IN ESTABLISHING his winter camp near the Portnenf, Captain Bonneville had drawn
off to some little distance from his Bannack friends, to avoid all annoyance from their
intimacy or intrusions. In so doing, however, he had been obliged to take up his
quarters on the extreme edge of the flat land, where he was encompassed with ice and
snow, and had nothing better for his horses to subsist on than wormwood. The
Bannacks, on the contrary, were encamped among fine springs of water, where there
was grass in abundance. Some of these springs gush out of the earth in sufficient
quantity to turn a mill; and furnish beautiful streams, clear as crystal, and full of trout of
a large size, which may be seen darting about the transparent water.
Winter now set in regularly. The snow had fallen frequently, and in large quantities, and
covered the ground to a depth of a foot; and the continued coldness of the weather
prevented any thaw.
By degrees, a distrust which at first subsisted between the Indians and the trappers,
subsided, and gave way to mutual confidence and good will. A few presents convinced
the chiefs that the white men were their friends; nor were the white men wanting in
proofs of the honesty and good faith of their savage neighbors. Occasionally, the deep
snow and the want of fodder obliged them to turn their weakest horses out to roam in
quest of sustenance. If they at any time strayed to the camp of the Bannacks, they were
immediately brought back. It must be confessed, however, that if the stray horse
happened, by any chance, to be in vigorous plight and good condition, though he was
equally sure to be returned by the honest Bannacks, yet it was always after the lapse of
several days, and in a very gaunt and jaded state; and always with the remark that they
had found him a long way off. The uncharitable were apt to surmise that he had, in the
interim, been well used up in a buffalo hunt; but those accustomed to Indian morality in
the matter of horseflesh, considered it a singular evidence of honesty that he should be
brought back at all.
Being convinced, therefore, from these, and other circumstances, that his people were
encamped in the neighborhood of a tribe as honest as they were valiant, and satisfied
that they would pass their winter unmolested, Captain Bonneville prepared for a
reconnoitring expedition of great extent and peril. This was, to penetrate to the
Hudson's Bay establishments on the banks of the Columbia, and to make himself
acquainted with the country and the Indian tribes; it being one part of his scheme to
establish a trading post somewhere on the lower part of the river, so as to participate in
the trade lost to the United States by the capture of Astoria. This expedition would, of
course, take him through the Snake River country, and across the Blue Mountains, the
scenes of so much hardship and disaster to Hunt and Crooks, and their Astorian bands,
who first explored it, and he would have to pass through it in the same frightful season,
the depth of winter.
The idea of risk and hardship, however, only served to stimulate the adventurous spirit
of the captain. He chose three companions for his journey, put up a small stock of
necessaries in the most portable form, and selected five horses and mules for
themselves and their baggage. He proposed to rejoin his band in the early part of
March, at the winter encampment near the Portneuf. All these arrangements being
completed, he mounted his horse on Christmas morning, and set off with his three
comrades. They halted a little beyond the Bannack camp, and made their Christmas
dinner, which, if not a very merry, was a very hearty one, after which they resumed their
They were obliged to travel slowly, to spare their horses; for the snow had increased in
depth to eighteen inches; and though somewhat packed and frozen, was not sufficiently
so to yield firm footing. Their route lay to the west, down along the left side of Snake
River; and they were several days in reaching the first, or American Falls. The banks of
the river, for a considerable distance, both above and below the falls, have a volcanic
character: masses of basaltic rock are piled one upon another; the water makes its way
through their broken chasms, boiling through narrow channels, or pitching in beautiful
cascades over ridges of basaltic columns.
Beyond these falls, they came to a picturesque, but inconsiderable stream, called the
Cassie. It runs through a level valley, about four miles wide, where the soil is good; but
the prevalent coldness and dryness of the climate is unfavorable to vegetation. Near to
this stream there is a small mountain of mica slate, including garnets. Granite, in small
blocks, is likewise seen in this neighborhood, and white sandstone. From this river, the
travellers had a prospect of the snowy heights of the Salmon River Mountains to the
north; the nearest, at least fifty miles distant.
In pursuing his course westward, Captain Bonneville generally kept several miles from
Snake River, crossing the heads of its tributary streams; though he often found the
open country so encumbered by volcanic rocks, as to render travelling extremely
difficult. Whenever he approached Snake River, he found it running through a broad
chasm, with steep, perpendicular sides of basaltic rock. After several days' travel across
a level plain, he came to a part of the river which filled him with astonishment and
admiration. As far as the eye could reach, the river was walled in by perpendicular cliffs
two hundred and fifty feet high, beetling like dark and gloomy battlements, while blocks
and fragments lay in masses at their feet, in the midst of the boiling and whirling
current. Just above, the whole stream pitched in one cascade above forty feet in height,
with a thundering sound, casting up a volume of spray that hung in the air like a silver
mist. These are called by some the Fishing Falls, as the salmon are taken here in
immense quantities. They cannot get by these falls.
After encamping at this place all night, Captain Bonneville, at sunrise, descended with
his party through a narrow ravine, or rather crevice, in the vast wall of basaltic rock
which bordered the river; this being the only mode, for many miles, of getting to the
margin of the stream.
The snow lay in a thin crust along the banks of the river, so that their travelling was
much more easy than it had been hitherto. There were foot tracks, also, made by the
natives, which greatly facilitated their progress. Occasionally, they met the inhabitants
of this wild region; a timid race, and but scantily provided with the necessaries of life.
Their dress consisted of a mantle about four feet square, formed of strips of rabbit skins
sewed together; this they hung over their shoulders, in the ordinary Indian mode of
wearing the blanket. Their weapons were bows and arrows; the latter tipped with
obsidian, which abounds in the neighborhood. Their huts were shaped like haystacks,
and constructed of branches of willow covered with long grass, so as to be warm and
comfortable. Occasionally, they were surrounded by small inclosures of wormwood,
about three feet high, which gave them a cottage-like appearance. Three or four of
these tenements were occasionally grouped together in some wild and striking
situation, and had a picturesque effect. Sometimes they were in sufficient number to
form a small hamlet. From these people, Captain Bonneville's party frequently
purchased salmon, dried in an admirable manner, as were likewise the roes. This
seemed to be their prime article of food; but they were extremely anxious to get buffalo
meat in exchange.
The high walls and rocks, within which the travellers had been so long inclosed, now
occasionally presented openings, through which they were enabled to ascend to the
plain, and to cut off considerable bends of the river.
Throughout the whole extent of this vast and singular chasm, the scenery of the river is
said to be of the most wild and romantic character. The rocks present every variety of
masses and grouping. Numerous small streams come rushing and boiling through
narrow clefts and ravines: one of a considerable size issued from the face of a
precipice, within twenty-five feet of its summit; and after running in nearly a horizontal
line for about one hundred feet, fell, by numerous small cascades, to the rocky bank of
In its career through this vast and singular defile, Snake River is upward of three
hundred yards wide, and as clear as spring water. Sometimes it steals along with a
tranquil and noiseless course; at other times, for miles and miles, it dashes on in a
thousand rapids, wild and beautiful to the eye, and lulling the ear with the soft tumult of
Many of the tributary streams of Snake River, rival it in the wildness and
picturesqueness of their scenery. That called the Bruneau; is particularly cited. It runs
through a tremendous chasm, rather than a valley, extending upwards of a hundred
and fifty miles. You come upon it on a sudden, in traversing a level plain. It seems as if
you could throw a stone across from cliff to cliff; yet, the valley is near two thousand
feet deep: so that the river looks like an inconsiderable stream. Basaltic rocks rise
perpendicularly, so that it is impossible to get from the plain to the water, or from the
river margin to the plain. The current is bright and limpid. Hot springs are found on the
borders of this river. One bursts out of the cliffs forty feet above the river, in a stream
sufficient to turn a mill, and sends up a cloud of vapor.
We find a characteristic picture of this volcanic region of mountains and streams,
furnished by the journal of Mr. Wyeth, which lies before us; who ascended a peak in the
neighborhood we are describing. From this summit, the country, he says, appears an
indescribable chaos; the tops of the hills exhibit the same strata as far as the eye can
reach; and appear to have once formed the level of the country; and the valleys to be
formed by the sinking of the earth, rather than the rising of the hills. Through the deep
cracks and chasms thus formed, the rivers and brooks make their way, which renders it
difficult to follow them. All these basaltic channels are called cut rocks by the trappers.
Many of the mountain streams disappear in the plains; either absorbed by their thirsty
soil, and by the porous surface of the lava, or swallowed up in gulfs and chasms.
On the 12th of January (1834), Captain Bonneville reached Powder River; much the
largest stream that he had seen since leaving the Portneuf. He struck it about three
miles above its entrance into Snake River. Here he found himself above the lower
narrows and defiles of the latter river, and in an open and level country. The natives
now made their appearance in considerable numbers, and evinced the most insatiable
curiosity respecting the white men; sitting in groups for hours together, exposed to the
bleakest winds, merely for the pleasure of gazing upon the strangers, and watching
every movement. These are of that branch of the great Snake tribe called Shoshokoes,
or Root Diggers, from their subsisting, in a great measure, on the roots of the earth;
though they likewise take fish in great quantities, and hunt, in a small way. They are, in
general, very poor; destitute of most of the comforts of life, and extremely indolent: but
a mild, inoffensive race. They differ, in many respects, from the other branch of the
Snake tribe, the Shoshonies; who possess horses, are more roving and adventurous,
and hunt the buffalo.
On the following day, as Captain Bonneville approached the mouth of Powder River, he
discovered at least a hundred families of these Diggers, as they are familiarly called,
assembled in one place. The women and children kept at a distance, perched among
the rocks and cliffs; their eager curiosity being somewhat dashed with fear. From their
elevated posts, they scrutinized the strangers with the most intense earnestness;
regarding them with almost as much awe as if they had been beings of a supernatural
The men, however, were by no means so shy and reserved; but importuned Captain
Bonneville and his companions excessively by their curiosity. Nothing escaped their
notice; and any thing they could lay their hands on underwent the most minute
examination. To get rid of such inquisitive neighbors, the travellers kept on for a
considerable distance, before they encamped for the night.
The country, hereabout, was generally level and sandy; producing very little grass, but a
considerable quantity of sage or wormwood. The plains were diversified by isolated
hills, all cut off, as it were, about the same height, so as to have tabular summits. In this
they resembled the isolated hills of the great prairies, east of the Rocky Mountains;
especially those found on the plains of the Arkansas.
The high precipices which had hitherto walled in the channel of Snake River had now
disappeared; and the banks were of the ordinary height. It should be observed, that the
great valleys or plains, through which the Snake River wound its course, were generally
of great breadth, extending on each side from thirty to forty miles; where the view was
bounded by unbroken ridges of mountains.
The travellers found but little snow in the neighborhood of Powder River, though the
weather continued intensely cold. They learned a lesson, however, from their forlorn
friends, the Root Diggers, which they subsequently found of great service in their wintry
wanderings. They frequently observed them to be furnished with long ropes, twisted
from the bark of the wormwood. This they used as a slow match, carrying it always
lighted. Whenever they wished to warm themselves, they would gather together a little
dry wormwood, apply the match, and in an instant produce a cheering blaze.
Captain Bonneville gives a cheerless account of a village of these Diggers, which he
saw in crossing the plain below Powder River. "They live," says he, "without any further
protection from the inclemency of the season, than a sort of break-weather, about three
feet high, composed of sage (or wormwood), and erected around them in the shape of
a half moon." Whenever he met with them, however, they had always a large suite of
half-starved dogs: for these animals, in savage as well as in civilized life, seem to be
the concomitants of beggary.
These dogs, it must be allowed, were of more use than the beggary curs of cities. The
Indian children used them in hunting the small game of the neighborhood, such as
rabbits and prairie dogs; in which mongrel kind of chase they acquitted themselves with
Sometimes the Diggers aspire to nobler game, and succeed in entrapping the antelope,
the fleetest animal of the prairies. The process by which this is effected is somewhat
singular. When the snow has disappeared, says Captain Bonneville, and the ground
become soft, the women go into the thickest fields of wormwood, and pulling it up in
great quantities, construct with it a hedge, about three feet high, inclosing about a
hundred acres. A single opening is left for the admission of the game. This done, the
women conceal themselves behind the wormwood, and wait patiently for the coming of
the antelopes; which sometimes enter this spacious trap in considerable numbers. As
soon as they are in, the women give the signal, and the men hasten to play their part.
But one of them enters the pen at a time; and, after chasing the terrified animals round
the inclosure, is relieved by one of his companions. In this way the hunters take their
turns, relieving each other, and keeping up a continued pursuit by relays, without
fatigue to themselves. The poor antelopes, in the end, are so wearied down, that the
whole party of men enter and dispatch them with clubs; not one escaping that has
entered the inclosure. The most curious circumstance in this chase is, that an animal so
fleet and agile as the antelope, and straining for its life, should range round and round
this fated inclosure, without attempting to overleap the low barrier which surrounds it.
Such, however, is said to be the fact; and such their only mode of hunting the antelope.
Notwithstanding the absence of all comfort and convenience in their habitations, and
the general squalidness of their appearance, the Shoshokoes do not appear to be
destitute of ingenuity. They manufacture good ropes, and even a tolerably fine thread,
from a sort of weed found in their neighborhood; and construct bowls and jugs out of a
kind of basket-work formed from small strips of wood plaited: these, by the aid of a little
wax, they render perfectly water tight. Beside the roots on which they mainly depend for
subsistence, they collect great quantities of seed, of various kinds, beaten with one
hand out of the tops of the plants into wooden bowls held for that purpose. The seed
thus collected is winnowed and parched, and ground between two stones into a kind of
meal or flour; which, when mixed with water, forms a very palatable paste or gruel.
Some of these people, more provident and industrious than the rest, lay up a stock of
dried salmon, and other fish, for winter: with these, they were ready to traffic with the
travellers for any objects of utility in Indian life; giving a large quantity in exchange for an
awl, a knife, or a fish-hook. Others were in the most abject state of want and starvation;
and would even gather up the fish-bones which the travellers threw away after a repast,
warm them over again at the fire, and pick them with the greatest avidity.
The farther Captain Bonneville advanced into the country of these Root Diggers, the
more evidence he perceived of their rude and forlorn condition. "They were destitute,"
says he, "of the necessary covering to protect them from the weather; and seemed to
be in the most unsophisticated ignorance of any other propriety or advantage in the use
of clothing. One old dame had absolutely nothing on her person but a thread round her
neck, from which was pendant a solitary bead."
What stage of human destitution, however, is too destitute for vanity! Though these naked and forlorn-looking beings had neither toilet to arrange, nor beauty to contemplate, their greatest passion was for a mirror. It was a "great medicine," in their eyes. The sight of one was sufficient, at any time, to throw them into a paroxysm of eagerness and delight; and they were ready to give anything they had for the smallest fragment in which they might behold their squalid features. With this simple instance of vanity, in its primitive but vigorous state, we shall close our remarks on the Root Diggers.