Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth

Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth bigraphy, stories - American explorer and inventor

Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth : biography

January 29, 1802 – August 31, 1856

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 was also a Mountain man who 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.

General references

  • “Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth.” Dictionary of American Biography, Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2001.
  • , Eugene, Oregon: University of Oregon Press, 1899, available as free e-book at Googlebooks.
  • The Journals of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth’s Expeditions to the Oregon Country 1831-1836. Don Johnson, ed. Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1984

Early life

Wyeth was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Jacob and Elizabeth (Jarvis)Hist. of Camb., MA 1630-1877, Paige, p.705 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." 

Later life

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.

Oregon Country

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.