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 Smuggling in New Mexico, 1827

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.

April 27 illustration.Thomas Smith.Hafen Vol IV
Source: Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Southwest, Vol. IV, Leroy R. Hafen

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.