Robert McLellan: Pluckiest Of The Early Pioneers

When “Mad Anthony” Wayne was furiously battling with Little Turtle at Fallen Timbers, a daring adventurer was with him who was subsequently to play a most important part in the exploration of the then unconquered and unexplored West. Hardy, utterly fearless, and possessed of wonderful agility,—such was Robert McLellan, one of the most noted scouts that ever operated upon the border, and a rifleman whose aim was both quick and marvellously true.

In the summer of 1794 the celebrated “Mad Anthony” was pushing his way into the Indian country and was most desirous of securing a red prisoner, so that he could learn the force and strength of his savage opponents. Calling McLellan to him, he said:

“Bob, I wish you to take two trusty companions—Miller and Wells will do—and leave to-night for the Shawnee country. Secure a prisoner, as soon as possible, and return to camp with the fellow alive, for I am extremely anxious to get information in regard to the whereabouts of the large force of redskins which I know to be in my front.”

McLellan was delighted.

“All right, Captain,” he replied with enthusiasm. “You leave the matter to me and I will guarantee that I and my friends will return with the desired captive. Only give us time and we will deliver the man of the woods, right side up and with care.”

The General laughed.

“Very good,” said he. “Go in, now, and win out.”

Next morning McLellan and his two companions started forth with confidence and were soon far in the hostile country, where many prints of moccasined feet warned them that the savages were in the vicinity. One day they followed a fresh trail, and, upon peering around a projecting clump of bushes, saw three savages sitting upon a log near a great fire, at which they were cooking some venison. They crawled softly towards them, and decided, in a whispered consultation, that Wells should shoot the redskin upon the left; Miller, the one upon the right; and that McLellan, leaving his rifle against a tree, should run the other fellow down and capture him.

At the given signal the rifles spoke in unison, and the two redskins who had been marked, fell prostrate to the earth; for both of the pioneers could hit the eye of a squirrel at fifty yards. The one in the centre leaped swiftly to his feet, and, darting through the thicket, was soon bounding away to safety. But McLellan was after him in a jiffy, and the redskin realized that he was running away from one of the speediest frontiersmen in all Ohio. On, on, they rushed, but, seeing that he was being rapidly overtaken, the savage turned in his course, headed for the stream, and, with one furtive glance at the oncoming man in buckskin, leaped from the high bank into the eddying current.

Raising his tomahawk in his right hand, the trapper made the venturesome leap with quite as much readiness as his opponent, and landed with a resounding splash. The water was very shallow in this spot. To his disgust, he found himself stuck up to the waist in the heavy mud. The redskin, too, was mired, but, brandishing a long knife aloft, now endeavored to strike it into McLellan’s body.

He was dealing with a crafty antagonist who had parried many a knife-thrust before, and, quick as a flash, the pioneer grabbed the right arm of the Shawnee. In an instant his tomahawk was raised as if to brain the red man, who cried, “Ugh! Ugh! Paleface, you too strong. I surrender.”

In a moment more the other two pioneers had reached the bank, and, leaning over the edge, pulled both savage and frontiersman out of the mud. Each was vigorously washed. To the surprise of all, the redskin was discovered to be a white man; the brother of Trapper Miller, himself, who had been captured by the savages when young, and had preferred to remain with them, although his kinsman had early left and had returned to his own people. “Ugh! Ugh!” he muttered. “I hate all of you.”

In spite of his protestations he was taken to the headquarters of “Mad Anthony;” was confined to the guard-house; and was questioned very closely in regard to the numbers of his Shawnee allies. He was extremely moody and resisted all attempts at conciliation, even from his brother, but at last some memory of his former relatives seemed to return; he began to grow more amiable; and, joining the company captained by a noted Ranger, served in the ranks of the whites against the people of his adoption.

So much for the ability to run, which was exhibited by this celebrated woodsman. Marvellous feats of strength and agility are also told of McLellan. Amongst other stories, it is related that one day, in Lexington, Kentucky, a yoke of oxen blocked the narrow street down which he was going, so that it was impossible to pass on either side. Instead of turning out of the way, or waiting for the team to move on, the famous man of the frontier made a few rapid bounds, and—with a mighty spring—cleared both of the oxen with the greatest possible ease.

Another yarn is also narrated concerning his wonderful ability to jump, for it is said that he was excelled only by one William Kennan, a Kentuckian, and noted scout of the border. It is currently reported, and a historian of the period quotes two unimpeachable witnesses to back his statement, that at a trial of strength and agility with several other scouts, McLellan was asked if he could leap over a covered wagon.

“I feel like a colt,” he is said to have replied, “and, if you will but watch me, I am sure that I can clear this obstacle. Now, boys, look at me!”

With a run, a short step, and a tremendous spring, the trapper shot into the air, and—to the astonishment of all—lighted softly upon the ground, on the other side of the wagon. He had leaped over an obstacle at least eight and a half feet high, is reported by an old chronicler of these early days, but this is hardly possible in view of the fact that the world’s record for the high jump is but six feet nine inches. At any rate, he had made an extraordinary performance.

In the year 1806, the famous adventurer Meriwether Clark met Robert McLellan ascending the swift and muddy waters of the Missouri in a canoe. Clark was returning from his long and dangerous expedition up the Mississippi and to the Pacific coast, which he had taken with Lewis (“the undaunted one”). Accompanying the valiant McLellan were numerous companions; all of the same hardy stamp as their leader, and all bent upon trading with the redskins.

“Where are you bound?” asked Clark.

“To fix up a trading post,” answered McLellan, “where I can meet the red varmints on equal terms, trade with ’em, and get rich.”

Clark smiled dubiously.

“You’ll have a hard time,” he answered, “for the French and Spanish are very jealous of you English. They operate mainly from St. Louis, and are endeavoring to monopolize the entire trade of this western country.”

“Well,” answered McLellan, with some show of anger, “I intend to hold this place against all the frog and garlic eaters in creation. Let them try to force out Robert McLellan, an’ there’ll be as tough a fight as any man ever looked for.”

From his former acquaintance with this trapper, Clark fully believed that any attempt on the part of the rival traders to drive him from the ground would certainly result in a sharp and bloody battle.

“These French and Spanish traders,” continued McLellan, “are like a dog who has had far too much to eat, and who is determined not to allow any of his fellows to share in the viands which he has before him. They want it all.”

Clark could not help laughing.

“Look out for these Indians around here,” said he. “They are treacherous devils and will betray you when you least expect it.”

“I’ll be on my guard,” McLellan replied.

The explorer now gave him valuable information in connection with the various tribes of Indians who occupied the ground adjacent to the banks of the river. He again warned him of their treacherous character, but felt more at ease when he learned that his old-time friend had recently been an Indian trader for some time upon the frontier. Parting company at this point, the two hardy pioneers were destined never to see each other again, for Clark turned towards the peaceful East, while McLellan faced towards the savage frontier, where lay danger, toil, and thrilling adventures.

Pushing up the turbid waters of the Missouri, the hardy scout soon saw that his progress was not going to be any too easy. Suddenly hundreds of red men crowded the steep bluffs, which jutted high above the sides of the narrow stream, and brandished their spears and tomahawks in the faces of the whites. There were but forty trappers, so it could be plainly seen that it was wisest to submit to the demands of the hostiles. A solitary chieftain—splendidly mounted—now dashed up to the bank and held up his hand in token of a parley.

“Ugh! Ugh! Palefaces,” said he, “you cannot come further into our country, for you will drive off all the game and we desire it for ourselves. But, if you want to build big house for trading you can do so down the stream.”

“I reckon they’ve got us, boys,” said McLellan. “We’ll retreat and put up our tent lower down. I’ll guarantee that this hold-up didn’t originate with the redskins. There’s Spanish blood behind this affair, or else my name’s not Robert McLellan.”

The savages supposed that the whites were perfectly contented with this enforced arrangement, and drew off, leaving a guard to watch the traders. But McLellan was a past master in outwitting Indians and had fooled too many in former years. No sooner had the army of savages moved well towards their villages than he hastily loaded up his boat, and, by pulling it very rapidly, passed the cliffs, where the red men had held him up before. He soon reached a spot suitable for his establishment, there built several log huts, and prepared to spend a considerable time in peaceful trading. He also swore to have revenge upon a Spaniard, called Manuel Lisa, as soon as he could catch him. For he learned that this opposition trader had been the cause of his detention.

McLellan lived here for several years in partnership with an adventurous borderer named Crooks, who was an expert in trading with the savages. They prospered, but soon the Sioux grew very troublesome. One day, when the trappers were off on a hunt, the red men surrounded the post, overpowered the trappers left behind, and began to carry off all of the valuable stores. McLellan returned before the work of spoliation was quite completed and burst in among the savages, exhibiting terrific anger.

“You curs!” he shouted, “bring back everything that you have taken away, or I’ll blow you all to pieces with my cannon!”

The Sioux well knew the ungovernable temper and desperate character of the infuriated trapper.

“He heap angry!” said they. “We do as he say.”

They returned much that had been taken away, but much that had been carried to the Indian village never came back, and the valorous trader had to pocket a loss of about three thousand dollars. Heaping curses upon the heads of the savages, the Spaniards, the Frenchmen, and all the other “unmitigated rascals,” as he called them, the outraged trader now fitted up his boats and started down the Missouri River to engage in business at a place where his competitors would be more honest and honorable.

Crooks had parted company with McLellan some time before this outrage.

“I can do better for myself down stream,” he had said. “The Indians here are too troublesome, for they are under the influence of the rascally Spaniard, Manuel Lisa.”

What was the surprise of the disappointed frontiersman, when floating down the Missouri on his way to St. Louis, to find his former partner at the mouth of the Nodaway River.

“I’m delighted to see you, Crooks,” he cried, and, rounding to, he ran his canoe upon the bank. While their men mingled together the partners had a long conversation, and from Crooks it was learned that the organization, with which he was now connected, was under the command of a Mr. Hunt—one of John Jacob Astor’s partners in the American Fur Company.

“We are bound for the mouth of the Columbia River,” said Crooks, “where we are to meet another part of the expedition which has gone by sea. We will be camped here until spring, so will you not join us? I am sure that you will have better luck in trading and trapping in this new field.”

McLellan could not withstand the temptation.

“By George,” cried he, “I’ll be with you. I’ll begin a new life and see if I cannot have better success than here upon the Missouri.”

Throwing away all of his worldly possessions, except his trusty rifle, the unfortunate trader joined the expedition.

“I am determined to begin the world anew,” he wrote to his brother. “And I trust that there will be no Spanish traders in the country to which we are going.”

His hopes were in vain, for they heard that Manuel Lisa was on the way to impede their progress and would use every effort to pass them by and prevent them from gaining any trade benefits with the Indians above. Sure enough, an emissary soon appeared from the crafty Spaniard, holding a message in his hand.

“If you wait for my party,” it ran, “we can enter this territory together and share the trade. This will be better for all concerned.”

“Don’t give in to him,” cried McLellan, when he heard this message. “The lying Spaniard can’t tell the truth if he tries to, and cannot be honest if he wishes. He’ll trick you after he has made you believe that he is your friend.”

“I believe that you’re right,” Hunt answered. “I’ll send him no definite reply.”

So he returned a missive which did not commit him to any particular course of procedure.

In a few days—it was the thirty-first of May—immense bodies of savages gathered on the bluffs of the river, armed and painted for war. They screeched their defiance and yelled like demons, so it was easy to see that the tricky Manuel had been influencing them. Every trapper seized his arms and stood ready for action.

“Load up the artillery!” cried Captain Hunt, for he saw that it was dangerous both to retreat and to advance. “We will first fire off some blank cartridges and see if we cannot scare these pesky varmints into submission.”

In a few moments smoke and flame burst from the mouths of the cannon and the redskins beat a precipitate retreat. But soon they gathered again and made peace signs.

“We would make big talk,” cried one painted brave. “We love our white brothers.”

“Load the cannon with grape and cannister,” said McLellan to his men. “Hunt and I will go ashore, and, if the redskins show any signs of treachery, blaze away.”

His men smiled, as the daring trapper now approached the bank, where the Indians welcomed him with much show of good will, for they saw that the white men meant business. They smoked the pipe of peace together, and, finding that the trappers were determined to advance at any cost, the red men suddenly evinced a perfect willingness to allow them to go on. Their hearts were warmed by the gift of several hundredweight of corn, and—what they loved still more—a quantity of tobacco. “Ugh! Ugh!” grunted the chiefs. “We love our white brothers.”

Seeing that the red men were now peaceful, McLellan ordered his own followers to advance up the river, but he was soon surprised by seeing another band of Indians, who rode along the bank of the stream but seemed to be friendly.

“By George!” cried McLellan, “these fellows are the same ones that robbed my store, when Crooks and I were in partnership! They mean trouble.”

But the children of the plains realized that the whites were in force, and, fearing that they might attempt to punish them for their former actions, peacefully accepted several presents which were offered them. Again the trappers forced their way up the swift waters, but again they were surprised by a group of red men, who rode up the bank, and, in a lordly and insolent manner, demanded presents similar to those which had recently been given to their brethren. This angered the trappers, for they appreciated the fact that the redskins wished to frighten them.

“You shall not get a single thing from us,” shouted Hunt,—a man of great firmness. “Furthermore, if you make any more insolent demands, I will treat you all as enemies and turn our cannon against you.”

This did not please the savages, as can be well imagined. Vowing vengeance, and shaking their fists at the trappers, they rode off across the prairie, while the whites were now divided into two forces; one going up one bank, and the other taking the opposite side. Thus they proceeded for several days, until they came to a spot where the stream was very narrow and was filled with sand bars. A vast number of redskins were camped upon the western bank, and Hunt was fearful that they would soon attack. He and McLellan were in one of the boats.

“I know that they are peaceful,” said the former, “for their faces are painted. Row to the shore!”

As they approached, the savages dropped their bows and arrows, came to meet them joyfully, and proved to be a band of Arickaras who were at war with the Sioux, and were thus anxious to have the white trappers assist in fighting their battles for them. “How! How!” said they. “We glad to see our white brothers. How! How! We wish to have sticks which speak with the voice of thunder.”

The adventurers looked forward to rich trade with the red men but were much surprised and angered by receiving word that the boat of Lisa—the Spaniard—was rapidly approaching.

“That rascally fellow will ruin our work!” cried McLellan, with considerable heat. “We must let him know, now, that we will stand no trickery from him. If he tampers with these redskins and sets them against me, I will let my rifle do the work of vengeance.”

The Indians, meanwhile, showed no disposition to trade, knowing that the presence of a rival trader would ensure them better bargains. Lisa soon arrived and was not long in discovering that he was an unwelcome guest. McLellan had difficulty in restraining himself from wreaking a just vengeance upon this artful “Greaser,” but fearing that he might involve Hunt and his other friends in a quarrel, kept his own counsel. It was, however, not for long.

Lisa agreed that he and Hunt would go to the Indian village and would trade there, but that no advantage should be taken of one another in the transactions with the wild riders of the plains. After a short delay they proceeded together up the river. But the crafty Spaniard was soon up to his old tricks and attempted to induce a certain French Canadian, in Hunt’s employ, to leave his master.

“I will give you better wages and treatment,” said he. “Come—boy—be one of my followers.”

This was overheard by McLellan and infuriated him. Seizing a gun, he gave the Spaniard to understand that he had old scores to settle with him, and that he had better get his own pistol and defend himself, for he was soon to be shot down like a dog. “You thieving, sneaking Greaser!” he shouted. “Now you will go to Kingdom Come in a hurry. You should have been beneath the sod long ago.”

Fire flashed from the Spaniard’s eyes and he reached for his pistol, but, before he could draw, the angered McLellan was seized by both Hunt and Crooks, who took his weapon away from him and pinned him to the ground, until he promised that he would not touch the Spaniard. Lisa himself was careful not to again rouse the ire of the pioneer, and, as a result, did not attempt to underbid the trade offers to the Arickaras. Successful bartering was soon accomplished, and Hunt’s party set about the difficult undertaking of crossing through the Rocky Mountains and traversing the dry table-land to the Pacific coast.

You can well realize that this was a hazardous undertaking, for, not only did the trappers have a hazy and undefined conception of the route to follow, but there was little water in certain parts of this country, and a great scarcity of game in others. There were sixty-two in the adventurous band, with eighty-two pack-horses to carry luggage, guns, and camp equipment. All were well armed and were full of determination to succeed.

As the adventurous little body of trappers filed silently towards the West—a few days later—the Indians collected in order to bid them good-by. Many an old chief was seen to shake his head, as they wended their way towards the beetling mountains, and the treacherous, though adventurous, Lisa was heard to exclaim: “These men are fools! They are all dead! All dead! None will ever return!” But these pessimistic remarks did not seem to worry the followers of Hunt and McLellan. With cheerful looks and smiling faces they kept onward towards their goal.

Soon they were in the glorious Big Horn range and were in the vicinity of the tepees of many Indians, who were not slow in discovering their approach. Contrary to every expectation, the red men greeted them most hospitably, gave them dried buffalo meat, and told them how to find a way through the rugged hills before them. These were the Cheyennes—a war-like tribe—which had its name from the Cheyenne River. They were soon to be driven from their hunting-grounds by the steady, westward emigration of the whites, but were now rich in both ponies and buffalo robes, and were much feared by the neighboring denizens of the plains: the Crows and Ogalala Sioux.

The pioneers kept on, traded with the redskins whom they met, and found increased dangers and difficulties in their path. It was summer, and thousands of gnats and mosquitoes attacked both men and horses, rendering life miserable and making it most disagreeable to proceed. I, myself, travelled through this country in the summer of 1899, and have never seen so many pests as here. Swarms of green-headed horse-flies attacked our pack animals, so that they would sometimes be bloody from their bites. Often the horses would roll upon the ground in order to get rid of the flies, and thus would dislodge the packs, which had taken some time to adjust. Their sting was most poisonous. Mosquitoes were here by the millions, and we had great difficulty—even then—of getting through the fallen timber, which sometimes extended for many miles. These pioneers picked their way through the forests, forded the rushing streams, ascended and descended the deep canyons, and finally reached the headwaters of the Mad River, or Snake River, as it is called below its junction with Henry’s Fork.

An adventurous trader named Henry had here established a trading-post, the year before, but becoming disgusted with the Indians, who refused to barter with him, had abandoned it. Hunt, McLellan, and their little party, reached this spot on the eighth day of October, where they stopped to recruit their strength. Then they engaged Indians to look out for their horses, which they concluded to leave behind them, and built a number of canoes with which to commit themselves to the current of the river. They embarked, and, for a hundred miles found their progress easy, but all at once they saw to their dismay that below them were dangerous falls and treacherous rapids. Their journey was blocked.

It was impossible to return to Henry’s Fork, where were their horses, and to go on meant the destruction of all their supplies. What was there to do? To the North was the Columbia River, but an unbroken wilderness lay between. They must cross it, trust to luck that game would come their way, and that their rifles would not miss it when found. There were but a few days’ provisions left, so it was decided to divide the party into four sections: the first, under Crooks, was to make its way up the river to Fort Henry; the second, under McLellan, was to continue down the Snake; while the third, under McKenzie, was to traverse the wilderness towards the Columbia. The fourth section was to remain for a time where it was. And it was further understood that any party which should come across assistance or supplies should return to the main body under Hunt, which would hold the present camp until their leader became convinced that all had failed in their efforts to reach their destination. Let us see how they fared.

McLellan continued his way down the rushing Snake with three companions, but, finding that it was almost impossible to make further progress, he deflected his line of march so as to follow the detachment under McKenzie. Their course was over a bare and arid country where there was no game and little water. Occasionally a jack-rabbit scampered between the clumps of sage brush, but no one seemed to have sufficient ability with the rifle in order to bring one down. A lean coyote would now and again be seen, and often the weird wailing of one of these creatures would make night hideous. The jerked buffalo meat which they carried was soon exhausted and the adventurers began to suffer from the gnawing pains of hunger, but on they walked with grim and steadfast determination. Weary, footsore, and nearly exhausted, they finally came upon McKenzie and his five companions. These fortunately had food, which they gave to the gaunt trappers, who rested for a full day before they could go on.

McLellan was undaunted. Trained in a hundred combats with the savages of the West, and hardened by years of exposure, he saw no cause for despondency. Some of the trappers, however, gave way to despair. They were among the barren drifts and extinct craters of gigantic volcanoes, while, through the winding fissures of its canyoned walls, the furious torrent of the Snake River dashed, foamed, and roared beneath them. Like a snow-white ribbon it plunged onward upon its wild career, and, in the sobbing roar of its cataracts, some of the more weak-hearted fancied that they heard the voices of those departed, who called to them to follow where they had gone.

It grew cold. A fierce snow-storm came upon them. As the food supply was gone, a dozen beaver skins were cut into strips and roasted, but this provender only sustained life for a few days. At length the trappers became exhausted, and, crouching under the protecting ledge of a wall of rock, shivered before their fire, and gloomily looked forth upon the blinding snow. All was sadness and despondency. Some contemplated death, which they thought to be inevitable, and even the lion-hearted McLellan lost that undaunted courage which had never before deserted him. Could it be that they were to die before they saw the roaring waters of the Columbia? Could it be that they were to perish before they reached the trader’s post upon the green-gray stretch of the Pacific Ocean?

Peering into the gloom from his rocky shelter, the keen eyes of McLellan suddenly perceived a buffalo, which, driven to the rocky wall by the desire to get away from the blinding snow, was crouching under the lee of a high bluff. What could be more fortunate? Taking note of the direction of the wind, the trapper left his hiding-place and crawled against it, until he came within thirty yards of the beast. Carefully he wormed his way behind a jutting ledge of rock and sand, then—taking a good sight—touched the trigger of his rifle, and the great lumbering brute fell dead. With a wild and hilarious cheer the old scout dashed to where he lay and cut joyful capers around him in the snow. “Hurray! Hurray!” he cried. “Now we will have enough food to last us for many days. Hurray! Hurray!”

Seizing upon the carcass of the beast, the old scout rolled him down the hill towards the cavern in which his own companions were shivering. With a wild yell he announced his triumph and this was answered by a hoarse cry from the half-famished trappers, who rushed upon the beast, and, but for the warning of the old frontiersman, would have gorged themselves upon the raw flesh, so great was their hunger.

“Hold back, my friends,” cried he. “Wait but a moment and I will give you some cooked food. Restrain yourselves, for a few seconds, and I will see that you get enough to save your lives. Eat the raw flesh and you will all perish.”

It was difficult to hold back the starving trappers, but soon a fire was lighted, the choicest parts of the buffalo were broiled upon a ramrod, and the gaunt spectres were allowed a feast. This saved their lives. With renewed strength they again made their way towards the Columbia, and, meeting with an occasional buffalo which they had the good fortune to kill, at length reached the swirling river, where a band of roving red men supplied them with a number of canoes. They also secured sufficient jerked meat to last them until they should reach the coast, where the trading-post of Astoria had already been established. To that lucky shot of McLellan’s they owed their lives.

Hunt, meanwhile, had decided that the three parties had successfully made their way to the coast, so he had started for the Columbia. Crooks had reached Fort Henry, where he spent his time in trapping and in trading with the redskins. As for the trappers who had left for Astoria by sea, they had met with an adverse fate, for the savages had induced them to enter the mouth of a small river, when they reached the neighborhood of the trading-post, and here had surrounded and massacred all of the voyageurs, after the vessel had been run aground. It took Hunt over a month to arrive at the coast. Crooks eventually followed. He met the other trappers after a separation of five months’ duration.

After frightful privations and suffering the four parties were now safe at Astoria; a trading-post which was to create a fortune for its founder, John Jacob Astor, a shrewd merchant of New York, who was a dealer in furs and peltries of wild animals. But there was still travelling to be done, for Hunt determined soon after his arrival to send a party overland, in order to notify Astor of the loss of the detachment which had come by sea.

Strange to relate, the lion-hearted McLellan announced that he intended to go back with this party to St. Louis. “For,” said he, “I have not been given a sufficient share of the profits of this company. I am entitled to more.” His friends begged him to remain and not again to plunge into the wilderness, where were dangers just as great as those from which he had escaped. But he was obstinate in his purpose. “To St. Louis I shall go,” said he, “and not all the redskins on the earth will stop me. I have been treated most unfairly.” Thus, on the twenty-second day of March, 1812, he turned his back upon Astoria, and set out upon the hazardous trip towards the East. The detachment was under the command of John Reed, clerk of the Fur Company, a man of undoubted courage and experience in frontier warfare.

There were seventeen in this particular expedition, all men of well tried courage and resource in wilderness adventure. Ascending the Columbia in canoes, they reached the falls and were preparing to make the portage when a band of redskins surrounded them and began to shoot arrows at their ranks. The trappers crouched behind the protection of trees and boulders, and made a stand, sending many a humming bullet into the ranks of the savages, who suddenly ceased hostilities, and, holding up their hands in sign of peace, came towards the white men. Mingling with the travellers, the Indians offered to carry their luggage around the rapids.

“The redskins only want to steal all that we’ve got,” whispered McLellan to his men. “But we can let them carry the canoes around the falls. Then we can get the baggage over during the night, and, when morning dawns, we’ll be off before the varmints know what we’re up to.”

The redskins seemed to be well satisfied. They carried the canoes upon their broad shoulders, and, as night fell, retired to their village across the river, leaving a few upon the same side as the whites. McLellan waited until the moon rose; then waking the others, he told them to get their baggage around the falls as soon as they could. The trappers worked industriously, and just as day was breaking, they deposited the last sack of provisions at the head of the rapids. This had been done without waking the redskins, who were upon their side of the river.

But now was an uproar, for the savages across the stream learned what was going on, and, in a few moments, came swarming to the attack. A hundred of them rushed upon the nervy band of trappers, crying out, “You no go on. You stay here. You no go away.”

Brandishing aloft an immense club, a red warrior rushed upon Reed and felled him to the ground. Another ran towards McLellan, who, with rifle in hand, stood watching the affray. As he approached, the trapper was ready, and, although the redskin attempted to throw a buffalo robe over his head in order to blind his vision as he made a thrust at him with his knife, the old scout was too wary a bird to be caught napping. Stepping quickly aside, he shot the savage dead. As the redskin rolled over, a noise sounded from behind, and, wheeling around, he was just in time to hit another Indian who was about to shoot him with a rifle. The trappers now rallied to the defense of their leader. The savage who had attacked Reed was dispatched just as he was about to brain the trapper with his tomahawk. The rifles of the men from Astoria spoke in unison, and terrified by the desperate courage of the rangers, the savages dropped back. McLellan urged his followers to the charge, and, with a wild yell, they rushed upon the redskins, who took to their heels, leaving many of their number prostrate upon the ground.

The unfortunate Reed had lost his dispatches to Astor, for he carried them in a bright, new, tin box which immediately attracted the attention of the Indians. They fancied that it must be of great value, because of the care which the leader took of it. But this put an end to the expedition. Reluctantly and sadly the trappers returned to the trading-post, where the wounded recovered from their injuries received in the little skirmish with the red men.

Hunt was greatly disappointed. “Boys!” said he, “I must absolutely get my dispatches through to Saint Louis,—Indians or no Indians. Astor must know of the fate of his other division. I will start a second expedition in June and Robert Stuart will be its commander. He will take only four good men with him.”

McLellan announced that he would be a member of the party, and Crooks also declared that he would leave Astoria, because he had become dissatisfied with the method in which Hunt had treated him. They soon launched their canoes in the Columbia; began to paddle up the stream, and, before long, reached the mouth of the Walla-Walla, where they hid their frail craft, and started across country to the Snake River. Horses had been purchased from the red men, and with these they made good time, although again their food supply became exhausted so that they were forced to scrape the fur from beaver and buffalo skins and eat the hide in order to keep from starving. Fortunately game was now met with and this provender saved their lives.

At the place where they had last camped on Snake River they had buried a quantity of dried meat and other food, but when they arrived there they discovered that the redskins had found out its whereabouts, had dug it up, and had carried it away. It was growing cold, but they pressed forward with renewed courage, and entered a country which was free from game, so that again they were threatened with the dangers of starvation. Besides this, it was the land of the Crow Indians, who were terrific thieves and who soon discovered the presence of the little band of trappers. The sharp eyes of McLellan—well used to watching game—were not long in discovering the presence of the Indians.

“Look out boys,” said he. “I notice some of the red varmints hovering near by and suspect that we will be attacked before long. Look to the priming of your rifles and have plenty of ammunition handy. Be on your guard!”

The trappers gave good heed to this warning and redoubled their guards around the camp at nightfall. It was well that they did so, for, on the very next day, a large band of red men rode up to their halting-place, all fully armed with spears and arrows.

“Ugh! Ugh!” said the spokesman. “Where are my white brothers going?”

McLellan answered for the trappers that they were upon a peaceful errand and would not molest the red men, if they in turn would do them no harm. As he spoke, the redskins looked carefully at the men of the frontier, and, seeing them well armed and ready for business, decided not to attack. But they travelled with them for six whole days, quietly stealing any little articles that they could find, and, on the evening of the sixth day, ran off all the horses of the trappers in a mad stampede. The white adventurers were in a desperate situation.

Stuart, the commander, now spoke vigorous words.

“We must cache everything which we cannot carry, and push on,” said he. “Let winter overtake us in this God-forsaken country and all is lost. On! On!”

As the men were busily engaged in digging a hole in which to bury the supplies, one of the trappers interrupted them.

“Two of those thieving Crows are watching us,” said he, “and they will dig everything up just as soon as we disappear.”

McLellan grew furious at this information.

“No thieving Crow will ever get anything of mine,” said he, “unless they get my scalp first. I’ll burn everything which we leave behind, and then let Mr. Redskin hustle for the white man’s food.”

“You’re right!” answered all. “Burn it we will!” Their stores were soon piled up into a heap and were consumed by the flames.

They now headed for the Mad River, where they built rafts, and floated them down these turbid waters, for several days. Then they again struck off across country towards the East, crossing a wide plateau to the base of the Rocky Mountains. They were in the land of the Blackfeet Indians, who were as hostile towards the whites as were the Crows, and who were as arrant thieves; but they kept on towards the high land, hoping thus to elude the red men. As they proceeded into the mountains, McLellan bitterly complained against their course and begged them to remain upon the plateau. “For,” said he, “I’ve already had enough mountain climbing to last me a lifetime, and I’d rather be comfortably killed by the Indians than break my neck falling down a canyon. You boys would rather climb mountains than fight the redskins.”

To these remarks Stuart and his companions paid no attention, but kept on their way. McLellan was liked by all, and one trapper offered to give him a load of jerked meat to carry, instead of the traps.

“A hunter should be able to kill his own meat without carrying any,” said the old pioneer, who was now thoroughly angry. “Who wants to carry a whole horse-load of dried beef on his back? As for me, I’ll go no further with you. Fools! Good-by!” This burst of temper seemed to relieve his mind, and, starting down the mountain, he set out alone without once looking behind him. His companions kept on, and as they reached the top of the eminence, gazed over the plain, where a dark spot marked the form of the angered man of the frontier.

“Boys,” said Stuart. “There goes the last of the old pioneers of the Kentucky border. You will never see him or his like again.”

As he said this, the eyes of many of his companions filled with tears.

Events were not to go smoothly with either McLellan or Stuart, for the former lost his way; became so weak from lack of food that he was unable to go further; and wandered aimlessly about. The latter also suffered terribly from hunger, but kept on, hoping to meet with game at every mile. His men were footsore and dejected, for they entered upon a barren region where there was no game, and where even the coyotes seemed to have disappeared. They became desperate, and determined to throw themselves upon the mercy of the malicious Blackfeet, should they come across them.

With this end in view, the voyageurs kept a sharp lookout for Indian fires, hoping to gain food and assistance from the red men. Suddenly, in the far distance, they saw the twinkle of a little light and knew that some living being was near them. But it was late in the day. So they dispatched one of their number to see who it was, while the rest went into camp for the night. The messenger did not return.

Upon the day following, the exhausted plainsmen hastened in the direction of the fire which they had seen the evening before, and met their companion running towards them.

“Boys,” said he, “’Old Bob’ McLellan is lying by that fire in an absolutely exhausted condition. He is so weak that unless some stimulant is given him he will expire. Hurry and give him food from our meagre supply!”

This hastened the feet of the trappers, and reaching the place where the stubborn-minded old pioneer was lying, they discovered that he was in a desperate plight. A cup of hot coffee, however, soon revived him, so that he was able to struggle to his feet and join in their weary march. His rifle was carried by one of his companions.

The little party pressed on, luckily came across a “solitary,” or bull buffalo, which had been driven from the herd because of old age and infirmity, and had the good fortune to kill it. Strengthened by this repast, they stumbled forward, and, by great good chance, came upon a band of Snake Indians, who fed them, gave them buckskin for moccasins, and, at their departure, not only presented them with a goodly quantity of jerked meat, but also with an old horse to carry it. Winter was coming on. Small flurries of snow announced the advent of the season, but they were now nearing the river Platte, where was an abundance of game. The old scout had recovered from his exhaustion and was once more the leader of these heroic plainsmen, who had twice been upon the verge of starvation. Their emaciated forms had filled out; their faces were sunburned and glowed with health; while their spirits and their strength was as of yore.

It was well into November when the party reached the river Platte, where were quantities of antelope and buffalo upon the grassy plains which rolled from either bank. They had a big hunt and collected sufficient buffalo meat to last through the winter. Then they built a hut of logs and plastered it with mud, determined to remain here until the warmth of spring made it possible for them to move further upon their long journey to the settlements. The days passed pleasantly, but one morning they were awakened by the wild screeching of a band of savages, and rushing to the doorway of their cabin, found that they were surrounded by fully a hundred painted braves.

“Well,” said McLellan, “I—for one—am all ready for a brush with the redskins, whom I hate as much as I do old Lisa: the dastardly Spanish trickster. So, my fine fellows, look to your rifles and we’ll have a little picnic.”

“Not so fast,” Stuart interrupted. “I believe that these fellows are peaceably disposed towards us.” And—so saying—he stepped forth from the door, rifle in one hand, the other extended towards the Indians. Several of them came forward, shook his hand with heartiness, and intimated that they wished to have peace and not warfare. One of the chiefs could speak good English.

“We are on the war-path,” said he. “We are Cheyennes and our enemies are the Crows, who have raided one of our villages, have stolen many ponies and much dried meat. They shall be punished.”

This was cheerful news.

“Well,” murmured Stuart, “here we are between two fires. On one side are the Cheyennes, on the other are the Crows. As they are both upon the war-path, we are in continual danger from each of them. If a war party is defeated, it will doubtless wreak vengeance upon us when returning from the fray. The only thing for us to do is to take our chances and move towards the East.”

The situation was presented to the rest of the trappers, all of whom were of the opinion that they should decamp. Winter was upon them and snow was deep upon the ground, but, if they would save their lives, they must leave at once. The raw-boned old horse was loaded up, their packs were slung on their own shoulders, and, upon the thirteenth day of December, the band of adventurers set off down the Platte. Snow-storms and bitter winds assailed them, but on they struggled until well beyond the range of the war-like savages. Here they built another hut, passed the winter in peace, and in March, 1813, started down the river in canoes which they had made from hollowed stumps of trees. After an uneventful trip, they finally reached the Missouri and were soon on their way to the frontier trading-post of St. Louis. Astor then learned what had happened to the adventurous souls who had attempted to reach his trading-post by sea.

The hazardous trip was over at last. “Old Bob” McLellan and his companions had crossed the wildest portion of an unexplored continent; had endured terrific hardship and exposure; but had brought home an accurate description of the virgin West to the hearing of many adventurous souls, who—thronging upon the border—were anxious and eager to press into the unknown prairie and mountain land. Two or three times the trappers had just escaped death by starvation. Twice they had barely missed a massacre by the redskins. Yet their courage and fortitude had carried them through every peril, and at last they were among their own kind, where appreciation of their nerve and valor was freely shown.

What of “Old Bob” McLellan, as he was affectionately called? Alas! The sinewy plainsman had been much broken by the hardships of this arduous journey to Astoria. Exposure and starvation had done its work upon the frame of the hardy man of the frontier, and now he was unable to again venture into the unknown. Purchasing a stock of goods suitable for a trader, he opened a country store at Cape Girardeau, near St. Louis, but the angel of death even then hovered over the soul of the stalwart man of the plains. In a few months he quietly passed into the great beyond.

Thus peacefully ended the career of one of the last of the valorous scouts and pioneers who had forced back the savage hordes from the Alleghanies to the Mississippi, and who, even as old age advanced, had plunged into an unexplored and unpeopled country, to risk both life and limb among savage men and beasts. Red ran the blood in the veins of this vigorous Kentuckian, and he is to be remembered as a good type of the venturesome pioneers who explored and opened to white civilization the vast and unknown regions of western America. The hazardous journey to Astoria quite equalled in danger that eventful pilgrimage of Lewis and Clark, the first white adventurers to cross the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific. Hats off to “Old Bob” McLellan.


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