The Perilous West: Seven Amazing Explorers and the Founding of the Oregon Trail

The Perilous West: Seven Amazing Explorers and the Founding of the Oregon Trail

by Larry E. Morris


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781442211131
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 08/25/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 270
Sales rank: 1,229,773
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Larry E. Morris is the author of The Fate of the Corps, which was named a Top Academic Title by Choice and a History Book Club selection. Morris has published articles on early Western history in such periodicals as The Missouri Historical Review, American History, and We Proceeded On. He is a senior editor with the Joseph Smith Papers Project. He and his wife, Deborah, have four children—Isaac, Courtney, Justin, and Whitney—and live in Salt Lake City.

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The Perilous West

Seven Amazing Explorers and the Founding of the Oregon Trail
By Larry E. Morris


Copyright © 2013 Rowman & Litlefield Publishers, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4422-1112-4

Chapter One

"I Shall Have Two Boats Well Manned and Armed"

Neither Meriwether Lewis nor William Clark left any record of ever meeting Marie Dorion, but as they made their homeward journey they met two men who would figure prominently in her future, two of only five founders of the Oregon Trail to travel the route both west- and eastbound: the middle-aged, mercurial, and famed Robert McClellan and the young, steady, and soon-to-be-acclaimed Ramsay Crooks.

The meeting with McClellan came first, on the morning of September 12, 1806. Traveling in canoes and pirogues—long, flat-bottomed dugouts equipped with sails—Lewis and Clark's party was making good time going downstream when they saw McClellan and his twelve-man crew toiling up the Missouri River in a keelboat overloaded with trade goods. The captains had encountered a drove of traders and trappers in the last few weeks, but McClellan was hardly any trader—he was an old army friend of Clark's and a hero of the Ohio Indian wars who "was rejoiced to see" Lewis and Clark and their men.

Both groups docked their boats at a "butifull Prarie" near the present site of St. Joseph, Missouri, and McClellan wasted no time breaking out the liquor. Sergeant John Ordway wrote that he "gave our officers wine and the party as much whiskey as we all could drink." Ordway next reported McClellan's news that "the people in general in the united States were concerned about us as they had heard that we were all killed[.] Then again they heard that the Spanyards has us in the mines &C."

If Lewis and Clark's men were impressed with McClellan, they weren't alone. As Washington Irving wrote, "M'Lellan was a remarkable man. He had been a partisan under General Wayne, in his Indian wars, where he had distinguished himself by his fiery spirit and reckless daring, and marvelous stories were told of his exploits. His appearance answered to his character. His frame was meagre, but muscular; showing strength, activity, and iron firmness. His eyes were dark, deep-set, and piercing. He was restless, fearless, but of impetuous and sometimes ungovernable temper."

The stories told about the athletic McClellan were marvelous indeed, growing more fantastic with each retelling. Some said he routinely jumped over tall horses with ease, others that he had outrun a horse somewhere between Mercersburg and Fort Loudon, Pennsylvania. Just as impressive was the account of McClellan jumping over a team of oxen simply because they were blocking his way. But the best-known legend easily topped the list.

In June 1795, hundreds of soldiers gathered at Fort Greene Ville, Mad Anthony Wayne's fortress and the largest American fort west of the Appalachians (near present Fort Greenville, Ohio). A palisade ten feet high enclosed the fifty-acre camp, complete with officers' quarters, barracks for enlisted men, a huge council house, shops, gardens, stables, and a slaughterhouse. Wayne had summoned the Miami, Shawnee, Delaware, Ojibwa, Ottawa, and Kickapoo Nations to treaty negotiations, and a multitude of Indians were now camped outside the fort. One soldier present, twenty-five-year-old Lieutenant William Clark, wrote his sister that "the eye is constantly entertained with the splendor of dress and equipage, and the [ear] with the sounds of drums, fifes, bugles, trumpets, and other instrumentals. We have daily parades & maneuvers, when we are amused by the roaring of the cannon, and the yells of the guards that perform those maneuvers daily." In the midst of this revelry, McClellan had competed with other soldiers in a contest of strength and skill, relegating any feats of the others to distant memory when he charged down an incline and leaped over a covered wagon eight and a half feet tall. Or so the story went.

"Mr. McClellin receved us very politely," Clark wrote, "and gave us all the news and occurrences which had taken place in the Illinois within his knowledge." McClellan also told of his plans to proceed up the river and trade with the Omaha and Yankton Sioux Indians in present Nebraska and South Dakota. Given the good conversation—and the good wine—Lewis and Clark were hardly inclined to push on down the river. "The evening proveing to be wet and Cloudy we Concluded to continue all night," Clark added.

Two of McClellan's passengers were well known to Lewis and Clark—Pierre Dorion Sr. and Joseph Gravelines, a French-Canadian interpreter who had lived among the Arikara Indians for many years. The captains had employed Gravelines during the winter of 1804–1805, and at their request he had accompanied an Arikara chief named Arketarnarshar, "Eagles Feather," east to meet Thomas Jefferson and other officials. The chief had been well received, but in April of 1806, while still in the East, he had died of an illness. Now Gravelines and Dorion had the unenviable task of going upriver to the Arikara villages (in northern South Dakota) to announce Arketarnarshar's death. The two interpreters carried gifts and a letter from Jefferson. "Every thing we could do to help [Arketarnarshar] was done," the president wrote, "but it pleased the great Spirit to take him from among us."

"Mr. Durion was enstructed to accompany Gravelin," noted Clark, "and through his influence pass him with his presents & by the tetons [Lakota] bands of Sieux." Dorion and Gravelines were the best men to handle such Indian diplomacy, but even they would be helpless to forestall the brewing trouble that would reach its apex late in the summer of 1807.

On the morning of September 13, a Saturday, McClellan and his crew headed up the river. Hospitable to the last, McClellan gave the captains three bottles of wine and each of the men a dram of whiskey. Whether McClellan knew that his future partner Ramsay Crooks was a week behind him—or whether the two had even met—is unknown. But Crooks was on his way, and on the afternoon of September 20, his group had docked their fleet of flat-bottomed, thirty-foot Canadian bateaux on the shore opposite the hamlet of La Charette, Missouri, when they spotted several canoes and pirogues hastening downstream. Inside those dugouts, two and a half dozen adventurers, accompanied by a Mandan chief, an interpreter, and their families, "sprung upon their oars" with surprising enthusiasm, firing off three rounds and shouting out a huzzah as they pulled up to the shore. A handful of traders seized their flintlocks and discharged a welcome.

The affable Crooks stepped forward to befriend the boatmen, introducing himself to their commanders only to discover he had just met Lewis and Clark. Crooks and his fellows were both delighted and "much astonished" at the captains' safe return. "They informed us that we were supposed to have been lost long since and were entirely given out by every person," wrote Clark.

Clark added that he and Lewis "were very politely received" by Crooks and his companion, a trader by the name of Reed, quite possibly John Reed, who went west with the Dorions and Crooks and McClellan in 1811. "Those two young Scotch gentlemen furnished us with Beef [,] [flour] [,] and Some pork for our men, and gave us a very agreeable supper," wrote Clark. Sitting around a campfire with Crooks and Reed, Lewis and Clark no doubt related a few selected episodes from their fascinating voyage of discovery. The autumn chill in the night air made the fire particularly inviting, with Lewis and Clark—who had delighted in the sight of cattle earlier that day—savoring fresh milk offered by friendly French boatmen. Newly acquired Kentucky whiskey—the perfect complement to the cold, creamy milk—made the conversation that much more pleasant, and the captains likely "pointed out ... places where the beaver most abounded," "making enquires and exchanging answers &c. until near midnight," as they had lately done with other traders. Then, with rain looking likely, Crooks and Reed invited the weary explorers to lodge in one of their tents for the evening.

Born in Greencok, Scotland, in 1787, Crooks had sailed for Canada with his widowed mother and three siblings in 1803. Within a year, the young man was clerking for a Montreal mercantile house, earning a reputation for his "judgment, enterprise, and integrity." Crooks was a hard-working, gentle soul with a talent for gaining the trust of others—his hopes of becoming a prominent trader were hardly misplaced. At the time of his meeting with Lewis and Clark, however, neither he nor they could have imagined that he would cross the continent at a younger age than either of them had done.

Two days after bidding farewell to Crooks and Reed, on September 23, 1806, Lewis and Clark returned to a rousing St. Louis welcome. Two weeks after that, the Frankfort, Kentucky, Palladium printed a Clark letter depicting the great waterways of the West, the "tremendous mountains ... covered with eternal snows," and the "generally friendly" Indians, adding that not a single man had been lost after leaving Fort Mandan. Scores of newspapers reprinted the letter, and when Clark's description was combined with Lewis's bold declaration that "the Missouri and all its branches from the Cheyenne upwards abound more in beaver and common otter than any other streams on earth," it was not surprising that a throng of aspiring mountain men made the pilgrimage to St. Louis.

From their homes in Kentucky, John Hoback, Jacob Reznor, and Edward Robinson could thus have known of the captains' triumphant return by October; they could have also heard rumblings that the prominent St. Louis entrepreneur Manuel Lisa was planning to ascend the river in the spring. Exactly when they arrived in St. Louis is not known, but there is no indication they knew each other when they signed three-year contracts with Lisa and his partners Pierre Menard and William Morrison around April of 1807.

Hoback and Reznor hailed from central Kentucky (Mercer County and Nelson County, respectively); Robinson was from western Kentucky's Livingston County. All three owned plantations and had wives and children—presumably grandchildren in Robinson's case. The tenderfoots hoping to go upriver must have snickered at the sight of these graybeards—especially sixty-two-year-old Robinson—but Lisa always looked first for seasoned hands. The three hardly presumed to make history, but as Robert M. Utley has written, "[T]hey deserve to be remembered as the first white men to traverse a vast country soon to became the heartland of the Rocky Mountain fur trade."

The "doomed trio" of Hoback, Reznor, and Robinson had not yet met Crooks and McClellan or Pierre Dorion Jr., and the six of them would not go west together for another four years, but all of them journeyed up the Missouri during the historic and turbulent summer of 1807 and found themselves right in the thick of things.

In April of 1807, seven months after meeting Lewis and Clark on his way up the river, Ramsay Crooks found his role reversed. This time he was the one riding with the current and heading for St. Louis when he encountered an expedition going upstream near La Charette, Missouri. The impressive outfit of fifty or sixty men and two keelboats was valued at $16,000 and was commanded by Lisa on the first of three historic missions to the upper Missouri.

No one who ever met him seemed to lack an opinion of the shrewd, hard-driving Lisa. Henry Marie Brackenridge called him an enterprising gentleman; Meriwether Lewis dubbed him a scoundrel. Whether Crooks had met Lisa or not, he certainly knew of him. Lisa got the most from his men, even though many despised him and some vowed to kill him. If Crooks met them on the river, they were all pushing, pulling, or rowing the boats upstream or out hunting. If he met them in the evening, they were securing the boats, digging latrines, gathering and chopping wood, unpacking gear, putting up tents, dressing freshly killed deer or elk, building fires, cooking, cleaning their guns, standing guard, or handling other chores ordered by Lisa. As the fur hunter's contract made clear, each man was "obliged to do, to obey, to execute with promptness, & diligence all reasonable orders ... given by those in command of the expedition."

The six Lewis and Clark veterans in the group—Pierre Cruzatte, George Drouillard, Baptiste Lepage, John Potts, Peter Weiser, and Richard Windsor—probably recognized Crooks from the previous autumn. Hoback, Reznor, and Robinson were meeting Crooks for the first time. Like Lisa's other hands, the three were chomping at the bit to get up the river and start making money. An average beaver skin, or plew, weighed a pound and a half and could be sold in St. Louis for five dollars or more. Even after returning half their plews to the company (in exchange for a horse, five traps, ten pounds of powder, twenty pounds of lead, a kettle, and a few knives, hatchets, and awls), four trappers could theoretically expect to conclude a season with twenty-five packs of beaver in hand, with sixty plews per pack, for a total of close to $2,000 per man. Toussaint Charbonneau, by contrast, had earned a respectable $400 for two and a half years of service to Lewis and Clark. Expert interpreters and hunters had lately signed government contracts for $1 a day, but the prospect of garnering a thousand dollars or more in a single season was unheard of. What had been said a few months earlier about John Colter and two companions also applied to Hoback and his two friends: "They tells us that they are determined to stay ... and trap and hunt until they make a fortune before they return."

What everyone conveniently ignored was that the licenses issued to Lisa and his competitors authorized them to trade, not to hunt. The whole point was to protect Indian lands but still encourage commerce by allowing traders to obtain furs and skins from the Indians in exchange for "goods, wares, and merchandize"—but not "spiritous liquors." Furthermore, traders were permitted to reside at Indian "towns and not at their hunting camps." The Indians were to do the trapping and exchange the furs at official trading posts, or "factories," while the traders stayed clear of Indian hunting grounds and transported the furs down the river to sell them. So, when Lisa or one of the other business owners contractually bound their men to "hunt, and trap the beaver of the Missouri the best that [they] can," they were violating the agreement they had signed with the government.

But for men like Reznor and Robinson—presumably unaware of such technicalities—there was something else, something that ultimately proved more alluring than the prospect of wealth. Jedediah Smith said it best: "I must confess that I had at that time a full share of that ambition (and perhaps foolish ambition) which is common in a greater or less degree to all the active world. I wanted to be the first to view a country on which the eyes of a white man had never gazed and to follow the course of rivers that run through a new land."

On May 1, 1807, Crooks appeared at the office of territorial secretary Frederick Bates and obtained a two-year license to trade with the Indians on the Missouri River. Crooks brought with him an oath and bond signed by McClellan. The two men had apparently met and formed their partnership the previous winter at McClellan's camp in northeastern Nebraska. The high-strung McClellan had wisely chosen a partner in many ways his opposite. As Hiram Martin Chittenden, the great historian of the fur trade, later wrote, Crooks "was always open and above board in his dealings," a man of "extraordinary energy" despite chronic illness. While McClellan was a hero of the Indian wars of the 1790s, Crooks made his name as a competitive but fair entrepreneur almost half a century later.

The same day he obtained the license from Bates, Crooks delivered a letter from his new partner. Composed at a camp in the Omaha, or "Mahaw," Indian country and written in a businesslike hand, the letter was addressed to Governor Meriwether Lewis but delivered in his absence to William Clark, now a militia general and a U.S. Indian agent. More than any other document, the two-page epistle sets up the context and introduces the main players in the intricate drama that unfolded during the historic summer of 1807.

First, McClellan stated his intent to "visit the upper parts of the Missouri as soon as I possibly can after my arrival at St. Louis." This is exactly what he and Crooks did, going upriver with eighty men sometime in July.

Second, he offered to escort the Mandan chief Sheheke "to his respective home." Often remembered for his kindness to Lewis and Clark, Sheheke had accepted their invitation to go downriver in 1806, bringing his wife, Yellow Corn, and two-year-old son, White Painted House. They had visited Thomas Jefferson and were now back in St. Louis. "I will with pleasure take him under my charge," McClellan wrote, "as there will be but little danger to fear. I shall have two boats well manned and armed." Crooks soon discovered, however, that William Clark had already made arrangements "to send the Mandan Chief" and "several bands of the Sioux Nation ... to their country in safety." A few weeks after Crooks' arrival in St. Louis, "70 men, exclusive of the 18 Indian men, 8 women, and 6 children," started up the river in keelboats, pirogues, and canoes. Commanding Sheheke's military escort was Nathaniel Pryor, a veteran of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. "Ensign Pryor's party will consist of 48 men," Clark wrote, "which will be fully sufficient to pass any hostile band which he may probably meet with."

Crooks' future traveling companion, Pierre Dorion Jr., was also among those accompanying the Indians back to their homelands, as was his father, Pierre Sr. The elder—who for some unknown reason had returned to St. Louis rather than continuing on to the Arikara Nation with Gravelines—had signed on as one of Pryor's interpreters, and "Young Dorion" was on his way with "a boat and 10 men" to trade with the Sioux.


Excerpted from The Perilous West by Larry E. Morris Copyright © 2013 by Rowman & Litlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Timely Arrival of This Poor Unfortunate Woman
Chapter 1: I Shall Have Two Boats Well Manned and Armed
Chapter 2: A Powerful Company Is Forming
Chapter 3: Dissolved by Mutual Consent
Chapter 4: We All Now Became Blind from the Reflection of the Sun’s Rays
Chapter 5: Whiskey Flowed Like Milk and Honey in the Land of Canaan
Chapter 6: About Seventy Able Bodied Men, Nerved to Hardship
Chapter 7: Families, Plantations, and All Vanished
Chapter 8: A Very Sad Recollection
Chapter 9: The Inscrutable Ways of Providence
Epilogue: Desolation and Horror Stared Me in the Face

What People are Saying About This

William E. Foley

Larry Morris deftly chronicles the escapades of seven venturesome westerners whose pioneering journeys helped establish the Oregon Trail along a route that became the preferred path to the Pacific. This well-told tale will please academics and history buffs alike. Move over Lewis and Clark!

Jim Hardee

Larry Morris picks up where he left off with his previous examination of men who made up the Corps of Discovery to present the too often neglected stories of seven early frontiersmen and their influence on the exploration of the West. Morris brings fresh insight to this study of several important individuals who made significant contributions to an expanding nation following the return of Lewis and Clark. Though each character examined in the book has their own exciting story of gripping adventure, Morris does a splendid job weaving their inter-related involvement in a young Rocky Mountain fur trade into a well-researched, concise narrative, bringing long-awaited recognition to seven people who impacted the creation of the Oregon Trail.

Jay H. Buckley

Author Larry E. Morris follows up his excellent Fate of the Corps: What Became of the Lewis and Clark Explorers After the Expedition with a sweeping chronicle of the forerunners of the Oregon Trail. His narrative of the adventures of Manuel Lisa, Wilson Price Hunt, Robert Stuart, Robert McClellan, Ramsay Crooks, Pierre and Marie Dorion, and many others reveals that misfortunes often proved as significant as successes in shaping the history of the American West.

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