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About Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth
Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth (January 29, 1802–August 31, 1856) was an American inventor and businessman in Boston, Massachusetts who contributed greatly to its ice industry. Due to his inventions, Boston could harvest and ship ice internationally. In the 1830s, he led two expeditions to the Northwest and set up two trading posts, one in present-day Idaho and one in present-day Oregon.
In the 1830s, he became interested in the Northwest and planned an expedition with Hall J. Kelley. In 1832 he proceeded independently, traveling to Fort Vancouver. Two years later in 1834, he led another expedition, founding Fort Hall in present-day Idaho and Fort William in present-day Portland, Oregon. Unable to succeed commercially against the powerful Hudson's Bay Company, he sold both fur trading posts to it in 1837. At the time, both Great Britain and the United States had fur trading companies, settlers and others in the Pacific Northwest. After they settled the northern boundary in 1846, both forts were considered part of the United States and its territories. After returning to Boston, Wyeth continued to see to his business affairs and amassed a considerable fortune.
The Fort Hall site has been designated a National Historic Landmark, as it is considered the most important trading post in the Snake River Valley through the 1860s. More than 270,000 emigrants reached it while traveling the Oregon Trail.
Wyeth was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Jacob and Elizabeth (Jarvis) Wyeth. He married Elizabeth Jarvis Stone on Jan 29, 1824.
He began his working career in the 1820s by acting as foreman for a company that harvested ice from Fresh Pond in Cambridge, and thus helping Boston's "Ice King" Frederic Tudor to establish New England's ice trade with the Caribbean, Europe, and India. He invented a number of tools that revolutionized the ice-harvesting business and increased its productivity greatly. He also invented above-ground ice houses, with double walls for insulation. As the Dictionary of American Biography states, "[I]t was said at his death that practically every implement and device used in the ice business had been invented by Nat Wyeth."
When Wyeth was 30, Hall J. Kelley convinced him that the Oregon Country had excellent commercial prospects. Wyeth believed that he could become wealthy in the Oregon fur industry, develop farms for growing crops (especially tobacco), and start a salmon fishing and processing industry to rival New England's cod industry.
When Kelley's plans for an expedition were long delayed, Wyeth formed one of his own, and as he wrote in his expedition journal:
"On the 10th of March 1832 I left Boston in a vessel with 20 men for Baltimore where I was joined by four more, and on the 27th left to Rail Road for Fredrick Md (Frederick, Maryland) from thence to Brownsville we marched on foot, and took passage from that place to Liberty Mo. on various steamboats, which place we left for the prairies on the 12th of May with 21 men, three having deserted, and on the 27th of May three more deserted."
From there the expedition's route proceeded along what would later become known as the Oregon Trail along the Platte River valley, through the Black Hills, the Grand Tetons, north of the Great Salt Lake, thence to Walla Walla, Washington, down the Columbia River, and ultimately to Fort Vancouver on October 29.
On November 6, Wyeth's journal notes, "...my men came forward and unanimously desired to be released from their engagement with a view of returning home as soon as possible.... I am now afloat on the great sea of life without stay or support but in good hands i.e. myself and providence".After spending the winter months at Fort Vancouver, Wyeth returned overland, reaching Liberty, Missouri by late September 1833, and then on to Boston. Although the expedition had not been a commercial success, he brought with him a collection of plants previously unknown to botany.
In 1834 Wyeth outfitted a new expedition, with plans for establishing fur-trading posts, a salmon fishery, a colony, and other developments. Included in the company were two noted naturalists, Professor Thomas Nuttall (1786–1859) of Harvard University, and John Kirk Townsend, plus the missionary Jason Lee. Wyeth's party crossed the Kansas River on May 5, founded Fort Hall (July 1834) in southeastern Idaho. They traveled on to the lower Columbia River, where they built Fort William on an island at present-day Portland, Oregon.
Wyeth reports in his journal that on September 15, 1834, he
"met the Bg [Brig] May Dacre in full sail up the River boarded her and found all well she had put into Valparaíso having been struck by Lightning and much damaged. Capt Lambert was well and brot me 20 Sandwich Islanders and 2 Coopers 2 Smiths and a Clerk."
Despite some success in its trapping, Wyeth and his company could not compete against the British Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), whose Fort Vancouver operations in the West were led by Dr. John McLoughlin. In 1837, after selling Fort William and Fort Hall to the HBC, Wyeth returned to Boston.
The second expedition was scientifically useful. Nuttall collected and identified 113 species of western plants, including sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata and "mule's ear", a sunflower genus, which he named Wyethia in Wyeth's honor.
Although he failed in his two ventures in the Northwest, Wyeth had financially secure business dealings in Massachusetts. He maintained a sizable fortune. He continued to strongly support the occupation of Oregon by American settlers, and encouraged many to go west, although he did not cross the Mississippi again.