Malachite’s Big Hole
John L Hatcher:
John L Hatcher was born in Botetourt County, Virginia in either 1812 or 1813. Little is known of his family or childhood. As a young man he left Virginia and joined a sister and her husband at Wapakonetta, Ohio. Here he was engaged in some aspect of the retail trade, but never found great success. After a few years of this he pulled up stakes, probably drifting to the west.
Little is know of Hatcher’s doings until 1835 when he turned up in St. Louis. Here he began a long association with the Bent & St. Vrain Company when he went west with one of the company’s wagon trains. During his early years at Bent’s Fort, he was involved in several attempts by the company to initiate trade with the Kiowa and Commanche Indians. Although he did live among the Kiowa for a while and was even adopted into the tribe, these efforts were ultimate unsuccessful.
By the mid 1840’s Hatcher was one of the company’s most able and trusted hunters and traders. At this time he had established number of cabins on the north bank of the Arkansas River (remember the south bank at this time is Mexico) between Bent’s Fort and El Pueblo where he resided when he was not staying at the fort.
Ceran St. Vrain, and through him, Charles Bent were finally successful in obtaining a land grant (Vigil-St. Vrain Grant) from the Mexican government of some four million acres in January of 1844. This area would eventually lie within southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. First the Spanish and then the Mexican governments granted these immense tracts of land to individuals who seemed able to establish colonies and promote agriculture. The ultimate intent was to increase the security of the northern colonies of New Mexico. In the spring of 1845 Hatcher and Tom Boggs were sent by the company to initiate farming and ranching operations on one area of the grant on Ponil Creek in what would become northern New Mexico. This first attempt at development was soon given up and by August Hatcher was back at Bent’s Fort. Here he briefly was associated as a hunter with Lieutenant J.W. Abert, 30 soldiers and Tom Fitzpatrick who were on an expedition to explore the Kiowa and Comanche country in what would become the Texas Panhandle. Hatcher and another company man, Caleb Greenwood, accompanied the expedition only as far as the company trading post know as the “Adobe Walls.” Hatcher, by his earlier association with the Kiowa Indians was able to secure a friendly welcome for the expedition amongst the Kiowas. Afterwards, Hatcher and Greenwood made their way without other accompaniment back to Bent’s Fort, generally traveling at night to avoid entanglements with Comanche warriors.
In June, 1846, United States troops were sent into Mexico to settle the Texas issue. Eventually troops were sent for military actions and occupation from Taos to San Diego and on down to Mexico City. Because of the area involved, the troops, particularly the occupation troops were spread thin. The occupation was not well tolerated, especially in Santa Fe and Taos. By July, 1846 the situation in Taos was so unsettled that Charles Bent sent Hatcher to Taos to escort his wife, her children, and her sister, Mrs. Kit Carson, back to Bent’s Fort, where they remained until the environment in Taos calmed.
In the mean time, William Bent had not given up on establishing farms and ranches on the land grant, especially as these could reduce the quantity of costly imported food items required by the fort and its staff. In September 1846, Hatcher led a party of 15 Mexican laborers and three wagons loaded with supplies to a site located on the Purgatoire River about 90 miles southwest of Bent’s Fort. One of the major projects was construction of an irrigation ditch. Only one and one-half miles of ditch had been constructed when George Bent collected Hatcher to accompany him on a horse trading expedition down into Old Mexico. The laborers returned to Taos.
In March of 1847, Hatcher was returning to Bent’s Fort from the trading expedition. As he was passing through the Ponil Creek Ranch, he ran into a party of 23 men, seventeen of who were company men, under William Bransford. One of the men in this party was the 17 year old Lewis Garrard, through whose journal much of what is known about Hatcher has been preserved (see Wah-To-Yah and the Taos Trail). It was early February, 1847 before it was learned at Bent’s Fort that Charles Bent had been killed in Taos on January 19, 1847, one of many Americans killed during the Taos Uprising. The small party of volunteers under Bransford was heading to Taos to help put down the uprising, avenge Charles Bent’s death and “to kill and scalp” every Mexican between Bent’s Fort and Taos. In spite of the bravado shown at the fort, the party moved very cautiously in the direction of Taos, fearing that the entire countryside had risen up, and that large armies of Mexicans were heading towards Bent’s Fort.
As a matter of fact most of the Mexicans the party did encounter as they traveled were employees of the Bent & St. Vrain Company and so by the time the party arrived in Taos, not a single Mexican had been killed or scalped. Hatcher, when he received the news of Charles Bent’s death wished to accompany the party back to Taos. However, he had urgent business to attend to at the fort. He borrowed a fresh mule from Lewis Garrard with which he quickly made the round trip to Bent’s Fort and back to the Ponil Creek Ranch.
Hatcher and the party then set off together for Taos. In the meantime the rebellion had been put down, and trials were being organized for the men accused of having murdered Charles Bent. One of the men on trial was accused of treason, of which Garrard comments “It certainly did appear to be a great assumption on the part of the Americans to conquer a country and then arraign the revolting inhabitants for treason.” Hatcher remained in Taos during the trials and executions. During this time he took responsibility as a guide and mentor for Lewis Garrard.
In the spring of 1847, Hatcher returned to the irrigation project on the Purgatoire River ranch which he had begun the previous fall. About 130 acres of land was irrigated, 60 acres in corn. However, Hatcher was forced to abandon the project by July when Indians ran off most of his livestock and threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave too.
With the Mexican War and subsequent occupation, there was an immediate demand by the military for anyone experienced and knowledgeable of the country, people and customs. Hatcher was one of the mountain men hired by the Army for this purpose, although Hatcher still managed to split his time between the Army and his responsibilities with the Bent & St. Vrain Company.
Late in 1848 Colonel Fremont attempted to enlist Hatcher as a guide in his ill-fated effort to cross the mountains near the 38th parallel. Hatcher, one of several mountain men who refused to act as guide, had warned of the dangers of traveling in the snow-bound mountains in a year in which the winter was proving to be exceptionally fierce. Fremont was at this time promoting a railroad route through the mountains, and he felt that a successfully crossing of the mountains in the winter would demonstrate the feasibility of the route. Fremont would eventually enlist mountain man “Old” Bill Williams at El Pueblo to act as guide.
Old Bill Williams agreed to accompany the expedition not so much because he believed there was any hope of success, but rather to minimize the loss of life. Ironically, Old Bill Williams would be one 13 who would die in the aftermath of the disaster.
During the late 1840’s and into the early 50’s Hatcher continued to work for William Bent, taking wagon loads of trade goods and supplies up to meet the emigrant wagon trains and gold seekers traveling to Oregon and California.
By the early 1850’s astronomical prices were being paid for foodstuffs and other basic commodities by California gold miners. Hatcher was one of a number of men who sought to profit by the situation. On January 29, 1853 he set out from Taos with about 15 men and a flock of sheep. They traveled up to Fort Laramie, over the South Pass, and thence on to California, arriving in Placerville in June 1853. Other prominent mountain men engaged in similar ventures at this time included Kit Carson and Lucien Maxwell and Dick Wootton. By December, 1853, Hatcher was back in Santa Fe. Here he continued to reside, finding employment in scouting and freighting along the Santa Fe Trail through at least 1857.
By the spring of 1858 Hatcher had apparently decided to settle down with a ranching operation in California. He traveled to Missouri where he purchased large numbers of both sheep and cattle. On his arrival in California in 1859, he purchased a ranch in the Sonoma Valley in partnership with Angus Boggs (Angus was a half brother of Tom Boggs with whom Hatcher had worked on the Ponil Creek Ranch in 1845). In spite of problems with wolves, the ranch was generally successful. Sometime prior to 1867 Hatcher sold out his interest in the ranch to Angus Boggs for $30,000 and moved on to Oregon.
In Oregon, Hatcher’s ventures fared poorly to indifferently and he sank into obscurity. There is no record in New Mexico of Hatcher being married, although 1880 census records in Oregon indicate that Hatcher had at least two sons, born 1853 and 1854, a time that he resided in Taos. Presumably his wife was a native New Mexican.
Hatcher died on his farm in 1897 or 1898. The Albany (Oregon) newspaper simply records “John L. Hatcher, another pioneer citizen, died this morning at the advanced age of 85.”
From the words of Lewis Garrard we get a glimpse of the man: “Hatcher had an inexhaustible fund of anecdote and humor, which kept his camp circle in a continual roar, and which rendered him always a valuable acquisition to any party. He was about the cleverest fellow I met; always cheerful, ready to hunt and do his duty; a good temper, with an occasional dash of impatience, quickly relieved, however, by a well-delivered, hearty, though harsh, exclamation; and an unerring shot. With a short ‘dudeen’ in his mouth, he would sit cross-legged by the warm coals, scintillations of wit pouring from his lips, his mirth-provoking countenance contorted in mockery of the poor butt of his jests, his keen gray eye half-closed with inward enjoyment. He was the beau ideal of a Rocky Mountain man.”
Lewis Garrard also preserved some of Hatcher’s speech which may be taken as typical of mountain men of the time. Here are a couple of examples:
Some times this child thinks of makin’ tracks for white settlement, but when he gits to Bent’s big lodge, on the Arkansa, and sees the bugheways, and the fellers from the States, how they roll their eyes at an Injun yell, worse nor if a village of Comanches was on ‘em, an’ pick up a beaver trap, to ask what it is - just shows whar the niggurs had thar brungin up - this child says - a little ‘bacca, if it’s a plew a plug, an’ Dupont an’ G’lena, a Green River or so, and he leaves for Bayou Salade. Darn the white diggins, while thar’s buffler in the mountains.”
“Him?” interrupted Hatcher, wishing to astonish the man, “that boy’s been everywhar. He’s stole more mule flesh from the Spaniards and ‘raised‘ more Injun har than you could tuck in your belt in a week!”
“How raise Injine hair? Like we raise corn and hemp to Callaway County, ur jest like raising hogs and oxens”
“Oh! You darned fool,” retorted Louy Simonds, “a long ways the greenest Ned, we see yet. No!” rejoined he imperatively, “when an Injun’s a ‘gone beaver.’ We take a knife like this,” pulling out his long scalp blade, which motion caused the man to open his eyes, “an’ ketch hold of the topknot, an’ rip skin an all rite off, quicker an’ a goat could jump!”
“What’s a ‘gone beaver’ stranger?” again spoke up our verdant querist.
“Why, whar was you brung up, not to know the meanin’ of sich terms-we’ud show you round fur a curiosity up in the mountains-let’s go fellers.”
We started to another part of the jail, but were stopped by a final question from our brave volunteer to Hatcher-
“Stranger! What mout your name be, ef I mout be so free-like?”
“Well, hos!” returned the questioned, “my name mout be Bill Williams, or it mout be Rube Herring, or it mout be John Smith, or it mout be Jim Beckwourth, but this buffler’s called John L Hatcher, to rendevoooo- Wagh!” A Mountain Man Tall Tale told by Hatcher and recorded by Lewis Garrard can be found here.
Although Garrard portrays Hatcher as rough in his speech, Hatcher was educated, had good handwriting and, when he desired, could speak excellent English. He was said to be perfectly at home in any company, ladies or desperados, a good story teller, and very sociable.
For more information on John Hatcher see the following references:
The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Volume IV; edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published by The Arthur H Clark Company, Glendale, California, 1966.
Garrard, Lewis H. Wah-to-yah and the Taos Trail; First published in 1850, new edition copyright 1955 University of Oklahoma Press.