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.