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Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth (January 29, 1802–August 31, 1856) was an Americanmarker inventor, ice harvester, and explorer and trader in the far west.

Early life

Wyeth was born in Cambridge, Massachusettsmarker, to Jacob and Elizabeth (Jarvis) Wyeth. He married Elizabeth Jarvis Stone on Jan 29, 1824, and began his career in the 1820s by acting as foreman for a company that harvested ice from Fresh Pondmarker in Cambridge, and thus helping Boston's "Ice King" Frederic Tudor to establish New England's ice trade with the Caribbean, Europe, and India. In the course of this business, he invented a number of tools that revolutionized the ice-harvesting business and increased its productivity enormously. 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."

Oregon Country

At age 30, however, Hall J. Kelley convinced him that Oregonmarker 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 industry that would rival New Englandmarker'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 Baltimoremarker where I was joined by four more, and on the 27th left to Rail Road for Fredrick Md 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, via the Black Hillsmarker, the Grand Tetonsmarker, north of the Great Salt Lakemarker, thence to Walla Walla, Washingtonmarker, down the Columbia River, and ultimately to Fort Vancouvermarker on October 29.

On November 6, Wyeth's journal notes that "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, Missourimarker 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 he outfitted a new expedition, with grand 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 Universitymarker, and John Kirk Townsend plus missionary Jason Lee.Wyeth's party crossed the Kansas Rivermarker on May 5, founded Fort Hallmarker (July, 1834) and built Fort Williammarker on the Columbia River. 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 Valparaísomarker having been struck by Lightning and much damaged. Capt Lambert was well and brot me 20 Sandwich Islandersmarker and 2 Coopers 2 Smiths and a Clerk." After much exploration and trapping, he was ultimately unsuccessful in competition with Dr. John McLoughlin of the Hudson's Bay Company, and in 1836 he returned to the East discouraged.

Despite its business failure, the second expedition again proved scientifically useful as Nuttall collected and identified 113 species of western plants including sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata and "mule's ear", a sunflower genus that he named Wyethia in Wyeth's honor.

Later life

Although he failed in his two ventures westward, Wyeth's business dealings in Massachusetts remained financially secure and 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 himself never crossed the Mississippi again.


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.
  • The correspondence and journals of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth, 1831-6. Eugene, Ore., University Press, 1899.
  • The Journals of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth's Expeditions to the Oregon Country 1831-1836. Don Johnson, ed. Fairfield, Washington. Ye Galleon Press. 1984

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