Idaho History

Lewis and Clark group, fur traders first explored what became Idaho

A 1908 watercolor called “York” by C.M. Russell depicts a meeting between Chief Le Borgne and William Clark’s slave, York. The chief was trying to remove the color from York’s skin.
A 1908 watercolor called “York” by C.M. Russell depicts a meeting between Chief Le Borgne and William Clark’s slave, York. The chief was trying to remove the color from York’s skin. Idaho Statesman file

The first white men and the first black man to set foot on what is now Idaho were members of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805-06. William Clark’s African-American slave York is remembered for his part in the epic trek. Diaries kept by some of its members tell us that he participated equally in its work and adventures, and was treated with respect by his white comrades.

Accounts vary, and it is not known for sure, whether Clark later gave York his freedom as a reward for the part he had played in the expedition, or whether York found his freedom by running away from Clark.

In 1839, mountain man Zenas Leonard wrote this about his 1834 visit to a Crow Indian village in north-central Wyoming: “In this village we found a negro man who informed us that he first came to this country with Lewis and Clark — with whom he also returned to the State of Missouri, and in a few years returned again with Mr. McKinney, a trader on the Missouri River, and has remained here ever since — which is about 10 or 12 years. He has acquired a correct knowledge of their manner of living, and speaks their language fluently. He rose to be quite a considerable character, or chief, in their village; at least he assumes all the dignities of a chief, for he has four wives with whom he lives alternately.”

If the black man Leonard saw really was the York of the Lewis and Clark expedition, freedom had given him a comfortable life, especially for one who had been a slave.

The further exploration of Idaho and the Rocky Mountain region was accomplished by fur traders starting in 1807. John Colter, who had come west with Lewis and Clark, left the expedition on its homeward trip to St. Louis and returned up the Missouri to begin life as a fur trader. He was the first to explore the Teton Valley and what became Yellowstone National Park. In 1807, probably with Crow Indian guides, he saw active geyser fields on both sides of the Shoshone River, usually called the “Stinking Water” by trappers. Steam mixed with sulfur fumes and shooting flames poured out through vents in the valley floor. Today there are still hot springs in the area, but the awesome display that John Colter witnessed in 1807 is now dormant.

Mountain men of the 1820s and ’30s labeled the area “Colter’s Hell” in honor of the pioneer explorer they admired. Later, officials of Yellowstone National Park mistakenly adopted the name for the park’s geyser fields, but hellish as they are, they are not the ones old-timers knew as Colter’s Hell.

The fur hunters that came into the area after 1808 were in search of beaver skins that were made into felt for the stylish tall hats that were all the rage in Europe for a generation.

David Thompson of the North West Company of Montreal began trading with the local Indians near what is now Bonner’s Ferry on May 8, 1808, and established Kullyspell House on Lake Pend Oreille on Sept. 9, 1809. It turned out to be an inconvenient location and was replaced in 1810 by a more accessible Spokane House, west of the present city of Spokane.

St. Louis trappers led by Andrew Henry came up the Missouri in 1810. After fleeing hostile Blackfeet Indians, they crossed the Continental Divide into present-day Idaho and built a winter post near what is now Saint Anthony. Henry withdrew in 1811, but some of his men returned to Idaho with John Jacob Astor’s overland party on its epic journey from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia — a story we’ll continue next week, with an assist from Washington Irving.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email