Old Bill Williams Begins His Adventurous Life

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.

June 3 illustration.Bill Williams signature.favour
Bill Williams signature. Source: Old Bill Williams, A. H. Favour

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

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More Victims of Fremont Expedition Die

By the middle of February, 1849, mountain man Bill Williams and the two men who’d survived the failure of the Fremont expedition in the Sangre de Cristos with him, were in Taos recovering. Before the end of the month was out, the 62-year old Williams and the Fremont expedition medical doctor Benjamin Kern headed back out into the snow-covered wilderness. Their mission was to retrieve Dr. Kern’s medical equipment and supplies and his two brothers’ art materials and papers. The goods were in a cache on the Continental Divide near the Rio Grande headwaters, where they’d been placed after the expedition’s pack mules succumbed to starvation and cold. Williams and Kerns were accompanied by a handful of Mexican assistants, who managed the pack outfit.

It was a fateful trip for the two Americans.  While they made it back to the cache, they did not make it out alive.

The Utes in the region had been in war mode since the previous summer. Since then, they’d been raiding the settlements up and down the Southern Rockies and the plains to the east. When they combined with the Apaches to clash with U.S. troops in the Raton mountains, the U.S. military leaders started getting concerned. Lt. Joseph H. Whittlesey was ordered out to bring the tribe into line.

Whittlesey started north from Taos on March 11 with 37 men and four scouts, one of them Lucien B. Maxwell. The next day, about fifteen miles north of Red River, his forces attacked a Ute village and forced those they hadn’t killed into the cold and snow.  About a dozen Utes fled toward the Rio Grande. When they happened on the Williams/Kerns encampment on the Continental Divide, they saw an opportunity to revenge what Whittlesey had done.

The Utes shot Old Bill Williams and Dr. Kern, ordered the men with them to stay put, and carried off the supplies and pack mules as partial payment for the destruction of their winter camp. It is said that when the Utes realized they’d killed Williams, they gave him a chief’s burial. If this is true, it’s more respect than he received from Fremont, whose family later blamed Williams for the failure of Fremont’s expedition and the subsequent death of so many of his men, an accusation that seems to have no basis in fact.

 

SOURCES: Robert G. Cleland, This Reckless Breed of Man, UNM Press, 1976; Alpheus H. Favour, Old Bill Williams, mountain man, U of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1962; Leroy R. Hafen, Ed., Fur Trappers and Traders in the Far Southwest, Utah State UP, Logan, 1997.

OLD BILL – 6 of 6

He had found it.

Old Bill stood on the rocky mountain ridge, hat in hand, and peered into the long green valley below. This was the larger section Three Hands had spoken of, sure as shootin’. Meandering streams glinted in the autumn light and the clouds overhead betokened more rain.

Old Bill laughed aloud, replaced his hat, and scrambled down from the rocks. His credit-bought beaver traps rattled slightly as the new mule carefully followed him down the mountainside. There’d be beaver here, he could feel it in his bones. If not in the valley itself, then surely in the streams flowing out of it through the mountains to the east.

“C’mon mule,” he said. “We’re gonna ’cuperate my losses and make us our fortune. All we gotta do is stay outta the way of  the Injuns and the Mexicans chasin’ ’em.” He chuckled. “Not to mention catamount an’ bear.”

from Moreno Valley Sketches

OLD BILL – 5 of 6

“Señor, you are still unwell.” The young man assisted the older one back to the fireside chair.

“Don’t know what I woulda done if you hadna found me.”

The younger man shrugged. “Any good Christian would have done the same.”

“Ain’t many good Christians in this world, then. You feedin’ me an’all.”

A young woman materialized behind them and spoke to the young man in Spanish. He smiled. “She says you do not eat enough to maintain a grasshopper.”

“Soon’s I get my strength back, I’ll be outta your hair.”

“Where will you go, if I may ask?”

“Back t’the valley.”

“The valley you spoke of?”

“Aye. It’s a beaut’ and worth the trouble, I’m thinkin’. There’s beaver somewheres there or I’m a bobcat.”

The younger man stared at him quizzically.

“You’re thinkin’ I’m still outa my head.”

“Oh no, señor.”

Old Bill laughed. “Oh yes, señor!” he chuckled.

from Moreno Valley Sketches

OLD BILL – 4 of 6

Well, he’d got hisself away from the Ute war party, but with only his rifle, one beaver trap, and the clothes on his back. As he headed west into the foothills, Old Bill considered his situation. He was moving into the snow, not away from it, and the cold was devilish fierce. The wind howled into his face, bringing dampness with it. No one but a fool would head into this storm, toward the peaks, ’stead of down. He hoped the Utes would think so, anyways.

He gripped his rifle, resettled the trap looped over his shoulder, and lowered his head, battered hat tilted against the wind. And he’d thought he’d been cold before he entered that valley. He began to climb steadily, careful to conserve his energy, his long legs eating the mountainside.

When he finally stopped to rest, he could see nothing below but blowing whiteness.

from Moreno Valley Sketches

 

OLD BILL – 3 of 6

At dusk, Old Bill wrapped himself in a buffalo robe and lay quiet against the skin wall of the Ute lodge. This weren’t no hunting party, if he savvied correct. They were layin’ in wait for somethin’ and it weren’t other Injuns, to his thinking. He wasn’t exactly a captive, but Three Hands had made it clear he should stay in camp.

He’d been wandering these parts long enough to have picked up a smattering of Ute lingo. What he’d overheard made him think there were Mexican soldiers headed thisaway. From Taos, mebbe, though it was a darn fool time of year to be comin’ from that direction.

He studied his situation. He didn’t blame the Utes for their plans. It was their country, after all. Theirs and the Taos Injuns. But he didn’t want to be caught in the middle of it neither. He eased out of the robe.

from Moreno Valley Sketches

OLD BILL – 2 of 6

He entered the Ute camp warily, one hand on the mules’ lead rope, his rifle in the other. A man rose and came forward. Old Bill snorted a laugh. “Three Hands!” he said. “I done found you!”

The man studied him. “You searched for me?”

“Well, not ’xactly. But I sure am glad t’ find you.”

Three Hands nodded. “You are cold.”

“Warmer now than I was,” Old Bill said. “This is quite a little valley you have here.”

“Not so little.” Three Hands gestured to the south. “More below.”

“Sure am glad I stumbled in,” Old Bill said. “I was nigh to freezin’ comin’ over Bobcat Pass.”

The other man looked at the mules. “You trap?”

“I was, but the beavers are iced in nasty hard this winter. Can’t get at ’em.”

“The signs say the cold will continue.”

“That how come you’re here?”

Three Hands smiled noncommitally.

from Moreno Valley Sketches