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Chapter 3:
Close Encounters: The Fur Trade in the Craters of the Moon Region, 1820-1856

Overview of the Fur Trade on the Snake River Plain

The Snake River Plain was the scene of an international rivalry for furs in the early nineteenth century. American, French, and British trappers, agents of far-flung empires, competed with each other for a share of the lucrative fur trade. European men fancied the stove-pipe hats made of slick beaver fur, and thus primarily fashion stimulated trappers to fan out across North America and enter even the remote Snake River country in search of beaver pelts. Although American fur trappers advanced this enterprise across the Rockies and created a wedge for their nation's commercial expansion, they were no match for the British-owned Hudson's Bay Company. By the 1820s, the Hudson's Bay Company controlled the trade in the Snake River country and held the monopoly until beaver numbers declined and silk replaced beaver hats by the mid-1850s. Fur trappers, however, left more than a legacy of decimated beaver populations. These mountain men, as they were otherwise known, were also forerunners of an American imperialism that would eventually conquer the West and its native peoples. Fur trappers also contributed substantially to the geographic knowledge of the West and the Snake River Plain, for they blazed trails across, and provided descriptions and maps of, the region for the first time. [1]

The fur trade followed on the heels of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805, which passed through northern Idaho on its mission to locate a route to the Pacific. The trade received further impetus after David Thompson, geographer of the Montreal-based North West Company, explored similar territory in 1809. But establishing fur trade operations in southern Idaho was no simple task. Lying between the mountains and the Snake River was the Snake River Plain, twenty thousand square miles of lava landscape. Trappers had to contend with its arid environment, severe weather--harsh winters and hot summers--remoteness, and Indians. [2]

Andrew Henry, of the Missouri Fur Company, ventured first into the Snake River country. In 1810, he built Fort Henry on the upper Snake River, on Henry's Fork, near what is now Rexburg. It was the first American fur post west of the Rockies, yet an extreme winter dashed Henry's hopes for a fur business, and he abandoned the post the following spring. Epitomizing the environmental adversity associated with travel on the plain was the Pacific Fur Company expedition in 1811. Known also as the overland Astorians, the party crossed southern Idaho on its way to establish a fur post at the mouth of the Columbia River. Led by Wilson Price Hunt, the party suffered greatly through its own bungling and its contact with the hostile surroundings of the Snake River Plain. Game was scarce. Members of the party attempted but failed to navigate down the Snake in boats and instead set out for the Columbia by land. The bedraggled group, which had separated into several parties, eventually reached Fort Astoria where it was reunited in February 1812. [3]

After enduring incredible hardships, members of the Astorian party were more impressed with the barrenness of the Snake River Plain than its potential as good beaver country. Hunt, for one, characterized the region as a "dreary desert of sand and gravel." It was a place to pass through. Within a year, for example, a small group of Astorians led by Robert Stuart marched eastward for St. Louis across the plain, undergoing similar trials as the first group. Stuart thought the country was terribly poor, barely able to sustain the native peoples who lived there. Stuart's contribution, ironically perhaps, was not in his assessment of the plain for beaver but in the route he chose; it eventually became the Oregon Trail. [4]

Nevertheless, at least one Astorian saw the region differently. Donald Mackenzie saw some promise for hunting beaver in the Snake country and for this reason led the first Snake River brigade for the North West Company in 1818. He built a trading fort at the confluence of the Columbia and Walla Walla rivers, and setting out from there to the east, trapped the tributaries of the Snake. The brigade system proved highly successful because it did not rely on seeking trade with Indians. Mackenzie's men trapped their own furs, used horses for transportation and carrying supplies, and lived mostly off the land. Mackenzie also succeeded because he maintained good relations with the Nez Perce and Snake country Indians, and because the brigade system provided safety in large numbers and trapped unexplored and unexploited country. Mackenzie headed the brigades until 1821 when the North West Company merged with the Hudson's Bay Company. [5]

Realizing profits were to be made through the brigade system, the Company established it as a regular part of the trade in the Columbia district. Among Mackenzie's successors were Alexander Ross, Peter Skene Ogden, and John Work. Over the next decade, their expeditions carried out the Hudson's Bay Company's dual purpose in the Snake River country: profit as much as possible from the beaver trade, and deplete the beaver in order to prevent Americans from coming to the region. The Company attempted to do both as quickly as possible, and by the early 1830s had achieved these goals. [6]

Undaunted by the Company's power and presence, opportunistic Americans hunted furs in the Snake River country as well. Though Americans outnumbered Company trappers and possessed a peculiar blend of adventurer and businessman, they could not match the Company's organization, its capital, knowledge of the territory and trade, and its rapport with Indians. Expectant capitalists, for example, such as William H. Ashley and Jedediah Smith, who numbered among the various owners and operators of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, challenged but never threatened the Bay Company's monopoly in the 1820s and 1830s. By 1834, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company succumbed to the pressures of the Hudson's Bay Company and rival American Fur Company and closed its doors. [7]

Independent trappers, represented by Captain Benjamin L.E. Bonneville and Nathaniel J. Wyeth, were beset by similar difficulties in their attempts to profit from the fur trade. Bonneville entered the fur trade after taking leave from the army in 1831, although some historians believe he was sent under cover to explore the frontier. Leading experienced trappers, Bonneville hunted furs in the Snake River region beginning in the winter of 1832. He left and returned to the plain in 1833, working toward the Columbia River Valley by 1834. Bonneville proved no match for the Hudson's Bay Company and produced little to show for his trapping ventures. Exploration seemed to suit him better; he led the first wagon party through South Pass, dispatched parties to explore the Great Basin, and reconnoitered the Snake River Plain. [8]

At first Wyeth, a Boston ice dealer, tried to establish a fur-trading enterprise on the lower Columbia in 1832. Failing, he turned to the Rocky Mountain region and the Snake River Plain, hoping there to have some success. He contracted to supply trade goods to the fur rendezvous held on the Green River in 1834, but St. Louis suppliers beat him to the sale, arriving first and stealing his customers. Saddled with a large supply of merchandise, Wyeth salvaged his commercial venture and that year constructed Fort Hall on the Snake River, a trading post north of what is today Pocatello. Yet nothing seemed to go right for Wyeth. Plagued by disaster and the control of the Hudson's Bay Company over the lower Columbia, he was unable to supply Fort Hall successfully. In 1836, he retired from the fur business and offered to sell his fort to the Bay Company, which bought the post in 1837 and assumed charge of it a year later. Around this same time the Bay Company obtained Fort Boise, located at the mouth of the Boise River. [9]

The acquisitions of these fur posts signaled the end of the brigade system. By 1832, the Company considered the Snake country a "fur desert," and the roving expeditions were sent elsewhere. From forts Hall and Boise, the Hudson's Bay Company began operation of a profitable supply business for mountain men and overland travelers for more than a decade. In addition to depleted beaver populations, changing fashion exacted a further toll on the fur trade with the switch from beaver to silk hats. International diplomacy changed the nature of the fur business as well. Great Britain and the United States had agreed to joint occupation of the Oregon country in 1818. But with the Oregon Compromise of 1846, the region was assigned to the United States, leading to the gradual withdrawal of the Hudson's Bay Company from southern Idaho. With its abandonment of forts Boise and Hall in 1855 and 1856, respectively, the Company's presence vanished from the plain and with it the fur trade. [10]

Throughout the West, the fur trade produced a lasting legacy, not in commerce, but in geographical knowledge. Competition for furs drove trappers into the remote and isolated reaches of southern Idaho. Trappers primarily covered the perimeter of the crescent-shaped Snake River Plain, following the Snake and exploring its tributaries in the mountains abutting the plain's borders. In the process, Snake brigade leaders such as Donald Mackenzie blazed some of the first routes across southern Idaho. Mackenzie was known for locating the route from the Boise River through Camas Prairie and the Wood River Valley to Day's Defile and the Big Lost River. From there the route crossed south toward the Snake River (and later Fort Hall), passing Big Southern and Twin buttes, and connecting to routes up or down the Snake. Alexander Ross likewise explored routes through the Salmon River and Sawtooth country for the first time. Similarly, Bonneville produced two valuable maps of his western travels, one of which included the Snake River country. Driven by utilitarian goals, though, fur traders rarely entered the desert region except out of necessity to reach mountain rivers rich in beaver. [11] On the whole, fur hunters ignored the Craters country, describing it with little interest, for it held little value for them, being merely a place to cross and survive.

The era of fur hunting near Craters of the Moon mirrored the trends in the fur trade for southern Idaho. Trappers generally circumvented this raw lava country, preferring to travel along the fringes of the Snake River Plain. Except in one known instance, trappers never entered the Craters landscape; they only came near it when they crossed the well-traveled brigade route from Camas Prairie to Big Lost River and across the plain to the Snake River. Although preoccupied with their commercial ventures, the majority of trappers recorded similar experiences about the volcanic region, most of which were negative. They followed similar trails, identified and used similar landmarks, underwent similar hardships, and described similar observations about the country. Together these shared experiences compiled the first descriptions of and related some of the first insights about the Craters landscape.

Donald Mackenzie led the first Snake brigade near the Craters country in the winter of 1819-1820. Following an Indian route across Camas Prairie, Mackenzie turned up the Big Wood River, crossed over the headwaters of the Big and Little Lost rivers and camped in the Little Lost River Valley at Day's Defile, a landform apparently named for a member of the party, John Day, who died there during the expedition. Mackenzie's campground, located around Fallert Springs, was southern Idaho's most significant early fur trade site. The camp earned this designation from the Indian conference and peace ceremony Mackenzie held there during a week-long recess in his winter fur hunting campaign. The conference brought together a diverse group of totaling perhaps a thousand inhabitants. It included Boise and Fort Hall Shoshone, Lemhi Shoshone and Tukudikas, and Bannock--who were gathered there at a traditional site--as well as the French Canadian, Iroquois, and Owyhee (Hawaiian) trappers who were members of Mackenzie's Snake brigade. The peace agreement Mackenzie reached with each of these Indian bands aided trapping in the region. It was similar to an agreement he had arrived at earlier with Nez Perce bands farther north, and represented a landmark in North West Company operations in the Snake River country. After breaking winter camp, Mackenzie moved on to explore and trap in the Sawtooth and Salmon River country, but not before Thyery Goddin, another member of his party, discovered and named Goddin's River--today's Big Lost River--in 1820. [12]

Mackenzie does not seem to have left any descriptions of the lava landscape below the Lost River Range, but other brigade leaders following his routes did. Alexander Ross headed the next Hudson's Bay Company trapping party to come near the Craters region in 1824. He retraced Mackenzie's routes and explored new terrain in the Sawtooth Mountains and Salmon River country. He reached Day's Defile in late spring and camped where Mackenzie had four years earlier. Ross found the valley to be "a most dreary looking place," where the grass was brown and poor for horses. He sent members of the brigade to hunt buffalo and to trap the Big Lost River. While doing so they surprised a Blackfeet war party at the mouth of the river and fled with little more than the clothes on their backs. [13] It was during his search for these men that Ross entered the Snake River Plain, it seems, for the first time. After finding his men well, Ross was intrigued by the Twin Buttes and Big Southern Butte. He called them the 'Trois Tetons" (or three buttes), and upon examination, he described them as "these three little hills standing in a group [that] are very conspicuous in the middle of an open plain, having hot springs at their base but no cold water nearer than the end of Goddin's River." [14]

The next day Ross turned north and never returned to this part of the Snake River Plain. Although he had been possibly twenty miles from the lava flows of the Great Rift, the brigade leader did not mention this country in his journal. Most likely the volcanic terrain offered nothing of value to him since it was devoid of water and beaver, but the three buttes, he suggested, served as important landmarks on an otherwise horizontal and unremitting desert. [15] This attention to the buttes as well as the travails associated with crossing the plain were themes that would repeat themselves throughout the accounts of other brigades and trapping parties.

A good example of this was Peter Skene Ogden, one of the more famous brigade leaders and critics of the plain's environment. Ogden succeeded Ross and led brigades near the Craters country until 1827. In early April 1825, his party emerged from the Lost River mountains and headed onto the upper Snake River Plain. Having crossed through snow and "uneven country," Ogden sighted the three buttes to the southeast of his camp before embarking on a seventy mile, four day trip through the desert. Ogden led his group past Middle Butte, a route which was "said to be less Stony." For two long and fatiguing days, the trappers marched through snow and mud, finding neither grass nor water for the horses and only snow to slake their own thirst. On the third day, the situation only slightly improved when the group found abundant grass for their animals but no water for "man or beast." The next and final day of the journey, the trappers and horses were forced to drink "thick" water, but Ogden, determined not to camp until he reached a good supply, pressed on until they reached the Snake River. On the whole, Ogden was happy to be rid of this "cursed Country," thankful, he wrote, to have "crossed over the plain considered by all the greatest impediment in the route between this and the Flat Head Post." [16]

Ogden also dealt with other "impediments" that were of a commercial rather than environmental character, namely the face-to-face encounters with American trapper Jedediah Smith. Smith's presence in the Snake country between 1824 and 1826 irked Ross and Ogden, who worried that this "sly cunning Yankey" might upset their share of the trade. [17] Commercial motivations, in turn, eventually drew Ogden back to this "cursed Country." Only now, two years later, he was better prepared for the environmental conditions. Having found the Big and Little Lost rivers mostly trapped out, he and his party crossed the desert in November 1827. Learning from past experience, the party aimed for the largest and most western butte, Big Southern, where Ogden knew there was water. Like before, water and grass were scarce, and after a two- day march, the group arrived at the base of Big Southern Butte exhausted. Ogden rested there one day, his horses fatigued from walking the rough ground and long, dry distances. In weather turned cold and with suffering horses, Ogden knew a forced march was necessary and pushed on for the Snake. [18]

His previous encounter with crossing the Snake River Plain had taught Ogden that this approach to traveling across the desert was only a temporary hardship given the alternatives. A brigade under the leadership of John Work discovered this reality in 1830. Work had spent the fall in the mountain drainages north of the plain hunting beaver and in December led his company down the Big Lost River and embarked on the route for the Snake River. His party entered the plain at the Lost River Sinks and camped on a dry branch of the Big Lost River, where the grass was good for horses, and herds of buffalo and antelope roamed within sight. Work continued southeast across the plain toward "Middle Bute" for two days in fog, "bitter cold," and deep snow. This leg and the remainder of the journey Work described as harsh and dangerous. The weather remained frigid and foggy. In places the deep snow covered grass and prevented the pack animals from grazing at all. The trappers warmed themselves with fires of burning "wormwood" and "cedar." But under these severe conditions many horses and mules weakened and died before Work's party, with much relief, reached what is now Ferry Butte, near today's Blackfoot, almost a week later. [19]

For the Snake brigades, the trip across the plain might have been arduous but it was relatively routine. The route, for example, avoided the more difficult lava terrain of the Craters country west of the three buttes. In the fall of 1830, a detachment from the American Fur Company discovered why. In an attempt to find a faster route to beaver streams, the party unwittingly stumbled across the Great Rift and its expanse of young, exposed lava flows. Led by Antoine Robidoux, the group of twenty-two men began their march from near American Falls and headed northwest, looking for a shortcut across the interior of the plain to Wood River. According to J.H. Stevens, the trappers traveled through "a barren desert, destitute of every species of vegetation, except a few scattering cedars, and speckled with huge round masses of black basaltic rock." Shortly after this, they "entered a tract of country entirely covered with a stratum of black rock," which had been fluid at one time, and "had spread over the earth's surface to the extent of forty to fifty miles." Stevens noted that it "was doubtless lava which had been vomited forth from some volcano, the fires of which are now extinct." [20]

Any hopes of crossing this landscape without difficulty faded the farther the party traveled, and it endured two perilous days in the rugged lava country. The trappers confronted numerous chasms where the lava had "cracked and yawned asunder at the time of cooling, to the depth of fifty feet," Stevens stated, "over which we were compelled to leap our horses." At first the group negotiated the craggy terrain without much trouble until "a large chasm too wide to leap" halted their progress. The party was soon overtaken by thirst and heat. There was no water to be found; the lava heated and steamed in the humid day, and parched from living off of jerky, the men found themselves with the most "maddening desire for water." Only a few had brought a water supply, which was soon gone, and that night, lost in a "labyrinth of rocks," they sucked out the few drops of water absorbed in blankets from a passing shower. This "provoked rather than satisfied the wild thirst within us," Stevens recalled. After a fitful night, lost and nearly out of their minds with thirst, the men reached the height of despair when they discovered a "sea of rock, intersected by impassible chasms and caverns" blocking their route. By the end of the second day, the group changed course, headed northeast, and found its way out of the volcanic country and a stream to slake the thirsts of both men and animals, some of whom had been left behind. [21]

Only one member of the group failed to appear. Jean Baptiste Charbonneau had become separated during the search for water and was assumed to have wandered off and perished. Charbonneau, however, stumbled across John Work's camp, and expecting to find hostile Indians rather than another party of white trappers, he quickly and quietly stole away. He then spent almost two weeks struggling through the lava country making his way back to the Snake River. [22]

Although the trappers who crossed the Great Rift lava flows most likely passed far to the south of the present monument, their experience serves as a first encounter with the Craters region. Stevens's account may have been embellished with each telling, but it nonetheless suggests the difficulty with crossing the lava country and why, in at least one case, fur trappers chose a difficult yet passable route already available and familiar to them.

Another American fur trader, Nathaniel Wyeth, did not make the same mistake as the Robidoux party. Instead Wyeth roamed the region covered by the Snake brigades as he tried without success to earn a place in the Snake country fur trade between 1832 and 1834. Wyeth first viewed the region and the three buttes in the summer of 1832. Leaving the Salmon River country behind them, Wyeth and his company descended the Lost River Range along the "little Goddin" (the Little Lost River), sighting the three buttes as they came into view one at a time, some twenty to forty miles to their south in early June. At the time Wyeth's party headed for the Green River, but he returned to the Snake River Plain two years later, shortly after his plans for supplying trade goods to the fur rendezvous on the Green River failed. He constructed Fort Hall on the Snake River as a trading outpost, and when it was completed in early August 1834, he and a company departed to pursue other trade opportunities on the lower Columbia River.

Wyeth chose to travel over the brigade route from Fort Hall to the Lost River country. The party of approximately thirty people and one hundred horses traversed the desert toward Big Southern Butte and traveled "as fast as possible" to reach the ancient volcano in two days. Wyeth reported that along the way the air was clear enough to see the Tetons more than one hundred miles to the east. A typical journey on the plain, it was hot, Wyeth wrote, and "we suffered some for water and found but a small supply" on the north side of the butte, adding, as others before him had, that in these conditions there was "a miserable chance for our horses and not a good one for ourselves." A few days later, Wyeth and company reached the Big Lost River, quenched their thirst, threaded through the drainages of the Lost River Mountains, and eventually headed east for Big Wood River. [23]

In his account, Wyeth was somewhat laconic about the severity of the desert passage. John Kirk Townsend, an ornithologist, who was a member of the expedition and a companion of English botanist Thomas Nutall, depicted the crossing as slightly more perilous. Approaching Big Southern Butte, Townsend noted that the party was traveling over "one of the most arid plains we have seen, covered thickly with jagged masses of lava, and twisted wormwood bushes. Both horses and men were jaded to the last degree." The horses suffered from crossing the sharp basalt and nearly impassible terrain, as did the people from a lack of water. With a mind trained in scientific inquiry, Townsend speculated that there were two reasons for their extreme thirst, one being the intense heat on the "open and exposed plains," and the other being aridity, the desiccation affecting all living things here. 'The air," he stated, "feels like the harsh breath of a sirocco, the tongue becomes parched and horny, and the mouth, nose, and eyes are incessantly assailed by the fine pulverized lava, which rises from the ground with the least breath of air." Before reaching Big Southern Butte, Townsend described the party as spread out over a mile, in "a lagging and desponding line," the horses' heads hung low, tongues extended, and their riders "drooping and spiritless." Hoping for but finding no water in this lava desert, one delirious man threw himself down to die. He and the others, however, were saved that night when they found a small and soon muddied spring. [24]

Townsend's experience helped him to appreciate the plight of desert travelers. His and other accounts suggest why fur hunters avoided the lava landscape of the Great Rift and opted for the difficult yet passable route on its eastern border. For all of their near contact with the Craters country, few fur hunters described the region, most likely because they concentrated on the search for beaver and rarely looked with interest on any region that was not a beaver preserve or would not aid their quest for efficient commerce.

One of the first and most lasting images of this landscape was penned by Washington Irving when he wrote about Captain Benjamin L.E. Bonneville's fur trapping expeditions on the Snake River Plain. Bonneville, the explorer-trapper, encountered the Craters region between 1833 and 1834 as he tried to travel from the Big Lost River to the Big Wood River. Snowbound passes prevented Bonneville from traveling the mountain route and his only hope was to wait for a thaw. He chose not to drop down to the Snake River Plain and proceed along the base of the mountains, according to Irving, because of the treacherous terrain. The "great lower plain" crashed like an ocean into the bases of the mountains, themselves broken into "crests and ridges." Farther out, the plain was "gashed with numerous and dangerous chasms," both wide and deep, and difficult to urge a horse across. Here deep ravines cut swaths that ran for fifty to sixty miles and rivers sunk out of sight, all of which forced travel well around this section. It was a dreary desert with little value, it seemed. 'The volcanic plain in question," Irving wrote, "forms an area of about sixty miles in diameter, where nothing meets the eye but a desolate and awful waste; where no grass grows nor water runs, and where nothing is to be seen but lava." [25]

Irving's description, attributed to Bonneville, the romantic army officer, has been suggested as the "first" of what is now Craters of the Moon National Monument. And its seems accurate enough, especially when one considers why people avoided this country. But this by no means made it repulsive in everyone's eye. The plain, as Irving went on to describe, possessed a wilderness quality, a sublime and simple grandeur. This wide sea of lava was rimmed in the distance by mountains, its eastern horizon dominated by the Tetons. [26] In all likelihood, Irving was more romantic than the average fur trapper, for the image of barrenness predominated during the fur trade era. The Craters country was better gone around than through. A landscape of craggy lava wastes, it offered nothing of value to trappers. It was bereft of life-sustaining resources such as water, and without water there was no promise of beaver and no reason for nineteenth-century capitalists to enter the volcanic territory. Only when competition compelled them to seek out the more isolated places of southern Idaho did fur trappers come to the lava region, and in some cases contact the Great Rift itself.

Similar to the fur trade elsewhere in the Snake country, by the mid-1830s activity slowed near Craters of the Moon. Diminished beaver populations sent the Snake brigades elsewhere. Unable to realize a profit, entrepreneurs like Wyeth sold out to the Hudson's Bay Company, itself fading before overland emigrants. Fur trappers made up a temporary presence on the plain and the Craters country, yet they formed a permanent record of describing the region and their experiences, establishing travel routes, identifying landmarks, and producing maps for others to follow.

Summary of Context Theme

Between 1818 and 1856, the fur trade was born and ran its course in the Snake River country. American and British interests competed with each other for a share of the trade which had political as well as economic dimensions. For entrepreneurial and expansionist minded Americans, the fur trade posed both the possibility of profits and the addition of new territory to a young nation. For the more powerful British interests, represented by the Hudson's Bay Company, itself an imperial force, the fur trade posed similar yet different possibilities. Wanting more to extract beaver for profits than to expand British territory, the Company efficiently and effectively stripped the Snake country of furs, dominated the trade, and slowed but did not stop American advances. The Hudson's Bay Company, a major force in the history of the nineteenth-century Pacific Northwest, employed the brigade system to carry out trade in the Snake River region. This system proved to be a highly effective and innovative trade practice; it began operation in 1818 under Donald Mackenzie and continued under the leadership of Alexander Ross, Peter Skene Ogden, and John Work until 1832. The brigades blazed travel routes through the Sawtooth and Salmon River mountains north of the plain and across the plain itself. Their experiences crossing this country, especially the desert east of the Craters country, suggested an almost universal aversion to the lava landscape. It possessed no valuable resources for the fur trade, and traversing it endangered human lives, hence better to avoid the region than travel through it.

Similarly, American trappers such as Wyeth and Bonneville found the country to be visually unappealing and physically dangerous. Wyeth, though he erected Fort Hall in 1834, failed to create a successful trade business, and likewise Bonneville showed no ability as a trapper. Though they each had their shortcomings as businessmen, their lack of success can be largely attributed to the domination of the Hudson's Bay Company.

The fur trade peaked in the mid-1830s for both British and American interests with the decline in beaver populations in the region. Changing fashions in hats, from beaver to silk, also contributed to this decline, as did international affairs, such as the Oregon Compromise of 1846. Taking over Fort Hall and Fort Boise, the Hudson's Bay Company maintained a presence in the region until the mid-1850s, when it abandoned both forts in 1855 and 1856, closing the chapter on the fur trade era.

By association and accident rather than intent, the Craters country came into contact with the fur trade. Mackenzie initiated the first brigade travel near the lava territory in 1819-1820, and successive brigades under the leadership of Ross, Ogden, and Work came within the vicinity of the volcanic region through 1830, yet none penetrated it. That distinction belonged to an American Fur Company party which most likely stumbled across a portion of the Great Rift far to the south of the present monument in 1830. Nevertheless, the group's misadventure suggests why other fur parties avoided the region and instead opted to travel the difficult yet proven route between the Big Lost and Snake rivers. These travels suggest that trappers only came near and into the Craters country when compelled to by market forces. Without a tightening web of competition, it seems unlikely that the American Fur Company party, for example, would have attempted a short cut across the lava flows. The observations of the three buttes--Big Southern and Twin Buttes--also suggests that landforms which served as important travel markers possessed value for the fur trade, another reason why trapping companies avoided and rarely mentioned the relatively flat lava terrain of the Craters country. Moreover, the most poignant description of what is today Craters of the Moon came from Bonneville around 1834; he avoided the region because it was both treacherous to travel and devoid of any valuable resources.

Here, as in the Snake country, the fur trade peaked in the mid-1830s and left a record of visual experiences and physical encounters with the country near Craters of the Moon, a legacy that expanded geographical knowledge of that surrounding territory and generated a sense of why fur trappers shunned the lava flows of the Great Rift. Although the fur trade subsided near Craters of the Moon, avoidance of its rugged terrain continued as travel over brigade routes was taken over by overland migrants in the 1840s.

Associated Property Types

Property types are a group of individual resources sharing similar characteristics, No properties associated with the fur trade are known to exist in Craters of the Moon. Fur traders did not stop in the monument; they traveled its perimeter. Even so, their descriptions of the landscape and accounts of their travel through it provide valuable information about the Craters of the Moon country. These writings are especially important because they enhance our understanding of the region's history and because of their association with famous individuals and important transportation routes.

It is also worth noting the fur trade campsites and natural landmarks of the Snake River fur trade outside of the monument because they represent the larger historical landscape to which the monument was distantly related. Donald Mackenzie's winter camp of 1819-1820 along the Little Lost River, for example, has been previously listed in the National Register. And it may be possible that other campsites exist near Big Southern Butte and Twin Buttes and the mouth of the Big Lost River, and in the valleys of the Big Lost and little Lost rivers. Physical landmarks associated with the fur trade, particularly the three buttes, are worth noting as well because they played such an important geographical role in the fur trade, namely in defining the brigade route across the desert between Fort Hall and the Big Lost River.

Registration Requirements:

Registration requirements are required only if there are property types, and since there have not been any identified, there is no reason to state the requirements for listing National Register property types.


Even though property types associated with the fur trade are not known to exist in Craters of the Moon, the landscape surrounding the monument contains physical elements symbolizing this historic theme. Visible from different points in the monument, the three buttes and the Lost River Range, for example, should be considered important historic vistas.

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Last Updated: 27-Aug-1999