By Ron Marlow
One of the most illustrious and colorful mountain men was French Canadian, Francois Payette. He was born in a small town near Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the youngest of six children. As a young man he worked on Lake Ontario as a canoeman, building log rafts and floating them 300 miles to Quebec. At age 18 in 1810, he went to work for John Jacob Astor and the Pacific Fur Company. The spring of 1812 saw him arriving at the mouth of the Columbia River on the ship "the Beaver," with a small party of fur trappers, who then built Fort Astoria. Two years later Astor sold his business to the Northwest Company.
In 1818 with Donald McKenzie, Payette explored what later became the Payette River Basin. Another party member was Jack Weiser. This small group trapped streams from the Tetons in the east, to the Great Salt Lake in the south, the Salmon River Country in the north and west to the Cascade Mountains. They were paid from $200 to $400 a year, plus a pelt commission. By 1830 their fur harvest had dwindled, as well as the demand for fur hats.
The intrusion of white men into Indian territory led to many confrontations. One such clash left Payette and an Iriquois Indian companion, Baptiste, wounded with Indian arrows. Another clash with renegade Indians cost Payette all his possessions, his horse and his clothing, forcing him to escape by swimming the Snake River, naked. As usual this was over fur pelts and horses. A stolen horse was recovered from a band of Indians near the mouth of the Payette River by Payette, who promptly dispatched the thief to the happy hunting grounds with a knife blow to the ribs. Such was frontier justice.
About 1830 Payette married Nancy Portneuf, a half Indian daughter of French Canadian trapper and friend, Joe Portneuf. Two children were born to the couple, a boy and a girl. The daughter married a Frenchman named Pattee, and the son married a Bannock squaw. Payette's wife, Nancy, died in 1837 while visiting her father in the Willamette Valley, near Fort Vancouver. Payette had several Indian wives at various times. A son, Baptiste, was born with a Flathead Indian squaw, and was sent to school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A daughter, Marie Angelique Payette, was born of a Spokane Indian squaw, but died young in 1847.
Donald McKenzie had built, in 1820, a small fort at the mouth of the Boise River, which was later burned by Indians. Hudson's Bay Company, in 1834, built Snake Fort, later called Fort Boise. Francois Payette was in command, as Postmaster and later as clerk. He retired in 1844 after 20 years with the Hudson's Bay Company. Early emigrants in 1836, the Whitmans and Spauldings traded cattle with Payette, and he entertained them "sumptuously with fowl, duck, bacon, salmon, sturgeon, buffalo and elk, with butter, cream, biscuits, bread and loaf sugar." They were pleased to sit on chairs at tables. Narcissa Whitman was very impressed, and wrote about it in her diary. She in turn impressed Payette and the Indians with her carrot-red hair, blue eyes and fair skin. The Whitman 'parties' arrival, created a stir with their 2-wheeled cart, which was all that was left of their wagon. After a discussion about the rough terrain ahead, they decided to leave the cart, with the provision that Payette would help them on the construction of their mission near Walla Walla, which he did. The cart was an oddity to the Indians, because they'd never seen wheels before.
Theodore Talbot, with the J. C. Fremont party, wrote in his journal that "Capt. Payette, the gentleman in charge of Ft. Boise, is a Frenchman, exceedingly polite, courteous and hospitable. He is a Veteran in the service of the Hudson Bay Company and has undergone many hardships." In his writings of 1834, emigrant Pete H. Burnett wrote "the manager, Mr. Payette, was kind and polite." Another emigrant, James V. Nesmuth found "Payette a very agreeable French gentleman, who has; been in this country, in the fur trade, since 1811."
After retirement from Hudson's Bay Company in 1844, one account states that Payette returned to his homeland, Montreal, Canada, and lived on a retirement of 500 pounds a year. But an account from his son-in-law, George Goodhart, asserts that Francois Payette died at the age of 60 or 61, in 1854 or 1855, in Payette. Goodhart said he had assisted in Payette's burial on a bluff overlooking the Snake River in the Washoe Bench area. We will probably never know the truth about Payette's final resting place, but his name graces a city, a county, rivers, a lake, a forest, and many advertising products.
Francois Payette lived a dangerous, primitive life in unexplored territory, but he regretted the harsh dealings with Indians. He tried to teach the local Indians how to smoke and store salmon. Mr. Payette's ability to read and write served him well in his dealings with others.
Payette's children and some grandchildren were educated in eastern schools.
Thousands of Oregon Trail emigrants passing through the mountains, put an end to the era of mountain men, fur trappers and explores. Roaming Indians were herded onto reservations, as white men took over the land for mines and homesteads. Our history books give us only a portion of the frontier life that Francois Payette experienced.