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- The Great Salt Lake Trail - 2/86 -


As early as a hundred and thirty-five years ago, shortly after England had acquired the Canadas, Captain Jonathan Carver, who had been an officer in the British provincial army, conceived the idea of fitting out an expedition to cross the continent between the forty-third and forty-sixth degrees of north latitude. His intention was to measure the breadth of North America at its widest part, and to find some place on the Pacific coast where his government might establish a military post to facilitate the discovery of a “northwest passage,” or a line of communication between Hudson's Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

In 1774 he was joined in his proposed scheme by Mr. Richard Whitworth, a member of the British Parliament, and a man of great wealth. Their plan was to form a company of fifty or sixty men, and with them to travel up one of the forks of the Missouri River, explore the mountains, and find the source of the Oregon. They intended to sail down that stream to its mouth, erect a fort, and build vessels to enable them to continue their discoveries by sea.

Their plan was sanctioned by the English government, but the breaking out of the American Revolution defeated the bold project. This was the first attempt to explore the wilds of the interior of the continent.

Thirty years later Sir Alexander Mackenzie crossed the continent on a line which nearly marks the fifty-third degree of north latitude. Some time afterwards, when that gentleman published the memoirs of his expedition, he suggested the policy of opening intercourse between the two oceans. By this means, he argued, the entire command of the fur trade of North America might be obtained from latitude forty-eight north, to the pole, excepting in that territory held by Russia. He also prophesied that the relatively few American adventurers who had been enjoying a monopoly in trapping along the Northwest Coast would instantly disappear before a well-regulated trade.

The government of the United States was attracted by the report of the English nobleman, and the expedition of Lewis and Clarke was fitted out. They accomplished in part what had been projected by Carver and Whitworth. They learned something of the character of the region heretofore regarded as a veritable terra incognita.

On the 14th of May, 1804, the expedition of Lewis and Clarke left St. Louis, following the course of the Missouri River, and returning by the same route two years later. There were earlier explorations, far to the south, but none of them reached as high up as the Platte. Lewis and Clarke themselves merely viewed its mouth.

In 1810 a Mr. Hunt, who was employed by the Northwest Fur Company, and Mr. Donald M'Kenzie, with a number of trappers under their charge, were to make a journey to the interior of the continent, but, hampered by the opposition of the Missouri Fur Company, they were compelled to abandon the enterprise, and it was not until the beginning of 1812 that their historic journey was commenced.

On the 17th of January, while their boats landed at one of the old villages established by the original French colonists of the region then known as the Province of Louisiana, they met the celebrated Daniel Boone, who was then in his eighty-fifth year, and the next morning they were visited by John Coulter, who had been with Lewis and Clarke on their memorable expedition eight years previously.[1] Since the return of Lewis and Clarke's expedition, Coulter had made a wonderful journey on his own account. He floated down the whole length of the Missouri River in a small canoe, accomplishing the passage of three thousand miles in a month.

On the 8th of April Hunt's party came in sight of Fort Osage,[2] where they remained for three days, and were delightfully entertained by the officers of the garrison. On the 10th they again embarked and ascended the Missouri. On the 28th the party landed at the mouth of the Platte and ate their breakfast on one of the islands there. After passing the mouth of the river Platte, they camped on its banks a short distance above Papillion Creek. On the 10th of May they reached the village of the Omahas, camped in its immediate neighbourhood, and on the 15th of the same month they started for the interior of the continent. Their route lay far north of a line drawn parallel to the Platte Valley, but they entered it after travelling through the Black Hills, somewhere near the headwaters of the river from which the beautiful valley takes its name. After untold hardships and sufferings the party arrived at Astoria on the following February, having travelled a distance of thirty-five hundred miles. They had taken a circuitous route, for Astoria is only eighteen hundred miles, in a direct line, from St. Louis.

The first authentic account of an expedition through the valley of the Platte was that of Mr. Robert Stuart, in the employ of John Jacob Astor. He was detailed to carry despatches from the mouth of the Columbia to New York, informing Mr. Astor of the condition of his venture on the remote shores of the Pacific. The mission entrusted to Mr. Stuart was filled with perils, and he was selected for the dangerous duty on account of his nerve and strength. He was a young man, and although he had never crossed the Rocky Mountains, he had already given proofs, on other perilous expeditions, of his competence for the new duty. His companions were Ben Jones and John Day,[3] both Kentuckians, two Canadians, and some others who had become tired of the wild life, and had determined to go back to civilization.

They all left Astoria on the 29th of June, 1812, and reached the headwaters of the Platte, thence they travelled down the valley to its mouth, and embarked in boats for St. Louis.

When they reached the Snake River deserts, great sandy plains stretched out before them. Only occasionally were there intervales of grass, and the miserable herbage was saltweed, resembling pennyroyal. The desponding party looked in vain for some relief from the lifeless landscape. All game had apparently shunned the dreary, sun-parched waste, but hunger was now and then appeased by a few fish which they caught in the streams, or some sun-dried salmon, or a dog given to them by the kind-hearted Shoshones whose lodges they sometimes came across.

At last the party tired of this weary route. They determined to leave the banks of the barren Snake River, so, under the guidance of a Mr. Miller who had previously trapped in that region, they were conducted across the mountains and out of the country of the dreaded Blackfeet. Miller soon proved a poor guide, and again the party became bewildered among rugged hills, unknown streams, and the burned and grassless prairies.

Finally they arrived on the banks of a river, on which their guide assured them he had trapped, and to which they gave the name of Miller, but it was really the Bear River which flows into Great Salt Lake. They continued along its banks for three days, subsisting very precariously on fish.

They soon discovered that they were in a dangerous region. One evening, having camped rather early in the afternoon, they took their fishing-tackle and prepared to fish for their supper. When they returned to their camp, they were surprised to see a number of savages prowling round. They proved to be Crows, whose chief was a giant, very dark, and looked the rogue that they found him to be.

He ordered some of his warriors to return to their camp, near by, and bring buffalo meat for the starving white men. Notwithstanding the apparent kindness of this herculean chief, there was something about him that filled the white men with distrust. Gradually the number of his warriors increased until there were over a score of them in camp. They began to be inquisitive and troublesome, and the whites felt great concern for their horses, each man keeping a close watch upon the movements of the Indians.

As no unpleasant demonstrations had been made by the savages, and as the party had bought all the buffalo meat they had brought, Mr. Stuart began to make preparations in the morning for his departure. The savages, however, were for further dealings with their newly found pale friends, and above everything else they wanted gunpowder, for which they offered to trade horses. Mr. Stuart declined to accommodate them. At this they became more impudent, and demanded the powder, but were again refused.

The gigantic chief now stepped forward with an important air, and slapping himself upon the breast, he gave the men to understand that he was a chief of great power. He said that it was customary for great chiefs to exchange presents when they met. He therefore requested Mr. Stuart to dismount and give him the horse he was riding. Mr. Stuart valued the animal very highly, so he shook his head at the demand of the savage. Upon this the Indian walked up, and taking hold of Mr. Stuart, began to push him backward and forward in his saddle, as if to impress upon him that he was in his power.

Mr. Stuart preserved his temper and again shook his head negatively. The chief then seized the bridle, gave it a jerk that scared the horse, and nearly brought Mr. Stuart to the ground. Mr. Stuart immediately drew his pistol and presented it at the head of the impudent savage. Instantly his bullying ended, and he dodged behind the horse to get away from the intended shot. As the rest of the Crow warriors were looking on at the movement of their chief, Mr. Stuart ordered his men to level their rifles at them, but not to fire. Upon this demonstration the whole band incontinently fled, and were soon out of sight.

The chief, finding himself alone, with true savage dissimulation began to laugh, and pretended the whole affair was intended only as a joke. Mr. Stuart did not relish this kind of joking, but it would not do to provoke a quarrel; so he joined the chief in his laugh with the best grace he could affect, and to pacify the savage for his failure to procure the horse, gave him some powder, and they parted professedly the best of friends.

It was discovered, after the savage had cleared out, that they had managed to steal nearly all the cooking utensils of the party.

To avoid meeting the savages again, Mr. Stuart changed his route farther to the north, leaving Bear River, and following a large branch of that stream which came down from the mountains. After marching twenty-five miles from the scene of their meeting with the Crows, they camped, and that night hobbled all their animals. They preserved a strict guard, and every man slept with his rifle on his arm, as they suspected the savages might attempt to stampede their horses.

Next day their course continued northward, and soon their trail began to ascend the hills, from the top of which they had an extended view of the surrounding country. Not the sign of an Indian was to be seen, but they did not feel secure and kept a very vigilant watch upon every ravine and defile as they approached it. Making twenty-one

The Great Salt Lake Trail - 2/86

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