Three Island Crossing of the Snake River on the Oregon Trail

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Three Island Crossing of the Snake River on the Oregon Trail

Idaho: Glynn's Ferry, Three Island Crossing State Park

June 7, 2007.

We are staying at Three Island Crossing State Park located in the town of Glynn's Ferry, $4 entry fee plus $21 for RV site with water & elect. A very nice campground and it is full. Mature trees with good shade and green grass.

We are in the small Oregon Trail community of Glynn's Ferry staying in Three Island Crossing State Park campground. Everything about this area reeks of history, specifically Oregon Trail history. Specifically, that chapter in America's history when hearty pioneers left the eastern United States and headed west searching for a better opportunity.

No discussion of Three Island Crossing would be complete without understanding the entire spectacle that unfolded at this spot. In the 1840s economic factors compelled many to leave behind their life in the eastern states and head west. Depressions in 1837 and 1842 made farming and industry unprofitable. Many who moved west on the Oregon Trail were simply looking for a better life. Another contributing factor was an outbreak of malaria in the South in the late 1830's.

The westward movement was also popularized by successful reports and enthusiastic letters sent east from early emigrants. In 1836, the Whitman party proved that wagons could travel the trail to Fort Hall (in eastern Idaho). The fact that the party included women encouraged family groups to attempt the journey.

In 1843, Senator Lewis Linn of Missouri introduced a bill that would grant immigrants a section, 640 acres, of free land upon settlement in Oregon. Although the bill failed, the prospect of its passage was so favorable that hundreds gathered in Missouri to begin the journey.


Oregon Trail

Oregon Trail


News papers and other sources spread total untruths as shown in this quote from the Missouri Gazette from 1813. The fact that 1813 is long before the first wagon made the journey sure makes this quote look very suspicious.

That 1813 date is less than 10-years after Lewis & Clark made their epic journey across the country. Few, if any, mountain men had even made it to the Pacific and back to provide any such information to the Missouri Gazette. Even so once it is printed people will believe it, and believe it they did.





However, those that actually made the trip described it much differently as can be seen in this second quote!




Early settlers, trappers, traders, and missionaries-and other people who had never set foot there-claimed the West was a paradise. Others argued that the journey would be impossible for entire families, burdened with all their possessions and ignorant of western conditions.

While emigrants found the journey to be difficult and dangerous, is was not impossible. At trail's end, they discovered that living in this "paradise" meant plenty of hard work and hard times.

With barrels full of produce they couldn't sell in the bad economic times, thousands of farmers went broke. Many packed up and headed for free land out West. Breakables, like china, were often stowed in barrels of cornmeal.

While the U.S. had purchased much of the "West" in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, Americans did not live there. In 1803 the United States as we know it stopped at the Mississippi River. However, things were changing rapidly. Over the next 50 years, a series of trails helped the country expand into territory that had been occupied for thousands of years by Native Americans, and claimed as territories by European countries. In 1850 alone, more than 55,000 emigrants traveled the Oregon Trail.

Life on the Oregon Trail was tough. At times, emigrants had to contend with extreme weather. Violent storms were not as common in Idaho as they had been back on the plains east of the Rocky Mountains. However, fewer storms was replaced by excessive heat, choking dust and insects that became their major problems. Emigrants, left western Missouri in early spring but did not arrive in Idaho until July and August when mosquitos were at their worst and temperatures regularly reach into the upper 90s and sometimes over 100 degrees.

Accidents were a leading cause of death on the trail. Wagon accidents, often involving children were not uncommon. Unsafe handling of firearms also lead to many deaths. Accidents involving livestock and river crossings were also common.


Old wagon representative of the old Oregon Trail days

Old wagon representative of the old Oregon Trail days


Conestoga wagons used in the East were far too large for the Oregon Trail, so emigrants used smaller wagons called "prairie schooners." From a distance, their white covers looked like sails. There was no room to ride in the wagons, and lack of springs made them extremely uncomfortable. Most people walked the entire way. In other words "fat-boys" didn't make this trip! VBG

Overlanders got up at 4 am. Men hitched teams of Oxen while women cooked breakfast over a buffalo-chip fire. Wagons rolled out at 7 am. At midday, they made an hour's "nooning" stop to rest livestock and eat a lunch of leftovers.


At 5 PM, wagons were rolled into a circle-not for protection from Indians, but to form a corral for livestock. Men tended to the livestock while women cooked a supper of cornbread, beans, fried meat (generally bacon), gravy, and coffee. After supper, some enjoyed visiting with friends, dancing, singing, or exploring. Others turned in early. Such was life on the Oregon Trail.


Three Island Crossing on the historic Oregon Trail

Three Island Crossing snake river oregon trail

That brings us to to where we are located on the historic Oregon Trail at Three Island Crossing, on the Snake River, in southwestern Idaho. Approximately one half of the 53,000 Oregon bound emigrants crossed the Snake River here at Three Island Crossing. Those who chose not to cross or were unsuccessful stayed on the south side of the Snake River. The dry, rocky south alternate rejoined the Oregon Trail at Fort Boise another 90-miles to the northwest.

Well, that isn't exactly correct either because there was Goodale's cut-off that left Fort Hall near Pocatello in eastern Idaho to Fort Boise by going west across some desolate desert instead of following the South side of the Snake River. No matter how emigrants traveled it seems they passed through Fort Hall in eastern Idaho and Fort Boise in western Idaho. Some taking the southern route did not cross the Snake River here at Three Island Crossing but stayed on the south side until they reached Fort Boise. The problem with this route was the lack of grazing for livestock. Even so many had to utilize the south route when the river was flowing too strong and when emigrants did not want to chance this dangerous crossing.




Historic Three Island Crossing on the Oregon Trail in Idaho

Three Island Crossing oregon trail Snake River


To get to Three Island Crossing emigrants had to make a difficult descent to the river from a high plateau. At this crossing emigrants used the southern two islands to ford the Snake River. Most crossings were attempted in late July or early August, when the river was two to 4-feet deep. At times of higher water, wagons were caulked and ferried here or at the two island crossing slightly upstream.

This picture is looking south across the river at the "difficult descent" from the high plateau emigrants had been traveling on along the south side of the Snake River.


Emigrant journals leave us with a good mental picture of the severity of this crossing. Fames Field wrote on August 13, 1846: "Went about 11 miles this morning which took us to the crossing of the Snake River and crossing to the first island turned out our cattle. We found McNary's and Waymire's and a number of our old company, in all 13 wagons on the opposite side of the river wishing to join us...They rendering us valuable assistance as they were well acquainted with the ford, which is not easily followed as it runs across two islands then crooks upstream. The water only ran into the wagons a few inches and as everything that could get wet, was raised to the top of the wagon bed, did no damage. They told us that it ran over the sides of the foremost wagon and upset one."

Isom Cranfill also crossed here in 1846 and his journal entry read: "We arrived at the upper crossing of (Lewis River) sic., At 11 O'clock A.M. & commenced preparing wagon beds to ferry over the River (very hot). We ferried eleven wagons and their loading over the river. The wind blowed severely in the forepart of the day & waves run too high to navigate the river. It was not quite so high in the afterpart of the day & we succeeded in getting 6-wagons & their loading over. The wind retarded or progress in crossing we however succeeded in getting all our wagons & loading over safe & rigged at 4 o'clock & set out on our journey." I have cleaned up the original quoted passage as far as spelling was concerned but did leave the "language" of the day. Note that Mr. Cranfill called this the "Lewis River" instead of the Snake River. I left that in the quote but rest assured we are on the Snake River.

"Ascended this morning to the river at the old crossing where we arrived about noon. Two trains were in the act of crossing which are the first of the season. The south side is almost universally traveled to avoid the difficulty of crossing. We determined to cross and take the north side hoping thereby to obtain better grazing hence vigorous preparations were commenced by the caulking of wagon beds etc.,

All our effect were landed about noon hence we reloaded and drove about four miles. We tied two wagon beds together and used them as a ferry. Large loads can thus be conveyed." Robert Robe -- July 25 & 26, 1851

"1/2 miles to the crossing of the Snake River from the main shore to the first island there is no difficulty from first to second island turn well up until nearly across then bear down to where the road enters it ... from second to main shore is more difficult it is about 3-hundred yards wide and the current very rapid strike in heading well up for 2-rods. Then Quartering a little down until 8 or 10 rods from shore then quartering a little up for 15 or 20 rods then strike for the coming out place ..." Absolom B. Harden -- August 8, 1847

"In about 12 miles came to islands of Snake River. The stream is divided into 4 channels by 3 islands..." John L. Johnson -- July 19, 1851

Emigrants were not the only ones that used this crossing. John C. Fremont, "The Pathfinder", made a difficult crossing here on October 3, 1843. After temporarily losing a howitzer on the river bottom and nearly drowning a number of mules, he made the crossing using an inflatable boat. Kit Carson, the famous guide and mountain man, served as a guide for Lt. Fremont's 1843 exploring expedition. He assisted Fremont with the crossing on October 3, 1843.

John Charles Fremont, "the Pathfinder", was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1813. He became one of America's famous explorers due to his journeys west along the Oregon Trail in 1842 and 1843. The belief that the United States had the right to expand to the Pacific was spreading throughout the United States. Fremont's father in law, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, believed in this Manifest Destiny and encouraged Fremont to make the west seem attractive. His reports, read widely in the east, inspired excitement and motivated pioneers to head west. Although his signature was attached to the articles, it was his wife that wrote the narratives. It was she, Jesse Benton Fremont, as much as anyone that ignited the spark of America's Great Migration westward.

And that in the words of Paul Harvey is the "rest of the story".

In 1844, James K. Polk was elected President by supporting expansion of the U. S. boundaries, or "Manifest Destiny" as it was then labeled. Although jointly occupied with the British since 1818, by 1840, Americans outnumbered the British in the Oregon Territory. After many years of conflict, the northern boundary of the Oregon Territory was established at the 49th parallel in 1846.

White man wasn't the first to use this crossing. It had been an important crossroads for thousands of years. Many generations of Native American hunters crossed the river here during their annual travels. Later, Oregon Trail emigrants stood on the far bank and faced their own crossroads: whether or not to risk the treacherous river. Often they were helped across by Indians.

But relationships that begun in relative peace soon turned to hostility. This crossing of two very different cultures raised questions and challenges, many of which remain today.

Map of Oregon Trail showing Three Island Crossing of the Snake River

Three Island Crossing oregon trail snake river



















The Oregon Trail through Idaho was make-or-break time. A few miles beyond Fort Hall, the California Trail cut off to the forty-niners' gold fields. Both routes went through a landscape more desolate than anything the emigrants had yet traveled.

Remember that wagon trains were passing through Idaho at the peak of late summer, when heat and dust were high and grass and water scarce.

By the time emigrants reached Idaho and Three Island Crossing they were craving a change, as in change of diet. One emigrant wrote "One does like a change and about the only change we have from bread and bacon is to bacon and bread." With that as the mindset can you imagine the emotions that flow over them when the local Indians have fish (salmon) they are willing to trade for?

Snake River Indians were savvy bargainers, and overlanders were eager to trade for such goods as moccasins, bows and arrows, even horses. But they were more interested in food-camas and most of all salmon. What do you think they paid for these items?

What do you think the price of an eight-pound salmon was? An old shirt, some bread, and a sewing needle. (Lydia Allen Rudd, 1852)

How much for two immense fish? One button, plus one tall silk hat and vest. (Hugh Cosgrove, 1847)

What about the cost of a bale of dried salmon? How about 3-knives. (Sidney Smith, 1843)

Emigrants found Native Americans willing to bargain for a wide variety of goods. These included blankets, clothing, buttons, beads, mirrors, needles, guns and ammunition, tobacco, coffee and other foodstuffs, fishhooks, knives, and even umbrellas.


Keep in mind that emigrants were craving a change of diet. Remember that they had been eating a constant diet of beans bread and bacon since leaving Missouri. Indians in this area dug and ate camas roots. Emigrants, craving that change of diet, would trade for camas roots when they arrived in southern Idaho.


Camas Roots

Three Island Crossing Snake River Oregon Trail





We first learned about camas roots when researching the Lewis & Clark. When they crossed Idaho a few hundred miles north of here the local Indians gave them camas roots to eat.












Three Island Crossing oregon trail snake river












Most wagons were pulled by oxen (neutered bulls). They cost less than mules (the second choice), hauled heavier loads, ate anything, and didn't run away. However, they were slow. Journal notes concerning oxen include: "The ox is the most noble animal, patient, thrifty, durable, gentle. Those who come to this country will be in love with their oxen by the time they get here." Peter Burnett, 1843.

Children who traveled the Oregon Trail were used to hard work. Back home, boys helped their fathers clear land and farm with a team of horses. Girls helped with cooking and household chores. On the trail, children fetched water and berries and gathered buffalo chips for fuel. Teenage girls helped prepare meals and looked after younger brothers and sisters. Boys often stood guard duty. Both boys and girls helped drive livestock.

Most children saw the Oregon Trail as a promise of great adventure - at least at the start. After a day of chores and walking, they usually had energy left for fun. They went fishing, picked wildflowers, chased lizards, climbed rocks, practiced target shooting, did embroidery, and sewed quilts. Some made a game out of tossing buffalo chips like today's Frisbees. Trading goods with Indian children they met was especially popular.

The best time to cross the Snake River at Three Island Crossing was in late summer-early September at the latest. Water level was usually at its lowest then, and there was still time to reach Oregon before snow made the mountains impassable. But many unpredictable events could happen along the trail. Crossing Idaho safely in those days was often a matter of good luck.

Some emigrants who set out for Oregon or California never made it. Instead, they found their journey's end here in southern Idaho, where they started a ferry or opened a store, established a farm or a ranch, built a town.

One of southern Idaho's most colorful early settlers was Gustavus P. Glenn, who ran a freight line between Utah and Boise.

Known as a rugged individualist, Glenn was married to a Native American named Jenny. When Euro-American women became more numerous, Glenn's friends encouraged him to send Jenny back to her people and take a white wife. "She was good enough for me then," Glen said, "and she's good enough for me now."

In 1869, Glenn built a ferry across the Snake River a few miles upstream of Three Island Crossing-not to transport emigrants, but to speed up his freight operations. In 1890, materials from Glenn's ferryboat were recycled to build the Rosevear ferry, which operated until a bridge crossed the river in about 1908.

A small settlement began to grow up around the north end of Gus Glenn's ferry, and by 1880, it was an active place. Remnants of that early site still exist today although we did not see them when we visited Glenns Ferry. In those early days, railroads had the power to make or break a settlement. Many communities became ghost towns overnight when the iron rails passed the by. Glenns Ferry had better luck, in part because a local citizen donated a strip of land to the railroad. In 1883, Oregon Short Line tracks reached town; three years later, a round house and repair shops were built, and Glens Ferry began to grow with the railroad. Even then, Glenn's ferryboat continued to run.

Idaho has likely used more ferries in its development than any other state. The treacherous Snake River was one reason.

Ferryboats crossed the Snake River as early as the 1850s, although a rapid growth in the number of ferries began in the 1860s and 1870s. Ferries were used as a safe river crossing mostly by Oregon Trail emigrants and miners during the Idaho gold rush.

Gus Glenn constructed his ferryboat to haul heavy Boise freight traffic from Pacific rail terminals in Utah and Nevada. If you are not connecting this information remember that the Transcontinental Rail Road was completed in 1869. You will also recall that the Transcontinental Rail Road was constructed across northern Utah and Nevada. Ft Boise near present day Boise, Idaho received merchandise via traders who hauled merchandise over the Oregon Trail, at least that is how they got their merchandise before the Rail Road was completed. By 1870 freight was being shipped via rail to stations in northern Utah and or northern Nevada. This is why Gus Glenn constructed his ferry in 1870. Gus was hauling freight from Kelton, Utah (on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake), to Ft Boise. The Kelton road was used only until around 1883 at which time the Oregon Short Line Railroad was completed through Glenns Ferry. After that the ferry was used to service farms and ranches south of the river until well into the twentieth century.


Three Island Crossing of Snake River on the historic Oregon Trail

Three Island Crossing snake river Oregon Trail


Idaho sponsored kiosk at the Three Island Crossing.











Snake River near Three Island Crossing

Three Island Crossing snake river oregon trail


This picture was taken from a bridge over the Snake River several miles downstream of Three Island Crossing. It isn't something I would want to take a covered wagon over, much less all my possessions and my family.








Snake River valley and Three Island Crossing on the Oregon Trail

Three Island Crossing oregon trail snake river



From the bluff we are looking at the valley on the south side of the Snake River and the first of three islands that emigrants crossed to.







Three Island Crossing of the Snake River on the Oregon Trail

Three Island Crossing snake river oregon trail

In this picture you can see all three islands. Emigrants crossed to the first island then the second island before moving to the upstream end of the second island and striking out for the north side of the river. The third island was not used in the crossing.






Three Island Crossing on the Oregon Trail

Three Island Crossing snake river Oregon Trail



This is a picture of the second and third island and the north side of the Snake River in the distance.






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