Étienne Provost in Utah Valley

Étienne Provost is the namesake of the Provo river and the modern day city of Provo.

Born in Canada in 1785, French-Canadian Étienne Provost moved west as a young man to pursue the life of a fur trader. Although he is recognized as one of the most influential mountain men during his time, his legacy hides in the shadows of more recognizable men, such as Jim Bridger. This portly, illiterate, self-made fur trader led expeditions and ventures through modern-day New Mexico and Utah before settling in Missouri. His influence lies within his namesake: Provo, Utah.

During his 1824 travels, Provost encountered some Shoshones between Utah Lake and the Great Salt Lake. Warren Angus Ferris, another trapper, included a version of their meeting in his writings, although he was not present at the time. He writes about an Indian “evil genius” known as “Bad Gocha” (an Anglicized version of the French nickname “mauvais gauche” or “the bad left-handed one”) who met with Provost. He asked Provost to smoke the peace pipe but requested that all metals be removed, as it would be problematic for the ritual. As the white men complied, the “Indians fell upon them and commenced their work of slaughter with their knives,” resulting in about fifteen dead. However, it should be noted that the number and story varies between accounts. The most likely estimate is that about eight died. Provost’s escape led to the renaming of the nearby Timpanoquint River to the phonetically spelled Provo. Later, when Mormon settlers moved into the area, the nearby city became Provo as well, although Provost likely never knew of either of his namesake landmarks.

While this story paints a picture of an unprovoked attack by ruthless, violent Indians, Peter Skene Ogden made a point of explanation when writing about the event. He noted that, not long before Provost’s company came, another group of white mountain men forcibly took horses and furs from the same group of Shoshone that resulted in a death of a Native American. Although there is not a record of a Shoshone perspective, this information helps to create a more relatable, human image instead of perpetuating the myth of the aggressive Indian.

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