Backtracking the Oregon Trail #4

Day Three ~ Fort Hall

481.Ft Hll exteriorMartha batted away mosquitoes as she sat in the shade with the girls and several other women and children outside the sturdy structure. Fort Hall. What a relief to find this semblance of civilization so far out in the wilderness. It also meant they’d covered a fair amount of their journey, but when she asked Larry if it would be downhill from here, he wouldn’t answer.
A Place of Her Own: The Legacy of Oregon Pioneer Martha Poindexter Maupin, Janet Fisher. (Guilford, CT, Helena, MT: TwoDot/Globe Pequot Press, 2014), p. 118.

July 23rd We traveled 18 miles;;, twelve and a half miles brought us to fort Hall. . . . This fort is built of sun burnt brick (adobes), It is a rather shabby looking concern, but in case of an attak from without its inmates would be tolerably well protected It has port holes through the walls for the admission of guns,; This fort is now abandond by the government and is occupied by some traders;;
—The diary of Abigail Jane Scott, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 5, 1852, The Oregon Trail, Kenneth L. Holmes and David C. Duniway, eds. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), p. 94.

[August] 19 Thursday To day came to Fort Hall on snake River and passed it at one in the P.M. It is made of unburnt bricks and is little larger than a good sized barn. It is not now occupied by the soldiers but is used for a trading station. Some 50 or 100 wagons, markd U.S. in large letters stand there rotting. Encamped about 2 miles from the fort on Pannock creek and had very good feed – Made 14m
—The diary of Cecelia Adams & Parthenia Blank, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 5, 1852, The Oregon Trail, Kenneth L. Holmes and David C. Duniway, eds. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), p. 284.

28th Thursday . . . We almost suffered with dust & want of water Near night we came to the Port Neuf river which we had to ford it is large & deep we had to raise our wagon beds. Ft Hall trading post is near . . . The men from the post came to see us . . .
29 Friday Our road was through sage brush . . . The mosquitoes were very annoying.
—The diary of Celinda Hines, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 6, 1850, Kenneth L. Holmes, ed. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), p. 106.

474.inside ft hallAnd so continued the journey of my daughter and granddaughter and myself as we retraced the footsteps of our Maupin ancestors who traveled west over the Oregon Trail in 1850. Now we were backtracking the trail, heading east on our way to Kansas City, where my daughter was moving to take a new job.

We got a late start on day three after a rocky night of sleep the night before when our neighbors in the motel made a little too much noise partying. I was reminded of complaints by some emigrants on the Oregon Trail concerned about Indian drums pounding all night, keeping them awake.

To add to our delay, we also had some trouble finding Fort Hall. But once we found it, we took our time to see this fine replica in Pocatello, Idaho.

Fort Hall became another milepost for the weary emigrants trekking across the Oregon Trail. It meant they had come about two-thirds of the way on this incredible journey. Although the fort may have become a little dilapidated, some found comfort in the presence of an actual man-made structure in this wilderness.

The tidy structure today is a replica, built a few miles from the original. The builders did their best to create an authentic reproduction, using plans maintained by the Hudson’s Bay Company. I had a nice chat with the staff people. A man I’d spoken to earlier by phone met me there, and I left them a copy of my book, A Place of Her Own, about my great-great-grandmother Martha Maupin who took that trek west with her husband and their two small daughters.

The original fort came into being somewhat by accident. Nathaniel Wyeth, an American businessman from New England, became interested in the fur trade sometime in the early 1830s. Wyeth visited the annual Rocky Mountain Rendezvous of mountain men, Indians, and traders in 1832. There he negotiated with leaders of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, one of the American companies that took supplies from St. Louis to the mountains for that annual gathering where they would trade supplies for furs that trappers and Indians had collected during the year. Wyeth offered to bring trade goods to the 1834 rendezvous, hoping to do a good business.

429.palisades like wyeth's - cropHowever, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company had financial difficulties and didn’t accept Wyeth’s goods. With $3,000 worth of supplies on hand and no buyer, Wyeth decided to build a trading post, which he named Fort Hall.

He constructed a wooden fort with palisade walls like those shown here (on the right), put up a handmade American flag, and left a man to run the post.

The British Hudson’s Bay Company didn’t look so kindly upon this American intrusion in the territory they wanted to claim for themselves. They built another fort a few miles downriver, Fort Boise, and soon put Wyeth out of business. By 1837 Wyeth gave up and sold his fort to the HBC at a loss.

The HBC covered the palisade walls with adobe. The place was still in the hands of the HBC in 1850 when Martha saw it, but the HBC abandoned it in 1855 or 1856, according to the Fort Hall Replica website (link below). Butruille (cited below) indicates the U.S. took it over in 1855. However, a couple of diarists (above), writing in 1852, suggest a former U.S. military presence at the time they passed through. Writers of history often disagree, I’ve found, and the diarists may not have been aware of the fort’s history.

In any case, the original was eventually abandoned as it began to crumble, and bits and pieces were carted off for other uses. But residents of the area later decided to replicate it. Since they could not build on the original site they put the structure on a lovely rise in ground at Ross Park in Pocatello.

477.blacksmith shop ft hallChristiane and Calliope and I traipsed through the interior, where many rooms have been set up like the originals. In the above photo of the blacksmith shop you can see the large bellows for raising the fire’s heat, an anvil, and other equipment. A blacksmith shop would have been a welcome convenience for the travelers whose wagons were often in need of considerable repair after so many jolting miles.

We took our time exploring each room and imagining what it must have been like to see Fort Hall in its original state, its adobe walls looming boldly in this land of wild rivers and mountains and plains of sagebrush. It must have looked a little out of place. And yet for people longing for any suggestion of civilization, the sight could well have provided a moment’s sigh of remembrance.

It was almost noon when we left the fort, so we found a nice shady table in Ross Park and ate our lunch before going on our way. A pleasant stop, but we began to feel rushed as we thought of the long road to this night’s destination of Laramie on the far side of Wyoming. We weren’t even out of Idaho yet.

Women’s Voices from the Oregon Trail, Susan G. Butruille. (Boise, ID: Tamarack Books, 1993), pp. 187-189.

[The small photo of the palisade walls was taken at the replica of Fort Umpqua in Elkton, Oregon, near where Martha Maupin ultimately settled.]

NEXT: Soda Springs and the sagebrush plains of Wyoming