by Walter Mow
Last week we had an introduction to a few colorful characters, known as mountain men. This week we’re going to learn about the 2nd half of the “baker’s dozen”, some of their adventures and their contributions to our country, and their place in history…
Joseph R. Walker was born December 13, 1798 in Roane County Tennessee and migrated with his family to Missouri in 1819. Detained for a short time by Spanish authorities in Santa Fe in 1820, he would work with “Old Bill” Williams on the Santa Fe Trail. Returning to Missouri in 1827, he was appointed sheriff of Jackson County, Missouri. While delivering horses to Oklahoma, he met Benjamin Bonneville in 1830. Bonneville offered him a position with his expeditions. Walker would join Bonneville’s 1832 expedition over South Pass to construct a fort on the Green River in present day Wyoming. Walker was appointed command of a group to explore the Great Salt Lake and find a route across or through the Sierra Nevada range to California. Leaving on July 27, 1833 they scouted, discovered and then followed an un-named river they called the “Barren River” across present day northern Nevada. (This river was thoroughly mapped by John Fremont and named for the German botanist Humboldt) They then followed a stream south along the base of the Sierras that eventually turned west into the Sierras. (This stream Fremont named for his scout “Kit Carson”) They probably crossed the Sierras via “Sonora Pass” and traveled down the Stanislaus River into Central California. Beginning their return trip February 14, 1834, Walker’s party crossed one of the lower passes in the southern Sierras; skirting the Sierras as they traveled north to the Humboldt River Sinks finally reversing their route to the Rocky Mountains the previous summer. Walker was hired to lead a wagon train to California late spring/early summer 1843. Leaving Ft. Hall on September 16 with scanty provisions, the train started for the Humboldt Sink while a small group was dispatched to find more rations and meet the train at the area of the sinks. When no relief party arrived, the train started south skirting the east slopes of the Sierras. The draft animals became so weakened due to poor forage that the party was forced to abandon their wagons and walk across one of the lower passes, possibly Walker Pass in the southern Sierras. 1845 and Walker joins John Fremont’s 3rd expedition as head guide. Walker would lead the majority of the party and cross the Sierras near the Kern River while Fremont led a small party over the Sierra Nevada range following the Truckee River. Walker began ranching in California but was persuaded to lead miners into the mountains of central Arizona. He would return to ranching in 1867, he would live there quietly until his death October 27, 1876 at age 77.
Jedediah Strong Smith was born January 6, 1799 in upstate New York. Sometime in 1822, 23 year old Smith joined “Ashley’s Hundred” and entered Fort Henry at the Mouth of the Yellowstone River October 1st, leaving supplies and continuing up river to the mouth of the Musselshell. The following spring Smith was involved in a fight with Arikara warriors that made his reputation as a fighter and leader. An encounter with a grizzly left Smith with scars that he covered by long hair. Ashley would dispatch Smith and Thomas (Broken Hand) Fitzpatrick to search out a viable route through the Rocky Mountains. Smith would learn of South Pass from friendly Crow Indians, at the Green River the party split in order to trap both upstream and downstream on the Green. The two parties reunited on the Sweetwater River in July; Fitzpatrick was chosen to report to Mr. Ashley in St. Louis. Smith went back over South Pass and may have begun “poaching” trappers from other fur companies for Ashley and Henry’s “Rocky Mountain Fur Company”. The “First Rendezvous” of 1825 Smith was offered a partnership, by the Second Rendezvous” of 1825 both Henry and Ashley had sold their shares of the company to the consortium of Jedediah Smith, David Jackson and William Sublette. Ashley agreed to broker the furs forwarded to St. Louis and send supplies to any future “Rendezvous”. On August 7, 1826 Smith began his first trip into California, first by traveling south to the Colorado River and being guided by Mojave Indians across the Mojave Desert via the western end of the Old Spanish Trail. Arrested as a suspected spy on or about December 8th, Smith would be detained by the Spanish Governor for two weeks and then ordered to leave California by the route by which he entered. Smith and his men would leave in February 1827 but turned north looking for the mythical “Buenaventura River’ the supposedly cut through the Sierra Nevada Range. Time restraints would force him to leave his men in a camp on the Stanislaus River. Smith would traverse the Great Basin Desert in a summer crossing; Smith arrived at the Rendezvous of 1827 on July 3rd. Smith’s return to California with 18 men and two women became a fight for survival against hostile Indians with 10 men killed and the women abducted. Smith and the eight survivors finally reunited with his men September 19, 1827. Arrested again, and released again this time with a bond and ordered to leave California and not return, Smith and his men would take several months to reach the Oregon Country. A squabble over an ax turned deadly July 14, 1828, the result being 15 men massacred by Umpqua Indians. Smith would winter at Fort Vancouver returning to meet with his partners in 1829. After another successful trapping and trading expedition into Blackfeet country in 1829-30, Jedediah Smith, David Jackson and William Sublette sold their firm to Tom Fitzpatrick, Milton Sublette, Jim Bridger, Henry Fraeb and John Baptist Gervais at the rendezvous of 1830. Upon his return to St. Louis, Smith informed the Secretary of War John Eaton of his appraisal of British intentions in the Oregon Country. He then joined his partners in making some basic maps of the known west. While scouting for a trading venture to Santa Fe he would encounter a band of Comanche only to be killed in the encounter May 27, 1831 at 32 years of age.
Thomas Fitzpatrick was born in 1799, a firearms accident would leave him with a damaged left hand, he became known as “Broken Hand”. Little is known of Fitzpatrick’s early life but it is speculated that he was an Irish immigrant. He would join William Ashley’s fur enterprise in 1823; survive an Indian fight, journey into the Wind River Country and winter with Jed Smith. Spring of 1824 the trapping party crosses South Pass and begin trapping the Green River Country. Fitzpatrick would become involved in transporting goods to the trappers “Rendezvous” and returning to St. Louis with the furs. He would led a wagon trail to Oregon in 1841 and later employed as official guide to Fremont’s 2nd expedition of 1843-44. He would lead Col. Kearney to Santa Fe in 1845 then forward dispatches for Col. Fremont to Washington DC. He would be appointed Indian Agent in 1846 and work out of Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River. At Fort Laramie in 1851 he brokered a treaty conference with many of the plains tribes. In his capacity as Indian Agent, he was in Washington the winter of 1853-54 to confer with congressional members where he contracted pneumonia and died February 7, 1854 at age 55.
James Felix Bridger was born March 17, 1804 in Richmond, Virginia, his family moved to the St. Louis area in 1812. Five years later and Jim was orphaned, unable to read or write he was apprenticed to a blacksmith. At age 18 he joined William Ashley’s fur trapping expedition in the upper Missouri River March 20, 1822. He was present at the June 2, 1823 attack by Arikara Indians. It has been rumored that Bridger was involved in the Hugh Glass Affair; subsequent investigations have discredited the story. His involvement in the Fur Trade would dictate much of his travel up and down the Rocky Mountains from present day southern Colorado to the Canadian border and as far west as Utah and Idaho. He is credited with being the first white man to see the geysers and mud pots of what would become “Yellowstone National Park”. His travels took him to the Great Salt Lake; he believed he had reached an arm of the Pacific Ocean. In 1830, he bought out Jed Smith’s fur company and established the “Rocky Mountain Fur Company” and competed openly with Astor’s American Fur Company as well as the Hudson’s Bay Company. His partner Louis Vasquez and he opened a trading post on the Oregon Trail to service the wagon trains in 1843. As the fur trade died, the resourceful Bridger in addition to his lucrative trading post turned to being a guide. In 1850 as part of the Stansbury Expedition, he would scout a new pass over the Rocky Mountains (Bridger Pass) some 60 miles south of South Pass that would become the route of the Trans-Continental Rail Road. In the 1859 Raynolds Expedition Bridger would guide this mapping expedition over Union Pass to explore the towering Teton Range. In 1864 he opened the Bridger Trail into Montana thereby skirting the Bozeman Trail. In 1865 he would scout for the US Army in “Red Cloud’s War”. Suffering several health issues, he returned to Missouri in 1868. He would succumb to his having lived July 17, 1881 at the age of 77.
Christopher Houston Carson (aka Kit) was born December 24, 1809 near Richmond, Kentucky. The Carson family moved to Missouri when he was about a year old. Kit’s father was killed by a falling tree limb when he was 8. That may be the reason he was never learned to read or write; he was illiterate throughout his life. When his mother remarried 4 years later, the headstrong young Kit was apprenticed to a saddle maker in Franklin, Missouri, the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail. Lured by tales of the west, young Kit abandoned his apprenticeship and joined a band of traders and trappers going to Santa Fe in August and arriving in Santa Fe in November of 1826. Carson would settle in with Mathew Kinkead in Taos who would teach young Kit the rudiments of trapping. Kit would learn Spanish and several Indian languages plus the universal sign language of the plains Indians. Kit worked as a wagon driver, a translator and a cook between 1827 and 1829. He was cooking for Ewing Young during the winter of 1828-29. He would join Young’s trapping expedition of 1829. In August of that year the party ventured into Apache country and was attacked. This was Carson’s first combative encounter with the Apache. There would be many more. They would trap and trade their way into Alta California, making their way from Sacramento to Los Angeles returning to Taos in April 1830. Carson would join an expedition led by Thomas Fitzpatrick in 1831 into the central Rocky Mountains. He would spend the next ten years as a trapper and hunter. He was hired as a hunter at Bent’s Fort in 1841. A chance meeting with Charles Fremont turned fortuitous for Carson when Fremont hired him to guide his 1st Expedition in 1842; the mapping of the Oregon Trail from the Missouri River to South Pass. He would lead Fremont’s 2nd Expedition to map the Oregon Trail from South Pass to The Dalles on the Columbia River (1843-44). A near disaster in the Sierras was averted due to Carson’s good sense and skills. Carson would lead Fremont’s 3rd Expedition into California and Oregon of 1845 and be present during the Bear Flag Revolt of June 1846. He would lead a futile rescue effort for Mrs. Ann White, her child and her Negro servant in 1849 that would haunt him the rest of his life. Carson would lead a group to northern California and southern Oregon with seven thousand sheep in 1853. Kit would dictate his memoirs in 1856; the manuscript would be lost, only to surface in a trunk in Paris in 1905. DeWitt Peters would write Carson’s first biography in 1859, Carson would remark,”Peter’s laid it on a leetle too thick”. When the Civil War broke out Carson enlisted as a Lieutenant in Union Army April 1861; he was advanced to Colonel in August 1861. His unit would be involved in the “Battle of Valverde” in February 1862. Carson’s commanding officer Major General James H. Carelton ordered Carson to capture and drive the Mescalero Apache to a reservation on the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico. By March 1863 some 400 Mescalero Apache had arrived at Bosque Redondo. Carleton ordered Carson to initiate actions against the Navajo; by the fall of 1863 Carson began a scorched earth campaign against the Navajo, directed to continue his campaign, Carson entered Canyon De Chelly, burning hogans, crops and slaughtering livestock. The starving Navajo surrendered and began “The Long Walk” that saw stragglers shot and killed. November 25, 1864 Carson led his forces against a coalition of southwestern Indian tribes in a four hour engagement at the “First Battle of Adobe Walls”. General Carleton’s hatred for the Indian drove his treatment of the Indians quartered at Basque Redondo and reports reaching Washington forced a hearing resulting in the decision to close the reservation at Basque Redondo. The experiment known as Bosque Redondo was a complete failure, General Carleton was fired, and as a result the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland. With the end of the Civil War Carson was appointed commandant at Ft. Garand, Colorado as a Brevet Brigadier General March 13, 1865. He began ranching after leaving the Army; when his wife unexpectedly died it was if his spirit died with her; he died one month later May 23, 1868 at the age of 58.
Richard Lemon Owings (aka Dick Owens) was born October 14, 1812 in Owings Mills, Maryland. He grew up near Zanesville, Ohio, in 1834 he left the family farm and went west with Caleb Wilkins. Little is known of his movements until he meets Kit Carson in 1839. The two would often work together over the next ten years; both had established homes near Taos. In March 1845 they started a farming enterprise but closed the operation to join Fremont’s 3rd Expedition to the Great Basin and California. He would accompany Fremont and Carson over the Sierra Nevada eventually reaching Sutter’s Fort near present day Sacramento. He would leave California in 1850 and return to his family near Marion Indiana, he would marry Emily Miller in 1854. During the Civil War he moved to Iowa, moving again in 1872 to Circleville, Kansas where he lived quietly till his death June 11, 1902 at the age of 89.
NOTE: The march of time has only added to the myths and tall tales told about the mountain men, that some are true is as amazing as some of the tall tales they themselves perpetrated.