Travels with MacKenzie, Part 3

Travels with MacKenzie, Part 3

From the November 10, 2011 edition of McKenzie River Reflections

October 1811

Two hundred years ago Donald MacKenzie was in the sixth month of a nine-month journey between the Missouri River and Fort Astoria. MacKenzie was assistant leader of the 63-person “Astorian Overland Expedition,” part of the Pacific Fur Company financed by J.J. Astor. The following account of the Overlanders’ travels during October 1811 is taken from Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon by Alexander Ross. At the beginning of October 1811 the Overlanders were following the Snake River downriver at the upper end of the canyon later named Hells Canyon. This route was well south of the route followed by Lewis and Clark five years earlier. In October 1811 cold rain and snow was falling.


On the 18th of October, to abandon their hitherto serviceable and trusty horses, and they were, therefore, turned loose, to the number of one hundred and eighty, and the party embarking in fifteen crazy and frail canoes, undertook to descend the rugged and boiling channels of the head waters of the great south branch of the Columbia. Having proceeded about 350 miles, they were at last compelled to abandon the project of navigating these bold and dangerous waters; but not before one of their best steersmen was drowned, and they were convinced as to the impracticability of proceeding by water.

The canoes being now abandoned altogether, various plans were thought of; two or three parties were sent out as scouts, to try and fall in with Indians, provisions being now so scarce that the most gloomy apprehensions were entertained. These parties, however, saw but few Indians, and those few were destitute themselves. At this time a starving dog that could hardly crawl along was a feast to our people, and even the putrid and rotten skins of animals were resorted to in order to sustain life. Whilst these parties were exhausting themselves to little or no purpose, another party attempted to recover the horses, which had been so thoughtlessly and imprudently left behind; but they returned unsuccessful, after a week’s trial and hunger. A fifth party was dispatched ahead to explore the river, and they also returned with the most gloomy presage - all failed, and all fell back again on the cheerless camp, to augment the general despondency; the party now, as a last resource, set about depositing and securing the goods and baggage, by putting them in caches; this done, the party finally separated into four bands, each headed by a partner, and the object of one and all was, to reach the mouth of the Columbia by the best and shortest way. That part of the country where they were was destitute of game, and the provisions of the whole party taken together were scarcely enough for two days journey. At that season of the year, the Indians retire to the distant mountains, and leave the river till the return of spring, which accounts for their absence at this time.

We have already stated that one man, named Clappine, had been drowned - another of the name of Prevost had become deranged through starvation and drowned himself - and a third, named Carrier, lingered behind and perished; these fatal disasters happened in the parties conducted by Messrs. Hunt and Crooks. MacKenzie and his party were more fortunate: as soon as the division of the men and property took place, that bold North-Wester called his little band together, - “Now, my friends,” said he, ‘there is still hope before us; to linger on our way, to return back, or to be discouraged and stand still, is death - a death of all others the most miserable; therefore, take courage; let us persevere and push on ahead, and all will end well; the foremost will find something to eat, the last may fare worse.” On hearing these cheering words, the poor fellows took off their caps, gave three cheers, and at once shot ahead.

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