On this day June 3, 1787, one of the West’s most memorable mountain men, William Sherley Williams, was born in North Carolina. The fourth of nine children, he was called “Will” by family members, although before he was 40, his fellow mountain men were calling him “Old Bill.”
The Williams family moved to Missouri when Bill was 9 years old. Seven years later, at 16, Bill left home to live among the Osage Indians. Twenty-one years later, after the death of his ostrich wife and the dissolution of the reservation, Bill headed west. He would become a legendary mountain man, known as much for his eccentricities as his prowess in the wilderness.
The lean, 6’1”, red-headed Williams was based in Taos and had a propensity for hunting beaver on his own, or with only a camp-follower as a companion. Where he went was anyone’s guess–he also had a propensity for keeping his hunting grounds secret.
Before he left home, Williams had received an education that included training in Greek and Latin. This, along with excellent hunting and tracking skills and a gift for languages, gave him a self-confidence that didn’t suffer fools gladly. Especially people who doubted his geographic knowledge of the West.
This strong personality was bound to get Williams in trouble when he encountered someone with a similar character. In Williams’ case, this was former Army Colonel John C. Fremont.
In late 1848, Fremont hired Williams as guide for an expedition into the Rocky Mountains to identify an all-season railroad route to California. When Williams insisted that the expedition should veer from the route Fremont had already identified, Fremont relieved Williams of his guide duties and gave them to others.
Unfortunately, Williams was right. Fremont’s route was a mistake. Winter set in with a vengeance and Fremont’s men were trapped in the Rockies. Only 21 men of Fremont’s original 32 made it out alive. Although this would include Williams, he would die a couple months later, trying to retrieve valuable records and medical equipment that had been left behind.
So, while Williams’ vivid personality and self-confidence made him a legend in his own time, it also cut his time short. But the stories of his exploits would live on, and some of us still wonder just where those secret beaver hunting grounds actually were.
Sources: Robert Glass Cleland, This Reckless Breed of Men, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1976; Leroy R. Hafen, Ed., Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State UP, Logan, 1997; Alpheus H. Favour, Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man, U of Oklahoma P, Norman, 1962
Ewing Young had thirteen 90-pound packs of beaver fur in his possession in early May 1827, and he wasn’t interested in having them confiscated. According to the rumors, outgoing Governor Narbona was cracking down on trappers without the proper permissions and incoming Governor Manuel Armijo was likely to be even stricter than Narbona.
So Young did the only sensible thing an American trapper could do. He hid his furs at the Pena Blanca home of his associate Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca.
But he had neglected to realize that some of the men with him might have different ideas about the most sensible approach to government mandates. A member of his trapping party, Ignacio Sandoval, told officials in Santa Fe what Young was up to.
From that point on, things took a turn for the worse. Governor Narbona ordered soldiers to Pena Blanca to confiscate the furs and, in the process, Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca was killed. Then Manuel Armijo became governor on May 20 and signed an order for Young’s arrest for illegal trapping. Young seems to have talked his way out of that predicament and instead got permission to clean the confiscated furs. He and the Santa Fe alcalde were in front of the governor’s long adobe palace, shaking out and inventorying the furs, when another member of Young’s trapping party appeared on the scene. Milton Sublette grabbed a bundle of pelts and made off with them.
When Sublette and the furs disappeared, the governor blamed Ewing Young. He called Young to the palace and threatened him with jail. Young turned on his heel and walked out of Armijo’s office, but he wasn’t free for long. And when the soldiers did catch up with him, he was thrown in the calaboza, where he languished until he became ill and was finally released.
But he didn’t get his furs back. Many of them had been badly damaged by rain leaking through the roof of the building where they were stored, so they were sold for about two-thirds what they would have brought in good condition. The total was still a decent amount, about $3500. But it’s not clear who received the resulting funds. After all, the plews were government-confiscated property.
Sources: Carl P. Russell, Firearms, Traps, and Tools of the Mountain Men, Skyhorse Publishing, 2010; David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.
In April 1827, as Thomas L. Smith returned from a rough, though productive, fur trapping season, he learned that there was a new Mexican Governor in New Mexico and he not as sympathetic as past administrations had been to Americans who trapped without the required permits. In fact, the new Governor was on the hunt for Americans with illegal furs.
Smith decided that the only way to protect his plews was to smuggle them to Taos, where the border was more porous and he was likely find someone willing to take the risk of smuggling them over the Mexican/American border to Missouri. Accordingly, Smith and his trapping partners skirted Santa Fe and headed north.
After a close brush with the law at an outlying cabin, they made it to the small settlement of Riitos. Here, they hid the packs of furs among the trees and stopped for breakfast. The people were neighborly and came out to offer the trappers tortillas and eggs. However, the local kids discovered the packs in the trees. Smith did some quick thinking and explained that the furs were hidden because the sun would damage them. No one objected to this explanation, and the trappers continued on their way.
They hid the furs in a cave near the Rio Grande and rode into Taos the next day, where Smith was able to make the necessary arrangements. Although illegal and somewhat dangerous, Smith’s approach seems to have been the wiser one.
Ewing Young’s party cached their furs a little too close to Santa Fe, in the Pena Blanca home of a gentleman named Cabeza de Baca. De Baca’s help led to distaser for his family: When the soldiers arrived to confiscate the furs, there was an altercation and de Baca was killed.
Young’s furs were lost as well. When Young attempted to retrieve them from the Santa Fe authorities, he was imprisoned and only released when he came down with a debilitating fever. Eventually, the furs were sold at a fraction of their value. It’s unclear who ended up receiving the little money they brought in.
So, while Thomas Smith circumvented the law, he did make a profit. Ewing Young wasn’t so fortunate. It was a lesson that the American trappers would take to heart. The Mexican government would continue to try to keep the trappers under control, and the Americans would do their best to avoid that supervision.
Sources:Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. IV, Leroy Hafen, Arthur H. Clarke Company, Spokane, 1966; The Taos Trappers, David J. Weber, U of Oklahoma, Norman, 1971.
On Monday, April 14, 1828, Mexico’s Congress spelled out the conditions under which foreigners could become Mexican citizens. The rules were simple: They had to have lived in Mexico at least two years and be Roman Catholic, employed, and well-behaved. If these conditions were met, the governor of the Deparment could issue a certificate of citizenship.
It seems to have taken a while for word about the new law to get to New Mexico, but once it did, at least twelve French-Canadians and Americans applied for citizenship the following year. One of these men was John Rowland, trapper, trader, and owner of both a Taos flour mill and a Taos Lightning distillery.
Rowland didn’t remain in New Mexico, although he did remain a Mexican citizen. In 1840, he and his England-born distillery partner William Workman, supposedly without their knowledge or consent, were named temporary commissioners for the Republic of Texas. Feelings against Texas were strong in northern New Mexico and the two men’s apparent support for Texas and the hated 1841 Texas-Santa Fe expedition was enough to make New Mexico too hot for them. In 1841, they emigrated to California.
Both men did well in California. Workman became an important figure in the Los Angeles business community and Rowland became one of California’s most important wine manufacturers while continuing his work to produce both flour and distilled spirits. He died in 1873 and was buried in the cemetary of the Catholic church built on the 48,790 acre Rancho la Puente, which he co-owned with Workman.
Sources: Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. IV, Leroy Hafen, Arthur H. Clarke Company, Spokane, 1966; The Taos Trappers, David J. Weber, U of Oklahoma, Norman, 1971. www.homesteadmuseum.org
It happened every spring in the early 1800s: Taos was invaded by trappers, either future or current. It made law enforcement rather complicated
In 1817, Jules DeMun didn’t even make it to Taos before he was headed off by a contingent of Spanish soldiers, who had been sent out in response to rumors in Taos that DeMun and his partner Pierre Chouteau had 20,000 Americans camped on the Purgatoire River, set to invade New Mexico. Even though the rumors weren’t true, DeMun and Chouteau were ordered to return to St. Louis. Somehow, they talked the soldiers into allowing them to travel north before heading east, ostensibly to avoid the Pawnee. Of course, they didn’t head directly to St. Louis. They trapped, supposedly outside of the boundaries of New Spain.
When news of Mexico’s independence from Spain reached the United States in 1821, things only got worse. Trappers and merchants could now enter New Mexico legally, but they still had trouble following Mexico’s rules. Up to this point, the Sangre de Cristo mountains had provided a protective barrier between Taos and incursions from the eastern plains. But they didn’t stop the Americans. In fact, the mountains were a great place to cache furs before smuggling them east to Missouri without paying export taxes. And Taos was still the favorite way to enter, especially if you were doing something slightly illegal. There were just so many ways to get there from the Santa Fe trail, which paralleled the mountains between it and Taos.
It got so bad that Mexico Customs Officer Juan Bautista Vigil y Alarid had to deputize Rafael Luna as Taos’ border guard. Even that wasn’t enough. Eventually, Alarid authorized Luna and Taos Alcalde Severino Martinez to use the militia to intercept the Americans.
Calling out the militia seems like overkill until you realize how valuable the furs in question were. In 1837, “Uncle Dick” Wootton brought furs worth $25,000 into Taos. And that’s just what he was willing to pay the tax on. The trappers had incentive to skirt the law. And the Mexican authorities had incentive to try to keep them from doing so.
And so each spring the dance began again….
Sources: Den Galbraith, Turbulent Taos, Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, 1983; Leroy R. Hafen, Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State UP, Logan, 1997; Joy L. Poole, editor, Over the Santa Fe Trail to Mexico, U of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2015; David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, U of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1971.