Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Calvin T. Briggs:

Calvin T Briggs was born in 1808 at Brattleboro, Vermont.  Little is known of his early life.  In 1834 he was present in St. Louis, where he was hired by Nathaniel Wyeth, to accompany Wyeth’s company, the Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company on a trading expedition to the mountains.  Briggs was hired at the rate of $250 for an 18 month term of employment (that comes to $13.88 per month). 

Wyeth had previously made a “secret” agreement with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to provide supplies at rates lower than had been provided by William Sublette and Campbell.  Sublette and Campbell had a financial stranglehold on the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and the company owners were attempting to break free by using another supplier.  The secret agreement became known to Sublette and Campbell when a letter intended for Milton Sublette, one of the partners in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was mistakenly delivered to William Sublette (Milton’s brother).  In the spring there ensued a race between the supply trains of Wyeth and Sublette & Campbell for the 1834 Rendezvous, a race which was easily won by the experienced Sublette & Campbell.  By the time Wyeth arrived at Rendezvous, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company had been forced into reorganization, and the company refused to accept the goods that Wyeth had contracted to supply.   

Although Wyeth was able to trade some of his goods to Indians and free trappers, he was stuck with a larger than anticipated stock of supplies at the end of rendezvous.  Wyeth had intended to have a surplus of trade goods in order to establish a trading center in the Columbia River Basin. However, the loss of trade at the Rendezvous was a major disappointment. After the rendezvous, his party traveled to the Snake River Plain, where he established Fort Hall.  By  August 5, 1834 , work on the fort was largely complete.  Wyeth left a small number of men at the fort (including Osborne Russell) and continued on to the mouth of the  Columbia River where he intended to establish a salmon fishery.  Briggs was one of the men who accompanied Wyeth to the Columbia. 

In November, 1834, Wyeth sent a number of men under Captain Thing, including Briggs back to Fort Hall, where they arrived on Christmas Eve. There was much partying at the fort between Christmas and New Years, however, Briggs appears to have abstained.  His name does not appear on company ledgers showing any purchase of whiskey or rum during this time. Instead, the ledgers show that in January and February of 1835, Briggs was purchasing food and domestic items such as tea, sugar, soap, rice, needles, thread and vermilion.  It may have been at this time that he began his lifelong relation with a Shoshone woman. 

From April to October, 1835, Briggs was occupied as a hunter/trapper in the area around Fort Hall.  In October, his contract with Wyeth expired, and was not renewed.  For the next four months Briggs remained at Fort Hall, buying additional goods on credit.  In February 1836 he purchased $595.32 worth of trade goods and went into partnership with Moses Collins, Charles Schriver, and Alexander Wade.  The four men trapped and traded in the area to the north and west of Fort Hall.  The partners were not highly successful and when they settled with the company in June, returns were only $20.22 a man.  Later that year Briggs formed a new trapping partnership with Collins, earning $78.62 by October 7th, 1836.

As a free trapper, Briggs had been purchasing supplies at Fort Hall on credit (including $60 for a “Superior Rifle”) at the company store.  In order to pay down his debts, he commenced working for the Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company again on October 14, 1836, this time at a wage of $25 per month.  He continued his employment as a trapper/trader through the winter of 1836-1837.  In April, 1837, he decided to trap for himself again, this time with much greater success than previously.  By August, 1837, he had paid off his accounts with the company.  

During his three years with the Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company, Briggs had little to show, except for experience, the "Superior rifle," and a good friend.  A strong bond, starting in January 1835 was formed with John J Burroughs.  Their friendship was cemented when each married Shoshone Indian sisters.  These marriages were unusual in that both men kept their Indian wives and families with them when they returned to civilization years later. 

Briggs activities are uncertain for the next few years.  He was reported to have been to California, perhaps in 1837.  Dick Wooton reports that Briggs was trapping out of Bent’s Fort with a party of seventeen men, maybe in 1838 or 1839.  By June, 1840, Briggs was back at Fort Hall, now owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company.  

From 1843-1846 Briggs and Burroughs lived on the Arkansas River near El Pueblo.  While in El Pueblo, John Brown, a trapper and spiritualist, befriended Briggs and Burroughs.  One night Browns “Spirit Guide” warned Brown that he must stay with Briggs the following day or some tragedy would befall Briggs.  The following morning the men went out to hunt deer, and forgetting Brown’s dream, the men split up.  Soon Brown’s “Spirit Guide” warned Brown to return to Briggs.  When he found Briggs, Briggs was laying prostrate on river ice, unable to move.  Briggs had cut a small hole in the ice to check a beaver trap he had set some days earlier, and had gotten his own hand caught in the trap.  Unable to remove the trap from his hand, Briggs was unable to get his hand through the hole in the ice.  Briggs would have died here, had Brown not returned.   

Between 1846-1848 the men lived near Hardscrabble, approximately 30 miles up river from El Pueblo, where they continued to trap, as well as doing miscellaneous jobs in the community and nearby ranches.  It is almost certain that both men knew Marcelino Baca, who also resided in the El Pueblo and Hardscrabble areas at this time.  On December 10, 1847 the account book for Lancaster Lupton’s Hardscrabble store notes that Lupton paid “Biggs & Burrows” five dollars.  In 1849 both Hardscrabble and El Pueblo  were abandoned, and Briggs, Burroughs and Brown set out for California, arriving at Sutter’s Fort on  September 1, 1849, eventually settling in Sacramento.  

Four years later Burroughs returned to Kentucky with his family.  At this time Briggs began ranching and raising cattle, which he would do for the remainder of his life.  Briggs died in Sacramento in 1868 at the age of 60. 

To learn more about Calvin T. Briggs see the following references:

The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. 2, edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published 1965 by the Arthur H Clark Company.  

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