Excerpts from the Diary of an Oregon Trail Pioneer
Thomas Jefferson Farnham was the leader of the ill-fated “Peoria Party,” a group of 16 armed adventurers who set out for the Oregon Country in 1839 intending to organize the American settlers there and drive out the British. Though the expedition did not achieve its grand goals, it did help blaze the route that became the Oregon Trail.
Farnham kept a diary during the adventure, and from it published his Travels in the Great Western Prairies, the Anahuac and Rocky Mountains, and in the Oregon Territory in 1843. His descriptions of the fur trappers and trading posts he encountered give us details about a place and way of life few knew at the time.
The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho) published excerpts from Farnham’s diary on May 18, 1919:
Fur Trader Days in Solitudes of Western Empire
Thomas J. Farnham, One of the Pathfinders of Snake River Basin, Gives Interesting Reminiscences of Old Times
Fort Hall was built by Captain Wyeth of Boston, in 1832, for the purposes of trade with the Indians in its vicinity. He had taken goods into the lower part of the Territory to exchange for salmon. But competition soon drove him from his fisheries to this remote spot, where he hoped to be permitted to purchase furs of the Indians without being molested by the Hudson Bay company, whose nearest post was 700 miles away.
Fur Traders’ Law
In this he was disappointed. In pursuance of the avowed doctrine of that company, that no others have a right to trade in furs west of the Rocky mountains, while the use of capital and their incomparable skill and perseverance can prevent it, they established a fort near him, preceded him, followed him, surrounded him everywhere, and cut the throat of his prosperity with such kindness and politeness, that Wyeth was induced to sell his whole interest, existent and prospective, in Oregon, to his generous but too indefatigable, skillful, and powerful antagonists.
From what I saw and heard of Wyeth’s management in Oregon, I was impressed with the belief that he was, beyond comparison, the most talented business man from the states that ever established himself in the territory.
Trade with the Indians
The business of this post consists in exchanging blankets, ammunition, guns, tobacco, etc., with the neighboring Indians, for the skins of the beaver and land otter; and in furnishing white men with traps, horses, saddles, bridles, provisions, etc., to enable them to hunt these animals for the benefit and sole use of the owners—or Hudson Bay company. In such cases, the horses are loaned without price; the other articles of the “outfit” sold on credit till the termination of the hunt. And the only security which the company requires for the return of their animals is the pledge of honor to that effect, and that the furs taken shall be appropriated at a stipulated price to the payment of arrearages.
Where Goods Are Cheap
Goods are sold at this establishment 50 per cent lower than at the American posts. White trappers are paid a higher price for their furs than is paid the Indians; are charged less for the goods which they receive in exchange, and are treated in every respect by this shrewd company with such uniform justice, that the American trappers even are fast leaving the service of their countrymen for the larger profits and better treatment of British employment. There is also a company of men connected with this fort, under the command of an American mountaineer, who, following various tribes in their migratory expeditions in the adjacent American and Mexican domain, collect whatever furs may chance to be among them.
By these means, and various others subsidiary to them, the gentlemen in charge of this trading establishment collected in the summer of 1839 more than 30 packs of the best beaver of the mountains.
We spent the 2nd and 3rd most agreeably with Mr. Walker in his hospitable adobe castle – exchanged with him our wearied horses for fresh ones, and obtained dried buffalo meat, sugar, cocoa, tea and corn meal, a guide, and every other necessary within that gentleman’s power to furnish for our journey to Walla Walla. And at 10 o’clock a.m. of the 4th of September we bade adieu to our very obliging countryman and took to our saddles on the trail down the desert banks of the Saptin.
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