City of Rocks
Historic Resources Study
NPS Logo


Fur Trade and Exploration

I got safe home from the Snake Cuntre... and when that Cuntre will see me again the Beaver will have Gould skin. [22]

The Raft River Valley formed an important transportation link between the heavily trapped Snake and Bear rivers. Between 1820 and 1830, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) also heavily trapped the Raft River, as part of their general policy to decimate beaver populations in the area of joint British/American occupation established in 1818. Despite this proximity, City of Rocks was not the focus of the trappers' attention and is neither described nor mentioned in passing in the trappers accounts.

In 1811 an expedition of the Pacific Fur Company, led by Wilson Price Hunt and Donald Mackenzie, traveled down the Snake River, past its confluence with the Raft River, enroute to their new Pacific coast trading post at Astoria. Although Mackenzie was convinced that the Snake country's beaver population was considerable, the difficulty of that 1811 journey discouraged further exploration of the Snake River and its tributaries until 1818. [23]

In that year, Mackenzie, a new partner in the nascent North West Company, led the first "Snake Country Brigade" into an area extending from Fort Nez Perce south as far as the Green River and east as far as the Bear River. By 1820, Mackenzie had established a system of mobile trapping and summer rendezvous that incorporated the Upper Raft River region, near the City of Rocks. Subsequent incursions into this heretofore unexplored region were made by the Hudson Bay Company's Finian McDonald and Micel Bourdon in 1823, whose trapping grounds included the Upper Raft River and tributary creeks and by the HBC's Alexander Ross, whose brigade camped near the City of Rocks in 1824. (Ross did not proceed beyond this camp, noting a negative cost-benefit ratio to further trapping in the rugged country. Despite his proximity to the City of Rocks, and his keen interest in geography, Ross failed to mention the city in his diary, suggesting that he had neither seen nor heard of the geographic oddity.) [24]

Peter Skene Ogden assumed control of Ross' Snake brigade in 1824, at a time when competition from American trappers lent incentive to further exploration of the Raft River's tributaries. (His brigade of 1825 consisted of "fifty-eight men who were equipped with 61 guns, 268 horses, and 352 traps as well as a number of women and children, families of some of the freemen who were always part of such expeditions.") In 1826, Ogden's party discovered Granite Pass; their westward journey to the pass would have placed them very near the City of Rocks. Ogden's successor John Work also explored the Goose Creek country between Junction Valley and Granite Pass yet also did not pass through the City, or failed to describe it. By 1832, Work concluded that the region immediately west of the Raft River "lacked enough beaver to justify further attention (Figure 5)." [25]

trail map of HBC trappers
Figure 5. Hudson's Bay Company Snake Country Expeditions, 1824-1828 (Gloria Griffen Cline, Peter Skene Ogden and the Hudson's Bay Company, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974, pp. 57, 84). (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Like the emigrants that would follow them, fur traders did not travel through the region uncontested: service with the Snake River Brigade was considered "the most hazardous and disagreeable office in the Indian country." During Finian McDonald and Micel Bourdon's 1823 Snake River expedition, Bourdon and five others were killed. Upon his return, McDonald wrote "I got safe home from the Snake Cuntre... and when that Cuntre will see me again the Beaver will have Gould skin." [26]

Although the fur trade had no immediate effect upon the City of Rocks, geographical discoveries made during that era had an important and lasting effect on the region. For over thirty years, in search of beaver, glory, adventure, and a watered transportation route to the Pacific, the great men of the trapping and exploration era [27] searched for a mythical Buenaventura River draining the country west of South Pass to the Pacific Ocean. The search was daunting, hindered by the extremely complicated drainage system west of South Pass. The Green, the Big Gray, the Salt, the Sweetwater, and the Bear rivers all head near South Pass. The Green flows into the Colorado, bound for the Gulf of California. The Big Gray and Salt feed the Snake, thence the Columbia, and finally the Pacific. The Sweetwater is part of the Platte-Missouri river system, and flows into the Gulf of Mexico. The Bear River flows north northwest as far as Soda Springs, where it makes an abrupt turn south to the Great Salt Lake. The lake has no outlet. [28]

Trappers and explorers focused their search for the Buenaventura on the alkaline plains west of the Great Salt Lake, south of the City of Rocks, and across which the first overland emigrants to California would pass. They would find this "a terrible country, a sandy waste men ventured upon at the peril of their lives... Even springs were scant, and likely to be bitter with salt. There were no beaver there — no riches." [29] And there was no Buenaventura:

There was no great river, there was no broad water highway to the Pacific. The drainage from the Rocky Mountains went south and north and east but not west, except for those streams like the Weber and the Bear, which ran ineffectually into the Dead Sea, and the Humboldt, which died with an alkaline whimper in the Humboldt Sink. [30]

Ogden's Snake River Brigade of 1829 discovered the Humboldt River. Although they did not know it, and although the search for the Buenaventura would not be officially conceded until 1843, this was the "lost river": a small stream with brackish water of vile taste that sank "with an alkaline whimper." Future travelers — the hundreds of thousands of emigrants bound for California — would also curse the Humboldt, while relying absolutely on its alkaline water and sparse forage, the only water, the only grass, the only refuge, in an enormous expanse of desert. [31]

Ogden was similarly unimpressed by his 1825 discovery of Granite Pass. For Ogden, the discovery was relatively inconsequential; the Goose Creek drainage was not a significant source of beaver, and fur trappers, unlike later emigrants, were not restricted in their travels to routes wide enough for wagon passage and possessing sufficient feed and water for wagon stock.

In 1833, the American Fur Company's Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville retained Joseph Reddeford Walker to lead a band of trappers west from Salt Lake in search of new trapping grounds. Traveling west, Walker forged a trail across what became known as the Bonneville Flats. (Six years earlier, Jedediah Smith had almost died on this passage, as would the first overland migrants to California, eight years later.) Walker traveled north of this route on his return in 1834, descending Goose Creek to the Snake River. From this vantage point, he "rediscovered" Granite Pass. In 1842, Joseph B. Chiles traveled east across the pass, and confirmed its potential as a possible, although difficult, route to the Humboldt. Granite Pass would provide the final link in an overland route between Illinois and the Sacramento Valley: the California Trail, as it ran through the City of Rocks. [32]

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 12-Jul-2004