Idaho History

Astor party made epic trek across Idaho, 1810-12

John Jacob Astor
John Jacob Astor

Washington Irving was one of the first American writers to gain an international reputation. He had moved to England on family business in 1815, and it was there that two of his best-known short stories were published. “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) became classics that are still read in schools today, and have been made into movie, cartoon and television features that you can watch on your computer.

Irving’s “Astoria: Or Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains,” published in 1836, was commissioned by John Jacob Astor to tell the story of the adventures and misadventures of the Astor party that crossed Idaho from 1810-1812 on its way to the mouth of the Columbia River to meet another Astor party that had come by sea, and to establish a Western headquarters for the Pacific Fur Company.

John Jacob Astor, owner of the Pacific Fur Company, was America’s first multimillionaire. He made a fortune in the fur trade before becoming fabulously wealthy through investments in New York real estate.

Although nobody had ever tried it before, Astorian leader Wilson Price Hunt’s plan was to abandon the party’s horses near present St. Anthony, Idaho, and to travel the rest of the way down the Snake and the Columbia by canoe, a distance of more than 800 miles. They had no idea of the great waterfalls and ferocious rapids that lay ahead, and disaster struck at a place they named Caldron Linn on Oct. 28, 1811, when Hunt lost one of his most experienced and valued voyageurs.

Antoine Clappine drowned when his canoe struck a hidden rock in the raging river above Caldron Linn. It is a place where the mighty Snake River is forced in a tumultuous whirling vortex into a narrow basaltic gap and chute-like waterfall. This disaster led the expedition to cache its supplies a mile downstream and to divide into three separate parties for the long trek to the mouth of the Columbia.

I first saw Caldron Linn more than 40 years ago. In preparation for nominating the site to the National Register of Historic Places, Merle Wells, then the society director and state historian, took me to that awesome place to take the photographs needed to accompany the nomination. Then, as on many other trips with Merle in the years ahead, I was privileged to hear his account, in remarkable detail, of any chapter in Idaho history that the landscape through which we were passing called to mind.

On Sept. 29, 1812, Robert Stuart and a few other Astorians returned to reclaim the goods they had cached there in 1811. He reported: “Of all the Canoes left here by the Party last Fall, only three remain, and those too much shattered to be good for anything … at the Caldron Linn the whole body of the River is confined between 2 ledges of Rock somewhat less than 40 feet apart & here indeed its terrific appearance beggars all description … ”

Donald MacKenzie, a Scottish-born partner in Astor’s Pacific Fur Company, led one of the three parties that set off independently to reach the mouth of the Columbia after the disaster at Caldron Linn. His group of a dozen men went north, explored Central Idaho, found the Salmon and Clearwater rivers, then proceeded by canoe down the lower Snake and Columbia and were the first of the Overland Astorians to reach Astoria on Jan. 18, 1812. For more than a dozen years thereafter he continued trapping and exploring what became the states of Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

After MacKenzie retired to Mayville, Chautauqua County, N.Y., in 1834, among the distinguished visitors he entertained were Daniel Webster and William H. Seward, who would become Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state and father of the famous Alaska purchase from Russia.

MacKenzie had become a legend in his own time.

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