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Howell's Encampment and the Fur Trade in Carbon County, Montana
Research and transcriptions courtesy of Jerry Fahrenthold.
Osborne Russell, a trapper who kept a journal from 1834-1843 (note the quaint spelling and lack of punctuation) and later published as Journal of a Trapper, traveled with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, which was led by Jim Bridger and included Joe Meek, and trapped in the Red Lodge area.
September 7, 1836:
"We overtook the camp on a stream called Rocky fork [Rock Creek] a branch of Clarks fork of the Yellow Stone. When we arrived at camp we were told the sad news of the death of a french Trapper named Bodah, who had been waylaid and killed by a party of Blackfeet while setting his traps and one of the Delawares had been shot thro the hip by the rifle of one of his comrades going off accidentally and several war parties of Blackfeet had been seen scouting about the country. We had been in camp but a few minutes when two trappers rode up whom we called 'Major Meek' and 'Dave Crow'."
The brigade of 60 men included at least 10 Delaware Indians from the East, hired as scouts, trackers and trappers. Russell describes a battle 3 miles above their winter encampment at the mouth of the Clark's Fork on the Yellowstone, at the mouth of Rocky Fork (Rock Creek):
"The next day [September 8, 1836] we moved down the stream to its junction with Clark's fork within about 13 Mls of the Yellowstone On the following morning two men went to set traps down on the river and as they were hunting along the brushy banks for places to set a party of sixty Blackfeet surrounded them drove them into the river and shot after them as they were swimming accross on their horses One by the name of Howell was shot by two fusee balls thro. the chest the other escaped unhurt. Howell rode within half a mile of camp fell and was brought in on a litter he lived about 20 hours and expired in the greatest agony imaginable--about an hour after he was brought in about 20 Whites and Delawares went to scour the brush along the river and fight the Blackfeet Having found them they drove them on to an Island and fought them till dark. The loss on our side during the battle was a Nez percey Indian killed and one White slightly wounded in the shoulder. The Blackfeet who were fortified on the Island drew off in the night secreting their dead and carrying off their wounded The next day we interred the remains of poor Howell at the foot of a large Cottonwood tree and called the place 'Howell's Encampment' as a compliment to his memory"
November 11, 1836:
"The weather [commenced] cold the streams froze over again and we started for Camp which we found on Clarks fork about a mile above "Howells encampment" The Camp stopped at this place until Christmas then moved down about 4 Mls onto the Yellowstone."
January 28, 1837:
"On the 28th Jany myself and six more trappers concluded to take a cruise of 5 or 6 days after the Buffaloe The snow was about 4 inches deep and the weather clear and cold we took seven loose animals to pack meat and travelled up Clarks fork about 12 Mls killed a cow and encamped The next morning we started across towards Rock fork and had gone about 3 Mls over the smooth plain gradually ascending to a range of hills which divided Carks fork from Rock We were riding carelessly along with our rifles lying carelessly before us on our saddles when we came to a deep narrow gulch made by the water running from the hills in the Spring Season when behold! the earth seemed teaming with naked Savages a quick volley of fusees a shower of balls and a cloud of smoke clearly bespoke their nation tribe manners and customs and mode of warfare: A ball broke the right arm of one man and he dropped his rifle which a savage immediately caught up and shot after us as we wheeled and scampered away out of the reach of their guns. There was about 80 Indians who had secreted themselves until we rode within 15 feet of them They got a rifle clear gain and we had one man wounded and lost a Rifle so they had so much the advantage and we were obliged to go to Camp and study out some plan to get even as by the two or three last skirmishes we had fell in this rebt. A few days afterwards a party of 20 were discovered crossing the plain to the river about 6 Mls below us 20 men immediately mounted and set off and arrived at the place just as they had entered the timber-- they ran into some old rotten Indian forts formed of small poles in a conical shape The whites immediately surrounded and opened fire upon them which was kept up until darkness and the severity of the weather compelled them to retire We had one man wounded slightly thro. the hip and one Delaware was shot by a poisoned ball in the leg which lodged under the knee cap he lived four days and expired. On examining the battle ground the next day we found that three or four at least had been killed and put under the Ice in the river seven or 8 had been badly wounded which they dragged away on trains to their village. We found that the old forts were not bullet proof in any place our rifle balls had whistled thro. them nearly every shot and blood and brains lay scattered about inside on the shattered fragments of rotten wood."
July 30, 1837, while writing at Jackson's big hole after the Green River rendezvous:
"I left the Camp in company with two trappers and one Camp Keeper we received instructions from Mr. Fontanele to meet the Camp at the mouth of Clarks fork of the Yellow Stone on the 15th of the ensuing Octr where they expected to pass the winter quarters he would cause a tree to be marked at Howells grave and bury a letter in the ground at the foot of it containing directions for finding the camp"
October 20, 1837:
"We shaped our Course NE and travelled about 25 Mls accross the Spurs of the mountain fell onto the Nth. fork of the 'Rosebud' [Stillwater] where we staid the next day as it rained"
October 22, 1837:
"We travelled South along the foot of the Mountain 20 Mls keeping among the low Spurs which project into the plain in order to prevent being discovered by any straggling parties of Blackfeet which might chance to be lurking about the country, the plains below us were crowded with Buffaloe which we were careful not to disturb for fear of being discovered We stopped and Set our traps on the small branches of the 'Rosebud' until the 11th of Octr. then travelled to Rocky fork and went up it into the Mountain and encamped. On the 13th Myself and Allen started to hunt Mr. Fontanells party leaving our Comrades in the Mountain to await our return We travelled down Rocky fork all day amid crowds of Buffaloe and encamped after dark near the mouth. The next morning we went to 'Howells encampment' but found no tree marked neither had the earth been disturbed since we had closed it upon the remains of the unfortunate Howell We now sat down and consulted upon the best course As Winter was approaching we could not think of stopping in this country where parties of Blackfeet were ranging at all seasons of the year. After a few moments of deliberation we came to the conclusion and I wrote a note enclosed it in a Buffaloe horn buried it at the foot of the tree and then marked the tree with my hatchet This being done we mounted our Mules and started back to the mountain Travelled about 6 Mls stopped and killed a cow. As we were lying within about 60 paces of the band which contained about 300 cows Allen made an observation which I shall never forget Said he I have been watching these cows some time and I can see but one that is poor enough to Kill' for said he it is a shame to kill one of those fat Cows merely for two mens suppers' So saying he leveled his rifle on the poorest and brot. her down. She was a heifer about 3 years old but an inch of fat on the back. After cooking and eating we proceeded on our journey until sometime after dark when we found ourselves on a sudden in the midst of an immense band of Buffaloe who getting the scent of us ran helter skelter around us in every direction rushing to and fro like the waves of the ocean, approaching sometimes within 10 ft. of us We stood still for we dare not retreat or advance until this storm of brutes took a general course and rolled away with a noise like distant thunder and then we hurried on thro. egyptian darkness a few 100 paces when we found a bunch of willows where we concluded to stop for the night rather than risk our lives any further among such whirlwinds of beef."
October 15, 1837:
"We reached the Camp about 10 oclk AM. We staid on Rocky fork and
its branches trapping until the 27th of Octr. when we concluded to go
a small fork running into Wind river on the east side above the upper
Big horn mountain and there pass the winter, unless we should hear from
the main party"