Bill Williams, M.T.
Old Bill Williams
was one of those rare individuals who can be characterized as a Mountain
Man. Standing 6 foot 1
inches tall, he was lean and sinewy, possessing unusual strength.
He had blue eyes and red hair, and usually wore a full beard.
He so excelled in the skills of the trapper’s trade, that he
became legendary amongst his own peers.
He marked his furs and skins “William S. Williams, M.T,” the
M.T. standing for Master Trapper. And although sharp in his business dealings, he seldom could hang
onto his returns for longer than a few days, being addicted to gambling,
whiskey and the tender attentions of the fairer sex.
Although not averse to traveling and trapping with a party or
brigade, he often preferred to work and travel alone.
There were none who could exceed his ability to almost invisibly
move himself and a string of pack animals through hostile Indian country.
At times it would almost seem that he would “commute” back to
for the winter, no matter where on the continent the rest of his party
went into winter encampment. He
was fluent in French, Spanish, Osage, Navaho, and Ute as well as other
Indian languages and dialects. He
excelled in horsemanship, could walk long distances in extraordinarily short
periods of time, was an expert tracker, and was an unorthodox and deadly
fighter when necessary. He
carried in his head a mental map of western rivers and mountain ranges
which stretched from the British holdings on the north southward into
and west to
and Mexican California. At one
time Williams prepared a series of sketch maps which were later
incorporated into official maps of the West.
Wiliams was well
educated, with some knowledge of Greek and Latin, widely read in fine
literature, and had a good understanding of history, politics and
religion. He would often
combine his education and intelligence with an unusual sense of humor and
propensity towards practical jokes. This
reinforced his reputation as a character when those around him couldn’t
distinguish between his personality quirks, his deeply held convictions
and his odd sense of humor. With
greenhorns he was known to assume a caricature of a “typical” Mountain
Williams was born
June 3, 1787
North Carolina. He was the fourth of nine
children. His parents, Joseph
and Sarah (Musick) Williams, were natives of
Virginia. Sarah apparently had some
education, and she schooled the children in the fundamentals of reading,
writing, arithmetic and religion with some Latin thrown in.
In 1793 the
Governor of the Spanish posts at the
issued a proclamation encouraging settlers to move into the area.
was still part of the
) Many members of the Musick
and Williams families, including Bill Williams parents decided to move
west at this time. Immigrating
settlers under this proclamation could receive up to 800 arpens (also
known as an arpent, this totaled about 680 acres) of land, providing they
were willing to become citizens of
New Spain. One requirement of
citizenship was conversion to the Catholic faith.
The Williams family were strong Baptists.
How this requirement was officially met is not known, however, the
Spanish Governor at the time was known to “overlook“ visits by
protestant preachers to the area.
By the summer of
1795 Joseph Williams and his family were at a small settlement known as
Owen’s Station, a community located about sixteen miles northwest of
St. Louis. It
was here that Joseph received his grant from the Spanish government
August 26, 1796
for 800 arpens of land located about four miles west of Owen’s Station
and near the
Missouri River. Various Indian tribes still
frequented the area, including Osages, Delawares, Shawnee
and others. From this farm all
of the Williams boys would have learned the basics of trapping and hunting
as well as the Indian customs.
1804 was the year
in which the
took control of the
Territory. With the change in
government, came new freedoms of religion.
Williams was 17 this year, which was considered to be a man, with
all the freedoms and responsibilities that came with that.
Coming from a religious household, Williams became a circuit
preacher. In those times a
person required no certification or training, merely needing to be
“called” and to be able to get people to listen to his message.
These were lean times for Williams.
He received no pay for his efforts.
At best he was given food, shelter, perhaps some clothing.
After about five
years of preaching he gradually turned his attentions to other pursuits.
He had spent two winters trapping and hunting to improve his
standard of living. He tried teaching
with indifferent success. Finally
he settled in with the Osage Indians, in part motivated by a desire to
serve as a missionary to these people.
lived more or less continuously amongst the Osage Indians from 1803 till
1824. Williams did not have
much success in his mission work with the Osage.
Their religion was based on the Sun, Moon and other deities which
could be seen, whereas Williams religion was based on faith in something
invisible. During the time he
spent with the Osage he became fluent in their language, was adopted into
the tribe, married and had two daughters, Sarah and Mary.
With time, he became influential in the tribe, especially in its
dealings with the whites. Accompanying
wide-ranging Indian hunting parties he developed a practical knowledge of
the geography from the
Northern Rocky Mountains
to the Spanish settlements. Williams
came to have self-doubts about his Christian faith as he assumed the
customs of his adopted people. As Micajah McGee, one of his friends
later in life, put it “Bill laid aside his Christianity and took up his
outbreak of hostilities between the British and Americans in the spring of
1812, Williams volunteered with a group of mounted rangers who were
assigned duty in the area between
and along a stretch of the
as scouts and spies. His
service was brief and by December 1813 he was back at the Osage village.
Jim Bridger also
lived amongst the Osage Indians at about this same time, and it is almost
certain Williams and Bridger would have known each other.
was constructed as factory on the
in 1808 to serve the Osage Indians. From
May 13 1817
June 30, 1818
Williams served as interpreter to George C Sibley, Indian Agent and Factor
at the fort as well as preparing packs of furs for shipment and performing
In July 1821, a sub-station of the factory was established about
five miles from the mouth of the
and near some Osage Indian villages. Paul
Ballio was the factor at this post, and Williams was again hired to act as
Starting in 1820
Protestant and Catholic missionaries began working amongst the Osage
Indians. Because of his years
spent living amongst these people, Williams was now the most skilled
interpreter of the Osage language and customs.
He immediately became indispensable to the missionaries
particularly the Protestant missionaries, to whom he provided services as
an interpreter and translator, as well as providing practical information
about their lifestyle and customs. By
the end of 1821 Williams had produced a 2,000 word Osage-English
dictionary, and was well along with a grammar study.
The missionaries eventually published this as a book.
Williams also translated portions of the Bible and some hymns into
the Osage language.
missionaries, however, were quite critical of the Osage customs.
They found the eating of entrails (boudins to a mountain man)
disturbing, and that these people “were given to idolatry” and their
manners were rude and their habits of living far from clean.
The negative attitudes of the missionaries were at odds with
Williams own experience with the people he had adopted, which eventually
led to his questioning his own Christian faith and a general
disillusionment with civilization. Increasingly
Williams became reluctant to be identified with the missionaries.
To the missionaries he was perceived as becoming “selfish and
By late in the
summer of 1822 the Army was attempting conciliation between the Osages and
the Cherokees who were then at war with each other.
Williams served both Generals Henry Atkinson and Edmund P. Gaines
as a guide and interpreter in this effort. Williams played a considerable role in reconciling the difference
between the Osages and Cherokees, and a peace treaty was successfully
des Cygnes factory the position of interpreter was not demanding, allowing
Williams plenty of time to pursue his own affairs and interests which
included trapping. In December
of 1821 Paul Ballio, factor at the Marias des Cygnes post, paid Williams
$691 for furs and skins that he brought in and in the spring of 1822 an
additional $307. This is at a
time when $200 a year was considered a good wage.
About this time the U.S. Congress abolished the factory system and
it became effective amongst the Osage in mid 1822.
As a result both Williams and Ballio lost their positions.
Ballio decided to become partners and set up their own trading post
amongst the Osage. They
established a post on the
(Grand) River for the Indians and moved their families to a nearby Osage
found the trade less rewarding then they might have expected based on
their combined experience in the trade while at the factory.
Both men had Osage wives, and because of this a large number of
their customers were either friends and family.
The partners found it difficult not to extend credit and as a
result the venture was a loss. They
closed the post and dissolved their partnership.
from his experience at the Neosho Post, for by May 1824 he went back into
the trade with a one-year license. This
time however, he was trading with the Kickapoo Indians, with whom he had
neither friends nor relations.
During the summer
and autumn of 1824 Williams devoted considerable time as interpreter in a
trial of five Osage accused in the murder of Major Curtis Welborn and four
other men. Only two of the
Indians were convicted and sentenced to be hanged. These two were
subsequently pardoned by President John Quincy Adams five months later.
After the end of
the trial, Williams traveled up to the
Northern Rocky Mountains
ending in the vicinity of the
Hudson’s Bay Company Salish House (also known as the Flathead Post) in what is
now northwestern Montana. During
the winter of 1824-25 as a free trapper he accompanied a brigade of
trappers under Jedediah Smith.
The area Smith's Brigade was trapping was deep within territory
claimed by the Blackfoot Indians and skirmishes were frequent and violent.
It appears that due to the skills Williams demonstrated in
trapping, hunting and fighting at this time that he was bestowed the title
“Old” Bill Williams.
By May of 1825
Williams was back in the Osage village.
Williams spent the next several months settling his business and
personal affairs. On
June 2, 1825
a land cession treaty was signed by the Osage and U.S. Government.
One section of land was reserved for each of Williams daughters
(his wife had died sometime before 1825), and at the request of the Osage,
Williams received $250 for “credits given,”
in part to make up for some of the losses he had sustained at the
August 1, 1825, a military expedition under the command of George C. Sibley set out to
survey and mark a trade road from
and to negotiate rights of way with different tribes through the Indian
country. Williams was employed
as “Interpreter, Runner, Hunter, etc. “
One of the other men employed by the expedition was Joseph
Walker. Walker and Williams undoubtedly became well acquainted with
one another as the expedition moved west.
Since of the expedition’s starting location was within the
territory of the Osage, the first negotiations were with these Indians.
The Osage met with the expedition leaders on the
at a place Sibley designated as “Council Grove.”
(For years afterward Council Grove was the location where wagon
trains traveling the
Santa Fe Trail
did their finally outfitting and shakedown)
Williams probably played an important role in the negotiations
because of his reputation and experience with these people.
His signature is one of those found on the treaty documents.
arrived in Taos
October 30th, 1825
. Not being content to wait in
town through the winter while the military commanders treated with the
local Mexican authorities, Williams was granted a leave of absence to trap
on November 14. For his
services he received $132.67 at a rate of $33.33 per month.
It is not known where Williams trapped, but quite likely included
locations along the Rio del Norte (Rio Grande) and Gila Rivers. Williams
February 24, 1826
, where he reported “good success,” in trapping.
He immediately went on a drinking and gambling spree, a pattern
which he would repeat consistently after getting paid for his furs.
When the military expedition was ready to leave on March 9th
Williams had not yet ended his frolic and so his service with the
expedition was terminated.
after his money ran out Bill Williams returned to the Northern Rocky
Mountains where he rejoined his companions of the 1824-25 trapping season,
possibly in the vicinity of the Great Salt Lake.
Throughout the summer the brigade again experienced frequent
skirmishes with the Blackfoot Indians.
By late summer of
1826 Williams was back in
where he joined a venture with Ceran St. Vrain.
St. Vrain, Williams and a party of 35 were given a license to
“trade” by the Mexican Governor Antonio Norbona.
The Governor must have suspected that the trading license was a
deception, for the license specifically did prohibited the party from lingering
at any location to trap beaver. Once
beyond the reach of the Mexican authorities, the party quite naturally
went to work trapping in the Apache country north of the
Gila River. The Apaches tolerated
intrusion by trappers into their territory no better than the Blackfoot to
the north. While working his
traps alone, Williams was captured by Apaches.
The Indians relieved him of all his possessions, stripped him
naked, and turned him loose in the desert, presumably to die.
Before he could accomplish his captors purpose, he was found by
Zuni Indians, who welcomed him into their pueblo, providing him with food,
clothing and shelter. There is
some question about whether Williams actually was rescued and spent time
with the Zuni. The pueblo
people were conspicuously isolationist, and not generally open to
outsiders. After leaving the
Zuni, Williams fell in with the Navaho where he may have spent most of the
summer of 1827.
By early autumn
of 1827 Williams had made his way back to
New Mexico, where he joined a trapping party lead by Sylvestre S. Pratte with Ceran
St. Vrain as clerk. The party
was intending to trap on the
Green River. As the party traveled
northward, Pratte fell ill and died on October 1, in Park Kyack, also
known as New Park, an intermountain basin bounded by
Medicine Bow Mountains
(today known as
Colorado). St. Vrain assumed
leadership of the party, and they continued on to the
where they wintered. The party
broke up in April 1828, and most of the men, almost certainly including
Williams made their way back to
arriving in late May.
Starting in the
spring of 1828 Bill Williams apparently spent the next two years living
and traveling with the Ute Indians in the
region. During this time he
became expert in the geography of the mountain ranges and rivers within
the range of the Ute Indians territory. .
Taos, in the spring of 1830, he met Jesus Archuleta, who would accompany
Williams, as a camp keeper and traveling companion on a number of
expeditions. On this first
trip the two men traveled up through the
Park, northward into the
River Basin, then eastward over the divide to the confluence of the South Platte
and Cherry Creek, and thence southward ending at Bent’s
In September of
1832 a large brigade of approximately 75 trappers and adventurers,
including Bill Williams, gathered about 27 miles south of
Taos. At this time Williams was
described by Albert Pike as “a man about six feet one inch in height,
gaunt, red-headed, with a hard, weather beaten face, marked deeply with
small pox….all muscle and sinew, and the most indefatigueable hunter and
trapper in the world….a shrewd, cute, original man, far from
The brigade was assembled with purpose of trapping in Comanche
country in the headwaters area of the Red River and Washita.
The expedition was poorly planned and executed.
No-one clearly knew the route.
After much hardship and misdirection, the brigade eventually broke
up without ever reaching the Red or
Rivers. Not a single beaver was
taken on this hunt. Williams
in time to outfit for the 1832-33 trapping season.
There is some
uncertainty in the record as to where Bill Williams was in 1833.
According to a letter written by Thomas Fitzpatrick to Milton
November 13, 1833, Williams was then acting as a guide to a party of about 20 men under
Henry Fraeb, trapping on the Green and
(Hafen Volume III- Henry Fraeb). Bill
Craig (reference) recollects Bill
Williams accompanying Joe Walker on his trapping/horse-stealing/spying
California. This expedition left the 1833
Rendezvous in July and was out until about July of 1834.
Williams could not have been in both
and on the
in the autumn of 1833.
I give far more
weight to Fitzpatrick’s letter, being as it was a documentation
generated in November 1833, then to Bill Craig’s recollections, which
are actually a series of campfire stories told 20 or 30 years later and
put together in a narrative form. Craig
may have been partially correct though.
Here is what I think may have happened.
In July of 1833
when Joe Walker and his brigade left for
California, Bill Williams was not a member of the brigade (although this was
certainly the type of adventure that would have appealed to Williams.)
By November of 1833 Williams was attached as a guide to Henry
Fraeb’s trapping party on Ham’s Fork a tributary of the
Green River. By early spring of 1834
Fraeb’s party had proceeded down the
as far as Bill Williams Fork (named for Bill Williams himself) in what is
now Arizona. Here they met up with some
of the men from Joe Walker’s expedition on their return from
The two parties combined and traveled up the Moquis and
(now known as
Colorado) and then made their way again to Ham’s Fork for the Rendezvous
of 1834. I believe that
Craig is remembering Bill Williams from the time when the two parties
Sometime prior to
1834, during one of his visits to
Taos, Bill Williams took up residence with a Mexican widow and her three
children. The woman’s maiden
name was Antonio Baca. In 1834
the couple had a son who was named Jose.
April 1, 1834
Bill Williams left on a two-man expedition (accompanied by his camp keeper
and companion Jesus Achuleta) to explore the Mexican territory between the
middle Rio Grand and the Pacific. The
purpose of the expedition was to test stories he had heard regarding the
“wonderful things” further west. The
two men traveled at a leisurely pace about what is now
Arizona. Before holing up for the
winter they had visited modern tourist spots such as the
They spent the
winter of 1834-35 with a
Walapi Indians. In the spring they rode west
where at another village of the Walapi they met a Franciscan Padre who
dissuaded them from attempting to cross the
Mojave Desert. From here they worked their
way northward, finally ending up on
d’Alene where they ran into a
’s Bay Company brigade. Here
Williams outfitted to trap for the 1835-36 season and Jesus Archuleta
worked as a cook in a hunters camp on
Archuleta resumed their sightseeing tour in the spring of 1836.
They toured the
Rivers, crossed the
and then down to the
River. The two men spent the
1836-37 season trapping on the
Yellowstone River, where they were quite successful. They
took 600 beaver skins to the 1837 Rendezvous
at the confluence of the
and Horse Creek. From here
Williams and Archuleta returned to Bent’s Fort
where they concluded their sightseeing tour of the west.
For the remainder
of 1837 Williams appears to have done some work for Bent & St. Vrain,
and some trapping on the lower
Colorado River. Williams made an appearance
at the 1838 Rendezvous on the Popo Agie.
After this time the trade in beaver furs went into a precipitous
decline, and Williams activities for the next several years are not well
documented. He may have spent
part of this time amongst the Ute Indians.
As the trade in
beaver fur declined, many of the trappers turned to horse stealing in
California. Many of these horses had formerly been owned
by the Catholic Missions, but with the secularization of Mexico, ownership
of the horse was in left in doubt. The mountain men may simply have viewed
this activity as simply gathering up semi-wild horses. In the
spring of 1840 a well organized brigade of men consisting of American
trappers, French-Canadians, New Mexicans, and Indians raided the horse
herds in the areas of
San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, and
San Bernardino. Bill Williams played a role
in planning and organizing this particular raid.
A total of some 3,000 horses were gathered up and then driven over
Cajon Pass down into the Mojave desert and then along the Old Spanish
The raiding party
maintained a hard pace as they were pursued by both Californios seeking to
recover the horses and hostile Indians through whose territory they
passed. More than half of the
horses were lost before they had cleared the desert, and many more died
along the trail. When they
reached Bent’s Fort, it is rumored that Williams traded his share of the
horses for a keg of whiskey and he, his friends, compadres and fort
personal went on a wild drinking binge, after which Williams was no better
off than he was before the raid.
In the fall of
1840 a small party consisting of Bill Williams, Kit Carson, Bill New, Bill
Mitchell and a Frenchman named
set out for the
country where they trapped before wintering at Brown’s Hole.
Davy Crockett, located in Brown’s Hole, had been abandoned earlier in
1840, however, it is quite possible that there were still structures
remaining on the site and the men may have camped at that location.
In the summer of 1841 the party made its way down to
where they probably traded their accumulated furs.
After this the party made their way eastward to the Arkansas
River basin. Here the party broke up,
with Williams and Carson proceeding to Bent’s Fort.
There is some disagreement as to the timing, but sometime between mid
to late 1841 Williams and
decided to return to
Missouri for a visit. Williams spent
some of this winter visiting his daughter Mary, who was now married with a
daughter of her own. The
remainder of the winter of 1841-42 he spent with his elderly mother and
his siblings in
Counties, Missouri. During this visit he
related this Blackfoot Adventure
to his brother John and John's family.
Early in 1842,
St. Louis, Williams formed a partnership with George Perkins, another experienced
trapper to outfit a trading expedition to the mountains.
Together they recruited six others and departed
in March for the mountains. Arriving
in the general vicinity of
Laramie, they traded for furs and robes with
and Sioux Indians. Shortly
afterward, they ran into another trader, Louis Vasquez, who was hoping to
trade with the Indians with whom Williams party had already traded.
Instead Williams sold their accumulated furs to Vasquez for cash and a
quantity of goods suitable for the Indian trade. This established the
business model for the trip, that is trading/trapping and then selling the
proceeds at the first opportunity for a cash profit.
Leaving the vicinity of
Laramie, the party proceeded along the
and Sweetwater up to the country east of the
Mountains. This was within territory
claimed by both the Crow and Blackfoot Indians. Williams party had
an extended skirmish with war party of about a dozen Blackfoot warriors in
which all of the raiders were killed.
Here the party encountered a band of Shoshoni Indians under the leadership
of Washakie, an old friend of Bill Williams.
The men learned from Washakie of other Blackfoot war parties in the area
and of recent killings of both trappers and Shoshoni Indians.
An offensive was planned by the united trappers and Shoshoni to
drive out the Blackfoot.
There followed a series of skirmishes and battles, in which the
Blackfeet lost twenty-one warriors and many horses, while the trappers and
Shoshoni lost a single warrior killed.
From here the party made its way to a fort operated by Jim
Bridger at Black’s Fork of the
Green River. While
enroute, they were joined by another party of seven trappers, and the
combined party was represented by Williams in the trade. They were
paid partly in goods, partly in cash, and partly in St. Louis
exchange. From Bridger's Fort they made their
way down to Brown’s Hole from which they made trapping excursions into
Mountains. About September 1, Bill
Williams left the party, bound for Taos, promising to return the following spring to continue leading the
trapping and trading expedition farther west.
apparently spent the winter in Taos. By early spring he was
preparing to return to Brown’s Hole.
In March 1843 Williams picked up traps and supplies at Bent’s Fort.
Even though Williams had just had a very successful season, he was now
broke. The supplies he acquired at Bent's Fort were obtained on
credit. By March 23 he had rejoined his companions of the
previous year at a camp on the Green River. There were now forty-three
the party, all except two who were hardened and experienced mountain
men. They were about to head out on a two year journey that seemed
to be more about maintaining a life-style, to hunt and trap and visit new
places, then about increasing their wealth. .
Much of 1843 was
spent trapping and trading into the far northwest.
From Brown’s Hole the brigade crossed the Uintah Mountains then
worked their way northward to the Snake River, and then followed the Snake
down to Fort Boise, a Hudson’s Bay Co. post were they sold their
accumulated furs and robes. From
there they went northward across the Blue Mountains to Camas Prairie (now
known as the Grand Ronde Valley). Here they were attacked by about
300 "bad" Bannocks. Many of the trappers were equipped
with technologically advanced revolving pistols which vastly increased the
firepower of the brigade. (Colt-Patterson revolvers were
manufactured starting in 1836, and were used in the Seminole War in the
early 1840's. However the company was underfunded, and due to
manufacturing difficulties the pistols were produced only in limited
numbers. It wasn't until 1847 that the Walker-Colt revolvers
attained any significant production volumes. However, William
Hamilton confirms that the mountain men had the Colt-Paterson pistols in
an entry in his journal published as My Sixty Years on the Plains
where he writes "Our men with their deadly Colts told with
terrible effect.") The first attack of the Indians was
checked and driven back. The trappers immediately mounted their
horses and counterattacked with such violence that the Indians were
completely routed. Word of the battle and its results spread, and the brigade
had no further trouble with Indians in the area. From Camas Prairie
the brigade proceeded at a leisurely pace to explore the John Day
River country nearly up to the
Cascade Range. They then directed their
course in a southerly direction, coming to Upper Klamath Lake, where they established their winter quarters (Upper
Klamath Lake is in SW Oregon).
Very soon after leaving
winter quarters, in the vicinity of Tule
Lake, the brigade encountered Modoc Indians.
The first contact with the Modocs was most unfriendly and when
offered the pipe said that they did not smoke with white dogs.
Anticipating an attack, the men fortified their encampment.
The Indians did attack and were most determined, but were no match
for the combined firepower of forty mountain men.
During the ensuing battle, the Modocs lost about thirty warriors,
and the trappers three men. Even
though the trappers soundly defeated the Modocs, they did raise camp and
leave the area to avoid further hostilities with the Modocs.
They headed southward to
Lake. Most of the remainder of
the spring of 1844 was spent hunting and trapping across the country which
now comprises northern Nevada. The party passed Pyramid Lake, crossed over to the Mary’s River (now
known as the Humboldt River) and followed it eastward up to the Thousand
Springs area where they turned northward.
This was Pah-Ute territory, and these Indians were also hostile. One
of the trappers, Frederick Crawford, who was well liked and popular
amongst his companions, was brutally slain. When a party of these
Indians attacked the trappers camp, the trappers savagely counterattacked
and no quarter was given. Twenty-three Indians were killed,
forty-three horses taken and Crawfords horse, rifle and pistols
recovered. The trappers had only a few men wounded in the
attack. The country again proving hostile, the brigade then proceeded eastward, crossing to the
Bear River, the
and then proceeding up the Wind River to
the Hot Springs
where they rested for a few days.
trapping season being over the brigade continued traveling southeastward to the
North Platte River
and then following that river down to
Laramie. Here the party disbanded, and the remaining proceeds from
the previous two years were divided amongst the men.
From here Bill
Williams, George Perkins and six others would return to Santa Fe.
In August of 1845
Williams was at El Pueblo, where Captain John C
Fremont of the U.S. Topographical Engineers, would find him and recruit
him as a guide for an official exploratory mission.
The party was nearly sixty strong, and included Kit Carson as
another guide. Proceeding
northwesterly to the vicinity of the confluence of the White and Green
Rivers, they met Joe Walker who joined the party.
The expedition then crossed the Wasatch Range
Lake, and then followed the
down towards the
Great Salt Lake. At about this time there was
a major disagreement between the guides and Fremont about the route across
Desert. The disagreement was serious
enough that Williams left the expedition on October 27.
For the next
several years the record of Bill Williams’ whereabouts and doings is
incomplete and sketchy. Probably part
of this time was spent living amongs the Ute Indians. At other times
and places he appears momentarily in the records. In
July 1846 he was at Jim Bridgers Fort.
In June 1847, during the war with Mexico, he was engaged as a guide and guard with a wagon train of military
Santa Fe Trail. Sometime
early in 1848 the Ute Indians were in need of supplies and had furs to
trade. Williams took the furs into Taos, but instead of returning
with the needed supplies he went on a spree which consumed all of the
returns. Williams felt he couldn't return to the Utes untils he
could find someway to smooth things over. In the spring of 1848 he was
reported at the American Fur Company’s
Union at the confluence of the
Rivers. Later in 1848 he briefly
formed a loose partnership with Josiah Webb to provide goods and supplies
to travelers along the
Santa Fe Trail. He then served as a scout
and guide with Major W.W. Reynolds in a military assault against a large
band of Apache raiders who had been harassing settlements in northern New Mexico. The
Apaches were trailed to a location at the south end of the
San Juan Mountains
. A series of skirmishes took place
as the Indians fell back before the military forces. Finally the
Indians settled in to a strong and easily defended position called the
Pass of St. Johne Mountain (now known as Cumbres Pass) Before the
Apaches could be engaged in this final battle they were joined by a force
of Ute warriors. During the engagement
some 36 Indians and two soldiers
killed. Williams was in the
thick of the fray, and was shot in the arm, shattering the bone.
By leading the military against a war party including Utes,
Williams had now completely lost any standing he might have had remaining
with the Utes.
to El Pueblo to recuperate from his injuries
and was there when Captain Fremont arrived on his fourth expedition on
November 21, 1848. Fremont
was attempting to establish the location for a railroad route to
California, and by traveling along the proposed route during the winter intended to
show that it would be useable year round.
This particular winter was severe, with unusually cold and snowy conditions
existing even at the relatively low elevations at El Pueblo. Fremont’s offer of the position had previously been turned down by several
experienced mountaineers including Thomas Fitzpatrick and Dick Wooton, as being impossible to accomplish along
Fremont’s intended route at that time of year. (Dick Wooton, who
was entirely familiar with these mountains, did hire on and traveled with
the expedition until he saw how much snow there was on the Sangre de
Cristo Mountains, at which point he quit) While at Bent's Fort, John
Hatcher and Tom Biggs, long time mountain men and with much experience
in the region, told Fremont that crossing the mountains at that time could not be
persisted and pressing Williams, finally got him to agree to guide the
left with thirty-three men and 120 mules.
They traveled, under extreme hardship from the cold and deep snow,
and across the
and then crossed the
Sangre de Cristo Mountains
(now known as
disagreement between Williams and Fremont developed when the expedition
reached the Sand Hills in San
Luis Valley. Fremont
intended to steer directly for
California, on a heading approximately between the long established Old Spanish
Trail to the south, and Robidoux’s
trail up the Saguache Creek and over
to the north. Williams, who
had lived in this country with the Utes, and had passed through it many
times in his travels back and forth from Taos, knew full well that
Fremont’s intended route was impassable. He
attempted to lead the party along what he considered the least formidable
route, that being through
Pass, but was over-ruled by Fremont and relieved of his duties as guide.
Fremont now choose Henry King, and Alex Godey to guide the expedition.
King and Godey, though veterans of previous Fremont expeditions and
being well seasoned and knowledgeable, had no experience themselves with
this part of the Rocky Mountains.
previously posed by cold and deep snow became unimaginably worse.
It became so cold at times that mercury thermometers failed to
register the temperature. The men suffered from snow-blindness and frostbite and the mules
froze to death. The men
carried the remaining supplies and equipment through deep snowdrifts.
Finally on December 26th,
sent a party of four men back to the
settlements for help. Henry
King was designated as leader of this party, which included Bill Williams,
Tom Breckenridge and Frederick Creutzfeldt.
allowed the party sixteen days to make a round trip of 350 miles.
Fremont had extremely high expectations for these half-starved and
weakened men, expecting them to walk nearly 22
miles a day through snow choked country with a minimum of supplies.
It took the party 3 days to descend 20 miles to the
San Luis valley. For the next eight days they
struggled down the
River, surviving on a hawk, an otter, parched boots, their belts and knife
sheaths. On the eighth day they
detected the distant smoke of a Ute camp, but Williams advised them that
should they approach it for help, they would probably be scalped because
of his involvement in the military action against the Apache and Utes the
prior year. The men continued
on without approaching the Ute camp.
On the 12th of January 1849 the party was still fifty miles short of the
King was no longer able to continue and died just before Breckenridge managed to kill a deer.
Revived by the food, as
the party again prepared to continue on towards the settlements,
they were approached by four horsemen, who turned out to be Fremont, Godey,
and two others. Fremont
had somehow obtained horses from the Utes.
as to how Williams, Breckenridge and Creutzfeldt reached the settlement of
Questa. According to
he took the men there himself "by the aid of his horses he carried
these three men to the Red River settlements."
according to Tom Breckenridge,
"Fremont stayed just long enough to cook some venison,
then pushed on, ordering us to follow as fast as we could."
men died of starvation or exposure, 120 mules died, and most of the
equipment was lost. Thus ended
Fremont’s disastrous fourth expedition. Even
before all of the survivors of the expedition had made their way
down out of the mountains, Fremont
was at work on letters making excuses and laying blame to shift
responsibility for the disaster from himself to others, including Bill
Williams. In later years Fremont
would further accuse Williams of cannibalism, incompetence as a guide and
premeditated treachery. These charges have no basis or support from
the letters, journals, or recollections of any of the other members of the
of 1849 Williams was back in
where he recuperated from the hardships he had experienced.
Later about the middle of March, he and Dr. Benjamin Kern, the
expedition’s doctor set out with a couple of Mexican helpers to recover
the doctor’s equipment and supplies as well as other items, journals and
equipment belonging to the expedition as could be found.
These items included the art materials and personal papers of Dr.
Kern’s brothers, Edward M and Richard H Kern, who were trained artists.
Two portraits of Bill Williams, a water color and an oil were supposedly
made by Edward M. Kern. Neither
of these have ever been found.
Williams and Kern did make it to the area where much of the
equipment had been cached or abandoned and gathered as much as they could
find. The two men were
preparing to head back to
Taos when on
either March 14th, or March 21st, 1849 (the date varies
depending on source) they were shot and killed, probably by Ute Indians.
At the time of his death, “Old” Bill Williams was almost 63
Most of the above information was taken
from the following references:
Alpheus H. Old Bill Williams: Mountain Man.
Copyright 1936 University of North Carolina Press.
Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Volume VII; edited by
LeRoy R Hafen, published by The Arthur H Clark Company, Glendale,
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