The fur trade in the early decades of the nineteenth century brought the first non-indigenous people to Yellowstone. Typical of the many young men who ventured to the American west hunting furs was a teenager from Virginia by the name of Joe Meek.
Joe Meek goes west
Joe Meek awoke early, bracing against the chill mountain air. His supply of fresh mutton had quieted the constant hunger of previous days, but now only a single piece of the meat remained. For a moment he contemplated saving it for later. But as he sat up in the cold, windy air blowing through the thick tangle of trees where he had taken his night’s rest, Meek felt the familiar hunger return. He picked up the chunk of roasted mutton and slowly ate the last of his food.
At just nineteen years of age and barely a year since leaving his childhood home in Virginia, Joe Meek was alone in a vast wilderness entirely unfamiliar to him. He had been working for Captain William Sublette of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, who had recruited the scrappy teenager during the winter season in St. Louis. Young Joe signed on as a novice trapper, and by the time winter began to give itself over to springtime in March 1829, he departed with Captain Sublette’s band of mountain men. A whole new country opened up to him as they marched across the territories of the Missouri, up the Arkansas River to the South Fork of the Platte River, then to the North Fork of the Platte and toward the headwaters of the Wind River in what would later become the Territory of Wyoming. By the beginning of July the convoy of trappers with their horses, mules, and pack animals laden with trade goods from the east arrived at the Popo Agie River, a tributary of the Bighorn River, for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company summer rendezvous.
Rendezvous in the Mountains
The rendezvous must have been a raucous scene for the young Meek as he took in every detail of the trapper’s life. Several hundred men, including American hunters and trappers along with their Native American allies and trade partners, converged on the designated site for a week of trading, drinking, storytelling, and general festive relief from the usual isolation of fur trapping in the Rocky Mountains. For the impressionable newcomer, the bacchanalian scene was offset by the stark beauty of the surrounding mountains. As Meek gazed across the picturesque valley colored with waving grasses sprinkled with the bright splashes of summer flowers, surrounded by high mountains still topped with snow, herds of pack animals and colorful Indian camps spreading out around the rendezvous site, he realized how far he had traveled from his native Virginia.
A month passed in the rendezvous camp, and by the end of July Meek was anxious to get into the mountains. As the company split into several trapping camps, Meek was assigned to accompany Captain Sublette’s main party across the mountains to hunt beavers on the Snake River. Several days of hard travel delivered them to a large flat valley where they met up with another Rocky Mountain Fur Company partner, David Jackson. They called the valley Jackson’s Hole and set up their camp beside a large lake at the north end. The party got down to the business of trapping beavers in the Snake River all the way up to its headwaters as well as in the numerous tributaries tumbling from the nearby mountains. The work taxed young Joe Meek as he learned the brutal work of killing beavers for their prized furs.
Joe Meek learned that a trapper’s life in the Rocky Mountains offered more than monotonous routines of setting and checking traps. Meek often found himself pausing to relish the stunning scenery. He was especially enchanted with the Three Tetons, the crowning peaks in a range of spectacular mountains rising dramatically from the valley floor of Jackson’s Hole. Even the wizened veterans of mountain life were taken by this scene, and at one point the entire company moved their camp to a site more advantageous for viewing the mountainous spectacle looming over Jackson’s Hole.
Into the wilderness alone
The scenery offered some respite from the monotony of setting and checking traps. But the trappers had other diversions as well. One morning late in summer, just as the call went out for the trappers to rise from their slumber and begin the day’s work, chaos erupted in the camp as hostile Gros Ventre warriors charged suddenly with a hundred guns firing over the heads of the trappers and their horses; the Indians were hoping to separate the horses and pack animals from the camp and drive them away. One of the veteran mountain men, Thomas Fitzpatrick, quickly jumped onto a mount and began galloping wildly about the perimeter of the camp to round up the stray animals, shouting to his compatriots to join him. His horse was shot dead beneath him, but Fitzpatrick quickly leapt onto another and continued his mad dash to protect the camp. A bullet felled his second mount too, but the determined trapper climbed onto yet another horse and with the help of his fellow trappers, brought all of their remaining animals into the protection of the camp circle. They then turned their attention to the assailants who fled into a narrow ravine nearby. After a half day of skirmishing, the Gros Ventre attackers fled at last and disappeared into the mountains. Among the trappers, a few suffered wounds, none life-threatening, and none had been killed. From that time on, the trapping party remained more vigilant against further attempts to raid their camp.
As summer turned to autumn, Captain Sublette’s company began to wind down their operations at the base of the mighty Teton mountains. After a summer of trapping beavers and harvesting their pelts in Jackson’s Hole as well as Pierre’s Hole across the Teton mountains to the west, the camp was bulging with the bounty of their efforts. By October Captain Sublette’s trappers departed for the autumn trapping season farther east. They journeyed to the northeast into country largely unknown to non-native people, with only the rarest trapper having before traversed the region. The land was rough and made travel difficult, especially crossing the range of high mountains that stood between them and their destination along the Yellowstone River. By the time they reached the river, all were weary and hungry, having found little food along the way. The pack animals too suffered from the journey and were in need of rest. They set up their camp beside the river for a few days of rest.
A second attack
One morning well before dawn, with frost clinging to the blades of dry grass in the meadow beside their camp, the horses stomped restlessly in the cold air, steam blowing from their nostrils. It was not the snores arising from the camp that disturbed the animals, nor did they heed the embers left from the night’s campfires smoldering among the sleeping trappers strewn recklessly about like sacks of corn dumped from an errant wagon. Something else aroused the steeds, and the men standing guard took notice. As they stared into the blackness of the predawn forest, a barely perceptible movement caught their attention. Perhaps a bear had been attracted by the lingering smells of roasting meat from the night before. Or worse, perhaps a party of Blackfeet Indians lurked among the trees.
Suddenly gunshots shattered the predawn quiet and whoops of native warriors echoed among the trees. This was more than a small Indian raiding party. The camp sprung from its slumber in a great confusion. Some of the trappers returned fire while others gathered up animals to make their escape. Two fell dead. Most though followed Captain Sublette in retreat with the Indians in pursuit.
Young Joe Meek went the other way. Separated from his comrades, he knew that trying to catch up with them would mean certain death at the hands of the pursuing assailants. With only a mule, his gun, and a blanket, the novice trapper escaped on a route to the southeast, hoping to make it to country controlled by the more friendly Crow Indians. Cold, hungry, and frightened he went alone into the wilderness.
Lost in a wild land
After a day of hard travel, nightfall brought freezing temperatures. Meek was afraid, though, of building a fire that would attract hostile attentions, so he kept moving to stay warm. He traveled all night, not daring to rest in the cold. Hunger began to overtake him, but he resisted using his gun, fearing the shots would alert Indians in the region of his whereabouts. He had gone roughly thirty miles since fleeing camp, crossing the Yellowstone River and entering the formidable terrain of high mountains. After two days without food or rest for either himself or his mule, Meek turned loose the animal, going on with just a gun and blanket. He turned to the south, crossing high country without food or protection from the cold.
After three days, exhausted and weak from hunger, Meek came upon a herd of mountain sheep. The prospect of a meal overcame his fear of being found as he aimed his gun at an unsuspecting ewe. Soon he had mutton roasting on a small fire. After gorging himself, Meek lay down to a long, deep slumber.
The next morning, he gathered up all of the remainder of the mutton feast that he could carry and continued making his way to the south. A cold wind arose out of the north, a biting reminder of the coming of winter. Travel was difficult and the wind made it all the more unpleasant for a young man alone for the first time in an unforgiving land. By evening Meek paused to roast up more of the meat he was carrying, and his weariness overcame him as he fell again into a deep and restful sleep.
On the fifth morning of his solitary flight across the mountains, Joe Meek arose to a day even more bleak than the previous one, this one more gray, windy, and cold. After a moment of hesitation, he ate the last of his mutton, then he sat a moment contemplating his predicament. Discouraged by the endless trek with no signs of friendly territory on the horizon, Meek decided to climb a low mountain nearby to view his whereabouts and determine what progress he had made.
A bizarre land
The scene that lay before him as he reached the summit completely astonished the youthful mountain man. A barren landscape of billowing steam, scattered with boiling springs and numerous hissing craters emitting whistling gasses stretched far below the ridge where he stood. As he took in the view, his initial astonishment gradually gave way to an appreciation of its beauty. He recalled gazing across the industrial cityscape of Pittsburgh one winter morning, with its picturesque clouds of steam and columns of coal smoke rising elegantly to a crisp morning sky.
The scene before him now, though, had a far more sublime aspect. The steaming plain stretched for miles, a level land punctuated with encrusted cones topped by small craters, and between them much larger craters opening directly on the ground. Meek imagined tongues of flame and brimstone leaping from these larger craters, and he recalled the apocalyptic tales of the Methodist preacher back home in Virginia. Undeterred, though, by the possibilities of entering Hades itself, Meek ventured to explore this strange land. What he found, much to his delight, was a warmth that dissolved the chill he had suffered the last several days. This may be hell, he thought to himself, but it certainly was a more agreeable climate than what he had known for quite some time.
As young Joe Meek wandered through this more hospitable but thoroughly desolate landscape, gunshots startled him from his reveries. The shots were followed by loud whoops, and he immediately fell into a defensive position and began plotting a route to escape his attackers. Then a familiar voice called out, “It is Old Joe.” Relief overwhelmed him as two of his fellow trappers approached from the nearby woods. A rescue party had found their wayward comrade.
Although reunited with the company of trappers, Joe Meek did not find relief from the hardships of mountain life. By now winter was enveloping the mountains and the deep snows took a toll. A hundred of their horses and mules perished when they became stuck in drifted snowbanks. Still, the troop of fur trappers continued their march across the range of mountains that lay between the Yellowstone and Bighorn Rivers.
As Captain Sublette’s band of trappers descended along the Stinkingwater Fork of the Bighorn, they entered a strange precinct of steaming vapors not unlike the desolate terrain where young Joe Meek had been rescued. Noxious fumes emitted from the numerous openings in the earth, and steam swelled up from boiling springs. It was a barren, inhospitable place, absent of any animal or plant life. This was, the mountain men pronounced, “the back door to that country which divines preach about.” The trappers had stumbled into Colter’s Hell.
The back door to Hell that Joe Meek and his companions had found bore the name of an early mountain-man trapper who had first come west with the American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Tales of these noxious springs on the Stinkingwater had been circulating for more than two decades, ever since John Colter had first found them sometime after leaving Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery.
As they contemplated the fuming landscape reeking of foul vapors on the Stinkingwater Fork, Meek likely appreciated its sublime potential more than the other trappers among Sublette’s men. Having strayed just days earlier into the much more extensive thermal regions of the Yellowstone plateau, he must have realized that Colter’s stories of a “volcanic tract” of “gloomy terrors, [with] its hidden fires, smoking pits, noxious steams and the all-pervading ‘smell of brimstone’” (as recalled in “Adventures of Captain Bonneville,” Washington Irving’s account that includes references to Colter’s tales) were, if anything, understatements of the curious oddities to be found in the mountainous western territories. Meek likely recognized that there were many entrances to hell in this forbidding land. But at the same time, as millions of subsequent travelers have testified, the scenic vistas and stark beauty of the diverse Rocky Mountain landscapes offered doors to heaven as well. Terror and fascination melded into a majestic sublimity for sensitive observers of the American west.
[My narration of Joe Meek’s experiences during his first summer trapping in the Rocky Mountains in 1829 relies on Meek’s own recollections as told to Frances Fuller Victor in The river of the West: Life and adventure in the Rocky mountains and Oregon . . . (Columbian Book Co., 1870), chapters I-III.]