History Basic Data
NPS Logo

Chapter 2

The story of the fur trade in the North Cascades National Park does not constitute one of the more important themes of the park's history. Some writers, through misunderstandings of the manner in which the fur-trade operated in its hey-day, have hinted at the remains of Hudson's Bay trappers' cabins in the interior of the range. Cabin ruins do exist; but they are of a later period than that of the great fur trading companies when they dominated the history of the Pacific Northwest.

The only fur trading post in the vicinity of the present park was Fort Okanogan, near the confluence of the Okanogan and Columbia rivers. Erected in 1811, this post belonged to the Pacific Fur Company, the North West Company, and the Hudson's Bay Company, in that order. One of its founders and better known factors (i.e., superintendent) was Alexander Ross, a Scotsman born in 1783. First immigrating into Canada, Ross taught school there for several years. In 1810, he joined John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company. He arrived at the mouth of the Columbia aboard the Tonquin in 1811. That same year he and others traveled up the Columbia and established Fort Okanogan in an effort to gain supremacy over the North West Company in the interior. [1]

This "Okanogan Post" represented the first American settlement in the present State of Washington. It proved to be a profitable location. In one season Ross collected over 1,500 beaver pelts. It must be noted, however, that the employees of these companies usually did not go out and catch beavers themselves; although there are some exceptions to this, particularly in the Snake River country. Instead, they taught the Indians how to use the traps and the principles of trading pelts for the wanted goods carried by the trading posts. Such teaching was not always easy, for Indian men tended to look upon such an occupation as trapping as beneath their dignity. The employees of the companies did not, as a general rule, wander up the mountain streams of the North Cascades, build cabins there, or catch beavers themselves.

One important duty the partners and clerks of the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company did perform was to explore the country surrounding their posts. They searched for virgin hunting territory and encouraged the Indians to trap along those streams. And they looked for likely locations for new posts in order to stay close to the nomadic Indians and to deny the site to any possible opposition. Always, they searched for better routes of communication.

This last was the principal objective of Alexander Ross when, in 1814, he set out to cross the unknown country of the North Cascades. His purpose was to determine if a feasible route lay between the North West posts in the interior and Puget Sound. Until then one had to travel a roundabout journey down the Columbia to Astoria, then up the coast (preferably by sea) to reach Vancouver Island and Puget Sound.

Unfortunately, Ross, in his otherwise detailed account, failed to note many Indian place names along his route. Students today belong to one of two schools as to his route. Both agree that he traveled up the Methow River. One school has concluded that he then crossed over Twisp Pass, up Bridge Creek, through Rainy Pass, then down Granite and Ruby Creeks toward the Skagit River. The other, and more numerous, school believes that Ross, after crossing Twisp Pass, traveled down Bridge Creek, then up the Stehekin River, over Cascade Pass, and down Cascade River toward the Skagit. The argument will probably never be settled conclusively. It must be noted, however, that in the preceding chapter, it was evident that the Indians had long possessed an intimate knowledge of a trail along the Stehekin and over Cascade Pass. [2]

Regardless of Ross's route, he was the first white to cross the North Cascades, thereby earning himself a place in the region's history. He did not, however, succeed in reaching Puget Sound which was his objective: "I and others had contemplated for some time before, that was of penetrating across land from Ockinacken due west to the Pacific on foot." Employees were scarce that year, thus Ross "determined on trying with Indians alone."

On July 25, Ross, accompanied by three Indians, one of whom represented himself as a guide, set out to cross the mighty range: "Our guns in our hands, each a blanket on his back, a bottle, fire steel, and three days provisions, depending upon our guns for our substance." They traveled down the west bank of the Columbia, then turned up the Methow, "but from its rocky sides . . . we were unable to follow it." They moved away from the river and struck off for the west:

The first mountain on the east side is high and abrupt. Here our guide kept telling us that we should follow the same road as the Red Fox chief and his men . . . . Seeing no track . . . I asked him where the Red Fox road was; "This is it that we are on," said he, pointing before us. "Where?" said I. "I see no road here." . . . "Oh! there is no road," said he, "But this is the place where they used to pass."

Ross explained that Red Fox was a former Okanogan chief who had traded hemp to the coastal Indians in exchange for marine shells. Early on the second morning, they entered a "dark and gloomy forest" where he found it difficult to use a compass, "as we could not in many places travel fifty yards in any one direction." Still, he had faith in his guide to lead them correctly.

The party made little progress on the third day because of bad weather. But on the next day they covered 18 miles, shooting a deer and several partridges enroute "so that we had always plenty to eat." They also ran into some snow on this day. The fifth morning brought them again into a gloomy forest. Ross's description sounds familiar to today's wanderer:

A more difficult route to travel never fell to man's lot. On the heights the chief timber is a kind of spruce but not very large, only two or three feet in diameter. The valleys are filled with poplar, alder, stunted birch and willows.

The tracks of wild animals cross our path in every direction. The leaves and decayed vegetation were uncommonly thick on the surface of the ground, and the mice and squirrels swarmed, and have riddled the earth like a sieve. The fallen timber lay in a heap, nor did it appear that the fire ever passed in this place.

That evening, "we reached a height of land which on the east side is steep and abrupt. Here we found the water running in an opposite direction." Those who believe that Ross traveled through Cascade Pass conclude that he had now reached that point. Misfortune came that night when the guide became ill. The group camped at the pass for two days waiting for him to recover. They marched again, but the guide quickly gave out: "We were still among the rugged cliffs and groves of the mountain." (North Fork, Cascade River?)

Ross decided to leave the guide and one of the other Indians here, while he and his remaining partner continued on. As he moved down the valley he blazed the trees as an aid to finding the way back. On August 4, the pair traveled 22 miles, crossing the stream they were following many times. Cascade River and the Granite-Ruby course are about equal lengths, both being approximately 20-25 miles long. In either case, Ross was getting near to the Skagit.

The next day brought them to "a delightful country of hill and dale, wood and plains." But that afternoon, Ross and his companion witnessed a most frightening event:

We were disturbed . . . by a fearful and continuous noise in the air, loud as thunder, but with no intervals. Not a breath of wind ruffled the air; but towards the southwest, from whence the noise came, the whole atmosphere was darkened, black and heavy . . . . We stood and listened . . . for nearly half an hour, the noise still increasing and coming . . . nearer and nearer . . . till it came near to where we stood, when in a moment, we beheld the woods before it bending down like grass before the scythe! It was a wind accompanied with a torrent of rain; a perfect hurricane . . . .

The crash of falling trees, the dark and heavy cloud, like a volume of condensed smoke, concealed from us at the time its destructive effects.

The storm passed an hour later. Ross remarked that although he was only one-quarter of a mile from it, no wind and only a few drops of rain hit him. When the air cleared, "we perceived the havock [sic] it had made by the avenue it left behind, having levelled everything in its way."

The Indian was nearly paralyzed with fear. He determined that he was turning back. Ross finally persuaded him to remain and they camped on the edge of the fallen trees. Ross did not forget to describe the river at this point: "The little river . . . seemed to take a bend nearly due north and was 22 yards wide and so deep that we could scarcely wade across it. I gave it the name of 'West River'. Here the timber was much larger than any we had yet seen; some of the trees measuring five and six feet in diameter." He commented too on the large number of deer and beaver.

The next morning Ross awoke to find that his companion had fled. Regretfully he concluded that "there was no alternative but to yield to circumstances and retrace my steps." He was acutely disappointed, for he realized that he was close to the Pacific. Three days later, hungry and tired, he reached the pass where he had left the sick guide. The missing Indian was already there and "the men were in the act of tying up their bundles and preparing to start on their homeward journey." They had been prepared to leave him behind. Ross admitted that he was not in good humor and that he felt "hungry, angry, fatigued, and disappointed." A glum, quiet party reached Fort Okanogan on August 22. Once home, the guide told Ross that "in four days from Point Turn Around, had we continued, we should have reached the ocean."

The location of Point Turn Around is fully a matter of conjecture. Assuming that Ross descended the Cascade River, his estimated mileage of 22 for August 4 implies that he reached a point close to the confluence of the Cascade and the Skagit when the storm struck.

The North West Company did not follow up Ross's expedition. For the rest of the fur trade era, the snowy range remained an unknown country. One might assume that Indians, particularly those who traded at Fort Okanogan, made their way up the nearby accessible streams along the eastern slope of the range in their search for beaver. Otherwise, the impact of the fur trade on the North Cascades remained slight. In 1855, however, Ross published The Fur Hunters of the Far West, in which he publicized his historic journey across the mountains. [3]

In more recent times, as white settlement filled up the lowland valleys, a number of men made their living by trapping in the mountains. These were individual efforts and belonged to a different, later era than that of the giant companies. A few of these trappers still live in communities around the North Cascades.

There are no traces of the North West or Hudson's Bay Companies' activities in the park complex. In 1908 someone found a beaver trap on the bank of the Stehekin River. The restaurant at Stehekin displays the trap among its relics today. An expert might be able to ascribe a date to the trap.

Evaluation and Recommendations

The discussion concerning Ross's route will probably continue as long as people are interested in his account. The writer, as the above paragraphs might indicate, belongs to the school that Ross probably came down Bridge Creek, up the Stehekin River, through Cascade Pass, and down the Cascade, which he named West River.

The era of the three major fur companies, 1811-1846, is but a minor theme in the history of North Cascades National Park. Had it not been for Alexander Ross's explorations, the fur trade could hardly be considered a theme at all. Similarly, the more modern trapper's contribution to the park's history appears to be a minor story.

Recommend that Ross's adventures be interpreted in the visitor centers. Although primarily associated with the fur trade, his journey is also highly important to the themes of exploration and communications. Should any on-site interpretation be done on the present trail over Cascade Pass, recommend that Ross's experiences be a part of this. (This trail will be further discussed in this report.)

Also recommend that interpretive personnel interview and tape the survivors of the one-man trapping operations. Many a good story, and good history, may lie unknown of these individualists' adventures in the wild mountains. Their number is rapidly diminishing.

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

Last Updated: 11-Jun-2008