In August 1827, trapper Sylvester S. Pratte led 36 men north from Abiquiu on the last large-scale trapping expedition out of New Mexico. It would also be Pratte’s last expedition: he would die on it.
Pratte’s death at 28 from an infected dog bite was not the only disaster that befell the group of trappers. A week and a half later, Indians attacked. During the fight, Thomas L. Smith was hit by an arrow which shattered the bones a few inches above his ankle. Smith dealt with the issue immediately, slicing through the mangled tendons with his own hands. Fellow trapper Milton Sublette helped him finish the job by applying a tourniquet of buckskin thongs and covering the wound with an old dirty shirt. Amazingly, although the wound was never cauterized, it did eventually heal.
Pratte had asked his boyhood friend Ceran St. Vrain to act as the expedition’s clerk. After Pratte’s death, the men requested St. Vrain to take his place as its leader. However, this also turned out to be problematic, not on the hunt itself, but when they returned. The venture ended up losing money. Even after Pratte’s personal belongings were sold off to cover expenses, there was still a deficit of over $500.
All in all, this final large-scale trapping expedition out of New Mexico was a disaster on a good many levels, and the negative aspects may have been why the experiment was never repeated.
Sources: Leroy R. Hafen, ed. Fur Trappers And Traders Of The Far Southwest, Utah State University press, Logan. 1997; David J Weber, TheTaos Trappers, University of Oklahoma press, Norman. 1971.
Sure enough, there was a beaver in the trap the next morning. But it had lunged for shore, not deeper water, so it was still alive, one hind leg clenched by the trap. It bared its orange incisors and hissed aggressively as the trapper studied it from the bank.
“You were supposed t’drown, damn you,” the man said. He pulled his tomahawk from his belt. The beaver lunged at him. The trapper pulled back sharply and slipped on the muddy bank. One buckskin-covered leg went into the water. The beaver lunged again, growling. The trapper brought the tomahawk’s blunt end down hard on the back of the beaver’s head and it jerked and fell lifeless into the water.
“I gotta eat, too,” the trapper muttered as he hauled trap and animal out of the water. He held it up. “A big one,” he said admiringly. “A thick winter pelt, too.”
The trapper studied the beaver pond carefully. The lodge lay to his left, a four foot high mound of mud and sticks surrounded landward by a thick stand of whip-like coyote willow. Water gurgled over the dam beyond it. Directly across the pond, on a small slick of mud, lay several short thin willow pieces, recently cut, carefully pealed.
The trapper slipped away from the pond and headed upstream, then waded into the icy water and back to the pond. He waded near the bank to within a few feet of the pealed sticks. He unslung the beaver trap from his shoulder and scraped at the bottom muck with his foot. He positioned the trap firmly in the mud, carefully set and baited it with castoreum, then retreated well upstream before climbing out. He headed back to camp to dry out. Now it was just a matter of time.