Throughout history, humans have followed river banks in search of resources to support commerce. Rivers made possible the exploration and mapping of North America. Major waterways served as trade routes for native peoples, corridors for European explorers and traders, and avenues for American expeditions.
In 1810, Robert Stuart, an agent of John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company, traveled by sea from New York to Astoria, the company's fort near the mouth of the Columbia River. Company agents directed Stuart to return to New York and report on their progress in the fall of 1812. Traveling overland along river courses, his party arrived at St. Louis during April 1813. Aware of the importance of the journey, Stuart kept a journal detailing their route, wildlife encounters, and the landscape.
Heeding advice from a Shoshone Indian, Stuart and his men likely crossed the continental divide - an thus the Rocky Mountains - by what would come to be known as South Pass. Stuart presented his journal to President Madison, and Astor told Thomas Jefferson of the party's route. Although Astoria was surrendered to the Canadian's North West Company in Stuart's absence, its value to the United States was clear. As historian Bernard DeVoto wrote in The Course of Empire, since Astoria was built at just the right moment in time,
"...it placed the Columbia River country, all the vast area that was to be called Oregon, in the domain of international relations."
Stuart's account, and the exploration that followed, promoted westward migration as widespread knowledge to the route encouraged emigrants to lay claim to Oregon.
Robert Stuart (inset portrait) and his eastbound party of skilled trappers camped on the opposite side of the North Platte River for five weeks in November and December of 1812, about one mile downstream from where you are standing.
They constructed a log shelter near the river, but when a war party of "twenty-three Arapohays" examined the cabin and took the measure of his group before continuing north, Stuart led the Astorians downstream to winter at the site of present-day Torrington, Wyoming.