Of Mountain Men and Map Makers Part 1

by Walter Mow

It is estimated that there were only about 3,000 mountain men and trappers at the peak of the fur trade. Some would become legends in their own time, others would be recognized later. That some were anti-social outcasts from society only added to the myths, tall tales and downright prevarications that are part and parcel of …. “The Mountain Men”.

Here is the first half of a  “baker’s dozen” of these intrepid souls, some of their adventures and their contributions to the knowledge of what was an unexplored wilderness.

George Drouillard, born in 1773 in present day Windsor, Ontario Canada, of mixed blood. Educated to read and write, he also acquired the native skills of his Shawnee mother’s people. With an ear for languages and skilled in the sign language of the tribes plus a native knack for Cartography, at age 28 he was hired to accompany the Corps of Discovery on its historic expedition. After completion of the expedition, he would accompany Manuel Lisa into the upper Missouri River in 1807. His failure to return from an 1810 trapping trip in the Three Forks region prompted a search. The party would find his beheaded remains scattered about in a ceremonial manner. The scene indicated Drouillard had killed several of his Indian attackers before being overcome by superior numbers at approximate age 37.

John Colter was born in 1774 according to his family and moved to present day Kentucky in 1780. Here he would acquire the skills of the frontier and may have served as a ranger under Simon Kenton. Meriwether Lewis would hire Colter October 15, 1803 to accompany the Corps of Discovery to the west coast. Trusted and allowed great leeway, Colter more than delivered when asked to attend any task. On the return journey, Colter requested an early release from the Corps in order to accompany two trappers back to the upper Missouri. The party would dissolve and Colter would travel alone through much of what are now Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons area of present day Wyoming. In 1808 he would join up with John Potts in a trading operation dealing with tribes in the area. Colter would be wounded in an altercation with members of the Blackfeet. The following year, he and Potts were again in Blackfeet country when they were again accosted by warriors of the Blackfeet tribe. Potts would be killed and his body dismembered while Colter already stripped naked was advised to run. It would be a run for his very life. Hiding in a beaver lodge, he would escape from his pursuers. He then walked 11 days to a trading post on the Little Big Horn. He abandoned the wilderness and returned to St. Louis, it is unclear just when he died with one source placing the date as May 7, 1812 and another dating it November 22, 1813 making him 38 or 39 at the time of his death.

Hugh Glass was born in 1783 and much of his early life is a mystery. He suddenly appeared in St. Louis with a number of Pawnee Indian delegates there to meet with government authorities in 1821. In 1823 he joined William Ashley’s trapping expedition to the upper Missouri. He was wounded in an Indian attack, June 2, 1823 but remained with “Ashley’s Hundred”. After regrouping at Fort Kiowa, Andrew Henry, Ashley’s partner, Hugh Glass and others headed for the Yellowstone River. Glass surprised a mother Grizzly with two cubs while scouting and hunting. His hunting partners managed to kill the bear but not before he was severely mauled. Left for dead by two men left to bury him, he would not only survive, but dragged himself 200 miles back to Fort Kiowa. In February 1824 in another Indian skirmish that killed two men, Glass eluded the Indians and returned to Fort Kiowa carrying only a knife and flint. He would seek the men who left him for dead but never killed either of them. His life would end on the Yellowstone River in another fight with hostile Indians in the spring of 1833 at the approximate age of 50.

Etienne Provost was born in a small village south of Montreal Canada in the year 1785. Little is known of him until he emerges as a player in the St. Louis fur trade in 1815. From 1821 to 1830, he trapped and traded with the Indians across much of the present day states of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah. Although Jim Bridger is credited with being the first man to see the Great Salt Lake, Provost and his trappers were in and around this area for more than a year before Bridger entered the area. Provost would begin to lead supply trains to the annual trappers rendezvous, exiting the fur trade for good in 1838. Provost would serve as guide to the mapping expedition of “Papa Joe” Nicollet in 1839 where he would meet John Fremont. He would continue to serve as a guide until 1849. He died July 3, 1850 at the age of 65 in his St. Louis home.

William Sherley “Old Bill” Williams was born January 3, 1787 in North Carolina and moved with his family to present day Missouri around 1795. Fluent in many Native American languages, he was invaluable in negotiation with the tribes before and after the War of 1812. He saw military service as a sergeant and scout in the Mississippi Mounted Rangers during the War of 1812. After the war Williams began preaching among the tribes and married an Osage woman. Sometime after her death he married a Ute woman and lived with his wife’s Ute family. A skilled trapper, he trapped alone, (the Ute’s called him “Lone Elk”) never revealing where his journeys took him. Known to many of the mountain men, he scouted and guided parties extensively. His association with Fremont’s 4th expedition that began in November 1848 ended in the deep snows of the San Juan Mountains as 10 members of the expedition perished due to starvation and exposure. He would meet his own end at the hands of a band of Ute warriors March 14, 1849 at age 62. (Rumors of cannibalism would swirl around “Old Bill” and taint John Fremont’s 4th expedition.)

James Pierson Beckwourth was born a slave April 26, 1798 in Virginia. His mother was a slave owned by Sir Jennings Beckwith and young James was held as a slave. Jennings Beckwith moved his mixed race family to Missouri in 1809, placing James in school in St. Louis. Some time in this time period James changed his last name to Beckwourth. A deed of emancipation allowed James to be his own man and worked as a wrangler for Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company starting in 1824. Sometime in 1825 he went to live among the Crow Nation and over a period of time became a respected leader among the Crow. Continuing to trap, but due to a misunderstanding, Beckwourth started selling all the furs trapped by the Crow to John Astor’s “American Fur Company”. He left the American Fur Company in 1837 and by 1838 was trading with the Cheyenne along the South Platte River in Colorado. As an independent trader in 1840, he began trading on the “Old Spanish Trail” and by 1844 was trading as far as California. 1846 and Beckwourth is back in the United States working for the US Army; 1848 and it was back to California, in 1850 he would discover a low-elevation pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains that would bear his name. He improved the trail, making it passable for wagons eliminating 150 miles of travel and avoiding the steep passes in the Central Sierra’s. Beckwourth would take up ranching in Sierra’s in1851, returning to Missouri and Colorado in 1859. He would become involved in the Sand Creek Massacre in1864; this prompted deep distrust of Beckwourth, he would die of an unstoppable nose bleed October 29, 1866 at age 68. (It is rumored that he was poisoned by the Crow as they felt they could no longer trust him.)

William Lewis Sublette was born September 21, 1798 in present day Lincoln County Kentucky. An adventurer and trapper, he and his brothers entered the fur trade. Sublette journeyed to the Rocky Mountains and openly competed with Hudson’s Bay Company, North West Company and the American fur Company. A new law passed in 1822 outlawed the sale or trade in liquor to the Native Americans. William Ashley took the decision in stride and started what later became called, the “Rendezvous” in which the trappers were re-supplied in the field by pack train. The gathered furs were packed and carried out by the returning packers thereby negating a need to return to St. Louis for the trappers. Sublette and his partners acquired Ashley’s fur company in 1826, and then sold to his brother and his partners at the Rendezvous of 1830. Wounded in the “Battle of Pierre’s Hole” in 1832, Sublette slowly sold off some assets to the American Fur Company and retired from the fur trade to St. Louis where he died in 1845 at the age of 47.

Stay tuned for next week when we’ll meet the rest of these intrepid, adventurous legends.

Have a wonderful Tuesday friends!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *