Henry's Fork


Indians had lived in the Henry's Fork country--as well as in all the surrounding area--for some ten thousand years or more before white men began to explore that part of the country at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the years immediately before the white men came, mounted bands of Northern Shoshoni frequented Henry's Fork. Entirely different kinds of Indians also came there: Blackfeet, Flatheads, Nez Perce, and Gros Ventre (Astina), especially. Located immediately to the south of the headwaters of the Missouri, Henry's Fork bordered on country into which the Blackfeet had advanced not long before the white men came. Resolute Blackfoot opposition to the whites menaced early exploration of their lands. Lewis and Clark managed to get through the Blackfoot country north of Henry's Fork in 1805 and 1806, and white exploration expanded from the upper Missouri to Henry's Fork in 1808.

John Colter, who had been on the transcontinental expedition of Lewis and Clark, remained in the Missouri region after 1806 to work for Manuel Lisa's Missouri Fur Company. In 1808, he was sent out to inform the Crows and other natives of the country north and east of Henry's Fork that Lisa planned to develop an upper Missouri fur trade on a large scale. Coming from the Yellowstone up the Bighorn, Colter continued southward into the upper Wind River country. Then he went on to Jackson's Hole and crossed Teton Pass into Pierre's Hole (now known as Teton Valley) through which the Teton River flows on its way into Henry's Fork. (The exact route of John Colter is disputed by some who suggest the route was much smaller and excluded a number of these sites.) In 1809, Peter M. Weiser, another member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, went southward from the forks of the Missouri: judging by a map that William Clark later published, he crossed over the Divide to Henry's Fork, where he reported that trapping was good.

Fur hunters who followed up Colter's and Weiser's investigation of the upper Missouri and Henry's Fork country found that exploration had been considerably safer than trapping. Andrew Henry brought an expedition to the forks of the Missouri in the interests of the Missouri Fur Company in 1810. After a battle with the Blackfeet, April 12, he decided he ought to work in less dangerous country. So he crossed over to Henry's Fork--which was named for him--to take advantage of the good trapping which Wiser reported. There he erected a winter post called Henry's Fort. Game was scarce and, after that one winter, he and his men all left. Some of them met an expedition of trappers of John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company on the way to the newly-founded outpost of Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia. Acting on the advice of Henry's men, Wilson Price Hunt and his Astorians cut across from the Missouri to Teton Pass and Henry's Fork. They stopped briefly at Fort Henry, and then continued on their way down the Snake River in search of a good route to the lower Columbia. A returning party of Astorians learned in 1812 form a Bruneau Indian of a better route farther to the south through South Pass, so the group headed south before swinging down Snake River and across Teton Valley to ascent Teton Pass. John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company proved to be a commercial failure. His trappers, however, helped to develop the fur trade to Henry's Fork. The Astorians had come across good trapping in the Henry's Fork country, and some of them stayed on with the North West Company, which took over the Pacific Fur Company in 1813. That organization, a Montreal concern, had already been established in the Northwest before the Astorians arrived; as the Columbia operations for the North West Company expanded, the fur trade again reached Henry's Fork.

Donald Mackenzie, who had come through Henry's Fork with the Astorian expedition, took charge of the Snake country fur trade for the North West Company in 1816. by 1818, he had a large Snake expedition working in all parts of the Snake River Valley. The Snake Brigade which he organized made a regular annual trip hunting furs from 1818 down through 1832. Although information as to where his early expeditions went is somewhat fragmentary at best, Mackenzie's men probably got into the Henry's Fork country. After Mackenzie went onto another part of the country, Michel Bourdon took the Snake expedition into the upper Snake River Valley in 1822. Finnan MacDonald (who, with David Thompson, had started the Idaho fur trade in 1808) led the Snake expedition back into Henry's Fork in 1823. There he ran into trouble with the Blackfeet. Later that year on the upper Lemhi, MacDonald burned out a hostile Blackfoot band. This did not make the Blackfeet any more friendly. From then on, the Blackfeet were more respectful when they met with traders from the Hudson's Bay Company, which had taken over the Snake expedition of the North West Company two years before (actually the Hudson's Bay Company and the Northwest Company had merged under the name of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821) Yet the Blackfeet remained a menace. Entirely independent of their battles with MacDonald, they destroyed, on May 21, 1823, a party of Missouri Fur Company trappers who had been operating on the upper Missouri. As a result, mountain men working for St. Louis companies avoided the upper Missouri and adjacent Henry's Fork for a while.

After his excessive trouble with the Blackfeet, Finnan MacDonald decided that he had seen enough of the Snake country. In 1824, Alexander Ross came out with the Snake expedition. A group of Iroquois Indians, who had been with the Snake Brigade from its beginning, wanted to take a chance on returning to Henry's Fork and Pierre's Hole: they were led, in fact, by old Pierre Tevanitagon, for whom Pierre's Hole was named. But the Iroquois went to the Portneuf where they ran into trouble with the Snake Indians. Finally, destitute, they met Jedediah Smith and six other mountain men operating in the interests of William H. Ashley from St. Louis. Smith was happy to help the Iroquois get back to Alexander Ross and the Snake River Brigade; that gave him a chance to follow the Snake Brigade round that winter. Scouting the country in which the Hudson's Bay trappers worked, he learned about Henry's Fork and Pierre's Hole. Needless to say, the last thing the Hudson's Bay Company wanted was to have competition; the British, in fact, were already doing what they could to trap out the whole Snake country in order to create a barren zone that would keep the St. Louis trappers from coming farther into the Pacific Northwest. This policy was relatively successful. When Peter Skene Ogden--leading the first of his six Snake expeditions--reached Henry's Fork in the summer of 1825, he noticed that while it used to have lots of beaver, it was pretty well trapped out. Moreover, he found thirty mountain men busily engaged in catching whatever beaver remained there.

Even though trapping had depleted the beaver resources of Henry's Fork, representative of the firm of Smith, Jackson, and Sublette, organized in Cache Valley, July 18, 1826, went to work there that fall. A party led by William L. Sublette (who had been with Jedediah Smith in 1824), David E. Jackson, and Robert Campbell trapped both forks of Henry's fork and went on to investigate some of the wonders of Yellowstone Park. The British had not lost interest in the area either. John McLoughlin, who managed the Columbia fur trade for the Hudson's Bay Company, felt that a party stronger than Ogden's regular Snake Brigade ought to work for three more seasons in the Teton-Henry's Fork-upper Missouri country. As trapping continued, though, the Snake country had less and less to offer; mountain men seem to have been at work each season in Henry's Fork, and by 1830, the dangerous Blackfoot country of the upper Missouri had what little promise was left in those parts.

The resumption of fur hunting on Henry's Fork came after the 1832 annual rendezvous in Pierre's Hole. Each July the mountain men ad a grand meeting in which they sold their catch and received new supplies from the St. Louis companies which managed the Rocky Mountain fur trade. After the Pierre's Hole rendezvous had ended in a wild Indian battle, July 18, 1832, James Bridger and Thomas Fitzpatrick took a party through Henry's Fork to the upper Missouri. The next spring, Nathaniel Wyeth reached Henry's Fork on his way back to another rendezvous. Warren A. Ferris accompanied a party which traversed Henry's Fork in May, 1834; then Jim Bridger camped on Henry's Fork with sixty whites and twenty Flatheads for some time in the fall of 1835 prior to settling down until March 26, 1836, in winter quarters at the forks of the Snake. After defeating a Blackfoot band to the north, Bridger returned for another encampment at Henry's Lake, June 6, 1838. There he met still more Blackfeet. By now, though, their power was broken. Osborne Russell reported that "we concluded to move camp to the village and smite it, without leaving one to tell their fate, but when within about two miles of the village we met six of them coming to us unarmed, who invited us in the most humble and submissive manner to their village to smoke and trade. This proceeding conquered the bravest in our camp, for we were ashamed to think of fighting a few poor Indians, nearly dwindled to skeletons by the smallpox, and approaching us without arms. We stopped, however, and traded with them and then started on our journey . . . ."

Although Osborn Russell was back trapping on Henry's Fork as late as September 2, 1839, the fur trade for that part of the country was about over. A few of the mountain men stayed around, and one of them--Richard Leigh, generally known as Beaver Dick--settled on Henry's Fork. Retired fur traders still could put their knowledge of the land to use, though. Jim Bridger guided Captain William F. Raynolds' party of Army surveyors who were out searching for good wagon road routes through Henry's Fork in 1860; the pass Raynolds preferred still goes by his name. F. V. Hayden, who was along on Raynold's expedition, later employed Beaver Dick as a guide when he returned to resume geologic investigation of the Henry's Fork, Yellowstone, and Teton country in 1871-1872. Creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 grew in part out of these scientific expeditions, and brought the beginnings of a new era of tourism to the region.

Meanwhile, settlement was coming almost to the border of the Henry's Fork country. Mines discovered in 1862 at East Bannock and in 1863 at Virginia City brought a gold rush to the north. An Eagle Rock ferry went into operation on Snake River below the forks, June 20, 1863, to serve the new mines. By the summer of 1865, J. Matt Taylor's toll bridge improved the Montana road crossing at later Idaho Falls. A telegraph line connecting Virginia City with Salt Lake reached Taylor's bridge, July 16, 1866, and the Henry's Fork country no longer was so far from communication with the rest of the world. The Montana road and telegraph, though, came up Beaver Canyon to the west of Henry's Fork, and for a few more years the area still was largely bypasses.

Stock raisers came into the Henry's Fork area with the advent of mining. One of them--Gilman Sawtell (for whom Sawtell's Peak is named)--worked up a major commercial fishery in Henry's Lake to supply the Virginia City market. Although mining kept settlement going in some of the surrounding area, Henry's Fork was not entirely removed from the wild frontier. During the Indian wars, a battle in General Howard's Nez Perce campaign was fought at Camas Meadows, August 20, 1877. Finally in the summer of 1878, refugees from the Bannock war came through the area. With the end of those hostilities, the Indian excitement came largely to an end.

Construction of the Utah & Northern Railway through Blackfoot and Eagle Rock (Idaho Falls) toward the Montana line in 1879 speeded up the settlement of the Snake River fork country. Mormons arrived on Egin Bench that year, and by 1883, Rexburg became an important outpost. St. Anthony followed in 1888, and irrigation extended on up Henry's Fork. The early settlers of these communities had their problems, particularly with a den of cattle rustlers operating out of an excellent natural shelter in the Snake River forks. Generally though, they were less isolated than were settlements located a long way from communication. After railway service reached St. Anthony in 1899 and Ashton in 1906, population grew even faster than before.

In the century which had gone by after Andrew Henry crossed the Continental Divide to leave the United States and establish the earliest northwestern American fur outpost beyond the Rockies (what about John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company?), Henry's Fork had undergone a major change. The country had become part of the United States in 1846 and part of Idaho in 1863 when Idaho was made a territory. Extensive white settlement had begun in the decade before Idaho became a state in 1890. Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century, railroads were serving thriving communities located in a region which no white man had ever seen a century before.