William Chambers.

Chambers's miscellany of useful and entertaining tracts (Volume v.5-6) online

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Tobacco, of very inferior quality, such as could be purchased in
Philadelphia at about ten cents per pound, here fetches two
dollars ! and everything else in proportion. There is no coin in
circulation, and these articles are therefore paid for by the inde-
pendent mountain-men in beaver skins, buffalo robes, &c. ; and
those who are hired to the companies, have them charged against
their wag*es. I was somewhat amused by observing- one of our
newly-hired men enter the tent and order, with the air of a man
who knew he would not be refused, twenty dollars worth of
rum and ten dollars worth of sugar, to treat two of his companions
who were about leaving the rendezvous."

At the rendezvous a number of men belonging- to Captain
Wyeth's party left it to join returning- parties ; but the diminu-
tion of numbers thus occasioned was made up for by the accession
of about thirty Indians — Flatheads, Nez Perce's, and others, with
their wives, children, and dogs. These Indians joined the party
in order to enjoy the benefit of its convoy through the tract of
country infested by the Blackfeet Indians — a fierce and warlike
race, the terror both of Indians and whites. Here also the
party was joined by two English gentlemen roaming the prairies
for amusement. At length, on the 2d of July, the party bade
adieu to the rendezvous, packed up their moveables, and journeyed
along the bank of the river. The horses were much recruited
by the long rest and good pasture, and, like their masters, were
in excellent spirits for renewing the route across the wilderness.

They had now reached the confines of the Rocky Mountains,
fi'om which originate the upper tributaries of the Missouri on
the one side, and those of the Columbia on the other. The plains
in this high region are more rugged and barren than in the lower
territories, and occasionally present evidences of volcanic action,
being thickly covered with masses of lava and hig-h basaltic
crags. The principal vegetation on the hills consists of small
cedars, while on the plains nothing- flourishes but the shrubby
wormwood or sage. Mr Townsend had an opportunity, in these



melanclioly wastes, of becoming- acquainted with a variety of
animals, particularly birds. He met with flocks of a beautiful
bird, called the cock of the plain {Tetrao urophasianus), which
was so very tame, or rather so little accustomed to evil treatment,
as to mingle familiarly with the cavalcade, and to suffer itself to
be knocked down by whips.

On the 10th of July, the party encamped near the Blackfeet
river, a small sluggish stagnant stream which empties itself into
the Bear river. Here they had a rather stirring adventure with
a grizzly bear. " As we approached our encampment," says Mr
Townsend, " near a small grove of willows on the margin
of the river, a tremendous grizzly bear rushed out upon.
us. Our horses ran wildly in every direction, snorting with
terror, and became nearly unmanageable. Several balls were-
instantly fired into him, but they only seemed to increase his
fury. After spending a moment in rending each wound (their
invariable practice), he selected the person who happened to be
nearest, and darted after him ; but before he proceeded far, he was
sure to be stopped again by a ball from another quarter. In this
way he was driven about amongst us for perhaps fifteen minutes,
at times so near some of the horses, that he received several
severe kicks from them. One of the pack-horses was fairly
fastened upon by the fearful claws of the brute, and in the terri-
fied animal's efforts to escape the dreaded gripe, the pack and
saddle were broken to pieces and disengaged. One of our mules
also lent him a kick in the head while pursuing it up an adjacent
hill, which sent him rolling to the bottom. Here he was finally
brought to a stand. The poor animal was so completely sur-
rounded by enemies that he became bewildered ; he raised him-
self upon his hind feet, standing almost erect, his mouth partly
open, and from his protruding tongue the blood fell fast in drops.
While in this position he received about six more balls, each of
which made him reel. At last, as in complete desperation, he
dashed into the water and swam several yards with astonishing
strength and agility, the guns cracking at him constantly. But
he was not to proceed far ; for just then Richardson, who had
been absent, rode up, and fixing his deadly aim upon him, fired a^
ball into the back of his head, which killed him instantly. The
strength of four men was required to drag the ferocious brute
from the water, and upon examining his body, he was found
completely riddled ; there did not appear to be four inches of his
shaggy person, from the hips upward, that had not received a
ball; there must have been at least thirty shots fired at him,
and probably few missed ; yet such was his tenacity of life, thai
I have no doubt he would have succeeded in crossing the river
but for the last shot in the brain. He would probably weigh at
the least six hundred pounds, and was about the height of an
ordinary steer. The spread of the foot laterally Avas ten inches,
and the claws measured seven inches in length. This animal



was remarkably lean : when in good condition he would doubt-
less much exceed in weig-ht the estimate I have given. Richard-
son and two other hunters in company killed two in the course
of the afternoon, and saw several others."

Althoug-h it was known that parties of Blackfeet were hanging
in the route of the caravan, our travellers fortunately escaped
being attacked by these dreaded Indians ; and on the 14th, having
reached the banks of the fine large Shoshone or Snake, also called
Lewis river, they came to a halt for the purpose of erecting a fort,
according to their instructions, and also of enjoying a rest of a
fortnight or three weeks before renewing their journey. Nearly
four months had now elapsed since they had commenced their
expedition, and there were various evidences that they were ap-
proaching its close. The Snake river, on the banks of which they
were encamped, pours its waters directly into the Columbia, and
as they tried to form some idea of the great Oregon river from the
size of its tributary, it became evident that they were approach-
ing the western shore of the vast North American continent.

Food, however, was becoming scarce, the stock of dried
buffalo meat being nearly exhausted; and therefore, while the
majority of the party should remain to build a fort on the banks
of the Snake river, it was resolved that a hunting party of twelve
persons should start on the back track to shoot buffalo, and return
to the fort in eight or nine days with the fruits of their diligence.
To this party Mr Townsend attached himself. The hunters were
successful in procuring buffalo, on which they now entirely fed,
besides bringing a quantity in a dried state to the camp. Ex-
posed constantly to the pure air, and having abundant exercise,
the appetites of the party were most ravenous. Rising in the
morning with the sun, they kindled a fire and roasted their
breakfast, which consisted of from one to two pounds of meat.
At ten o'clock they lunched on meat; at two they dined on
meat ; at five they supped on meat ; at eight they had a second
supper of meat ; and during the night, when they awoke, they
took a snatch at any meat within reach. Their food was thus
entirely meat, without bread or any other article except water,
which was their sole beverage. On this plain and substantial
fare they enjoyed robust health.

Having heard that a ball in the middle of the forehead was
never known to kill a buffalo, Mr Townsend determined to try
the experiment. Accordingly one evening, seeing a large bull
close at hand, he sallied forth with the utmost caution in the
direction of his victim. " The unwieldy brute," he says, " was
quietly and unsuspiciously cropping the herbage, and I had ar-
rived to within ten feet of him, when a sudden flashing of the
eye, and an impatient motion, told me that I was observed. He
raised his enormous head and looked around him, and so truly
terrible and grand did he appear, that I must confess I felt
awed, almost frightened, at the task I had undertaken. But



I had gone too far to retreat ; so, raising- my gun, I took deli-
berate aim at the bushy centre of the forehead, and fired. The
monster shook his head, pawed up the earth with his hoofs, and
making a sudden spring, accompanied by a terrific roar, turned
to make his escape. At that instant the ball from the second
barrel penetrated his vitals, and he measured his huge length
upon the ground. In a few seconds he was dead. Upon exa-
mining the head, and cutting away the enormous mass of matted
hair and skin which enveloped the skull, my large bullet of
twenty to the pound was found completely flattened against the
bone, having carried with it, through the interposing integu-
ment, a considerable portion of the coarse hair, but without pro-
ducing the smallest fracture. I was satisfied; and taking the
tongue — the hunter's perquisite — I returned to my companions."

Some of the party had seen Blackfeet Indians skulking about,
and the effect was to put the hunters more on their guard. They
were now certain that their worst enemies, the Blackfeet, were
around them, and that they only waited for a favourable oppor-
tunity of making an attack. It was felt that these savage wan-
derers were not there for nothing, and that the greatest care was
necessary to prevent a surprise.

The Blackfeet is a sworn and determined foe to all white men,
and he has often been heard to declare that he would rather hang*
the scalp of a pale-face to his girdle, than kill a buffalo to pre-
vent his starving. The hostility of this dreaded tribe is, and has
for years been, proverbial. They are, perhaps, the only Indians
who do not fear the power, and who refuse to acknowledge the
superiority of the white man; and though so often beaten in
conflicts with them, even by their own mode of warfare, and
generally with numbers vastly inferior, their indomitable courage
and perseverance still urges them on to renewed attempts ; and
if a single scalp is taken, it is considered equal to a great vic-
tory, and is hailed as a presage of future and more extensive

It must be acknowledged, however, that this determined hos-
tility does not originate solely in savage malignity, or an abstract
thirst for the blood of white men ; it is fomented and kept alive
from year to year by incessant provocatives on the part of white
hunters, trappers, and traders, who are at best but intruders on
the rightful domain of the red man of the wilderness. " Many
a night," adds our traveller, " have I sat at the camp fire and
listened to the recital of bloody and ferocious scenes, in which
the narrators were the actors, and the poor Indians the victims,
and I have felt my blood tingle with shame, and boil with indig-
nation, to hear the diabolical acts applauded by those for whose
amusement they were related. Many a precious villain and
merciless marauder was made by these midnight tales of rapine,
murder, and robbery ; many a stripling, in whose tender mind
the seeds of virtue and honesty had never germinated, bui'ned


for an opportunity of loading his pack-horse with the beaver
skins of some solitary Blackfeet trapper, who was to be mur-
dered and despoiled of the property he had acquired by weeks
and perhaps months of toil and danger."

The proximity of the Blackfeet caused the old hunters to recol-
lect their former adventures in the same neig-hboui'hood ; and one
evening", as the party sat around the camp fire, wrapped in their
warm blankets, these old hunters became talkative, and related
their individual adventures for the general amusement. The
best story was one told by Richardson, of a meeting* he once had
with three Blackfeet Indians. He had been out alone hunting
buffalo, and towards the end of the day was returning to the
camp with his meat, when he heard the clattering of hoofs in the
rear, and upon looking back, observed three Indians in hot pur-
suit of him. To lig'hten his horse, he immediately thi'ew off the
meat he carried, and then urged the animal to his utmost speed,
in an attempt to distance his pursuers. He soon discovered,
however, that the enemy was rapidly gaining upon him, and
that in a few minutes more he would be completely at their
mercy, when he hit upon an expedient as singular as it was bold
and courageous. Drawing his long scalping-knife from the sheath
at his side, he plunged the keen weapon through his horse's neck,
and severed the spine. The animal dropped instantly dead, and
the determined hunter, throwing himself behind the fallen car-
cass, waited calmly the approach of his sanguinary pursuers. In
a few moments one Indian was within range of the fatal rifle,
and at its report his horse galloped riderless over the plain. The
remaining two then thought to take him at advantage by ap-
proaching* simultaneously on both sides of his rampart ; but one
of them happening* to venture too near in order to be sure of his
aim, was shot to the heart by the long pistol of the white man
at the very instant that the ball from the Indian's gun whistled
harmlessly by. The third savag'e, being* wearied of the dangerous
game, applied the whip vigorously to the flanks of his horse, and
was soon out of sight, while Richardson set about collecting the
trophies of his singular victory. He caught the two Indians'
horses, mounted one, and loaded the other with the meat which
he had discarded, and returned to his camp with two spare rifles,
and a good stock of ammunition.

Having now procured a sufficient quantity of buffalo meat, the
hunting party set out on its return to the fort, and arrived there
on the 25th, after nine days' absence. Their return had been
anxiously expected, and " I could well perceive," says Mr Towns-
end, " many a longing* and eager gaze cast upon the well-filled
bales of buffalo meat as our mules swung their little bodies through
the camp. My companion, Mr Nuttall, had become so exceedingly
thin that I could scarcely have known him ; and upon my ex-
pressing* surprise at the great change in his appearance, he heaved
a sigh of inanity, and remarked that I ^ would have been as



thin as he, if I had lived on old bear for two weeks, and short
allowance of that.' I found, in truth, that the whole camp had
been subsisting- during" our absence on little else than two or
three grizzly bears which had been killed in the neighbourhood ;
and with a complacent glance at my own rotund and cow-fed
person, I wished my poor friend better luck for the future."

Another travelling company had encamped on the banks of
the Snake river during the absence of the hunting party. It
consisted of thirty men, thirteen of them Indians, Nez Perces,
Chinooks, and Kayouse, the remainder French-Canadians and
half-breeds. Mr M'Kay, the leader of this company, was the
son of Mr Alexander M'Kay, one of the early adventurers across
the prairies, the tragical story of whose massacre by the Indians
on the north-west coast is told by Washington Irving in his
" Astoria." Mr Townsend gives an interesting description of
this company and its captain. " On the evening of the 26th,"
he says, " Captain Wyeth, Mr Nuttall, and myself, supped with
Mr M'Kay in his lodge. I ammuch pleased with this gentle-
man ; he unites the free, frank, and open manners of the moun-
tain man, with the grace and affability of the Frenchman. But
above all, I admire the order, decorum, and strict subordination
which exists among his men ; so different from what I have been
accustomed to see in parties composed of Americans. Mr M'Kay
assures me that he had considerable difficulty in bringing his
men to the state in which they now are. The free and fearless
Indian was particularly difficult to subdue ; but steady deter-
mined perseverance and bold measures, aided by a rig'id self-
example, made them as clay in his hand, and has finally reduced
them to their present admirable condition. If they misbehave,
a commensurate punishment is sure to follow. In extreme cases
flagellation is resorted to, but it is inflicted only by the hand of
the captain ; were any other appointed to perform this office on
an Indian, the indignity would be deemed so great that nothing*
less than the blood of the individual could appease the wounded
feelings of the savage. After supper was concluded, we sat down
on a buffalo robe at the entrance of the lodge to see the Indians
at their devotions. The whole thirteen were soon collected at
the call of one whom they had chosen for their chief, and seated
with sober sedate countenances around a large fire. After re-
maining in perfect silence for perhaps fifteen minutes, the chief
commenced a harangue in a solemn and impressive tone, remind-
ing them of the object for which they were thus assembled — that
of worshipping the ' Great Spirit who made the light and the
darkness, the fire and the water,' and assured them that if they
offered up their prayers to him with but ' one tongue,' they
would certainly be accepted. He then rose from his squatting
position to his knees, and his example was followed by all the
others. In this situation he commenced a prayer, consisting of
short sentences; uttered rapidly but with great apparent fervour,



his hands clasped upon his breast, and his eyes cast upwards with
a beseeching- look towards heaven. At the conclusion of each
sentence, a choral response of a few words was made, accom-
panied frequently by low moaning*. The prayer lasted about
twenty minutes.

After its conclusion, the chief, still maintaining the same posi-
tion of his body and hands, but with his head bent to his breast,
commenced a kind of psalm or sacred song, in which the whole
company j)resently joined. The song was a simple expression
of a few sounds, no intelligible words being- uttered. It resembled
the words Ho-lia-lio-ha-lio-ha-ha-a, commencing* in a low tone,
and gradually swelling- to a full, round, and beautifully modu-
lated chorus. During the song the clasped hands of the wor-
shippers were moved rapidly across the breast, and their bodies
swung" with great energy to the time of the music. The chief
ended the song by a kind of swelling groan, which was echoed
in chorus. It was then taken up by another, and the same
routine was gone through. The whole ceremony occupied per-
haps an hour and a half; a short silence then succeeded, after
which each Indian rose from the ground, and disappeared in the
darkness with a step noiseless as that of a spectre. I think I
never was more gratified by any exhibition in my life. The
humble, subdued, and beseeching" looks of the poor untutored
beings who were calling* upon their heavenly father to forg'ive
their sins, and continue his mercies to them, and the evident
and heartfelt sincerity which characterised the Avhole scene, was
truly affecting and very impressive.

The next day being* the Sabbath, our good missionary, Mr
Jason Lee, was requested to hold a meeting*, with which he
■obligingly complied. A convenient shady spot was selected in
the forest adjacent, and the greater part of our men, as well as
the whole of Mr M 'Kay's company, including* the Indians,
attended. The usual forms of the Methodist service, to which
Mr Lee is attached, were gone through, and were followed by a
brief but excellent and appropriate exhortation by that g-entle-
man. The people were remarkably quiet and attentive, and the
Indians sat upon the ground like statues. Although not one of
them could understand a word that was said, they nevertheless
maintained the most strict and decorous silence, kneeling- when
the preacher kneeled, and rising when he rose, evidently with a
view of paying him and us a suitable respect, however much
their own notions as to the proper and most acceptable forms of
worship might have been opposed to ours. A meeting for wor-
ship in the Rocky Mountains is almost as unusual as the appear-
ance of a herd of buffalo in the settlements. A sermon was
perhaps never preached here before, but for myself I really en-
joyed the whole scene : it possessed the charm of novelty, to say
nothing of the salutary effect which I sincerely hope it may pro-



After having completed tlie fort, and raised the American flag"
"Upon it, the party on the 6th of August recommenced their
journey westward, leaving some men in charge of the building.
The company consisted now but of thirty men, several Indian
women, and one hundred and sixteen horses. Having left most
of the fresh buffalo meat brought in by the hunting party in
the fort for the subsistence of the small garrison, they had to be
contented with the old dry meat they had carried for many
weeks in their hampers, varied with the flesh of a grizzly bear,
or any such animal which good fortune might send across their
path. Nor was this the worst, for on the very day after leaving
the fort, having travelled from sunrise over an arid plain covered
with jagged masses of lava and twisted wormwood bushes, and
where not a drop of water was to be seen, they began to suffer
dreadfully from thirst. Every man kept a bullet or smooth
stone in his mouth, mumbling it to provoke the saliva. At last
one of the men, a mulatto, "cast himself resolutely from his
horse to the ground, and declared that he would lie there till he
died ; ' there was no water in this horrid country, and he might
as well die here as go farther.' Some of us tried to infuse a little
courage into him, but it proved of no avail, and each was too
much occupied with his own particular grief to use his tongue
much in persuasion ; so we left him to his fate.

Soon after nightfall, some signs of water were seen in a small
valley to our left, and upon ascending it, the foremost of the
party found a delightful little cold spring ; but they soon ex-
hausted it, and then commenced, with axes and knives, to dig
it out and enlarge it. By the time that Mr Nuttall and myself
arrived, they had excavated a large space, which was filled to
overflowing with muddy water. We did not wait for it to settle,
however, but throwing ourselves flat upon the ground, drank
until we were ready to burst. The tales which I had read of
suffering travellers in the Arabian deserts then recurred with
some force to my recollection, and I thought I could, though in
a very small measure, appreciate their sufferings by deprivation,
and their unmingled delight and satisfaction in the opportunity
of assuaging them.

Poor Jim, the mulatto man, was found by one of the people
who went back in search of him lying where he had first fallen,
and, either in a real or pretended swoon, still obstinate about
dying, and scarcely heeding the assurances of the other that
water was within a mile of him. He was, however, at length
dragged and carried into camp, and soused head foremost into
the mud puddle, where he drank until his eyes seemed ready to
"burst from his head, and he was lifted out and laid dripping and
flaccid upon the ground."

The ground over which the party was travelling, was becom-
ing more and more rugged and rocky. They entered a defile
between the mountains, about five hundred yards wide, covered



like the STirrounding' country with pines ; and as they proceeded^
the timber grew so closely, added to a thick undergrowth of"
hushes, that it appeared almost impossible to proceed with their
horses. The farther they advanced the more their difficulties
seemed to increase ; obstacles of various kinds impeded their
prog-ress — fallen trees, their branches tangled and matted tog'e-
ther ; large rocks and deep ravines ; holes in the ground, into
which their animals would be precipitated without the possibility
of avoiding" them ; and a hundred other difficulties.

After travelling" for six miles throug-h this defile, two of the
party. Captain Wyeth and the experienced hunter Richardson,
set out to explore the foreground, and look for a pass throug-h
the mountains. They returned next morning- with the mortify-
ing- intelligence that no pass could be found. They had climbed
to the very summit of the highest peaks above the snow and the
reach of vegetation, and the only prospect they had was a con-
fused mass of huge angular rocks, over which a wild g-oat could

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of useful and entertaining tracts (Volume v.5-6) → online text (page 18 of 59)