On Wednesday, October 3, 1866, trapper William Wolfskill died at age 68 in Los Angeles, California, where he’d emigrated from New Mexico.
Born in Kentucky, Wolfskill had arrived in New Mexico as part of William Becknell’s second (1822) Santa Fe Trail expedition and was based in Taos for the next eight years. During that time, Wolfskill trapped on the San Juan, Gila, and Colorado Rivers, and participated in mule and horse trading missions to Missouri.
On one of those missions, in late 1824, Wolfskill joined an expedition to northwest Chihuahua led by a Captain Owens. There, they purchased horses and mules to export to Missouri. Shortly afterward, Owens was killed in an Indian raid. Wolfskill and another man rounded up the mules that had escaped capture, bought more, and took them all to Alabama, where they sold for a nice profit.
But the two men didn’t keep the money for themselves. Instead, Wolfskill took it to Boone’s Lick, Missouri, where he handed over the funds to Captain Owens’ family.
In late September 1830, Wolfskill left New Mexico and never returned. He led a party of about 20 men acrossed the Great Basin into southern California, in the process opening what is today called the “Old Spanish Trail.”
Wolfskill had originally intended to trap beaver in California, but when this turned out to be impractical, he and fellow trapper George Yount turned to hunting sea otter instead. This project seems to have been lucrative, because by 1838, Wolfskill had the funds to join his brother in buying a 4,000-vine Los Angeles vineyard, which would eventually grow to 85,000 vines.
Agriculture must have been more enjoyable than trapping, because three years later, Wolfskill planted the first commercial orange grove in California. These activities formed the basis of a kind of agricultural empire that would introduce the Australian eucalyptus, the soft-shelled almond, the chestnut, and the persimmon to California.
Certainly, by the time he died, Wolfskill had traveled a long way from Kentucky and accomplished a great deal besides trapping furs.
Sources: Leroy R. Hafen, ed., Fur Traders and Trappers of the Far Southwest, Logan: Utah State UP, 1997; Daniel J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1971.