Early Explorations

During the long period of time in which the Pacific coast of North America was being slowly brought to the knowledge of civilized man, the course of narrative shows that the Frenchman and Spaniard were the pioneers of exploration in this region, both by sea and land. Spain led the maritime nations in distant and successful voyages. The voyage of Columbus, under the auspices of Ferdinand and his noble queen, Isabella, whose reign over the united kingdoms of Castile and Aragon gave Spain so much glory in that adventurous and chivalrous age, had kindled every maritime Spaniard into a very knight of the seas, and inspired the whole nation with a burning zeal for discovery and conquest of distant lands. Her rulers were among the greatest and most renowned of all ages of the world. Ferdinand and Isabella were succeeded by Charles V., one of the most enlightened and powerful monarchs that ever sat on any throne. He was succeeded by his son Philip, who, though haughty and imperious, so carried forward the ideas and purposes of his great father that his kingdom reached the very zenith of power and influence in the councils of the European monarchs. The woe pronounced upon a “land whose king is a child” could not fall upon Spain during this period. Weak and lusterless as may now be the condition of the Spanish nation, and little as her power is felt or feared in the world today, then soon the Saxon asked privileges of the Castilian and measured his own power by the standard of the other’s greatness.

Under the impulse thus pervading the Spanish nation, her banner was pushed into every sea and her cavaliers led all armies of distant conquest, especially in the New World. While the greatest historical interest attached to these early maritime explorations along the Pacific coast of North America and had a potent influence upon the ultimate opening up of the far western country to civilization, the association with the specific history of the great state of Idaho is so remote, and has been so often and so ably considered, that it is not necessary to more than refer thus incidentally to the story of adventure in this connection. The development of the Oregon country came as the diametrical result of explorations by land, and it is not less than fitting that a brief record touching the same be here entered.

While Spain led maritime discoveries, the facile and plastic Frenchman led the land explorations into the interior of the western continent. France had a strong holding on the eastern shore of America north of the St. Lawrence, a point of great advantage in introcontinental explorations. In addition to this she had planted her colonies at the mouth of the Mississippi, and stretched a cordon of posts southeastward from Quebec to the Ohio, thus hemming the English into a comparatively narrow belt of country on the Atlantic sea-board, and leaving free to her adventurous roamers the vast, and as yet unknown regions that stretched westward and northward, no one could I tell how far or how wide. The French pushed their advantages by land as did Spain hers by sea and as early as 1743 their explorations had reached the heart of the Rocky Mountains. From Canada and from Louisiana, up the lakes and up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, the Frenchman’s pirogue kept movement with the voyageurs’ songs as these carefree men of France pushed their trade and travel into the middle of the continent. The French and English war of 1756, however, by giving England the opportunity to wrest Canada from the weakened grasp of France, put a sudden stop to her movements in the line of explorations from that province, and opened the same opportunity to England that France had previously enjoyed. But though the opportunity was before her Great Britain was so fully occupied with her European difficulties and the care of her American colonies, already growing restive under the grievances of her misrule, demanded so much of the attention of her parliament and rulers that she could attempt nothing further than to hold her “reign of vantage” securely, for at least a quarter of a century.

During the progress of this quarter of a century new conditions and combinations had arisen. England lost all her colonies on the Atlantic coast south of the St. Lawrence. France had sold Louisiana to Spain. Thus England’s opportunities were contracted, those of France were destroyed, and the new republic of America was as yet unable to enter the field of exploration and colonization. At this period the continental position was this: Spain, after her purchase of Louisiana from France, had proprietary claim to all the country west of the Mississippi River to the Pacific ocean, with no very clearly defined northern limit to her claims. England held the country northward of the great lakes and the St. Lawrence River, extending indefinitely westward, above the forty-ninth parallel of latitude. The United States held actually the country east of the summits of the Alleghany Mountains, including the six New England states and New York, and had ownership of all the country westward of the Alleghanies, which England had conquered from France in the war of 1756. These were the powers that, after the American Revolution, stood looking to the yet unknown west as the place for the future aggrandizement of their respective fortunes, and this was the condition in which they looked to the future and prepared for its issues.

The advantages of the condition were with Great Britain. She had grown to be the leading power of Europe. Already the swing of conquest was in the movement of her legislation and her peoples. While the wars of the past twenty years had taxed, they had not pampered her. She was strong, consolidated, ambitious, courageous; and she was Saxon, the blood of endurance and conquest.

Spain held her position in the south and west by a precarious tenure, and she so felt the feebleness of that tenure that she neither made nor cared to make any vigorous movements to extend her possessions or to strengthen her holdings in America. The United States, geographically, held the center of opportunity, but the almost chaos of the era that followed the close of the Revolutionary war was over the face of her political history, and she needed time in which to gird herself for the strain of the future. But she had the strength to wait, for she, too, was Saxon. And so, with the parties in direct interest in the movements that were so surely to follow preparing for the race of empire westward, we come to the real opening of the era of discovery by land westward of the great Mountains.

These were begun solely by private enterprise for individual gain. They early reached the Athabasca and Saskatchewan. But the field was too great for individual resources, and besides the Hudson’s Bay Company entered the field with a competition which could only be met by combination. So the Northwest Company, of Montreal, was formed in 1784 for the express purpose of meeting and overcoming the competition of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had proved so ruinous to the individual traders who had ventured into the country before. In a very few years this became a most prosperous and powerful organization, and its traders and explorers filled all the country east of the Rocky Mountains as far north as the Arctic and as far south as the Missouri.

The great headquarters of this company was at “Fort Chippewyan” on Lake Athabasca, and were under the charge of Alexander Mackenzie, a very resolute and able man, whose enterprise in explorations stamped his name on the geography of all the west and north. In 1791 he organized a small Party for a western exploration, intending to prosecute his journey until he reached the Pacific Ocean. He had, two years before, discovered the River that bears his own name, and followed it from its source in Great Slave Lake to where it discharges its waters into the Arctic Ocean. Having thus ascertained the character and extent of the country to the northwest, he was determined to develop the character of that to the west by the expedition on which he was now entering. He left Fort Chippewyan on the 10th of October. 1791, and with much difficulty ascended the Peace River from Lake Athabasca to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, where the Party encamped for the winter. In June of the following year he resumed his journey, still following up the same stream, which he traced to its source near the fifty-fourth parallel of latitude and distant about one thousand miles from its mouth. Only a short distance from the springs of the Peace River he came upon those of another stream flowing westward, called by the natives Tacoutchee Tessee, down which he floated in canoes about two hundred and fifty miles. Leaving the River, he then proceeded westward overland, and on the 22d of July 1792 reached the Pacific ocean, at the mouth of an inlet in latitude 52° 10′. This inlet had, only a few weeks previously, been surveyed by the fleet of Vancouver; and thus Mackenzie had connected the land and water explorations of Great Britain on the Pacific coast.

Mackenzie reached the coast far north of the mouth of the River on which he had sailed in his canoes so far to the southwest. On his return to Fort Chippewyan, late in August, 1792, he learned of the discovery of the mouth of the Columbia by Captain Gray, when he at once concluded that the stream he had followed so far was the upper part of that River, and it was so considered by geographers until 1812, or twenty years after Mackenzie’s journey, when Simon Fraser, of the same company as Mackenzie, traced it to its mouth in the gulf of Georgia, a little north of the 49° of latitude. Since that time it has been known as Fraser’s River. To Alexander Mackenzie doubtless belongs the honor of making the first journey down the western slope of the great Rocky Mountain chain to the Pacific ocean; though it was made wholly north of the parallel that was subsequently fixed as the boundary line between the British possessions on the American continent and the United States.

It is a somewhat striking coincidence that the first important American movement for an exploration by land of the country lying on the north Pacific coast was made the same year that ^Mackenzie accomplished his journey to the Pacific and that Captain Gray sailed into the mouth of the Columbia River. Thomas Jefferson, at that time the representative of the United States government at the court of Versailles, became deeply interested as an American in this great western region. He proposed to the American Philosophical Society that a subscription be raised for the purpose of defraying the expenses of an exploration, and a person be employed competent to conduct it. He wished it to “ascend the Missouri River, cross the Stony Mountains, and descend the nearest River to the Pacific.” His suggestion was acted upon by the society, and Captain Meriwether Lewis, on the recommendation of Jefferson, was selected to lead the expedition; and Andre Micheaux, a distinguished French botanist, was chosen to accompany him. They proceeded as far as Kentucky, when Mr. Micheaux was recalled by the French minister at Washington and the expedition was given up.

The next movement for the accomplishment of the same purpose was while the treaty was pending between Mr. Jefferson, then president of the United States, and Napoleon, then ruler of France, for the transfer of the claims of France to the whole northwest to the United States. On the 18th of January 1803, the president transmitted a special message to congress in which he incorporated a recommendation that an official expedition be dispatched on the same errand contemplated in the one that had been abandoned. An ample appropriation was made, and again Captain Lewis, then private secretary to the president, was chosen to conduct it. He solicited William Clarke as his associate.

The instructions issued to these gentlemen, by Mr. Jefferson, while specific as to purpose, were broad as to geographical extent. In them he says:

“The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River and such principal streams of it as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, whether the Columbia. Oregon, Colorado, or any other River, may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across the continent for the purposes of commerce.”

They were directed to thoroughly inform themselves of the extent and number of the Indian tribes, their customs and degrees of civilization, and to report fully upon the topography of the regions through which they passed, together with the character of the soil, natural products, animal life, mineral resources, climate, and to inquire particularly into the fur trade and the needs of commerce. When these instructions were given. Louisiana had not been ceded to the United States, and hence Mr. Jefferson continued:

“Your mission has been communicated to the ministers here from France, Spain and Great Britain, and through them to their governments; and such assurances given them as to its objects as we trust will satisfy them. The country of Louisiana having been ceded by Spain to France, the passport you have from the minister of France, the representative of the present sovereign of that country, will be a protection with all its subjects; and that from the minister of England will entitle you to the friendly aid of any traders of that allegiance with whom you may happen to meet.”

A few days before the expedition was ready to start, the joyful intelligence was received that France had formally ceded Louisiana to the United States; hence the passport of the representative of the French government at Washington was not needed.

Captain Lewis left Washington on the 5th day of July. 1803, and on arriving at Louisville, Kentucky, was joined by Clarke. They selected their Party, went as far as St. Louis, near which they went into camp, and remained until the final start was made, on the 14th day of May, 1804. The Party now consisted of Captains Lewis and Clarke, nine young men from Kentucky, fourteen soldiers, two French Canadian voyageurs, an interpreter and hunter, and a Negro servant of Captain Clarke. The Party ascended the Missouri River as far as the country of the Mandan Indians, with which tribe they remained all winter.

Their westward journey was resumed in the spring of 1805. They followed up the Missouri, of whose course and tributaries and characteristics they had obtained very accurate information from the Mandans. Passing the mouth of the Yellowstone, or Roche Jaune of the French Canadian trappers and voyageurs who had already visited it, they continued up the Missouri, passing its great Falls and cascades, and ascending through its mighty canon, crossed the Rocky mountain divide and descended its western side to the stream now known at different points on its course as “Deer Lodge,” “Hellgate,” “Bitter Root,” “Clarke’s Fork,” and “Pend d’Oreille.” Upon this stream they bestowed the name of “Clarke’s River.” From this River the advance Party, under Clarke, crossed the Bitter Root Mountains by the Lolo trail. On these rugged heights they suffered intensely from cold and hunger. On the 20th day of September they came to a village of Nez Percé Indians, situated on a plain about fifteen miles from the south fork of Clearwater River, where they were received with great hospitality.

When they reached the Nez Percé village the Party was nearly famished, and they partook of such quantities of the food so liberally provided by their Indian hosts that many of them became too ill to proceed until the second day, and among that number was Clarke himself. As soon as they were able to proceed they went to the village of the chief. Twisted Hair, situated on an island in the stream. To this River Clarke gave the name “Koos-koos-kee,” doubtless slightly misunderstanding the words used by the Nez Percé in distinguishing it from the Snake River, into which it enters “Koots-koots-hee” which those acquainted with the Nez Percé tongue say is a descriptive term, and means, “This is the smaller.”

Here the two parties were united, and, after resting a few days, journeyed on down the Clearwater. The company was now utterly exhausted. Many found it difficult to sit upon their horses. Captain Lewis was very ill. The weather was hot and oppressive. They felt that they could proceed no farther in their former manner of traveling, and the commanders resolved to prepare canoes and prosecute the remainder of their journey in them. With Twisted Hair as guide, Clarke proceeded about five miles, where suitable timber was found, and encamped on the low ground opposite the forks of the River.

When their canoes were constructed, leaving their horses and equipage with Twisted Hair, they embarked on the Clearwater on their journey toward the Pacific. They were not long in reaching Snake River, which, in honor of Captain Lewis, they called “Lewis River.” Down that stream to the Columbia was a quick and rapid passage. Down the Columbia was not less rapid, and they reached the cascades of that stream on the 2ist day of October, flaking the portage of the cascades they embarked again, passed the mouth of the Willamette without observing it, and on the 15th day of November reached Cape Disappointment and looked out on the great ocean, which had been the goal of their journeying for more than a year.

They remained near the ocean, wintering in a log dwelling which they erected on the south side of the Columbia, which they called “Fort Clatsop,” in honor of the Indians which inhabited that region. Hoping that some trading vessel from which they could replenish their stores would visit the River, they delayed their departure homeward until the 23d of March 1806. Before leaving they gave the chiefs of the Clatsops, and also of the Chinooks, who resided on the north side of the River, certificates of hospitable treatment, and posted a writing on the wall of their cabin in these words:

“The object of this last is, that through the medium of some civilized person who may see the same, it may be made known to the world that the Party, consisting of the persons whose names are hereunto annexed, and who were sent out by the government of the United States of America to explore the interior of the continent of North America, did penetrate the same by the way of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers to the discharge of the latter into the Pacific ocean, where they arrived on the 14th day of November 1805, and departed the 23d day of March 1806, on their return to the United States by the same route by which they had come out.”

To this paper were appended the names of the members of the expedition. Several copies of the paper were left among the Indians, and the following year one of them was handed by an Indian to Captain Hall, an American trader, whose vessel, the Lydia, had entered the Columbia River. By him it was taken to China and thence to the United States. Therefore had the Party perished on their return, evidence of the completion of their purpose would have been left behind them.

Their journey out had been so long and its expense so great that, on taking an invoice of their possessions on starting on the return journey, they found that they had available for traffic with the Indians only six blue robes, one scarlet robe, one United States artillery hat and coat, five robes made from the national ensign, and a few old clothes trimmed with ribbons. Upon this scant store must they depend for purchasing provisions and horses, and paying tribute to stubborn chieftains through whose dominions they might pass on their long homeward journey.

On their return they proceeded up the south side of the Columbia, coming unexpectedly upon a large River flowing into it from the south. On an island at its mouth was a large Indian village called “Multnomah,” which name they understood to apply to the River they had discovered, of the course of which they made careful inquiry. The result of these inquiries was noted in the map of the expedition, making the River to flow from California to the north and west, and the Indian tribes that actually resided on the waters of Snake River to reside upon its banks. Their journey up stream was far more tedious with their canoes than had been their passage down, owing to the numerous rapids and cascades; and at the mouth of what they called Lapage River now “John Day” they abandoned their canoes and packing their baggage on the back of a few horses that they had purchased from the Indians, proceeded up the southern bank of the Columbia on foot. Crossing the Umatilla River, called by them the You-ma-lo-law, they arrived at the mouth of the Walla Walla on the 27th day of April.

The greatest Indian chief of the Pacific coast, at that time, if not indeed of all tradition, was then at the head of the Walla nation. His name was Yellept. The story of his life and death, as handed down by the traditions of his people, is of the most thrilling and romantic character, but belongs rather to such writings as Cooper’s than to the sober chronicles of history. This powerful chieftain received the company with most generous hospitality, which charmed the travelers into some lingering before they ventured farther into the wild gorges of the Mountains. The journal of the expedition records the kindness of these Indians with many appreciative words, and closes its notice of them by saying: “We may, indeed, justly affirm that of all the Indians that we have seen since leaving the United States the Walla Wallas were the most hospitable, honest and sincere.”

Leaving these hospitable people on the 29th of April, the Party passed eastward on the great “Nez Percé trail.” This trail was the great highway of the Walla Wallas, Cayuses and Nez Percé eastward to the buffalo ranges, to which they annually resorted for game supplies. It passed up the valley of the Touchet, called by Lewis and Clarke the “White Stallion” thence over the high prairie ridges, and down the Alpona to the crossing of Snake River, then up the north bank of Clearwater to the village of Twisted Hair, where the exploring Party had left their horses on their way down the previous autumn. It was worn deep and broad, and in many stretches on the open plains and over the smooth hills twenty horsemen could ride abreast in the parallel paths worn by the constant rush of the Indian generations from time immemorial. But the plow has long since obliterated it, and where the monotonous song of the Indian’s march was droningly chanted for so many barbaric ages, the song of the reaper thrills the clear air as he comes to his gamer, bringing in the sheaves.

For the purposes of this narrative it is not necessary to trace the explorations of these travelers farther, interesting as they would be, for they scarcely belong directly to Idaho history. With the usual adventures of explorers in the unfrequented regions which they traversed they followed homeward the path of their outward advance, and reached St. Louis on the 25th of September, 1806, having been absent nearly two years and a half.

Their safe return to the United States sent a thrill of rejoicing through the country. Mr. Jefferson, the great patron and inspirer of the expedition, says of it:

“Never did a similar event excite more joy throughout the United States. The humblest of its citizens had taken a lively interest in the issue of this journey, and looked forward with impatience to the information it would furnish. Their anxieties, too, for the safety of the corps had been kept in a state of excitement by lugubrious rumors, circulated from time to time on uncertain authorities, and uncontradicted by letters, or other direct information, from the time they had left the Mandan towns on their ascent up the River in April of the preceding year, 1805, until their actual return to St. Louis.

Captain Lewis, soon after his return, was appointed governor of Louisiana, and Captain Clarke was made general of militia of the same territory and Indian agent for the vast region he had so successfully explored. Both had performed inestimable services for their country, and were well worthy of generous reward. For themselves they had achieved a lasting fame. Their names will be remembered as long as the crystal waters of “Clarke’s fork” or deep flow of “Lewis River” roll to the Pacific sea.

These two early expeditions, that by Mackenzie in 1792, under the auspices of a company wholly British, and that of Lewis & Clarke in 1805-6, under the direction of the government of the United States, are, perhaps, the only expeditions across the American continent entitled to be classed as exploring. Those that followed these entered more into the fabric of the history of the regions by them brought to the knowledge of the civilized world. If any exception to this is allowed it should refer to the expeditions of Captain Fremont, to which, as they were under the auspices and at the expense of the United States government, it seems proper that a brief reference shall be made. They had for their object geographical and topographical information.

John C. Fremont was a member of the corps of topographical engineers of the United States, appointed from civil life, and hence not entering that service through the door of West Point. He was restlessly ambitious, in love with adventure and anxious to distinguish himself. For his fame he fell on auspicious times. He solicited an appointment to the command of an expedition to explore and map out the country west of Missouri as far as the South Pass in the Rocky Mountains. In accordance with his request Colonel J. J. Abut, chief of the corps of topographical engineers, ordered the expedition and gave its command to Captain Fremont. As this expedition of 1842 had little more to do with Idaho than to prepare the way for the one of the following year which was continued in force to The Dalles of the Columbia and by Captain Fremont himself to Fort Vancouver we can dismiss it with this brief reference.

The second expedition, that of 1843, like that of the preceding year, was organized at Captain Fremont’s own solicitation. He dictated its object, marked out its route and selected its personnel. Its object was to connect his own survey of the previous year, which reached as far west as the South Pass, with that of Commander Wilkes on the coast of the Pacific ocean. He selected a company of thirty-three men, principally of Creole and Canadian French, with a few Americans, and leaving Kansas landing on the Missouri River on the 29th of May, reached the termination of his former reconnaissance in the South Pass, by the way of the Kansas, Arkansas and upper Platte Rivers, passing over the spot where Denver now is, on the 13th of August.

From the South Pass Captain Fremont continued his course along the well beaten emigrant road to Green River and then to Bear River, making careful annotations of the topography and geology of the country over which he passed. His exhaustive description of the locality and character of Soda or Beer springs has been the authority of all writers on the topography and mineralogy of that region from that day to this. It is worth observing that his astronomical observations here place Soda springs in latitude 42° 39′ 57″ ‘ or less than fifty miles north of what was then Mexico and consequently the same distance in Oregon. These are the “Soda springs” now on the line of the Union Pacific Railroad in eastern Idaho.

The intention of Captain Fremont being to explore the Great Salt Lake, which up to this time had been almost a myth so far as science was concerned, about five miles west of Soda springs he turned to the left, while the emigrant road bore away over the hills to the right, and, after ten days” travel, mainly down the Bear River valley, on the afternoon of September 5th encamped on the shore of a great salt marsh, which he correctly concluded must be the margin of the lake. He reached the bed of the lake near the mouth of the Rear River, but skirted along it to the south until he reached the mouth of Weber River, near which the Party encamped and made preparations for an exploration of some portions of the lake in an inflated indiaruhber boat. Finally on the morning of September 9, the Party launched out on the then calm surface of this ocean-like sea, and about noon reached the shore of an island where they remained that and the following day.

The account given by Fremont of Salt Lake and its surroundings is exceedingly particular and interesting, but of too great length for these pages. He remained upon the lake until the 12th of September, when he resumed his journey toward the Columbia, returning along the line of his previous travel. The course of the company led northward, through the range of Mountains that divide the great basin of Salt Lake from the waters that flow to the Pacific through the Snake and Columbia Rivers. From these Mountains they emerged into the valley of what he calls the Pannack River, otherwise known as the Raft River, down which they followed until they emerged on the the plains of Snake River in view of the “Three Buttes,” the most prominent landmarks of these great plains, and reached Snake River on the evening of September 22, a few miles above the American Falls.

From this point the reconnaissance of Captain Fremont was down the valley of Snake River, along the course afterward so familiar to the emigrants, sweeping to the south along the foot of the Goose Creek Mountains, several miles distant from Snake River, for all the distance in which it runs through the deeply cut basaltic gorge, in which are situated its greatest curiosities, the Twin Falls and the great Shoshone Falls, the existence of both of which was unknown to white men until ten years later than Captain Fremont’s explorations. He crossed the River to the north side some miles below “Fishing” or Salmon Falls, thence to the Boise River, striking that stream near the present site of the city of Boise, and via old Fort Boise, where he re-crossed the Snake River to the south, and so westward through Powder River valley and Grande Ronde valley to the Columbia River, which he reached at Walla Walla, now Wallala, on the 25th of October. In this entire distance many careful and frequent astronomical observations were taken, latitudes and longitudes were fixed, and the country very accurately described topographically.

Fremont continued his journey down the banks of the Columbia, and on the 4th of November reached The Dalles. Leaving most of his Party at this point. Captain Fremont himself continued his journey down the River, and in a few days reached Vancouver, where his westward journey terminated.

Completing the outfit for his proposed winter journey toward the states. Captain Fremont returned up the Columbia to The Dalles, arriving at that place on the afternoon of the i8th of November. From this point he proposed to begin his return expedition. The route selected would lead him southward, east of the Cascade range, clear through the territory of the United States, and then, by a south and eastward wheel, through the Mexican territory, including a continued survey of the valley of the Great Salt Lake, back again to the frontiers of Missouri. Those acquainted with the region he expected to travel need not be told that few explorers ever ventured on a more perilous expedition than was this at the season of the year in which he undertook it. The country was unknown, except that it was a vast region of bleak and open deserts, of vast and rocky ranges of Mountains; that its inhabitants were among the lowest and most savage of human beings, and that there was in it little that could be used for the support of life. It was a bold, brave venture these men made. It was on the 25th day of November before they were ready to set out from The Dalles, and it is scarcely necessary to enter into details concerning their return journey, of which full record has been made in various compilations.

The publication of the journal of these expeditions of Captain Fremont, in 1845, awakened a much deeper interest in the Oregon country than ever before existed, and his descriptions of the route from the Missouri River to Fort Vancouver, in the very heart of Oregon, was of great value to the great emigrations that crossed the plains from 1843 onward. His descriptions were remarkably accurate, and his maps of the routes traveled most scientifically correct, and these considerations entitle his explorations to this brief reference in a history of Idaho.


Illustrated History of the State of Idaho. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company. 1899.

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