Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

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Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Fort Davey Crockett (Fort Misery)

Fort Davey Crockett was constructed in 1836 by three mountain men, William Craig, Phillip Thompson and Prewitt Sinclair (brother of Alexander Sinclair). The fort had been named in honor of Davey Crockett who had been killed earlier in 1836 by Mexican soldiers at the Battle of the Alamo. 

The Fort was located near the confluence of Vermillion Creek and the Green River in a broad open valley known as Brown’s Hole (Northwestern Colorado).  Brown’s Hole had long been a favorite wintering locale for Mountain Men and Indians because of the abundance of game, forage, access to water and relatively mild winters.  The partners were indifferent business men and they largely depended on outsiders for trade goods and access to markets.  They were probably supplied in part by traveling trading parties belonging to Fort St. Vrain and Fort Vasquez and they also traded directly with the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Hall.   

The so-called “Fort” consisted of a single, one-story building with three wings (E shaped) constructed of logs with a dirt floor and a dirt covered roof.  During wet weather, the fort and its vicinity turned into a mud-hole, and was commonly known amongst trappers in the area as Fort Misery.

Thomas J Farnham passed through the fort on his way to Oregon, arriving on August 12, 1839.  Farnham was impressed with the friendliness of the proprietor, even though supplies were non-existant.  Farnham writes “I enjoyed the lovely scene till near midnight in company with Mr. St. Clair [Sinclair]; and when at last its excitements and the thrilling pleasure of being relieved from the prospect of death by hunger allowed me to slumber, that gentleman conducted me to his own room and bed and bade me occupy both while I should remain with him.”  

A few days later F.A. Wislizenus visited and recorded the following observations in regards to the fort in his journal:  “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.”  

After the Rendezvous of 1839, many trappers traveled to Fort Davey Crockett to winter.  The men included Joe Walker, Joe Meek, Doc Newell, Kit Carson as well as others.  The previous season had seen a very poor harvest of beaver.  At the same time prices paid for beaver was dropping and the cost of goods and supplies was higher than ever.  Finally, rumors at the 1839 Rendezvous were that there would be no supply train or rendezvous in 1840 (In fact there would be one more rendezvous in 1840.) The trappers could see that their way of life was at an end, and the men were demoralized. 

Meek and Newell decided to form a partnership, intending to take their limited catch of beaver up to Fort Hall, purchase trade goods and then return to Fort Davey Crockett where they would trade with the Indians on their own account. Accordingly they proceeded to Fort Hall where they exchanged their furs for trade goods, mostly in the form of alcohol.  The two partners were back at Fort Davey Crockett just before Christmas, 1839. According to Meek:  “It was now Christmas; and the festivities which took place at the Fort [Davey Crockett] were attended with a good deal of rum drinking, in which Meek, according to his custom, joined, and as a considerable portion of their stock in trade consisted of this article, it may fairly be presumed that the home consumption of these two "lone traders" amounted to the larger half of what they had with so much trouble transported from Fort Hall” (Joe Meek: River of the West).

Under these bleak conditions a number of the trappers, including Philip Thompson, one of the partners, took to horse-thieving.  These men traveled up to Fort Hall and after a short visit there, stole fourteen horses from the fort and later, over thirty horses from friendly Shoshone (Snake) Indians. When the trappers and remaining partners at Fort Davey Crockett learned of the theft, they were outraged.  The outraged was not so much over the act of theft, as many Mountain Men had, or would in the future be involved in “honorable” horse-thieving expeditions to Mexican California, but who the horses were stolen from. The Indians (just like the whites in reverse) tended to place blame on all whites for disreputable acts by any individual of that group.  No whites would be safe in this part of the Rocky Mountains until the Indians had taken retribution for the stolen horses.  Joe Meek describes the theft of the horses and subsequent recovery as follows:  

To make matters more serious, some of the worst of the now unemployed trappers had taken to a life of thieving and mischief which made enemies of the friendly Indians, and was likely to prevent the better disposed from enjoying security among any of the tribes.  A party of these renegades, under a man named Thompson, went over to the Snake River to steal horses from the Nez Perces. Not succeeding in this, they robbed the Snake Indians of about forty animals, and ran them off to the Uintee, the Indians following and complaining to the whites at Fort Crockett that their people had been robbed by white trappers, and demanding restitution.

According to Indian law, when one of a tribe offends, the whole tribe is responsible. Therefore if whites stole their horses they might take vengeance on any whites they met, unless the property was restored.  In compliance with this well understood requisition of Indian law, a party was made up at Fort Crockett to go and retake the horses, and restore them to their rightful owners.  This party consisted of Meek, Craig, Newell, Carson, and twenty-five others, under the command of Joe Walker.  “The horses were found on an island in Green River, the robbers having domiciled themselves in an old fort at the mouth of the Uintee.  In order to avoid having a fight with the renegades, whose white blood the trappers were not anxious to spill, Walker made an effort to get the horses off the island undiscovered.  But while horses and men were crossing the river on the ice, the ice sinking with them until the water was knee-deep, the robbers discovered the escape of their booty, and charging on the trappers tried to recover the horses.  In this effort they were not successful; while Walker made a masterly flank movement and getting in Thompson's rear, ran the horses into the fort, where he stationed his men, and succeeded in keeping the robbers on the outside.  Thompson then commenced giving the horses away to a village of  Utes in the neighborhood of the fort, on condition that they should assist in retaking them.  On his side, Walker threatened the Utes with dire vengeance if they dared interfere.  The Utes who had a wholesome fear not only of the trappers, but of their foes the Snakes, declined to enter into the quarrel.  After a day of strategy, and of threats alternated with arguments, strengthened by a warlike display, the trappers marched out of the fort before the faces of the discomfitted thieves, taking their booty with them, which was duly restored to the Snakes on their return to Fort Crockett, and peace secured once more with that people.” 

After the horse-thieving incident, the partnership between Craig, Thompson and Sinclair quite understandably dissolved and by late in the summer of 1840 Fort Davey Crockett was abandoned.  The mud and log structure quickly fell to ruin and by 1844 when Captain John C. Fremont passed through the area he recorded that little was left standing. 

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