Malachite’s Big Hole
James Baker, usually known as Jim Baker, was a late comer to the fur trade. He is reported to have been tall and lean, in later years wearing a goatee and his reddish hair was allowed to grow long and hang in ringlets. He possessed unconventional habits, and like most mountain men, drank, swore, gambled, and was not shy about romancing the Indian women. He has been characterized as being unselfish, faithful to duty and was successful as a hunter, trapper, scout and guide.
Baker was born in Belleville, Illinois, on December 19, 1818. Baker had little formal education. As he stated to a Denver reporter in 1886, “I didn’t like to go to school, so I ran away and went into the employ of the American Fur Company. I enlisted for eighteen months.” (The Denver Tribune-Republican, July 10, 1886 as cited in Hafen, Volume III)
Baker is first documented as a participant in the fur trade commencing with the pack train going up to the 1838 Wind River Rendezvous in the employ of Pierre Chouteau, Jr. and Company (which was still referred to as the American Fur Company). Baker took the Steamship St. Peter upriver as far as Westport, where the company’s goods and employees were transferred to pack animals. The pack train left Westport sometime in April.
Andrew Drips lead the caravan this year, which was a large one with 75 men, 150 horses or mules, and two dozen or so carts or wagons. There were a number of missionaries this year, including William H Gray, Elkanah Walker, Cushing Eells, Asa B Smith and their wives. This would be the last trip celebrity mountain man Sir William Drummond Stewart would make to the mountains before returning to his native Scotland. The caravan arrived at Fort William on May 30th. The fort is still generally referred to as Fort William at this time, although references to Fort Laramie are beginning to appear in travelers journals. Lucien Fontenelle was in charge of the fort, and he would again this year accompany the supply train to rendezvous.
At the end of rendezvous, Baker joined a brigade of trappers and spent the remainder of 1838 and 1839 trapping and hunting in the Green River region. When his contract expired in 1840 he returned to his family’s home in Illinois. However, like many other mountain men, he was unable to readjust to life in the settlements.
In the spring of 1841 Baker returned to the mountains, first accompanying an immigrant wagon train led by Thomas Fitzpatrick. He stayed with the train until it reached the Green River where he joined a brigade of trappers under Jim Bridger.
At that time the Indians were considerably riled due to the large numbers of white immigrants traveling through their country. Bridger wanted to warn his partner, Henry Fraeb and Fraeb’s trapping party to abandon their hunt, and seek a safe location. Baker and two other men volunteered to find Fraeb. A few days after finding Fraeb, on the afternoon of August 21, 1841, the party was attacked by a large contingent of Indians including Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors. Baker described the battle to the Denver reporter in 1886 (The Denver Tribune-Republican, July 10, 1886 as cited in Hafen, Volume III)
“Shortly after I came out here a second time we were camped on the very creek where I live now – Battle Creek, Snake River we called it then (being located in what is now northwestern Colorado) – and there we had a lively fight with a party of about 500 Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahos. The Arapahos didn’t do so much fighting, but they urged the others on. There were twenty-three in our party, and I can give you the names of every one of them. Old Frapp (Fraeb) was in command. The Indians made about forty charges on us, coming up within ten to fifteen paces of us every time. Their object was to draw our fire, but Old Frapp kept shouting, “Don’t shoot till you’re sure! One at a time!” And so some of us kept loaded all the time. We made a breastworks of our horses and hid behind stumps. Old Frap was killed…”
When Fraeb was killed, Baker took charge of the party. The Indians were taking a disproportionate share casualties, and when darkness fell retreated from the scene. Three trappers including Fraeb were killed in the battle. When the Indians withdrew, the trappers hurriedly packed up and made for Bridger’s camp on the Green River arriving there on August 27th.
In 1845 Baker joined up with Fremont’s third expedition in the vicinity of Brown’s Hole. The expedition traveled into Mexican California, ultimately reaching Los Angeles. There, Kit Carson with a party of fifteen men which included Baker were sent with dispatches to the U.S. government back east. While on the return journey, the party encountered a military detachment under the command of General S.W. Kearney who took custody of the messages. Carson’s party split up and the remnants either returned to California, or returned to trapping in the mountains. Baker was one of the latter, probably returning to Jim Bridger’s fort.
During the winter of 1845-46 Baker was part of a party of trappers journeying into southern California on a horse stealing expedition. The trappers made off with about 4,000 head of horses.
Between the years 1841 and 1852 Baker continued to work off and on as a trapper or guide and scout for the U.S. Military, depending on opportunities. Also, during this time he became close with the Shoshone Indians, apparently embracing their customs, habits, and superstitions. In 1847 he was adopted into the tribe where he was known as the “Red Headed Shoshone.”
In the fall of 1847 Baker accompanied a large band of Shoshone on a buffalo hunt, leaving behind a camp occupied largely by women, children and old men. While the hunters were away, the camp was attacked by Blackfoot warriors. Many were killed, others were carried off as captives, including the Chief’s daughter. When the hunters returned, they immediately set off in pursuit of the raiders. Baker played a major role in the successful rescue of the captives. As a result he married the Chief’s daughter. Baker would continue to live among the Shoshone for the next two years. What became of this woman is not reported.
During one winter in the early 1850’s Baker and a group of trappers rescued a starving party of Sioux Indians. As a result of this rescue, approximately six months later Baker married an Indian maiden who was amongst the rescued Indians.
Baker settled in Colorado during the 1859 gold rush. He took up a tract of land under the Homestead Act and established a ranch and constructed an adobe house at approximately what is now 53rd Ave and Tennyson Streets, Denver, Colorado.
In 1865 Baker took a brief assignment as a guide and interpreter for D.C. Oakes, Agent to the Ute Indians in Middle Park, Colorado.
By 1873 Denver was becoming too settled up for Baker. He sold off his ranch and moved up to the Little Snake River, at a location northwest of present day Craig Colorado. On May 15, 1898 Jim Baker died.
For more information regarding Jim Baker see also:
Mumey, Nolie. James Baker in The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West: Volume III edited by Leroy Hafen 2001 edition.
Mumey, Nolie, The Life of Jim Baker: 1818-1898. Published by Interland Publishing Inc., New York, 1972. ISBN 0-87989-001-0