Robert Stuart Pacific Fur Company and South Pass

by

Ned Eddins

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Robert Stuart – Jane Vander Poel

This oil painting of Robert Stuart by an unknown artist is through the courtesy of Jane Stuart Vander Poel, great-great granddaughter of Robert Stuart.

On June 29th 1812, Robert Stuart, Benjamin Jones, François LeClerc, André Vallé, John Day, Ramsay Crooks, and Robert McClellan left Astoria for St. Louis with two other Astorian parties. Crooks and McClellan had given up their partnership shares in the Pacific Fur Company, and wished to return to St. Louis. As the Stuart party approached the Willamette River, John Day become incoherent. Robert Stuart realized it would be impossible to keep Day with the St. Louis party. John Day was placed under the care of several Wapato Indians and sent back to Astoria.

Stuart Map
Stuart’s Oregon Trail Map

The Robert Stuart party left the two other parties of Astorians at the mouth of the Walla Walla River. After trading for ten horses, Robert Stuart and five men proceeded over the Blue Mountains to the Grande Ronde Valley. In the area where the Owyhee River emptied into Snake River, a Shoshone Indian approached the party. The Shoshone told Robert Stuart he had guided Wilson Hunt and the Overland Astorians over Teton Pass to Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. The Indian told Stuart there was an easier route through the mountains than Hunt had used.

I without lofs of time offered him a Pistol a Blanket of Blue Cloth a looking glafs and a little Powder and Ball if he would guide us to the other side, which he immediately accepted….

Two days later the Indian disappeared with Stuart’s riding horse.

Above Salmon Falls on the Snake River, Robert Stuart encountered John Hoback, Edward Robinson, Jacob Rezner, and Joseph Miller. After being left at Fort Henry by Hunt, these four and Martin Cass had trapped along the Idaho-Utah border and a good portion of Wyoming. Joseph Miller told Stuart the Arapahoe had robbed them twice, and Cass had abandoned them with the last of their horses. Living on what fish they could catch, the destitute trappers were trying to reach Astoria.

Robert Stuart’s party arrived at Hunt’s caches near Caldron Linn four days later. Six of the caches had been plundered. Stuart opened the three remaining caches and outfitted Hoback, Rezner, and Robinson to trap the area, until John Reed arrived to retrieve the cached goods. Miller stayed with the Stuart party.

Antelope Horns
Flat Antelope Horns

Crossing Idaho, the Stuart party lived primarily on fish they could trade for and catch. There were occasional sightings of Antelope and Mountain Sheep.

Our succefs is bad in the extreme among the land inhabitants [antelope and mountain sheep], and our almost only resource for food is the produce of our fishing rods from day to day which is poor Trout and a species of Sucker which is fat & really excellent, called by Virginians the Stonetoater.

The first signs of buffalo were tracks along Bear River near the Idaho-Wyoming line, but there were no buffalo in the area. At Dingle, Idaho, Stuart met twenty-one Crow warriors. The warriors wanted to trade for gun powder. At first, Stuart refused to trade, but afraid the Indians would steal his horses, he finally agreed to twenty loads.

The next morning smoke columns were spotted on the surrounding mountains. Afraid the Indians were going to steal his horses, the Astorians turned north along Thomas Fork Creek. Before turning north at Thomas Fork, Stuart had basically traveled over what became the Oregon Trail. The next four hundred miles, or so,  Stuart’s travels are off the Oregon Trail, except for briefly being on the Lander Cutoff.

Stuart’s movement through this section of Wyoming is where I was born and presently live.  On a horse, I have crossed and re-crossed Stuart’s trail many, many times, and on pack trips my camps have been on or close to his campsites. Because of my interest in this section of the trail, the next four hundred miles is given in more detail. 

In this section the text provided by Rollins are mixed with my comments. Stuart proceeded up Thomas Fork into Salt Creek canyon. Turning north at possibly Packsaddle Creek, he went over the mountain to the bend of Spring Creek.  From there, he crossed over the mountain to the head of Fish Creek and followed Fish Creek to Salt River near Forest Dell, Wyoming…It would be easier to follow Salt Creek over a low pass through open country to Forest Dell.

According to Rollins, from Forest Dell, Stuart turned up Salt River to where it bends to the north, and then, followed a trail up Mt. Wagner, over Sheep Pass, and down onto Greys River…It seems unlikely Stuart would climb over Sheep Pass to reach Greys River. An Indian trail continued to the east which was the direction Stuart wanted to go. Going east, Stuart reached the head of Greys River in a couple of miles.

At this point, Rollins stated Stuart turned north down Greys River….It is hard to understand why Stuart did this. The best guess is he was totally lost and decided to find Hunt’s westbound trail…none of his party was familiar with these mountains. Instead of turning north down Greys River, the Astorians could go nearly straight east and follow La Barge Creek, or South Piney Creek into the Green River Valley directly opposite of the Wind River Mountains and South Pass. If they were following an Indian trail up Salt River, this is where the trail would have gone. Joseph Walker used this trail to the 1833 Horse Creek Rendezvous. Another place the Astorians could turn east from Greys River was up Sheep Creek and over McDougall Gap. This is a relative low divide in the Wyoming Range roughly ninety miles due east of the Wind River mountains. South Pass is clearly visible. The only logical explanation as to why Stuart didn’t go east on one or the other of these two routes is he was lost.

Stuart followed Greys River to the area of the confluence with the South Fork of Snake River and Salt River near present-day Alpine, Wyoming. Proceeding across Salt River, the Astorians stopped at the mouth of McCoy Creek for the night.

we were all up soon after the dawn and I had just reached the river bank, when I heard the Indian yell raised in the vicinity of our Camp, and the cry “To Arms” “There is Indians” echoed by all of our Party_ We had just time to snatch our arms when two Indians at full gallop pafsed 300 yards to one side of our station driving off {by their yells] every horse we had [not withstanding their being tethered & hobbled.]

With the horses gone, the party built a raft and floated down Snake River. As they floated down Snake River, the Astorians saw several deer, a wolverine, and killed a wounded elk swimming the river. The elk had an arrow and a lead ball in it. Afraid Blackfeet warriors were close by, Stuart abandoned the raft at either present day Table Rock, or Kelly Canyon, and proceeded up over the mountains to Moody Creek. Stuart was high enough to see the Grand, Middle, and South Teton…Hunt’s Pilots Knobs or Mackenzie’s Trios Tetons.

Trois Tetons

The Stuart party followed Canyon Creek to the area of Pincock Springs, where they stopped to rest; Ramsey Crooks had been sick several days. Disgusted with the slow pace, Robert McClellan set off on his own towards the Pilot Knobs. Afraid for their safety, some of the men wanted to abandon Crooks, but Stuart refused. The party slowly made its way down Canyon Creek to the Teton River. Back on Hunt’s trail, the Astorians proceeded into Pierre’s Hole. The travelers camped near Bear Creek (about 4.5 miles northwest of Driggs, Idaho), and Stuart built an Indian sweat lodge for Crooks. After two days, Crooks was well enough to proceed.

The Stuart party made its way over Teton Pass into Jackson Hole.

Teton Sunrise – Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Stuart crossed Snake River (Mad River) near Wilson, Wyoming.

. …brought us to the Mad River and 2 {miles} more reached the opposite bank having crofsed Five channels of from 30 to 60 yards wide each and from 2 to 3 1/2 feet… .

Stuart’s party continued down Snake River then over a low ridge to where Willow Creek emptied into the Hoback River. The Astorians followed the Hoback to the mouth of Shoal Creek. Continuing up Shoal Creek, Stuart reached the Hoback Basin (Little Jackson Hole), and camped near the town of Bondurant, Wyoming. From there, the Astorians followed the North Fork of Fisherman Creek over the Hoback Basin Rim and onto the Green River near Black Butte. Not finding any game, the hungry Astorians continued down Green River.

The Astorians found Robert McClellan lying on the river bank trying to catch a fish. He was about three miles above where Highway 189 crosses Green River over Warren Bridge. McClellan told Stuart he had had little to eat since leaving them. McClellan was emaciated to the point he could hardily move. Stuart had no food to offer McClellan, but after talking with him, McClellan was able to move to the next campsite.

As we were preparing for bed one of the Canadians advanced towards me with his rifle in his hand, saying that as there was no appearance of our being able to procure any provisions at least untill we got to the extreme of this plain, which would take us three or 4 days, he was determined to go no farther, but that lots should be cast and one die to preserve the rest, adding as a further inducement for me to agree that I should be exempted [in consequence of being their leader] I shuddered at the idea & used every endeavour to create an abhorrence in his mind against such an act, urging also the probability of our falling in with some animal on the morrow but, finding that every argument failed [and that he was on the point of converting some others to his purpose] I snatched up my Rifle cocked and leveled it at him with the firm resolution to fire if he persisted….

The next day, the Astorians saw three old buffalo bulls. One of the bulls was weak enough they managed to kill it. The men wolfed down the raw meat; Stuart was afraid it would make them sick. The party laid over the next day to cook and eat the meat. This was the first time in weeks the Astorians ate all they wanted.

Two days later at a creek lined with pine trees (Pine Creek near Pinedale, Wyoming), the party found:

…an Indian Encampment of large dimensions deserted apparently about a month ago with immense numbers of Buffaloe carcases [strewed every were] in the neighbourhood_ In the center if this camp in a Lodge 150 feet in circumference composed of` [or rather supported by] twenty trees 12 Inches in diameter and 40 feet long—ac[r]ofs these were branches of Pine and Willow so as to make a tolerable shade At the West end, and immediately opposite the door three persons interred with their feet towards the East—at their head were two Branches of red Cedar firmly inserted in the ground and a large Buffaloes scull painted black placed close by the root of each— This Building is circular, on many parts of it were suspended [numerous ornaments, and among the rest] quantities of children’s mogasins, and from the quantity and size of the materials must have required great labour and time in erection, from which we infer that the personages on whose account it was constructed were not of the common order…

Stuart Pine Creek
Robert Stuart Party – Pinedale, Wyoming

The Astorians followed the New Fork River to its confluence with the Big Sandy River which drained the south end of the Wind River mountains. Along the way, Stuart traded for an old horse from a small band of Shoshone Indians living in four brush huts.

Rollins gives the coordinates for Stuart’s camp on the 21st of October 1812 as N42° 20′ W108° 56′. If Rollins coordinates are accurate, this places Stuart’s camp within a half-mile of where the Stage and Pony Express station and the old Halter and Flick hay ranch were later located.

OT-South Pass
Stuart’s South Pass Camp

Stuart was two- and a half-miles west and a little to the south of the Old Oregon Trail Marker. The trail marker was erected on South Pass in 1906 by Ezra Meeker to commemorate the emigrant wagons crossing from Atlantic to Pacific waters.

Oregon Trail
South Pass Oregon Trail Marker – Placed by Ezra Meeker 1906

Stuart recorded in his journal:

…about two miles back we crofsed a large trace steering little to the right of the point of the mountain in the N E which [as well as the other trails we have lately crofsed] we suppose made by another Band of [the] Absarokas (Crow)…

This entry may explain why, when Stuart actually crossed the Continental Divide (October 22, 1812), his course was to the Southeast. Stuart followed the base of the Seminoe Mountains to Muddy Gap, and hit the Sweetwater just below the mouth of Muddy Creek. During the Oregon Trail migrations, there were many wagon roads and cut-offs across the twenty-mile wide South Pass. Stuart’s path was somewhat parallel to the Seminoe Cut-Off.

The Astorians followed the Sweetwater River passed Devils Gate and Independence Rock to the North Platte River.

Devil's Gate
Devil’s Gate – Sweetwater River
OT-Independence Rock
Independence Rock

Stuart followed the North Platte River to Bessemer Bend near present-day Casper, Wyoming. Where Poison Spider Creek emptied into the North Platte at Bessemer Bend, Stuart built the first cabin in Wyoming.

We were yesterday and today busily employed in transporting our meat to camp and building the Hut all of which businefs was finished before dusk_ Our cabin is 8 feet by 18 [wide] with the fire in the middle after the Indian fashion the sides are 3 feet high [six feet in Travel Memorandum] and the whole covered with Buffaloe skins, so we have now a tolerable shelter and eighteen Black Cattle [buffalo].

The day after building the cabin, twenty-three Arapaho approached the camp. The warriors were after a band of Crow that had stolen horses and women from their village. The Arapaho were friendly, but Miller recognized some of them as the ones that stole his, Hoback, Robinson, Cass, and Rezner’s horses the previous winter.

The Indians left the next day, but afraid the Arapaho would return, Stuart abandoned the cabin of two days and proceeded down the North Platte. The Astorians reached the plains of Nebraska, near Chimney Rock where Stuart wrote in his journal:

…the wretchednefs of our situation should we be overtaken in these boundless Plains be a snow storm, particularly as we have reason to expect it daily, and the Country before us such an inhospitable waste as even to be deserted by every kind of quadruped, we at once concluded, five votes to two, that our best plan was to return up the river to where we shall find Buffaloe for our support and timber for Canoes, there to await the opening of navigation…

After the vote was taken, the Stuart party turned back to where there was game and trees. On the 31st of December 1812, Stuart recorded:

At an Early hour we Crofsed the river, which was running thick with Ice took up our residence close to the bank and by the middle of the day we had a shelter made and our meat scaffolded– Began building our Hut, one side of which we raised before dusk.

Stuart Camp 1812 – Torrington, Wyoming

Stuart’s winter camp was between Torrington, Wyoming and Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Stuart writes little about the winter except the men hollowed out two cottonwood trees for canoes. On the 7th of March, 1813, Stuart noted:

The river having been open for several days and the weather promising a continuation of the thaw we dragged our Canoes [dugouts from cottonwood trees] to the bank and prepared them for our reception tomorrow morning…

The North Platte did not have enough water to float the hollowed-out canoes. After several days of struggling with them, the canoes were abandoned. The Astorians continued on foot with the horse obtained from the Shoshone near South Pass. Reaching an Otto Village, near Yutan, Nebraska, Stuart traded the old horse to a Mr. Dorouin for the materials to make a new canoe. Dorouin confirmed what two Otto Indians told Stuart two days before…there was war between the British and Americans.

Stuart described the canoe as:

Our Canoe was finished last evening and consisted of five Elk & Buffaloe hides sewed together with strong sinews, drawn over and made fast to a frame composed of Poles and’ Willows 20 feet long 4 Wide and 1 1/2 deep, making a vefsell somewhat shaped like a Boat, very steady and by the aid of a little mud on the seams remarkable tight—in this we embarked at an early hour…

With the new boat, the Astorians floated the Platte River to the mouth of the Missouri River, and then down the Missouri to Fort Osage where Stuart wrote:

…learnt to our satisfaction the melancholy truth of war being waged since June last between the United States and Great Britain

Continuing down the Missouri, the Astorians arrived in St. Louis, on the 30th of April 1813. From Fort Astoria in June of 1812, the Robert Stuart party of Ramsey Crooks, Benjamin Jones, François LeClerc, André Vallé, and Robert McClellan had traveled close to thirty-eight hundred miles.

…a little before sunset we reached the Town of Saint Louis all in the most perfect health after a voyage of ten months from Astoria

Robert Stuart left St. Louis on the 16th of May. He met with Astor on the 23rd of June 1813. One year and twenty-five days after leaving Fort Astoria. In a letter dated July 13th, Astor stated,

Mr. Stuart arrived here 14 days ago and the account he gives is satisfactory.

Robert Stuart with six Astorians discovery of South Pass and the future Oregon Trail contributed more to America’s Manifest Destiny than did the government sponsored Lewis and Clark Expedition. With the exceptions of longitude and latitude measurements, Robert Stuart’s observations on Indian tribes, geography, plants, and animals were comparable to the observations made by Lewis and Clark. Stuart’s discovery of South Pass and the Oregon Trail provided a feasible wagon route to the Oregon Country. The route of Lewis and Clark was of no practical value in terms of western expansion.

The Robert Stuart article was written by Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming.

Permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.

Citation: Eddins, Ned. (article name) Thefurtrapper.com. Afton, Wyoming. 2002.

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References:

***The quotes from Stuart are from Rollins, the Hunt quotes are from Franchère and Rollins, and the ones on Astor and Fort Astoria are primarily from Ronda.

Brackenridge, Henry M. Views of Louisiana, Together with a Journal of a Voyage up the Missouri River in 1811. Cramer, Spear, and Richbaum. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 1814.

Bradbury, John. Travels in the Interior of America in the Years 1809, 1810, and 1811. Bison Books. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. 1986.

Chittenden, Hyrum Martin. American Fur Trade of the Far West. Volume I. The Press of the Pioneers, Inc., New York, New York. 1935.

Cox, Ross. The Columbia River, Edited by Edgar I. Stewart and Jane R. Stewart. 1831. Reprint. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma. 1957.

Ewers, John C. The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D. C. 1969.

Franchère, Gabriel. Adventures at Astoria 1810-1814. Translated and Edited by Hoyt C. Franchère. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma. 1967.

Gowans, Fred. Rocky Mountain Rendezvous. Perrigrine Smith Books, Layton, Utah. 1985.

Hunt, Wilson Price. The Overland Diary of Wilson Price Hunt, Translated From The French and Edited by Hoyt C. Franchère. The Oregon Book Society. Ashland, Oregon. 1973.

Irving, Washington. Astoria; or, Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains. Bison Books. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. 1982.

Lavender, David. Westward Vision. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. 1985.

Lindsley, Margaret Hawkes. Andrew Henry: Mine and Mountain Major. Jelm Mountain Publications. Laramie, Wyoming. 1990.

Ronda, James P. Astoria & Empire. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. 1990.

Rollins, Phillip A. The Discovery of the Oregon Trail. Bison Books. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. 1990.

Ross, Alexander. Adventure of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810 – 1813. Bison Books. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. 1986.