Malachite’s Big Hole
Nothing is known of Johnson Gardner prior to 1824 when he is reported on the Bear River accompanying John Weber’s party. His presence with Weber indicates that he was in the employ of William Ashley and Andrew Henry, and probably came up the Missouri River along with one of the company brigades in 1822 or 1823.
In 1825, again in the area of the Bear River, Gardner would achieved a measure of infamy in a display of behavior that was provocative, even by the standards of the Mountain Men. Peter Skene Ogden, had led a brigade of Hudson’s Bay Company trappers into the area of the Bear and Weber Rivers. Ogden was pursuing a Hudson’s Bay Company policy of creating a “fur desert” to prevent Americans from entering the Oregon Country, and thereby strengthening the claim of Britain to that region.
On May 23, 1825, twenty-five trappers flying an American Flag paraded to within 100 yards of Ogden ’s camp, where they laid out their own camp. As night fell, Johnson Gardner paid a visit to Peter Ogden and his clerk, William Kittson. Gardner proclaimed that the British were trespassing on U.S. territory and must leave at once. Gardner also declared that the Americans were ready to offer any of Ogden’s men who chose to desert $3.50 per pound for their beaver, and would provide supplies at lower costs than those available from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Furthermore, the Americans would fight to defend any who decided to change sides.
Gardner again returned the next morning. “Do you know in whose country you are?” he demanded. Ogden replied that he did not, that possession of the Oregon Country had not been resolved. “Wrong” countered Gardner, “it belongs to the United States” and Ogden must leave at once! Ogden was firm, he wouldn’t leave until he received instructions from his superiors. Ironically, this heated discussion was being held in what was then the territory of Mexico.
Although Ogden wouldn’t back down on the issue of territory, he did retreat to Flathead Post after the defection of 23 of his free trappers and 2 engagés (including Thyery Godin) and the loss of all their furs and equipment. Proximity to the Americans had been just too enticing and Ogden feared losing even more men (and their furs) should he remain.
For another six years Gardner would remain in the Northern Rocky Mountains trapping. George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, mentions that Gardner served as clerk for Joshua Pilcher at an American trading post on Flathead Lake during the winter of 1828-1829. To function as clerk Gardner must have had some very impressive abilities, because available evidence indicates that he was illiterate.
When Jackson, Smith and Sublette ended their partnership in August 1830, Gardner received a note for $1,321.48 owed to him. This was a substantial sum of money at a time when $200 a year was considered a very good wage, gold was priced at $20 per ounce, and a modest turn-key farm could be purchased for about $1,200.
Gardner next appears on the upper Yellowstone River at Fort Union on July 12, 1831, where he sold 53 beaver skins and one otter skin for $347. He must have established some good relations with the American Fur Company, then the owner of Fort Union. He continued trapping in the area, and one year later entered into a trapping agreement with the American Fur Company, which he signed with his “X”.
As a prominent personality in the area, his name became attached to various geographical features including Gardner River, Gardner’s Hole and the future village of Gardner, Montana. During the winter of 1832-1833, Arikara Indians caught and killed Hugh Glass and two other trappers on the ice of the Missouri River, as the trappers were delivering a message to Fort Union.
Some time later, this same group of Indians came into the camp of Johnson Gardner’s party. Being as each man’s gear and equipment was unique, it was not long before the trappers discerned that the Indians had the rifle, knife, powder horn and other items belonging to Glass. The trappers managed to seize three of the Indians. There are conflicting stories as to the fate of these Indians. According to Prince Maximillian of Wied, a scientist passing through the country, the Indians were killed as they attempted to escape. However, the story told by John Sanford in a letter written to William Clark (of Lewis and Clark), then Superintendent of Indian Affairs, is probably more accurate. Summary justice was meted out. The Arikaras were scalped and burned alive when they could give no good reason for possessing the worldly goods of Hugh Glass.
Not too long afterwards, Gardner was himself taken by the Arikara, who inflicted a similar fate upon him.
To learn more about Johnson Gardner see the following references:
The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. 2, edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published 1965 by the Arthur H Clark Company.
A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific, by Robert M Utley, published 1997 Henry Holt and Company. 392 pages.