Malachite’s Big Hole
Manuel Alvarez, like many other “Mountain Men,” does not fit the expected stereotype. He was well educated, fluent in English, Spanish and French, and a cultured gentleman. At various times throughout his life he was a successful merchant, free trapper, brigade leader, diplomat and politician.
Alvarez was born in 1794 in the village of Abelgas in Spain. Nothing is known of his life prior to his arrival in Spanish America at the age of 24 in 1818. In 1823 he obtained a passport in Havana, Cuba for travel to the United States and by 1824 had established himself with commercial interests in Missouri. In that year his name appears on an official permit along with eleven other traders, including Isadore and Francis Robidoux for travel to Mexico. Santa Fe trade had been opened about three years earlier and fortunes were being made in the trade of consumer goods to the Mexicans in Santa Fe and Taos.
The prospects for the Santa Fe trade were so favorable that in 1825 and again in 1826 Alvarez petitioned for citizenship in Mexico, and was ultimately accepted as a citizen. Until the late 1820’s he ran a retail store in Santa Fe, while making numerous trips back to Missouri to purchase merchandise for his business.
Sometime in the late 1820’s, the exact date and reason are unknown, Alvarez entered the fur trade as a trapper. By 1830 Alvarez had formed a partnership with J. Halcrow, and the two operated as free trappers in association with the P.D. Papin & Co. P.D. Papin & Co operated posts along the Teton and Missouri Rivers in opposition to the American Fur Company (AFC). Their chief post was Fort Teton. In December 1830, P.D. Papin & Co signed a three year contract with Kenneth McKenzie, essentially putting the company under the direct control of the AFC. Alvarez and Halcrow apparently switched their allegiance to the AFC, but continued to obtain their equipment and supplies at Fort Teton. In May 1831 the partners purchased horses, mules, traps, powder, knives, fabrics, needles, blankets, nails, kettles as well as other supplies prior to heading out for their spring hunt.
Where Alvarez and Halcrow trapped in 1831 and the winter of 1832 is unknown, but they most likely attended the Pierre’s Hole Rendezvous of 1832 affiliated with the AFC. The brigade leaders for the AFC at this time were Andrew Drips and William Vanderburgh and they were to be resupplied by Lucien Fontenelle by pack train from Fort Tecumseh. Due to delays in the supplies arriving at Fort Tecumseh, Fontenelle missed the 1832 Rendezvous. Vanderburgh and Drips were frantic while waiting for their supplies. Their competitors, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company had rendezvoused, re-supplied and packed out for the fall hunt. Vanderburgh and Drips set off to search for Fontenelle who they found nearby in the valley of the Green River.
Hastily re-supplying, Vanderburgh and Drips set off in pursuit of Thomas Fitzpatrick and Jim Bridger of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. The American Fur Company men had two objectives in following the RMFC men: to learn the locations of the best beaver country remaining in the Northern Rockies, and to spoil the hunt for the RMFC. Alvarez was one of the men in the Drips/Vanderburgh brigade. Eventually Drips and Vanderburgh called off the chase, and divided into two trapping parties to better exploit the streams in the area in which they found themselves. Alvarez was probably with Drips party. It was only days after AFC brigade split that Vanderburgh’s party was attacked by Blackfoot Indians and Vanderburgh and another man killed. (Warren Ferris gives an eye-witness account of the ambush and death of Vanderburgh)
Drips party and the survivors of Vanderburgh’s party eventually linked up for winter camp on the Upper Snake River in December, 1832. Several times during the winter of 1832-33 the Drips brigade relocated their camp. During the winter Drips party was visited by various hunters and trappers from the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and Joe Walker’s party of men (then working for Captain B.L.E. Bonneville).
Alvarez’ talents as an exceptional trapper, respected and strong leader, and geographically knowledgeable individual were recognized by Drips and on March 23, 1833 Drips placed Alvarez in charge of a brigade of 40 some men tasked with trapping on Henry’s Fork and east to the Yellowstone.
Alvarez was at the Green River Rendezvous (Horse Creek) of 1833 as an employee of the American Fur Company. Also in attendance at this year’s rendezvous was the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and Bonneville’s venture. That Alvarez had functioned successfully at a high level of responsibility in the previous year is attested to by the note for $1,325.98 issued by Lucien Fontenelle to Alvarez for “services rendered.” This was a vast amount of money at a time when $200 per year was considered a good living income.
The 1833 Rendezvous would mark Alvarez’ last year in the mountains as a trapper.
Even though he had been successful in the fur trade on multiple levels, Alvarez returned to his life as a merchant in Santa Fe in late 1833 or 1834. Although no longer an active participant in the trade he would still occasionally obtain furs and skins through his business dealings which he then sold to the successor companies to the American Fur Company, or to the Bent & St. Vrain Co.
Starting in 1839 Alvarez efforts were split between his commercial interests and politics. From 1839 to 1846 he served as American Consul to Mexico. This was all the more remarkable because he had not yet been accepted as a U.S. citizen, nor had he received the official permit from Mexico to function in this role. Following the Mexican-American War, Alvarez was active in the transition from military rule of New Mexico to civilian government. He was later prominent in New Mexico statehood efforts.
Manuel Alvarez died in Santa Fe in July 1856 at the age of 62.
For More information about Manuel Alvarez see:
Manuel Alvarez, by Harold Dunham 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 181-197.