Historical Background

Chapter 3:

The theme of avoidance characterizes the early history of what is now Craters of the Moon National Monument. The lava fields and formations of the Great Rift, with their sharp surfaces, heat, and aridity, discouraged entry and exploration by both native peoples and Euro-Americans. Similarly, the hostile environment did not appeal to westering pioneers seeking cheap, arable lands, and valuable minerals. Encounters with the region were of a transitory nature.
Evidence of human occupation in the proximity of the monument dates to ten thousand years before present. Yet archaeological sites within the monument suggest that it was not until thirty-five hundred years ago that small bands of hunters and gatherers, the Northern Shoshoni and Bannock, occupied parts of the area. Even then, they did so only during their annual summer migrations, their passage marked by trails of polished lava and cairns. Many of the known sites are composed of stone windbreaks and rock rings--used perhaps for hunting blinds, religious purposes, or temporary shelters. Artifacts such as tools, arrowheads, and projectile points are strewn throughout the lava flows. From this evidence, it is believed that indigenous peoples entered the lavas to forage and hunt in small groups and stayed only short periods of time. Restricted to what the volcanic environment offered, they concentrated mostly in the northwestern section of the monument where travel was easier and resources more abundant. Until Euro-American settlement wiped out or drove off most of the wildlife near the monument, Indians hunted and lived among bison, elk, wolf, grizzly and black bear, cougar, and bighorn sheep. [1]
Early explorations of the Snake River country by Euro-Americans also avoided the Craters landscape. Expeditions under John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company in 1811, the North West Company the following decade, and the Hudson's Bay Company after 1821 penetrated southern Idaho in search of furs. With its commercial goals, the fur trade circumvented the arid region that supported few beaver-rich streams. However, depletion of beaver and an increase of independent American trappers within the Snake River system expanded the search closer to the monument's vicinity in the 1820s and 1830s. In 1823, a Hudson's Bay Company fur trader, Thyery (or Antone) Godin, ventured onto the Big Lost River, which for a time bore his name. Another Bay Company trapper, Antoine Sylvaille, arrived on the Big Wood River in 1828. [2]
While these efforts netted little in the way of furs, they did provide the first documentation of the monument's periphery, as well as the first visual description of the region. By Washington Irving's account, United States Army Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville neared the volcanic district between 1833 and 1834. The military explorer and fur trade entrepreneur viewed it as a vacant and lifeless place. A threat to human life and absent the desired economic resources, "the volcanic plain in question 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." [3]With that, Bonneville cast a lasting, negative impression of the unnamed monument.
Another lasting influence of the fur expeditions was that they drew more people closer to the present monument. Segments of the overland route blazed by the Astorian party of Wilson Price Hunt and Donald Mackenzie in 1811 became part of the Oregon Trail in the mid-1800s. The fur trading posts of Forts Hall and Boise, permanently established after 1834, functioned as service centers for emigrants. Missionaries headed first for Oregon Country and were followed in the 1840s by thousands of westward-trekking pioneers. They traveled well to the south of today's monument along the Snake River, at the southern rim of the Snake River Plain. Like the fur traders before them, these early westerners sought treasures in the land that lay beyond Craters of the Moon--fertile soil in the Willamette Valley or gold in California. Beginning in the 1850s, though, many overland travelers opted for an alternate route, afterward called Goodale's Cutoff, that sent them to the northern rim of the great lava plain, and brought them to the landscape of Craters of the Moon. [4]
This secondary trail departed Old Fort Hall, branched northwest from the river, passed Big Southern Butte, neared Arco by about eight miles, and from there arched southwest; it skirted the flanks of the Pioneer Mountains and the northern section of the present Craters of the Moon before it stretched on to rejoin the main trail at Boise. The cutoff represented a well established travel path. Indians crossed the lava fields in the monument's north end on their way to Camas Prairie, a valuable food source of Camas roots. Later, mountain men, fur traders, and finally emigrants exploited the route. John J. Jeffrey, hoping to profit from a ferry across the Snake River, promoted the cutoff for emigrant traffic between 1852 and 1854. After that year, however, the venture failed, and the trail went unused until the era of the Civil War migration, when Tim Goodale guided his party over it in 1862. [5]
Goodale, an experienced trapper, trader, and guide of the Far West, led the emigrants over the cutoff because they wanted a shorter and safer route to their destinations. By 1862, gold had been discovered at Salmon River and the Boise River Basin, and the travelers were eager to reach the new mines as quickly as possible. That year as well, Indian hostilities diverted emigrants north of the main overland trail. In August, Shoshoni tribes, antagonistic toward white settlers infiltrating their homelands, attacked a party of emigrants at what became known as Massacre Rocks. The group that Goodale guided in 1862 eventually numbered 1,095 people, 795 men and 300 women and children. Although the Northern Shoshoni were irritated by the wagon train's presence, especially as it departed the future monument and entered into Camas Prairie, the train's size and Goodale's leadership saw the company through to Boise unscathed. Thankful, some of the emigrants then named the cutoff for their guide. [6]
Even though individuals chose to travel through what is now the monument, they still perceived it as a place to avoid--a place along the way to somewhere else. Exposed to the seemingly desolate lava fields, emigrants endured the harshness and bleakness of the landscape of Craters of the Moon and pressed on. One year after the creation of Idaho Territory, Julius Caesar Merrill described what it was like putting the Craters of the Moon Lava Field behind him and his party in 1864:
It was a relief to see the distance widening between us and those volcanic strata. It was a desolate, dismal scenery. Up or down the valley as far as the eye could reach or across the mountains and into the dim distance the same unvarying mass of black rock. Not a shrub, bird, nor insect seemed to live near it. Great must have been the relief of the volcano, powerful the emetic, that poured forth such a mass of "Black Vomit." [7]
In subsequent years, Goodale's Cutoff served as a popular emigrant route through southcentral Idaho. Various modifications and the construction of a ferry crossing on the Snake River transformed the trail into a more accessible road. Because railroads arrived late in the century to this section of Idaho, the cutoff received heavy use by overland travelers. As emigrant traffic tapered off, it functioned as a stage route after 1879, ferrying travelers to and from the mining districts of southcentral Idaho, and points west and east. It also evolved into a freight route, then into a road for farm families settling the region, and finally into a section of a modern highway. Even with all of this activity, the lava landscape remained a formidable and barren place to those who crossed it. [8]


Early History | Settlement And Shifting Perceptions
Monument Movement | First Call For A National Park

Chapter 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11

Last updated: February 28, 2015

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Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
P.O. Box 29

Arco, ID 83213


(208) 527-1300

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