Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

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Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

John David Albert:

John David Albert was born in Hagerstown, Maryland in 1806.  During the War of 1812 his father enlisted in the military and was killed on January 8, 1815 at the Battle of New Orleans.  Albert was then orphaned when his mother died shortly thereafter.  Subsequently Albert was raised by an older married sister at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  No information is available regarding any education or occupational training he might have had during his childhood.

As a young man Albert found employment as a keelboat crewman on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  In 1833 he was part of a crew taking a keelboat from New Orleans to St. Louis, a trip which he later described as “the most laborious journey of my life…”

Albert spent the winter of 1833-34 in St. Louis where he undoubtedly heard many of the stories of adventure and fortune to be made in the fur trade of the Upper Missouri River basin.  In the spring of 1834 he went to the mountains with a party of sixty men.  The company affiliation of this party is not mentioned.  There were three parties departing St. Louis that spring by pack train.  Michael Cerré with a supply train for Benjamin Bonneville’s outfit, and Nathaniel Wyeth and William Sublette lead competing outfits to supply the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.  Cerré and Sublette’s outfits were much smaller than sixty men.  Nathaniel Wyeth’s outfit, reported as seventy or seventy-five men, included both missionaries and scientists. If limited to just employees it would have been very close to sixty men, therefore it is most likely that Albert was part of Wyeth’s outfit to the mountains that spring. Etienne Provost also lead a pack train with supplies for the American Fur Company trappers, but these supplies were shipped by steamboat up to Fort Pierre, and thence overland by pack train to the rendezvous.

For the period from 1834 till 1836 Albert remained in the mountains as a trapper, probably working in the region around of the headwaters of the Yellowstone and Snake Rivers.  At this time he is on record as having traded furs for supplies at Wyeth’s Fort Hall, and at American Fur Company posts.

Most of the winter of 1836-37 he spent in an Indian encampment near the confluence of the Cache la Poudre River and the South Platte River.  Snow was very heavy that winter and according to Albert reached depths of seven feet on the level. Albert reports “Our horses froze to death, and the meat kept all winter.”  When spring came, Albert and his companions walked approximately 200 miles to Bent’s Fort where they obtained horses.

In the spring of 1837 Peter Sarpy and Henry Fraeb formed a partnership with the backing of Pratte, Chouteau & Co. (which was still generally known as the American Fur Company) to trade on the South Platte River.  The partners erected an adobe trading post known as Fort Jackson.  Albert is listed as one of the employees here. He remained employed at Fort Jackson until October 1838 when the post was sold to Bent & St. Vrain Co. as part of a non-compete agreement between that company and the American Fur Company.  Albert received $124.52 at Fort George (Fort St. Vrain) where final reconciliation of the ledgers took place.

It was at this time that Albert decided he had had enough adventure and it was time to settle down.  He removed himself to the Taos Valley in the Mexican Colony of New Mexico and married a Mexican-American woman, the daughter of William Pope, another mountain man.  Here he took up farming.  In addition to farming Albert found employment at other types of work, including at Turley’s Mill.  The next ten years were largely quiet ones for Albert.

In 1846 U.S. military forces invaded Mexico, starting with New Mexico.  As the fighting swept deeper into Mexico, only token forces were left behind to maintain order.  Elements of the local population were extremely dissatisfied with the change in rulers and in January 1847 instigated an uprising known as the Taos Rebellion.  On January 19th, all American born residents in Taos, including Charles Bent, were slain if they hadn’t already fled the town.  At dawn on the 20th a mob of 500 Indians and Mexicans arrived at Turley’s Mill.  Albert was at this time employed by Simeon Turley and was one of the men besieged in the mill for two days.  Here is Albert’s account of the attack and siege as told to L.B. Sporleder later in life (this manuscript is in the library of the State Historical Society of Colorado, Denver).  

They commenced the attack on Arroyo Hondo by sending in to us a flag of truce, demanding our arms and ammunition and an unconditional surrender of ourselves.  I told the boys they could do as they pleased, but I knew their treachery would lead us to certain death in the end, and I was going to die with my gun in my hands, and not be murdered like a common dog.  

This was the turning point in the matter, and they all concluded to fight it out as best they could… We of the mountains had collected in the distillery belonging to Mr. Turley, a building of considerable size, and the only one in the place that was two stories in height.  The dancing Indian was within gunshot and I killed him.  Billy Austin stood close behind me, and when another man came to drag the body back, Austin shot him.  By this time my gun was loaded and I killed the third man.  Then a hurrah commenced and the air was filled with bullets from the guns in the hands of the men who had laid behind the top of the hill.  The bullets rattled against the house like hail.  There was not a window left in it.  Although we saw we were in a trap, we fought all day.  

When the sun was setting the Mexicans made a curious charge and set fire to the house we were in, and got under the walls of other buildings.  Soon everything was ablaze; the uproar of the yelling devils on the outside and the excitement of the men on the inner side was deafening.  We tried to escape by digging through the floor down into the granary.  The house was filling with Mexicans and everything was confusion.  (This was related by Albert to Sporleder many years after the fact. The firing of the compound and subsequent escape attempt occurred on the second day of the siege.)

Fortunately for me, in the confusion, I escaped from the house.  I don’t know how many shots were fired at me, but none took effect.  I had a bullet in my clothes, one cut off the brim of my hat, and another cut the band and I lost it from my head.  In the excitement I forgot my coat and was out in the world alone without coat, hat or friends, and with 140 miles of mountain roads between me and safety, in the winter time.  

My comrades behind me were all killed.  I was alone in a world of snow, with not a human soul on whom I could depend, and with no provisions and no hope of getting any unless I could kill some animal while I was traveling.  I never look back to the dark hours of that day and to my sufferings in the days following, but the devil gets in me bigger than a wolf…..

I traveled the entire night and reached little Red River just as the rays of the morning light were creeping over the Sierra Madre Mountains.  I thought I would freeze, it was so cold in the last hours of the night.  I arrived at Costilla about midday and at Indian Creek at the setting of the sun.  Here I took my first rest….

When the light of morning came I went to the trail and had not gone far when I saw two large deer standing near the trail.  I shot and broke the back of the largest.  As soon as I could I opened it and cut out a piece of liver and began to eat.  I had eaten raw liver and raw meat many times before without any inconvenience, but this made me sick.  I laid down upon the ground and snow with my head upon the dead animal, and for an hour or more suffered all the pains of death.  When that passed away I was as anxious to resume my march as ever.  

Fifty miles remained between me and the trading post at Pueblo, my nearest source of relief.  My appetite for venison broil was gone for the time.  I took the skin of the deer and wrapped it around my head and shoulders as a substitute for a coat, the hair next to my body.  It served a very good purpose.  Then, taking a small cut of venison, I continued on my journey.

George Frederick Ruxton, who recorded events shortly after they occurred at Turley’s Mill (in Wild Life in the Rocky Mountains) presents a different view of the siege, though not contradicting Albert remembrances.  Follow this link to see Ruxton’s description of the siege.

Albert finally reached El Pueblo, where he passed on the word of the rebellion and massacre in Taos and at Turley’s Mill.  The news quickly reached Bent’s Fort where a party of mountain men organized to return to Taos.  Before this party could arrive, the rebellion was put down by Colonel Price with military forces up from Santa Fe.

Subsequent to this adventure Albert remained in New Mexico and Colorado.  In the 1870’s he finally settled at Walsenburg, Colorado where he lived out the remainder of his life.  On April 24th, 1899 John David Albert passed away.


Most of the information in this biographical sketch is take from:

The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. II, edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published 1965 by the Arthur H Clark Company.

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Abert circa 1895

Image Courtesy of

Christopher Pesina