Out of the Past
History Lessons


Snake Country Expedition

Trappers Carrying Furs on Snowshoes in a Forest of the Pacific Northwest The earliest fur trapping expeditions in the Snake Country of present-day Idaho and Montana were led by a Scotsman, Donald Mackenzie, on behalf of the North West Company.

Mackenzie's "brigades" of five dozen or so trappers and their families revolutionized the fur trade in the Americas, which were previously based on established trading posts in permanent locations.

These brigades roamed the wilderness for a year or more in pursuit of beaver pelts, either by trapping or trading with native Indians. These ventures covered most of southern Idaho and parts of eastern Oregon, northern Utah, and western Wyoming and were responsible for many of the place names in the region.

Alexander Ross, the most literate of the brigade leaders, led the best documented Snake River Expedition in 1824, a venture generally considered a failure. His journals and subsequent memoirs secured his place in history.

"Ross had not trapped animals before. He had first come West as a fur trader, not a trapper," John Phillip Reid notes in his history, Forging a Fur Empire. "Trapping with the Snake country expedition was his first exerience hunting animals commerically - a new experience for him."

Ross also lacked leadership experience and the expedition was plagued with problems, from horses that could not keep up to malfunctioning traps. He had little respect for most of his charges and they apparently responded to his commands only when it suited them.

"A more discordant, headstrong, ill-designing set of rascals than form this camp God never permitted together in the fur trade," Ross wrote in his journal.

Reid assesses Ross' failures as an inability to communicate effectively with his charges or his superiors. He understood that his men needed strong leadership, but as often as not he did not lead them; they led him.

In his journal entries, Ross frankly admits to his failings. "It may be asked why I did not Command them? I answer to Command when we have the power of enforcing the Command, does very well, but otherwise to Command is one thing, to obey is another.

"This morning I proposed that a small party should go on a trip of discovery for beaver across the range of mountains... For this trip, I could only get three men."

For the next six yearly expeditions, Ross was replaced by Peter Skein Ogden, arguably the most successful of the brigade leaders.

"What Ross was unable to effect by reason,  Ogden accomplished by leadership and the threat of his fists," Reid explains. "He would turn the Snake country expeditions from motley bands of stragglers into disciplined companies operating as units, wintering in the frozen valleys of the Snake River, traveling over vast areas into American and Mexican territories, and losing few men in hostile combat."

 Forging a Fur Empire
Forging a Fur Empire
Expeditions in the Snake River Country, 1809-1824
by John Phillip Reid
The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2011

Largely the story of fur traders Donald Mackenzie and Alexander Ross, who led the earliest fur trapping expeditions into the Snake River Country of present-day Idaho and Montana on behalf of the North West Company in the 1820s, this history also analyzes the legal, institutional, and commerce-related forces driving the North American fur trade of the early 19th century.

Details about the expeditions was provided primarily by Ross, a conscientious chronicler, who recorded Mackenzie's trailblazing expeditions of 1821-23 as well as the difficult 1824 expedition that he led. "His journals provide the first account there is of daily happenings in the Snake country," historian John Phillip Reid points out. "The most compelling reason Ross and other leaders of the earliest Snake expedition kept journals was to furnish guidance to future trapping parties and inform them of problems, dangers, and places to avoid."

While Ross' mission was commercial and pecuniary, the records he kept tell of a daily stuggle to survive in the wilderness, to keep the peace among his ethnically diverse crew, and to make sense of religious conflicts that confronted him.

As a legal scholar, Reid is keenly interested in the applications of
institutional law in a wilderness setting. 'There were more legal transactions or encounters occurring in the Snake River country than the historians of American or Canadian law could today imagine," he points out.

Reid's research and analysis make a valuable contribution to an under-explored period in Pacific Northwest history.

Book Search

Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813
Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813
by Alexander Ross

Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813
Annals of Astoria
The Headquarters Log of the Pacific Fur Company on the Columbia River, 1811-13

Empire of the Bay
Empire of the Bay
The Company of Adventurers that Seized a Continent

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