Mountain Man Gets A New Name

By early March 1828, mountain man Thomas L. Smith was walking again. And he had a new nickname. He was now Peg-Leg Smith, the trapper who’d amputated  his own foot.

He’d been trapping with a large party of other men in what is now the Colorado Rockies when it happened.

During an attack by Crow warriors, Smith caught a bullet in his left leg just above the ankle. As the battle raged on, Smith grabbed a buckskin thong, used it as a tourniquet, and hoped for the best.

The bleeding was still heavy when the battle was over. Both bones were completely shattered. The damage was too severe to even hope that Smith’s foot could be saved. But none of his fellow trappers felt they had the skills to do what needed to be done.

So Smith did it himself. He called for the cook’s biggest knife, gritted his teeth, and slashed through the shattered bones and torn muscles, cutting his foot free. He couldn’t quite reach the Achilles tendon in the back. He had to talk Milton Sublette into doing that for him.

He and Sublette used an old shirt to bind up the still-bleeding wound. Then the whole camp waited for the inevitable. They all expected Smith to bleed to death, but they wouldn’t break camp until he’d said his last goodbyes.

But twenty-four hours later, the bleeding had stopped. A day after that, Smith was strong enough to travel, by litter, at least. But not back to Taos and medical help. They went on into the Rockies, trapping as they went.

By the time the mountain men reached a Ute camp a month later, Smith was on horseback again, although his wound was far from healed. The trappers decided to camp nearby and the Utes took Smith under their medicinal wing, applying their skills to his wound.

By the beginning of March 1828, the leg had healed enough that he could put pressure on the stump. In the meantime, his fellow trappers had carved him a wooden leg and he spent the next week or so hobbling around camp getting used to it. And to his new name. He’d be Peg Leg Smith the rest of his life.

The story of Smith’s self-amputation is often used as an example of just how tough the mountain men could be. But it’s useful to remember that Smith would probably not have survived the aftermath of his impromptu surgery without the help of his friends.

Source: Leroy R. Hafen, editor, Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State University Pess, Logan, 1997.

Fateful Trapping Party Is Last Of Its Kind

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.

Aug 8 illustration.Pixabay
The sure sign of beaver in the vicinity. Source: Pixabay

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, The Taos Trappers, University of Oklahoma press, Norman. 1971.

 

Fur Catch Causes Nothing But Trouble

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.

May 15 blog illustration.Armijo, Manuel.illustrated history of nm
Source: Illustrated History of New Mexico,
Reed

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.