Special Report

Crossing Paths

In the Rocky Mountain West, history is right in front of you, if you know your Osborne Russell.

By 5.7.03

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In the far northern reaches of Yellowstone National Park is the Lamar Valley, a small American Serengeti of grass, cottonwood, herds of bison, elk and antelope, and watered by the Lamar River on its way to the Yellowstone. The place was a favorite resort of the mountain men, and Osborne Russell in particular, who called it "The Secluded Valley":

"We descended the stream about 15 Miles thro the dense forest and at length came to a beautiful valley about 8 Miles long and 3 or 4 wide….The banks of the stream in the valley were low and skirted in many places with beautiful Cottonwood groves."

The longer I live in the Northern Rockies, the more I find myself crossing paths with Osborne Russell. Not literally, of course. After all, Mr. Russell has been -- in mountain man parlance -- "gone under" for more than a century. But I've lately reread for the third time his Journal of a Trapper, in the standard University of Nebraska Press "Bison Book" paperback edition.

That fascinating period in American history known as "The Rocky Mountain Fur Trade" era (roughly 1806-1840) continues to hinder scholars due to its dearth of primary sources. For example, two prominent protagonists, Jim Bridger and Kit Carson, were illiterates and left behind nary a scrap of paper (Carson's famous Autobiography -- though informative and entertaining -- is unreliable because it was dictated from memory, and in the interests of good sales, may have had its apocryphal patches). Some trappers (Jeddediah Smith, arguably) kept diaries that we know of only by indirect reference, because both man and manuscript failed to survive the savage attentions of fire, flood, and blizzard, or the unlettered curiosities of hostile Indians. Bernard DeVoto managed to cobble together his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece Across the Wide Missouri (1947) by reading everything he could get his hands on, including the bland records and letters of New England missionary agencies. Anything to credibly throw together certain historical actors in synecdoche in a howling wilderness a thousand miles from civilization.

Along with those pious preacher jottings, DeVoto had Hiram Chittenden's definitive two-volume The American Fur Trade of the Far West (1902), some breezy biographies and memoirs, and the personal journals of such important figures as Francis Chardon, Zenas Leonard, and Russell, the latter on which he relied heavily. Russell's book offers a good general -- if sometimes banal -- record of his life in the Rockies from 1834 to 1843.

Osborne Russell (1814-1892) was born in Bowdoinham, Maine, of a large farm family, and after gathering the basic literacy of the one-room schoolhouse, ran away to sea. Souring on the maritime life at sixteen, he jumped ship in New York and made his way to the upper Great Lakes, where he learned the trapper's trade. In 1834, at twenty, he joined Nathaniel Wyeth's trapping-trading expedition to the Rocky Mountains, and discovered the hedonistic pleasures of the Rendezvous, that year's entrepreneurial debauch, held on Ham's Fork of the Green River in present western Wyoming. Russell continued on with Wyeth to the Snake River that year, and by the 1835 Green River Rendezvous was a seasoned mountain man who caught the eye of the buccaneering wilderness master Jim Bridger, who hired him for his own trapper brigade bound for a fall hunt in the dangerous Blackfeet country of present western Montana.

Anyway, I keep tripping over Osborne Russell. Even in my own backyard:

"This stream is called Stinking River a branch of the Bighorn…It takes its name from several hot Springs about 5 miles below the forks producing a sulphurous stench which is often carried by the wind to the distance of 5 or 6 Miles."

This refers to DeMaris Hot Springs about five miles from my house. Russell's "Stinking River" (or Stinkingwater River) is the Shoshone River. The bordering sulphur springs leach hot water into the river, thus slightly warming it, encouraging an abundance of bottom algae, plant life and insects, and making for a healthy trout fishery such as is found in a classic "spring creek." A gentle breeze from the west sometimes leaves Cody with a light acrid smell. "The forks" now lie beneath Buffalo Bill Reservoir.

"This valley is a prairie about 30 Miles in circumference completely surrounded by high mountains. The Stream after passing SE falls into a tremendous kanyon just wide enough to admit its waters between rocks from 300 to 500 ft perpendicular height extending about 12 Miles to the great plain."

This is Sunlight Basin in the mountains northwest of Cody, and close to Yellowstone Park. The Absarokas are a bordering serrated line to the south; the Beartooths a solid high plateau in the north. "The Stream" is the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone, and the "tremendous kanyon" is Clark's Fork Canyon. The "great plain" is the Big Horn Basin. The Chief Joseph Scenic Highway comes over Dead Indian Summit from Cody and snakes through the aspen groves and sagebrush flats, hugging the Clark's Fork past ranches and summer cabins, and intersects with the Beartooth Highway and enters thick timber.

"Travelled about 10 Miles NW thro thick pines and fallen timber then leaving the stream to our right turned into a defile which led us onto the waters of the Yellowstone in about 8 Miles where we stopped set traps for beaver and staid next day. We travelled down this stream which runs west thro a high range of mountains about 25 Miles".

The highway passes through the pine forest and arrives in the tourist hamlet of Cooke City, Montana, on Soda Butte Creek, Russell's "the waters of the Yellowstone" (though the Clark's Fork is also in the Yellowstone watershed, and Russell knew that). The "defile" is Colter Pass. At some point traveling the accumulated mileage of the preceding paragraph, Russell passed through the site of modern Cooke City.

Founded in the 1860s, thirty years after Russell's visit, and named for the railroad financier Jay Cooke, the ex-mining town now serves as the penultimate last cheap stop for gas-groceries-meals-lodging before arriving at Yellowstone's Northeast Entrance (to be fair, even tinier Silvergate, Montana, literally borders the Park) four miles to the west. Cooke City is a couple of hundred yards of rustic motels and guest cabins, bars, gas stations, diners, the post office, a general store, and a noteworthy hippie joint called "The Beartooth Café" that boasts a hundred brands of beer in stock. Around town, elk or deer antlers seem to grace every doorway or outside garage wall, and yards are piled with mountains of cordwood. Hunting and fishing guides put out shingles like doctors and lawyers. The views from every front porch or motel bathroom window are on the order of St. Moritz or Cortina d'Ampezzo. Lacking a fulltime police department (Park County, Montana cops headquartered in Livingston are responsible for criminal investigations), the locals have strategically placed a defunct, stripped-down old black-and-white police cruiser on the west side of town to curb tourists speeding out of Yellowstone. Though prospective criminals take heed: this is God's and Grizzly Country, and everybody's armed. Osborne Russell would feel right at home.

"Travelled down the stream 15 Miles West and encamped in the Secluded Valley."

Yes. I always know where to find my old friend Osborne Russell. Watching the sunset on the Lamar River; the cottonwoods whispering in the evening breeze, the meadowlarks trilling in our ears.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.