December 9, 2006

Nevada's Online State News Journal


Nevada History:

 [From James G. Scrugham, Nevada: The Narrative of the Conquest of a Frontier Land (1935), vol. I, pp. 39-44]




Among the intrepid leaders of the Hudson's Bay Company was Peter Skene Ogden who had given up a promising career in the practice of law to follow the wild life of the trappers. His father was a jurist of renown in Montreal; his brother was legal counsel for the Northwestern Fur Company. In a spirit of adventure young Ogden had joined one of the annual expeditions of the fur traders from Montreal to Mackinac, and then across the Rocky Mountain divide to the western flowing streams, and so finally to the Columbia. Here adopting the customs and manners of the trappers, he turned his back on civilization, married an Indian woman, entered permanently into the employ of the company, and became in a few years one of its leaders, in the country tributary to the Columbia.

The English companies had purchased Astoria from Astor's agents in 1814 and had established their headquarters at Vancouver, opposite the mouth of the Willamette on the Columbia. From his headquarters McLaughlin was sending out his bands of trappers every spring to trap along the mountain streams, to trade with the Indians and free-trappers, and to explore for new trap-ping grounds. To Ogden was allotted the territory tributary to the Snake River or Clark's Fork of the Columbia. The constant requirement of fresh streams to trap was as much an object of concern to the English as to the American trappers, hence it was as much a part of the leaders' duties to explore as it was to trade and trap. In the spring of 1825 Ogden sent out a small party, under a leader named Sylvaille, to trap and explore along the head-waters of the Owyhee[1] and Malheur Rivers. Sylvaille crossed the divide to the southwest and discovered a beaver bearing stream running into a salt lake. The stream is now known as Silvie's River, and the lake as Malheur, located in Southern Oregon.

Ogden spent the autumn of 1826 and the winter and spring of 1827 trapping in southern Oregon and northeastern California, most of the time in the vicinity of Klamath Lake. On this trip he discovered and named Mount Shasta which he called Mt. Shastise. Late in the spring, on his way back to the Columbia, he turned east and south to explore the country south of Malheur Lake, and visited the lake which Fremont was to name Lake Abert in 1844. A few days later he was in Warner Lake Valley close to the line dividing Oregon from Nevada. From his meagre notes it is im-


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possible to determine his exact route, but it is quite probable that he crossed into the present confines of Nevada, in which case we have the interesting coincidence that the Hudson's Bay Company's trappers entered Nevada for the first time, in May, 1827, at the same time that Jedediah Strong Smith was crossing the Nevada desert some two hundred and fifty miles to the south on his way to Great Salt Lake.

Finding the country to the south a comparative desert and being short of provisions Ogden turned back to the north and hastened to Vancouver, going down the Malheur to the Columbia, and thence by boats. In his report to McLaughlin Ogden de-scribes the desert country southeast of Klamath Lake and urges that it be explored for new trapping grounds. The exploration of this unknown country was not undertaken until the autumn of 1828, at which time Ogden led his party to the trapping grounds on the Malheur and Owyhee Rivers in eastern Oregon. The catch of beaver on these streams proved unsatisfactory, and Ogden from some point on the west branch of the Owyhee set out on a voyage of discovery to the unknown country to the south.[2]

On November 4 the scouts in advance "discovered four Indians, one of whom directed them to follow the trail to a large river." The entire party followed and soon "reached a bend of the river and camped." This stream was the present Quin River, and the camp was on the bend below the present site of Fort McDermitt, in Nevada. They found the "Indians most numerous, their subsistence grass roots and wild fowl. They fly in all directions. We are the first whites they have seen and they think we have come with no good intentions."

For several days Ogden followed down the course of Quin River, passing the series of small lakes through which the river flows near the present Sod House Station, and from these lakes giving the stream the name, "River of the Lakes." "Although not a wide stream certainly a long one." On November 8 they "crossed a plain and reached a stream similar in size to the River of the Lakes. The banks of the river are lined with huts and the river has natives most numerous." The party is now on the Little Humboldt near Willow Point. The next day, November 9, the party reached a small lake on the stream. "Surprised to find tho' the river discharges in the lake and takes a subterranean passage it appears again taking an easterly course. Had not advanced four miles when a large stream appeared lined with willows. So glad was I to see it that at the risk of my life, over swamps, hills and rocks, I made all speed to reach it and the first thing I saw was a beaver house well stocked."

Ogden had discovered the Humboldt River near the mouth of the Little Humboldt, about three miles north of the present site

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of Winnemucca, but he was greatly puzzled at his discovery, which he named "Unknown River." At dawn the next morning all the trappers were out setting their traps along the stream. Ogden himself set about to find if possible the course of the stream. His first thought was that it was a branch of "Sandwich Island River." Going down the river for several miles and seeing only mountains in all directions he notes that "as far as I could see, it must return from whence it came." However, the stream abounded in beaver and the trappers were soon bringing in from thirty to sixty each day. During the next two weeks the party moved slowly down the river finding its banks "lined with deserted Indian villages." At one camp "150 Indians paid us a visit, miserable looking wretches with scarcely any covering, the greater part without bows and arrows . . . They are fat and in good condition . . . They annoy us and have stolen 2 traps."

On November 25 the camp was on the river below Mill City. That night Joseph Paul, one of Ogden's most valued men, be-came very ill. It was late in the season, the weather was bitterly cold, and Ogden was about to start his party for winter quarters in the buffalo country northeast of Great Salt Lake. Paul was too ill to be moved. On December 4 Ogden notes in his journal: "Cold severe. Sick man no better. If the weather would moderate I would make an attempt to move. It is the general opinion that he cannot survive. At all events by care and attention we shall not hasten his death, nor prevent recovery; but are in a critical condition and situation, our horses starving, our provisions low. Granting it may hasten the death of our sick man, we have no alternative left. God forbid it should hasten his death. At the same time the interest of the others who are now becoming most anxious from the low ebb of provisions must be attended to. So long as they had food there was no murmur. Now it is the reverse and I cannot blame them."

Paul continued to grow worse and begged Ogden to put him out of misery and save the expedition from starvation. Finally he was placed on a horse and the party was moved up the river. On December 10 he became too ill to go on and two men volunteered to remain with him while the others hastened toward the buffalo country. "I gave my consent," says Ogden. "In fact there was no alternative. It is impossible for the whole party to remain here and feed on horse flesh for four months. One hundred would scarcely suffice, and what would become of us afterwards. I secured an Indian to accompany us as guide . . . I gave the men a bag of pease and a three-year-old colt and strict orders of every precaution for their safety. At 10 A. M. we started along the banks of the river."

For the next week Ogden makes no entry in his journal. The route to winter quarters took the party up the river and across the divide into the Bonneville Basin, following, no doubt, in a general way the line of the Central Pacific Railroad north of Great Salt Lake. On December 26 Ogden notes, "a distant view of Great Salt Lake, heavy fogs around it. . .  Hunters killed 3 antelope. This will assist, though poor food at this season, but far preferable to horse flesh that die of disease. . . To be reduced to food of diseased horses is not desirable." On December 30 the party reached the Malade River, tributary to Great Salt

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Lake, and found a few buffalo. Here they camped for several days to rest their horses. "They would require a month to have their feet healed." On January 1, 1829, one of the trappers left in charge of Paul "arrived with his horse fatigued and informed me that our sick man, Joseph Paul, died 8 days after we left. Suffering most severely, a young man only 29, steady and a first rate trapper. There remains now only one man of all the Snake men of 1819. All have been killed with the exception of two who died a natural death, and are scattered over the Snake country. It is incredible the number that have fallen in this country."[3]

On January 12 Ogden moved his party "over the height of land and camped on the forks of Portneuf River. We must cross to the waters of Bear River and if there be no Americans I expect to find buffalo." It is not definitely known where Ogden's party passed the next two months; probably in some valley or valleys adjacent to Bear River but possibly in Ogden's Hole near the site of the present city of Ogden. There is no entry in the journal, as published, until March 29, when Ogden notes : "In sight of Salt Lake again," on his way to "Unknown River." He had divided his party so that he had only fourteen men with him. "On both sides of the Salt Lake is high land surrounded by mountains. Beyond these mountains west, though the lake has no discharge, there must be a large river in a barren country." On April 8 the party "reached the forks of Unknown River" and four days later were at Paul's grave.

Evidently the trapping was not satisfactory and Ogden moved his party over to the Owyhee, with no better success. "Sandwich Island River has disappointed us in beaver. I must retrace our way to Unknown River." On May 8 he notes : "Followed down Unknown River. Keep most strict watch day and night on our horses. The Snakes on this river dress in beaver skins. . . Country is level as far as the eye can see. I am at a loss to know where this river discharges." On May 15 the party was in the vicinity of the present site of Lovelock, "the journey over beds of sand . . . the country level though at distance hilly—course S. W. The Indians are not numerous in this quarter, but from the number of fires seen on the mountains are fully aware of our presence, and we must look out for our horses. Seventy-five traps produced 37 beaver. This is tolerable; for we usually receive only a third. In no part have I found beaver so abundant." Two days later "the large tracks of pelicans seen indicate a lake. If it prove salt, beaver will be at an end."

The lake indicated proved to be the Sink of the Humboldt and near its banks the party camped for several days to dry the beaver skins and to prepare for the return journey to the Columbia River. The Indians began to be troublesome, stealing traps and menacing the men. They proved to be California Indians. Some of them rode horses; the Humboldt Indians had no horses. Finally "a man who had gone to explore the lake at this moment dashed in (to camp) and gave the alarm of the enemy. He had a most narrow escape, only the fleetness of his horse saved his

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life. When rounding a point within sight of the lake, 20 men on horse back gave the war cry. He fled. An Indian would have overtaken him, but he discharged his gun. He says the hills are covered with Indians. I gave orders to secure the horses, 10 men then started in advance to ascertain what the Indians were doing but not to risk a battle as we were too weak. They reported up-wards of 200 Indians marching on our camp. They came on. Having signalled a spot for them about 500 yards from our camp, I desired them to be seated. This order was obeyed. From their dress and drums and the fact that only one elderly man was with them, I concluded it was a war party. If they had not been discovered, they had intended to attack us, weak as we were in guns—only 12—they would have been successful. It was a narrow escape. They gave us the following information through the Snake interpreter; this river discharges in a lake which has no outlet. In 8 days march there is a river (Truckee) but no beaver, salmon abundant. There is also another river which must be Pitts River. We saw rifles ammunition and arms among them and I think this must be the plunder of Smith's party of 10, who were murdered here in the fall.[4] They requested to be allowed to enter the camp. I refused. A more daring set I have not seen."

After a dark and stormy night during which the Indians kept fires burning all around the camp Ogden concluded to retreat. "As I do not wish to infringe on McLeod's territory, I gave orders to raise camp and return. McLeod's territory is the water discharging into the ocean." Ogden's reluctance to infringe on McLeod's territory was doubtless augmented by an even greater reluctance to engage two hundred armed Indians in battle. "We have only 50 traps remaining and my party are too weak to advance. I told the Indians in three months they would see us again."

Turning back up Unknown River Ogden directed his course to "Sylvaille's River, Day's Defile, and Snake River. Unknown River is (also) known as Swampy River or Paul's River." On June 5 the party "left Unknown River in the rear." It is impossible to follow with precision Ogden's return route after May 29, when he gave the order to turn back up the Humboldt. As he left the river "in the rear" eight days later, he probably turned north up the Little Humboldt in order to retrace his journey of the previous fall. If he went to Sylvaille's River, as he planned, he would change his course to the northwest, and then north to cross the Blue Mountains and take the road to Nez Perces, or Walla Walla.

Ogden's next expedition was into California in the fall of 1829, where he trapped on the San Joaquin and other streams. Mr. T. C. Elliott[5] points out the strong probability that Ogden kept his promise made to the Indians on the lower Humboldt, that they would see him again "in three months;" and that he made his journey to California by a route east of the Sierras; in which case his exploration of this part of the Great Basin would antedate that of Joseph Walker by four years. Unfortunately there is no ac-

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count of Ogden's journey to California extant. There is no doubt, however, that Ogden was the first white man to explore the Humboldt River practically from its sources to its sink in the Nevada desert.

In 1832 John Work, one of the chief-traders of the Hudson's Bay Company who had succeeded Ogden in command of the trappers on the southern tributaries of the Columbia, led an expedition to "Bonaventura Valley" on Ogden's River. Arriving in Humboldt Valley he learned that a party of Hudson's Bay trappers from the coast had turned inland and secured several hundred beaver in the territory allotted to him. He also found that an American party under a man named Young had that season traded extensively with the Indians along the river. Disappointed he moved his party over into California by an unknown route, where he spent the winter, returning to Fort Vancouver in the spring of the following year.


[1] The Owyhee River was known to Ogden and the early trappers as Sandwich Island River, so called because some natives of those islands were killed by Indians at its mouth. When the Sandwich Islands became known as Hawaii on the maps the name of the river was changed accordingly, but the spelling followed phonetic methods.

[2] For the interesting and, in Nevada history, important details of this and other expeditions made by Ogden we are indebted to the intelligent efforts of Agnes C. Laut who visited the Hudson's Bay Company's home office in London and with indefatigable zeal transcribed the journals kept by Ogden and other leaders. In addition to this particular work Miss Laut personally traveled over the vast stretches of the Northwest, in which the Hudson's Bay Company had held sway for more than two hundred years, and as a result we have her thrilling stories. Lords of the North, Pathfinders of the West, and The Conquest of the Great Northwest. Portions of The Ogden Journals, edited by Mr. T. C. Elliott, were published in the Oregon Historical Society's Quarterly, Vols. X and XI, from which most of the details of this chapter are taken.

[3] Joseph Paul was probably the first white man to die in Nevada. He was buried on the banks of the Humboldt somewhere between Winnemucca and Golconda. Ogden in the following summer suggested in his notes that the river be named "Paul's River, as he must remain here till the great trumpet shall sound."

[4] Smith's party was murdered on the Umpqua River in Western Oregon as described in the preceding chapter. It is hardly probable that the Umpqua Indians were so far from home and more probable that the Indians Ogden met were from the Pitt River, and that the plunder they carried had been stolen from others than the Smith party.

[5] The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society, December, 1910; foot-note page 396.