Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 1/Nathaniel J. Wyeth/"Oregon Expeditions"


His Adventures in the far West recalled in association with the family home near Boston. "In Historic Mansions and Highways Around Boston," by Samuel Adams Drake, published by Little, Brown & Co., there is a sketch of the family home of Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, the early explorer of Oregon. "Emerging from Mount Auburn," the author writes, "we take counsel of the swinging sign pointing to the lane leading to Fresh Pond, which is found to be the natural source of numerous underground streams, which are found wherever the earth is penetrated to any depth between it and Charleston." The writer continues:

Time out of mind the shores of the pond belonged to the Wyeths, and one of this family deserves our notice in passing. Nathaniel J. Wyeth was bred and born near at hand. Of an enterprising and courageous disposition, he conceived the idea of organizing a party with which to cross the continent and engage in trade with the Indian tribes of Oregon. He enlisted one and twenty adventurous spirits, who made him their leader, and with whom he set out from Boston on the first of March, 1832, first encamping his party on one of the harbor islands, in order to inure them to field life. The organizers provided themselves with a novel means of transportation — no other than a number of boats, built at the village smithy, and mounted on wheels. With these boats they expected to pass the rivers they might encounter, while at other times they were to serve as wagons. The idea was not without ingenuity, but was founded on a false estimate of the character of the streams, and of the mountain roads they were sure to meet with.

Wyeth and his followers pursued their route via Baltimore and the railway, which then left them at the base of the Alleghanies, onward to Pittsburg, at which point they took steamboat to Saint Louis, arriving there on the eighteenth of April. Hitherto they had met with only a few disagreeable adventures. They were now to face the real difficulties of their undertaking. They soon discovered that their complicated wagons were useless, and they were forced to part with them. The warlike tribes, whose hunting-grounds they were to traverse, began to give them uneasiness; and, to crown their misfortunes, they now ascertained how ignorantly they had calculated upon the trade with the savages.

Saint Louis was then the great depot of the Indian traders, who made their annual expeditions across the plains, prepared to fight or barter, as the temper of the Indians might dictate. The old trappers who had made their abode in the mountain regions met the traders at a given rendezvous, receiving powder, lead, tobacco, and a few accessories in exchange for their furs. To one of these parties Wyeth attached himself, and it was well that he did so.

Before reaching the Platte, five of Wyeth's men deserted their companions, either from dissatisfaction with their leader, or because they had just begun to realize the hazard of the enterprise. Nat Wyeth, however, was of that stuff we so expressly name clear grit. There was no flinching about him, the Pacific was his objective, and he determined to arrive at his destination even if he marched alone. William Sublette's party, which Wyeth had joined, encountered the vicissitudes common to a trip across the plains in that day; the only difference being that the New England men now faced these difficulties for the first time, whereas Sublette's party was largely composed of experienced plainsmen. They followed the course of the Platte, seeing great herds of buffalo roaming at large, while they experienced the gnawings of hunger for want of fuel to cook the delicious humps, sirloins and joints, constantly paraded like the fruit of Tantalus before their greedy eyes. They found the streams turbulent and swift; the Black Hills, which the iron horse now so easily ascends, were infested with bears and rattlesnakes. Many of the party fell ill from the effects of drinking the brackish water of the Platte, Dr. Jacob Wyeth, brother of the captain and surgeon of the party, being unluckily of this number.

Sublette, a French Creole, and one of the pioneers that have preceded pony-express, telegraph, stagecoach and locomotive, in their onward march, had no fears of the rivalry of the New England men, and readily took them under his protection. Besides, they swelled his numbers by the addition of a score of good rifles, no inconsiderable acquisition when his valuable caravan entered the country of the treacherous Blackfeet, the thieving Crows, or warlike Nez Perces. The united bands arrived at Pierre's Hole, the trading rendezvous, in July, where they embraced the first opportunity for repose since leaving the white settlements.

At this place there was a further secession from Wyeth's company, by which he was left with only eleven men, the remainder preferring to return home with Sublette. Petty grievances, a somewhat too arrogant demeanor on the part of the leader, and the conviction that the trip would prove a failure, caused these men to desert their companions when only a few hundred miles distant from the mouth of the Columbia. Before a final separation occurred, a severe battle took place between the whites and their Indian allies and the Blackfeet, by which Sublette lost seven of his own men killed and thirteen wounded. None of Wyeth's men were injured in this fight, but a little later one of those who had separated from him was ambushed and killed by Blackfeet.

Wyeth now joined Milton Sublette, the brother of William, under whose guidance he proceeded towards Salmon River. The Bostons, as the Northwest Coast Indians formerly styled all white men, arrived at Vancouver on the twenty-ninth of October, having occupied seven months in a journey which may now be made in as many days. The expedition was a failure, indeed, so far as gain was concerned, and Wyeth's men all left him at the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort. The captain, nothing daunted, and determined to make use of his dearly bought experience, returned to the States the ensuing season. His adventures may be followed by the curious in the pleasant pages of Irving's Captain Bonneville. Arriving at the headwaters of the Missouri, he built what is known as a bull-boat, made of buffalo skins stitched together and stretched over a slight frame, in which, with two or three half-breeds, he consigned himself to the treacherous currents and quicksands of the Big Horn. Down this stream he floated to its confluence with the Yellowstone. At Fort Union he exchanged his leather bark for a dug-out, with which he sailed, floated, or paddled down the turbid Missouri to Camp (now Fort) Leavenworth. He returned to Boston, and, having secured the means, again repaired to St. Louis, where he enlisted a second company of sixty men, with which he once more sought the old Oregon trail.

This was sixty years ago. Since then the Great American Desert, as it was called, has undergone a magical transformation. Cities of twenty thousand inhabitants exist today where Wyeth found only a dreary wilderness; from the Big Muddy to the Pacific you are scarcely ever out of sight of the smoke of the settler's cabin. In looking at the dangers and trials to which Wyeth found himself opposed, it must be admitted that he exhibited rare traits of courage and perseverance, allied with the natural capacity of a leader. His misfortunes arose through ignorance, and, perhaps to no small extent also, from that vanity which inclines your full-blooded Yankee to believe himself capable of everything, because the word "impossible" is expunged from his vocabulary.