Malachite’s Big Hole
Abel Baker, Jr.
Little is known of Abel Baker Jr. either before or after the six years he spent in the fur trade in the Northern Rocky Mountains. That he had an education is apparent because he held the position of clerk and factor at various times during his career in the fur trade.
Baker was hired by Nathaniel Wyeth as an employee of Wyeth’s Columbia River Fishing and Trading Co. in the position of clerk. Baker did not travel overland with Wyeth’s main party bound for the Rendezvous of 1834 and then on to the Columbia River, but rather left in January 1834 from Boston on board the brig May Dacre. It was Wyeth’s plan to meet the May Dacre on the Columbia River with a cargo of salted salmon and furs ready for transport back to Boston.
However, in sailing from Boston to the Columbia River, the May Dacre was struck by lightning and severely damage off the coast of South America. This necessitated a layover of some three months in Valparaiso for repairs. Unfortunately, when the May Dacre finally met up with Wyeth in September 1834, there were neither packed fish, nor furs for the return trip. Wyeth’s deal to supply goods and supplies to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company had unraveled when the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was forced into liquidation by Sublette and Campbell only days prior to Wyeth’s delivering on the contract. As a result Wyeth was improvising his business plan, including constructing Fort Hall on the Snake River in August. The delay of the May Dacre for repairs was also unfortunate for Baker as he was not paid for his time while on the ship. He did not start accruing wages until October 8, 1834, at a modest rate of $25 per month (According to Rudolph Kurz, writing from Fort Union in 1851 interpreters were paid about $500 per year, and clerks that had mastered one of the Indian languages might be compensated as much as $1,000 per year).
After his arrival on the Columbia River, Baker traveled with a party of men back to Wyeth’s recently constructed Fort Hall. By January 10th, 1835 he had been promoted to the position of factor at the fort with an increase in compensation to $500 per year.
Competition between fur companies in the Northern Rocky Mountain region was intense, and Wyeth found it impossible to operate at a profit while in opposition to the better capitalized and far more experienced organizations. As a result of cost cutting, Baker’s contract with Wyeth, which expired January 10th, 1836 was not renewed, although Baker did continue to work at Fort Hall until relieved of his responsibilities on March 1st, 1836. Ultimately Wyeth sold Fort Hall and it’s inventory to the Hudson Bay Company, with the HBC assuming control of the post in October, 1837.
After his employment with Wyeth ended, Baker joined a party of hunters and worked as a free trapper. For approximately the next year he remained in the region around Fort Hall where he continued to purchase supplies and goods from time to time.
While a factor at Fort Hall, Baker had met Henry Fraeb, to whom he had sold supplies and other merchandise. In either March or April of 1838 Baker approached Fraeb about taking charge of Sarpy & Fraeb’s Fort Jackson, located on the South Platte River. At this time there were four forts (Fort Jackson, Fort Vasquez, Fort Lancaster, and Fort George) located within a fifteen mile reach of the South Platte, and competition between the posts was brutal.
Baker was given the position, and shortly afterward, Fraeb returned to St. Louis, leaving Baker with sole responsibility for the fort. However, before leaving, Fraeb prepared detailed written instructions regarding management of the post including inventories, personnel, construction projects, accounts, security, sanitation practices, and how to deal with the proprietors of the nearby posts.
While Baker was occupied with management of the post, the American Fur Company and Bent, St. Vrain & Co had negotiated a non-compete agreement between the two fur trading giants. One of the terms of this agreement was that Fort Jackson was to be abandoned, and it’s inventory sold to Bent, St. Vrain & Co and transported to Fort George. Baker was totally unaware of this arrangement until William Bent arrived on October 3, 1838 to take possession of the fort. Completing the final inventory of goods and supplies, and shutting down the ongoing operations and activities was not complete until October 24th, 1838 at which time Baker and the remaining employees received their final wages.
Baker must have impressed William Bent with his experience and abilities because he subsequently entered the employ of the Bent, St. Vrain & Co. During the winter of 1838-1839 Baker was on the North Platte River trading with the Cheyenne Indians.
On April 1, 1839 Baker wrote to his former employers, Sarpy and Fraeb, that he anticipated returning to St. Louis sometime in the following year, and that he would return the Fort Jackson ledger books at that time.
By the autumn of 1839 Baker was leading a party of Bent, St. Vrain & Co trappers and hunters in the area around Brown’s Hole (now far northwestern Colorado). The men intended to winter at Brown’s Hole, but the area proved to be unsafe for the party Baker was leading. The party had battled with Sioux Indians in September, and later in November the Sioux ran off about 150 horses. On January 24th, 1840 Bakers party departed Brown’s Hole retreating to the relative safety of the forts along the South Platte. The party suffered extreme hardships in making a mid-winter crossing of the Rocky Mountains, including eating most of their remaining horses. The party reached Fort Lookout on April 24th, 1840.
From this point on Abel Baker, Jr. disappears from the historical record. Likely he proceeded down to Bent’s Fort, and from that point joined one of the company wagon trains traveling back to St. Louis along the Santa Fe Trail.
For more information about Abel Baker, Jr. see also;
Abel Baker, Jr., by Janet Lecompte in The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Volume I; edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published by The Arthur H Clark Company, Glendale, California, 1966, pages 199-204.