CHAPTER IV. CAPTAIN SUBLETTE'S EXPEDITION.

In 1832 Captain William Sublette,[10] a partner in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and one of the most active, intrepid, and renowned leaders in the trade, started on a trapping expedition up the Platte Valley. He was accompanied by Robert Campbell, another of the pioneers in the fur industry, and sixty men well mounted, with their camp equipage carried on packhorses.

At Independence, Missouri, he met a party commanded by Nathaniel J. Wyeth of Boston, Massachusetts. Mr. Wyeth, having conceived the idea that a profitable salmon fishery connected with the fur trade might be established at the mouth of the Columbia River, had accordingly invested a great deal of capital. He had calculated, as he supposed, for the Indian trade, and had enlisted in his employ a number of Eastern men who had never been West, and were totally unacquainted with its dangerous travel.

Wyeth and his men found themselves completely at a loss when they reached Independence, the then frontier post. None of them except the leader had ever seen an Indian or handled a rifle. They had neither guide nor interpreter, and were totally ignorant of the way to deal with the savages, or provide food for themselves during long marches over barren plains and wild mountains. In this predicament Captain Sublette found them, and in the bigness of his heart kindly took them in tow. Both parties travelled amicably together, and they arrived without accident on the upper branches of the Platte.

Sublette, Campbell, Wyeth, and their parties pursued their march westward unmolested, and arrived in the Green River Valley. While in camp one night on the bank of a small stream, toward morning a band of Indians burst upon them, yelling, whooping, and discharging a flight of arrows. No harm was done, however, excepting the wounding of a mule and the stampeding of several of their horses.

On the 17th of July, a small party of fourteen, led by Milton Sublette, brother of the captain, set out with the intention of proceeding to the southwest. They were accompanied by Sinclair and fifteen free trappers. Wyeth, also, and his New England band of beaver hunters and salmon fishers, now dwindled down to eleven, took this opportunity to prosecute their cruise in the wilderness, accompanied by such experienced pilots.

On the first day they proceeded about eight miles to the southeast, and encamped for the night. On the following morning, just as they were preparing to leave camp, they observed a moving mass pouring down a defile of the mountains. They at first supposed them to be another party of trappers, whose arrival had been daily expected. Wyeth, however, reconnoitred them with a spy-glass, and soon perceived they were Indians. They were divided into two bands, forming, in the whole, about one hundred and fifty persons, men, women, and children. Some were on horseback, fantastically painted and arrayed, with scarlet blankets fluttering in the wind. The greater part, however, were on foot. They had perceived the trappers before they were themselves discovered, and came down yelling and whooping into the plain. On nearer approach, they were ascertained to be Blackfeet.

One of the trappers of Sublette's brigade, a half-breed, named Antoine Godin,[11] now mounted his horse, and rode forth as if to hold a conference. In company with Antoine was a Flathead Indian, whose once powerful tribe had been completely broken down in their wars with the Blackfeet. Both of them, however, cherished the most vengeful hostility against these marauders of the mountains. The Blackfeet came to a halt. One of the chiefs advanced singly and unarmed, bearing the pipe of peace. This overture was certainly pacific; but Antoine and the Flathead were predisposed to hostility, and pretended to consider it a treacherous movement.

"Is your piece charged?" said Antoine to his companion.

"It is."

"Then cock it and follow me."

They met the Blackfoot chief half-way. He extended his hand in friendship. Antoine grasped it.

"Fire!" cried he.

The Flathead levelled his piece, and brought the Blackfoot to the ground. Antoine snatched off his scarlet blanket, which was richly ornamented, and galloped away with it as a trophy to the camp, the bullets of the enemy whistling after him. The Indians immediately threw themselves into the edge of a swamp, among willows and cottonwood trees, interwoven with vines. Here they began to fortify themselves, the women digging a trench and throwing up a breastwork of logs and branches, deep hid in the bosom of the wood, while the warriors skirmished at the edge to keep the trappers at bay.

The latter took their station in front, whence they kept up a scattering fire. As to Wyeth, and his little band of "down easters," they were perfectly astounded by this second specimen of life in the wilderness; the men, being especially unused to bush-fighting and the use of the rifle, were at a loss how to act. Wyeth, however, acted as a skilful commander. He got all the horses into camp and secured them; then, making a breastwork of his packs of goods, he charged his men to remain in the garrison, and not to stir out of their fort. For himself, he mingled with the other leaders, determined to take his share in the conflict.

In the meantime, an express had been sent off to the rendezvous for re-enforcements. Captain Sublette and his associate, Campbell, were at their camp when the express came galloping across the plain, waving his cap, and giving the alarm, "Blackfeet! Blackfeet! a fight in the upper part of the valley! - to arms! to arms!"

The alarm was passed from camp to camp. It was a common cause. Every one turned out with horse and rifle. The Nez Perces and Flatheads joined. As fast as the trappers could arm and mount they galloped off; the valley was soon alive with white men and Indians scouring at full speed.

Sublette ordered his party to keep to the camp, being recruits from St. Louis, and unused to Indian warfare, but he and his friend Campbell prepared for action. Throwing off their coats, rolling up their sleeves, and arming themselves with pistols and rifles, they mounted their horses and dashed forward among the first. As they rode along they made their wills in soldier-like style, each stating how his effects should be disposed of in case of his death, and appointing the other as his executor.

The Blackfeet warriors had supposed that the party of Milton Sublette was all the foe they had to deal with, and were astonished to behold the whole valley suddenly swarming with horsemen, galloping to the field of action. They withdrew into their fort, which was completely hidden from sight in the dark and tangled wood. Most of their women and children had retreated to the mountains. The trappers now sallied out and approached the swamp, firing into the thickets at random. The Blackfeet had a better sight of their adversaries, who were in the open field, and a half-breed was wounded in the shoulder.

When Captain Sublette arrived, he urged the men to penetrate the swamp and storm the fort, but all hung back in awe of the dismal horrors of the place, and the danger of attacking such desperadoes in their savage den. The very Indian allies, though accustomed to bush-fighting, regarded it as almost impenetrable, and full of frightful danger. Sublette was not to be turned from his purpose, but offered to lead the way into the swamp. Campbell stepped forward to accompany him. Before entering the perilous wood, Sublette took his brothers aside, and told them that in case he fell, Campbell, who knew his will, was to be his executor. This done, he grasped his rifle and pushed into the thickets, followed by Campbell. Sinclair, the partisan from Arkansas, was at the edge of the wood with his brother and a few of his men. Excited by the gallant example of the two friends, he pressed forward to share their dangers.

The swamp was produced by the labours of the beaver, which, by damming up the stream, had inundated a portion of the valley. The place was overgrown with woods and thickets, so closely matted and entangled that it was impossible to see ten paces ahead, and the three associates in peril had to crawl along, one after another, making their way by putting the branches and vines aside, but doing it with great caution, lest they should attract the eye of some lurking marksman. They took the lead by turns, each advancing some twenty yards at a time, and now and then hallooing to their men to come on. Some of the latter gradually entered the swamp, and followed a little distance in the rear.

They had now reached a more open part of the wood, and had glimpses of the rude fortress from between the trees. It was a mere breastwork, of logs and branches, with blankets, buffalo-robes, and the leather covers of lodges extended around the top as a screen. The movement of the leaders as they groped their way had been descried by the sharp-sighted enemy. As Sinclair, who was in the advance, was putting some branches aside, he was shot through the body. He fell on the spot. "Take me to my brother," said he to Campbell. The latter gave him in charge of some of the men, who conveyed him out of the swamp.

Sublette now took the advance. As he was reconnoitring the fort, he perceived an Indian peeping through an aperture. In an instant his rifle was levelled and discharged, and the ball struck the savage in the eye. While he was reloading he called to Campbell, and pointed out the hole to him: "Watch that place, and you will soon have a fair chance for a shot." Scarce had he uttered the words when a ball struck him in the shoulder, and almost wheeled him around. His first thought was to take hold of his arm with his other hand, and move it up and down. He ascertained, to his satisfaction, that the bone was not broken. The next moment he was so faint he could not stand. Campbell took him in his arms and carried him out of the thicket. The same shot that struck Sublette wounded another man in the head.

A brisk fire was now opened by the mountaineers from the wood, answered occasionally from the fort. Unluckily, the trappers and their allies, in searching for the fort, had got scattered, so that Wyeth and a number of Nez Perces approached it on the northwest side, while others did the same from the opposite quarter. A cross-fire thus took place, which occasionally did mischief to friends as well as foes. An Indian, close to Wyeth, was shot down by a ball which, he was convinced, had been sped from the rifle of a trapper on the other side of the fort.

The number of whites and their Indian allies had by this time so much increased, by arrivals from the rendezvous, that the Blackfeet were completely overmatched. They kept doggedly in their fort, however, making no effort to surrender. An occasional firing into the breastwork was kept up during the day. Now and then one of the Indian allies, in bravado, would rush up to the fort, fire over the ramparts, tear off a buffalo-robe or a scarlet blanket, and return with it in triumph to his comrades. Most of the savage garrison who fell, however, were killed in the first part of the attack.

At one time it was resolved to set fire to the fort, and the squaws belonging to the allies were employed to collect combustibles. This, however, was abandoned, the Nez Perces being unwilling to destroy the robes and blankets, and other spoils of the enemy, which they felt sure would fall into their hands.

The Indians, when fighting, are prone to taunt and revile each other. During one of the pauses of the battle the voice of a Blackfoot was heard.

"So long," said he, "as we had powder and ball, we fought you in the open field; when those were spent we retreated here to die with our women and children. You may burn us in our fort; but stay by our ashes, and you who are so hungry for fighting will soon have enough. There are four hundred lodges of our brethren at hand. They will soon be here - their arms are strong - their hearts are big - they will avenge us!"

This speech was translated two or three times by Nez Perces and creole interpreters. By the time it was rendered into English the chief was made to say that four hundred lodges of his tribe were attacking the encampment at the other end of the valley. Every one now hurried to the defence of the rendezvous. A party was left to watch the fort; the rest galloped off to the camp. As night came on, the trappers drew out of the swamp, and remained about the skirts of the wood. By morning their companions returned from the rendezvous, with the report that all was safe. As the day opened, they ventured within the swamp and approached the fort. All was silent. They advanced up to it without opposition. They entered; it had been abandoned in the night, and the Blackfeet had effected their retreat, carrying off their wounded on litters made of branches, leaving bloody traces on the grass. The bodies of ten Indians were found within the fort, among them the one shot in the eye by Sublette. The Blackfeet afterward reported that they had lost twenty-six warriors in this battle. Thirty-two horses were likewise found killed; among them were some of those recently carried off from Sublette's party, which showed that these were the very savages that had attacked him. They proved to be an advance party of the main body of Blackfeet, which had been upon Sublette's trail for some time. Five white men and one half-breed were killed and several wounded. Seven of the Nez Perces were also killed, and six wounded. They had an old chief who was reputed to be invulnerable. In the course of the action he was hit by a spent ball, and threw up blood; but his skin was unbroken. His people were now fully convinced that he was proof against a rifle-shot.

A striking circumstance is related as having occurred the morning after the battle. As some of the trappers and their Indian allies were approaching the fort, through the woods, they beheld an Indian woman, of noble form and features, leaning against a tree. Their surprise at her lingering there alone, to fall into the hands of her enemies, was dispelled when they saw the corpse of a warrior at her feet. Either she was so lost in her grief as not to perceive their approach, or a proud spirit kept her silent and motionless. The Indians set up a yell on discovering her, and before the trappers could interfere, her mangled body fell upon the corpse which she had refused to abandon. It is an instance of female devotion, even to the death, which is undoubtedly true.

After the battle the party of Milton Sublette, together with the free trappers, and Wyeth's New England band, remained some days at the rendezvous to see if the main body of Blackfeet intended to make an attack. Nothing of the kind occurred, so they once more put themselves in motion, and proceeded on their route toward the southwest.

Captain Sublette, having distributed his supplies, had intended to set off on his return to St. Louis, taking with him the peltries collected from the trappers and Indians. His wound, however, obliged him to postpone his departure. Several who were to have accompanied him became impatient at his delay. Among these was a young Bostonian, Mr. Joseph More, one of the followers of Mr. Wyeth, who had seen enough of mountain life and savage warfare, and was eager to return to the abodes of civilization. He and six others, among whom were a Mr. Foy of Mississippi, Mr. Alfred K. Stephens of St. Louis, and two grandsons of the celebrated Daniel Boone, set out together, in advance of Sublette's party, thinking they would make their own way through the mountains.

It was just five days after the battle of the swamp that these seven companions were making their way through Jackson's Hole, a valley not far from the Three Tetons, when, as they were descending a hill, a party of Blackfeet, who lay in ambush, started up with terrific yells. The horse of the young Bostonian, who was in front, wheeled round with affright, and threw his unskilful rider. The young man scrambled up the side of the hill, but, unaccustomed to such wild scenes, lost his presence of mind, and stood as if paralysed on the edge of the bank, until the Blackfeet came up and slew him on the spot. His comrades had fled on the first alarm; but two of them, Foy and Stephens, seeing his danger, paused when they had got half-way up the hill, turned back, dismounted, and hastened to his assistance. Foy was instantly killed. Stephens was severely wounded, but escaped, to die five days afterward. The survivors returned to the camp of Captain Sublette, bringing tidings of this new disaster. That hardy leader, as soon as he could bear the journey, set out on his return to St. Louis, accompanied by Campbell. As they had a number of packhorses, richly laden with peltries, to convoy, they chose a different route through the mountains, out of the way, as they hoped, of the lurking bands of Blackfeet. They succeeded in making the frontier in safety.[12]

On the 1st of May, 1832, Captain B. E. Bonneville, of the Seventh United States Infantry, having obtained leave of absence from Major-General Alexander Macomb, left Fort Osage, at his own expense, on a perilous exploration of the country to the Rocky Mountains and beyond.

His party consisted of one hundred and ten men, the majority of whom were experienced hunters and trappers. Their means of transportation were twenty wagons, drawn by oxen or by four mules each, loaded with ammunition, provisions, and some merchandise intended for trading with the Indians. The wagons were moved in two columns, the men marching in such a manner before and behind as to form an advance and rear guard. This caravan of Captain Bonneville's undoubtedly contained the first wagons that the Indians had ever seen, and as they passed through their country, they created a novel sensation among the savages. They examined everything about them minutely, and asked a thousand questions, an unusual change from their generally apathetic character.

On the march the captain invariably sent his hunters and scouts ahead, to reconnoitre the country, as well as to procure game for the command. On the 24th of May, as the caravan was slowly moving westward, the scouts came rushing back, waving their caps, and shouting, "Indians! Indians!"

A halt was immediately ordered, and it was discovered that a large party of Crows were on the river, just above where the caravan then was. The captain, knowing that the tribe was noted for warlike deeds and expertness in horse-stealing, gave orders to prepare for action. All were soon ready for any emergency, the party moved on in battle array, and in a short time about sixty Crow warriors emerged from the bluffs. They were painted in the most approved style of savage art, well mounted on fine ponies, and evidently ready for a battle. They approached the caravan in true Indian method, cavorting around on their spirited animals, rushing on as if they intended to make a charge, but when at the proper distance suddenly opened right and left, wheeled around the travellers at the same instant, whooping and yelling diabolically. Their first wild demonstration of spoiling for a fight having cooled down, they stopped, and the chief rode up to the captain, extended his hand, which of course he took; and after a pipe was smoked, nothing could exceed the spirit of friendliness that prevailed.

They were on a raid against a band of Cheyennes who had attacked their village in the night and killed one of their tribe. They had already been on the trail for twenty-five days, and said they were determined never to return to their homes until they had had their revenge.

They had been secretly hanging on the trail of Captain Bonneville's party and were astonished at the wagons and oxen, but were especially amazed by the appearance of a cow and calf quietly walking alongside. They supposed them to be some kind of tame buffalo. They regarded them as "big medicine," but when it was told them that the white men would trade the calf for a horse, their wonder ceased, their estimation of its wonderful power sank to zero, and they declined to make the exchange.

On the 2d of June the Platte River was reached, about twenty-five miles below Grand Island. Captain Bonneville measured the stream at that point, found it to be twenty-two hundred yards wide, and from three to six feet deep, the bottom full of quicksand.

On the 11th of the same month the party arrived at the forks of the Platte, but finding it impossible to cross on account of the quicksand, they travelled for two days along the south branch, trying to discover a safe fording-place. At last they camped, took off the bodies of the wagons, covered them with buffalo-hides, and smearing them with tallow and ashes, thus turned them into boats. In these they ferried themselves and their effects across the stream, which was six hundred yards wide, with a very swift current.

After successfully crossing the river, the line of march was toward the North Fork, a distance of nine miles from their ford. Terribly annoyed by swarms of gnats and mosquitoes, they followed the meanderings of the stream, and on the evening of the 17th arrived at a beautiful grove, resonant with the songs of birds, the first they had heard since leaving the banks of the Missouri.

Captain Bonneville made a camp at Chimney Rock, the height of which, according to his triangulation, was one hundred and seventy-five yards. On the 21st he made camp amidst the high and beetling cliffs, known a few years afterward as Scott's Bluffs.

The route of Captain Bonneville's march was generally along the bank of the Platte River, but frequently he was compelled, because of the steep bluffs which bounded it, to make inland detours.

In July he camped on a branch of the Sweetwater, which by measurement was sixty feet wide and four or five deep, flowing between low banks over a sandy soil. At that point numerous herds of buffalo were seen.

On the 12th of July, the caravan reached Laramie's Fork, and, abandoning the Platte, made a detour to the southwest. In two days afterward they camped on the bank of the Sweetwater. Up that stream they moved for several days, and on the 20th of July first caught a glimpse of the Rocky Mountains, which they crossed and then went on to the Pacific coast.

On the 13th of July of the following year after his tour through the Rocky Mountains, Bonneville arrived in the Green River Valley, which he now found covered in every direction with buffalo carcasses. It was evident that the Indians had recently been there and in great numbers. Alarmed at what he saw, the captain halted as soon as night came on, and sent out his scouts to the trappers' rendezvous at Horse Creek, where he expected to meet a party. When the scouts returned with some of the trappers, his mind was relieved by the information that the great slaughter of the buffaloes had been made by a band of friendly Shoshones.

The Green River Valley, at the time of Captain Bonneville's visit, was one of the general rendezvous of the trappers, traders, and Indians. There he got together a band of some of the most experienced men of the mountains, and determined to continue to explore into unknown regions farther west. His objective point was the Great Salt Lake, of which he had heard such wonderful accounts, and on the 24th of July he started from the Green River Valley with forty men to explore that inland sea.

In the spring of 1835 Captain Bonneville returned to the Green River Valley, and from there pursued his course down the Platte, reaching the frontier settlements on the 22d of August, having been absent over three years. During all that time he had made no report to the War Department, which thought he had perished on his venturesome journey, and his name was stricken from the rolls of the army. Several months after his arrival in Washington, and a satisfactory explanation having been rendered, he was restored to his position.[13]

On the 22d of May, 1842, Lieutenant John C. Fremont, of the United States Corps of Army Engineers, arrived at St. Louis in pursuance of orders from the War Department, to command an exploring expedition westward to the Wind River Mountains. On the 10th of June he started with the celebrated Kit Carson as his chief guide; his route was up the Kansas River to the Blue, thence across to the Platte, which he reached on the 25th. The principal object of his expedition was a survey of the North Fork of that river. He found the width of the stream, immediately below the junction of its two principal branches, to be 5350 feet. Hunting buffalo and an occasional Indian scare were the only important incidents of his march up the valley. The expedition returned by the same route and arrived at the mouth of the Platte on the 1st of October.

Before reaching Laramie's Fork, he met on the 28th of June a party of fourteen trappers, in the employ of the American Fur Company, making their way on foot with their blankets and light camp equipage on their backs. Two months previously they had started from the mouth of the Laramie River in boats loaded with furs destined for the St. Louis market. They had taken advantage of the June freshet, and were rapidly carried down as far as Scott's Bluffs. There the water spread out into the valley, and the stream was so shallow they were compelled to unload the principal part of their cargo. This they secured as well as possible, and left a few of their men to guard it. They continued struggling on with their boats in the sand and mud fifteen or twenty days longer, then, farther progress being impossible, they cached their remaining furs and property in trees on the bank of the river, and, each man carrying what he could on his back, started on foot for St. Louis. The party was entirely out of tobacco when they were met by Fremont, who kindly gave them enough to last them on their homeward journey.

During the next decade the Platte Valley witnessed a wonderful change. From the habitat of the lonely trapper, hunting on its many streams, it became the chosen route of a vast migration, seeking possession of the virgin soil of far-off Oregon, or attracted by the discovery of gold in California. The hegira of the Mormons to the sequestered basin of the Great Salt Lake also swelled the stream, and was followed soon after by the establishment of the overland stage, the pony express, and the building of the Union Pacific Railroad.