About 20 years after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark made history by crossing the terra incognita of the American Northwest, a Scottish schoolteacher-turned-fur-trapper by the name of Alexander Ross, his Indian guide Hakana and a few others made their way eastward from the Pacific Ocean into southern Idaho. It was September 1824, and Ross had been exploring the Columbia River basin for the North West Co., traveling between the Pacific Coast and the Rocky Mountains in search of beaver ponds.
Waterproof hats made from beaver pelt had become an expensive status symbol in Europe, fueling a rush by the American North West Co. and the British Hudson Bay Co. to secure access to more skins. Ross worked for both companies during his career as a trapper, hiring many Native American trappers along the way.
The group turned north across a desert toward a distant mountain range, eventually entering a valley surrounded by a primordial cottonwood forest beside grassy meadows. At the entrance to the valley, Ross spotted a "Snake" Indian hunting ground squirrels.
The Snake (today called Shoshone) told Ross how his tribe made a good living in the area, killing as many deer as they wanted in deep snow during winter using only knives and spears. He then told Ross that his people stayed in small, dispersed bands away from the plains to avoid capture by the horse-riding and bison-hunting Piegan and Blackfeet tribes.
"Six of our people were killed by them this summer," the man told Ross.
The trappers then headed north through what is now known as the Wood River Valley. The woods grew thicker and the creek smaller, until the men found their way into the high mountains north of present-day Ketchum. By the time they reached what is now called Galena Summit, overlooking a long valley and jagged mountain range, Ross thought he had traveled beyond the reaches of all humankind.
"It appeared to us probably that no human being had ever trodden in that path before," he wrote in his 1856 memoir, "Fur Trappers of the Far West."
"But we were soon undeceived, for we had not been many hours there before my people, going about their horses, found a pheasant (grouse) with a fresh arrow in it and not yet dead," he wrote. "So at the moment we were indulging in such an idea, the Indians might have been within fifty yards of us!"
Ross and his guide were probably watched by the Tukaduka, or Sheepeaters, a band of mountain people who shunned the horse, used dogs as pack animals and traversed the high country in search of mountain sheep, deer, roots, berries and whitebark pine nuts.
Natives gathered at Redfish, Elkhorn
A historic marker on Galena Summit today marks Ross' "discovery" of the Stanley Basin north of Ketchum and Sun Valley, but Ross was in fact traversing lands long familiar to the early inhabitants of southeastern Idaho.
As he looked out at the splendid range of the Sawtooth Mountains, his gaze would have crossed over a site near Redfish Lake, where archeologists have found evidence of human habitation going back more than 10,000 years to the end of the last Ice Age.
In summer, Redfish Lake teemed with sockeye salmon returning from the sea to spawn, providing a reliable food source for people and animals.
The Snake River Plain and Camas Prairie, which Ross and Hakana crossed to get to the Wood River Valley, had also been a migration route for animals and a hunting ground for people for at least 12,000 years.
Recent evidence indicates that contrary to prevailing opinion, Native Americans in southern Idaho hunted mammoths.
Bureau of Land Management archeologist Suzann Henrikson used a recently developed protein residue analysis to re-examine 12,000-year-old mammoth bones and stone spear points excavated in the late 1970s from Owl Cave, a lava tube 15 miles west of Idaho Falls. Henrickson said the residue on one of the points matched the protein makeup of modern elephants.
Many scientists believe that receding ice sheets due to climate change and hunting by humans probably led to the extinction of mammoths and other mega-fauna, including saber-toothed cats. Mammoths went extinct about 4,000 years ago.
An archeological site, discovered during construction of the Elkhorn golf course in Sun Valley in 1973, turned up stone tools, mammal bones and other artifacts dating to perhaps 10,000 years ago.
A final analysis of the Elkhorn relics is under way at Idaho State University in Pocatello. It is scheduled to be completed this summer. Was the Elkhorn site used by the Tukaduka, or other native groups that were here when Ross came through? That question could be answered soon.
Oregon Trail brings settlers
"'History' begins with Lewis and Clark and spans little more than 200 years—but 'prehistory' extends back over the previous 13,000 years, perhaps even longer," writes Richard N. Holmer in a soon-to-be published book on the archaeology of eastern Idaho.
Holmer is chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Idaho State University. His book combines archaeological findings with contemporary tribal perspectives to present a picture of pre-European native societies in eastern Idaho.
"Knowledge is cumulative—we build on what is already known," Holmer writes. "If we do not, we start over rediscovering solutions to problems and unnecessarily repeating mistakes. Euro-American explorers and immigrants knew the importance of this fact and they actively traded information and resources with Native Americans. Lewis and Clark knew this and they embraced the guidance of Sacagawea, a Native American woman originally from the region we now call eastern Idaho."
Immigrant populations increased rapidly in Idaho following Ross' expedition. Fort Boise was built in 1934 by the British Hudson's Bay Co. to compete for the fur trade with American Fort Hall, a trading center built on the site of a traditional Northern Shoshone camp.
Fort Hall is also the present-day site of the reservation for the Shoshone and Bannock tribes, who once lived and hunted across southern Idaho and into Wyoming. They gathered Camas bulbs and other roots in Camas Prairie near Fairfield in summer.
By 1836, Western migration had begun in force when a mule trail from Independence, Mo., was improved into the Oregon Trail, bringing thousands of trappers, settlers and miners to the West in wagons.
The influx of newcomers to the area would eventually lead to tensions between native populations in Idaho and the newcomers.
Tony Evans: email@example.com