It is so hard to find out the truth by looking at the past. The process of time obscures the truth and even contemporaneous writers disguise and twist out of malice or flattery. — Plutarch

Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell




Thomas J. Farnham—II

They were now in the country of the Utes, or rather, in the debatable land visited for hunting purposes by Utes, Cheyennes, Arapahoes, Shoshoni, Blackfeet, and Crows. They therefore travelled with some care, put out their fires at night, looked to their arms, and prepared to meet the foe. No Indians were seen, however; but another misfortune visited them in the loss of one of the guide's horses, poisoned by some food that it had eaten.

As they journeyed on, food again became scarce, and the travel was so difficult that they had no time to hunt, and suffered from hunger. On the Little Bear River they met a party of four French Canadians, who a few days before had been attacked by a Sioux war party on Little Snake River [of Colorado]. Here again attention is called to the difference in character of the French and the American trappers. The former are mercurial, volatile, and always merry, cheering themselves on their journeys with song; while the American trapper is watchfulness personified, and his concentration in this direction destroys all frivolity. "They seldom smile; the expression of their countenances is watchful, solemn and determined. They ride and walk like men whose breasts have so long been exposed to the bullet and arrow, that fear finds within them no resting place. If a horseman is descried in the distance, they put spurs to their animals and are at his side at once, as the result may be for death or life. No delay, no second thought, no cringing in their stirrups; but erect, firm, and with a strong arm, they seize and overcome every danger 'or perish,' say they, 'as white men should,' fighting promptly and bravely."

On parting next day—August 5—with the French and American trappers, two of Farnham's party left him. Farnham notes the kindness and free-handedness of the trappers. He had given them a little ammunition, and they sought to repay the kindness by presenting him and his party with moccasins, dressed deer and elk skins, and other articles. "Everything, even their hunting shirts upon their backs, were at our service; always kindly remarking when they made an offer of such things, that 'the country was filled with skins, and they could get a supply when they should need them." It was this same day that a man, pursuing some bears, found among the brush a prize—an excellent pack-mule, feeding quietly, and so tame as to permit him to approach within ten yards of it without even raising its head. The man prepared to catch it, when suddenly the mule "most wonderfully, most cruelly, metamorphosed itself into an elk!—fat as marrow itself, and sufficient in weight to have fed our company for twelve days—and fled away," the man who had prepared to catch it being too astonished to shoot at it. This was unlucky, for now they had no food. Game was seen several times, but none was killed. The next day, however, a family of bears was seen, and two cubs secured. They weighed about twelve pounds apiece, and made for the party, as the author expresses it, "a filthy supper." They were trying to reach Brown's Hole, but progress was slow. For forty-eight hours after the finishing of the cubs they had no food; and then, with great regret, they killed their dog, singed and ate it. At last, after more days of hunger, they found themselves in Brown's Hole, and at Fort David Crockett.

Here there was food and to spare, and white men, traders, especially one Robinson, who traded chiefly with the Snakes. This was very likely "Uncle Jack Robinson," who died, a very old man, at Fort Bridger about 1894. He was one of the party of trappers who found the Arapahoe baby whom they named Friday.

In this "Happy Valley," which, however, was not free from incursions by the wandering enemy, the travellers spent much time, and here Farnham puts down some things that he learned concerning the Snake, Crow, Blackfeet, and Arapahoe Indians. He describes especially the pestilence which visited the Blackfeet in 1828, at which time they numbered about two thousand five hundred lodges, or families, which would perhaps mean twelve thousand five hundred people. This enumeration may perhaps refer to the Piegan Black feet alone, or to all three of the tribes of that nation.

At that time, as in later visits of this dread disease, the Blackfeet treatment was by the sweat lodge, followed by a plunge into icy water, from which often the weakened victim was unable to struggle again to the shore. At this time the Blackfoot camp, it is said, was on the banks of the Yellowstone.

A glimpse of the estimation in which the Blackfeet were held in those days is afforded by the reflection with which the author concludes his description of this scourge; for he says: "But this infliction has in no wise humanized their blood-thirsty nature. As ever before, they wage exterminating war upon the traders and trappers, and the Oregon Indians."

At Brown's Hole, Farnham met an old Snake Indian who had seen Lewis and Clark on the headwaters of the Missouri in 1805. This man was the first of his people who saw the exploring white man. "He appears to have been galloping from place to place in the office of sentinel to the Shoshoni camp, when he suddenly found himself in the very presence of the whites. Astonishment fixed him to the spot. Men with faces pale as ashes had never been seen by himself or his nation. 'The head rose high and round, the top flat; it jutted over the eyes in a thin rim; their skin was loose and flowing, and of various colors.' His fears at length overcoming his curiosity, he fled in the direction of the Indian encampment. But being seen by the whites they pursued and brought him to their camp; exhibited to him the effects of their firearms, loaded him with presents, and let him go. Having arrived among his own people, he told them he had seen men with faces pale as ashes, who were makers of thunder, lightning, etc. This information astounded the whole tribe. They had lived many years, and their ancestors had lived many more, and there were many legends which spoke of many wonderful things; but a tale like this they had never heard. A council was therefore assembled to consider the matter. The man of strange words was summoned before it; and he rehearsed, in substance, what he had before told to others, but was not believed. 'All men were red, and therefore he could not have seen men as pale as ashes. The Great Spirit made the thunder and lightning; he therefore could not have seen men of any color that could produce them. He had seen nothing; he had lied to his chief, and should die.' At this stage of the proceedings, the culprit produced some of the presents which he had received from the pale men. These being quite as new to them as pale faces were, it was determined that he should have the privilege of leading his judges to the place where he declared he had seen these strange people; and if such were found there, he should be exculpated; if not, these presents were to be considered as 'conclusive evidence against him, that he dealt with evil spirits, and that he was worthy of death by the arrows of his kinfolks.' The pale men—the thunder makers—were found, and were witnesses of the poor fellow's story. He was released, and has ever since been much honored and loved by his tribe, and every white man in the mountains. He is now about eighty years old, and poor. But as he is always about Fort David Crockett, he is never permitted to want."

At Brown's Hole arrived Paul Richardson, who was returning from the borders of Oregon to St. Louis. He had guided some missionaries and others, from the Western States to that unknown region, and among them a man whose purpose it was to conquer the territory of California. The missionaries were. Messrs. Munger and Griffith, and their wives were with them. Influenced by Richardson's story, which was very unfavorable to Oregon as a place of residence, two of Farnham's men determined to return to the Mississippi Valley. This left him only Blair, an old man, and the useless person whose life he had saved, as companions for the long journey before him. The event was disheartening. Farnham, however, was a man of determination, and was not to be turned from his purpose of striving, at least, to reach the mouth of the Colorado River that season. He therefore engaged a Snake Indian to pilot him to Fort Hall, about two hundred miles distant; the compensation offered for the service being fifty loads of ammunition, and three bunches of beads. One of the melancholy things of continuing the journey was the necessity of parting with Kelly, the trapper who had bravely and effectively guided them from Fort William to Brown's Hole. When the last farewells were said, they started off, following the Green River, which here is called Sheetskadee; and on a tributary of this stream, a day or two later, Farnham lost his Pueblo mare—a prairie, and not a mountain, horse—which, after escaping many dangers in climbing the rough mountains to the eastward, at last fell over a cliff about six hundred feet high and was killed.

When starting out from Fort David Crockett, they had been ill supplied with food, of which a considerable part was dog meat, but Jim, the Indian guide, occasionally killed an antelope, which kept the party from suffering. While still travelling up the river, they met a free trapper, named Madison Gordon, who told them the usual story of few beaver, and little game; and he declared that he purposed to move West, and to begin farming in the valley of the Willamette, which he averred was the purpose also of a large number of his fellow trappers. One morning, as they were packing, the guide detected in the distance, down the river, people coming. Who these might be they did not know. They had visions of war parties of Crows, Sioux, and Blackfeet, and prepared for the attack; put new caps on their rifles, mounted, and took up a favorable position. But before long their guide rode out from behind their brush-wood camp and hurried his horse toward the stranger. This man proved to be the celebrated bear killer, Meek—perhaps the man whose story is told in a book entitled, The River of the West, which gives much of the history of the early settlements on the Columbia River. A day or two after this, food must have again become scarce with them, for the author says, quite incidentally, "at sunset our camp kettle was bubbling over the bones of a pelican at the 'Steamboat Spring.' Think of the joy of eating boiled pelican! What more nauseous dish can be imagined. Crossing over into the valley of Bear River, they hurried on their way, frequently made uneasy by finding the tracks of people, and even by seeing camp fires at night, and at length reached Fort Hall, and full meals, in which fresh buffalo tongue figured largely.

After a short stay at Fort Hall, Farnham and his people, under the guidance of an Indian, set out to cross the burnt plains of Snake River. Two or three days out the party was joined by a Swiss trapper who had been eight years in the mountains. He had been a student in a seminary, but had deserted that training-ground for the priesthood and had come to America and taken to the mountains.

The wormwood deserts of the Snake River were hard enough on the travellers, but harder still on their animals, which had little to eat. Digger Indians were sometimes met; and when they reached the Boisais River they found Indians in considerable numbers engaged in taking salmon for their winter provisions. They were pleasant, hospitable, and ready to trade provisions, or even horses; and here the party renewed their stock. It was here too that their guide left them, explaining that now that he had come to the country of another people, it would not be good manners to act as guide through their land. Left without guidance in a country cut up with trails, they were obliged to depend on themselves, but at length succeeded in hiring a number of Bonak [Bannock] Indians to guide them to the fort, which they were now approaching.

The fort at Boisais was as hospitable as all the others had been. This post was built in 1832 by the Hudson's Bay Company to counteract the influence of Wyeth's Fort Hall, the building of which is described in J. K. Townsend's sketches. At this time it was commanded by Mr. Payette. The stay at Boisais was not long, and the travellers moved on over a country sometimes easy to traverse, again extremely difficult. In some places all the party walked, except the worthless Smith, who insisted on making his unfortunate beast carry him over the roughest ground. A few days later they reached the Columbia River, and crossing over found themselves before the mission, in the presence of Dr. Whitman. Mr. Munger and Mr. Hall were also there. A pretty picture is painted of the life and work of this mission among the Skyuse Indians, whom they were endeavoring to teach the ordinary occupations of civilized life.

At the Dalles Farnham saw some Chinooks, and declared that they flattened their heads more and are more stupid than any other tribe on the Columbia.

He tells us that these Indians subsist on the acorns of the white oak and on fish. For winter the fish is dried, and then pounded to powder and mixed with the oil of the leaf fat of the fish, and packed away in flag sacks; thus making a sort of fish pemmican. Although no salt is used in this preparation, it remains good through the winter. The acorns, gathered as soon as they fall to the ground, are buried in sand, which is kept constantly saturated with water, where they remain till spring. This soaking is said to remove their bitter flavor.

Passing on down the Columbia, Farnham passed various settlements and farms, one of which belonged to Thomas McKay, son of the McKay who figured with John Jacob Astor in the doings of the Pacific Fur Company. McKay was building a grist mill, and it was well advanced toward completion. The mother of McKay was a Cree or Chippewa Indian. This is the McKay spoken of by Townsend.

It was just at this time that the British, as well as the Americans, were beginning to take possession of Oregon, and what is now Washington. It had long been occupied by the Hudson's Bay Company; but, on the other hand, many Americans had traded and settled there; and the American settlers were urgent that they should be protected, declaring this to be a portion of their country's domain. The settlers held a meeting while Farnham was there, and handed him a petition, signed by sixty-seven citizens of the United States, and persons desirous of becoming such, the substance of which was a description of the country, their unprotected situation, and a prayer that the Federal Government would extend over them the protection and institutions of the Republic.

Farnham's original intention was to explore Oregon during the winter then beginning, and during the following summer to return to the States with the American fur traders. Already the rainy season had begun, however, and it was uncertain whether the traders would return to the States next year. That plan had to be given up. Finally he determined to take ship from the mouth of the Columbia River either for New York or California, as the opportunity might offer.

At Fort Vancouver he found a number of Hudson's Bay people, with whom the time passed very pleasantly. Then, again taking to his canoe, he passed down to the mouth of the river, where he found the good ship "Vancouver," Captain Duncan; and shortly after, passing out to sea, Farnham's travels in the great Anahuac were ended.