Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth

January 29, 1802 - August 31, 1856

Wyeth, Nathaniel Jarvis, fur trader (Jan. 29, 1802-Aug. 31, 1856). Born near Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was primarily associated all his life with the New England ice trade, which his inventiveness largely built and developed. He came under the influence of Hall Jackson Kelley, a Boston enthusiast for the development of Oregon and about 1831 embarked upon his five-year fur trading expedition to the northwest. He carefully planned the project to include a number of innovations, most of which did not work out. Wyeth reached St. Louis with his party, which he joined to a Robert Campbell-William Sublette caravan, the combined group leaving Independence May 12, 1832, for the Rocky Mountains. The Pierre's Hole rendezvous was reached after some hardships on July 8, those of Wyeth's party willing to continue toward the far northwest now reduced to 11 men; these joined a Milton Sublette-Henry Fraeb brigade and on July 18 engaged in the celebrated battle against the Gros Ventres, although the role of Wyeth's party in the incident was very slight. Wyeth and his group, after amateurish and unsuccessful attempts to trap beaver, reached Fort Vancouver in October where Wyeth learned of the loss at sea of his principal supply ship, and his initial venture dissolved with the withdrawal of his remaining men. Wyeth, however, returned to the northern Rockies, seeking an arrangement with the Hudson's Bay Company for supplies, Wyeth and his contract-trappers to work south of the Columbia and turn over the catch to HBC posts. The plan ultimately was rejected. Later he approached Bonneville with a somewhat similar suggestion, but little came of it. Finally he agreed with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to supply it with goods at the rendezvous of 1834, and to receive payment in beaver. Wyeth then hurried down the Missouri River in a pirogue, accompanied by two Indians, one of whom he took to Boston. He arranged for fresh shipments of goods to go by sea to the Oregon coast, hurried back to Missouri to acquire supplies for the overland part of his latest scheme, and left Independence April 28. But he lost a race with William Sublette to the rendezvous, and arrived there to fine no market. Furious at what he regarded as false dealing, Wyeth swore revenge and in July at the junction of the Snake and Portneuf rivers, built Fort Hall, designed to attract a fur trade monopoly, which it never did. He then continued to Fort Vancouver, arriving September 14, 1834. His ship had been delayed, reaching the coast too late for the salmon run; Wyeth sent it to Hawaii on a trading mission, and built Fort William at the mouth of the Willamette River. He spent the winter trapping south of the Columbia, suffered a disappointment the following season with regard to his salmon project, packing in barrels for shipment to Boston only half a cargo, attempted ineffectually to make a new deal with the HBC at Fort Vancouver and finally gave up and returned to St. Louis, out $20,000 and five years. Although devoting himself to the ice and refrigeration business in New England thereafter, he retained a lively enthusiasm for the west and Oregon, promoted public attention in that direction, and was a continuing factor in implementing their development. Despite his economic reverses in Oregon and his naivete, he was an important influence on the region and in securing it for the nation.


Bernard DeVoto, Across the Wide Missouri. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1947.