Smoke Signals

May/Jun 2012

Staff Writer

 Blowin' Smoke


                                     WHEELS IN THE WILDERNESS

The names of the original mountain men are often recalled during conversations around rendezvous camp fires. Many times the names of what today are the most famous are discussed: Meek, Bridger, Carson, Williams, Wolfskill, Young, Yount, Fitzpatrick, Glass, Smith, and so on. These were men of daring and courage, supposedly unexcelled in the knowledge of survival and trapping. But there were other mountain men as well practiced, as well admired by their peers, and perhaps even more experienced. These were men widely known during the fur trade days as ones to ride with, men who were often credited with teaching some of the now better known men. And who knows why one man should be longer remembered than another. Be that as it may, it really pays off to research the journals, diaries, and letters from the era. Of course there are shortcuts that can be taken by reading what has already been written by biographers and historians.

To illustrate a point, let’s take for example, Robert, “Doc” Newell. Among other authors, LeRoy Hafen, T.C. Elliot, Dorothy Johansen, and Francis F. Victor have written about him. Invariably he is portrayed as an upstanding gentleman, unwilling to abrogate his principles no matter the circumstances. He was not the fiction writer’s depiction of the typical heroic figure. Peter Burnett, who was a fellow Oregon pioneer and later the governor of California, described his friend thusly:

“He was of medium height, stout frame , and fine face. He was full of humanity, memory, an good will, genial feeling, and frankness. He possessed a remarkable memory, and, though slow of speech, his narrations were most interesting.”

Another friend, Jesse Applegate, described him this way:”Though Newell came to the mountains from the State of Ohio in his youth, he brought with him to his wild life some of the fruits of early culture which he always retained. Though brave among the bravest he never made a reckless display of that quality, and in battlefields as in councils, his conduct was always marked by prudence and good sense. Though fond of mirth and jollity and the life of social reunions, he never degenerated from the behavior and instincts of a gentleman. Though his love of country amounted to a passion and his mountain life was spent in opposition and rivalry to the Hudson’s Bay Company, he never permitted his prejudices to blind his judgement, or by word or act to do injustice to an adversary.”

Newell was well traveled in the mountains and attended several rendezvous. Among the companions he noted in his journal are Meek, Jed Smith, Robert Campbell, Bridger, Jackson, the Sublettes, Moses Harris (who at one time tried to murder Newell), Carson, Fraeb, Fitzpatrick, and others. He was at Fort Hall often enough to be well known there and trusted. He was referenced in the journals of several men as being at the sites of numerous tangles with the Blackfeet. In one Meek tells of a tussle Doc had with a wounded warrior he thought dead. Entwining his hand in the Indian’s thick hair in order to scalp him, he was surprised by the fellow suddenly coming around and grappling him. The two fought furiously for a time, Doc’s fingers so entangled in the hair that he could not let go. But eventually he won out, of course.

In his journal Doc mentions that in early August, 1830,on the Wind River, he met Mr. Sublette with equipment from St. Louis. It should be noted that this was the first time wagons were brought to the mountains over the country that would become the Oregon Trail. In 1831, Doc was with Sublette and Bridger on the Tongue River when the Crow Indians stole about 300 head of their horses (Newell puts it at 57). When it was discovered,100 men of the party gave chase on foot, covering 200 miles in three days and nights. With another man (Godin) Doc crawled into the Crow camp and moved the horses across the creek. The trappers then attacked the Indians and recovered their horses.

Doc was at the 1840 rendezvous. He noted that times were hard and that there were “no beaver and everything dull.” Some missionaries had come out with Bridger (who transported some supplies to rendezvous), Doc agreed to take them, with their wagons, to Fort Hall. At the fort he purchased their wagons and Joel Walker (brother to Joseph Walker) bought two, and, in Doc’s words, “on the 27th of September 1840 with two waggons and my family I left fort hall for the Columbia and with some little Dificulty I arived at Walla Walla thare I left one waggon and the other I had took down in a boat to vancouver and have it at this time on my farm about 25 miles from vancouver west.”

A Mr. Elwood Evans later gave a more detailed account of the trip as told to him by Doc. “Let me now refer to the statement of the late Dr. Robert Newell, Speaker of the House of Representatives of Oregon in 1848, a name familiar and held in high remembrance by ancient Oregonians. It is interesting for its history, and in the present occasion illustrates the difficulty, at that time, of getting to Oregon. It details the bringing of the first wagon to Fort Walla Walla, Oregon, in 1840, the Wallula of Washington Territory. The party consisted of Dr. Newell and family, Col. Jos. L. Meek and family, Caleb Wilkins of Tualatin Plains, and Frederick Ermatinger, a chief factor of the Hudon’s Bay Company. It had been regarded as the height of folly to attempt to bring wagons west of Fort Hall. The Doctor suggested the experience. Wilkins approved it and Ermatinger yielded. The Revs. Harvey Clark, A.B. Smith and P.B. Littlejohn, missionaries, had accompanied the American Fur Company’s expedition as far as Green River, where they employed Dr. Newell to pilot them to Fort Hall. On arriving there they found their animals so reduced, that they concluded to abandon their two wagons and Dr. Newell accepted them for his services as guide. In a letter from the Doctor, he says: “At the time I took the wagons, I had no idea of undertaking these missionaries for their animals, and after they had gone a month or more for Willamette and the American Fur Company had abandoned the country for good, I concluded to hitch up and try the much dreaded job of bringing a wagon to Oregon. I sold one of those wagons to Mr. Ermatinger at Fort Hall. Mr. Caleb Wilkins had a small wagon which Joel Walker had left at Fort Hall. On the 5th of August (September 27) 1840, we put out with three wagons. Joseph L. Meek drove my wagon. In a few days we began to realize the difficulty of the task before us, and found that the continual crashing of the sage under our wagons, which was in many places higher than the mules’s backs, was no joke. Seeing our animals begin to fail, we began to light up, finally threw away our wagon beds, and were quite sorry we had undertaken the job, All the consolation we had was that we broke the first sage on that road, and were too proud to eat anything but dried salmon skins after our provisions had become exhausted. In a rather rough and reduced state, we arrived at Dr. Whitman’s mission station in the Walla Walla valley, where we met that hospitable man, and kindly made welcome and feasted accordingly. On hearing me regret that I had undertaken to bring wagons, the Doctor said,’O, you will never regret it. You have broken the ice, and when others see that wagons have passed they too will pass, and in a few years the valley will be full of our people.’ The Doctor shook me heartily by the hand; Mrs. Whitman too welcomed us, and the Indians walked around the wagons, or what they called “horse canoes,” and seemed to give it up. We spent a day or so with the Doctor and then went to Fort Walla Walla, where we were kindly received by Mr. P.C. Pambrum, chief trader of Hudson’s Bay Company, superintendent of that post. On the first of October we took leave of those kind people, leaving our wagons and taking the river trail - but we proceeded slowly.”

So there it is, one part of the history of wagon wheels rumbling their way from the settlements to the mountains, through the Rockies, to the Pacific shores. Certainly they were tough men and resourceful. Men who did what they felt needed to be done as a matter of course. Mountain Men.

Ref: Leroy R. Hafen: Mountain Men and the Fur Trade vol. VIII

Bill Cunningham

NAF #006

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