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Wallace Stegner called South Pass “one of the most deceptive and impressive places in the West.” Nowhere can travelers cross the Rockies so easily as through this high, treeless valley in Wyoming immediately south of the Wind River Mountains. South Pass has received much attention in lore and memory but attracted no serious book-length study—until now. In this narrative, award-winning author Will Bagley explains the significance of South Pass to the nation’s history and to the ...
Wallace Stegner called South Pass “one of the most deceptive and impressive places in the West.” Nowhere can travelers cross the Rockies so easily as through this high, treeless valley in Wyoming immediately south of the Wind River Mountains. South Pass has received much attention in lore and memory but attracted no serious book-length study—until now. In this narrative, award-winning author Will Bagley explains the significance of South Pass to the nation’s history and to the development of the American West.
Fur traders first saw South Pass in 1812. From the early 1840s until the completion of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads almost forty years later, emigrants on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails used South Pass in transforming the American West in a single generation. Bagley traces the peopling of the region by the earliest inhabitants and adventurers, including Indian peoples, trappers and fur traders, missionaries, and government-commissioned explorers. Later, California gold rushers, Latter-day Saints, and families seeking new lives went through this singular gap in the Rockies. Without South Pass, overland wagons beginning their journey far to the east along the Missouri River could not have reached their destinations in a single season, and western settlement might have been delayed for decades.
The story of South Pass offers a rich history. The Overland Stage, Pony Express, and first transcontinental telegraph all came through the region. Nearly a century later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower designated South Pass as one of America’s first National Historic Landmarks. An American place so rich in historical significance, Bagley argues, deserves the best of historical preservation efforts.
"Daring and Intrepid Actions"
Discovering South Pass 1812
LONG BEFORE THE DAWN OF RECORDED HISTORY, HUMANS used the natural gateway through the Rocky Mountains now known as South Pass for trade and travel. Paleolithic hunters have camped here for at least ten thousand years, and the entire area is rich in Plains Archaic and Late Prehistoric artifacts.
The first written reports from the region are barely two centuries old, but they make clear that this key corridor between the streams and rivers that flowed to the Atlantic or Pacific ocean was contested ground when Europeans first saw it. The earliest descriptions of this elevated plain depict a paradise for bison on both sides of the pass. The large herds that ranged through the Green River Basin represented a great prize for the hunters whose lives depended on the shaggy beasts. The most successful of these people of the buffalo were clearly the Absarokas, better known as the Crows, who battled for control of this rich country with their ancient enemies, the powerful Blackfeet and the more vulnerable Shoshones. As the trade in firearms and horses expanded, however, the balance of power shifted. By the time the bison disappeared from the country west of South Pass during the 1840s, the Shoshones controlled it all.
Later travelers on the Oregon-California Trail told of meeting Absarokas, Arapahoes, Bannocks, Cheyennes, Nez Perce, Lakotas, and Utes at or near South Pass, but during the golden age of overland migration, the Shoshones dominated the region and used the pass most heavily. Fur trader Osborne Russell knew the Shoshones well during the 1830s. When he left for Oregon in 1842, Russell reported that with the death of Pahdahewakumda (or Pah-dasher-wah-un-dah) and his brother Moh-woom-hah, three men—Inkatushepoh, Fibebountowatsu, and Whoshakik had become "the pillars of the Nation and at whose names the Blackfeet quaked with fear."
John Wilson, the first Indian agent to arrive at Fort Bridger, wrote, "The principal chiefs of the Sho-sho-nies are Mono, (about 45 years old) so called from a wound in his face or cheek from a ball that disfigures him; Wiskin (Cut-hair) [and] Washikick, (Gourd Rattle) with whom I have had an interview, and Oapiche, (Big man.)" Ultimately, it was Washikick (soon known as Washakie) who led the Shoshone through the most trying years in their long history.
As Mormon mail carriers traveled east from Salt Lake in mid-May 1850, they met a Shoshone village on the move. "They had wintered on the Wind river; had much fur, peltry, skins &c., which they were taking to [Fort] Bridger to exchange for ammunition, blankets, &c. &c.; all were on horseback, young and old; colts unable to travel, packed; dogs and eagles, packed," courier Robert Campbell reported. "We espied a rooster (which now they had packed up) and that had got so used to Indian life that we thought he seemed as graceful and dignified on horseback as if setting on the old barn yard fence at home."
Appleton Milo Harmon, a Mormon, thought their horses "looked extremely well for haveing winterd in those lattitudes & altitudes." The animals were loaded with "Heavey and Bulkey burthens of undressed skins of Elk Deer Buffalo &c, on the top of which set their little papooses." He said the party's warriors "could be seen off some miles to the right and left in Search of game," and one of them occasionally returned to the moving village with blacktail deer, antelope, sage hen, goose, or duck, with which the country abounded. The Shoshones treated the Mormons with great civility and even helped them round up their cattle. "Some exchanges ware made with them by way of amunition for furs and we separated."
P. L. Williams, who became South Pass City's district attorney, met Washakie in 1869. The Shoshone leader described his tribe's yearly cycle for the young attorney. It was their custom, he said, "to spend most of the year in the Wind River region, but about the 1st of June, the whole tribe, men, women and children, with all their belongings, ponies, tents, camp equipment, etc., would start on a trip to the Uintah Mountains in northeastern Utah, where they remained during the summer, returning about the latter part of September," Williams recalled. "The journey to and from this hunting and fishing ground was made by way of South Pass City, over the 'South Pass' of the mountain divide, across the broad valley of the Green River and by Fort Bridger. Thus they passed South Pass City twice each year." Some say the Shoshone called South Pass "the place where God ran out of mountains."
A HANDSOME LOW GAP: THE ASTORIANS FIND SOUTH PASS
So it was that Native peoples had used South Pass to cross the Rocky Mountains long before one of them told an American fur trader about this natural corridor in August 1812. John Jacob Astor started this chain of events in 1810 when he founded the Pacific Fur Company to extend the reach of his American Fur Company. Astor put up all the capital—two hundred thousand dollars—but kept half of the initial one hundred shares of stock in reserve and used it to form formed working partnerships with nine veteran fur traders, notably chief manager Wilson Price Hunt, Robert Stuart, and Ramsey Crooks. Except for Hunt, they all knew "the hardships of the Indian trade." Astor quickly dispatched both land and sea expeditions to the Columbia River.
Robert Stuart never liked Jonathan Thorn, the furloughed Navy lieutenant whom Astor picked to command the ship Tonquin on its voyage to the Columbia River, but he was on deck when the U.S.S. Constitution, soon to earn her nickname "Old Ironsides," escorted Tonquin out of New York Harbor in September 1810.
Like many Scots in the fur trade, Robert Stuart had little use for officious potentates. When Thorn abandoned eight tardy crewmen after a stop in the Falkland Islands, including Stuart's "Old Uncle" David, he put a pistol to the lieutenant's head and persuaded him to return for them. Tonquin finally reached the Columbia in March 1811, and the party quickly built an outpost named Fort Astoria. By the summer of 1811 Astor's agents were building trading posts at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia and along the Willamette, Spokane, and Okanogan rivers.
Meanwhile, Wilson Price Hunt left St. Louis in October on a remarkable overland journey. After wintering on the Nodaway River, he headed west with four partners, a clerk, fifty-six voyageurs, eighty-two horses, and Wihmunkewakan, best remembered as Marie Aioe Dorion, and her two children with Métis expedition member Pierre Dorion. Hunt ascended the Missouri and Grand rivers, then traveled overland to the Wind River, across the Continental Divide at Union Pass, and finally down the Hoback River to its confluence with the Snake, where he dispatched four trappers to collect furs. In mid-October 1811 he left his horses behind and set out with fifteen dugouts to descend the "Canoe River," which was actually one of the West's most treacherous watercourses, the Snake River. The voyage came to a disastrous end among the rapids of Caldron Linn, below today's Minidoka Reservoir in southwest Idaho. The westbound Astorians divided into smaller parties that made their way down both banks of the Snake to the Columbia and the Oregon Country. Hunt reached Fort Astoria, the company's headquarters at the mouth of the Columbia, in mid-February 1812 after traveling "2,073 miles since leaving the village of the Arikara. July 18th to February 15th—7 months."
All had not gone as Astor and his traders had planned: the previous summer, the Tonquin "blew up in the air with a fearful explosion" on a trading voyage to Vancouver Island, which Stuart learned about in August from an Indian visitor to Fort Astoria. In October 1811 Lamazu, a half-British Chinook pilot known as George (or Jack) Ramsay, told how back in June Thorn had insulted a Nootka chieftain and provoked an attack in Clayoquot Sound, inspiring a surviving crewman to detonate Tonquin's magazine in defense. Lamazu was the sole survivor of "terrific and overwhelming" explosion. The surviving partners confirmed the news after the company's second supply ship, the Beaver, appeared in May 1812 and began to reshape their strategy.
Upon his arrival, as the senior partner Hunt assumed command of the expedition. Fort Astoria's officers decided to send a five-man express overland party under John Reed to deliver the bad news to Astor and request supplies and reinforcements. The expedition did not get far. Robert Stuart had spent the winter scouting trading post sites and, while returning down the Columbia River to Astoria, he rescued a badly wounded John Reed. Reed had lost his "shiny metal dispatch box" of messages for Astor in a melee with Wishram Indians at The Dalles. The partners decided to send another express to New York "to inform Mr. Astor and the other persons connected with the expedition of the loss of the Tonquin." Stuart volunteered to lead it.
The guns at Fort Astoria saluted Robert Stuart, Benjamin Jones, François LeClerc, André Vallé, John Day, Ramsay Crooks, and Robert McClellan when they set out on the afternoon of June 29, 1812. Day, Crooks, and McClellan had come west with Wilson Hunt and so knew some of the challenges that lay before them. The next morning they joined a larger band of traders and trappers bound for the Spokane and Okanogan rivers and "the interior parts of the country above the forks of the Columbia." Stuart sent John Day back to Fort Astoria after Day tried to kill himself near the mouth of the Willamette River, but the others pushed on to the Walla Walla River. Here Stuart and his five companions parted ways with the other Astorians and bought horses from the Indians to continue the trek with packsaddles.
After a difficult crossing of the Blue Mountains and Grande Ronde Valley and an equally tough trip down the left bank of the Snake River, Stuart reached the Bruneau River in midAugust. That night the "innumerable hosts" of mosquitoes were so bad, Stuart wrote, that they "completely deprived our eyelids of their usual function," leaving the men nearly blind. The next morning the Astorians met the Indian who had guided Wilson Price Hunt's outfit "over the Mad River Mountain last Fall." The Absarokas had raided the Pacific Fur Company caches, the Shoshone reported, "and carried off every thing," but he also had more important news—history's first mention of South Pass. "Hearing that there is a shorter trace to the South than that by which Mr. Hunt had traversed the R. Mountains," Stuart wrote the next day, "and learning that this Indian was perfectly acquainted with the route, I without loss of time offered him a Pistol a Blanket of Blue Cloth—an Axe—a Knife—an awl—a Fathom (of blue) Beads a looking glass and a little Powder & Ball if he would guide us to the other side, which he immediately accepted." Two days later, the erstwhile guide disappeared with Stuart's horse.
As far as records show, this was the first hint of the existence of South Pass in the annals of the American West. Andrew Henry of Missouri had opened a post northwest of the pass near today's St. Anthony's, Idaho, in 1811. As historian Dale L. Morgan observed, Henry's men "may have learned of the existence of, and even traversed, South Pass, but little evidence and not even a reasoned argument has been set forth in support of this view." French, Spanish, and American fur traders had been wandering the northern Rockies since before the return of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Only days before he crossed South Pass, Stuart heard from Shoshones that a trader named Jean Baptiste Champlain and three men had possibly used the pass on their way to Green River the previous summer, but Arapahos "murdered them in the dead of night and took possession of all their effects." Ezekiel Williams's "Lost Trappers" might have even crossed South Pass—and a recently discovered grave marked "Died 1814 Roy" not far from Aspen Peak and the Great Basin Divide near the Hastings/Mormon Trail suggests they did.
Yet no reliable source shows anyone of European extraction knew about South Pass before that fateful day in August 1812. It is possible that an unknown but far-ranging French voyageur or an unrecorded but ambitious Spanish trader was the first non-Indian to see the corridor, but the arguments historian, collector, and former cowhand Philip Ashton Rollins presented in 1935 are still difficult to refute: French adventurers, Rollins noted, had ascended the Platte and traveled south to Santa Fe, "but there seems to be no record or tradition of their being near South Pass." Canadians had made "salient thrusts" toward South Pass, but none of these "intrepid folk reached its vicinity." Finally, there was "no trustworthy proof that the Spaniards were ever in Wyoming" before 1812.
Stuart's men pressed on up the Snake, battling the heat and mosquitoes and keeping a much more careful watch on their horses. Near Salmon Falls on August 20, they met John Hoback, Edward Robinson, Jacob Rezner, and Joseph Miller, the men Wilson Hunt had left behind to trap the Snake River country. Arapahos had robbed the men twice, and their former partner Martin Cass had made off with the last of their horses, leaving the fur hunters to survive—barely—on fish. These half-famished friends, whose "terrific appearance beggars all description," accompanied Stuart to Caldron Linn. The contents of six of the caches Hunt had left behind the previous fall had vanished.
Stuart outfitted Hoback, Robinson, and Rezner for a two-year hunt from the surviving three caches, but Joseph Miller had seen enough of the West. "Mr. Millers curiosity and desire of traveling thro' the Indian countries being fully satisfied he has determined to accompany us." A new problem now confronted the expedition: like the lost trappers, if their skill as hunters failed them, they faced starvation, or what Stuart described as having "nothing for that very desirable operation: the wagging of the jaws."
Miller had trapped on the Bear and Green rivers, and based on his reports, Stuart set an eastbound course "by which we proposed crossing the Rocky Mountains." The party ascended the Snake to its confluence with the Portneuf River, where they headed east to reach Bear River at Soda Springs and followed an Indian trace up the Bear to a camp near today's Dingle, Idaho. Here they fell in with an Absaroka war party whose threats, Stuart said, "indicated an evident intention to steal if not to rob" the Americans. Stuart gave them some gunpowder to prevent an open conflict "and left them happy at getting off on no worse terms."
Since leaving the Columbia River, the party had essentially followed what later became the Oregon Trail, but the Absaroka warriors made them nervous. Stuart abandoned his plan to cross directly from Bear River to the Green. The Absarokas later became great friends of the whites, particularly American mountaineers, and they long boasted that their tribe had never killed a white man. They were, however, fiercely proud of their skill as raiders. "Trust to their honor," advised fur-trade entrepreneur Robert Campbell, "and you are safe: trust to their honesty, and they will steal the hair off your head." Bill Gilbert of the Missouri Fur Company said the Absarokas admitted that "if they killed [us], we would not come back, & they would lose the chance of stealing from us."
Cautiously, Stuart turned north and led his hungry men up Thomas Fork, starting on a wandering detour that would take 417 miles, by his own estimate, to reach the Big Sandy, which was less than a hundred miles away. The expedition leader's fears were not misplaced. Six days later, not long after dawn on September 19, 1812, the warriors returned and made off with all the party's horses, "not withstanding their being tethered & hobbled," in what Stuart called "one of the most daring and intrepid actions I ever heard of among Indians."
Elisha Loomis retold "a brief but interesting account" of the trek Stuart recounted for him in 1831. Stuart provided no details of the theft of his party's mounts in his journal, but after the "Arapahai indians" ran off the horses, they turned to mock the dismayed trappers, "laughing heartily at the success of their plan," Loomis reported. "One of them took pains to turn his backside towards them in an insulting manner." An "old Kentucky hunter"—Ben Jones-raised his rifle "to shoot the villain." Stuart stopped him, fearing the killing would provoke the Indians to murder them all. The hunter "begged hard" to be allowed to take "one crack at the Indian." Stuart refused, even when the man offered to give up a considerable part of his wages for the privilege of killing the man who had apparently "mooned" the distraught fur traders. "Destitute of horses," Loomis wrote, "the party hardly knew what to do." Some of the men were ready to "die where they were, as it seemed hardly possible to cross the immense prairies on foot, weak as they had become and destitute of provisions."
Excerpted from South Pass by Will Bagley. Copyright © 2014 Will Bagley. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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