MURTAUGH — The first written history of southern Idaho was penned in 1811 when the Wilson Price Hunt Party floated into uncharted territory on the Snake River.
John Jacob Astor, who had amassed a fortune in the fur trade despite never stepping foot in fur country, sent Hunt and a group of some 65 trappers and explorers across the western frontier to establish a fortified trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River.
Astor offered Hunt, a 27-year-old businessman from New Jersey, five shares in the Pacific Fur Co. to lead the group from St. Louis to Fort Astoria in Oregon Country.
More than 150 years later, the Idaho State Historical Society and the Idaho Department of Transportation partnered to erect hundreds of highway historical markers — you’ve seen them scattered along the highways — including the tragic tale of the Hunt Party. These Idaho stories, often left out of history books, will enlighten and entertain motorists who take the time to read them, as they are brimming with the very history that transformed south-central Idaho into what we know today.
▶ Milepost 233.9 U.S. 30 near Murtaugh
Soon after Lewis and Clark made their way through northern Idaho, the Astorians, led by Hunt, followed the earlier explorers’ route into the Rocky Mountains. But it was too late in the fall of 1811 to head north as Lewis and Clark had done. With winter coming, the group changed its plans and detoured to the south, eventually reaching the Snake River in what would later become southeastern Idaho.
After carving out the bellies of 15 cottonwood trees, the more than five dozen men and one woman piled into dugout canoes and headed for Fort Astoria.
Or so they thought.
With their supplies, tools and firearms bundled in blankets for easy storage, they floated smoothly for miles. Then they neared the southernmost point on the Snake River.
The Snake River Canyon
About 10 miles west of what would become Burley nearly 100 years later, the fleet slipped around a bend and into a chute of rapids as the river dropped into the beginnings of the Snake River Canyon.
The river — flowing unimpeded on Oct. 28, 1811, before the advent of irrigation dams — rendered the crude canoes uncontrollable. Explorer Ramsay Crooks’ boat spun in the current and hit a rock broadside in the river. The boat split in half and Antoine Clappine, a skilled steersman, drowned in the accident.
About a mile and a half above the wreck site is a small island at Milner Dam named Clappine Rock, in honor of the French Canadian whose body was never found.
Others in Crooks’ boat clung to rocks and were rescued. But the supplies and rifles bundled in the boat were lost in the river. The party beached the remaining boats and scouted the area for nearly a week before determining the river below was impassable.
The elevation of the riverbed drops 1,000 feet from Milner Dam to the I.B. Perrine Bridge, 20 miles downstream. The rapids during high-water years is rated world class for kayaking. So the group, faced with walking hundreds of miles through inhospitable terrain in the dead of winter to reach help in any direction, cached the supplies they managed to get ashore near Milner.
The Wilson Price Hunt Party then parted ways. Hunt took one group, including Pierre and Maria Dorion, down the north side of the river; Crooks took a group down the south side. Another group went north and still another turned around and headed back east.
The expedition reunited on foot in February 1812 at Fort Astoria, where a group of seaborne Astorians had previously landed and lost their ship, the Tonquin.
A young Robert Stuart agreed to follow the overland group’s route back east, to advise their employer of the ill-fated journey to the Pacific.
When Stuart arrived in the Magic Valley in 1812, he stopped along the Snake River at the mouth of Rock Creek, then followed the creek southeast and camped at what later became known as Stricker Ranch.
Stuart then headed to the Snake River, reaching it just upstream from Murtaugh at what is known locally as Star Falls, where the entire river squeezes between giant basalt cliffs and falls into what resembles a boiling caldron. Stuart named the waterfalls Caldron Linn in his journal, after Cauldron Linn in Scotland, a waterfall that cuts through rocks in a similar fashion.
Pieces of Crooks’ dugout canoe were lodged in boulders in the river bed, Stuart’s journal says.
But when he reached the site where the Hunt Party had buried their belongings, Stuart found that Indians, tipped off by eastbound Astorians, had raided the nine caches.
Some accounts claim wolves dug up the caches because they could smell the pelts, but Twin Falls historian Ron James said that’s not likely.
“They wouldn’t have had furs at that point,” James said.
Stuart and his men continued east and eventually “discovered” South Pass in Wyoming. While many others had passed through the wide gap in the Great Divide, word of the pass had not yet reached eastern ears. South Pass later became the gateway through the Rockies.
In 1939, two local men followed a goat trail from the canyon rim upstream from Star Falls east of Murtaugh down to the riverbed to fish. The year had been especially dry and the river was lower than usual, exposing parts of the riverbed that were typically covered in water.
Cliff Starry smacked his foot against something hard, lodged in the rocks — a rifle from Crooks’ boat. Alongside were more rifles, traps and an ax head, all housed now at the Idaho State Historical Museum in Boise.