THE story of Astor’s Overlanders is a tale of hero-ism which enriches history even while it reveals deplorable ignorance and inefficiency. Here, as in his maritime enterprise, Astor showed unwisdom in his choice of a leader. His own lack of actual experience beyond the frontier was most unfortunate for him, for it led to fatal mistakes in judgment. Apparently he could discern men’s moral qualities, could perceive strength of will, courage, rectitude. Jonathan Thorn had possessed these traits, and they were conspicuous in Wilson Price Hunt, the leader of the Overlanders. But Thorn’s inadaptability completely offset his good traits and brought about disaster. And Hunt’s ignorance of wilderness life came near to wrecking the overland expedition.
In July, 1810, Hunt went to Montreal to engage a brigade of voyageurs, taking with him Donald Mackenzie, a fellow partner in Astor’s Pacific Fur Company, formerly a Nor’wester. At Montreal Hunt and Mackenzie found the hand of the Nor’-westers everywhere against their efforts to recruit rivermen and they failed to enlist the crew they needed. They took what they could get, however, and headed up the Ottawa and across Lake Huron to Michilimackinac, there to augment their force from the horde of idle boatmen and trappers who lay about the strait every summer waiting for the trapping season. At Michilimackinac, too, Hunt and Mackenzie experienced difficulties. No sooner was a canoeman engaged and a sum in advance paid to him than some tavern-keeper or trades-man would appear with a bill against him. Hunt must either pay the bill, or lose his employee and the money advanced to hold him to his bargain. Another cause of delay, quite as irritating, lay in the volatile temperament of the Canadian canoe-man. After Pierre or François had made his bar-gain and received his advance wages, he must celebrate gather his friends and kin about him, carouse with them, sing and dance. Tomorrow, next day, or next week, would be time enough to embark; but today the wineshop beckoned, tonight the fiddles called.
At length the partners, with their train of vagabonds, were ready for the journey to St. Louis, across Lake Michigan, across Wisconsin, and down the Mississippi. They arrived at St. Louis on the 3d of September. Here Hunt, seeking to engage hunters and river boatmen, found Manuel Lisa of the Missouri Fur Company not one whit behind the Montreal traders in putting obstacles in his way. By the time that Hunt had manned and outfitted his expedition, it was too late in the year to set out; for the upper waters of the Missouri would be under ice before the boats could traverse more than the first five hundred miles of the river. But, apart from the expense of wintering sixty men in St. Louis, Hunt did not intend to leave his mercurial rivermen for months within reach of the taverns and of the machinations of the fertile Lisa. Towards the end of October he pushed far up the Missouri with his crew to the mouth of the Nodaway some miles above the site of St. Joseph. On this favorable spot in a good game country the Overlanders went into camp. Two days later the first blasts of winter closed the river immediately north of them.
In January, 1811, Hunt returned to St. Louis. He was anxious to engage more hunters, expert riflemen who might be needed not only to hunt game but to defend the expedition from hostile Indians. And he must also procure an interpreter to ease the party’s way through the Sioux country where, according to report, he was likely to meet with serious trouble. On this quest Hunt encountered new difficulties, for the Missouri Fur Company was also equipping an expedition not only for trade but to make a search for one of their partners, Andrew Henry, who had been forced by the savage Blackfeet to abandon the Company’s fort at Three Forks. Thus there was a lively competition for riflemen, in the midst of which Hunt was anything but gladdened to see five of his own hunters from the camp on the Missouri trudge into St. Louis. They had quarreled with the partners in charge of the camp. Hunt could persuade only two of them to return with him.
Hunt’s pirogues put out from St. Louis on the 11th of March. Despite his setbacks, he felt himself fortunate in having the services of Pierre Porion, a half-breed, whose father had served Lewis and Clark as interpreter among the Sioux. Pierre Dorion had been an employee of the Missouri Fur Company, but had fallen out with Lisa over a whiskey bill. Pierre considered it an unpardonable wrong that Lisa had charged whiskey against him at ten dollars a quart. Therefore he engaged with Hunt the more willingly. But as Lisa must pass through the Sioux territory, he, too, had urgent need of Dorion, the only man avail-able knowing the Sioux tongue. When blandishments failed to detach the half-breed from his new employers, Lisa quietly secured a writ relative to the whiskey debt and arranged to have Dorion served with it at St. Charles, on the way up the river. Thus the interpreter would be prevented from continuing with Hunt, and must take his choice of either joining Lisa’s own party or remaining in durance vile and penniless in the little village of St. Charles. Lisa’s scheme was foiled, however, by two English scientists traveling with Hunt, named Bradbury and Nuttall, who had in some way learned the plot and who warned Dorion. The enraged interpreter left the boats shortly be-fore St. Charles came into view and slipped into the woods, promising to rejoin the brigade on the next day at a safe distance above the village.
At the moment of departure from St. Louis, Dorion had given Hunt an unwelcome surprise; he had arrived on the river bank with his Sioux wife and two small children and had refused to embark without them. Now, as he left the boats below St. Charles, his wife and children and a bundle containing all his earthly goods went into the woods after him. But it was a lonely and disconsolate man who signaled from the shore the next morning. There had been a family tiff during the night and Pierre, always forcible in argument, had applied the logic of the rod. His wife, convinced but offended, had stolen away in the darkness taking with her the children and the bundle. Pierre’s woe was so deep that Hunt halted the boats and sent a Canadian voyageur into the woods to seek for the lost woman, but without avail. On the following morning before daybreak, however, the distressed husband heard the voice of love calling to him from the opposite shore and woke the camp to share his joy. Hunt sent a`canoe across; and the wife, the children, and the bundle were once more restored to their owner.
Hunt’s next stopping point was the village of La Charette, at the mouth of Femme Osage Creek, the home, it will be recalled, of Daniel Boone, the famous Kentucky hunter, fighter, and explorer. Despite his seventy-five years, Boone had spent the preceding winter in the wilds trapping beaver and had returned with over fifty skins. Perhaps only the influence of his sons and his wife kept him from casting in his lot with Hunt’s party. The old pioneer stood on the bank as the boats pushed up the river and watched them out of sight.
Early on the next day the Overlanders saw a small bark canoe with a single occupant skimming down the tide. It was John Colter, returning to civilization after one of his lonely trapping forays in the Yellowstone. He had much to tell the Overlanders of the malignant Blackfeet; and though he was strongly tempted to join their great adventure, the charms of a newly wedded bride, who awaited him somewhere down the river, appealed to him at that time more than the lure of the wilderness.
Passing through the territory of the Osages, the Overlanders learned that there was war through-out the greater part of the Indian country; and that the Sioux had been out on raids during the preceding summer and could be expected to take the warpath in full force as soon as spring had cleared the prairies of snow. They heard, too, that the Sioux had determined to stop white traders from selling arms to other tribes with whom they were at war. And while the boats halted at Fort Osage, where they were greeted by Ramsay Crooks, one of the partners from the Nodaway camp, they saw proof of the rumors of Indian unrest. A war party of Osages returned from an attack on an Iowa village and held high festival to celebrate the taking of seven scalps. There were dances, with triumphant shoutings, processions, and planting of the war pole by day, and torch-light processions and barbecues by night.
These excitements so thrilled the still undisciplined savage nature of Dorion’s Indian wife that, when the hour for sailing came, she declined to go on; she would remain forever where such pleasant things were happening. Dorion, how-ever, who had not forgotten the pangs which her absence had caused him earlier in the journey, was in no mind to go lamenting and lonely all the way to Astoria. He resorted again to the birch. Before Hunt could interpose, Dorion had convinced his mate that trivial amusements were not worthy to weigh against the duties and delights of matrimony.
By the middle of April the Overlanders joined their comrades at the mouth of the Nodaway, and, after a delay of some days, owing to the weather, they all started up the Missouri on their long journey to the Columbia. In the party, numbering about sixty, which Hunt was to lead, were four partners besides himself, and these four were experienced frontiersmen. Donald Mackenzie, one-time Nor’wester, was a “winterer”‘ of the Great North; Ramsay Crooks, a Scot, had traded and trapped on the plains with Robert McLellan, an old border fighter famed for his exploits and his marksmanship; and Joseph Miller had fought as a lieutenant under “Mad Anthony” Wayne. To any one of these men might Astor more wisely have entrusted his overland expedition. Mackenzie, indeed, had joined with the understanding that he was to share the command. But at the last minute Astor had reduced to a subordinate position the bluff Nor’wester who knew the wilderness as Astor knew his garden. Then there were the hunters, among them the Virginian John Day, a clerk named John Reed, the interpreter Dorion and his family, and the crew of voyageurs. On the 28th of April they camped at the mouth of the Platte River for breakfast. Here they saw more signs of Indian war. On the bank lay the frame of a bull boat. It had been used not long since to convey a raiding party across the river. Rolling smoke on the horizon and, at night, a red glare in the sky told of grass fires lighted by a fleeing band to cut off pursuers.
A few nights later as the party slept, save the guards, eleven Sioux warriors rushed into the camp yelling and brandishing tomahawks. Seized and overpowered, they protested that their visit was friendly. But Dorion, being familiar with Sioux customs, said that their naked state showed them to be members of a band defeated in war who had cast off their garments and ornaments and vowed to recover their honor as warriors through performing some act of blood. But for the prompt action of the guards the eleven devotees would there and then have retrieved their right to flaunt feathers. Hunt sent them across the river towards their own territory under ward of his riflemen, with a warning. He was not in a mood to appreciate Indian pleasantry of that nature. Two more of his hunters had deserted only a couple of days before. If they continued to desert as the need of them became greater, the situation promised to be serious enough. These frequent desertions by hunters inured to the wilderness and its dangers are in strong contrast to the loyalty and obedience of the men who served under Lewis and Clark. This is accounted for by Hunt’s ignorance of the men he was dealing with. Apparently he knew neither how to allay grievances nor how to enforce law.
Lewis and Clark, themselves experienced in frontier life, could give initiative full play without relaxing the bonds of discipline.
Hunt had other anxieties. It will be remembered that two English scientists were traveling with the expedition. Bradbury, an elderly botanist and mineralogist, had been sent out by the Linnaean Society of Liverpool to make a collection of American flora. Nuttall, a younger man, was also a botanist. Bradbury carried a rifle, for he was a mild sportsman after the manner of English country gentlemen of his day; but Nuttall’s sole weapons appear to have been his :microscope and trowel. At every halting place, regardless of the Indian danger, the two scientists would wander off over the prairie in different directions each absorbed in his special pursuit. Did Nuttall discover a new plant, or Bradbury overturn a bit of mineral stone, instantly all warnings were forgotten. They would range farther and farther afield until recaptured by a band from their own party. Nut-tall, armed only with his trowel, tripping out over the Indian prairie to dig for roots that were not for the pot, especially drew the amused contempt of the voyageurs. They called him “the fool.” Où est le fou? became a byword of the camp.
One day, as the boats approached a bend in the river, Bradbury elected to leave his boat and walk across the stretch of prairie which lay in front of them. They were in the country of the fierce Teton Sioux, who were gathering in force, Hunt had just learned, to bar their progress and take away their goods and weapons. In vain Hunt reminded Bradbury of “Indian signs.” Brad-bury had seen “signs” of iron ore. With the huge portfolio in which he pressed flowers under his arm, his camp kettle slung on his back, and his rifle over his shoulder, he set off. This day the old gentleman met with an adventure. After having emptied his rifle noisily but ineffectively at some prairie dogs, he stood near the bank at the upper side of the bend peering at a mineral specimen through his microscope when he felt ungentle hands upon his shoulders. There ensued a few lively moments during which three or four savages alternately threatened him with a leveled cross-bow and tried to drag him away to their main camp. Against their carnal weapon Bradbury opposed the arms of science. The crossbow was lowered before the charms of the scientist’s pocket compass. When the novelty of the compass wore off and hands again descended on Bradbury’s shoulders, he produced the microscope. The fascination of this instrument fortunately held the attention of the Indians until the boats came up, when they fled.
The Indians visited the camp next day with a white man bearing a note from Manuel Lisa asking Hunt to wait for him so that the two bands might pass together through the Sioux country. In view of his experience of the Spaniard and his methods, Hunt did not regard the overture favorably. More-over, he had heard from Ramsay Crooks and Robert McLellan of treachery which they believed to have been dealt them by Lisa in the previous year in the Indian country. Hunt decided not to wait. He sent Lisa an ambiguous, though a friendly, answer.
On the morning of the 6th of May, Hunt was deploring the loss of two more deserters when two canoes bearing white men hove in sight. The men were three hunters, Robinson, Hoback, and Rezner. They had been with Lisa’s partner, Andrew Henry, on one of the head branches of the Columbia, where Henry had gone after the Blackfeet had driven him from the Three Forks of the Missouri. They were Kentuckians of the stripe of those great’ frontiersmen who won and held the Dark and Bloody Ground. Robinson was a veteran of sixty-six years. He had been scalped in the Kentucky wars and wore a kerchief about his head to conceal his disfigurement. The three were on their way home to Kentucky; but, learning what was afoot here, they turned their canoes adrift on the stream and threw in their lot with the Overlanders.
A few days later the expedition confronted a Sioux war party some six hundred strong gathered on the river’s bank. The Overlanders hastily loaded swivel guns and small arms and made ready to fight their way through. The Sioux, seeing these preparations, spread their buffalo robes on the ground their sign of peace, as Dorion explained and invited the white men to a council. Hunt, with the other partners and the interpreter, stepped ashore followed, it should be added, by the elderly scientist, Bradbury, who was always eager to collect data concerning the aborigines. The calumet was passed round the circle and presents of tobacco and parched corn were brought from the boat. The demeanor of the white men was friendly and the gifts stacked beside Hunt were appetizing. And the warriors could see the hunters with their rifles on board the boats, while the swivel guns pointed shorewards like fingers of benediction lifted over the peace council. The chiefs declared that they had meant to interfere with the white men’s boats only because they believed they were carrying ammunition to the Arikaras, Minnetarees, and Mandans, with whom the Sioux were now at war. Since the white men were merely on their way to join their friends beyond the mountains, the Sioux had nothing but kindly feelings towards them.
Two days had barely passed when another large Indian band was sighted running down to the river as if to seize the boats in the channel ahead, which was narrowed by a sand bar. Immediately the men crouched low, their rifles ready. Miller felt a touch on his arm. Nuttall had risen to his feet and was peering at the flock of feathered warriors. “Sir,” Miller heard the scientist ask with much animation, ” don’t you think these Indians much fatter and more robust than those of yesterday?” These fatter Indians, however, proved to be Arikaras and their allies, out for a skirmish with the Sioux. They jumped into the water and held out their hands in the way of the white man”s greeting, and then hastened away to their towns up the river to prepare their people for the visit of the white traders with the hope, of course, of a supply of arms.
The expedition was still some miles below the Arikara village when two Indians came up in haste to inform Hunt that another large trading boat was ascending the river. Manuel Lisa had read between the lines of Hunt’s soft answer and was straining every nerve to overtake Astor’s barges. Hunt thought it best to lie to and wait for the Spaniard. He seems to have spent the waiting time chiefly in calming the fiery McLellan, who had sworn to shoot Lisa on sight because of the Spaniard’s machinations against himself and his partner Crooks among the Sioux the year be-fore. Another member of Hunt’s party whose soul turned to gall at the prospect of Lisa’s society was Pierre Dorion. He remembered now not only the ten-dollar whiskey, not only the threat breathed into his ear in St. Louis, but also the sneaking writ that had been intended to lay him by the heels in St. Charles; and probably he charged up against Lisa those distressful hours spent without his adored mate and his children and his bundle. Brooding on his wrongs, Dorion sank into a sullen rage.
The Overlanders were traveling in four boats.
Lisa’s party, which numbered twenty-four besides himself and a young sightseer named Henry Brackenridge, had one large boat, propelled by twenty rowers and mounting a swivel gun on the bow. Among this boat’s occupants there sat a woman and her child no other than the Bird-Woman, Sacajawea, and the small boy who had entered into the world while his heroic mother was on the march with Lewis and Clark. As on that journey, she accompanied her husband Toussaint Charboneau, the interpreter. The great event of her life, the crossing of the continent with Lewis and Clark, and the characters of those two brave adventurers had impressed the Bird-Woman with a deep love for the white race; and she had tried, in her humble fashion, to imitate their ways of life as far as she was able. But now, it seems, she was ill, perhaps drifting into a decline as do so many Indians after contact with the alien white people; and her desire was towards her own tribe, the far distant Shoshones, that her days might be finished among them. This will be our last glimpse of the intelligent and courageous Bird-Woman, who piloted Clark safely through the mountain passes on the homeward march.
And what of the little Charboneau, at this time about six years of age? Casting forward through-out some forty years, we find references to him in the annals of Oregon and Idaho traders. It appears natural enough that he should have struck out for the country of his mother’s people and for that farther West of her wonderful journey, for these were surely the subjects of most of the stories she had told him in his childhood when they two sat in the fire’s gleam and she spun for him the magical threads of romance, as mothers do all the world over.
For two days the rival traders traveled together in apparent good-will. Lisa, indeed, was so smooth-tongued and gracious that Dorion forgot his wrongs and accepted an invitation to visit the Spaniard’s boat. Lisa plied the half-breed generously with whiskey and sought to win him from his allegiance. But Dorion had his own sense of honor; and not for bribes nor even for the liquor he too dearly loved would he consent to break his agreement. Lisa must have lost his temper at this inconvenient exhibition of rectitude, for he threatened to retain Dorion, forcibly if need be, to work out his old debt of ten dollars a quart. Dorion flew into a rage, left the boat, and went to Hunt at once with the story. Lisa followed him but was not in time to prevent Dorion’s revelations, if that were his object. There was a violent scene; and Dorion, whose blows were always readier than his words, struck Lisa. The noise of the brawl presently lured all lovers of excitement to the spot. Lisa had a knife, but Dorion seized a pair of pistols and so kept his foe at a distance. McLellan came up with his rifle, and Hunt had some difficulty again in persuading him to defer the payment of his vow.
Meanwhile the scientific Bradbury and the literary Brackenridge were doing their best to aid Hunt in soothing the combatants. Lisa, in his spleen, next hurled an insult at Hunt. Hunt’s ire rose, and he challenged Lisa to a pistol duel. Both expeditions might have come to a permanent halt that night, had Bradbury and Brackenridge not succeeded in preventing the duel from taking place. It was Lisa who yielded. He realized, no doubt, that, if he fought Hunt and won, he would have Dorion and McLellan to settle with afterwards.
The two expeditions continued in company during the days following, but there was no further interchange of courtesies until they arrived be-fore the Arikara village and pitched their camps on opposite shores near the mouth of the Grand River (South Dakota). Lisa then sent Bracken-ridge to Hunt’s tent with the suggestion that they should enter the village together with the outward appearance of amity, as it would be unwise to let the warriors have an inkling of the differences that existed between the white men. Hunt agreed the more readily because he preferred to have the Spaniard under his eye during his intercourse with these Indians who were new acquaintances of his but old customers of his adversary. McLellan saw to his rifle.
In his speech at the council in the village, Lisa dissipated in a great measure the suspicions and ill-feeling against him. He assured the Indians that, though his party and the Overlanders had separate interests in trade, he would resent any wrong done to his rivals as forcibly as if it were done to himself. He also lent Hunt every assistance in securing horses to convey his men and baggage overland. Hunt intended to leave the river at this point and to pursue his way across the plains, swinging southwesterly through the country of the Crow Indians and crossing the Rockies through the Big Horn Range. In this decision he had taken the advice of the three hunters, Robinson, Hoback, and Rezner, who had urged him to avoid the dangerous territory of the Blackfeet.
Here, then, the Overlanders were to leave the trail of Lewis and Clark and blaze their own path to the sea. It was a foolhardy move; and Lisa might well smile and assist in expediting his rivals on their way to destruction, as he saw it. Had Hunt possessed a knowledge of the wilds and of Indians, he must surely have realized that sixty men, well armed, would have a good fighting chance against raiding parties of Blackfeet, but that sixty men with their mounts and pack horses would be courting disaster in launching into unknown regions where they might lack for game and water and for fodder for their horses. And, indeed, they might expect to lack their horses also, for the Crow Indians were the most skillful horse thieves on the plains. No wonder Lisa was all graciousness. He was to trade horses of his own, pastured among the Mandans, for Hunt’s four excellent boats which would probably be carrying the Missouri Fur Company’s pelts to St. Louis while the bones of the Astorians lay bleaching on the desert.
On the 18th of July the Overlanders parted with the scientists, who were returning to St. Louis, and set out from the Ankara village with eighty-two horses, pursuing a southwesterly course across the Grand and Moreau rivers. Hunt had not been able to procure mounts for all his people. Most of the horses carried heavy packs containing ammunition, goods for trade, traps, Indian corn, corn meal, condensed soup, dried meat, and other essentials. Hunt and the other partners were on horseback. Dorion and his Sioux mate trudged together, she at his heels leading a horse on which were securely roped the little Dorions and the bundle. An addition made to the party in the Arikara village was a renegade white man named Edward Rose, a sullen creature, of a vicious appearance. Because Rose had lived for some years with the Crows, Hunt engaged him as interpreter.
Towards the end of July the Overlanders, on their southwestern route across the hot plains, fell in with a friendly band of Cheyennes, from whom they purchased thirty-six horses. The bales of baggage were reassorted and one horse was allotted to every two men. After two weeks spent in hunting and trading with the Cheyennes, the cavalcade crossed the Cheyenne River and moved on, now veering south towards the Big Horn Range. On the way, Rose approached some malcontents of the party with a plan to run off the pack horses with their rich bales and join the Crows. These spoils, so he assured them, would win for them high positions in the tribe of his friends. Hunt forestalled the plot by the simple expedient of a bribe, consisting of half a year’s pay, a horse, some beaver traps, and merchandise to be given Rose after he had guided the party through the country of his adopted brothers. Thus made sure of his own rise in the world, Rose ceased his altruistic efforts to promote the fortunes of others.
To supply so large a caravan with meat, the hunters ranged afield in small parties. On one occasion three of these hunters missed the trail, and there occurred another agonized separation of the Dorion family, for Pierre was with them. The men had been out for several days, and their comrades had given them up for lost when at last they rode into camp. The stoical look with which the Sioux woman faced her fear through those few days gave way to wild enthusiasm of joy when she saw her heavy-handed lord returning to her safe and sound. The peculiar domesticity of the Dorions Hunt seems to have regarded with a shocked wonder, for on this journey he was making his first acquaintance with the children of the wilderness in their own habitat. Before this time he had known of them only what they chose to reveal across his trading counters in St. Louis.
Hunt’s attitude of mind, as well as his material data, was passed on to Washington Irving. We cannot overpay Irving in thanks for the valuable record he made for us from the letters and diaries of the Astorians. But the heart of the life he sought to picture was hidden from him. Hunt and Thorn, men bred in his own world, he understood; but Nor’westers, voyageurs, Indians and the bond between the wild Dorions were enigmatical to him.
In the furnace heat of mid-August the Overlanders drove on towards the red sandstone crags of the ,,Black Hills, which stretched across the horizon like flames caught and fixed in fantastic outlines by the gods of the mountains. On the heights of that red barrier, said the Indians of the plains, these gods or spirits dwelt. And some-times they spoke, not only in the thunders they sent hurtling through the sky, but in calm days and even in the silent starry nights when all save gods slept. These reverberations, heard in the Rockies as well as in the Black Hills, have been variously if not yet conclusively explained. Lewis and Clark describe the sound as consisting some-times of one stroke, sometimes of several loud discharges in quick succession, and resembling closely the sound of a six-pound cannon at a distance of three miles. In some regions of the Yellowstone the sound has a more musical character, suggesting that the gods in those flaming towers have relaxed from wrath to listen while their bards strike upon the strings of a thousand harps.
But whether in wrath or at their pleasures, the gods know well how to guard against any approach to their fortresses of sculptured fire, as the Overlanders, being only mortals, soon learned. Here and there, a corridor would seem to invite them, but it led only to another barred door; and there was little game in these mock passes. Still seeking a way through, they moved southward for several days, and then turned west. Having found their way through the Black Hills, they were now traveling along the ridge which separates the branch waters of the Missouri from those of the Yellow-stone; and they were steering their course by the summits of the Big Horn Range far to the west of them. They stumbled upon an Indian trail and followed it for two days into the mountains. Water was scarce and the heat stifling. They saw no more buffalo, for the defiles were bare of grass. Corn meal and a wolf served them for supper one night; and a small stream gladdened their parched throats after twenty-five miles along a waterless route. After another long stretch of hard travel they came out at last upon green sward and water at one of the forks of the Powder River. They took a slow pace up the bank of the river, for buffalo were plentiful here and the hunters were busily killing and drying meat. On the 30th of August they camped near the southern end of the Big Horn Mountains. They had traveled nearly four hundred miles since leaving the Arikara village.
Here they were visited by two scouts from a band of Crows. It was evident that the Indians had kept Hunt’s party under observation for some days. Through Rose, the interpreter, amicable relations were established with this band and fresh horses were procured. Then the Overlanders hastened on; they were probably none too certain of keeping the horses they had paid for in goods if the Crows should take a notion to recover them. But the ravines they now entered led nowhere and, after a day of checkmate, they returned to the vicinity of their last encampment. Rose, who had been left with his adopted Crow brethren, came into camp the next morning. He bore a message from the Crow chief inviting the party of white men to accompany his band across the mountains. As Hunt’s own attempts to find a pass over the hills had been fruitless, he accepted the chief’s offer, albeit with misgivings. So into the narrow mountain trail they went, the Crows leading the way and the white men following. If the Crows were famed for their horse stealing they were no less justly famed for their horsemanship. Every man, woman, and child rode, and their small-hoofed wiry ponies could cling to the face of a cliff and dash along the rocky ledges with the surety of antelopes. Even the two-year-old children rode, strapped with buffalo thongs upon their own ponies. Absaroka, the Bird-People or Sparrowhawks, was the true name of these Indians; but it is said that the French traders, who called them Les gens des Cor-beaux, and their neighbors on the plains had named them after the prime thief of the bird tribe because, like crows, they flew down from their nests in the mountains, filched whatever took their fancy and bore it aloft where their robbed victims could not follow. However they acquired the appellation, they deserved it. But the name of Sparrowhawk might well have been given them, as a compliment to their riding; for, on their spirited horses, they skimmed through the defiles and over the crests of the ridges like hawks on the wing.
The Crows soon left Hunt’s party far behind, but they had shown him the road. Though Hunt had suspected their motives it appears that, for once at least, these mountain magpies had been moved by an honest impulse, for they did not lie in wait for the white men and steal their horses. The next day, the Overlanders met a small party of Shoshones with whom they crossed the second ridge of the Big Horn Mountains and hunted buffalo on the plain below. The Shoshones directed Hunt towards the Wind River, some thirty miles distant, and told him that it would lead him towards the pass which opened upon the south fork of the Columbia River, the Snake; and then went on their separate way.
After journeying up the Wind River for about eighty miles the Overlanders halted to make camp and to take council. In the five days of travel up the river, repeatedly crossing its windings, they had seen no game. Though Robinson, Hoback, and Rezner assured Hunt that, by tracing this river to its source and crossing the one ridge there, he would reach the headwaters of the Snake, Hunt determined to veer again to the southwest where he had heard that another river cut a way through the mountains. There they would again see buffalo. As they reached a high ridge commanding a wide view, one of the hunters pointed to where three snowy peaks pierced the sky far to the west and said that at their feet lay the tributary of the Columbia. These peaks were the famous Three Tetons, first discovered, so far as we know, by the lone trapper, John Colter. In not following the bed of the Wind River towards these grand old pilots, Hunt made another error. The course he took for forty miles, southwesterly along high country touched here and there with snow, led him to the southward flowing waters of the Green River, the north fork of the Colorado. After several days of travel and hunting along its banks, as the river still continued southward, he turned northwest again to seek a pass through the mountains. Eight miles of riding led to a little mountain stream with buffalo feeding about it. Here the Overlanders camped to kill and dry meat enough for the remainder of their journey and to give men and horses a rest. During the eighteen days of September they had crossed two hundred and sixty miles of hard country.
On the 4th of September they broke camp. Their westerly course across the Gros Ventre Range led them to a stream where Hoback had trapped beaver a year before. Hoback’s River, as it is still called, is a tributary of the Snake and there-fore one of the source streams of the Columbia. They followed it through precipitous passes, where at times there was barely foothold for their horses, to its confluence with the turbulent and wider waters of the Snake. Here, in a rugged valley and within close view of the Three Tetons, they halted. There was great joy in camp that night. The evening meal was a feast of celebration; and no doubt a dance to the scraping of the fiddle and a shouting chorus were a part of the thank-offering made by the voyageurs and hunters who now believed that all their troubles were ended.
Near the head of the Snake River, then, the voyageurs set about canoe-making. As the expedition was now apparently almost within hail of the Columbia, four of the men who had joined for the purpose of hunting and trapping cast off from the party and launched into the wilds. The joy of the canoe-builders was short-lived. Three men whom Hunt had sent ahead to explore the river returned with word that it was not navigable.
Hoback and his two companions now suggested that the party should go on over the intervening ridge, the Snake River Range, to Andrew Henry’s fort, on Henry’s River, which joined the Snake farther down. On the 4th of October the Overlanders forded the river and began ascending the mountain. On the eighth in a squall of wind and snow they reached the fort. It was deserted. Hunt took possession of the fort for the Pacific Fur Company, turned his horses loose and engaged two Shoshones to take charge of the horses and the fort. Here Hoback, Rezner, Robinson, another hunter named Cass, and Miller, one of the partners, left the party and set forth to hunt and trap.
On the 19th of October the Overlanders embarked on the little river running past the fort, which stood opposite the site of the present Egin, Idaho. Their fleet consisted of fifteen canoes. The stream that bore them presently joined with the waters of the Snake, over six hundred miles above the point where Lewis and Clark had launched their canoes on that river six years before. Down the widened flow sped the canoes, the voyageurs singing to the swift rhythmic strokes of their paddles. They made thirty miles before they camped for the night. The next day after twenty miles of easy navigation they began to meet with rapids. In places the men were obliged to make portage along the shore, in others to pass the ca-noes down stream by the towline. Their dangers and difficulties increased daily. They lost four canoes with most of the cargo in them and the life of one voyageur. At length, after some two hundred and fifty miles of water travel, they came to the grand canyon of the Snake where the river, at Shoshone Falls, plunges down through a narrow chasm between towering sides of sheer rock. Several men were sent out to explore. They returned, after having gone forty miles down the river, and reported that the channel continued impassable; the four canoes they had taken with them had been smashed. To add to the gravity of the situation, the party now had only five days’ rations.
Here they resolved to separate into four par-ties. Mackenzie with four men turned northward, hoping that a march across the arid Snake River Plains would bring him ultimately to a navigable branch of the Columbia. McLellan with three men pressed on down along one bank of the Snake and Reed headed a party down the other. Ramsay Crooks, with six men, went back up the river, hoping to encounter a Shoshone encampment where he might be able to procure food and a few horses. If this hope failed, he would make the long journey back to Henry’s Fort and bring the horses for the relief of the main party, which would remain with Hunt at the canyon.
Hunt’s men spent three days in caching their goods at the head of the canyon. They caught a few beaver which eked out their scanty food supply. On the third day Crooks and his men reappeared, having realized that the oncoming winter would make it impossible for them to reach Henry’s Fort on foot and return through the mountains with the horses, even if they should find the horses still at the fort.
Hunt feared to follow Mackenzie’s plan of striking across the lava desert of Snake River Plains because of the lack of water. He decided to keep on down the Snake. He divided his people into two bands. Crooks, with eighteen men, would take the south bank, and Hunt himself, with the same number of men and the Dorion family, the north bank. They set out on the 9th of November, each man carrying his share of the remaining provisions. They had cached most of their baggage, but some blankets, ammunition, traps, and other essentials must be carried. Each man bore twenty pounds, in addition to his personal be-longings. Dorion’s wife bore her pack, frequently with the added weight of her two-year-old son, while the other child, aged four, marched beside her. There is no record of any complaint from her, although she was now nearing the time when she should give birth to a third child.
Though they followed the river, the high rocky banks made it impossible for them to descend for water, but on the second day they found some rain pools among the rocks. On the third day Hunt and his party reached a camp of Shoshones, from whom they purchased two dogs for their breakfast.
For nearly a month Hunt and his men, with the Sioux woman and her children, wandered through the mountains about the Snake. Sometimes they found a little game or met with Shoshones and obtained a couple of dogs or a few horses. Oftener they hungered. Rain in the gorges and snow and bitter winds on the ridges increased the pain of their travel. On the 6th of December they es-pied white men coming up the opposite bank. These were Crooks and his companions. Worn with fatigue and emaciated from hunger, they were returning from a point about sixty miles down the river which they could not pass because there were no longer banks and ledges. The shores were mountain walls of rock rising almost perpendicularly from their base in the boiling waters to their crests of snow. Crooks and his party had, perforce, turned back. They had eaten their last meal their moccasins.
Hunt killed the last horse but one and, hastily making a canoe out of the hide, sent across the river for Crooks. But after Crooks had been ferried across, the canoe was lost, swept away by the current, before food could be taken over to the famished men on the farther bank, and the turbulent waters forbade the employment of a raft. Since Crookshad found the way down the river impassable, Hunt was left with no choice; he also must turn back. Both parties now headed up the river along the opposite banks, retracing slowly their painful steps. Crooks was very ill and could not travel: Hunt remained with him, allowing the others to push on in advance. At length Crooks broke down and could go no farther without food. The one horse remaining belonged to Dorion. He had paid for it with a buffalo robe, and it carried his children and his bundle. He refused to part with it, even for food. Fortunately, before that night they reached a Shoshone encampment and found a number of horses pawing and snuffing for grass under the light snow. Two or three of the hunters crept forward, drove the frightened Indians away, captured five horses, killed one, and set about cooking it. By means of a skin canoe which they made, cooked horse-flesh was now sent across the river to the starving band on the other side. These men had kept heroically on the march, though they had not tasted food for nearly ten days.
The majority of Hunt’s men moved on doubling their course up the river they had lately descended. But John Day, who had crossed to Hunt’s party from the south side, collapsed. He had been formerly in Crooks’s employ in the Sioux country, and Crooks would not leave him now. Hunt was obliged to press on with his party, how-ever, as his leadership and authority were needed, but he left behind with Crooks and Day a voyageur named Dubreuil, and two horses and some meat.
On the 15th of December Hunt’s party came to a little river, probably Boisé Creek, which they had formerly crossed three weeks earlier. As its banks were inviting, they followed them up some distance and camped in open level country. The weather was so cold that ice was running in the Snake, and snow fell frequently. On the twenty-third, following the lead of three Shoshones from a lodge on the creek who consented to guide them across the mountains, Hunt and his men crossed to the south side of the Snake, near the mouth of another river, probably the Payette or the Weiser. The two parties, now united, moved on together, save for the men left behind, Crooks, Day, and Dubreuil, and three voyageurs, who, being unable to march further, asked permission to remain among the Shoshones.
On the morning of the twenty-fourth the travelers turned westward and away from the Snake, but their hardships were not ended. The expedition, consisting now of thirty-two white men, Dorion’s wife and children, the three Indian guides, and five horses, made headway slowly and painfully. One sparse meal a day hardly took the edge off their hunger. Rain and snow impeded their march. Heavy night frosts chilled them through as they lay in camp and gave an icy temperature to the streams they were obliged to ford from time to time, as they struck out northwesterly for the chain of forested and snow-covered mountains rising between them and their goal.
In the bleak and snowy dawn of the thirtieth, the Sioux woman began to be in travail; and Hunt, divided between his sense of duty towards the expedition and his feelings of humanity, hesitated about taking up the day’s march. Food was very scanty. Every hour of delay was dangerous. Dorion, too, urged him to go on. The party there-fore pressed forward, while Dorion and his children remained with the woman. If Hunt cast an anxious look backward at the lonely camp in the wilderness, he may have seen, through the falling snow, the figure of the half-breed bent over the fire close to that dark heap on the ground where his mate contended against the malign powers of cold and starvation for the life bound up in hers.
On the next day the sky cleared. The Overlanders were approaching a Shoshone village south of the Blue Mountains in Oregon. The wintry sun shone on a little valley that stretched out before their gaze, dotted with Shoshone lodges and horses. Here they were hospitably received. On the following day Dorion tramped into the village, leading the skeleton horse which perhaps with this emergency in mind he had repeatedly refused to have killed. On its back sat the Sioux woman with her newborn baby in her arms and her two-year-old boy dangling in a blanket fastened to her body.
It was New Year’s Day, 1812, and the men held a celebration. After a banquet of roast horse-flesh, with boiled roots and entrées of dog and a punch composed of hot water, the musicians of the party produced their fiddles. The voyageurs danced and sang as in the days of their triumphant marches with Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson, and Simon Fraser of the Nor’westers. And these tattered and much buffeted men, lean from long hunger and hardship, dropped their troubles with the last sands from the glass of the old year.
For two days the Overlanders rested and fed among the Shoshones. Then once more they assailed the mountains, where sometimes they sank waist-deep in snow. By the 7th of January they were descending the farther slope. The hard travel and the cold had so weakened some of the men that they could not keep up with the main party. Before that night, the Sioux woman’s baby died. On the next day they came upon another camp of friendly Indians, where they remained until the stragglers overtook them. Here they procured horses and dogs, and here also they learned that a band of white men had recently gone down the river which flowed by this encampment into the Columbia. From the accounts of the party given him by the Indians, Hunt felt sure that these were the men led by Mackenzie and McLellan. It would seem that this river was the Umatilla which enters the Columbia some distance below the mouth of the Walla Walla. Leaving the river’s bank, but keeping a westerly course, the Overlanders reached the Columbia on the 21st of January. Ten days later they were bargaining for canoes with the Indians at the Long Narrows. On the 15th of February the swift tide of the River of the West bore them round the promontory into safe harbor under the shadow of Astoria.
Here they found the men who had set off from the Snake River canyon under Mackenzie, McLellan, and Reed. The three parties had gravitated together in the hills and had forced their way through the canyons of the Seven Devils and Craig Mountains against the terrifying obstacles which had turned Hunt and Crooks back from this route. After twenty-one days of almost super-human effort, peril, and hunger, they had reached the navigable lower waters of the Snake and followed them into the Columbia. Nothing had been seen by these men of Crooks and Day and the voyageurs who had dropped out of the march; and they were now counted as lost.
McDougal and the colony within the fort held a grand celebration in honor of Taunt’s arrival. Cannon and small arms were fired, liquor kegs were tapped, and the huge table in the banquet hall was spread with such delicacies as fish, beaver-tails, and roast venison. Fiddles leaped from their bags again on that night and the happy voyageurs danced. Well had they earned their right to jig to their heart’s content, for, as canoe-men, they had vanquished strange waters, and during six terrible months they had marched with honors over more than two thousand perilous miles.