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VI. "Jackson's Hole": Era of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, 1825-1832

Late in 1824 General Ashley, journeying west to reap the winter's harvest of furs, approached the mountains by way of the little-known South Platte route and the Colorado Rockies and explored the lower Green River. In the summer of 1825 on Henry's Fork of the Green (near the Wyoming-Utah line) he inaugurated the annual rendezvous of the mountain trappers, which provided a more flexible system of fur trading than the "fixed fort system" which had hitherto prevailed in the Western fur trade. The beaver catch brought in this first year was of such magnitude that Ashley was assured of a substantial profit. With Smith and a strong guard he took his prize by pack train to the Bighorn, by bullboats to the mouth of the Yellowstone, and by keelboats down the Missouri River to St. Louis.

Jedediah Smith left Flathead House in 1825 with Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson's Bay Company, but left him in time to rejoin his comrades at the rendezvous. When the reunited Americans exchanged tales of their adventures, it is possible that Smith offered a glowing account of the Jackson's Hole region. Whatever the inspiration, Bridger and Fitzpatrick are reported to have headed there to resume trapping operations, after seeing Smith and Ashley safely down the Bighorn. This may have been the first large scale trapping venture in which Jackson's Hole was a primary objective.

The rendezvous of 1826 took place near Great Salt Lake. The turnover of furs was immense and, having made his fortune, General Ashley sold his interests to three of his most able employees, Jedediah Smith, David E. Jackson, and William Sublette. Smith left the rendezvous to lead a band southwest across the desert to the Spanish settlements of California, being the first to make this perilous passage. Jackson and Sublette headed for the Snake River country to trade with the Flatheads, taking a large force of trappers.

Daniel T. Potts of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, one of Sublette's men on this expedition, is now identified as the long-mysterious author of the letter which first appeared in the Philadelphia Gazette and Daily Advertiser, September 27, 1827, reprinted in Niles' Register of October 6, which contains the earliest known description of any portion of present Yellowstone National Park by an American. The original document came to light in 1947 when Mrs. Kate Nixon and Miss Anne G. Rittenhouse of Washington, D. C., collateral descendants of Potts, made themselves known to officials of the National Park Service. It has been fittingly acquired for posterity by the Yellowstone Library and Museum Association at Mammoth Hot Springs. The cover is addressed to "Mr. Robert T. Potts, High Street, Philadelphia" and stamped "St. Louis, Missouri." Dated July 8,1827, at the "Sweet Lake" or Bear Lake (Utah) rendezvous, it describes how the Potts party, no members of which are identified, went north after the Salt Lake rendezvous of 1826:

A few dass sinci our trader arived by whom I received two letters one from Dr. Lukens the other from yourself under date of January 1827 which gives me great congratulation to hear that you are both happy wilst I am unhappy also to hear from my friends shortly after writing to you last year I took my departuri for the Black-foot Country much against my will as I could not maki a party for any other rout. We took a northerly direction about fifty miles where we cross Snake River or the South fork of columbia at the forks of Henrys & Lewis's forks at this place we was dayly harrased by the Black-feet from thence up Henrys or North fork which bears North of East thirty miles and crossed a large ruged Mountain which sepparates the two forks from thence East up the other fork to its source which heads on the top of the great chain of Rocky Mountains which sepparates the water of the Atlantic from that of the Pacific. At or near this place heads the Luchkadee or Calliforn Stinking fork Yellow-stone South fork of Massuri and Henrys fork all those head at an angular point that of the Yellow-stone has a large fresh water lake near its head on the verry top of the Mountain whsch ss about one hundrid by fourty miles in diameter and as clear as crystal on the south borders of this lake is a number of hot and boiling springs some of water and others of most beautiful fine clay and resembles that of a mush pot and throws its particles to the immense height of from twenty to thirty feet in height The clay is white and of a pink and water appear fathomless as it appears to be entirely hollow under neath. There is also a number of places where the pure suphor is sent forth in abundance one of our men Visited one of those wilst taking hss recreation there at an instan the earth began a tremendious trembling and he with dificulty made his escape when an explosion took place resembling that of thunder. During our stay in that quarter I head it every day.

From here, probably the West Thumb thermal area, "by a circutous rout to the Nourth west, and after some more bloody encounters with the Blackfeet, the trappers moved toward the Bear Lake rendezvous. In 1828 Potts left the hostile mountains and embarked from New Orleans on a cattle ship, which sank with all hands in the Gulf of Mexico.

Daniel T. Potts at the Bear Lake rendezvous of 1827.

At the 1827 rendezvous at Bear Lake Jedediah Smith appeared like a ghost out of the Great Salt desert, reporting that the Spanish Governor of California had expelled him from that province. He arranged with his partners, Jackson and Sublette, to meet two years hence "at the head of Snake River." Then, after a rest of only ten days, he summoned volunteers and again set his face toward the Pacific Ocean. In the winter of 1827-28, while Sublette attended to the business of getting supplies from St. Louis, Jackson sent fur brigades north from Bear Lake to the Snake River and its tributaries, where they came in frequent contact with the Hudson's Bay Company trappers under Ogden. In 1828 the rendezvous was again Great Salt Lake, and again the trappers dispersed to hunting grounds on the Bear, the Snake, and the Green.

In March 1829 William Sublette left St. Louis for the mountains with a heavily laden pack train and 60 men including a novice of 19 named Joseph L. Meek, whose life story, as told to Mrs. F. F. Victor, is a prime source of information. After the general rendezvous, which that year was held in July on the Popo Agie River northeast of South Pass, Captain Sublette sent a brigade under his brother, Milton Sublette, to the Bighorn Basin, then set out with the main party, including Meek, Bridger, and Fitzpatrick, for the upper Snake River Valley at the foot of the Tetons, the point of reunion with his partners which had been agreed upon two years previously. The episode which followed, one of the treasured traditions of the Western fur trade, is described in Mrs. Victor's River of the West:

Keelboat up the Missouri.

Sublette led his company up the valley of the Wind River, across the mountains, and on to the very headwaters of the Lewis or Snake River. Here he fell in with Jackson, in the valley of Lewis Lake, called Jackson's Hole, and remained on the borders of this lake for some time, waiting for Smith, whose non-appearance began to create a good deal of uneasiness. At length runners were dispatched in all directions looking for the lost Booshway.

The detachment to which Meek was assigned had the pleasure and honor of discovering the hiding place of the missing partner, which was in Pierre's Hole, a mountain valley about thirty miles long and of half that width, which subsequently was much frequented by the camps of the various fur companies.

This is the core of the tradition. From this it has generally been inferred that it was on this occasion that the lake and the valley were named in honor of David E. Jackson, and that this was Captain Sublette's idea. David E. Jackson, sometimes referred to as "Davey," is the mystery man of the Smith-Jackson-Sublette trio. How old he was, what he looked like, where he came from prior to 1823 is not known. He was one of the "enterprising young men" who responded to Ashley's call in that year. That his "rating" with trappers was high and that he was one of the acknowledged leaders of the Rocky Mountain fur trade is clear from the fact of the partnership formed in 1826. He was not illiterate, for his signature appears on documents, but like most of his associates he kept no diary, so that our knowledge of his exact wanderings is indistinct. It is part of the tradition that he spent the winter of 1828-29 in the vicinity of Jackson's Hole, and his known interest in the region prompts us to believe that he had spent several previous years there as well. He might well have been one of the six men who accompanied Smith on his "discovery" of Jackson Hole in 1824. He left the mountains in 1830, went to Santa Fe and then on to California on a trading venture in 1831, and apparently returned to St. Louis in 1832, where he disappears, so to speak, under a cloud. One rumor has it that he "ran off with property belonging to the firm of Jackson, Waldo and Young," another that "he dissipated his large and hard-earned fortune in a few years."

Arikara attack on Ashley Party, 1823.

After the reunion in Pierre's Hole, according to Meek, the entire company moved up Henry's Fork of the Snake, and across the Divide to the valleys of the Madison and Gallatin. Crossing the Gallatin Range in early winter, the trappers reached the vicinity of Cinnabar Mountain, three miles below Yellowstone Park's present North Entrance. Here two men were killed and the party was scattered by the Blackfeet. Meek alleges that he wandered into the future Park, where he ascended a high peak. Crossing Yellowstone River, he ran into an incredible region smoking "like Pittsburgh on a winter morning", with the vapor from boiling springs, haunted by the sound of whistling steam vents, dotted with cone-shaped mounds surmounted by craters from which issued "blue flames and molten brimstone," and devoid of living creatures. From here, apparently the seldom visited Mirror Plateau, Meek crossed the Absaroka Range to the winter camp on Powder River.

About the first of April 1830, according to Meek, "Jackson, or 'Davey,' as he was called by his men, with about half the company, left for the Snake country." At the Wind River rendezvous in July, "Jackson arrived from the Snake country with plenty of beaver. . . ."

At Wind River, on August 4, 1830, Smith, Jackson, and Sublette, having earned a deserved fortune from their labors, decided to retire from the mountain trade, and sold their interest to a group of their employees who had already distinguished themselves in the service—James Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Milton Sublette, Henry Fraeb, and Baptiste Gervais. The main trapper band, numbering over two hundred and including Meek, followed Bridger and Fitzpatrick northward to the Three Forks of the Missouri, thence south to Ogden's Hole, a small valley in the Bear River Mountains. In the fall of 1830, John Work, heading the annual Snake River expedition of the Hudson's Bay Company, got wind of the American invasion of his domain. Among other rumors was one that Fontenelle and his men "have been hunting on the Upper Snake. They were set upon by the Blackfeet on the Yellowstone River and 18 men killed."

In the spring of 1831, after wintering again at Powder River, Meek reports on the spring hunt: "Having once more visited the Yellowstone, they turned to the south again, crossing the mountains into Pierre's Hole, on to Snake river; thence to Salt river; thence to Bear river; and thence to Green river to rendezvous." Confirmation of this comes from Joseph Meek's brother Stephen, who says that this year he trapped on the Yellowstone, Wind, and Musselshell Rivers, "going through Jackson's Hole to the rendezvous on Popyoisa River."

From the Powder River encampment Fitzpatrick headed for St. Louis to round up a supply caravan. Running into his old companions Smith, Jackson, and Sublette en route to Santa Fe, he was persuaded to join them, being promised an outfit when they arrived. Thus he shared the delays and perils of that expedition in which Jedediah Smith was slain by a Comanche spear, and when he left Santa Fe, he was far behind schedule. Picking up young Kit Carson and other volunteers at Taos, he followed the east slope of the Rockies into eastern Wyoming country, sometime during September reaching the North Platte River at Laramie's Fork. Here he met Fraeb, who had been sent to look for him while the others waited impatiently with parched tongues at Green River. Fitzpatrick returned to St. Louis for supplies, while Fraeb led the recruits westward, traveling via Green River and Jackson's Hole to "winter quarters on the head of Salmon River." Thus there was no real summer rendezvous in 1831.

At this time the shadow of the American Fur Company, the great monopoly of the Upper Missouri region, fell across the Rocky Mountains. In February 1830 the newly organized "Western Department" of this company, determined to capture the lucrative mountain trade, sent out an expedition from St. Louis under Andrew Drips, Lucien Fontenelle and one Robidoux. Our chief source of information about this company during the early 1830's is the journal of Warren A. Ferris. From an encampment near the Big Hole country of Montana, Ferris writes: "On the 8th [of October, 1831] two of our men accompanied by three or four Indians departed for the Trois Tetons, to meet Mr. Dripps who was expected this fall from the Council Bluffs, with an equipment of men, horses, and merchandise."

From spring camping grounds on the Bear and Snake River tributaries, the brigades of the rival companies converged on Pierre's Hole, where the Rocky Mountain Fur Company partners had scheduled their rendezvous for 1832. Although they welcomed peaceful Indians and "free" trappers, they expressly did not invite their competitors of the American Fur Company who, nevertheless decided to attend. Rumors of the impending conclave of the "mountain men" also reached the scattered bands of independent trappers, among whom was George Nidever. In the spring Nidever's band trapped up the Green River until May, intending to continue on to "the headwaters of the Columbia," but turned back when they learned that "the place we intended going was already being trapped by other companies." (This strongly suggests that somebody, probably Rocky Mountain men, were trapping in Jackson's Hole prior to the rendezvous.) Returning to the Platte River, they met "O'Felon" and Moses "Black" Harris, two other independent traders, with whom they proceeded by way of Teton Pass to the rendezvous, where they arrived on July 4.

The experienced William Sublette, one-time partner, had contracted with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to supply trade goods, and to take out the beaver hides. With Robert Campbell he set out for St. Louis in May 1832 with over 100 men. At Independence he picked up a band of eighteen green New Englanders under Nathaniel J. Wyeth, an ambitious young man who had hopes of succeeding, where John Jacob Astor had failed, in establishing a fur trading empire in Oregon. At Laramie's Fork he recruited some twenty trappers under Alfred K. Stephens, and other trappers were picked up farther on. Not the least remarkable feature of this expedition was that at least five of its members kept notes—William Sublette, the methodical Nathaniel Wyeth, his brother John B. Wyeth, another of his followers named John Ball, and Zenas Leonard, one of the "free" trappers with Stephens.

Sublette's account is contained in a letter to General Ashley, dated Lexington, Missouri, September 21, 1832. He indicates that he arrived at the head of the "Colorado of the West" (Green River) on July 2, being attacked that night by Blackfoot Indians; arrived "on the waters of the Columbia" July 4 "and at the rendezvous of the Rocky Mountain Hunters, on the Columbia river, west of the Three Teton Mountains," on July 8. Nathaniel Wyeth's diary agrees substantially with Sublette on chronology, but is much more illuminating. He clearly depicts the dangerous descent of the Hoback, the fording of "Lewis River" on July 6, and the climb up Teton Pass, "a gap of the mountains due south of the Trois Tetons" The disillusioned brother, John Wyeth, gives us a dramatic picture:

On the 4th [6th?] of July, 1832, we arrived at Lewis's fork [Snake River], one of the largest rivers in these rocky mountains. It took us all day to cross it. It is half a mile wide, deep and rapid. The way we managed was this: one man unloaded his horse, and swam across with him, leading two loaded ones, and unloading the two, brought them back, for two more, and as Sublet's company and our own made over a hundred and fifty, we were all day in passing the river. In returning, my mule, by treading on a round stone, stumbled and threw me off, and the current was so strong, that a bush which I caught hold of only saved me from drowning.

"Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick became "White Hair" Fitzpatrick as a result of events which befell him in 1832. Zenas Leonard states that in June 1832 while he was encamped at Laramie's Fork:

Mr. Fitzpatrick and a company of 115 men came to our camp. He was on his way [from St. Louis] to join his company on the west side of the mountains, on the Columbia River, and to supply them with merchandise, am munition, horses, etc. . . .

Having made this arrangement with Mr. F., our camp [on the Laramie] was all confusion at an early hour this morning, preparing to depart for the Columbia river. Mr. F. took one of the fleetest and most hardy horses in his train, and set out in advance of the main body, in order to discover the disposition of the various Indian tribes through whose dominions we were to travel, and to meet us at a designated point on the head of the Columbia river.

While en route to Pierre's Hole, probably in the valley of Green River, Fitzpatrick was ambushed by or stumbled upon the hostile Gros Ventres, probably the same who later raided Sublette's camp. By sacrificing his horse and secreting himself in a hole in the rocks, he managed to elude these savages, but nearly starved while wandering through the wilderness. Fitzpatrick's whereabouts during his ordeal are not recorded, and in most accounts he merely turns up (on July 8, according to Ferris) in Pierre's Hole in a pitiful state. Meek relates that "he made his appearance in camp in company with two Iroquois half-breeds, belonging to the camp, who had been out on a hunt," which is also the way that Irving got it from Bonneville. George Nidever claims to have been one of these hunters, and, if his story is straight, Fitzpatrick was found in Jackson's Hole: "A week or so after the arrival of the company a trapper by the name of Poe and I went out for a short hunt, and met Fitzpatrick crossing the Lewis Fork. . . . We piloted him back to camp."

By the 17th of July the whiskey kegs were all empty, and the wild celebration which invariably climaxed every rendezvous of the fur traders perforce came to an end in Pierre's Hole. On this day the combined companies of Nathaniel Wyeth and Milton Sublette set out for the lower Snake River. On the morning of the 18th they described a column of Gros Ventre tribesmen descending a hillside, "fantastically painted and arrayed, with scarlet blankets fluttering in the wind." The ensuing conflict was a victory for the trappers. Some of the Indians escaped from their improvised fort into Jackson's Hole, leaving perhaps twenty six of their number dead, while their trail of blood suggested other heavy casualties. This battle upset the general time table and delayed the various departures from the rendezvous. On the 24th of July, Wyeth and Milton Sublette resumed their journey which had before been so rudely interrupted, Wyeth eventually continuing on to visit the British establishments on the Pacific Coast. Captain Sublette was compelled to linger because of his injuries, and, on the 25th, seven who planned to accompany him to St. Louis became impatient and started out by themselves. These were Joseph More of Boston, one of Wyeth's deserters, a Mr. Foy of Mississippi, Alfred K. Stephens, "two grandsons of the celebrated Daniel Boone," and two others unidentified. In Jackson's Hole, apparently near the mouth of the Hoback, they were ambushed by a band of Gros Ventres. More and Foy were killed instantly, while Stephens died from his wounds after he and the four survivors retreated with tiding of disaster to Sublette's camp.

On July 30 Bridger and Fitzpatrick led the Rocky Mountain Fur Company brigades northward from Pierre's Hole toward the headwaters of the Missouri, while William Sublette found himself sufficiently recovered to assist Campbell in organizing the homeward-bound caravan, composed of sixty men and a beaver-laden packtrain. According to Irving, "they chose a different route through the mountains, out of the way, as they hoped, of the lurking bands of Blackfeet. They succeeded in making the frontier in safety." It seems evident that the Sublette caravan turned north after crossing the Snake and then ascended the Gros Ventre River and crossed over to Wind River by way of Union Pass. While the Sublette caravan was leaving the valley, they were shadowed by a "large body of the Blackfoot tribe," doubtless the murderers of More and Foy, who showed a healthy respect for the heavily armed trappers. Thus it would seem that, while he did not entirely elude the Blackfeet, Sublette managed to bluff his way past them and avoid what might well have become the "Battle of Jackson's Hole."

rendezvous scene.
Rendezvous scene.

At the Pierre's Hole rendezvous, Drips and Vanderburgh, the American Fur Company partisans, were frustrated in their competitive effort by the fact that their supply train under Fontenelle had failed to arrive. It was now too late to bid for the furs taken out by Sublette, but they might follow Bridger and Fitzpatrick with profit if they only had trade goods. Accordingly, they resolved to hasten to Green River to see if they could find the belated caravan. The clerk, Warren A. Ferris, gives a detailed account of the passage through "Jackson's Big Hole," in early August:

In the evening we halted on a spring, four miles east of Lewis River, after marching twenty-two miles. On the 5th we passed six or eight miles southeast, and halted on the margin of the stream [Hoback], flowing from that direction. During our march, some of the hunters saw the bones of two men, supposed to be those killed from a party of seven, in the latter part of July. . . .

After losing one horse in precipitous Hoback Canyon, the party reached Jackson's Little Hole, where they killed several buffalo, and successfully by-passed a large village of Indians. They crossed over to Green River, and on the 8th fell in with Fontenelle, "who had passed from St. Louis to the mouth of the Yellowstone in a steamboat, and thence with pack horses to this place." Ferris accompanied Vanderburgh and Drips on the return trip in pursuit of Bridger. He writes:

On the 14th we passed through the Narrows, between Jackson's Holes; and avoided some of the difficulties we met on our previous passage, by crossing the river, several times. In the evening we halted for the night near the remains of two men, who were killed in July last. These we collected, and deposited in a small stream, that discharged itself into a fork of the Lewis river; that flows from Jackson's Little Hole.

Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville, a Frenchman of distinguished antecedents, applied in 1831 for a leave of absence from the U.S. Army for the joint purpose of exploration and trade. With funds provided by hopeful New York capitalists he organized an impressive company, including 110 men and twenty ox-drawn wagons, and on May 1, 1832, he set out from Font Osage. Bonneville's wagon train was the second to ascend the traditional overland route along the Platte and the Sweetwater, and the first to cross South Pass. In the Green River Valley on July 26 the Captain was overtaken by Fontenelle's company. On the west side of the Green, five miles above Horse Creek, he started the erection of Fort Bonneville, while his rival encamped farther upstream, for his jaded horses and mules would budge no further. After Fontenelle's departure, above noted, the Captain decided upon the advice of "free trappers," to head for Salmon Riven for the winter. Leaving his cumbersome wagons at the fort, he cached most of his baggage and then packed the rest on mules and horses. The expedition set forth on August 22, reaching Teton Pass on September 3. Instead of taking the standard route via the Hoback, where hostile Indians waited in ambush, Captain Bonneville elected to take a long circuitous route to the headwaters of Green Riven, entering Jackson's Hole via the Gros Ventre River.

Following the rendezvous in Pierre's Hole, the Rocky Mountain men conducted their fall hunt in the dangerous Blackfoot country around the Three Forks of the Missouri. In attempting to follow them, Vanderburgh of the American Fur Company was slain by the Blackfeet. During the winter of 1832-33 the various rival bands holed up along tributaries of the Snake and Salmon rivers; and at the first melting of the snow they resumed their feverish scramble for the prime hunting grounds.

museum exhibit
"Weapons of the Pierre's Hole Fight"—Exhibit in Fur Trade Museum, Grand Teton National Park.

Most of the other trapping bands remained west of the Continental Divide to make their spring hunt, and approached the Green River rendezvous through Jackson's Hole. The first to stir in this direction was the American Fur Company partisan Drips, who led the bulk of his forces, probably about sixty men, up Snake River, hunting and trapping as they went. At the junction of Salt River, they were compelled to leave the Snake to make the toilsome detour over the Snake River Range and Teton Pass, which they reached on May 31. Ferris vividly describes their journey through the "immense banks of snow on the mountain," the fording of "Lewis River," and the ascent of "Gros Vent's Fork" to the head of Green River. He notes, "We found a large herd of buffalo in the valley, and killed several; also a large bear, which paid with his life the temerity of awaiting our approach."

Fort Bonneville site
Fort Bonneville site, on Horse Creek near its junction with Green River. Photo by Author.

Wyeth's enterprise on the Columbia River was balked by the shipwreck of the vessel which was to supply him, and, after a fruitless winter at Fort Vancouver, he set out eastward with Francis Ermatinger of the Hudson's Bay Company. Below the forks of the Snake they came up with Captain Bonneville. The Wyeth journal tells the story of their Jackson's Hole passage via Teton Pass and the Hoback. He found "horse flies on the mountains . . . buffalo in the bottom also mosquitoes." Evidence of the recent trail of the "men of Dripps and Fontenelle" was observed, also the place where More and Foy were killed the year before. Of this passage Irving reports,

No accident of a disastrous kind occurred, excepting the loss of a horse, which, in passing along the giddy edge of a precipice, called the Cornice, a dangerous pass between Jackson's and Pierre's Hole, fell over the brink, and was dashed to pieces.

On the 13th of July [1833], Captain Bonneville arrived at Green River. . . .

Section of "Map of the Rocky Mountains"" by Washington Hood, Corps of Topographical Engineers, 1839. Data by William Sublette and others. Records of the War Department. National Archives.


Colter's Hell and Jackson's Hole
©1962, Yellowsone Association
Grant Teton Natural History Association

colter/chap6.htm — 05-Mar-2004