The Snake


The past few days I have followed the Snake River as closely as possible. The impressive river now calmly finds its way through Idaho and Oregon, but in the days of the trail it formed a serious barrier for the emigrants. Today the river has been dammed in many places, but halfway the nineteenth century it was a wild and dangerous waterway. Twice, the overlanders had to try to get their belongings across, once at Glenn’s Ferry, and once at the old Fort Boise, in present-day Idaho. Some decided it was better to keep following the river on the south side, but that meant traveling many miles further.

Still, following the river was no guarantee that there would always be drinking water. A lot of times the river water was far below the high plateau the emigrants crossed. That made it very hard, if not impossible, to reach the water. While traversing the hot and dry plain, with hardly enough grass for the animals, the emigrants could hear the river roar down below, unreachable for thirsty people and draft animals.

The name of the river is derived from the Indians in this area: the Shoshone, often called ‘Snake’ by the emigrants, probably because they made snake-like motions of the hands in sign language. The Shoshone, as their befriended tribe the Bannock, were very good fishermen, which the emigrants benefited from: salmon was a very welcome change of diet after months of bacon and beans.

Although the first encounters with Shoshone and Bannock were friendly, it wouldn’t take long before the relations between the Indians and the whites turned sour. In the eyes of the emigrants these people were inferior, especially when they were too poor to own horses, and consequently, they were treated disrespectfully. But they were excellent horse thieves, and more than once a surprised emigrant would count fewer horses in the morning than before he went to bed.

This photo was taken near Shoshone Falls, or Twin Falls, hardly ever visited by the emigrants because the trail wouldn’t pass here. Nevertheless, this ‘Niagara of the West’ was often mentioned in diaries; the loud roar of the falls was clearly audible on the trail, about 8 miles to the south. Not a lot of emigrants would actually hike out to see it, because going there would put you in serious risk of loosing your scalp.