Nathaniel J. Wyeth

Abstracted from "History of the State of Idaho," by Cornelis J. Brosnan, published by Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918; p. 45-47.

76. Nathaniel J. Wyeth. The name of Nathaniel J. Wyeth is an honored one in Idaho history. He was not only the founder of historic Old Fort Hall, but was a clear-headed business man and possessed plenty of pluck, initiative, and practical sense. Moreover, he was a fine, loyal, patriotic American citizen. He was one of the really great Americans associated with the fur-trade in the Columbia Basin.

78. Wyeth's First Expedition. Captain Wyeth's first overland expedition from Boston passed through Idaho in the summer of 1832, and reached Fort Vancouver in the autumn of that year. Here, near the mouth of the Columbia, Wyeth waited for his supply-ship, The Sultana. It never arrived, however, as it had suffered shipwreck while on the way around Cape Horn. In February, 1833, he was compelled to return home, after having made the first continuous journey on record from Boston to the mouth of the Columbia.

79. Wyeth Returns to Idaho. In 1834 Captain Wyeth returned to Idaho. This time he brought out a stock of goods to fill an order which had been placed the previous year by Smith, Jackson, and William Sublette, of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Just as Wyeth arrived, however, control was passing to the three partners, Fitzpatrick, Bridger, and Milton Sublette. These new owners refused to honor the contract, so Wyeth found himself in the Western mountains with a large outfit of merchandise on his hands.

Wyeth Builds Fort Hall

80. Wyeth Builds Fort Hall. In order to protect and keep his goods until he could make other arrangements to dispose of them he built Fort Hall, in the summer of 1834. He erected this post on the left bank of the Snake River, nine miles above the mouth of the Portneuf, northwest of the present city of Pocatello. He named the Fort in honor of Henry Hall, senior member of the Boston firm that financed his expedition.

81. The Appearance of Fort Hall Under American Control. Old Fort Hall at the time of its erection by Wyeth was a crude but substantial log structure. The outer log wall, or stockade, was eighty feet square and consisted of cottonwood-trees set on end. This surrounding wall, or stockade, was about fifteen feet high. At the opposite angles were two bastions about eight feet square. In these were port-holes large enough for guns only. The quarters for the men within the stockade were simple structures made of hewed logs covered with mud brick. Square holes in the roofs of the interior buildings served as windows In the summer of 1836 there was a little garden-patch near the fort in which grew turnips, peas, and onions.

82. Fort Hall under Hudson's Bay Control. About 1838, shortly after the Hudson's Bay Company assumed control of the fort, the structure was enlarged and strong adobe walls were substituted for the original cottonwood logs. It was the custom of the company to keep these outer walls well whitewashed. It was doubtless these white walls glistening in the sunshine that caused a hungry, dust-covered wayfarer to exclaim one bright September day in 1839, as he caught his first glimpse of this long-looked-for post: "An hour along the sands and wild wormwood; an hour along the banks of the Saptin (the Snake); and before us rose the white battlements of Fort Hall!" In 1849 the fort is described as being built of clay or adobe. Its main entrance faced in the direction of the Portneuf and its rear walls extended back toward the banks of Snake River. There was a blockhouse at one of the angles. The main building within the fort was occupied by the chief trader, and the smaller ones were used as storehouses or quarters for the company's employees. In 1852 a pioneer notes in his journal that over a hundred army wagons were standing around the fort, which was then in a dilapidated condition. In 1855 the post was abandoned by the Hudson's Bay Company. It was used for a time as military quarters for our government troops during the Civil War. In the year 1869 Great Britain and the United States reached an agreement by which the latter country was to reimburse "in gold coin" the Hudson's Bay Company for its possessory rights in Fort Hall, as well as its other holdings in the Oregon country, and the history of Idaho's famous old Tabard Inn was at an end.

83. Idaho's First Flag-Raising at Old Fort Hall. It is to Wyeth's sturdy Americanism that we are indebted for Idaho's first flag-raising celebration. The erection of Fort Hall, which was begun in mid-July, 1834, was com-pleted on August 4. At sunrise on August 6, out in the "Great American Desert," Wyeth and his little company conducted Idaho's first patriotic exercises, when an American flag was floated over the fort. Since the party did not have with them any manufactured banner. a "home-made" flag was used for the occasion. It was made of unbleached sheeting, strips of red flannel, and some blue patches which represented the stars.

84. Importance of Fort Hall. Fort Hall was one of the most important points on the Oregon Trail during the emigration period. Situated in a pleasant bottom-land northeast of the confluence of the Snake and Portneuf, it offered a hospitable resting-place to many a travel-stained pioneer. Here the emigrant made preparations for the last stage of his journey. In the early days of the trail, wagons were left here and pack-horses were substituted. Later on, however, as the trail became better known, wagons were taken clear through to the mouth of the Columbia.

85. Wyeth Sells Fort Hall. The building of a substantial fort in the Snake Country disturbed the Hudson's Bay officers; so later in the same year they erected a rival post near the mouth of the Boise. Wyeth soon found that it was useless for single individuals to try to compete with this huge, experienced, and wealthy corporation. To save himself from total loss he sold Fort Hall and all its appurtenances to this company in 1836. No other American attempted to dispute the commercial sway of the Hudson's Bay Company in the valleys of the Snake until after Oregon came under American control in 1846.

86. Later Life of Wyeth. After Wyeth returned from the mountains in 1836 he reentered the ice business in his native city. He built up a large export trade, and invented many new appliances, which are used even to the present day. Wyeth's two trading ventures in the far West evidently satisfied his fondness for adventure, for he passed the remainder of his life in Cambridge and left behind him an honored name when he died, in 1856.

Wyeth is one of the pluckiest heroes that the fur-trade produced. Temporary defeat only spurred him on to greater effort. In one of his letters James Russell Lowell pays this merited tribute to his fellow townsman Wyethe: I well remember his starting sixty years ago, and knew him well in after years. A born leader of men, he was fitly called Captain Nathaniel Wyeth as long as he lived." Americans will always honor his memory for his gallant attempt "to rear the American flag in the lost domains of Astoria." Wyeth's grave may be seen today in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts. On the gravestone is carved this simple but appropriate inscription: "He Believed in Himself."


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