot of the industrious colonist. The type of life thus developed, though essentially evanescent, and not representing any profound national movement, was a distinct and necessary phase in the growth of this new country. Abounding in incidents picturesque and heroic, its annals inspire an interest akin to that which belongs to the age of knight-errantry. For the free hunter of the far West was, in his rough way, a good deal of a knight-errant. Caparisoned in the wild attire of the Indian, and armed cap-a-pie for instant combat, he roamed far and wide over deserts and mountains, gathering the scattered wealth of those regions, slaying ferocious beasts and savage men, and leading a life in which every footstep was beset with enemies, and every movement pregnant of peril. The great proportion of those intrepid spirits who laid ‘down their lives in that far country is impressive proof of the jeopardy of their existence. All in all, the period of this adventurous business may justly be considered the romantic era of the history of the West”
So valuable was this preliminary work in exploration that the able historian of the movement seems fully justified in his statement, that these often unknown men were the true pathfinders and not those official explorers who came later, yet have been accorded the proud title. Nothing in western geography was ever discovered by Government expeditions after 1840. It was every mile of it known previously to trader and trapper.
Brigham Young was led to the valley of Great Salt Lake by information furnished by these men; in the war with Mexico the military forces were guided by those who knew every trail and mountain pass; they were veterans of the fur trade who pointed John Charles Fremont to the Pacific; and when the rush of emigration finally set in toward Oregon and California, the very earliest of those travelers found already made for them a highway across the continent.”
Some Noteworthy Trappers
At how early a date adventurous free trappers had invaded the Great Plains it is impossible to state. French-Canadians undoubtedly drifted down from the north, through the country of the Sioux, well back in the 18th century, possibly even penetrating as far as the Arkansas River, where they came in contact with the Spanish outposts. As early as 1800, American hunters had advanced up the Missouri River as far as the villages of the Mandan Indians, and had trapped upon the waters of the Platte River. In 1804 we know that two Illinois men, Forest Hancock and Joseph Dickson, were trapping beaver on the Yellowstone River, and there must have been scattered here and there, others whose names have not been preserved.
In 1807, John Colter, a member of Lewis and Clark’s party, discharged on the Missouri River, immediately turned back into the wilderness, where he remained for years, making important discoveries, including that region now known as Yellowstone Park.
John Potts, another Lewis and Clark man, accompanied him until he was killed by Indians. The full story of these individual wanderers, over plain and mountain, can never be written. Very few of the names or the adventures met with, have been preserved, and most of the men perished alone in the wilderness.
Among organized fur-traders, the earliest name of any prominence is that of Manuel Lisa, of St. Louis, Missouri. With him were associated with Pierre Menard and William Morrison, of Kaskaskia, Illinois. As early as 1807, these men began operations on the Plains, gradually advancing into the mountains, establishing trading posts along the Missouri River, and as far away as the mouth of the Big Horn River. These men were compelled to fight the Indians as well as conduct trade with them, and their yearly reports were as full of adventure as of business. Of all the Plains tribes the Arikara of South Dakota caused the most trouble, although the Sioux were also frequently found hostile. In the mountains, the Blackfoot were almost continually upon the warpath.
Adventures of Ezekiel Williams
The adventures of a party under Ezekiel Williams occurred as early as 1807. He was a well-known frontiersman, who had been employed by the Government to return to his own people, a Mandan chief who had accompanied Lewis and Clark to Washington after a military expedition had failed. Twenty men started with him. Having safely performed this assigned duty, Williams and his party started west into the mountains on a trapping trip, dividing into two detachments when they arrived at the mouth of the Yellowstone River.
The Indians becoming troublesome, Williams, with eight or ten of the men, moved south along the base of the mountains until they reached the Arkansas River. Here, another separation took place, four going to Santa Fe, New Mexico, while Williams with five men, two of them Frenchmen, struck out into the mountains. While trapping, three of them were killed, and Williams, with Jean Baptiste Chaplain and a Frenchman named Parteau, sought protection among the Arapaho Indians on the South Platte River. They passed a miserable winter, but in the spring, Williams got away and floated down the Arkansas River in a canoe for over 400 miles. He was captured by Kansas Indians and robbed of his furs, but finally reached safety in Missouri in September. The next May, he conducted a party back to the Arapaho village in search of his companions, only to learn they had probably been killed.
Explorations by Employees of the Fur Companies
The great fur companies had but little to do with the Plains except to traverse them in their journeys back and forth between the market at St. Louis, Missouri and the mountains. In the earlier days, there was some trapping of beaver along the prairie streams, but this was usually done independently. In this work, nearly every watercourse between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains had been explored by daring adventurers, oftentimes traversing the wilderness alone. Yet, the main supply of furs was sought in the mountains, and it was to these, the great fur companies dispatched their men, generally by boats up the Missouri River, although occasionally parties struck directly across the intervening Plain, usually following the valley of the Platte. Of the two methods, it would almost seem as though that by water, was the more difficult. Against a swift current, heavily laden keelboats were slowly hauled with 20 men along the shore pulling the clumsy barge by means of a line fastened high enough to be out of the way of brushwood. Where the water was shallow, the voyageurs poled single file, facing the stern, and pushing with all their power. In deeper water, oars were utilized, but in any case, it was slow, hard work, involving months of unremitting labor.
The same year in which Manuel Lisa first organized the Missouri Fur Company, John Jacob Astor commenced operations on the Pacific Coast, and at once, there began an open war between these two companies for the control of the fur trade. The North West Company also became involved in the hostilities. Regarding the occurrences in the far Northwest, the hostilities were more or less connected with the movement of expeditions across the Plains. One of the most important of these was led by William P. Hunt for the Pacific Fur Company, which left St. Louis in the Spring of 1812. He had over 60 men in his company, and much toil and suffering were encountered.
Some of the way, it became a race between his party and representatives of the Missouri Fur Company. Hunt’s party ascended the Missouri River as far as the mouth of the Big Cheyenne River. Here, they left their boats and followed the general course of that stream to the base of the Black Hills; then they traveled westward to the valley of the North Platte River.
They were almost a year in reaching the Pacific, their circuitous route measuring nearly 3,500 miles. A year later, a party consisting of Robert Stuart, McLellan, Crooks, and two Frenchmen, traveled east from Astoria. On the way, probably in southern Wyoming, they met a trapper named Miller, who had just escaped from the Arapaho Indians. These same Indians succeeded in running off their horses, and they were compelled to perform the remainder of their journey to the Missouri River on foot. Their sufferings in the mountains had been intense, but after reaching the Plains they had little trouble. They followed the Platte River through its entire course, being the first party on record to do so.
The Ashley Expedition
In 1822 William H. Ashley comes into prominence, being connected with the American Fur Company. In that year, he helped Alexander Henry to erect a trading fort on the Yellowstone River, and a year later, he started up the Missouri River with 28 men, bound for that post. On the way, they were attacked by Arikara Indians and driven back, having 14 killed and 10 wounded. Undaunted by this, Ashley enlisted 300 followers, and in 1824 struck out across the Plains, following the Platte River to the South Pass, and exploring the Sweetwater River.
He pushed through the mountains to Utah Lake, built a fort there, and two years later, sold out his interest to several of his men, Jedediah S. Smith, William L. Sublette, and David E. Jackson. These were well-known names among early trappers and traders, Smith having reached California, by the way of Utah and Nevada, as early as 1826.
In the service of both Ashley and this newly formed company, was James P. Beckwourth, long famous throughout the West. He claimed to have been in the mountains since 1817 and to have been the first to explore the South Platte River. To Smith, Sublette, and Jackson belongs the distinction of taking the first wagons across the Plains and into the mountains. Ten wagons, each drawn by five mules, were driven the entire distance from St. Louis, Missouri to the Wind River. Each wagon carried 1,800 pounds, and they traveled from 15-25 miles a day. A year later, the same company brought out fourteen wagons, and others soon discovered this to be the easier method of crossing the Great Plains with supplies. The favorite route was northwest to Grand Island, Nebraska and then the valley of the Platte River. A few years later this became the Oregon Trail.