More Diary Entries from an Oregon Trail Pioneer
One of the lesser-known escapades from American history was the “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. The going was rough, the members of the party almost starved, and they fell to squabbling among themselves. Though the expedition fell apart, nine of its members did eventually make it to Oregon in small groups. Thomas Jefferson Farnham, the party’s leader, was one of those who made it all the way—but not with any of his colleagues. The expedition failed to achieve its grand objective, but their explorations did help establish the Oregon Trail.
The failure of the expedition no doubt colored Farnham’s perceptions, perhaps explaining why he wrote a warning letter to newspapers back East in 1843 to counter the glowing reports about the rich and abundant land awaiting pioneers at the end of the Oregon Trail. Farnham instead described how hard and dangerous the journey was, using stark language: “I do not believe that one who has never crossed the Rocky Mountains, that awful barrier of snows, and herbless sands, and naked rocks, can have a fair conception of the horrors which hang around every day and hour of that journey.”
Farnham wrote a diary during the Peoria Party’s expedition, and continued it on his own journey after the party broke up. The newspaper Idaho Statesman, knowing its readers would be interested in Farnham’s descriptions of their state when it was still part of the Oregon Country, printed excerpts from his diary on May 18, 1919.
A week later, the paper printed more excerpts from Farnham’s diary. The following article was published by the Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho) on May 25, 1919:
Gloomy Pictures of Idaho before Indian Abdicated
Thomas J. Farnham in His Diary Gives Interesting Items Concerning Desert Wastes and Dirty Redskins
In the reminiscences of the travels of Thomas J. Farnham in 1839, published by him, he tells of his first sight of the “Boisais” river, which can be no other than the Boise in another form of the French word. It will be noticed throughout the story that he speaks of the Snake river as the Saptin, the name given it by the early explorers. So far as can be found this is the first time the Boise river was designated “Boisais.” Farnham also calls it “Boisais or Reed’s river” and refers later to Fort Boisais.
Farnham’s notes are interesting not only because of their close description of the Idaho country, but for the picturesque stories of Indians of that time. He says:
September 6—Twenty-five miles today; face of the country black, hard and barren swells; encamped on a small tributary of the Saptin (Snake); very little grass for the animals; found here a family of the Root Digger Indians; the man half clad, children naked, all filthy; dirt lay in nodules on the woman’s face and ears. She was clad in a wrapper of mountain sheepskin.
Loud Roaring of Waters.
7th—Twenty miles. About midday heard a loud roaring of waters; descended the chasm of the river and discovered two enormous springs bursting from the basaltic cliffs of the opposite shore.
Their roaring was heard three miles. The lower one discharged water enough to turn the machinery of 20 ordinary manufactories. The water foamed and rushed down inclined plains of rocks the distance of 200 feet. The country, an undulating, barren, volcanic plain; near the river cut into bluffs; lava everywhere; wild wormwood and another shrub two feet in height bearing a yellow blossom, the only wood seen; encamped on a small stream about three miles from the river. Found here the only grass observed during the day.
8th—Still on the western bank of the Saptin; river one-fourth of a mile wide; water extremely clear; current five miles the hour; depth of water about four feet.
Some Rough Roads.
10th—Fifteen miles over “cut rock” and wormwood deserts, and at midday descended about 600 feet into the chasm of the Saptin and traveled along the brink of the river a short distance; crossed at a place called “The Islands” to the eastern shore.
The river has been dipping deeper in the plain the last three days. A bird’s eye view of it for 60 miles above the islands would present a tortuous chasm, walled by basalt, trap, etc., and sunk along the center of the valley, from 100 to 800 feet deep, a black chasm, destitute of timber and other evidences of fertility, from a quarter to half a mile in width. In the center of the bottom rushes the Saptin; over rocks and gravel a clear, pure, strong stream with a current of five miles to the hour; water three and four feet in depth. Traveled seven or eight miles from the ford and fell in with eight or 10 springs of limpid water bubbling through the flinty crust of the plain. The sun was pouring upon us his fiercest rays and our thirst was excessive. A halting, dismounting and rushing to the water, the application of our giant’s lips to the liquid—a paralysis of his thirst produced by the boiling hot sensation which it imparted to his swearing apparatus prepared us to resume our ride. Hot springs, boiling hot—no apparent mineral properties.
Travels in the Desert.
11th—Traveled today 35 miles over an irregular, rough, unseemly desert; volcanic stones strewn everywhere on a black, impenetrable, baked surface; soil too poor to bear the wormwood—trail too far east to see the river.
At 10 o’clock met a petty chief of the Snake Root Diggers and his son on horseback, from Boisais river. He was dressed in a blanket coat, deerskin pants and moccasins garnished with cut glass beads and strips of red flannel; the boy entirely naked. Carbo having learned from him the situation of his tribe, a few bits of Indian scandal, that we could reach the Boisais river the next day, that we could probably obtain fresh horses there, his copper colored highness was left to pursue his way to Fort Hall to get his guns repaired and we continued ours to the lower Columbia to get out of this grave of desolation. I had not seen an acre of land since leaving Fort Hall capable of producing the grains or vegetables. Encamped on a small brook running westwardly towards the Saptin.
Reaches Boise River.
12th—On route at 6 o’clock of the morning; horses weary and crippled pitifully on the “cut rock”; face of the country absolute sterility; our trail near the mountains, about 200 miles east of the Saptin. At 9 o’clock came to the bluff overlooking the Boisais river. Here the valley is sunken 600 or 700 feet; the whole of it below, to the limit of sight, appears to have subsided nearly to a level with the waters of the Saptin. Lines of timber ran along the Boisais, the plots of green grass and shrubs dotted its banks. The mountains, whence the river came, rose in dark stratified ridges. Where the stream escaped from them there was an immense chasm, with perpendicular sides, which seemed to open into their most distant bases. Horrid crags beetled over its dismal depths. Lofty, rocky ridges extended far into the north. In the west and northwest towered the Blue mountains. We descended the bluff, followed down the Boisais three or four miles and crossed the river into an encampment of Snake fishermen.
These Indians are more filthy than the Hottentots. They eat the vermin from each other’s heads! Both sexes were nearly naked. Their shelters were made with rush mats wrapped around cones of poles.
Land More Encouraging.
Having finished our trading, we traveled about 10 miles down the stream and encamped upon its bank. The plains were well covered with grass; many portions seemed susceptible of cultivation. The bed of the river presented the usual characteristics of a mountain torrent; broad, shallow, with extensive bars of coarse gravel crossing the channel in all directions; the water limpid, and its quantity might be expressed by saying that the average depth was six inches—width 10 yards—rate of current three miles an hour. In the month of June, however, it is said to bring from its maternal mountains immense floods.
Barter with Indians.
13th—A breakfast of boiled spawn, and on trail at sunrise; traveled rapidly down the grassy intervales of the Boisais; passed many small groves of timber. Many Indians employed in drying salmon, nearly naked, and dirty and miserable, ran after us for tobacco and to trade horses. All Indians have a mania for barter. They will trade for good or ill to themselves at every opportunity. Here they beset us on every side. And if at any moment we began to felicitate ourselves on having at last escaped from their annoying petitions for “shmoke” and “hos,” the next moment the air would resound with whips and hoofs, and “shmoke,” “shmoke,” “hos” from half a dozen new applicants more troublesome than their predecessors. No Jew with old clothes and a pinch-beck watch to sell ever pressed customers with more assiduity than did these savages. But when we had traveled about 30 miles from our night camp they all suddenly disappeared, and neither Hot nor Shoshonie were seen more. They dare not pass the boundary between themselves and the Bonaks.
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