Wyoming to Fort Hall
The combined Oregon and California Trails enter eastern Idaho from Wyoming through the natural mountain-edged corridor of the Bear River Valley. That valley was glorious: nearly 80 miles of abundant water, cool air, spectacular scenery, and plentiful timber, grass, ﬁsh, and wildfowl. Its beauty and bounty, coming on the heels of a hard, dry haul across southwestern Wyoming, raised the emigrants’ spirits and inspired some writers to poetry.
Love never dwelt in a much more charming valley. Here one might live secluded. From side to side his eyes might rest on mountain tops and no gate left open, except where the babbling waters play.
The main trail crosses the Thomas Fork, stays north of the Bear River, and climbs directly into the Sheep Creek Hills. That climb was hard but the descent was far worse, forcing s emigrants to lock their wagon wheels for a long, frightening skid down Big Hill to the valley floor. Furrows scoured into the U earth by unyielding iron-rimmed wheels are visible today from U.S. Highway 30. From there the main trail went along the north side of the Bear River Valley through today’s Montpelier and on to Soda Springs,
one of the natural wonders of the Oregon and California Trails. The Soda Springs are a complex of gaseous mud-pots, fountains, and naturally carbonated pools, which according to Shoshone tradition are healing waters.
My spirits were low till I heard, “There is the Soda Springs.” This acted like electricity....They are wonderful and deserve a place in the wonders of the earth. —John Edwin Banks, 1849 California gold rush The whole valley. . .is the most interesting spot of earth that I ever beheld. Here is a grand field for the geologist, mineralogist, naturalist, 65* any other kind of ‘ist’ that you can conceive. —Dr. Wakeman Bryarly, 1849 California gold rush The most famous of these features was Steamboat Spring, which huffed and whistled like a steamboat as pressurized gas and water erupted from a low travertine cone. Sarah White Smith, traveling with a missionary company in 1838, watched a prankster try to stop Steamboat Spring from spouting by removing his trousers and sitting on the cone’s six-inch opening
“He did not have to wait very long for the ﬂow, ” she recounted. “It came gradually at first, but increased in force every moment. Doyle soon began bobbing up and down at a fearful rate. At this stage of the fun several of the boys took hold of Doyle and tried to hold him on the crevice, but in this they failed, for the more weight they added to Doyle the more power the spring seemed to have, and Doyle kept bobbing up and down like a cork.” The man ﬁnally pleaded to be released, exclaiming, “I am now pounded into a beefsteak! ”
Steamboat Spring is submerged by Alexander Reservoir now, but a churning on the lake surface reveals its location. Dozens of other springs have been altered or destroyed by years of development, which began in 1863 when a settlement and an army camp were established in the area. A few, including Hooper Springs, are still local attractions. Emigrants loved to sample their water, using ﬂavorings to create soda beverages, mixing it into bread dough for leavening, or just drinking it like beer and imagining themselves growing tipsy. The Sody Spring is quite a curiosity thare is a great many of them just boiling rite up out of the ground take alitle sugar and desolve it in alitle water and then dip up acup full and drink it before it looses it gass it is frustrate [first rate] I drank ahol of galon of it. —William J. Scott, 1846 Oregon emigration But in the Bear River Valley, emigrants began encountering another natural wonder that was not so much fun: crawling armies of large, leggy “crickets” that devoured anything in their path. The “crickets” are really a type of katydid—not a true cricket, a locust, or a grasshopper—that feeds on sagebrush and other plants. Periodically their population booms and they swarm by the millions, as many as 100 per square yard, across the Desert West.
They will gobble up gardens and ﬁeld crops, munch on clothing, quilts, and linens, and even cannibalize their own kind. They earned their popular name, Mormon cricket, when they attacked settler’s crops around Salt Lake City in 1848. Native peoples used the insects to make protein-rich . Courtesy of Idaho soups and pemmican “bread,” but most emigrants regarded Mormon crickets as unappetizing
The ground, for a strip of about four miles, was covered with black crickets of a large size. I saw some that were about three inches in length. . .. Our teams made great havoc among them; so numerous were they that we crushed them at every step.
Wingless, dumpy, black, swollen-headed, with bulging eyes in cases like goggles, mounted upon legs of steel wire and clock-spring, and with a general appearance that justified the Mormons in comparing him to a cross of the spider on the buﬂalo, the Deseret cricket comes down from the mountains at a certain season of the year, in voracious and desolating myriads. —Thomas Leiper Kane, in “The Mormons, a discourse delivered before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, March 26, 1850”
A few miles west of Soda Springs, the Bear River hairpins around Sheep Rock and flows lazily south toward the Great Salt Lake. Sheep Rock, named for the bighorn sheep that passing emigrants sometimes saw there, is where the 1841 Western Emigration Society split up, with Fitzpatrick's company going on to Fort Hall and the Bidwell-Bartleson Party continuing down the river toward Utah. In 1849 a third alternate, the Hudspeth Cutoff, was blazed as a shortcut to California. It angled
directly southwest away from the Bear River at Sheep Rock toward the northeast corner of present-day Nevada, and soon became the preferred route of the 1849 gold rushers and later emigrants to California. Some Oregon trafﬁc, as well as California-bound travelers hoping to resupply, continued northwest along Fitzpatrick’s route toward the Snake River and Fort Hall.
Good bye to Bear River. In one mile farther we reached the junction of the Ft. Hall and Headspeth’s cut ojf roads, and after some debate and a vote it was decided to go by Ft. Hall, the minority grumbling greatly. The Mountaineers had invariably advised us to take this rout.
As the trail crosses today’s Fort Hall Indian Reservation and approaches the site of the old Fort Hall trading post, the Lander Cutoff merges from the east. This cutoff, developed in 1857-59 by government engineer Frederick Lander, was the only federally funded road ever constructed for the overland emigration. Lander’s road went directly from the Ninth Crossing of the Sweetwater River, near South Pass, Wyoming, to Fort Hall, thus bypassing the original trail’s long meander southwest through Fort Bridger. But Fort Hall never served the emigrants who arrived by the Lander Cutoff. By the time the new road opened to trafﬁc, the old fur-trade depot was closed and abandoned.
Fort Hall, built in 1834 by New England businessman Nathaniel Wyeth, was the ﬁrst permanent American post in the entire Oregon Country. Hardball business tactics by rival Hudson’s Bay Company soon drove Wyeth into debt and forced him to sell his enterprise to the British-owned corporation. As the proﬁtable beaver-pelt trade collapsed in the early 1840s, the Hudson’s Bay Company might
have closed Fort Hall for good—but former trappers like Thomas Fitzpatrick found work as trail guides and began bringing new customers to the post. The developing Oregon Trail helped keep Fort Hall in business for another 15 years.
Fort Hall was the last trading post for many miles, and as California- bound Margaret Frink wearily observed in 1850, from there “the worst part of the road is yet to be passed over. ” It was a place where emigrants could re-supply, repair wagons and equipment, exchange livestock, and steel themselves for the hardest leg of their journey. Even the exceptionally ﬁerce clouds of mosquitoes that greeted arrivals to Fort Hall did not discourage business. Many emigrant parties stayed for several days, camping among the notoriously buggy, boggy river bottoms around the post.
We camped four miles from the fort [Hall] amonst a million of mosquitos they would not let you rest a moment and after swallowing a cup of tea and about fifty of them with it I bundled up head and ears and let them sing me to sleep.
Mosquitos were as thick as ﬂakes in a snowstorm. The poor horses whinnied all night, from their bites, and in the morning blood was streaming down their sides.
I have been much in musquitoe country, but confess I never before saw them in their glory. They were so thick you could reach out 65’ get your handfull.
Ironically, the very success of the emigration helped put an end to the fort, for the swelling tide of wagon trafﬁc through the Snake Country ignited Shoshone and Bannock resistance. Conﬂict in the region helped persuade the Hudson’s Bay Company to close its Snake River posts in 1855-56. Floods gradually washed away the fort’s adobe buildings, but emigrants continued using the site for camping and some independent traders operated there. Today, Shoshone and Bannock guides lead travelers to the site of the old post, where they can enjoy an authentic trail experience: the mosquitoes there are as welcoming as ever!
Starting in 1852, travelers to Oregon could cross to the north side of the Snake River near Fort Hall and take Jeffrey’s Cutoff, later called the Goodale Cutoff, along the upper edge of the Snake River Plain. This 230-mile alternate goes generally northwestward from the fort toward Big Southern Butte, a notable landmark on the plain. The Goodale Cutoff then turns west and crosses the north end of today’s Craters of the Moon National Monument. Trail remnants all along this route are still visible. They rejoin the primary route of the Oregon Trail east of Boise. It is a sun-baked, boot-shredding, wagon-jolting route that alternately crosses rugged lava ﬂows, dense stands of sagebrush, and sand barrens with no feed for the livestock. Despite its challenges, the Goodale Cutoff became a popular option for Oregon- bound emigrants in 1862 when ﬁghts between emigrants and Indians along the Snake River road were making national news.
The roadbed is only known by the rocks and lava being crushed by the many teams passing over it...all day long we slowly creep along lacerating our horses feet and threatening wheels, axles, or some portion of our outfit. All along were pieces of broken wagons which had met with such accidents —Harriet A. Loughary on Goodale’s Cutoff, 1864 Oregon emigration
Most wagon trains departing Fort Hall, though, turned west to follow the combined Oregon California Trail down the south rim of the Snake River, which lay snugin its deep bed of basalt. The main trail crawled southwestward over increasingly rough terrain and, in places, along dangerously narrow riverside bluffs. One or two days’ travel—about 25 miles—over that road brought travelers to the American Falls, where the river dropped 50 feet in a series of roaring whitewater cascades. Emigrant journals often remarked on the spot’s natural beauty and sometimes mentioned trading with Indians for ﬁsh at this location. The tranquility of the place belies the violence that occurred nearby one hot August evening in 1859.
The Miltimore Party, a wagon train of 19 men, women, and children on their way to California, had strung out along the trail as they approached their evening camp above American Falls. Several well- armed white men poorly disguised as Indians—having dark skin but light brown hair and beards and speaking standard English— suddenly approached on horseback and commandeered two lagging wagons at the rear of the train. At their signal, 15 to 20 more men jumped the rear wagons and began shooting, sparing no one. The forward wagons quickly were drawn into the attack, as well. Some emigrants escaped into thick willows along the river, where they listened, terrified, to the “whooping and hollering of the Indians” through the night.
An army expedition from Fort Walla Walla, encamped on the Raft River, came across 11 survivors afoot on the trail three days later. Soldiers looking for more survivors found a horriﬁc scene of brutality at the attack site. They buried eight victims in a common grave that now rests beneath American Falls Reservoir. Indians, probably Shoshones and Bannocks, took part in the killings, but according to some of the survivors, white “land pirates” in search of plunder master-minded the ambush
Three years later and about 10 miles west of the Miltimore killing grounds, in an area now called Massacre Rocks, about 150 ﬁghters under the Northwestern Shoshone War Chief Pocatello engaged several more wagon companies in retaliation for earlier unprovoked attacks by emigrants on his own people. Again, some survivors reported white renegades among the attackers. Ten emigrants and eight Indian ﬁghters died in those skirmishes of August 9-10, 1862. Pocatello’s Shoshone and Bannock warriors launched several more strikes that season along the Oregon and California Trails in Idaho, hoping to halt emigrant trespass there. Within a year, his efforts would pull disaster down on his people