Early Discoveries in Uinta County, Wyoming

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There is some reason to believe that the Spaniards were the first white men to enter Wyoming. Traces of ditches and relics of early mining implements have been found on the Big Horn and Yellowstone Rivers and there is a tradition that they penetrated what is now the confines of Yellowstone Park, but definite proof is lacking.1

Coming nearer to recorded history are stories of French and Canadian trappers having visited the streams of southern Uinta County in the days of the early fur trade, and it is highly probable that this was the case. Nothing definite, however, is known until we come to the name of John Colter, who, some time between the years of 1807 and 1810, crossed the northern part of the county.

Colter was a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and was held in high esteem by his comrades. On the return of the expedition to the Missouri River, in August, 1806, he asked permission to join two trappers, Dixon and Hancock, who were well known to the Lewis and Clark men, and who purposed trapping on the headwaters of the river. His request was granted, and, supplied with powder and other needed articles by the friends he was leaving, he started on the new venture.

After a short time Colter entered the employ of the Spanish fur trader, Manuel Lisa, who was sending trappers up all of the mountain streams. In the fall of 1807, in company with John Potts, George Drouillard and Peter Wiser, all old Lewis and Clark men, he reached the mouth of the Big Horn, where a trading post was stationed. Colter was commissioned to go to the Crows and other friendly Indian tribes to solicit their furs, and accordingly set out toward the southwest. He was on foot and carried a pack of thirty pounds, besides gun and ammunition. After visiting the Crow nation on the east side of the Wind River Range, he traveled west. Opinions as to his route differ. Chittenden thinks he crossed the Wind River Mountains and Teton Pass to Pierre’s Hole, as the Teton Basin in Idaho was called, and he places at that spot a battle between the Crows and the Blackfeet, in which Colter received a severe wound in the leg. From Pierre’s Hole he traces his route northeast to the geyser region and across to the northern shore of Yellowstone Lake, then down the river some forty miles to Tower Falls, and eastward across the mountain, by way of an Indian trail.2

Chittenden’s scholarly and interesting work was written in the year 1895. Since that time the growing interest in western exploration has led to new discoveries resulting in some necessary changes in the location of the battle ground of the Crows and the Blackfeet, and consequently of Colter’s route across the Park. According to Dale the fight took place far to the northwest of Pierre’s Hole, and he thinks that it would have been unlikely if not impossible for Colter to make the trip as described.3 We shall probably never be able to trace the journey exactly, but it remains true that Colter carried the story of the wonders of this marvelous region to Captain Clark, and that “Colter’s Route of 1807” was made a feature of the Lewis and Clark map. As concerns the physical possibility of his crossing the park in the dead of winter with such a pack, the author has been assured by more than one mountaineer that it could be done. The feat of an outlaw was cited who, to elude officers, made the trip from Montana to Jackson’s Hole and back twice in one winter. Although Colter’s descriptions of boiling mud, steaming lakes and mighty geysers were too wonderful to be received with anything but skepticism, and this supposedly mythical wonderland was for years referred to as “Colter’s Hell“, the place of this explorer is secure in history. He was undoubtedly the first American to enter Wyoming, as well as the first man to carry to the world the story of the marvelous region we call Yellowstone Park.

The fur trade was the source of much wealth in the days of the early settlement of America. The Hudson Bay Company dated from the year 1670, when Charles the Second granted a charter to a stock association, with exclusive rights to the fur business in the British possessions, and powers amounting to those of an independent government. American companies began to be organized at the opening of the nineteenth century, the first of which was the Missouri Fur Company, of which Manuel Lisa was the head. He was a Spaniard who met with great success in dealing with Indians as well as in choosing his men. Andrew Henry, one of the greatest of western explorers, was in his employ. In 1810 he was trapping on the Snake River tributaries, and Henry’s Fork was named for him, as was also the first trading post to be erected west of the Rockies. With him was associated a trapper named John Hoback.4

The American Fur Company was organized by John Jacob Astor in 1809. In the spring of 1811 he sent out a band of sixty men to cross the country to the mouth of the Oregon, where they were to join a party that was making the journey by water. The overland expedition was under the command of a man named Wilson P. Hunt, a native of New Jersey, who, though inexperienced in Indian warfare, was a good business man and organizer. His first recruits were forty Canadian voyageurs, all good boatmen and trappers. These were supplemented by a hardy band of frontiersmen, prominent among whom was a Scotchman named Ramsay Crooks, who, in 1793, at the age of sixteen, had come to America. His letters, which were models of clarity, furnish the most valuable history we have of the expedition. Another was a friend named Robert McLellan, whom Washington Irving describes as a remarkable character, possessed of a “fiery spirit and reckless daring.” John Day of Virginia was another valuable addition to the party, as was also John Hoback, whom they picked up on the Missouri River. These last two names are perpetuated in the names of streams in the original Uinta County, Wyoming. The recruits Edward Robinson and Jacob Rizner, as well as Hoback, had been in the employ of the Missouri Fur Company, and had trapped in the upper Green River and Snake River country before. Soon after leaving the winter camp on the Missouri they were joined by two experienced trappers named Benjamin Jones and Alexander Casson. With the exception of a man named Rose, who later left them to join the Crow nation, the personnel of the party left little to be desired. Peter Dorian, a Canadian halfbreed, went with them on condition of being allowed to take along his wife and two children.5 They were equipped with riding and pack horses, as well as supplied with the best of provisions.

Hunt’s plan was to follow the route of Lewis and Clark, but after conferring with various explorers, among whom was Colter, whom they met on an upper tributary of the Missouri, they decided on a more southerly route in order to avoid the hostile Sioux. They entered what is now Wyoming, near its northeast comer, and traveled southwest to the place where the Wind River joins the Big Horn. From this point they crossed over to Green River, ascended that stream and made camp on one of its upper tributaries. Washington Irving describes this river as flowing through “a lovely green valley surrounded by lofty heights.6 Buffalo were plenty, and with the help of a friendly band of Snake Indians they secured as much meat as they could carry. On the 24th of September they broke camp and crossed the mountains to the southwest, arriving at a stream recognized by Hoback as a tributary of the “Mad River,” as Snake River was sometimes called. Irving describes their journey along the stream, now known as Hoback River, in the following words : “As it meandered among rocks and precipices they were often in danger of being swept away. Sometimes the banks advanced so close upon the river that the men were obliged to scramble up and down their rugged promontories, or to skirt along their bases where there was scarce a foot-hold. Their horses had dangerous falls in some of these passes. One of them rolled with its load nearly two hundred feet down into the river, but without receiving any injury. At length they emerged from the stupendous defiles and continued for several miles along the banks of Hoback River, through the stern mountain valleys. Here it was joined by a river of great magnitude and swifter current, and their united waters swept off through the valley in one impetuous stream, which, from its rapidity and turbulence, had received the name of `Mad River.”‘ They camped in sight of the snowy peaks of the Tetons, which they called “Pilot Knobs,” and left the basin over the Teton Range for the Pacific Coast.

On the 28th of June, 1812, a party of seven left Astoria, the Pacific trading post, with dispatches for John Jacob Astor. Robert Stuart was in command, and with him were four of the men who had made the outward journey with Hunt, namely, Ramsay Crooks, Robert Mclellan, John Day and Ben Jones. The other members of the party were Andri Veller and Francis LeClerk, who had made the ocean voyage with Stuart. Before having proceded far on their way John Day showed symptoms of insanity, and he was left in the care of some friendly Indians, who promised to take him back to Astoria. On Snake River the Stuart party came across four other members of the Hunt expedition who had been trapping in the mountains, and one of them, named Joseph Miller, joined them in the eastward journey. The other three, Robinson, Rezner and Hoback, could not make up their minds to leave the wilds. Stuart’s band crossed over to Bear River, which they called Miller River in honor of Joseph Miller, and then turned north in the hope of getting out of the country of the Blackfeet, as these Indians were showing signs of hostility. Two days travel brought them to a stream running north, doubtless Salt River of Star Valley. They followed it to the place where it empties into the Snake River, near the present Idaho-Wyoming line, and as no traces of Indians were seen they began to hope that they had eluded them and relaxed their vigilance. On the 19th of September, as they were preparing breakfast, a band of twenty Indians galloped up with whoops and yells and ran off every horse they had. The loss was a terrible one. To proceed on foot across the mountains seemed almost impossible, so they finally decided to make a couple of rafts and float down the Snake River in the hope of coming across friendly Indians from whom they might get some horses. They traveled about ninety miles, but traces of the ever-troublesome Blackfeet made them give up this plan, and with almost despairing hearts they began the eastward march. Winter had set in and their sufferings were appalling. More than once did they face starvation. On the first of October, by an Indian trail, they crossed the Teton range. Just to the east of the mountains they came upon a herd of elk, and Ben Jones succeeded in killing five. Crooks was taken ill and they rested a few days and dried some of the elk meat for future use.7 They left Jackson’s Hole by Hoback Canyon. Along the streams of Green River they journeyed, finding barely enough to keep them alive, and then crossed over to the Sweetwater. At one time a friendly but very poor band of Snake Indians saved them from starvation, and we read that for many days at a time they struggled on without food. On the thirtieth of October they came to the Platte River, and as buffalo were plenty they decided to make a camp. The site was near the present city of Casper, and they stayed for five weeks before resuming the journey.8 It was not until the thirtieth of April that they arrived in St. Louis, all having survived the dreadful experience. For the greater part of the way their route across Wyoming became a part of the Great Oregon Trail, though historians differ in opinion as to whether they went over South Pass, that famous passage across the mountains that was made known to the world by Ashley’s man a decade later.

  1. The “Spanish Diggings” have been investigated by expeditions sent out from the Field Museum, Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History, New York, the University of Nebraska, and others. In Volume Nine of “Records of the Past,” published in 1909 by Robert F. Gilder of Omaha, we find the statement that “Who the quarry men were may never be known, but the work performed has no counterpart on the continent.”
  2. Chittenden “American Fur Trade.”
  3. Dale. “Ashley-Smith Explorations.”
  4. Chittenden. “American Fur Trade.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Irving. “Astoria”.
  7. Stuart’s Journal
  8. Ibid.
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