Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell

Ross Cox—I

On the 17th of October, 1811, the ship Beaver, Captain Cornelius Sowles, sailed from New York for the mouth of the Columbia River. She carried one partner, six clerks, and a number of artisans and voyageurs, of the Pacific Fur Company, an association of which John Jacob Astor was the chief proprietor. Among the clerks on this ship was Ross Cox, who, some years later, published a work in two volumes, called The Columbia River, or Scenes and Adventures During a Residence of Six rears on the Western Side of the Rocky Mountains among Various Tribes of Indians Hitherto Unknown, Together with a Tourney Across the American Continent.

Cox was a British subject, but, like many of his compatriots, was eager to secure an appointment in Mr. Astor's company, for he was captivated by the love of novelty, and by the hope of speedily realizing an independence in the new country that was being opened.

It will be remembered that, for about a hundred years after its charter had been granted, the Hudson's Bay Company made little effort to extend into the interior the trading-posts which it, alone, had the privilege of establishing on the shores of the Hudson's Bay and its tributary rivers. True, trading-posts had been established in the interior, but chiefly by the French traders, who had practically possessed the country until the close of the French and Indian War. Then came the founding of the Northwest Fur Company of Canada, before long a formidable rival to the Hudson's Bay Company. It was conducted on the wiser plan of giving each one of its employees the chance to rise and become a partner, provided only his success justified the promotion. The Hudson's Bay Company, on the other hand, hired its men and paid them regularly, but offered no inducements to extra exertion on the part of its officers. The result could not be doubtful; the new company pressed the old one hard; and consolidation at length took place between the two.

In the early part of the last century, John Jacob Astor, whose fur trade with the interior had not been altogether satisfactory, determined to explore the northwest coast, and proposed to the Northwest Company to join him in establishing a trading-post on the Columbia River. The proposition was declined. Nevertheless, in 180g, Astor formed the Pacific Fur Company, and needing able and experienced traders, he induced a number of men connected with the Northwest Company to leave that establishment and join him. Among these were Alexander M'Kay, who had been a companion of Sir Alexander Mackenzie in earlier days.

Astor's plan was to' establish posts on the northwest coast, to which each year a vessel should carry goods for the Indian trade, and having discharged her cargo at the mouth of the Columbia River, should take on board the furs of the year's trade, and thence proceed to China; selling her furs there, she should load with the products of that country and return to New York.

The first vessel fitted out by the Pacific Fur Company was the ill-fated "Tonquin," commanded by Captain Jonathan Thorn. She sailed from New York in 1810, with a number of partners, clerks, and artisans, and with a large cargo of goods for the Indian trade; and about the same time a party under W. P. Hunt and Donald Mackenzie left St. Louis to cross the continent to the mouth of the Columbia.

The "Beaver" was the next of these annual ships to sail. She rounded the Horn, and touched at the Sandwich Islands, where a number of the natives were shipped as laborers for the post, and on the 8th of May the ship's company found themselves opposite the mouth of the Columbia River. They crossed the bar without accident and, after a voyage of six months and twenty-two days, cast anchor in Baker's Bay.

The accounts which they received from their friends at Astoria were very discouraging. There had been frequent quarrels between the captain of the "Tonquin" and his passengers. The captain was a man of great daring, but harsh and arbitrary in manner, and very ready to quarrel with his British passengers. His obstinacy resulted in the loss of several men at the mouth of the Columbia; and the chief mate of the vessel, in consequence of a dispute with the captain, left her, and obtained an assignment to command a little schooner built by the company. The "Tonquin," with M'Kay and Lewis, one of the clerks on board, dropped down to the mouth of the Columbia and proceeded northward, to go as far as Cooke's River, on a trading excursion.

In the meantime, the overland parties, under the command of Mackenzie, M'Lellan, Hunt, and Crooks, after great suffering, reached the fort.

The fate of the "Tonquin" was learned in the month of August, 1811, from a party of Indians from Gray's Harbor. They came to the Columbia for fishing, and told the Chinooks that the "Tonquin" had been cut off by one of the northern tribes, and every soul massacred. This is what seems to have happened. The "Tonquin," somewhere in the neighborhood of Nootka, cast anchor, and M' Kay began to trade with the natives, who were perfectly willing to part with their furs. One of the principal men, however, having been detected in some small theft, was struck by the captain, and in revenge the Indians formed a conspiracy to take possession of the vessel. The interpreter learned of this, and told M'Kay, who warned the captain of the intended attack; but he only laughed at the information, and made no preparations for it. The Indians continued to visit the ship, and without arms. The day before the vessel was to leave, two large canoes, each containing about twenty men, appeared alongside. They had some furs in their canoes and were allowed to come on board. Soon three more canoes followed; and the officers of the watch, seeing that a number of others were leaving the shore, warned Captain Thorn of the circumstances. He immediately came on the quarter-deck, accompanied by Mr. M'Kay and the interpreter. The latter, on observing that they all wore short cloaks or mantles of skin, which was by no means a general custom, at once knew their designs were hostile and told Mr. M'Kay of his suspicions. That gentleman immediately apprised Captain Thorn of the circumstances, and begged him to lose no time in clearing the ship of intruders. This caution was, however, treated with contempt by the captain, who remarked, that with the arms they had on board they would be more than a match for three times the number. The sailors in the meantime had all come on the deck, which was crowded with Indians, who completely blocked up the passages, and obstructed the men in the performance of their various duties. The captain requested them to retire, to which they paid no attention. He then told them he was about going to sea, and had given orders to the men to raise the anchor; that he hoped they would go away quietly; but if they refused, he should be compelled to force their departure. He had scarcely finished when, at a signal given by one of the chiefs, a loud and frightful yell was heard from the assembled savages, who commenced a sudden and simultaneous attack on the officers and crew with knives, bludgeons, and short sabres which they had concealed under their robes.

"M'Kay was one of the first attacked. One Indian gave him a severe blow with a bludgeon, which partially stunned him; upon which he was seized by five or six others, who threw him overboard into a canoe alongside, where he quickly recovered and was allowed to remain for some time uninjured.

"Captain Thorn made an ineffectual attempt to reach the cabin for his firearms, but was overpowered by numbers. His only weapon was a jack-knife, with which he killed four of his savage assailants by ripping up their bellies, and mutilated several others. Covered with wounds, and exhausted from the loss of blood, he rested himself for a moment by leaning on the tiller wheel, when he received a dreadful blow from a weapon called a pautumaugan, on the back part of the head, which felled him to the deck. The death-dealing knife fell from his hand, and his savage butchers, after extinguishing the few sparks of life that still remained, threw his mangled body overboard.

"On seeing the captain's fate, our informant, who was close to him, and who had hitherto escaped uninjured, jumped into the water and was taken into a canoe by some women, who partially covered his body with mats. He states that the original intention of the enemy was to detain Mr. M'Kay a prisoner, and after securing the vessel to give him his liberty, on obtaining a ransom from Astoria. But on finding the resistance made by the captain and crew, the former of whom had killed one of their principal chiefs, their love of gain gave way to revenge, and they resolved to destroy him. The last time the ill-fated" gentleman was seen, his head was hanging over the side of a canoe, and three savages, armed with pautumaugans, were battering out his brains.

"In the meantime the devoted crew, who had maintained the unequal conflict with unparalleled bravery, became gradually overpowered. Three of them, John Anderson, the boatswain; John Weekes, the carpenter; [and] Stephen Weekes, who had narrowly escaped at the Columbia, succeeded after a desperate struggle in gaining possession of the cabin, the entrance to which was securely fastened inside. The Indians now became more cautious, for they well knew there were plenty of firearms below; and they had already experienced enough of the prowess of the three men while on deck, and armed only with hand-spikes, to dread approaching them while they had more mortal weapons at their command.

"Anderson and his two companions seeing their commander and the crew dead and dying about them, and that no hope of escape remained, and feeling, moreover, the uselessness of any further opposition, determined on taking a terrible revenge. Two of them, therefore, set about laying a train to the powder magazine, while the third addressed some Indians from the windows, who were in canoes, and gave them to understand that if they were permitted to depart unmolested in one of the ship's boats they would give them quiet possession of the vessel without firing a shot; stipulating, however, that no canoe should remain near them while getting into the boat. The anxiety of the barbarians to obtain possession of the plunder, and their disinclination to risk any more lives, induced them to embrace this proposition with eagerness, and the pinnace was immediately brought astern. The three heroes having by this time perfected their dreadful arrangements, and ascertained that no Indian was watching them, gradually lowered themselves from the cabin windows into the boat; and having fired the train, quickly pushed off toward the mouth of the harbor, no obstacle being interposed to prevent their departure.

"Hundreds of the enemy now rushed on deck to seize the long-expected prize, shouting yells of victory; but their triumph was of short duration. Just as they had burst open the cabin door, an explosion took place, which, in an instant, hurled upward of two hundred savages into eternity, and dreadfully injured as many more. The interpreter, who had by this time reached land, states he saw many mutilated bodies floating near the beach, while heads, arms and legs, together with fragments of the ship, were thrown to a considerable distance on the shore.

"The first impression of the survivors was, that the Master of Life had sent forth the Evil Spirit from the waters to punish them for their cruelty to the white people. This belief, joined to the consternation occasioned by the shock, and the reproaches and lamentations of the wives and other relatives of the sufferers, paralyzed for a time the exertions of the savages and favored the attempt of Anderson and his brave comrades to escape. They rowed hard for the mouth of the harbor with the intention, as is supposed, of coasting along the shore to the Columbia; but after passing the bar, a head-wind and flowing tide drove them back and compelled them to land late at night in a small cove, where they fancied themselves free from danger, and where, weak from the loss of blood and the harassing exertions of the day, they fell into a profound sleep." Here they were captured, and a little later killed.

Such is Cox's account of the destruction of the "Tonquin," obtained, we may presume, from the interpreter. Other accounts of the same event agree with it in its main facts, though there is some question as to who it was who blew up the ship, some narrators believing that it was Stephen Weekes, while others think that it was Lewis, the clerk.

As if the spirits of the newly arrived traders had not been sufficiently damped by the story of the "Tonquin," an added misfortune followed the next day. This was the return of one of the parties that had started overland, some to trade, others to carry despatches to the east. These men had been driven back by an encounter with Indians, and after great difficulties and much suffering, reached the post again.

On the 28th of June, 1812, a party of nearly a hundred men, well supplied with trade goods, started in canoes up the Columbia. They went well prepared to meet the Indians, each man carrying a musket and forty rounds of ball cartridges, and each also wearing leathern armor, "a kind of shirt made out of the skin of the elk, which reached from the neck to the knees. It was perfectly arrow-proof, and at eighty or ninety yards impenetrable by a musket bullet. Besides the muskets, numbers had daggers, short swords, and pistols; and when armed cap-a-pie we presented a formidable appearance." Metal armor, of course, was unknown to the Indians, but shields and body armor were common to many tribes. This was of several kinds, sometimes made of rows of overlapping plates of ivory or bone, of wood in the form of slats or rods, held in place by hide, or of coats, helmets, and so on, of hardened hide. Between 1840 and 1850 trappers on the prairie sometimes hung about their necks, to protect the front of their bodies, the hides of mule-deer dressed with the hair on. These skins, when wet, would stop an arrow. After the coming of the white men, a few suits, or portions of suits, of armor came into possession of one or more of the plains tribes, were highly valued by them, used for a long time, and gave origin to a personal name now common among the plains tribes—Iron Shirt.

At the portage every precaution was taken to guard against surprises. Five officers were stationed at each end of the portage, and several others, with twenty-five men, were scattered along it at short distances from one another. This was especially necessary at the foot of the first rapids, where the portage was three or four miles long, the path narrow and dangerous, and in some places obstructed.

The ascent of the river, over falls and rapids, was very laborious. The boats had to be dragged up part of the way, and the labor was hard and long-continued. A little negligence by some of the men who were at the upper end of the portage resulted in a small trouble, for, while they wandered a short distance from the goods, two Indians endeavored to carry off an entire bale. It was too heavy for them, and they were about to open and carry away the contents, when two men, carrying burdens, arrived and gave the alarm. The Indians attacked the men, but the disturbance called back the officers, and the Indians fled. "A shot was fired at them by our best marksman, who was told merely to wing one, which he did with great skill, by breaking his left arm, at upward of a hundred yards distance. The fellow gave a dreadful shout on receiving the ball, but still continued his flight with his comrade, until we lost sight of them."

Keeping on up the rapids, they saw other Indians, some of whom were on horseback, and much more attractive to the eye than the canoe Indians seen farther down the river. From the fishing Indians they purchased salmon in considerable numbers.

Before this they had reached the high, volcanic, treeless country, and had found rattlesnakes; and here an odd incident happened to one of the men, named La Course, which might have been fatal. Cox says: "This man had stretched himself on the ground, after the fatigue of the day, with his head resting on a small package of goods, and quickly fell asleep. While in this situation I passed him, and was almost petrified at seeing a large rattlesnake moving from his side to his left breast. My first impulse was to alarm La Course; but an old Canadian whom I had beckoned to the spot requested me to make no noise, alleging it would merely cross the body and go away. He was mistaken, for on reaching the man's shoulder, the serpent deliberately coiled itself, but did not appear to meditate an attack. Having made signs to several others, who joined us, I was determined that two men should advance a little in front to divert the attention of the snake, while one should approach La Course behind, and with a long stick endeavor to remove it from his body. The snake, on observing the men advance in front, instantly raised its head, darted out its forked tongue, and shook its rattles; all indications of anger. Every one was now in a state of feverish agitation as to the fate of poor La Course, who still lay slumbering, unconscious of his danger; when the man behind, who had procured a stick seven feet in length, suddenly placed one end of it under the coiled' reptile, and succeeded in pitching it upwards of ten feet from the man's body. A shout of joy was the first intimation La Course received of his wonderful escape, while in the meantime the man with the stick pursued the snake, which he killed. It was three feet six inches long."

Toward the end of July the party camped at the mouth of the Walla Walla River, and met a number of Indians of that tribe. Twenty horses were purchased for Robert Stewart's party, and its eleven members left the next day for St. Louis. The Walla Wallas were kind and gentle, yet dignified; as were also the Indians of the Pierced-Nose tribe, then called by the French Les Nez Perces, a name which they still retain. Their houses were large; some square, others oblong, and some conical; they were covered with mats fixed on poles, and varied from twenty to seventy feet in length. These people seemed well to do, and owned many horses, twenty-five of which the traders bought; and from this time on some of them proceeded by land, while the others dragged, paddled, or poled the canoes up the stream. It was at a Pierced-Nose village, at no very great distance from the Columbia, on Lewis River, that the party left their boats and canoes, cacheing them in the willow brush, and leaving them in charge of the chief. Here they secured about fifty horses for pack animals, and a few for riding, but not nearly enough to give a horse to each man. Travelling along up the stream, the thirty-two men who were in Cox's company started for the country of the Spokanes. They had the usual incidents of travel—trouble with pack-horses, lack of grass for their animals, often lack of water for themselves; but before they had gone very far an adventure happened to the author which made it impossible for him to chronicle the doings of his party.

On the 17th of August they stopped for noon, and turned their horses out to graze in very good feed. Cox went apart some distance, and after feasting on the fruit that grew here, lay down and went to sleep. When he awoke, the sun was low and no sound was to be heard. His companions had vanished. It afterward appeared that they had started in three sections, at a little distance from one another, and that each division of the command supposed Cox to be with one of the other divisions. It was not until toward night that his absence was discovered; and in the meantime he had awakened and set off in pursuit of the party, but soon lost the trail. He was lightly dad in a shirt and pair of cotton trousers and moccasins. He had no arms, no knife, no means of making a fire. The first night out he plucked a quantity of grass, covered himself with that, and slept through the night. On the following day he journeyed eastward, and late in the evening saw, only a mile from him, two horsemen rapidly riding to the east. They were near enough so that he could see that they belonged to his party. He raced after them, shouted, waved his shirt, and did everything possible to attract their attention, but they did not see him. By this time his moccasins had absolutely gone to pieces, and this night the labor of pulling the grass cut his hands. It was two days since he had eaten. Birds and deer were numerous, and close to him fish were seen in the waters, but he could not catch them. That night, however, he found an abundant supply of cherries, which gave him a hearty supper; but the howling of wolves and "growling of bears" kept him awake much of the night. The following day he looked for horse tracks, and at night returned to the place where he had slept before. His feet were now so much lacerated by prickly-pears and the stones over which he had walked, that he was obliged to make bandages for them from the legs of his trousers. His fear of wolves and bears grew; and perhaps the man's weak condition tempted the animals, for he tells us that they came quite close to him. As he wandered on, he occasionally saw horse tracks, but always old, yet showing that there were people in the country. On the night of the 25th, he found no water, and as he was about to lie down to sleep, he found that he was surrounded by snakes of every kind. "This was a peculiarly, soul-trying moment," he tells us. "I had tasted no fruit since the morning before, and after a painful day's march under a burning sun, could not procure a drop of water to allay my feverish thirst. I was surrounded by a murderous brood of serpents, and ferocious beasts of prey; and without even the consolation of knowing when such misery might have a probable termination. I might truly say with the royal psalmist that "the snares of death compassed me round about." But he lived through it. All the next day he travelled without water, and when at night he came to a stream, he was so weak that he fell into it, and was almost carried away, but caught himself by an overhanging bough and regained the shore. Here he found food and ate it eagerly. "On looking about for a place to sleep, I observed lying on the ground the hollow trunk of a large pine, which had been destroyed by lightning. I retreated into the cavity; and having covered myself completely with large pieces of loose bark, quickly fell asleep. My repose was not of long duration; for at the end of about two hours I was awakened by the growling of a bear, which had re moved part of the bark covering and was leaning over me with his snout, hesitating as to the means he should adopt to dislodge me; the narrow limits of the trunk which confined my body prevented him from making the attack with advantage. I instantly sprang up, seized my stick, and uttered a loud cry, which startled him, and caused him to recede a few steps; when he stopped and turned about apparently doubtful whether he would commence an attack. He determined on an assault; but feeling that I had not sufficient strength to meet such an unequal enemy, I thought it prudent to retreat, and accordingly scrambled up an adjoining tree. My flight gave fresh impulse to his courage, and he commenced ascending after me. I succeeded, however, in gaining a branch, which gave me a decided advantage over him; and from which I was enabled to annoy his muzzle and claws in such a manner with my stick as effectually to check his progress. After scraping the bark some time with rage and disappointment, he gave up the task, and retired to my late dormitory, of which he took possession. The fear of falling off, in case I was overcome by sleep, induced me to make several attempts to descend; but each attempt aroused my ursine sentinel; and, after many ineffectual efforts, I was obliged to remain there during the rest of the night. I fixed myself in that part of the trunk from which the principal grand branches forked, and which prevented me from falling during my fitful slumbers. A little after sunrise, the bear quitted the trunk, shook himself, 'cast a longing, lingering look' toward me, and slowly disappeared in search of his morning repast. After waiting some time, apprehensive of his return, I descended and resumed my journey through the woods."

A few hours later Cox came upon a well-beaten horse-trail, with fresh tracks both of hoofs and human feet. Following this he came that evening to a spot where the party had camped the preceding night; and about a large fire which was still burning found the half-picked bones of grouse and ducks, on which he made a hearty meal, the first flesh he had tasted in a long time. For two days more he followed the trail, on the second day finding fruit. The tracks grew constantly fresher, but the bandages of his feet were constantly wearing out, and, with the exception of his shirt, he was almost naked. At evening he came to a fork in the trail, with fresh tracks on both branches. One led up a hill, the other into a valley. Cox took the upper one, but as it was growing dark, feared that he might not find water at night, and turned back and followed the trail into the valley. Before he had gone far he thought he heard the neighing of a horse, and hurrying onward, before long he saw several horses feeding in a meadow on the other side of a stream. He crossed, and one of the horses approached him, and to the weak and starving man the good beast looked like a real friend. A little farther on he saw smoke, and then two women appeared, who at sight of him fled to a shelter at the farther end of the meadow. From this at once emerged two men, who came running toward him in the most friendly manner. They carried him in their arms to their home; washed and dressed his wounds, roasted some roots and boiled salmon for him. In fact, they treated him as if he had been a relation rather than a stranger. The men talked with him in signs, and gave him to understand that they knew who he was, and that he had been lost and that they with other Indians and white men had been searching for him. To a man who had been wandering in the desert for fourteen days, the sight of these Indians, and the harsh, guttural sounds by which they expressed their thoughts, were perfectly delightful. Full, warm, and dad, for the first time in two weeks, he slept that night as he had never slept before.

The next day the men took him in a canoe across the Coeur d'Alene River, and having given him deer-skin clothing, they set off on horseback to the eastward.

After seven hours they came to where some of the Canadians were at work getting wood. Francois Gardepie joined them just before they reached the tents, and taking Cox for an Indian, spoke to him. It was not until he replied in French that he recognized him, and there was much rejoicing in all the camp when he joined his people. The party had supposed that he had long perished; for considering his youth and his inexperience in the Indian country, the oldest voyageurs had given him up after the sixth day.