In the last week of March of the year 1813 seven men might have been seen leading an old horse down the valley of the North Platte. They were white men who had come all the way from the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon and had walked all the way from the Snake River in Idaho where the Crow Indians had robbed them of their horses. Their one poor old horse they had got from the Snake Indians, trading them a pistol, a knife and an ax for him.
The names of these men were Robert Stuart, Ramsay Crooks, Robert McLellan, Ben Jones, Andri Vallee, Francis LeClerc and Joseph Miller. Two years before, on March 12, 1811, they had left St. Louis with a party under Wilson Price Hunt intending to cross the mountains and build a fort for the American Fur Company in Oregon. On their way up the Missouri River the Hunt party had the most remarkable keel boat race in history. This was with Manuel Lisa, who left St. Louis nineteen days later and wished to overtake them. The race was a thousand miles long and lasted sixty days. It was won by Lisa who overtook Hunt before he arrived at Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Here Hunt left his boats, traded for horses with the Arikara Indians and set out to find a shorter way to Oregon than the one taken by Lewis and Clark. Their new route took them over very rough country in the Black Hills and Big Horn mountains. After great losses and hardships they reached the mouth of the Columbia River, where they built a fort which they named Astoria, after John Jacob Astor, of New York, the president of the fur company.
From Astoria, on the 29th of June, 1812, the little party of seven men set out to return to the United States in order to carry word to Mr. Astor in New York All the summer and fall they had marched across the deserts and mountains. To avoid the fierce Blackfoot Indians they kept to the south of the route by which they went out. By so doing they met a party of Crows who stole all of their horses. The seven men were thus left afoot in a wild country without roads and more than a thousand miles from any white settlement. They burned their baggage to keep the Indians from getting any of it, and with their rifles and such things as they could carry on their backs began their long tramp toward the Missouri River. One of their number became sick and they were obliged to carry him for several days and then to camp and give him "Indian sweat" until he got well.
Soon after they began to climb the Rocky Mountains and game became so scarce that they nearly starved. They fished in a mountain stream but caught no fish. For three days they went hungry. One of them, crazed for want of food, said that they must draw lots and one of them be killed to feed the rest. The others took away his gun, and the next day they killed an old buffalo, which saved their lives. A few days later they found a camp of Snake Indians and traded with them for an old horse. With this old horse to carry their things they kept on through the mountains until they found a way to the eastern slope, not far from where the South Pass was later found. They were the first white men to cross the mountains at this point and find their way to the valley eastward which afterward became the route for the Oregon and California trail. On October 26th they reached the upper waters of the Platte River. They did not know what stream it was or where it would lead them, but they followed it until the 2nd of November, when they made a winter camp where there was timber and game, and not far from where Casper, Wyoming, is now. In three days they killed forty-seven buffalo. They built a log cabin, used the buffalo skins to cover it, dried the buffalo meat and had made themselves comfortable for the winter when a band of twenty-three Arapahoes on the warpath against the Crows came to their cabin nearly starved. The Astorians fed them all night with dried buffalo meat. The next day as soon as the Arapahoes had left in pursuit of the Crows the Astorians packed their faithful old horse with what he could carry and hurried away from their snug cabin in the mountains, leaving all the rest to the Indians.
Monument to the Astorians at Bellevue, Nebraska.
(From photograph by A. E. Sheldon.)
It was the 13th of December when the Astorians left their winter quarters. The snow was two feet deep in the mountains. Their feet became sore from breaking through the hard crust. Their old horse had nothing to eat but willow twigs and cottonwood bark, but they struggled on for fourteen days in which time they made about 330 miles. The country began to change. The mountains gave place to hills and the hills to plains. There was no wood and the snow lay deep on the ground. They feared they would freeze to death so they went back three days' march (about seventy-seven miles) and on December 30th made camp again where there was wood and buffalo. This camp was in Nebraska not far from where Bridgeport is now. Here they stayed until March and made two large canoes to travel with on the river, but the North Platte (for it was that stream) was so shallow that they were obliged to leave their canoes after all their hard work in making them and start again on foot accompanied by their faithful old horse.
So it was that on March 20, 1813, they left their last camp and journeyed down the North Platte valley. They saw a herd of sixty-five wild horses and longed to be mounted on them as they galloped away. Day after day they marched along leading their old horse with his burden. On either side of the wide North Platte valley the great prairie stretched away covered with buffalo, but no human being was in sight. They passed great swamps where they saw thousands of wild swan, geese and ducks. They were probably in what is now Garden County. There were no trees and they made their only fires with dry refuse on the prairies. In the early days of April they reached a great island, about seventy miles long, in the Platte River. When they saw this island, now called Grand Island, they were for the first time sure that they were in the Platte River valley, for hunters had already brought word of this island in the Platte. Three days later they met an Otoe Indian who took them to his village. Here they met two white traders from St. Louis to whom they traded their old horse for a canoe, and on the 18th of April they floated into the Missouri River and down to St. Louis.
To these seven men and their old horse belongs the honor of first exploring the North Platte valley and first finding a central route through the Rocky Mountains. They were real path-finders of the great West.