Nathaniel Wyeth was an early American explorer and investor in a salmon fishing and fur trade industry in the Oregon Territory. Wyeth built as many as four forts in the West, including Fort William on Wappatoo Island (Sauvie Island), Oregon Territory, and Fort Hall on the Lewis River (Snake river) in what is Idaho today.
In 1831 Wyeth, then a young businessman (29 yrs), was being courted by Hall Kelley of Boston to join an expedition to colonize the Oregon Country. Kelley envisioned some 200 persons, many of them women and children would make the overland trip to the Oregon Country. Wyeth did not believe that venture would work with women and children along, as he thought they could not travel in the winter nor travel as far, or over as rugged terrain, and so dissociated himself from the venture. Wyeth instead began a Joint Stock Concern where his companions would be under contract for a term of 5 years, and they would follow under his direction in fur trading, agriculture, salmon fishing, and other business in the Oregon country. He set about to raise some $5000 for articles of trade, munitions for hunting, stock for manufacturing, and for horses for baggage some $2000-$2500.
Wyeth began to send letters to all the people he knew, including many relations, asking for their monetary investment in the expedition. He spent a good 3 years in preparation, with multiple letters sent to many of the potential investors he knew. Many business partners and family gave $600 or more for their stake in the company. For the profit of the adventurers, he divided the shares 50 ways, and would keep 8 shares for himself, 2 shares for doctors and other specialists, and the remainder would be divided among the party’s laborers, hunters, scouts and boatmen. accompanying him on the expedition were naturalists Professor Thomas Nuttall of Harvard University, and John Kirk Townsend, plus the Methodist missionary Jason Lee, who would go on to establish the first Methodist Mission and school in the Willamette Valley. Wyeth promised the investors that he would net some $40,000 for the five year expedition, and would be able to easily pay back all of the investors, with a little profit for himself. Some of his investors were highly skeptical of that level of profit, yet still contributed.
Wyeth began with his exploratory party in early 1834, and arrived in the Oregon Country with 26 horses and mules and 41 men. Before coming onto the Columbia, Wyeth and his men built Fort Hall on the “Lewis” river (Snake river) where he left a small contingent of his men, and sent word to the local tribes that they were open for business in trade.
Fort Hall- Built a fort at the Lewis River (Fort Hall) and raised the American flag- we manufactured a magnificent flag from some unbleached sheeting a little red flannel and a few blue patches, saluted it with damaging powder and wet it in villainous alcohol, and after all it makes a very respectable appearance amid the dry and desolate regions…Its bastions stand a terror to the skulking Indian and a beacon of safety to the fugitive hunter. It is manned by 12 men and had constantly loaded in the bastions 100 guns and rifles. After building this Fort I sent messengers to the neighboring nations to induce them to come to it to trade.
In September 1834, Wyeth arrived on the Columbia, visited many tribes along the way, and stopped in at Fort Vancouver to visit John McLoughlin. At this point his men left him, choosing the stability of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and he had to hire new men to take him to Astoria to meet a packet with his supplies that he had previously arranged to be shipped around the horn. He met his vessel on September 11, 1834. The vessel had visited Hawaii and taken on about 20 Hawaiians as laborers. The vessel had also been struck by lightning, somewhat delaying its arrival at Astoria. Wyeth chose to delay its departure because of weather and the need for repairs.
Wyeth then separated the party on the packet in Astoria and directed Captain Thing with about 20 men, including 13 Hawaiians to travel to Fort Hall to garrison the fort and help with trade operations. The remainder of Hawaiians and white men were sent to Wappatoo Island to build Fort William.
By October 6th Wyeth was writing his friends stating that they had established a fort on the south side of the Columbia on, “about 75 miles from the mouth of the river,” and had built out a “few buildings for store houses, smiths and cooper shops and dwellings.” in preparation for entering the salmon fishing business. His plan was to fill ships holds with large kegs of fresh salmon bound for San Francisco.
Wyeth writes home:
Set about preparing for fishing, finished a canoe 60 feet long and 3 feet wide of clear Spruce wood, cut off 30 feet of clear stuff from the same tree, not a shake or knot in it. There are trees that would square free from knots that would produce a canoe 100 feet long.
Wapatoo island is about 15 miles long and an average of 3 miles wide. One side runs the Columbia and the other the Multnomah. It consists of woodlands and prairie and has considerable deer.
In late September, Wyeth had begun seeking a claim of his own in the Willamette Valley. In 1834, there were not even a half dozen white claims in the valley and so Wyeth had his pick of many choice lands.
Wyeth’s description of the Willamette settlement is very detailed,
[Journal] On the 29th (September) with Abbot and Woodman in an Indian canoe I started for a journey up the Wallamet or Multnomah River this river which is highest in the winter was so at this time but us not rapid until near the falls. … my estimate 27 1/2 miles to the falls which are perpendicular about 20 feet past these we carried our canoe 1/4 mile and launched above the falls…Above the falls for 22 miles the banks of the river are high enough to prevent overflowing but timbered and not fertile and rough and the country apparently not available except for Timber… mostly cottonwood and alder… 3 or 4 Canadians settled as farmers they have now been there one year have hogs, horses, cows, have built barns, houses and raised wheat, barley, potatoes, turnips, cabbages, corn, pumpkins, melons…. at the falls the H.B.C. are erecting a saw mill to which they contemplate adding a grist mill, the situation for mill privileges is beyond anything I have ever seen. I have never seen country of equal beauty except the Kansas country… Carrots are here finer and larger than I have ever seen….
(Letters of: Columbia River Oct 6th 1834) I am busy in making an establishment, a farm, on the Multnomah (Willamette) about 40-50 miles from its mouth, on a prairie of about 15 miles long bordering the river which is nearly as large as the Ohio surrounded by beautiful and well assorted timber and watered by a good mill stream, The soil is beautiful. If some of the things on which the minds eye casts a ‘longing lingering” look were here I might be content to rest from my labors and lay my bones in this remote wild.
He sets out in September to find a farm on the Willamette.
22nd- Not suiting myself as to a farm returned to Duportes and went to look at a prairie about 3 miles below his place and concluded to occupy it. It is about 15 miles long 7 wide surrounded with fine timber and a good mill stream on it. Laid out a farm [in the] afternoon took canoe and descended as far as falls.
23rd made the portage of the falls and was taken violently sick of vomiting and purging probably caused by having eaten some Lamprey Eels recovered toward night and arrived at Fort Vancouver…
26th sent Stout up the Wallammut with 2 men and implements to commence farm and started myself up to Vancouver on business.
28th- Up the Wallamut with Mr. Nuttall and Townsend and Mr. Stout
Wyeth never lives at his homestead, and instead has his contract engagees work the farm. Upon his last visit to the place in 1835, most of his men have left and joined the Willamette Mission of Jason Lee. Naturalists Nuttall and Townsend, presumedly collected their samples of botanicals and returned to the east coast to teach classes and write their papers and books on their findings.
Wyeth arrived at Wappatoo Island in the aftermath of the malaria epidemic that killed most of the Chinookans . He laments the death of these people but appears to suggest that he may have had to do the same to them to make a place for his company.
Mortality has carried off to a man its inhabitants and there is nothing to attest that they ever existed except their decaying houses, their graves and their unburied bones of which there are heaps. So you see as the righteous people of New England say, Providence has made room for me and without doing them more injury that I should if I had made room for myself viz Killing them off.
And, on the Willamette Wyeth arrives in the midst of an epidemic and describes in great detail the overwhelming destruction of the Kalapuyans in what will become French Prairie.
[Journal, September 29th] There appears much sickness among the people here especially among the common people which I think arises from low diet and moist weather for as far as I can observe the gentlemen who live well are not much subject to disorders. The main disorder is an intermittent fever which has carried off all or nearly all the Indians who live even worse then the engages (contract workers).
Wyeth here perfectly captures the destruction of the tribes by the new diseases (mainly malaria) recently introduced by fur traders. The ultimate loss of tribal peoples is close to 90-95% for the Chinookans and Kalapuyans. This event, caused a societal and cultural collapse and created vast empty territories where the remaining people could not defend their territories from encroaching immigration. Tribes like the Klickitat and Cowlitz take advantage of the vulnerability of the tribes and move into the regions. Similarly, Americans encounter a vast open land with few native peoples, where there was plenty of room for their land-claims. In addition, the environmental management of the tribes in the Willamette Valley, over centuries, had prepared a vast open prairie of rich soils seemingly ready for settlement by American farmers.
Gathering up the Hawaiians
Then, word reached Wyeth of the Hawaiians he sent to Fort Hall, who had escaped the party, and disappeared into the wilderness. As these were contracted workers, Wyeth set out to round them up but encounters a significant delay when the Columbia freezes.
[journal] January 8th - there was much floating ice in the river… Mr. McKay gave our room a treat of Buffalo meat salted and smoked and this being the first opportunity of comparing good buffalo meat with other good meat was highly acceptable. I think it equal to the best meat ever eaten…. 11th the river closed with ice and I am detained here until it opens… on the 14th I walked across the Columbia and found the ice 6 inches thick where it lay smooth…. 20th- raining still, and thermometer 52 degrees. River not yet cleared ice stationary…. 23rd the river broke up.
For the next two months Wyeth and his party traveled through eastern Oregon Country searching for the Hawaiians. When returning to the Columbia in March of 1835, on his return, he heard news of the Hawaiians from the local tribes, and found 7 of them near the Columbia . The rest of them had died by Indian attack, drowning, and being froze to death. He rounded them up and they went to Fort William to join the remainder of the workers.
Wyeth, from the beginnings of the enterprise saw this venture as a counter to Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1832, he had visited Fort Vancouver and made an agreement with John McLoughlin that his new venture would not directly compete against the HBC. For this reason, Wyeth spends most of his efforts working on the salmon industry, an industry that HBC was not heavy invested. Wyeth set about to create a series of American forts in a network across the west, from the Columbia,to the Snake to Great Salt Lake, areas where HBC was not operating, to offer Americans areas of safety and respite on their journey west. In addition, the ultimate plan was to establish a permanent American Presence in the Oregon Territory, an area under joint occupation by the British and Americans. Previous to 1834, American ventures were not allowed in the OT under international treaty.
Wyeth was putting into action the national policy of American expansionism, first began under Thomas Jefferson. Fort Hall is eventually sold by Wyeth but it becomes one of the most important outposts for migrating Americans along the future Oregon trail. Wyeth’s plan was sound, if ten years too soon.
Failure of the the Enterprise
Wyeth’s business by 1835 was not making the money he had expected. His last shipment of salmon was only half a hold of salmon. There had been a poor salmon run the previous two years. In addition, Wyeth did not utilize as many Native laborers as he should have. Involving Native people in the enterprise might have made the difference as they knew the best methods of fishing salmon. The loss of the Wappatoo Indians by disease might not have been as fortuitous as Wyeth imagined.
In his letter of September 6th 1835, Wyeth wraps up his situation and begin to conclude his business affairs in the Oregon Territory.
Journal Columbia river Sept 20th 1835
We have had a bad season for salmon. about half a cargo only obtained. The Salmon part of the business will never do. Our people are sick and dying off like rotten sheep of billious disorders
Letter of: Fort William Sept 6th 1835
This business has not been successful in any of its branches Therefore It will terminate soon. We have lost 14 persons none by natural death, loss of property from hostility of Indians has been considerable.
Journal Sept 22nd 1835
17 are dead to this date… off to Fort Hall
By 1847 Wyeth has sold his property and stake in the business to other interests. For a decade, HBC takes over dairy farming on Wappatoo Island, but their affairs end in the Oregon country after the Oregon treaty (1846), which decides on the national border between the United States and Canada.
Letter of 1847- At Fort William we grazed all the animals obtained from the islands [Hawaii], California and the Indians, planted wheat, corn, potatoes, peas, beans, turnips, grafted & planted apples and other fruits, built dwelling house and shops for working iron and wood, and in fact made a permanent location which has never been abandoned. I made this my personal residence during Winter and Summer 1835. In the autumn of that year’s proceeded to Fort hall with supplies, having sent some previous to that time. During the winter of 1836 I resided at my post of Fort Hall, and in the Spring of that year returned to Fort William of Wappatoo Island whence I carried more supplies to Fort hall… and arrive home (US) in the autumn of 1836.
All property in the interior including Fort Hall was sold, it being necessary in order to retain the post, to keep up a garrison… Fort William at Wappatoo Island required nothing of that kind, was retained, and the gentleman then in charge Mr. C.M. Walker was directed to lease it to some trusty person for 15 years… Nothing having been heard from Mr. Walker for a long time I sent a request to John McLaughlin to have the island entered in my name at the land office established by the Provisional government.
Nathaniel Wyeth’s legacy is his vision of what it would take to expand the country to the Pacific coast. Tightly financed, his self-made vision of blazing a trail to the west that Americans could follow, sets the stage for the next generation of explorers who fine tuned the route of the Oregon Trail. Wyeth did make mistakes. He spent three or four months (1834-1835) trying to find the Hawaiian escapees, when his time may have been better spent working on developing his business. He also did not appear to see the value of Native peoples. This is not a mistake HBC made, as they heavily employed natives in the fur trade and for labor about Fort Vancouver. Fort William joins the list of American fur trade outposts that dot the Willamette and Columbia rivers.
Correspondence and Journal of Nathaniel J. Wyeth.
public domain images when available
I generally paraphrased many of his letters and journal entries. They are substantially the same as he wrote them. I also liberally edited the text for grammatical and other errors. The Title of this article is directly lifted from one of his letters.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
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