Mountain Men, Explorers, and Trappers
BY E.S. TOPPING
In 1743, Verendrye, a French Canadian, with some Catholic priests, and about fifty men, came from Quebec to the head waters of the Missouri. From the forks of this river he went across the Yellowstone and up Wind river, and it is supposed, wintered on Green river. His exact course cannot be traced, for then all of the streams were named differently from now, and the only way by which his path can be told is by the names of the Indian tribes through whose country he traveled.
The very first reliable information that we have of the Yellowstone is from Lewis and Clarke, who were in charge of a government exploring expedition. They started from St. Louis in the spring of 1805 and explored the Missouri to its head, then went over the Rocky mountains and down Clarke's Fork to the Columbia river, and down that to its mouth. The party wintered on the Columbia, and in the spring retraced their steps. When they arrived at the forks of the Missouri the party divided, Lewis going down the Missouri, and Clarke, with a party of twenty-five men going up the Gallatin to where Bozeman now is, and crossing the range on a game trail (just where the present wagon road runs), made his first camp on the Yellowstone, in the timber, just below where Livingston is located, on July 15, 1806.
On the way down, Clarke named Shields river, and Boulder and Big Timber, which came in opposite one another, were called by him Rivers Across. At the mouth of Rose river (now Stillwater), the Crows, who had given them no trouble before, stole twenty-four of their horses, leaving them but fifteen. The party stayed here for a few days and built canoes. Sergeant Pryor and five men were left to take the remaining horses down to the mouth of the river, overland, the main party with Clarke going in the canoes. On July 25th Clarke came in sight of a huge column of rock standing by itself on the south side of the river. He named it Pompey's Pillar and engraved his name on it, with date, which by the vicissitudes of weather and vandalism have become nearly obliterated, and some means should be taken to preserve this, the only handiwork left us of the intrepid explorer. Clarke speaks of killing a white bear here and later of killing two below Red Stone river (Powder). Query: Were they gray bears?
Near the mouth of Tongue river the boats had to lie over for an hour, to let a band of buffalo that were crossing the river, pass by. The party arrived at the mouth of the Yellowstone August 2, 1806, without further adventure.
Those that were left behind under Sergeant Pryor were followed by the Crows, and just above Pompey's Pillar had the remainder of their horses stolen by these Indians. The men made bull-boats (a willow frame in the shape of a huge basket and covered with green buffalo hides), in which they went down the river safely and overtook the other party about one hundred miles below the mouth of the Yellowstone.
One of the men with Clarke, named Coulter, left the party near where Yankton is now located, to go with some trappers. The next year, 1807, while on a beaver trapping expedition, he went up the Yellowstone river to the head of the lake (which he called Eustis), then crossed the range and went down Stinking Water to the prairie, then crossed over to Clarke's Fork and down it to the Yellowstone. He kept no record of the trip, but his story as told to Bonneville and other fur traders would be accepted today as quite a correct description of the country. So to him belongs the honor of being the first white man in what is now known as the National Park.
Fur Traders and Trappers
From this on, trapping parties from St. Louis would occasionally go in their bateaux up the Yellowstone, and would carry down great quantities of beaver, otter and mink pelts; but no foothold was made on the river till 1822, when Gen. Ashley and a Mr. Henry started a trading post two miles below the mouth of the Big Horn (Fort Van Buren), and commenced business under the name of the Rocky Mountain Fur company. Just afterward, John Jacob Astor sent up a fleet of bateaux filled with stores, and built a post about thirty miles below the Big Horn, which was named Fort Cass. His party took the name of the American Fur company. There was great rivalry between the two companies, which continued for a year and was then settled by dividing the trapping territory.
Bonneville came overland from St. Louis the spring of this same year and made his headquarters on Green river; but he received his supplies from Fort Cass. In the fall he sent a party of twenty-five men to trap down Wind river and the streams running from the Big Horn range. The party made winter quarters near a Crow camp and eight of the men deserted to these Indians. Early in the spring the remainder of the party went over to Powder river. One day, soon after their arrival at this place, two Rees [Arikara, from Arikkarees, as pronounced by early traders] came into camp, and while the boys were talking to them, some others of the same party ran off their horses. The trappers tied up the two Rees, and seeing some of the others on a hill near by, told them to give up the horses, or the prisoners would be burned at the stake. The Indians offered two horses each for them, and that offer being refused, went off, leaving their comrades to their fate. The party fulfilled their threat, and left nothing but ashes and charred bones.
This is the only case in the record of this country where the whites were more barbarous than the savages.
In the latter part of this year, 1823, Bonneville, with all his followers, went down Wind river to below the Big Horn canyon. Here he disbanded the party and went east, wiser if not richer. Some of his men went down the river in bullboats, and of the remainder, some joined the Crows and the rest trapped for the companies.
Astor's company finally absorbed the other and then he had a monopoly of the fur trade of the United States. He made a good part of his immense fortune at this business, and could have continued in his financial success, but he cut down prices so that his best trappers deserted him and went over the line to the Hudson Bay company, and his company disbanded in 1840.
Living in Frenchtown, Montana, is a man one hundred and two years of age, named Baptiste Ducharne. He was a member of Gen. Ashley's expedition of 1822 and trapped for his company all of that season. In 1823 he joined Bonneville and was with him till the party disbanded. He then became a free trapper and sold his furs at the nearest trading post, whether belonging to the Hudson Bay or the American Fur company.
During the summer of 1824 he went up the Yellowstone to its head and trapped on that stream and the head of Snake river till fall; then he went down the Fire Hole Fork of the Madison, on which the geysers are located, to the prairie.
In 1826 he took nearly the same trip. Each time he saw the geysers and can yet describe them quite accurately.
In 1840 he went to the Pacific coast, but returned to the territory now known as Montana, in 1857, and lived and traded with the Indians till the coming of the emigrants, and then located land and built him a home for his old age.
Mr. Ducharne has had many children by Indian women, many of whom are living near him now, and they range in age from hoary-headed manhood to the gentle girl of twelve summers.
We have no record of any more exploring parties for many years. Trappers followed up and caught furs on every creek and fork of the rivers, but as they were illiterate men and kept no record of their adventures and discoveries, their tales cannot be told.
Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Lou Anderson, Soos, and about twenty others on a prospecting trip, came from St. Louis, overland, to the Bannock Indian camp on Green river, late in the fall of 1849. They fixed up winter quarters and stayed with these Indians till spring. Then they went up the river and as soon as the snow permitted crossed the mountains to the Yellowstone and down it to the lake and falls; then across the divide to the Madison river. They saw the geysers of the lower basin and named the river that drains them the Fire Hole. Vague reports of this wonderful country had been made before. They had not been credited, but had been considered as trappers' tales (more imagination than fact).
The report of this party made quite a stir in St. Louis, and a party organized there the next winter to explore this country, but from some, now unknown, cause did not start, and not till 1863 were the geysers again visited. The explorers went down the Madison till out of the mountains and then across the country to the Yellowstone. They went into winter quarters at the mouth of Shields river and saw no Indians till the latter part of November, at which time a war party of Blackfeet came in and tried to steal their horses. The Indians succeeded in capturing eight head, but had two of their warriors killed in the act.
Knowing that, if they stayed in this camp, the Blackfeet would finally get all of their stock, the adventurers packed up and went to the Platte via Wind river and disbanded.
Slaughter of Buffalo
In 1855, Sir George Gore, an English nobleman of great wealth and an ardent sportsman, came to St. Louis and hired about seventy men and bought many teams and wagons. He then, with Jim Bridger as guide, went to and up the Platte river and hunted on this stream and tributaries all of the autumn and winter. When the spring of 1856 opened, the party went over to Powder river. At the Portuguese fort (built by Portuguese Joe for an Indian trading post in 1825) the headquarters were made, and Sir George hunted in and explored the Big Horn range till the ensuing fall, at which time he went over to and down Tongue river to near its mouth, where, finding a good camp and plenty of buffalo, he built him winter quarters.
His party is credited with killing six thousand buffaloes while in this camp, from which nothing was taken but the tongues and a little choice meat, the remainder rotting where killed. In the spring the party moved to the head of the Rosebud and hunted through the Wolf mountains and traded with the Crows till fall; then built flat-boats and went down the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers to Fort Berthold and wintered. In the spring he continued his river journey and arrived at St. Louis in the latter part of June, 1858.
In the three years he had been away, he had not had a single difficulty with the Indians and had lost but two men, one of whom had accidentally shot himself.
The attention of congress was called to the large amount of game killed by this party, and that body made considerable talk and passed restrictive laws which were productive of no good, for there was no one in this almost uninhabited country to enforce them.
In 1859 Gen. Reynolds was given the charge of a government exploring expedition and Lieut. Maynadier was appointed second in command, with Jim Bridger, the irrepressible, as guide. They were to explore the heads of the Yellowstone, Snake, and Green rivers, and the country between the Big Horn and Rocky Mountain ranges. At the mouth of Sweetwater the command divided. Gen. Reynolds, with part, went up the Sweetwater to its head and crossed the divide to Green river. They went up this stream and tried to cross the range to the head of the Yellowstone. Up one fork they found impassable walls of basalt, and in another which they tried the snow was too deep; so backing out they came around by Mullan pass, and to the forks of the Missouri, where they were met by Maynadier who, with his party had marched across the country and struck Wind river just at the forks, then across the Owl Creek mountains to Owl creek, and down this to its mouth, and thence down Wind river to Gray Bull. He then turned up this stream and followed it to the mountains; thence went across to Stinking Water, where, his horses being poor and played out, he left nearly all of his wagons. Then he passed on across the Yellowstone to the Missouri, which river he followed up to the forks, there meeting Gen. Reynolds.
After a rest they again separated, Gen. Reynolds going down the river in boats and Lieut. Maynadier, taking a small number of men and going up the Gallatin, went across to the Yellowstone on the same trail that Clarke had used so many years before. Here he built boats and went down the river, with no adventures worth recording. (To be Continued.)
From E.S. Topping’s Chronicles of the Yellowstone (1883). Topping discovered Yellowstone’s Norris Geyser Basin and a shorter route to Lower Geyser Basin, and operated boats on Yellowstone Lake (summers of 1874 and 1875). He fought in several Indian battles, one under General Crook, as a volunteer or scout, and near a trading fort on the Yellowstone in 1875. His experiences lent special expertise to his chronciling of Yellowstone history.