Malachite’s Big Hole
William Craig was born in Greenbriar County, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1807. He received an education, and it appears probable that he may have attended a military school. When he was about 18 years old an event occurred which caused him to suddenly depart for the West. Either a man was killed in self-defense, or Craig beat a schoolmate and was expelled from military school. In either case Craig departed suddenly for St. Louis. This puts Craig in St. Louis about 1825, where he may have entered the fur trade. However, there is no solid documentation of Craig’s involvement in the fur trade until 1829, at which time Craig, Joe Meek and Robert Newell began their close friendship and association.
In 1829 Craig, Meek, and Newell probably accompanied William Sublette to the mountains to attend the Pierre’s Hole Rendezvous for the company of Smith, Sublette, and Jackson. While at the rendezvous, the men would have met the other partners in the company, Jedediah Smith and David Jackson. At this time Smith returned from his second, disastrous expedition to California. Following the rendezvous, Smith took a fur brigade, including Craig, up into the Madison, Gallatin and Yellowstone River country (near the present northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park.) Late in the year the brigade was attacked by Blackfoot Indians, and dispersed into smaller parties. By late December the parties had reunited and went into winter camp in the Green River valley.
It is not certain when, but sometime when living and traveling amongst the Nez Perce Indians, Craig, Meek, and Newell all took Nez Perce wives. Craig was legally married to his woman on July 6, 1838. This event probably took place at the 1838 Rendezvous and was officiated by missionaries traveling west under the protection of the supply train.
Smith, Sublette and Jackson fielded two brigades, which departed for the spring hunt on April 1, 1830. Jackson led one brigade west for a hunt in the Snake River country, and Smith led a brigade north into the Three Forks country. Although Craig is not documented as accompanying Smith, Meek and Newell did and it is probable that Craig was there as well. The Three Forks country was rich in furs, but dangerous, and had not been systematically trapped since Andrew Henry had been driven out by Blackfoot Indians ten years earlier. This year Smith’s brigade would have both a successful spring hunt and luck in avoiding Blackfoot Indians. The brigade returned in time for the 1830 Rendezvous at Wind River . While at this years rendezvous, the partnership of Smith, Sublette and Jackson would be dissolved, and its assets sold to a new set of partners organized as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
For the next two and one-half years it appears likely that Craig remained with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. By 1832 the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was in financial trouble, having gone deeply into debt to its suppliers, William Sublette and Robert Campbell. To make matters worse, the American Fur Company, would commence its efforts to dominate the fur trade in the Northern Rocky Mountains in this year, taking aim squarely on the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. After the 1832 Rendezvous at Pierre’s Hole, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company split into two brigades for the fall hunt. Milton Sublette would take one brigade, including Craig, west to the Snake River country, down to the Humboldt River and then back to the Three Forks country. The other brigade, led by Fitzpatrick went north into Blackfoot country. Fitzpatrick, in addition to the dangers of conducting a hunt in Blackfoot territory, had to contend with a brigade of the American Fur Company, led by Drips and Vanderburgh, who were shadowing every move made by Fitzpatrick’s brigade. The American Fur Company had two objectives: to learn the locations of the best hunting areas, and to spoil the hunt for Fitzpatrick. This high-stakes game of cat and mouse would end when Vanderburgh was killed in a skirmish with Blackfoot Indians. Warren Ferris, a trapper with the American Fur Company, provides a description of events immediately leading up to Vanderburgh’s death.
Both the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and American Fur Company brigades went into winter camp on the Salmon River, near present day Salmon, Idaho. Captain Bonneville and his fur brigade also joined them in this area. Later in the winter, all three groups moved south to the Snake River Plains where they camped near the future location of Nathaniel Wyeth’s Fort Hall. Following the spring hunt and Rendezvous of 1833, Craig, Meek and Newell joined Bonneville’s group. Bonneville had appointed Joe Walker to lead a brigade to California, ostensibly for the purpose of trapping beaver, but variously described as an expedition to steal Mexican horses, or to gather military intelligence regarding Mexican California.
After spending several months in Mexican country, and with conspicuously little success in harvesting beaver, Walker’s brigade returned to the Bear River area where they would rejoin Captain Bonneville. Their course took them eastward across present day northern Nevada. Due to a lack of water in that country, Walker’s brigade followed the Humboldt River, where Craig would pull off a memorable practical joke on Walker. (See Walker’s Plunge).
For the next two years there is little known of Craig’s activities. It is possible that he continued trapping in the northern Rockies with Walker. During the summer or fall of 1836, Craig settled down in Brown’s Hole (present day Northwestern Colorado ) where he formed a partnership with Philip Thompson and Prewitt Sinclair. Together they established a small post called Fort Davy Crockett for the purpose of trading with Ute and Shoshoni Indians. Wislizenus (reference) provides a description of Fort Davy Crockett in 1839: “On August 17th we reached Fort Crocket. It is situated close by the Green River on its left bank. The river valley here is broad, and has good pasturage and sufficient wood. The fort itself is the worst thing of the kind that we have seen on our journey. It is a low one-story building, constructed of wood and clay, with three connecting wings, and no enclosure. Instead of cows the fort had only some goats. In short, the whole establishment appeared somewhat poverty-stricken, for which reason it is also known to the trappers by the name of Fort Misery (Fort de Misere). The fort belongs to three Americans: Thompson, Gray [Craig] and Sinclair. The latter was at the fort, and received us very kindly but regretted his inability to offer us any supplies. For our store of meat was exhausted, and we had hoped to supply ourselves here with new provisions. But the people at the fort seemed to be worse off than we were. The day before they had bought a lean dog from the Indians for five dollars, and considered its meat a delicacy.”
With the decline in the beaver trade in 1839, many mountain men took to horse-stealing forays into Mexican California. Philip Thompson organized one such foray, except his party stole horses from the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Hall, and from Shoshoni Indians somewhere between Fort Hall and Fort Davy Crockett. When Craig, Meek, Newell and Walker heard of the theft, they intercepted the horse thieves, and by both cunning and show of force, retook the horses and returned them to their owners. This action was taken not just as an act of conscience. The Indians (just like the whites in reverse) tended to assign blame for acts of theft or murder to all whites, and therefore all whites were at risk until retribution was obtained. The horses were returned primarily to maintain peace in the country rather than as an act of justice.
Shortly after this incident the partnership between Craig, Thompson and Sinclair broke up. At the 1840 Rendezvous, the last of the mountain rendezvous, Craig met the missionary party of Reverend Harvey Clark and agreed to escort it to Fort Hall. After this Craig took up farming (in the present day Walla Walla area), first near Reverend Spalding’s mission and later ten miles further to the south. Although now a settler, Craig remained a friend with the people of his wife, the Nez Perce.
By the mid 1840’s thousands of wagon loads of immigrants were moving into Oregon and California. This was a time of relentless, crushing change for the Indians. Although Craig was not able to save their culture or their lands, he did prevent much bloodshed on both sides, and was perhaps able to obtain the best deal possible for the Indians that could have been had at that time. As the territories developed, Craig was active politically and civically. He remained involved in Indian affairs, and at various times served as Indian Agent to different tribes in the Old Oregon Territory.
Craig died of a stroke in 1869. He was survived at that time by his wife, one son and three daughters.
For more information about William Craig see:
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.
Beall, Thomas. Recollections of Wm. Craig, published in the Lewiston Morning Tribune, March 3, 1918.