Doane’s don’t: Snake River Expedition of 1876 was ill-advised

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – To be fair, there was much foolhardy exploration of the American West in the 1860-70s. The nation was young. There was so much we didn’t know.

But Lieutenant Gustavus Cheyney Doane’s mission to run the length of the Snake River—from Yellowstone Lake to the Columbia River—in the middle of winter was perhaps the greatest all-time “What were they thinking?” expedition ever made.

After successfully guiding the Washburn party through Yellowstone in 1870, Doane was ordered by the Army to undertake what would be a suicide quest in 1876. Some say the order was given for professional spite. Others say it was rescinded but Doane stubbornly went ahead anyway, driven by a desire to seek recognition for discovery he failed to receive in Yellowstone. In any event, Doane doggedly and heroically persisted on the expedition with six men until it was obvious he could not complete it without losing everyone.

Mission Impossible

In addition to the six hardy men hand-picked for their outdoorsman skills, the party included horses/mules, a 30-pound ‘Indian Lodge’ for shelter, and rations for 60 days. A 22-foot long prefabricated boat (probably the first such craft of its kind) was built to be packed in sections.

Company roster

  • Sergeant Fred Server, Company “G” 2d Cavalry
  • Private F. R. Applegate, Company “G” 2d Cavalry
  • Private Daniel Starr, Company “F” 2d Cavalry
  • Private William White, Company “F” 2d Cavalry
  • Private John B. Warren, Company “H” 2d Cavalry
  • Private C. R. Davis, Company “L” 2d Cavalry
Lt GC Doane of the 1870 Washburn/Langford/Doane expedition;
Photographer unknown;

The group was well-heeled and Doane certainly knew what he was doing. A diary entry revealed how well-prepared his band was.

“Our outfit was an arctic one, omitting the stereotyped religious literature. We had buffalo coats and moccasins, rubber boots and overshoes, heavy underclothing, and plenty of robes and blankets. The detachment carried carbines only. Pistols are worthless in the mountains. In fact they are worthless anywhere in the field. I carried a 12-pound Sharpes Buffalo Rifle, with globe sight on the stock and chambered for long range cartridges.

Matches were packed on every animal, and each individual carried several boxes constantly. Each man had a good hunting knife, not the crossed hilted and murderous looking kind but a short one intended for cutting up game.

Our cooking apparatus included two fry pans, two Dutch ovens, four camp kettles, and some mess pans. We had plenty of axes and each man carried a hatchet on his saddle. To put together the boat required only a saw, a screw driver and a Gimlet, and we had a sack of oakum, with which to calk the seams.

Of instruments, I carried a prismatic compass, Aneroid Barometer, max and min thermometers, and a long tape measure. None of these were provided by a generous government, but all were purchased by myself—as usual in such cases.”

The expedition left Fort Ellis with 24 total soldiers heading for Yellowstone on October 11. Trouble struck early. On the third day, the wagon broke down, reduced to “something resembling kindling wood,” Doane wrote in his diary. The wagon was left, the pack animals were rested for two days, and the journey continued.

On October 17, the party lost the first of its pack animals. A mule seized up with paralysis. Doane contemplated putting it down but decided on a last-ditch drastic measure. They heated kettles of water and scalded the beat along the spine. It worked. The mule recovered enough to be left to find its own way back to the fort, which it did the following spring and ended up outliving its ill-fated companions.

The first snowstorm struck October 19. The party pushed through and made it to Yellowstone Lake on October 23 where they encountered a huge elk herd Doane estimated at 2,000 head. It reminded Doane of the time in Yellowstone six years prior when he and another hunter killed 17 elk in less than an hour.

Boating through Yellowstone

The little vessel was assembled and launched October 26. Fifteen miles later it was sunk by a wave. Repairs were made and the party tried it again. Rough waters and frigid conditions soon filled the boat half-full with ice and weighed it down considerably.

Camped later at Heart Lake on November 2, the extra men headed back for Fort Ellis. Seven horses and four pack mules remained. The party crossed Heart Lake on November 6, dragging the boat across a 3-mile stretch of ice where the lake had frozen over.

By November 18 the boat was a mess. The group had to stop for extensive repairs. As those were made they dined on trout caught by Warren and moral was still high. They must have been near the confluence of the Lewis and Snake rivers—near present-day Yellowstone south entrance—because Doane incorrectly noted the following about the two streams:

The stream from Shoshone Lake [Lewis River] is the true Snake River and not the one we are on [Snake River]. It is twice as large as this one, and should be mapped as the main stream.

Snake River Country as it was known in 1876.

Into Jackson’s Hole

The party made the north end of Jackson Lake by Nov. 23. The trout were still biting but Doane worried about leaving behind abundant game as wintering ungulates would be harder and harder to find as they progressed into Jackson Hole. The party shot and ate otters. Bad idea.

Doane wrote: “The first mouthful went down, but did not remain. It came up without a struggle. The taste was delicately fishy, and not revolting at all, but the human stomach is evidently not intended for use as an otter trap. We did not try otter again.”

In a gay mood, the party shot a deer on Nov. 25 that they noticed swimming the lake. The report of the gunshot echoed with such a roar they thought they had started an avalanche with the blast. After realizing it was only an echo, the men had great fun shouting and singing in order to hear their voices reverberate in the inlet they named Spirit Bay (likely Moran Bay).

The deer was bad, however, and the men became violently ill. Doane called it “cholera morbus.” They spent a few days recovering and then continued in their usual mode of travel—three men in the boat, four with the animals on land. They were moving quickly here, covering 30 miles on November 30 (Thanksgiving Day) to camp somewhere near Elk Ranch Flats Turnout—about two miles south of where the Buffalo Fork meets the Snake River.

On December 1, the thermometer hit 65 degrees at noon! Spirits should have been high, but hunger and worry were beginning to take hold.

Doane wrote: “The river is a fine broad stream but the current is that of a mountain torrent and the channel divides so often that we counted over one hundred islands today.

“Fishing good, but fresh fish is too thin a diet to subsist on alone. We have now no coffee, sugar, tea, bacon, and worst of all, no tobacco. Nothing but a few beans left. The game is scarce and shy.

“The boat can now go faster than the stock, but we cannot separate, with ‘Mad River Canyon’ in front of us.”

Days later, completely out of food, they shot Warren’s horse, seasoned it with gunpowder and forced it down. “Horse meat may be very fine eating when smothered with French sauces, but the worn-out US Cavalry plug was never intended for food. The flesh tastes exactly as the perspiration the animal smells of,” Doane wrote.

On December 7, the party made it to just south of Wilson where they encountered the cabin of a trapper named John Pierce. It is not known if this is the same John Pierce who later homesteaded in Jackson Hole in 1888 but not likely. Doane described him then as a “gigantic, rawboned, and grizzled old volunteer soldier.”

Pierce gave the party elk in exchange for clothing and ammunition. He was surprised to see anyone in the valley during winter and, at first, did not believe they were traveling by boat until Doane showed him the contraption.

Doane wrote Pierce was “completely puzzled as to what motives could have induced us to attempt such a trip in such a way and at such a season.”

The party continued down the Snake with renewed vigor and full bellies. Soon, though, the canyon began closing in around them with an oppressive gloom. It was bitter cold in the deep, shaded chasm. The party made only a toilsome 6-7 miles per day as “hundreds” of otter teased them the whole way.

Party splits, all on foot

Doane 1866

On December 11, they shot and ate White’s horse. Guessing they were about 42 miles from the nearest settlement (Pierce had described accurately a small mining district called Keenan City along McCoy Creek in Idaho), the party pooled their money, gave to the youngest member (Sgt. Fred Server) and Warren whom they dispatched for rations with two remaining horses and a mule.

On December 14, Doane and the remaining men lost almost everything when large chunk of ice overturned their boat. All the equipment—maps, notebooks, guns and camping supplies—sunk to the bottom of the Snake. All that could be saved were a few blankets and articles of clothing.

The four men were completely out of food. They cached the boat and continued on foot to where they thought the mining settlement was. Pierce had described it as seven miles up a stream (McCoy Creek) off of the Snake River. Keenan City is actually about 11-12 miles west of McCoy Creek Campground on the west side of the Palisades Reservoir.

It was here that Doane began to lose it. While climbing an icy ridge Doane dropped to his hands and knees and began shrieking uncontrollably. “He nearly went crazy,” recalled Private Davis years later in a journal of his own.

Private White added it was the only time in his long association with Doane that he saw the man show signs of weakening. It frightened the four enlisted men and they began to talk amongst themselves. Doane eventually regained his composure and apologized for breaking down in front of the men.

After wading the Salt River near present day Alpine, Doane and his party were still about 15 miles from Keenan City as the crow flies and it was turning bitterly cold. By December 16, in heavy, crusted snow they were making an estimated one mile an hour when they finally noticed evidence of mining (placer washings) in McCoy Creek. They were sure they had the right creek, now if they could just make it to the settlement.

With temperatures between 10 below zero by day and 40 below at night, the party made camp and built a large fire. They were too restless to sleep.

Doane wrote: “One feeling we had in common. It can be found explained in Eugene Sue’s description of the Wandering Jew. We were impatient of rest, and all felt a constant impulse to ‘go on, go on,’ continually.”

They saw a beaver splashing nearby but could not shoot it. They had all lost their rifles in the river.


Map of Cariboo Mining District

While we were gathering wood for another warming fire, Doane found a section of sawed off timber blocks such as were used for the bottoms of flumes. It had been recently cut on one side with an axe. It convinced Doane and company they were on the right track.

Hours later, Applegate smelled smoke. At approximately 3pm they stumbled upon the first of numerous cabins in the area. A surprised miner let the frozen men in and began cooking something for them while they guzzled tea.

The group had been 80 hours with no food. Doane himself weighed 126 pounds—down from his normal 190.

Soon after their arrival, Server and Warren showed up at the door. They had been unsuccessful in finding Keenan City when they came across the Doane party’s footprints, which they tracked to the cabin.

All six men set out the next day, Dec. 18, for Keenan City in the heart of the Cariboo Mining District. It was an uneventful five-mile hike. They arrived around noon to find bustling community of miners complete with a store, saloon, post office, blacksmith shop, and stable.

The only contact with the outside world was a weekly mail run made by a private carrier who snowshoed some 40 miles to Eagle Rock Bridge (present day Idaho Falls) north of Fort Hall, the nearest Army outpost.

Doane sent word of his predicament with the mail and made plans to return for the boat once the men regained their strength. He intended to finish the journey! Accounts differ on what the men thought about that but sufficed to say they probably weren’t too thrilled.

Doane reportedly ordered the store clerk to resupply his company and the US Army would reimburse him. The clerk explained he had only enough rations to get the mining town through the winter and, besides, he could not do anything without the store owner’s permission—a man named Hezekiah D. Moore, who was away. Doane apparently became belligerent and threatened to arrest the man. The clerk finally gave in and let Doane take what he wanted.

Doane’s letter arrived at Fort Hall on December 27, much to the relief of Doane’s wife, Amelia, and commanding officer Major James S. Brisbin. The mail carrier also verbalized rumors that Doane’s party was terrorizing the town and had robbed its store. Fort Hall’s ranking officer Captain Augustus H. Bainbridge dispatched his adjutant Lt. Joseph Hall with four soldiers to Keenan City to find out what the heck was going on.

Doane died in 1892 at the age of 51. His grave is in Bozeman, Montana.

When the soldiers from Fort Hall arrived they found Doane a day after Christmas on his way to recover his cached boat and resume the expedition. Hall convinced Doane to return with him to Keenan City and loaned a couple of his men to accompany Server upriver to get the boat.

When they found the vessel, they discovered it was completely ruined by an ice jam. One of the Fort Hall privates who went with Server later claimed in a diary entry that Server axed the boat to pieces to make sure it couldn’t be used.

Despite wanting to finish the journey, Doane arrived in Fort Hall on January 4. The explorer was perhaps driven by a jealously that he was not properly credited for all his wayfinding during the Hayden expedition of 1870. There was also some speculation later than Brisbin cancelled the Snake River mission but a recalcitrant Doane went anyway.

At any rate, the new year (1877) rang in with Doane and his men recovering at the Gallatin Valley post, while the failed expedition was never attempted again.