Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell

Ross Cox—II

It was October 17, the anniversary of the sailing from New York of the "Beaver," that Cox and Farnham set out on their trading expedition to the Flatheads, and on the loth of November they reached the small village of these people. They were charmed with their frank and hospitable reception, and with the superiority in cleanliness of these Indians over other tribes that they had seen. They determined to remain here for a while, and began the building of a log house in which to winter. Meantime the Indians kept coming in, and they made quite a trade in beaver in December, Cox, having had a good canoe built of cedar planks, took leave of Farnham, and with six men set out to descend the river to Spokane, which was reached about New Year's day.

During a trip to the Flatheads, Cox witnessed an extraordinary display of fortitude by a Blackfoot prisoner whom they were torturing. It is a graphic picture of the savage cruelty of the savage man, and is far too horrible to print. An effort was made by the traders to put an end to these tortures, and the Flatheads were induced to set free, and send away to their people, a number of Blackfeet women. To these prisoners, now being set free, it was explained that torture between the tribes ought to cease, and as they were turned loose unharmed, it was hoped that they would persuade their people on the prairies to abstain in future from torturing Flathead captives. Cox is enthusiastic about the attractiveness of the Flatheads. It was here that he was successfully treated for rheumatism by an old Indian doctor; the cure being a morning bath in the river, now frozen over, through a hole in the ice, followed by rubbing of the affected parts by the old doctor. After twenty-five days of the treatment the trouble had entirely disappeared.

In August, 1814, a party of sixty men, including proprietors and clerks, left Fort George to go up the river with trade goods. On the way they met some Indians, who attempted to steal various small articles, and were warned to stop it, but paid no attention to the orders. Three caught in the act of pilfering were flogged. At night the party was attacked by Indians, and a Canadian was killed. There were many narrow escapes. Passing up the river they met with the Walla Wallas, who received them in their usual friendly way. A little later the party separated, the division to which Cox was assigned going to Spokane House, where the Indians, who had expended all their ammunition, received them with great joy. An amusing sketch is given of the personality and character of the Scotchman, McDonald, celebrated for his great size, his flaming red hair, and his daring bravery. A small tribe of Indians were camped between an immense fall in the Columbia, known as La Chaudiere, and Spokane House; their chief was a philosopher, frugal, thrifty, opposed to gambling, and so in many respects different from the average Indian.

In October the various parties returned to Fort George with the proceeds of their trade, and on the 8th of November again set out for the interior. Not far above the mouth of the Walla Walla they met a number of Indians coming down. They stopped the first canoes to ask for tobacco, and as they passed the last ones, endeavored to take from them some bales of goods. The arms of the canoemen were not within reach, but each of the proprietors or clerks carried his arms. Every effort was made to avoid open hostilities. The canoemen tried to beat the Indians off with their paddles, and the Indians had not yet attempted to use their arms. When a tall Indian refused to let go the bale of goods that he was trying to take from McDonald's canoe, M'Kay struck him with the butt end of his gun, and obliged him to drop the bale. The Indian instantly placed an arrow on his bow, which he aimed at McDonald, who quickly stretched forth his arm, seized the arrow, broke it to pieces, and threw them into the Indian's face. The Indian, by this time very angry, had ordered his canoe to push off, and was just about to shoot an arrow at McDonald when M'Kay fired and killed him. His two companions were about to use their bows, but McDonald, who had a double-barreled gun, shot them both, killing one and severely wounding the other. The fight was on, but the Indians threw themselves in the bottom of their canoes out of sight, and the vessels soon drifted down the river, and out of gunshot. The traders at once went ashore and armed themselves. The Indians lurked about and shot at them, but without effect. Embarking, the white men paddled to a narrow island in the river, built breast-works, and prepared for defence. The next day the wind blew hard, and they were obliged to pass the night on the island. Meantime the Indians were signaling, and canoes could be heard crossing and recrossing the river. The spirits of the white men were low, and they believed that they were likely all to be killed. The next day the traders sent out a flag of truce to the enemy, and asked for a talk, being determined to pay the relatives of the dead for the loss, rather than to have any fighting. The Indians refused this, however, and declared that two white men must be delivered to them to be treated as they thought best. One of these white men, it was explained, must be McDonald. The offers made by the traders had been sufficiently liberal, but the sentiment of the savages seemed to be that these offers must be refused, and that white men must be killed to accompany the dead Indians on their way to the home of the dead. After a heated discussion, it became evident that there was little hope of a compromise or of peace. One by one the Indians sulkily drew away from the council and joined their friends who were sitting at a distance behind them. Just before the conference was over, however, it was interrupted by the arrival of a dozen mounted Indians, who dashed into the space between the two parties, and halted there. These men were under the leadership of a young chief whose courage and wisdom was respected by all the Indians of the country. He made a strong plea for a peaceful settlement of the difficulty, finally declaring that no one of the Indians should dare to attack the whites. This speech put a different look on matters, and the Indians presently consented to the proposed compromise, and smoked with the traders. The wounded and the relatives of the dead proved quite willing to accept the payments offered, and friendly relations were renewed.

In May, 1816, the author found himself once more at Okinagan, and this time occupying the chief position there. He at once set to work to rebuild the post, where he spent the summer. The point between the Okinagan River and the Columbia, where the trading post was built, was absolutely free from rattlesnakes, although the surrounding country abounded with them. The snakes were frequently eaten by the Canadians, who skinned them as eels are skinned, and then spitted them on a stick run through the body, and roasted them before a fire. Cox tells a curious story of the treatment by an old Indian of a young woman supposed to have consumption. The treatment consisted in killing a dog and placing the foot and leg of the patient within the newly killed carcass until the flesh became cold. They were then taken out and bandaged with warm flannel. Besides this, she took daily a small quantity of bark in a glass of port-wine. The result was that her condition greatly improved; she regained her appetite, and in the autumn was strong enough to travel across the mountains with her husband. The following summer Cox met her at Rainy Lake in the full enjoyment of health. Cox also tells of a white man, absolutely dying of a decline, who was cured by being placed at short intervals in the body of a newly killed horse. After two treatments of this kind, at intervals of a few days, he began to regain his strength, and by adhering to simple and careful living, was finally restored to his ordinary health.

Wolves were very abundant here, and were very troublesome to the horses. "These destructive animals annually destroy numbers of horses," Cox writes, "particularly during the winter season, when the latter get entangled in the snow, in which situation they become an easy prey to their light-footed pursuers, ten or fifteen of which will often fasten on one animal, and with their long fangs in a few minutes separate the head from the body. If, however, the horses are not prevented from using their legs, they sometimes punish the enemy severely; as an instance of this, I saw one morning the bodies of two of our horses which had been killed the night before, and around were lying eight dead and maimed wolves; some with their brains scattered about, and others with their limbs and ribs broken by the hoofs of the furious animals in their vain attempts to escape from their sanguinary assailants.

"While I was at Spokane I went occasionally to the horse prairie, which is nearly surrounded by partially wooded hills, for the purpose of watching the maneuvers of the wolves in their combined attacks. The first announcement of their approach was a few shrill currish barks at intervals, like the outpost firing of skirmishing parties. These were answered by similar barking from an opposite direction, until the sounds gradually approximated, and at length ceased on the junction of the different parties. We prepared our guns, and concealed ourselves behind a thick cover. In the meantime, the horses, sensible of the approaching danger, began to paw the ground, snort, toss up their heads, look wildly about them, and exhibit all the symptoms of fear. One or two stallions took the lead, and appeared to await with a degree of comparative composure for the appearance of the enemy.

"The allies at length entered the field in a semi-circular form, with their flanks extended for the evident purpose of surrounding their prey. They were between two and three hundred strong. The horses, on observing their movement, knew from experience its object, and dreading to encounter so numerous a force, instantly turned around and galloped off in a contrary direction. Their flight was the signal for the wolves to advance; and immediately uttering a simultaneous yell, they charged after the fugitives, still preserving their crescent form. Two or three of the horses, which were not in the best condition, were quickly overtaken by the advanced guard of the enemy. The former, finding themselves unable to keep up with the band, commenced kicking at their pursuers, several of which received some severe blows; but these being reinforced by others, they would have shortly despatched the horses, had we not just in time emerged from our place of concealment and discharged a volley at the enemy's center, by which a few were brought down. The whole battalion instantly wheeled about and fled toward the hills in the utmost disorder; while the horses, on hearing the fire, changed their course, and galloped up to us. Our appearance saved several of them from the fangs of their foes; and by their neighing they seemed to express their joy and gratitude at our timely interference."

In portions of the country inhabited by the Walla Wallas, Nez Perch, and Shoshones, wild horses were at this time very abundant. Sometimes from seven hundred to a thousand were seen in a band, and persons who had crossed the continent by the Missouri route told Cox that in the Snake Indian country bands varying from three to four thousand were frequently seen. The Spaniards at San Francisco informed the traders of the Northwest Company that in the year 1812 they were obliged to kill upward of thirty thousand horses in California in order to preserve sufficient grass for the buffalo. Just what is meant by California in this connection is uncertain, since it is not known that the buffalo were ever found in the California of modem times.

In his description of the horses of the country, Cox tells of a ride of seventy-two miles which he made between twelve o'clock in the morning and soon after dark, to outstrip some rival traders who were on their way to the Flatheads. The Flatheads were out of tobacco, but Farnham, who was in charge of the party, felt sure that if a supply of this commodity were brought them at once, they would promise their skins to him. Cox, riding a splendid horse, known as Le Bleu, reached Farnham two hours in advance of his rivals, and secured the trade.

In the summer of 1816 Cox determined to abandon Indian trading, and applied to the proprietors for leave, which was granted with regret. Nevertheless, he wintered at Okinagan.

In April, 1817, Cox joined a party of eighty-six men who embarked in two barges and nine canoes from Fort George to ascend the Columbia. They continued up the river with various adventures, seeing Indians constantly, but having no trouble with them, and on the seventeenth day twenty-three of the party who were to cross the Rocky Mountains to the plains left the loaded canoes and continued up the Columbia, past Okinagan, the mouth of the Spokane River, to Great Kettle Falls. Continuing, they passed through the lakes on the Columbia. The river grew narrower and narrower, and the current swifter, and at length they reached the Rocky Mountain portage, where they were to leave their canoes. The hard work done on the trip had so far exhausted many of the men, that they were now practically unable to work; and seven men, six Canadians and an Englishman, were sent back in the best canoe to Spokane House. Only one of them reached there alive, having been found by two Indians on the borders of the upper lake, and by them transported to Spokane House. Now came an overland journey on foot, where the nine remaining men were obliged to carry loads of about ninety pounds each. The journey was very difficult, over steep mountains, across rapid streams, and through deep snow fields. On the 3Ist of May they reached two small lakes on the summit of the mountains, at which they encamped. From these lakes a stream joins a branch of the Columbia River, while another, called Rocky Mountain River, empties into Peace River, and so takes its way to the Arctic Ocean.

The next day they reached a beautiful meadow ground, where five of the company's horses were found grazing, and their pack saddles were placed conspicuously near a large fire which was still burning. The animals had been sent up from Rocky Mountain House to meet them.

The next day, in crossing the Rocky Mountain River, a series of accidents happened, by which the first raft made was lost, and the second got away, carrying several men with it, the result being that the party was now separated. From this time on until they reached Rocky Mountain House, they did not get together, and there was some suffering from hunger and cold. Nor was their situation much better at Rocky Mountain House, for they were unable there to obtain provisions, the people here being themselves on short allowance. On the 7th of June they left Rocky Mountain House, and soon entered the Athabasca River, and followed it down until they reached Elk River, which they ascended, and at last met Alexander Stewart and the Slave Lake brigade. From here they proceeded eastward, down the Beaver River to Isle a la Crosse, reached the English River, Cumberland House, and the Saskatchewan, and thence went through Lake Winepic to Fort Alexander and by way of Rat Portage to Rainy Lake and Fort William.

From here eastward their way led through the more or less settled country occupied largely by Canadian farmers. The party continued eastward, until on September 19, five months and three days after leaving the Pacific Ocean, Cox reached Montreal, and his journeyings were at an end.