Fur Trapping History in Wyoming’s Hoback Canyon

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The Tetons as a summer storm rolls through. Photo by Bill Deverell.

By Bill Deverell

Up through Hoback Canyon and on to Jackson Hole. Sometimes the West challenges conventional ways of thinking about time and space in American history. A case in point is the landscape John and I drove through yesterday on our way to Jackson Hole. From outside Daniel, we drove through Bondurant, a crossroads town on either side of the state highway. A year ago, we had driven through here just as a lightning strike caused a fire in the National Forest. Within hours, the road to Jackson was closed, and the fire eventually grew to more than 30,000 acres. Firefighters fought it near buildings and campsites, and they allowed it to burn in unpopulated areas as part of the ecological management of the forest. It did not go out until precipitation knocked it down completely in September.

As we dropped into Hoback Canyon, we could see the burn; it looked like it had gone through yesterday, not a full year ago. Beetle kill of the pines makes them especially susceptible to fire, and this one of 2016 clearly was opportunistic in that way. Hoback Canyon, alongside the Hoback River, is one of the prettiest drives I know in the West. The Hoback is a tributary of the mighty Snake, and once we run into the Snake, I know we are getting close to Jackson.

The Hoback is named for John Hoback, a trapper and mountain man who wandered through this area more than 200 years ago. He was, like many a mountain man of his time, from Kentucky. In 1811, Hoback and two other mountain men guided a group of trappers headed to the mouth of the Columbia River through this landscape. The group headed to the Pacific Coast was the Astorians — men sent by John Jacob Astor to establish a fur-trapping and fur-trading entrepôt at the far end of the continent by way of Astor’s Pacific Fur Company. These men were one-half of a two-pronged scheme; the other group left for the Pacific Northwest coast by sea, carrying the material needed to build the operation. The overlanders were tasked with establishing fur trading and trapping operations in the Rockies and west from the Snake to the Columbia.

Hoback and his companions guided the Astorians (led by wilderness novice Wilson Price Hunt of Trenton, New Jersey) across this landscape we drove through yesterday, from the river now bearing Hoback’s name to its confluence with the Snake. The group went on up into Jackson Hole (the “hole” is the valley between the Teton and Gros Ventre ranges), climbed up and over the Tetons, and made it to a fort in Idaho. On the way back east in 1812, a remnant party of Astorians found South Pass in the Wind River mountains, a relatively easy crossing of the Continental Divide, thus marking the landscape for the Oregon Trail migrants who would come a generation later. We could probably say that was their greatest success; the fur trading empire Astor envisioned fell apart for any number of reasons: mismanagement, squabbling, poor relations with native peoples, the coming of the War of 1812. John Hoback left his mark, too, in this canyon and on this river. That carries his name forward, well beyond his own 1813 death by Indians near what is now Boise.

The time bending aspect of this story comes from just thinking about these continental ambitions way out here, so early in the history of the Republic. When Kentuckian John Hoback guided the Astorians through this landscape, another Kentuckian, Abraham Lincoln, was a two-year old toddler. James Madison was President of the United States, all fifteen of them. John Marshall was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The Battle of Tippecanoe took place that year. The nation was thirty-five years old.

We made Jackson by dinnertime. As dusk came, so, too, did a big thunderstorm and lightning display. We sat on the deck of the house, huddled under the eaves, and watched as the lightning lit up the sky and everything around us through the pounding, cold rain. My son starts camp tomorrow at the wonderful Teton Science School, where he’s been a summer student each of the last four summers. I’ll go to the Teton County Public Library — a special place in my heart — to get some work done. At night, rain or not, we’ll sit on the deck some more and just watch mountains.

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