Nathaniel J. Wyeth’s Snake River Outpost
Boston inventor and businessman Nathaniel J. Wyeth conducted two separate expeditions to the Pacific Northwest in 1832 and 1834 with his Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company. On his latter expedition, Wyeth established a fort in what is now Idaho and named it after his traveling partner, Hall J. Kelly. While the longevity of Wyeth’s company was limited, Fort Hall stood as an essential location for the military, Oregon Trail, and California Tsrail for decades. Its replica now stands as a long-lasting monument to the Rocky Mountain fur trade and mountain man era of the 1830s.
Located at the future junction of the California and Oregon overland trails, Fort Hall transitioned from a fur trade post to a vital resupply destination for American overlanders, Indigenous peoples, and fur traders alike. In a letter to his uncle Jarvis on October 6, 1834, Wyeth described the fort: “Its Bastions stand a terror to the sculking Indian and a beacon of saf[e]ty to the fugitive hunter.”
Even after the fort was sold to the Hudson Bay Company in 1836, and later purchased by the U.S. military, it remained an important landmark for the next 80 years. Its significance came as no surprise to Wyeth. Its strategic location on the Snake River made it an ideal spot for transferring supplies and for troop garrisons on the frontier. In his statement of facts concerning the sale of the fort he wrote: “disposing of the property to the best advantage. All the property in the interior including Fort Hall was sold, it being necessary to retain that post, to keep up a garrison for its defense against the Indians, and to forward annual supplies to it, an operation at that time beyond our means.”
What made Fort Hall especially unique to the history of American expansionism was the presence of Protestant American missionaries. While many European powers had colonized through religion, this was one of the first official ecumenical efforts to spread religious beliefs in this American region. This exemplified how Manifest Destiny envisioned expansion not only economically, but also religiously, as America established its presence as a power on the frontier.
There are only seven American-built forts along the Oregon Trail. Each stand as a legacy to American expansion. While Nathaniel Wyeth only maintained the fort for two years, the fort was built on principles which came to define America as a nation.