From the Archives - A Mountain Man's Letter to His Wife

February 9, 2017





Wyeth to Wife from Fort William
From: Nathaniel Wyeth, Fort William
To: Wife, Baltimore Maryland, c/o Charles Wyeth
Date: September 22, 1835
        Fort William, Sept 22d, 1835
Dear Wife
    I have been sick, but have got well, and
shall be on my way to the mountains, to winter at
Fort Hall, in about six days, I expect to be at home
about the 1st Nov. 1836, Mr. Nuttall is here and
well.  I have sent you half a bbl. of Salmon which
I hope will be in good order. I can not attend to putting
them up myself, therefore they may not be so good.
   The season has been sickly, we have lost by drown-
ing, decease and warfare 17 persons to this date, and 14
now sick.  Keep up good spirits my dear wife, for I
expect when I come home to stop there, and altho I shall
be poor, yet we can always live.  I hope to find my
trees growing when I come, and all things comfortable,
I think this will be the last until I see you.  Give 
my respects to your mother and Aunt Rebecca. My love
to Sister Mary and Brother Pery, if you see them.
    and believe me yr. aftc. Husband
        Nath. Wyeth





Some information on Nathaniel Wyeth in the Fur Trade


Columbia River Fishing & Trading Company
Nathaniel Wyeth’s first expedition to the west in 1832 had been a financial failure.  However in 1833, he brought back to Boston a contract to supply the Rocky Mountain Fur Company at their 1834 rendezvous.  That contract was enough to entice investors to put up $40,000 to start the Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company.  Wyeth intended to establish a fort on the Columbia River to both provide supplies by boat from Boston, but also take Salmon back to Boston.  Early in 1834 he started overland with supplies for the rendezvous and sent the ship May Dacre around Cape Horn to meet him on the Columbia River.


Fort Hall
Reaching the Ham’s Fork rendezvous on June 20, 1834, Wyeth found William Sublette had already arrived with supplies and his contract with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company had been broken.  With nobody to trade his supplies, Wyeth headed west to the Snake River to built and supplied Fort Hall near present day Pocatello, Idaho.  


Fort William 
Leaving men in charge of Fort Hall, Wyeth proceeded to the Columbia River and built Fort William on what is now Sauvie Island, just north of present day Portland, Oregon.  However, his supply ship May Dacre did not arrive until September, too late for the 1834 salmon season. It had been struck by lightning and was delayed three months for repairs.


“we have lost be drowning, decease and warfare 17 persons to this date, and 14 now sick”
Wyeth’s 1835 season was worse than 1834.  While he lost men to both Indian attack and drowning, most of the 17 died of a bout of billious fever that had infected 1/3 of his men.  Although he downplays it in this letter to his wife, Wyeth also got very sick and, at one point, contemplated writing final letters to his family before dying.  Billious fever was a term used in the 19th century referring to any fever that exhibited symptoms of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.


“altho I shall be poor, yet we can always live”
During the 1835 season, Wyeth was only able to fill half of the ship May Dacre with salmon, which would not be enough to pay off the investment or continue another year.  By the fall, when he is writing this letter to his wife, he had already decided to abandon his western ventures and return home in 1836.  Wyeth had lost $20,000, but after his sickness, appears to be happy to be alive.


“I hope to find my trees growing when I come”
After leaving the West for good in 1836, Wyeth returned to the ice business and became successful with many new innovations and patents.  Later in life, Wyeth was able to develop a profitable business shipping refrigerated garden produce, including fruit from the trees he planted in the fall 1833 when he was home between his two expeditions.


This letter was initially mailed to “Mrs. Nath. J. Wyeth, Cambridge Mass”.  It would have been carried on the return voyage of the May Dacre around Cape Horn to Boston, where it should have been hand- delivered to Mrs. Wyeth with no need for postal markings.  However, it appears Mrs. Wyeth was in Baltimore visiting Nathaniel’s brother, Charles, at the time. Someone crossed out “Cambridge, Mass” and wrote in “Care of Charles Wyeth, Esq., Merchant, Baltimore, Md.” and mailed it from Boston on June 10th 1838, as indicated by the postmark.  Leaving Fort William in September, 1835, the letter took nine months to finally reach Nathaniel’s wife.


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Supported in part by an award from the Wyoming State Historical Records Advisory Board, through funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), National Archives and Records Administration.