Agnes Christina Laut.

The conquest of the great Northwest: being the story of the ..., Volumes 1-2 online

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toward the river. On the northwest corner stood a
bastion whose lower stories served as powder maga-
zine and upper windows as look-out. Cannon
bristled through the double palisades of the fort, and
to one side of the main gate was the customary wicket
through which goods could be exchanged for furs
from the Indians. The big, two-story, timbered
house in the center of the court was the residence
of the Chief Factor. On both sides were stores

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The Conquest of the Great Northwest

and warehouses and fur presses and the bachelors'
quarters and the little log cabins, where lived the
married trappers. Trim lawns decorated with little
rockeries of cannon balls divided the different bufld-
ings, and in front of the Chief Factor's residence on
the top of a large flagpole there blew to the breeze
the flag with the letters H. B. C. — sign that a brigade
was coming in, or a brigade setting out; or a ship
had been sighted; or it was Sunday and the flying
flag was signal to the Indians there would be no
trade, a flag custom on Sundays that has lasted to
this day.

At the mouth of the Columbia, all that remained
of Astor^s Fort Astoria and Lewis and Clarke's
Fort Clatsop was a moldering pile of rain-rotted logs
with a little square-timbered hut where one lone
Scotchman kept watch for incoming ships and pos-
sible wrecks. Eastward, where the Columbia takes
its first bend was Walla Walla, under trader Pam-
brum; northward, where it takes a second bend,
Okanogan under Ross; west, where it turns up into
the Arrow Lakes of British Columbia, Fort Colville
under Firman MacDonell; and half way between
these two posts southward, Spokane House, founded
by that John Clarke, who was with Robertson in
Athabasca. These were the strongholds from which
the Company ruled its transmontane kingdom, five

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litde fur posts, all except Spokane, close to the main
river trail, the capitals and sub-capitals of an empire
big as half Europe.

By right, the treaty of joint occupation had refer-
ence only to Washington and Oregon; but who was
to prevent McLeod leading his brigade down the
coast to California as far as Sacramento, or Ogden his
brigade up the Snake as far as the Nevada deserts,
or Ross his mountaineers through Washington and
Idaho over the Bitter Root and Rocky Mountains to
the buffalo plains of the Missouri in Montana? It
was a no-man's-land, where trappers might wander
whither their beaver quest led, with no other law but
what each man's right arm was strong enough to
enforce. Fish diet palled at Fort Vancouver. Buffalo
meat was needed for the brigades. Up at Fort
Okanogan was Alexander Ross, studying the
language of the mountain Indians, leading a lonely
existence "with no other company," as he relates,
"but my dog Weasel and the Bible." A mid-winter
express brought Ross orders to proceed over the
mountains by way of Clarke's Fork or Flathead
River to the headwaters of the Missouri and Yellow-
stone and Big Horn. His hunting field was the very
stamping ground of the most dangerous warriors
among the Indians — the Blackfeet and Piegans and
Crows. Yet if this express had ordered Ross to

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march down to Hell's Gate and jump over the preci-
pice into that canon, he would have obeyed. A
better man for the field could not have been chosen.
Ross had come to the Pacific on John Jacob Astor's
first ship. He had been almost at once sent North
to establish Fort Okanogan, where by studying the
Indian languages during the long isolated winters,
he soon became a proficient trader. He was both
religious and scholarly, but either the intense loneli-
ness of the life, or the danger of being among the
Indians without a companion, drove him into mar-
riage with a daughter of the Okanogans. This wife
became one of the grand old ladies of the Red River
Settlement, when Ross retired to Manitoba. Beaver
must be sought as usual at the headwaters of the
Missouri and the Yellowstone and the Big Horn;
and to reach those headwaters for the spring
hunt, Ross must do his buflFalo hunting in mid-
winter. The mountain passes must be traversed
through bottomless depths of snow, for the climate
was so mild no crust formed, and above the tree line
in the cloud region was a fall — fall of snow almost
continuous for the winter months till the precipices
overhung with dangerous snow cornices of ponderous
weight, and the cut-rocks were heaped into huge
snow mushrooms. But Ross was no novice at snow
work in the mountains. One of his first winters at

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Okanogan, he had become so desperately lonely that
he decided to pay a three days' visit to his next door
neighbor at Spokane House, one hundred and fifty
miles away. The country was rocky and the trail
steep. Coming home the horses had fagged so com-
pletely climbing the last mountain that Ross and his
Indian servants dismounted to beat the way up
through the snow for the animals to follow. It was
not easy work. Snow cornice broke under the
weight, and down men and horses slithered in minia-
ture avalanche. The soft crust of drift over rocks
broke, plunging the path-makers in snow to their
armpits, and all the while the way was zigzagging
up till Ross and his Indians were blowing with heat
like whales. First, pack straps came oflF, then gun
cases, then coats and waistcoats to be hung on the
saddle pommels. A sharp turn in the trail brought
them suddenly on one of those high, bare Alpine
meadows where Arctic storms sweep when flowers
may be blooming in the valley. Before they could
find their horses darkness and snow so completely
hid everything Ross could only shout against the
wind for the men to shift for themselves and let the
horses run. Then he realized that he was without
either coat or buflFalo blanket. Luckily, a bewildered
pack horse jammed against him in the whirl. Ross
gripped the saddle straps, cut the pack ropes, threw

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The Conquest of the Great Northwest

ofif the load, and leaped astride the saddle trees with
no other blanket than the patch of wool that served
as saddle cloth. Certain that he was near Okano-
gan, he rode like mad through the howUng darkness,
but the floundering broncho fagged in the drifts, and
Ross became so numb he could not keep his seat.
Dismounting, he tried to keep himself warm by
walking, but was soon so exhausted he could only
cling to the warm body of the horse. Tying the
saddle cloth round his neck, he tried to dig a hole of
shelter in the snow, but there, his feet became so
cold, he had to take off his boots to keep from freez-
ing, and passed the night in a frantic effort against
the frost-sleep. In the morning he was too stiff to
mount his horse. He had no strength to beat the
wind, aild had almost determined to kill his horse
and crawl inside the body, when the storm began to
lessen. To his relief, Okanogan House was only a
short distance away. When trappers went out to
rescue the Indians of the party, they found one horse
dead, torh to pieces by the wolves. Ross knew
mountain travel.

It was February ii, 1824, when Ross struck east
from Coetir d'Alene Lake — the Lake of the Pointed
Heart, so called from the sharp trading, like "an awl"
of the Indians — to cross the mountains of Idaho
and Montana for the buffalo plains. Between

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Okanogan and Spokane House, he had succeeded ia
mustering twelve Hudson's Bay trappers, Iroquois
most of them, with a few Canadians like Kerre am!
Goddin and Sylvaille. Of the freeman who roved
the mountains, forty-three joined Ross' brigade.
In all, there were forty-five men, two hundred and
six traps, sixty-two guns, including a large brass
cannon, and two hundred and thirty horses. In a
few days they were on Horse Prairie, where roved
herds of wild, Spanish ponies, claimed by the Flat-
heads and valued at four beaver skins each. Passing
travelers might seize these horses, but woe betide
them if full value were not left in beaver skins.
Without warning, the Flatheads would pursue and
exact a scalp for each horse stolen. From the out-
set Ross had trouble with his men. They had first
served under Astor, then under the Nor'Westers, and
now were unsettled by the recent change of allegiance
to Hudson's Bay. Besides, General Ashley's moun-
taineers, Pierre Chouteau's trappers, had begun
coming across the plains from St. Louis. For each
beaver the American trader paid $5.00, where the
Hudson's Bay paid only $1.00 and $2.00. Ross'
trappers were dissatisfied. For the first month —
the mid-winter month when all game is quiet — no
beaver were seen. Snow storms met the marchers
as they neared the mountains, and on the 13th of

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February Ross awakened to find that the Iroquois
hunters under old Pierre had deserted. Mounting
post haste, Ross pursued, overtook the seceders, and
dernanded the cause of their complaint. They com-
plained that the price allowed for their furs was so
small in proportion to the exorbitant advance on
goods, that they were never able to pay debts, much
less make money, and declared they would not risk
their lives any more. Ross, himself, acknowledges
that goods worth six pence were traded for beaver
worth $5.00 in China. "The Iroquois declared Mr.
Ogden last fall had promised they should be paid
half in currency. I told them that promise would
be performed. They grumbled and talked, and
talked and grumbled, and at last consented to pro-
ceed. Thinks I to m3rself — ^is this the beginning?"
Four days later, the first beaver was caught, but
only the toei^ were left in the trap. Wolves had
howled all night round the camp. To avoid future
mutiny, Ross appointed three leaders, old Pierre at
the head of the Iroquois; Montour of the Half-
breeds and himself for the Company's trappers, the
three to meet each night and exchange the views of
the camp. On February 23rd, the brigade struck
into that defile of the mountains between the Rockies
east and the Bitter Root west, along the trail from
what is now from Butte and Missoula to De Smet

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and Kootenay. They had left Clarke's Fork and
were on Hell Gate River, "so named," explains
Ross, "from being frequented by war parties of rov-
ing Blackfeet." While the brigade camped came a
tinkle of dog bells over the snow, and eight Piegans
appeared driving loaded dog sleds with provisions to
trade in the Flathead country. Before Ross could
stop them, his rascally Iroquois were out of the
leather lodges with a whoop and flare of firearms and
had stripped the poor Piegans naked, leaving not so
much as a piece of fat on their sleighs. There was
nothing for Ross to do but "pay treble the value
of the trash" and invite the victims into his own
lodge. As the Piegans were going off next day, he
gave them a salute of honor from the brass gun,
";w5/ to show them J ^ he explains, ^^that it makes a
noise,^^ Barely was this trouble past, when two Iro-
quois again deserted. After them on horseback rode
Ross with old Pierre as lieutenant. "Partly by per-
suasion, and partly by force," he relates, "we put
them on horseback and brought them into camp
before dark."

It was necessary to reach tht buffalo plains and
get the store of pemmican before the spring hunt.
Already it was March, and Ross found himself in
a narrow mountain canon three hundred miles from
any post, the trail forward blocked by snow twelve

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The Conquest of the Great Northwest

feet deep for twenty miles. No time for mutineers
to plot. Daydawn to dark for a week, Ross sent his
men forward to cut a way through the snow, the
horses disappearing through the soft drifts alto-
gether in their plunges, and the end of a week saw
only three miles clear with a howling blizzard that
filled up the trench as fast as the trappers could work.
Ross kept his men too busy to think of turning back
and sent forward a fresh relay of horses to stamp the
way open. The end of another week saw eight
miles clear, but storm kept the men idle in camp for
a day, and that day worked the mischief with dis-
cipline. *' John Grey, a turbulent Iroquois, came to
my lodge as spokesman to inform me he and ten
others had resolved to turn back. I asked him why?
He said this delay would lose the spring hunt. Any-
way, the Iroquois had not engaged to dig snow and
make roads. I told him I was surprised to hear a
good, quiet, honest fellow like he was utter such
cowardly words. (God forgive me for the lie!) I
said by going back they would loose the whole year's
hunt. A change in the weather any day now might
allow us to begin hunting. It was dangerous for us
to separate. John answered he was no slave to work
in this way. I told him he was a freeman of good
character and to be careful to keep his character
good. (God forgive me. In my heart, I thought

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otherwise. I saw him in his true colors, a turbulent

blackguard, a d rascal, a low trouble maker.)

He said: 'Fair words are all very well; but back I
am going to go.' I thought a moment. Then \
said: *You are no stronger than other men. Stopped,
you will be. I will stop you!' He said he would
like to see the man who could stop him. I said: *I
can.' Old Pierre interrupted by coming in and John
went off cursing the Company, the brigade, the
country, the day he came to it. If his party deserts,
this trip will fail. So another day ends."

The next day, not a soul would go to work. With
the storm howling round the tepee as if it would tear
the buffalo flaps away, the solitary white man sitting
by the fire inside the lodge, knew the mutiny was
spreading. Up and down the canon roared the
blizzard, booming down from the mountains for
almost a week, the bitter North wind drifting, piling,
packing in a wall of snow from end to end of the eight-
mile trench that had been cleared. Watching: the
smoke curl up from the central fire to the tepee top,
Ross though alone, could afford to smile. With that
wall of snow behind, it would be just as hard to
go back as to go forward. The storm was cutting
off the mutineers' retreat. That night as the. 'fires
were smoldering and the hobbled bronchos huddling
about the lodge walls for shelter from the wind, a

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furious barking of dogs aroused camp and the shout
of "enemies, enemies, Blackfeet," brought the trap-
pers dashing out muskets in hand. The fire inside
a tepee is too good a target for attack. Outside,
even in storm is safer, but the snow muffled forms
emerging from the wooly darkness proved to be no
enemies at all, but six friendly Nez Percys, who had
come from the buffalo hunt across the mountains on
snowshoes. Five days the journey had taken. They
reported buffalo in plenty but the snow deeper
farther down the canon. Taking advantage of the
diversion created, Ross sent for John, the mutineer,
and offered to reduce his debt to the Company "if
the intriguing scamp would hunt the hills for game
to keep the camp in meat." John disposed of, Ross
called for thirty volunteers to go back over the moun-
tain on snowshoes with the Nez Percys to the buffalo
hunt. With thirty men across the mountains, there
was no danger of the rest turning back. Storm was
followed by thaw, that increased the pasturage for
the horses, and sent the Indian women picking
cranberries in the marshes, and set the snow-slides
rumbling down the mountains like thunder. Birds
were singing in the canon, geese winging north over-
head, but still the snow lay packed like a wedge in
the pass, barring way for horses or cannon. "I feel
anxious, very anxious at our long delay here," writes

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Ross at the end of a month. "The people grumble
much. That sly, deep dog of an Iroquois, Laurent,
deserted camp to-day before I knew. A more head-
strong, ill-designing set of rascals than form this
camp, God never permited together in the fur trade."
In a few weeks the buffalo hunters were back with
store of meat, which the squaws began to pound into
pemmican; but the sun glare had been so strong on
the unsheltered slopes of the uplands that six of the
hunters were led home snow-blind. This discour-
aged the freemen, fickle as children; and rebellion
began to brew again. In vain, Ross called a council,
and went from lodge to lodge, and urged, and or-
dered, and pleaded, and bribed. Not a man but
Old Pierre, the Iroquois, would go to work to clear
the road.

The nights were spent in gambling, the days in
grumbling; and old Cadiac, a Half-breed, had made
himself an Indian drum or tom-tom of buffalo skin
stretched on bare hoops. John Grey, the rebel, had
uncased his fiddle and was filing away all night to
the Red River jig and native dances of Indian pow-
wow. Ross proposed the camp should give a con-
cert. A concert meant that a dram of liquor would
go the rounds. Two or three lodges were thrown
into one. Vanished into thin air the mutinous mood
of the rebels. Hither came Cadiac with the tom-tom-

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torn of the Indian drum! Hither John Grey, the
Iroquois, scraping his fiddle strings with the glee of a
Troubadour! Hither Half-breeds with concertinas,
and shaggy hunters, with Jews' harps, and French
Canadians with a fife! The night was danced away
with such wild Western jigs as Hell Gate had never
seen before and did not see again till the mountains
resounded to the music halls of the tin-horn gamblers
in the construction days of the railway. When
morning came over the hills, Ross sprung his sur-
prise. Whether the surprise was mixed with what
cheered the French half-breeds' inner man — ^he does
not tell. With a whoop and hurrah, he proposed
they all go down the pass and dig that snow out to the
strains of John Grey's fiddle! The sun was coming
over the mountains. The hunters were happy as
grown-up children. What did the old snow matter
anyway? OflF they went! John Grey, the arch-
rebel, literally fiddling them through the mountains!
But alas, four days later, when the novelty or spree
had worn oflF, on the morning of April 14th, every man
of the camp except seven, refused to go to work.
However, it was the last mile of the blockade, and
those seven cleared the way. " Thursday, April 15th.
This day we passed the defile of the mountains after
a most laborious journey both for man and beast.
Long before daylight we were on the road, in order

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to profit by the hardness of the crust before the thaw.
From the bottom to the top of the mountains is about
one and a half miles. On the one side is the source
of the Flathead River, on the other of the Missouri.
The latter creek runs south-southeast through the
mountains till it joins a branch of the Missouri
beyond Grand Prairie. For twelve miles, the road
had been made through five feet of snow, but the
wind had filled it up again. The last eight miles
we had to force our way through snow gullies, swim-
ming the horses through in plunges. At four p. m.
we encamped on the other side of the defile without
accident. Distance to-day eighteen miles, though
only a mile and a half as the crow fl[ies. This delay
has cost loss of one month. We encamp to make
lodge poles for the rest of the journey."

From the journals sent in by Ross to Hudson's
Bay House, it is hard to follow the exact itinerary
of his movements for the next two months. Nor do
the books, which he wrote of his life in the West,
throw much light on the locale of his travels. Wher-
ever there were beaver and buffalo, the brigade
marched. One week, the men were spread out in
different parties on the Three Forks of the Missouri.
Another week, they were on the headwaters of the
Yellowstone in the National Park of Wyoming.
They did not go eastward beyond sight of the moun-

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tains, but swung back and forward between Mon-
tana and Wyoming. "Saturday — April 17th — ^pro-
ceeded to the main fork of the Missouri and set
watch. It was on this flat prairie, four hundred
Piegans last year attacked Firman McDonald's bri-
gade and killed a freeman named Thomas Anderson.
As we are on dangerous ground, I have drawn up
the following rules: (i) All hands raise camp to-
gether by call; (2) The camp to march close together.
(3) No person to run ahead; (4) No person to set
traps till all hands are camped; (5) No person to
sleep out of camp. All agreed to these rules, but
they were broken before night. Thursday, 22nd of
April — thirty-five beaver taken last night, six feet left
in the traps, twenty-five traps missing (dragged oflf
by the beaver or stolen by the Indians). The free-
men let their horses run. They will not take care
of them.'' And theh poor Ross varies the formali-
ties of his daily report by breaking out in these lines
against his unruly followers:

"Loss and misfortune must be the lot
When care and attention are wholly forgot."

"That scamp of a Saulteaux Indian threatens to
leave because I found fault with him for breaking the
rules. If he dares, I will strip him naked, horses,
blankets and clothes, to fare forth on the plain.
Saturday 24th — We crossed beyond the Boiling

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Fountains. The snow is knee-deep. Half the people
are snow-blind from sun glare."

Ross now swung west over the Bitter Root Moun-
tains to Salmon River, following as far as I can tell,
the path of the modem Oregon Short Line Railway
from Salt Lake to the Northern Pacific. So has it
always been in America. Not the bridge builder but
the fur trader has been the pathfinder for the railway.
On leaving the middle fork of the Missouri, he refers
to one of those wilderness tragedies of which word
comes down to latter day life like a ghost echo of
some primordial warfare. "Passed a deserted Pie-
gan camp of thirty-six lodges rendered immemorial
as the place where ten Piegan murderers of our
people were burnt to death. The road through the
mountains from the Missouri to Salmon River is a
Blackfoot Pass of a most dangerous sort for lurking
enemies; and yet the freemen insist on going out in
twos and twos. Three people slept out of camp by
their traps. I had to threaten not to give a single
ball to them if they did not obey rules; fifty-five
beaver to-day."

Ross now scattered his trappers from the valley
of the Three Tetons north along the tributaries of
the Snake in Idaho. One Sunday night — Ross
always compelled his trappers to dress for Sunday
and hold prayers — two French Canadian freemen

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ran into camp with moccasins torn to shreds and a
breathless Story. Contrary to rules, they had wan-
dered in quest of game forty miles away, sleeping
wherever night found them, with no food but what
they carried in a blanket on their backs. "On their
way to our camp, they saw a smoke, and taking it for
our people had advanced within pistol shot when
behold, it proved to be a camp of Piegans. Wheel-
ing, they had hardly time to take shelter among a
few willows, when they were surrounded by armed
warriors on horseback. Placing their own horses
between themselves and the enemy, our two men
squatted on the grass to conceal themselves. The
Piegans advanced within five paces, capering and
yelling, cock sure of their prey. The women had
gathered to act a willing part, armed with lances.
The two crept through mud and water out of sight
and when night came escaped, abandoning horses,
saddles, traps and all. They had traveled on foot
after dark the entire distance, hiding by day."

By June, Ross had a thousand beaver; but the
Piegans had followed up the trail of the two escap-
ing men. "Saturday, 19th — Had a fight. This
morning when all hands were at their traps scattered
by twos, and only ten men left in the camp, forty
Blackfeet all mounted, descended on us at full speed.
The trappers were so scattered, they could render

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each other no assistance and took to their heels among



Online LibraryAgnes Christina LautThe conquest of the great Northwest: being the story of the ..., Volumes 1-2 → online text (page 41 of 50)