Malachite’s Big Hole
Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth was born January 29, 1802 near Cambridge, Massachusetts in his father’s Fresh Pond Hotel. As a young man he joined his father in managing the hotel and at the age of 22 he married his cousin Elizabeth Jarvis Stone. During the winter, which was the hotel’s off season, he worked to stock the hotel’s ice house with ice cut from Fresh Pond.
About 1825 Wyeth devised a horse-drawn ice cutter which allowed uniform squares to easily be cut and broken apart. An ice trade historian estimates that this invention reduced costs of harvesting winter ice from thirty cents per ton to ten cents per ton (Cummings). The invention was so successful that Wyeth cut ice for Frederic Tudor, a regional ice supplier, and that after the winter of 1827-28 Tudor employed Wyeth at an annual salary of $1,200. Ultimately, this invention allowed Boston to become an ice export center with ice sent throughout the South, the Caribbean and as far as Calcutta, India. The financial freedom granted Wyeth by this employment allowed Wyeth to quit the management of his father’s hotel.
However under Tudor, Wyeth was limited by lack of creative and entrepreneurial opportunities. Wyeth soon became interested in opportunities in the Oregon Country, and enrolled in Hall Kelley’s “American Society for Encouraging the Settlement of Oregon,” founded in 1829. By June, 1831 Kelley had formulated plans for establishing two commercial and agricultural settlements on the Columbia River. Wyeth spent considerable time and effort supporting the effort, but as the expedition was scaled back, and then the planned departure time postponed, Wyeth became convinced that nothing would come of Kelley’s proposal and he determined to take action on his own.
Wyeth organized a joint-stock company, to trade for furs on the Columbia River. The plan was for a five year expedition, and after the first year, a ship would sail to the northwest coast to pick up a cargo furs. There was not much public enthusiasm for the venture and the people of Cambridge considered the enterprise to be “extremely notional.” Wyeth spent considerable of his own funds, assigned his ice-cutter patents, and even mortgaged his home to support the venture.
On March 11, 1832 , Wyeth and twenty men left Boston. By the time the men reached St. Louis in mid-April, it was apparent that Wyeth did not have the experience or knowledge to successfully venture into the wilderness. At the time Wyeth’s party arrived in St. Louis, Robert Campbell and William Sublette were preparing a pack train to resupply the Rocky Mountain Fur Company at the 1832 Rendezvous. Seeing no real competitive threat from Wyeth, Campbell and Sublette allowed Wyeth’s party to travel with their pack train.
On May 12, 1832 a combined party of 80 men left Independence. The trip involved much hardship, sickness and hunger for Wyeth’s greenhorns and the experience may have been made worse by Wyeth’s own stubbornness. For example when the pack train arrived at the Laramie River, high water made it necessary construct boats and rafts to cross. Sublette and his men constructed bull boats, and advised that Wyeth do likewise. “However, Captain Wyeth was not a man easily diverted by the advice of others,” and he ordered his men to construct a raft to be guided across the swift current by a rope anchored on opposite banks. In crossing, the rope broke and the raft was carried downstream till it hit a snag where it’s cargo of irreplaceable blacksmithing tools and gunpowder was lost.” After the disastrous river crossing, the party endured additional hardships which included intermittent snows, fireless camps and an attack by Blackfoot Indians resulting in the loss of a dozen horses. The pack train arrived at the Pierre ’s Hole Rendezvous on July 8th and remained there until the 17th trading goods, supplies and alcohol.
During this time, Wyeth’s men, who were not involved in the trading, were having second thoughts about the venture. At town-hall style meeting Wyeth solicited the intentions of his men. Seven of the eighteen remaining men chose to depart, leaving Wyeth with eleven men to continue his venture.
After rendezvous, Wyeth attached his party to a brigade of west bound trappers headed by Milton Sublette and Henry Fraeb. The combined party traveled only eight miles that first day. The next morning a large caravan was seen approaching the trappers camp, however, no one was alarmed. The caravan was assumed to be the American Fur Company’s pack train which had failed to arrive in time for the rendezvous. In reality the approaching caravan was a large party of Gros Ventres Indians (closely related to the Blackfoot Indians) with whom the trappers were not on friendly terms. On initial approach, Antoine Godin, one of the trappers initiated hostilities which lead to the day-long Battle of Pierre’s Hole. Wyeth and his men stood off and did not participate in the battle, feeling that this was not their fight. After the battle, the trappers including Wyeth’s group returned to the main encampment at the rendezvous site, where they remained until July 24th, tending to the wounded and burying the dead.
Once again the trappers set out towards the Snake River, accompanied by Wyeth and his men. The brigade moved slowly, trapping and “making meat” along the way. While on the Portneuf River, Wyeth cached six loads of goods and furs. When the brigade reached the Snake River Valley, they found that the area had been recently trapped out by Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) men. The combined parties continued on down the Snake River till near its confluence with the Owyhee River. From here Wyeth’s party continued alone westward across the Blue Mountains and then down to the HBC’s Fort Walla Walla on the Columbia River.
From Fort Walla Walla, Wyeth and his men traveled downriver on a borrowed HBC barge to Fort Vancouver arriving in late October 1833. Here they learned that the ship that had been sent out to meet them had been wrecked in the South Pacific. This bad news was the breaking point for Wyeth’s remaining men. Unanimously they requested to be released from their engagement. Despite the hardships and lack of success, Wyeth remained convinced of the possibilities for commercial success in Oregon. He spent the winter of 1832-33 traveling throughout the Lower Columbia River basin and the Willamette Valley evaluating prospects for agriculture and fisheries.
Wyeth, and two men belonging to his former party that he rehired, left Fort Vancouver on March 3, 1833. Wyeth hoped to salvage a little of the previous years effort by recovering the packs of furs cached near the Portneuf River, and selling them at the 1833 Rendezvous. The men joined Francis Ermatinger’s HBC fur brigade headed for the Flathead country in what would become northwest Montana. Wyeth was unable to recover his cached goods for lack of horses.
During the previous winter Wyeth had been well treated by the Hudson ’s Bay Company while traveling in the lower Columbia River basin, and while at Fort Colville, wrote to George Simpson, Governor of Hudson’s Bay North American operations. Wyeth proposed a five year agreement with the company, with the HBC supplying men and supplies. In return Wyeth would limit his trapping activities to the area south of the Columbia River, and would deliver his entire harvest of furs to HBC posts. The HBC turned down Wyeth’s proposal.
From Fort Colville the party traveled slowly to the Missouri River, trapping as they went. In late May, Wyeth and Ermatinger were joined by a party belonging to Captain Bonneville. The combined party traveled up the Salmon River. By late June Wyeth was camped on the Upper Salmon River near Bonneville. Here Wyeth proposed another commercial partnership. Bonneville would supply men and trade goods, and Wyeth would lead the party on a trapping expedition south of the Columbia River and into California.
Bonneville appears to have initially accepted the proposal, however, quickly rescinded the agreement when it became apparent that returns from his own trapping parties would not provide sufficient capital to purchase the supplies and equipment that Wyeth would need. Wyeth continued to travel with Bonneville’s party to the 1833 Rendezvous on the Green River, where they arrived on July 17.
While at rendezvous, Wyeth wrote a letter to Ermatinger warning him that he would be robbed of both beaver and goods should he come to the rendezvous stating, “There is here a great majority of Scoundrels.” After the 1833 Rendezvous broke up, Wyeth left in the company of Milton Sublette and Thomas Fitzpatrick of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company & Christy, and some company employees bound for the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers with the years harvest of furs. For the first few days the men were accompanied by William Drummond Stewart, a Scottish noblemen and adventurer, who was returning to St. Louis after attending his first rendezvous.
While with Milton Sublette and Thomas Fitzpatrick, Wyeth was successful in convincing the partners that Wyeth could provide supplies to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company & Christy more cheaply than they were obtaining goods from William Sublette and Robert Campbell. The Rocky Mountain Fur Company was deeply in debt to William Sublette and Robert Campbell, who as suppliers to the mountains controlled both the cost of goods and supplies, and the price paid for beaver.
The Rocky Mountain Fur Company & Christy was desperate to break the stranglehold that Sublette and Campbell held it in, and Wyeth provided a means. Wyeth entered into a secret agreement with the company to provide the supplies for the 1834 Rendezvous. The party traveled together by boat down river to Fort Union, an American Fur Trading post, where they arrived in late August and were received hospitably by the post factor Kenneth McKenzie.
McKenzie had been pursuing his own secret project “the Cincinnati Project” which had only recently come to fruition. In order to evade federal laws regarding importation of ardent spirits into Indian country, McKenzie had ordered that a still be constructed at the fort. (see also Evading Liquor Laws) The still had gone into operation and using Mandan corn was producing a potent whiskey. At this point Wyeth parted from Milton Sublette and Thomas Fitzpatrick so he could hurry on to Boston to start preparations for supplying the 1834 Rendezvous. However, when he passed through Fort Leavenworth, a U.S. military facility, he apparently reported the presence of the illicit distillery at Fort Union.
Once back in Boston, Wyeth had no time to spare. With the contract from the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in hand, he had little trouble finding investors for his new venture the “Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company”. The new venture was to be much bigger than simply resupplying the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. The value of the contract represented only about twenty-five percent of the total goods Wyeth intended to take to the mountains. With the remainder of the goods Wyeth intended to establish a base on the Columbia River. With such a base and resupply by ship up the Columbia River, Wyeth felt that he would obtain huge savings on transportation and wages that he would quickly be able to monopolize the fur trade in the Northern Rocky Mountain region. Wyeth may also have planned to offer a service for conversion of flintlocks to percussion locks to hunters and trappers (see speculation).
In addition, inferior grades of salmon were selling in Boston at $16 a barrel, and Wyeth proposed to pay the costs of freight by sailing ship by return cargos of salmon, with the fur providing profit. With the exception of the salmon, this was nearly the same plan which John Jacob Astor had attempted to implement more than twenty years earlier.
The winter of 1833-34 was frantic for Wyeth. He had to arrange for the ship and goods, purchase the supplies to be taken overland, learned how to take latitude and longitude, and he also attended to Frederic Tudor’s ice business. He escaped Boston on February 7, 1834, and with only brief stops in New York and Baltimore, arrived in St. Louis on March 10.
In St. Louis Wyeth would hire nineteen men for a period of eighteen months at $250 ($13.89 per month). These contracts would expire in Indian country. Wyeth also agreed to allow a Methodist missionary, Jason Lee and his party, as well as two naturalists, Thomas Nuttall and John Townsend accompany his pack train.
By mid-April Wyeth and his men moved up to Independence where he intended to purchase the horses, mules and livestock for his train. However, in Independence animals were scarce and prices high because of demands from both the U.S. Army and Santa Fe traders for livestock. Wyeth’s departure for the mountains was also delayed by the late arrival of Lee. While waiting for the missionary Wyeth impatiently wrote, “it is like keeping a bag of fleas together to keep the men in this whiskey country.”
A timely departure was critical because William Sublette and Robert Campbell were sending their own pack train to rendezvous in competition with Wyeth. The pack train, which eventually totalled about 70 men including men from the Rocky Mountain Fur Company & Christy, departed Independence on April 28th with Wyeth and Milton Sublette in the lead. Milton Sublette, troubled by an infected leg returned to civilization after only ten days on the trail.
Wyeth’s “secret” agreement with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company & Christy had become known to William Sublette and Robert Campbell, and there ensued a race between rival pack trains to the mountains. Wyeth’s train departed a full week ahead of the train of William Sublette and Robert Campbell. Wyeth, although now longer green, simply couldn’t match the experience of Sublette and Campbell in running a pack train. By May 12th Sublette and Campbell’s pack train passed Wyeth in the dark of the night. Realizing that he had now lost the race to rendezvous, Wyeth sent a letter ahead to Fitzpatrick stating that he would arrive at Rendezvous about July 1, and imploring Fitzpatrick to wait for him.
Sublette and Campbell, now with a commanding lead, halted at the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers where they commenced construction of Fort William. After construction was well under way, the pack train departed, leaving some men behind to complete the fort. Wyeth arrived at the fort on June 1st, only days behind Sublette and Campbell.
When he reached Indpendence Rock an inscription by Sublette indicated Sublette had passed through three days earlier. When Wyeth reached the agreed rendezvous location, no one was there. The trappers of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company & Christy, and Sublette and Campbell’s pack train were located about 12 miles upstream. When Wyeth found them he was frustrated to learn that the Rocky Mountain Fur Company & Christy would not accept the goods and supplies he brought. Prior to his arrival William Sublette and Robert Campbell had called in the company’s debts, and forced it into insolvency.
Wyeth did collect a $500 forfeit from the successor company as well as repayment of cash advances he had made to Milton Sublette. However, this was a major blow to his plans. In a letter to Milton Sublette Wyeth promised to “roll a stone into [their] garden that [they would]never be able to get out.”
The combined parties moved camp to the site of the 1834 Rendezvous on Ham's Fork in late June from which Wyeth sent out messengers to nearby Indians inviting them to trade.
However, with no solid prospects for profitable trade, Wyeth raised camp in early July and traveled to a location a few miles upstream from the confluence of the Snake and Portneuf Rivers. Here he chose the site of the “stone” he would roll into the garden of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. By August 5th the log walls of a fort to be named Fort Hall (after one of the investors in the Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company) were raised.
On August 7th Wyeth left Robert Evans in charge of the new fort with eleven men. Wyeth and the remaining men set forth on a trapping expedition to the Columbia. He reached Fort Vancouver on September 14th, and the following day borrowed a canoe which he took to the mouth of the Columbia to meet the sailing brig “May Dacre”
The “May Dacre” had had its own difficulties and had arrived too late for the salmon run and Wyeth directed the ship to Oahu for a trading voyage and to obtain Hawaiian laborers. While awaiting the return of the “May Dacre” Wyeth and his men constructed Fort William on Multnomah Island at the mouth of the Willamette River. He also chose the site for a farm about forty miles up the Willamette River.
He also sought to salvage some profit from the situation by attempting to establish commercial relations with the HBC. Although John McLoughlin, Chief Factor of the HBC Columbia Department was convinced Wyeth was no threat, and could be better controlled while commercially bound to the HBC, George Simpson, Governor of HBC’s North American operations opposed any assistance to the New Englander.
Wyeth spent the winter trapping south of the Columbia River. In April 1835 the “May Dacre” returned and Wyeth made preparations for the seasons salmon catch. Packing went slowly, and by September only about half of the planned catch had been packed, and because of the fiasco at the 1834 Rendezvous, Wyeth had few furs to add to the return shipment. Wyeth returned to Fort Hall in December 1835. Here he found most of the men who had been hired under the 18-month contract merely waiting for their discharge, their contracts having run out in October. Osborne Russell was one of those men awaiting discharge and he details his own experiences with Nathaniel Wyeth in his journal.
In February of 1836 Wyeth again traveled to Fort Vancouver in a last attempt to salvage his commercial operations through some kind of agreement with the HBC. Although he was able to come to an agreement with McLoughlin, George Simpson again opposed any alliance. Finally with no hope of a commercial rescue, he returned briefly to Fort Hall, and then on to the 1836 Rendezvous where he met the Whitman/Spalding missionary parties including Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding, the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains . Wyeth offered the missionaries the hospitality of Fort Hall at such time as they passed by.
Wyeth returned to St Louis by way of Taos and Bent’s Fort. By early autumn he was back in Boston. The high costs of holding and maintaining Fort Hall made it necessary to dispose of it, and Fort Hall including all equipment and supplies was sold to the HBC for $8,179.98 in October 1837.
With Fort Hall now under HBC control, Wyeth’s dreams of low cost trading center would be realized by the HBC. From Fort Hall the HBC would now unleash a devastating commercial attack against all of the American fur companies in the Northern Rocky Mountains, effectively ending any further advancement in the region by these companies.
Back in Boston, Wyeth returned to work for Tudor’s ice company where he would be employed until 1840 when he would leave in a dispute over the original patent assigned to Tudor in 1832. Wyeth received an additional fourteen patents for significant improvements in ice cutting and storing machinery and expanded his business to include shipping refrigerated garden produce. He continued to be an important figure in the ice and produce trade until his death on August 31, 1856. Although success in the fur trade never belonged to Nathaniel Wyeth, given the vast magnitude of the uncertainties in the physical, cultural and business environment of the West at that time, it is amazing that he accomplished as much as he did.
Later through his letters and memoirs, he did much to familiarize the East with the potential of the Oregon Country, and thereby helped open the door to the emigrant waves that spread westward in the final years of the 1840’s.
For more information about Nathaniel Wyeth see:
The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Volume V; edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published by The Arthur H Clark Company, Glendale, California, 1966.
Townsend John Kirk. Narrative of a Journey Across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River. Published 1839.