Astorian Wilson Price Hunt reaches the Columbia River near the mouth of the Umatilla on January 19, 1812.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 12/11/2009
  • Essay 9231
On January 19, 1812, Pacific Fur Company partner Wilson Price Hunt (1783-1842) reaches the Columbia River near the mouth of the Umatilla and travels downstream on a tribal trail along the north side of the Columbia. Hunt is the leader of a large overland expedition dispatched by fur baron John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) of New York. Hunt's party intends to rendezvous at the mouth of the Columbia River with other company members traveling by ship. The Astorians, as they are known, plan to extend Astor's trading network throughout the Northwest. 

Hard Traveling

The overland expedition of the Pacific Fur Company had departed St. Louis more than a year earlier, commanded by Wilson Price Hunt, a St. Louis merchant with a longstanding interest in the West. The 60 men, one woman, and two children who made up the party had ascended the Missouri by boat, switched to horses to cross the Rockies at Union Pass, descended to the Green River in present-day Wyoming, then traveled north to Henry's Fork of the Snake River in present-day Idaho. Believing that the watercourse they called Canoe River would lead directly to the Columbia, the Astorians fashioned canoes from cottonwood and aspen, left their horses with a friendly band of Shoshoni Indians, and set off downstream on October 19, 1811.

By early November, after losing two canoes, one man, and most of their provisions in the wild rapids of the Snake, the four company partners who shared responsibility for the expedition decided to split into smaller groups and fan out on foot in different directions in hopes of finding either a passable route or Indians who would trade them horses on which to continue their journey.

Hunt led the main contingent on an arduous trek along the Snake, struggling to find a way to the Columbia with a party that "now consisted of thirty-two whites, a woman more than eight months pregnant, her two children" (Hunt, 302). In mid-December the Astorians came upon a small Shoshoni village whose inhabitants provided them with food, shelter, and three guides. The Shoshonis led them north through winter snows, emerging on a grassy plain near present-day Pendleton, Oregon, where they were hospitably greeted by a large encampment of Cayuse and Nez Perce Indians. "I cannot sufficiently express my gratitude to Providence for having let us reach here, because we are all extremely fatigued and enfeebled" Hunt wrote in his journal (Hunt, 302). After resting for a few days, Hunt purchased several horses and set off down the Umatilla River (in present-day Oregon).

Joy at the Sight

On January 21, 1812, Hunt noted "we at last reached the banks of the Columbia, for so long the goal of our desires. We had traveled 1751 miles, we had endured all the hardships imaginable. With difficulty I expressed our joy at sight of this river" (Hunt, 304). A band of Indians that Hunt called the Akaitchis offered fresh "salmon-trout" (probably steelhead) and pointed out a trail along the opposite side of the river.

After swimming his horses across the Columbia on January 23, Hunt and his rejuvenated party enjoyed mild weather as they rode downriver (through present-day Benton and Klickitat counties). "The trail along the river was very good," he wrote. "We settled ourselves near a camp of Indians who had some fifty canoes. I bought nine dogs, which were very fat; and we made a delicious meal" (Hunt, 304).

For the next four days, the Astorians moved west along the treeless shores of the mid-Columbia, stopping at Indian camps along the way to buy more dogs when elk and deer meat proved too expensive. Hunt noted that the tribes along this stretch of river ate acorns from white oaks that grew a short distance inland.

On January 28, he met a group of tribesmen "who talked to me of whites who had built a large house at the mouth of the river, had surrounded it with palisades, etc" (Hunt, 305). Thus Hunt learned that his compatriots traveling by sea had arrived safely at the mouth of the Columbia and had constructed a fort as planned. The tribesmen also mentioned that "the whites expected a large number of their friends, constantly looked toward Big River, and when we arrived, would dry their tears and sing and dance" (Hunt, 305).

The Dalles and Downstream

Three days later the travelers approached the head of Celilo Falls and stopped to visit a village whose name Hunt recorded as Ouaioumpoum. He remarked that "the Indians have a special name for each camp that is composed of more than one hut, and they are very fond of telling it to strangers" (Hunt, 305). A few miles farther downstream, at the entrance of the set of rapids known as the Dalles, Hunt noted the village of Ouichram (Wishram), "the site of the great fishery of the Columbia. It resembles one of the small fishing ports on the eastern coast of the United States. On both sides of the river are to be seen large flakes well made of interlaced sticks for drying fish. In the springtime, when the waters of the river are high, the salmon come in schools so large that the Indians catch them with dip-nets attached to the end of poles" (Hunt, 305).  

Below the Dalles, the countryside became more hilly and the trail more rugged. Hunt decided to continue his journey by boat, and traded one of his horses for a dugout canoe "very well made of pine wood, raised at bow and stern" (Hunt, 306). He traded another horse for two bales of dried salmon, and on February 3, after assigning a small contingent to herd the horses along the trail, he loaded the remainder of his people and their baggage into the canoe and embarked on the Columbia. That evening he rendezvoused with the horse party at the mouth of the Klickitat, where he exchanged four horses for four more canoes. The next day, with the hills beside the river growing ever steeper, the trail ended near a tribal encampment. Stalled for several days by heavy rain, Hunt swapped his three remaining horses for two additional canoes and conversed with a Clatsop visitor from the mouth of the Columbia who spoke enough English to inquire after members of the Lewis and Clark expedition whom he had met during their sojourn to the Pacific. Interestingly, "he had already heard of the death of Mr. Lewis" two years before (Hunt, 307).

When the storm finally abated on February 10, Hunt and his flotilla of six canoes put into the river. By mid-morning they were pulling ashore to portage around the rapids known as the Cascades of the Columbia (in present-day Clark County, now flooded by Bonneville Dam). Here Hunt noted "a second salmon-fishery, a village on the right bank and three huts on the opposite shore. The blue glass bead is the merchandise which these Indians prefer" (Hunt, 307).  

As his men paddled downriver, he commented on the beauty of the landscape, the plentiful oaks and numerous waterfalls, the snow-covered flanks of Mount Hood, and the increasing width of the river after the final drop of the Cascade rapids. Along the way, they "frequently encountered huts of Indians who sold us dogs, dried salmon, beaver skins, root of the ouapatou (wapato)" (Hunt, 308).

To Be Surrounded by Friends

Camped near the mouth of the Cowlitz River (near present-day Longview in Cowltiz County) on the 14th, they again met Indians "who talked to us of our fellow-countrymen's establishment" and told them they were drawing close to their destination. The next day, stopping to purchase food at a tribal camp, they were delighted to discover four of those fellow-countrymen there, "bartering for sturgeon and fishing for excellent small fish which ... the Indians call othlecan (eulachon)" (Hunt, 308).

Early in the afternoon of February 15, the six canoes made their way across a wide bay and pulled ashore in front of the new Fort Astoria on the south bank, where they were greeted by the seafaring Astorians as well as fellow overlanders Donald Mackenzie and Robert McClelland, who had reached the coast a month earlier. Another small group, consisting of partner Ramsay Crooks and five men, still remained inland, but the majority of both parties had arrived safely, despite "incredible hardships." That evening Hunt concluded his journal with a note of relief: "It was a very real pleasure for travelers harassed by fatigue to rest in quiet and be surrounded by friends after so long a journey" (Hunt, 308).   

Sources: Wilson Price Hunt, "Journey of Mr. Hunt and His Companions from Saint Louis to the Mouth of the Columbia by a New Route across the Rocky Mountains," in The Discovery of the Oregon Trail: Robert Stuart's Narratives of His Overland Trip Eastward from Astoria in 1812-1813, ed. by Philip Ashton Rollins (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1935);  Annals of Astoria: The Headquarters Log of the Pacific Fur Company on the Columbia River, 1811-1813 ed. by Robert F. Jones (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999); James P. Ronda, Astoria & Empire (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You