Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Simeon Turley – Distiller:

Simeon Turley was not a mountain man, nor did he have any interest himself in trapping or hunting: however, he did employ trappers and traders, and they were also guests in his home.  Simeon Turley is most noted for his production of an item with which most every mountain man was familiar and desired, and which was an indispensable part of the fur trade: Taos Whiskey.

Simeon Turley was the 8th or 9th of ten children born to Benjamin and Nancy Ann Noland Turley.  Simeon was born in 1806 on the family farm in Madison County, Kentucky.  In 1811 the two eldest sons, Stephen and Samuel, left Kentucky and resettled in the vicinity of Boone’s Lick, Missouri.  Shortly after arriving there, the war of 1812 commenced.  Stephen Turley and his wife spent most of the war years from 1812 through 1815 near Fort Cooper for protection from the Indian allies of the British.  In 1812 Benjamin Turley died and Samuel went back to Kentucky to settle the estate.  After the war ended, Samuel returned to Boone’s Lick bringing along his younger siblings where they grew up.  It is probable that Simeon Turley learned distilling while growing up at Boone’s Lick.  

Simeon Turley was afflicted with a lame leg throughout his adult life.  How this happened I’ve not been able to determine.  This lameness may provide an explanation for his sedentary ways after arriving at Arroyo Hondo where he would live the rest of his life.  

In 1821 William Becknell, a trader and entrepreneur, accompanied by other men from Boone’s Lick, lead a pack train of mules with trade goods for Mexican Santa Fe.  Stimulated by the success of Becknell’s undertaking, other partnerships and ventures were regularly formed in Missouri for the purpose of trade with the colony of New Mexico.  In 1827 one of Simeon Turley’s brothers accompanied the caravan to Santa Fe.  Simeon himself would first travel to New Mexico in 1830.  

Turley’s first venture in Taos was a retail store.  He wouldn’t be a shopkeeper long before setting himself up as a distiller at Arroyo Hondo, a small community located about 12 miles north of Taos.  One of his temporary employees at the retail store was Job F Dye (Recollections of a Pioneer 1830-1852), who was a trapper. According to Dye he worked at the store all winter and in the spring he constructed a distillery for Turley.  Dye gives no indication as regards the location of the distillery, however, Albert Pike, who visited Taos in 1831 and 1832, does not mention Turley as a resident,  suggesting that Turley had already purchased Arroyo Hondo property and that the distillery was already in operation at this location.

In fact, after Turley established himself at Arroyo Hondo, he apparently never left the place.  Although he later had retail interests in Taos and Santa Fe, imported trade goods from Missouri, had a store at El Pueblo, and was well acquainted with other American traders and hunters active in the area, there is no subsequent record of his ever having visited Taos, Santa Fe, Bent’s Fort, El Pueblo, or ever returning to Missouri to visit his family.  Turley suffered from lameness in one leg which may have made it difficult or uncomfortable for him to travel.  

In 1831 Turley decided to become a Mexican citizen and applied for naturalization papers.  Catholicism was the state religion of Mexico and Turley was baptized as a Roman Catholic at Taos on January 1, 1832.  On the baptism papers he is listed as Francisco Toles from Quintoque (Kentucky).

It is not certain what motivated Turley to become a citizen unless it was for business reasons.  Most American men who went through this process did so in order to marry a Mexican (Catholic) woman.  Turley, however, never married, at least formally.  Sometime in the early years of his residence in Mexico he did take a woman, named María Rosita Vigil y Romero, with whom he had seven children by 1847.  The children were never legally recognized and did not bear his name.  

In addition to the distillery, Turley constructed a flour mill.  The mill and distillery were located about two miles downriver (Rio Hondo) from the village of Arroyo Hondo.  The mill was a two story structure with power provided by the river. Wheat fields in the fertile Taos Valley provided feedstock for both the flour mill and for the distillery.  

The mill probably produced flour similar to the unbolted Mexican flour referred to by other mountain men.  These flours were quite coarse and according to Wislizenus (reference) “We bought here some Spanish flour, which rather deserved to be called bran.”  Based on the time (1839) and place (El Pueblo), it is quite possible that the flour Wislizenus is describing was milled by Turley.  

The Taos area market for both flour and whiskey was highly competitive and in 1836 Turley decided to sell flour and whiskey to fur trading posts located on the Arkansas River (possibly including Bent’s Fort and El Pueblo), and both the North Platte (Fort Laramie and later Fort Platte) and South Platte Rivers (Fort Vasquez and Fort Jackson, Fort Lancaster and Fort St. Vrain).  Charles Autobees, a trader/trapper, was hired to lead trading parties loaded with whiskey and flour destined for the American trading posts.  In exchange, Autobees would receive mostly buffalo robes with some beaver skins.

Turley also invested in goods for the Santa Fe trade which were probably sold in stores rented in Taos or Santa Fe.  His brother Jesse is known to have come out with a wagon load of goods in 1834, 1835, and 1846.  In 1843 there is a letter from Simeon to Jesse indicating that for at least that year the two brothers were partners in the retail trade.  There is no indication that Jesse ever held any interest in the mill or distillery and it is not known if the brothers acted as partners with every wagon load of trade goods or were partners only during 1843.

Turley also found a gold mineralization on his property and by 1841 he regularly produced small quantities of gold.  In 1841 he sent back to Missouri $1,000 worth of gold (approximately 50 ounces) to settle debts that he had there.  He apparently continued to produce small quantities of gold until his death in 1847.  Gold dust that he had no immediate use for he would cache in different locations about his house (Ruxton, reference)

In early 1841 Turley wrote that business was poor.  At this time his chief competitors, Rowland and Workman had decided to leave for California as soon as possible and were closing down their operations including their distilling business. In order to liquidate their stock of whiskey as quickly as possible, they were selling it at half price.  Turley chose not to compete for market share at these prices and had to “lay silent and sell none.” (Hafen)  The departure of Rowland and Workman left Turley with a larger share of the local market and by August, 1841, business conditions had greatly improved.  At this time Turley sent east a draft on Rich and Willson (then owners of Fort Lancaster) for $554.25 and $450 in cash which he wanted paid over to some of his own creditors.  

In 1842 the U.S. government once again began enforcing laws prohibiting importation of alcohol into Indian country.  Traders now had to smuggle alcohol from the Missouri frontier and risk confiscation, or obtain their alcohol from Mexico which had no such prohibitions.  Turley’s alcohol trade expanded enormously and in 1842 he opened a shop in El Pueblo, where he employed a man and kept a wagon. With a fixed point of business at El Pueblo from which to outfit, Charles Autobees, who was still employed by Turley, could set off directly down the Arkansas River for Missouri with the wagonload of furs and robes that he had taken in trade rather than return to Arroyo Hondo before proceeding.  On his return from Missouri, Autobees would have the wagon loaded with goods for the Santa Fe trade.

In 1845 records indicate that Autobees returned from Missouri with a wagon load of goods valued by customs at $759.88.  Undoubtedly, Autobees followed the usual practice of the times and cached the more valuable merchandise somewhere along the trail before customs could examine the wagon.  The goods included an assortment of fabrics, including brown domestic, calico, apron checks, cotton handkerchiefs, Scotch gingham, fine bleached cotton, red linsey, fancy striped Cashmere, flag handkerchiefs, white cambric, black cotton velvet, prints black lawn, kid gloves, bed ticking, blue drill, pants stuffs, fancy prints, Sea Island brown cotton, Manchester long cloth, bleached muslins and “Queensware for table use.”

The daily routines of life and business continued at Arroyo Hondo until the spring of 1846 when the Mexican-American War commenced.  The U.S. Army swiftly pushed aside Mexican defenders and occupied Taos and Santa Fe.  A small force was left behind at Santa Fe to maintain order while the main body of the Army pushed further into Mexico.  Charles Bent was appointed as the civilian governor of New Mexico.  Although easily subdued, there was great resentment amongst the resident population regarding their new citizenship.  On the night of January 19, 1847 Mexicans and Pueblo Indians in Taos and other communities in the area revolted. The angry mob killed all Americans that they could lay hands on in Taos, and then marched out to Turley’s Mill at Arroyo Hondo.  Charles Town, an American who managed to escape the killings at Taos rode out to Turley’s Mill to warn him of the arrival of the mob before riding on to Santa Fe.  

Turley had so long been a respected member of the community that he was certain he and his property would not be harmed.  However, at the urging of his men he allowed the yard to be barricaded and the windows of the mill boarded up.

At sunrise on January 20th about five-hundred Indians and Mexicans arrived at Turley’s, demanding that he surrender his house and men and guaranteeing his own safety.  Turley responded that he would never surrender and that if they wanted his house and men then “they must take them.”  The mob then attacked, with the Americans mounting a determined defense from within the mill.  (For Ruxton’s description of the siege follow this link)

Near the end of daylight on the second day of fighting, the mob gained the entrance to the mill and managed to fire it.  At this point the mill would no longer provide safety to the men inside, but would swiftly become a death trap.  The men decided to break out using two routes, through the main entry, and by digging out through a wall at the back of the mill.  Their hope then was to escape in the darkness and confusion.  Most of the men were killed in a struggle outside of the mill, but Turley, Antoine LeBlanc, John Albert and Tom Tobin managed to escape.  Tobin made it to Santa Fe, LeBlanc to Greenhorn, and Albert to El Pueblo, but Turley, with his lame leg, was only able to put 8 miles distance between himself and the mill before he was unable to go on.  

While Turley was recovering, a Mexican who was known to Turley came by on horseback.  Turley offered the man a fine gold watch for the use of his horse, but the man refused indicating that Turley should hide and the Mexican would send him aid.  Instead, the Mexican rode down to where the mob was at the mill and informed them of Turley’s hiding place.  A large number of the mob went out immediately, found Turley and shot him.  Thus ended the life of Simeon Turley, at the age of 40.

For more information about Simeon Turley see also:

The 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, California, 1966, Chapter on Simeon Turley.  

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