The active exploration of the Scotts Bluff area began with the western extension of the fur trade into the upper Missouri and Rocky Mountain regions. With the trapper and trader came the beginnings of the history for western Nebraska.1 Although such Spanish and French traders as Lisa and Choteau had already been trading in the Missouri country, it remained for John Jacob Astor and his Pacific Fur Company (organized in 1810) to open up the rich fur country of the American Rockies and the Oregon country. A party, under W. P. Hunt, was sent overland to the mouth of the Columbia, and another party, on the "Tonquin," went by sea. Astoria was founded and the region claimed for America scarcely before some British traders appeared on the scene out of Canada. The Second War for Independence (1812-15) came on, and control was lost temporarily until an agreement between Britain and America made the Oregon country (42°-54°40' N. Lat., and west of the Continental Divide) open to joint exploitation.
Meanwhile, in 1812, an overland party had started east with dispatches for Astor. Robert Stuart, Ramsay Crooks, Robert McLellan, Joseph Miller, F. Leclerc, A. Veller, and B. Jones made up the party that laboriously followed up the Snake, crossed the Continental Divide at or near the famous South Pass, and started down the Sweetwater. The party lost their horses to some Indians while west of the Rockies, so they concluded to winter until foot or boat traveling should improve, as they had no idea of their location or the distance to St. Louis. Being disturbed by some Indians, the returning Astorians decided to attempt farther progress. They trudged along down the North Platte (with most of their dunnage on the back of a poor old horse obtained from some friendly Snake Indians) until they had advanced many miles into the cold, desolate plains. Confronted by a lack of fuel and food, they retraced their steps "to a place where they had remarked there was a sheltering growth of forest trees and a country abundant in game. Here they would once more set up their winter quarters and await the opening of the navigation to launch themselves in canoes."2
At this site the seven wanderers set up a new winter lodge, which was completed a few days after New Year's Day, 1813. They were able to kill an abundance of buffalo, and soon had an ample stock of winter provisions. Part of their leisure time they utilized in making two large dugout canoes, hoping to launch them with the spring flood of the river. On the 8th of March the river seemed sufficiently deep, and they departed from their winter's quarters.3 However, this initial attempt to navigate the upper Platte failed miserably, as the river expanded into a wide but extremely shallow stream, with many sandbars, and occasionally various channels. They got one of their canoes a few miles down it, with extreme difficulty, but at length had to abandon the attempt and resume their journey on foot with their faithful old pack-horse. Finally they got down to Grand Island, where a canoe was obtained from some Indians, and the remainder of the journey was made with comparative speed and ease.
This good direct trail between the settlements and the mountains now was forgotten for a number of years. During this time the Missouri Fur Company (motivated by Manuel Lisa, Joshua Pilcher, and other St. Louis men) and several minor companies had continued to work the upper Missouri region via the Missouri river. In 1822 William Ashley and Andrew Henry organized a fur company that planned greater activity in the Rocky Mountains than ever before. An advertisement for men was answered by a group that developed such famous mountainmen as Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, and Jim Bridger. A series of disastrous encounters with Aricara and Blackfeet Indians in the upper Missouri region, 1822-1824, nearly wrecked Ashley financially, and turned the attention of his men to more southern fields. At this time occurred the much-disputed discovery or rediscovery of the South Pass by Provot and Bridger in 1823 or Smith and Fitzpatrick in 1824.4
The concentration of Ashley's men in the Rocky Mountain area back of the Platte headwaters resulted in two innovations in the fur business. The various bands of trappers working for Ashley were given a time and place to meet a caravan which would bring needed supplies and trade goods, and would then take back to St. Louis the skins acquired by trapping and trade. This rendezvous and caravan system was initiated in the summer of 1825. At the same time the direct Platte overland route was put into effective use. In the summer of 1824 Fitzpatrick and two others had attempted to come down the Sweetwater and North Platte by bullboat, but had been wrecked and forced to cache their beaver skins. Then the three walked the entire distance in to Ft. Atkinson on the Missouri. There they found James Clyman, who had become separated from his party and had wandered the 600 miles in eighty days, arriving shortly before them. The party got horses, returned to the cache at Independence Rock, and was back at Ft. Atkinson in less than two months. Thus were furs first brought down to the Missouri by the Platte route. This route was probably along the north bank.5
At first the pack animals used were horses, but soon mules became the favored animals because of their greater endurance. The caravan in 1826, under Ashley, W. Sublette, and Smith, was composed of 300 pack mules. This was Ashley's last trip into the mountains, as he sold his active interest to W. Sublette, Smith, and David Jackson in July of 1826. The pack trains of 1827, and 1828, and 1829 were of the accustomed type, but in the summer of 1830 W. Sublette led a caravan of 10 wagons (each drawn by 5 mules, 2 dearborns drawn by a mule each, 12 head of cattle, one milch cow, and 80 men mounted on mules.) This train went from St. Louis up the Platte to the head of the Wind River, being the first wagons to reach the Rocky Mountains north of the Santa Fe Trail. In 1827, however, Ashley had sent a party of 60 men, with a four-pound cannon on a carriage drawn by two mules, which went as far as the Great Salt Lake.
"Pack horses, or rather mules, were at first used; but in the beginning of the present year (1830), it was determined to try wagons; and in the month of April last, on the 10th day of the month, a caravan of ten wagons, drawn by five mules each, and two dearborns, drawn by one mule each, set out from St. Louis. We have eighty-one men in company, all mounted on mules; and these were exclusive of a party left in the mountains. Our route from St. Louis was nearly due west to the western limits of the State, and thence along the Santa Fe trail about forty miles; from which the course was some degrees north of west, across the water of the Kansas, and up the Great Platte river, to the Rocky Mountains, and to the head of the Wind river, where it issued from the mountains. This took us until the 16th of July, and was as far as we wished the wagons to go, as the furs to be brought in were to be collected at this place, which is, or was this year, the great rendezvous of the persons engaged in that business. Here the wagons could easily have crossed the Rocky Mountains, it being what is called the Southern Pass, had it been desirable for them to do so, which it was not for the reason stated. For our support, at leaving the Missouri settlements, until we should get into the buffalo country, we drove twelve head of cattle, beside a milk cow. Eight of these only being required for use before we got to the buffaloes, the others went on to the head of Winder river." (Letter of Jackson, Smith, and Sublette, page 21). On the return trip the dearborns were left behind. Thus, in 1827 and 1830, the embryonic Oregon Trail (yet known only as the Great Platte route to the mountains) was blazed to a wheeled trace.6
At the summer rendezvous of 1830, W. Sublette, Smith, and Jackson sold out to Fitzpatrick, Bridger, M. Sublette, Fraeb, and Gervais, who constituted the first Rocky Mountain Fur Company, properly so entitled. This company was dissolved in 1834, when it was temporarily reconstructed under Fitzpatrick, M. Sublette, and Bridger. However, these traders marketed through the American Fur Company, and after 1835 became employees of the latter company. During the five-year period, 1830-35, there ensued certain events and results that brought the first, or "romantic," period of the fur trade to an end.
In the period 1810-1830, fur trappers and traders had quite thoroughly explored and trapped the entire Rocky Mountain area from British Canada to the Mexican Interior Provinces. Most of the entrepreneurs (borgeois, factor, artisan, or free trader) were Scotch, Irish, or of pioneer Virginia and Kentucky stock. The engages and free trappers were a motley crew of French-Canadian, American, Mexican, and mixed breeds. Scarcely a one hesitated to take one or more Indian wives, in the easy "mountaineer" style. Through such alliances tribal trade was attracted to the various individuals and outfits.7 By 1830 there was literally scarcely a locality or an Indian band that had not been contacted by the mountaineer trappers. This had resulted in a perceptible "trapping out" of the beaver country. By 1834 the reduction of the beaver output (the main fur shipped down the Platte route) was quite visible, and John Jacob Astor withdrew from the American Fur Company. At the same time the decree of "Dame Fashion" had shifted from beaver to silk hats.
Contributing agents to the trapping out of the beaver and the introduction of a new order in the fur business were the invasions of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company "preserves" by numerous independent outfits, such as those of Bonneville, Wyeth, Gant, and Bent-St. Vrain. Captain Bonneville, an army officer on leave, brought an elaborate wagon-train outfit into the mountains, in 1832, over the North Platte route by Scotts Bluff. In the same year Nathanial Wyeth, a New England ice dealer, came into the mountains (by the same route) on a reconnaissance trip, which resulted in a serious business attempt in 1834. Accompanying Wyeth in 1834 were the first prospective permanent settlers of the Oregon country, Jason and Daniel Lee, Methodist missionaries to the Northwestern Indians. The competition among the many trapping and trading outfits, the need for central posts to which the fruits of methodic trapping and hunting might be brought and exchanged for commodities, and the prospect of regular movements across the mountains between the Missouri and the Columbia all led to the founding of permanent trading posts. Ft. William (Ft. Laramie), some 60 miles above Scotts Bluff, and Ft. Hall, on the upper Snake, were built in 1834. Although the annual rendezvous continued into its sixteenth year (1840), it decreased steadily in importance. There was to ensue a period, 1835-1848, when the westward movement of missionaries and colonists bound for the fertile valleys of Oregon and California filled the historic picture, and the reduced ranks of the trappers contributed as much to progress through guide service at by the production of beaver and buffalo skins for the eastern markets.8
2Washington Irving's "Astoria" (1836) is the principal authority for the entire narrative of the returning Astorians. The May 15, 1813, "Missouri Gazette" carried the first published account (extracted in John Bradbury: Travels in the Interior of America, 1817) of this journey that defined nearly the entire length of the future Oregon Trail. The "Journal of Robert Stuart" has been edited recently by P. A. Rollins.
3The exact location has never been determined. The local historians of Scotts Bluff presume it to have been in the Cottonwood Grove, near the town of Scotts Bluff. W. J. Ghent, in "The Road to Oregon," p. 250, locates the camp near Henry, Nebraska, near which town an Oregon Trail stone was dedicated 100 years later. Irving, op. cit. pp. 320-321, made no attempt to place the camp. Grace Hebard, "The Pathbuckers from River to Ocean," 6th ed., p. 72, located the Astorians near Torrington. Addison Sheldon, "History and Stories of Nebraska," p. 43, carries the Astorians down to Bridgeport. The historic evidence of topography, vegetation, and abundance of buffalo would indicate any one of the above-mentioned sites, with the greatest probability resting with the Henry site.
6United States Senate Executive Document 39, 21st Congress, 2nd Session, 1831, contains a letter from Gen. W. H. Ashley to Gen. Macomb, in which, p. 7, Ashley describes the expedition of 1827. In the same document there is a letter from Smith, Jackson, and Sublette which (p. 21) narrates the wagon journey of 1830. Chittenden, op. cit., p. 279, has twisted this into a six-pound cannon going to the mountains in 1826 under Ashley. Hafen and Ghent, op. cit., pp. 63, 65, 69, 70, 71, and 76, mention the summer caravans led by W. Sublette to the annual rendezvous.