The Battle of Pierre’s Hole: Mountain Men Fight Gros Ventres

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Following the 1832 Mountain Man Rendezvous a battle breaks out between Mountain Men fur trappers and the Gros Ventres, a division of the Blackfeet Indians.

Sublette, Fraeb, Wyeth, and Bonneville to Utah

As the 1832 Mountain Man rendezvous, at Pierre’s Hole in present-day Idaho, began to end the fur trappers gradually began to separate in to smaller groups on or about July 17. Each group then headed out for the various fur trapping areas. Henry Fraeb and Milton Sublette, with a group of some 100 trappers planned to head for an area north of the Salt Lake desert. Nathaniel Wyeth and his followers, as well as Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville, and his men accompanied Sublette’s party for safety from the Blackfeet.

Gros Ventres Chief Murdered

After having only gone a short distance from the site of the rendezvous, this combined group of trappers made camp. Soon after they detected a large group of Gros Ventres coming towards them. After a chief in the group came forward in greeting Antoine Godin, one of the white trappers, and a Flathead companion rode forward, supposedly to greet the chief. As the three met, Godin shouted for the Flathead to shoot, which he did, and grabbed the chief’s red blanket. The chief fell dead and Godin and the Flathead quickly hurried back to the trappers’ camp.

As the Mountain Men prepared for a fight and sent messengers back to the rendezvous site for help to come, the Gros Ventres hurried into a thicket of willows and cottonwoods for safety.

Gros Ventres Make Stand in Swamp

The ground where the Gros Ventres had chosen to make a stand within was a swampy area. Here, the Indian women quickly collected fallen trees, throwing them together in a crude fortress. Within that time, trappers that remained at the rendezvous camp, along with some Nez Perce and Flatheads, had rushed to the prospective scene of the coming battle. By the time the additional white trappers had arrived the Gros Ventres were well within the strong defenses they had constructed.

Trappers Take Battle Positions

In spite of this strong barricade the opposing Indians were sheltered in, William Sublette after making a rousing speech, and some twenty men including Robert Campbell, rushed off towards the willows and the Indian stronghold.

Not all of the trappers were at first as rash as Sublette and Campbell. Nathaniel Wyeth and his party of New Englanders held back, watching the oncoming fight from a safe distance.

However, Milton Sublette, brother to William Sublette, took another group and led them against the rear of the fort the Gros Ventres had erected. The Flathead and Nez Perce in the group, always considering any Blackfeet their dire enemy, closed on the flanks.

Sublette Takes Indian’s Bullet

While some trappers kept their cover others attempted to maneuver into a more advantageous position. However, William Sublette and Robert Campbell and a few others crawled close enough to the breastwork of the Gros Ventres to exchange more meaningful gunfire. But this, too, did little good since to get off a sure shot they had to expose themselves. Shots from the breastwork, however, hit several of the trappers, killing one man and mortally wounding another. Then a bullet hit Sublette. The white attackers then backed off.

Gros Ventres Announce Reinforcements Arriving

The battle raged all day with little results or gain on either side. The white trappers finally decided they should burn the Gros Ventres out. The idea, although it would surely have been effective, was objected to by the friendly Indians fighting with the trappers. The friendly Indians had their eye on all of the Gros Ventres’ plunder that would be left for the taking after the battle, assuming that the white trappers won.

Night was coming on when someone from within the Gros Ventres barricade shouted that they had reinforcements coming. How the message came over to the white trappers was that the Gros Ventres already had received reinforcements and that at that moment were overrunning the rendezvous camp back at Pierre’s Hole.

The Mountain Men, fearing for their comrades back at the rendezvous site, quickly mounted their horses and beat it back to Pierre Hole’s to save their fellow trappers. However, no hostile Indians had verged upon the remnant of the rendezvous. And since it was now nightfall no white or friendly Indian elected to return to the battle scene until the following morning.

Gros Ventres Escape

In the daylight the trappers found the Gros Ventres fort abandoned. Its occupants had fled in the night. All that remained were the bodies of ten warriors as well as bloodstains showing where others had been hit. There were also thirty horses nearby. They included some that had been stolen previously from Sublette’s supply train and two that had been taken from Thomas Fitzpatrick during his earlier escape from the Blackfeet.

Sources:

  1. Chittenden, Hiram Martin. The American Fur Trade of the Far West, Volume 1. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1986.
  2. Chittenden, Hiram Martin. The American Fur Trade of the Far West, Volume 2. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1986.
  3. De Voto, Bernard. Across the Wide Missouri Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1947.
  4. Hafen, Leroy R. Broken Hand: The Life of Thomas Fitzpatrick, Mountain Man, Guide and Indian Agent. University of Nebraska, Lincoln and London, 1973.
  5. Utley, Robert M. A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1997.