Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell

Samuel Parker

In the year 1838 there was published in Ithaca, N.Y., by the author, the Journal of an Exploring Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains, Under the Direction of the 4. B. C. F. M., Performed in the Years 1835, '36, and '37; Containing a Description of the Geography, Geology, Climate, and Productions; and the Number, Manners, and Customs of the Natives. With a Map of Oregon Territory. By Rev. Samuel Parker, A. M.

As may be imagined from this title, Mr. Parker was a missionary whose business in setting out into the Wild West was to spread the Gospel. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent him out to ascertain by personal observation the condition and character of the Indian nations and tribes, and the opportunities for introducing the Gospel and civilization among them. He writes in a more or less ponderous style, and his mind is dominated, as is natural, by the missionary idea, to such an extent that his book at times even has something of the flavor of some of the volumes of the Jesuit Relations.

At St. Louis Mr. Parker met Dr. Marcus Whitman, appointed by the American Board to be his associate in his western explorations, and here the two missionaries waited for a time until the caravan which they were to accompany should be ready to start.

Dr. Whitman's name is so closely connected with the securing of Oregon Territory by the United States that it is hardly necessary to speak of him at any length.

Before leaving Liberty, Mo., the steamer on which they were travelling broke down, and it became necessary to proceed overland, and they reached Fort Leavenworth early in May, 1835. During the journey Parker met with a number of men who, at various times, had had close intercourse with the Wichitas or Pawnee Picts, Comanches, Navajos, and Apaches; and from all these individuals he heard accounts which made him think well of these wild and distant tribes, and of their adaptability to Christianity and to civilized pursuits. He was observant, too, of the local Indians—Iowas, Sacs, and Foxes—and was favorably impressed by all.

After reaching Council Bluffs there was a long wait before the caravan set out on its western journey. Much is said of the Indians inhabiting this region, Yanktons, Omahas, Poncas, and the more distant Mandans; and some hints are given as to the mode of life of these tribes. The party travelled up the Platte, meeting the usual difficulties and discouragements attendant on the stormy weather in summer. Much of the time they were drenched to the skin. Occasionally a storm of hail would come, which scattered their animals, and much time was devoted to gathering them again. Travelling westward, the two Campbells and Sublette, with a few men, were met returning from the Black Hills.

The apparently fertile bottom lands of the Platte, over which they were travelling, greatly impressed the missionary, who prophesied concerning it as follows: "No country could be more inviting to the farmer, with only one exception—the want of woodland. The latitude is sufficiently high to be healthy; and as the climate grows warmer as we travel west, until we approach the snow-topped mountains, there is a degree of mildness not experienced east of the Alleghany Mountains. The time will come, and probably is not far distant, when this country will be covered with a dense population. The earth was created for the habitation of man, and for a theatre on which God will manifest his perfections in his moral government among his moral creatures, and therefore the earth, according to divine prediction, shall be given to the people of God. Although infidels may sneer, and scoffers mock, yet God will accomplish His designs and fulfill every promise contained in His Word. Then this amazing extent of most fertile land will not continue to be the wandering ground of a few thousand Indians, with only a very few acres under cultivation; nor will millions of tons of grass grow up to rot upon the ground, or to be burned up with the fire enkindled to sweep over the prairie, to disencumber it of its spontaneous burden. The herds of buffalo which once fattened upon these meadows are gone; and the deer which once cropped the grass have disappeared; and the antelopes have fled away; and shall solitude reign here till the end of time? No: here shall be heard the din of business, and the church-going bell shall sound far and wide."

Before long the travellers reached the Loup Fork, which they crossed; and here they met a number of Pawnee Indians, who treated them with great courtesy and kindness, and invited them to feast with them. Reference is made here to Messrs. Dunbar and Allis, and to the missionary work that they were doing among the Pawnees.

From the Pawnee country the party kept on up the Platte, through the open country. Here, it seems, those Indians most feared were the Arickaras, not the Sioux and Cheyennes, as was the case thirty years later. At this time that tribe was said to have gone far up the south fork of the Platte to avoid the United States dragoons, under command of Colonel Dodge, who was pursuing them. As Parker's party went up the north fork of the Platte, he speaks of "their using particular caution to be prepared for an attack of the Arickaras, should any of their war parties be about us. Every man was required to see that his rifle was in good order, and to have a good supply of powder and balls. We all slept with our clothes on, so that, if called with the sentinels' fire, we might in less than a moment be ready for action."

Here is a word about the animals that they saw next day as they journeyed on:

"Saw, on the 16th, the buffalo in great numbers, and in nearer view than previously. They are less shy than those we first found. They are more majestic than the elk, but less beautiful. The antelopes, some of which we have seen for several days past, are becoming very numerous. They are rightly named, for their speed exceeds any animal I have ever seen. Our hounds can do nothing in giving them the chase; so soon are they left far in the rear, that they do not follow them more than ten or twenty rods before they return, looking ashamed of their defeat. Our hunters occasionally take some of them by coming upon them by stealth. When they are surprised, they start forward a very small space, and then turn, and with high-lifted heads stare for a few seconds at the object which has alarmed them, and then, with a half whistling snuff, bound off, seeming to be as much upon wings as upon feet. They resemble the goat, but are far more beautiful."

Trappers and Indians


Court House Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scott's Bluffs were duly passed. Some very friendly Ogallallahs were met with just before they reached the Laramie River. Their camp that night was dose to the fort. Here took place one of the days of revelry and carousing which are so frequently noted in these old books as occurring periodically. There were dances by the Indians, and other celebrations. Keeping on up the Platte, they passed Independence Rock August 7th, and reached the Sweetwater. The weather was now growing colder, and ice often made during the night.

On reaching Green River they came to the rendezvous of the American Fur Company. Who was in command Parker does not tell us; but that various well-known persons were present is certain. For example, "While we continued in this place, Dr. Whitman was called to perform some very important surgical operations; he extracted an iron arrow three inches long from the back of Captain Bridger, which he had received in a skirmish three years before with the Blackfeet Indians. It was a difficult operation, in consequence of the arrow being hooked at the point by striking a large bone, and a cartilaginous substance had grown around it. The Dr. pursued the operation with great self-possession and perseverance, and Captain Bridger manifested equal firmness. The Indians looked on while the operation was proceeding with countenances indicating wonder, and when they saw the arrow, expressed their astonishment in a manner peculiar to themselves. The skill of Dr. Whitman undoubtedly made upon them a favorable impression. He also took another arrow from under the shoulder of one of the hunters which had been there two years and a half."

Here Parker consulted the Flatheads and Nez Perth, asking them if they would be willing to receive a minister of the Gospel. They needed no persuasion, but agreed to allow him to come to them, and so cordial was their response, that it seemed best that Dr. Whitman should return with the caravan, enlist some more workers, and return the next year with another caravan, to establish a mission among these people. Dr. Whitman at first was unwilling to leave his fellow missionary to go on alone, but finally did so.

During another day of drunkenness a fight took place at the rendezvous. "A hunter, who goes technically by the name of the great bully of the mountains, mounted his horse with a loaded rifle, and challenged any Frenchman, American, Spaniard or Dutchman to fight him in single combat. Kit Carson, an American, told him if he wished to die, he would accept the challenge. Shunar defied him. Carson mounted his horse, and with a loaded pistol rushed into close contact, and both almost at the same instant fired. Carson's ball entered Shunar's hand, came out at the wrist, and passed through the arm above the elbow. Shunar's ball passed over the head of Carson, and while he went for another pistol, Shunar begged that his life might be spared."

Parker had arranged to travel on with the Flatheads. The chief of these gave him a young man as an assistant, and Parker secured a voyageur who understood English and Nez Perce. Parker and his Indian friends started, August 21, in company with Bridger, whose way led in the same direction as theirs. Bridger had about fifty men. They followed up the stream to Jackson's Hole, and encamped on a small stream which the author says is one of the upper branches of the Columbia River. He says something about the difficulties of travel and the narrow passages which it was necessary to traverse, and which he calls "kenyans." This term is found more or less frequently in these old books by persons who seem to have written it down only from hearing the word spoken. Near Jackson's Hole he climbed one of the high mountains, and was greatly impressed by what he saw. One day while travelling through the mountains "a number of buffalo, which were pursued by our Indians, came rushing down the side of the mountain through the midst of our company. One ran over a horse, on the back of which was a child, and threw the child far down the descent, but it providentially was not materially injured. Another ran over a packed horse and wounded it deeply in the shoulders."

Mr. Parker evidently enjoyed the companionship of the Indians, whom he seems to have regarded with most pleasant feelings. He says: "The Indians are very kind to each other, and if one meets with any disaster, the others will wait and assist him. Their horses often turn their packs and run, plunge and kick, until they free themselves from their burdens. Yesterday a horse turned his saddle under him upon which a child was fastened, and started to run, but those near hovered at once around with their horses so as to inclose the one to which the child was attached, and it was extricated without hurt when I saw the condition of the child, I had no expectation that it could be saved alive."

A little later, still speaking of the children, he says of the Indians: "They are so well supplied with horses that every man, woman and child are mounted on horseback, and all they have is packed upon horses. Small children, not more than three years old, are mounted alone, and generally upon colts. They are lashed upon the saddle to keep them from falling, and especially when they go asleep, which they often do when they become fatigued. Then they recline upon the horse's shoulders; and when they awake, they lay hold of their whip, which is fastened to the wrist of their right hand, and apply it smartly to their horses; and it is astonishing to see how these little creatures will guide and run them. Children which are still younger are put into an encasement made with a board at the back, and a wicker-work around the other parts, covered with cloth inside and without, or more generally with dressed skins; and they are carried upon the mother's back, or suspended from a high nob upon the fore part of their saddles."

Still moving westward, early in September they met a band of Nez Perces. They came to Parker's camp about the middle of the day, "the principal chief marching in front with his aid, carrying an American flag by his side. They all sung a march, while a few beat a sort of drum. As they drew near, they displayed columns, and made quite an imposing appearance. The women and children followed in the rear."

The next day's diary is devoted almost entirely to an account of missionary work, in which the author gives an extract of the various sermons that he preached to the Indians, who received his teachings with great patience and interest. By this time the party was out of provisions, and all were getting hungry, but no game was seen. However, on September 9, buffalo were viewed, and preparations were made to chase them. All the best hunters chose their swiftest horses, and seeing that their arms were in good order, made ready for the run; while Parker did what he could by lifting up "my heart in prayer to God, that He would give them judgment, skill and success. They advanced toward the herd of buffalo with great caution, lest they should frighten them before they should make a near approach; and also to reserve the power of their horses for the chase when it should be necessary to bring it into full requisition. When the buffalo took the alarm and fled, the rush was made, each Indian selecting for himself a cow with which he happened to come into the nearest contact. All were in swift motion scouring the valley; a cloud of dust began to arise, firing of guns and shooting of arrows followed in close succession; soon here and there buffalo were seen prostrated, and the women, who followed close in the rear, began the work of securing the valuable acquisition, and the men were away again in pursuit of the fleeing herd. Those in the chase when as near as two rods shoot and wheel, expecting the wounded animal to turn upon them. The horses appeared to understand the way to avoid danger. As soon as the wounded animal flies again, the chase is renewed, and such is the alternate wheeling and chasing until the buffalo sinks beneath its wounds. They obtained between fifty and sixty, which was a signal mercy."

Not long after this, the Nez Perch and Flatheads left them, wishing to remain in the buffalo range to secure their winter's meat. Before going away, however, they presented Parker with twenty tongues and a large quantity of dried meat. About a hundred and fifty of the Indians kept on down Salmon River with the missionaries; and not long afterward they had a tremendous Indian scare, supposing that they were about to be attacked by the Blackfeet. A little investigation, however, showed that what had been seen were buffalo, and not Blackfeet, and food again became plenty in the camp.

Parker appears to have been a man of considerable attainments. He remarks upon the geology of the region he passes through; enumerates the birds and mammals which he sees, and has much to say about the habits and characteristics of the Indians; and interspersed through all are frequent references to the Deity, His wishes and purposes as interpreted by the missionary, together with earnest aspirations for the spread of the Gospel among the red people.

Walla Walla was reached early in October, and there, at the post of the Hudson's Bay Company, Parker was received by Mr. Pambrun with great hospitality. For this the guest was very grateful, and he says many good words concerning the kindly people and the company which they represented; words which are not only good but true.

After a day or two of rest at Walla Walla, the missionary started down the river in a canoe with three Walla Walla Indians, and before long stopped at a camp of Cayuse Indians, with whom, however, he was unable to communicate. He noticed that all along the river as he passed, the Indians, though of different tribes, seemed to be on good terms with one another, a condition which was inevitable from the fact that all these Indians drew their support from the river, to which they resorted for salmon, and coming there for provisions, could not have afforded to fight, even had they wished to.

At the Dalles, Parker met Captain Wyeth, from Boston, with whom, it will be remembered, Townsend and Nuttall had journeyed westward the year before. A little above the Cascades he met the first Chenooks, which he denominates "the only real Flatheads and Nez Perces, or pierced noses, I have found. They flatten their heads and pierce their noses. The flattening of their heads is not so great a deformity as is generally supposed. From a little above the eyes to the apex or crown of the head there is a depression, but not generally in adult persons very noticeable. The piercing of the nose is more of a deformity, and is done by inserting two small tapering white shells, about two inches long, somewhat in the shape of a thorn, through the lower part of the cartilaginous division of the nose." While following the trail along the river, he came to a pleasant rise of ground, upon which were several houses of a forsaken village, which were both larger and far better than any he had hitherto seen in any Indian country. They were about sixty feet long and thirty-five wide, the frame work very well constructed, and covered with split planks and cedar bark. These houses thus greatly resemble those seen in recent times on the coast of portions of British Columbia. The next day Mr. Parker reached Fort Vancouver, the Hudson's Bay post, where Dr. J. McLaughlin, a chief factor of the company, received him very kindly. From here Parker went on down the river, and reached the brig "May Dacre," of Boston, belonging to the Wyeth Company. Here he met Dr. Townsend, and before long they set sail down the river, and reached Astoria, the far-famed New York of the West.

The Indians of the country beyond the Continental Divide through which Parker passed, he divides into those of the plains, which live in the upper country from the falls of the Columbia to the Rocky Mountains, and those of the lower country, between the shores of the Pacific and the falls of the Columbia River. He observes that the first of these divisions are remarkable for their cleanliness; that they are well supplied with horses, which are very cheap, a good horse selling for not more than enough to purchase a blanket or a few small articles of merchandise. As to their habits, he declares that the Indians of the plains are not lazy, as they are commonly supposed to be, for he rarely saw any of those Indians without their being engaged in some pursuit. To him the Indians appeared as they since have to other—.not especially different from other people. They have the same natural propensities, and the same social affections. "They are cheerful and often gay, sociable, kind and affectionate; and anxious to receive instruction in whatever may conduce to their happiness here or hereafter." They have but few manufactures, and those are the most plain and simple.

He calls attention to the fact that these Indians have no wars among themselves, and appear averse to all wars, not entering into battle except in self-defence. Their only enemies are the Blackfoot Indians, whose country is along the east border of the Rocky Mountains, and who are constantly roaming about in parties on both sides of the mountains in quest of plunder. When the Indians on the West side meet with these war parties they endeavor to avoid an encounter, but if compelled to fight, "show a firm, undaunted, unconquerable spirit, and rush upon their enemies with the greatest impetuosity." When an enemy is discovered, every horse is driven into camp, and the women take charge of them, while every man seizes his weapons, mounts his horse, and waits, firm and undismayed, to see if hostilities must ensue. Very frequently when the Blackfeet see white men with the Nez Perces and Flatheads, they decline battle, even though they themselves may be far superior in numbers, for they know that the white man can furnish a large supply of ammunition on such occasions. The Nez Perce or Flathead chief will accept the pipe, explaining as he does so that he knows the Blackfeet mean war, although they pretend peace.

The Indians were great gamblers, especially at running horses and in foot-races. Drunkenness was a vice as yet strange to these Indians, but Parker predicted that it would come to them so soon as it was possible to transport liquor to them. He describes the method of doctoring by a medicine man, and the practice of the sudatory or sweat bath. All this is of the plains Indians.

Those of the lower country are of less attractive type than the others. As their subsistence depends almost entirely on fish, they are less well clad, for they have not the same opportunity to obtain skins as the people of the buffalo country. Liquor had been brought into the lower country, and the Indians were slaves to it.

These Indians believe in the immortality of the soul, and that in the future state we shall have the same wants as in this life. Thus, in 1829, the wife of an influential chief of the Chenooks, near Cape Disappointment, killed two female slaves, which should attend her child to the world of spirits, and especially should row her canoe to the Happy Hunting Ground in the South.

As the wealth of the upper Indians is estimated in their horses, so those of the lower country count their property by the number of their wives, slaves, and canoes. Special attention is called to the excellent canoes which they make, and also to the baskets woven so closely as to hold water, and to be used for pails. Of course, they were also used as pots in which to cook fish and mush.

After having spent the winter on the Columbia, Parker set out in May to revisit the Nez Perces. He reached them in a short time, and, as it happened, came to a village just as a little child was being buried. The Indians had prepared a cross to be set up at the grave, very likely having been taught to do so by some Iroquois Indians, of whom there were not a few trapping in the country; and here appears the bigotry of the missionary of that, and indeed of later days as well, for Parker says: "But as I viewed a cross of wood made by men's hands, of no avail to benefit either the dead or the living, and far more likely to operate as a salve to a guilty conscience, or a stepping stone to idolatry, than to be understood in its spiritual sense to refer to the crucifixion of our sins, I took this, which the Indians had prepared, and broke it to pieces. I then told them we place a stone at the head and foot of the grave only to mark the place; and without a murmur they cheerfully acquiesced, and adopted our custom."

Parker appears to have regarded the Nez Perce Indians as especially adapted to conversion, and laments that he is unable to speak their language, and thus to communicate with them directly. Parker was an active and conscientious person, and evidently wished to see all he could of the country to which he had been sent. He set out from the Nez Perces for the Colville country, meeting Spokanes, Cayuses, Coeur d'Alenes, and a number of other small tribes. Returning, he was unable to get transportation down the Columbia River, and was obliged to take horses for Fort Okanagan. The journey was long and very dry, and the party suffered more of less from thirst. At Fort Okanagan he took a boat to run down the river four hundred miles to Walla Walla, which he reached in safety. Toward the end of June he took ship for the Sandwich Islands, and in December, 1836, sailed on board the Phoenix" for his home in the East. After a stormy passage he reached New London, May 18, and five days later, after two years and two months of absence, and journeyings which covered twenty-eight thousand miles, arrived at his home at Ithaca, N. Y.