Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

John Hawken:

John (Christian) Hawken was born in 1810, probably at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He was variously known in the historical record as John Hawken, John Christian Hawken, John C Hawken, Christian Hawken, John Dawkins and John Hawkins.

He was the eldest of three children born to John Christian and Hannah (Long) Hawken.  Gunsmithing ran deep in this family as Hawken’s father, as well as four of his uncles were gunsmiths and rifle makers.  (Note, Scott & Scott, 1992 do not agree with Lecompte, 1966 regarding Hawken’s early years.  I’ve chosen to use Scott & Scott’s interpretation because they had access to sources not available to Lecompte.)

John Hawken’s father was employed as a rifle maker at Harpers Ferry Arsenal from the early 1800’s until his death in 1816.  Sometime between 1818 and 1820 John Hawken, who was then between 8 and 10 years old, was sent to St. Louis to apprentice under his uncle Jacob Hawken as a gunsmith.  Jacob Hawken was joined by his brother Samuel Hawken in the St. Louis business in 1822.  John Hawken apparently worked with his uncles until 1828 when the call of the mountains took him.  According to a newspaper interview given by Samuel Hawken in 1882, John Hawken went up the Missouri River in 1828 on an expedition led by Paul Anderson.

By 1830 Hawken was trapping with a fur brigade led by Jim Bridger.  During this time he was a frequent companion and accomplice with Joe Meek.  One adventure Meek and Hawken shared with an angry grizzly bear is recounted here as the “Three Bar’s.”  Meek in his book River of the West relates numerous other adventure shared with Hawken.   

Lecompte (1966) believes that Hawken may have returned to St. Louis in the fall of 1831, because he is listed by name on a trading license granted to William Sublette approved in the spring of 1832 to return to the mountains in that year.  At this time Hawken as well as other men in the brigade were to be paid at a rate of $14 per month for the first four months and then at a rate of $16 per month. According to Lecompte (1966), Hawken apparently trapped with Bridger until early 1837. 

In 1835 Hawken was one of the participants in one of numerous skirmishes between trappers and Blackfoot Indians.  A small party of men, including Meek and Hawken had fallen in with another party working for Nathaniel Wyeth, and under the leadership of Joseph Gale.  Here is Osborne Russell’s (reference) description of the meeting:  “9th [September] Crossed the Valley in a west direction travelled up a small branch and encamped about 3 miles from the river in a place with high bluffs on each side of us we had been encamped about an hour when fourteen white Trappers came to us in full gallop they were of Mr. Bridgers party who was encamped at Henry's Lake about 20 mls in a South direction and expected to arrive at the Madison the next day his party consisted of 60 white men and about 20 Flathead Indians. The trappers remained with us during the night telling Mountain "Yarns" and the news from the States. Early next morning 8 of them started down the stream to set Traps on the main Fork but returned in about an hour closely pursued by about 80 Blackfeet.”  

The trappers who fell back to the camp were so closely pursued by the Indians that the camp was nearly overwhelmed before a strong defense could be mounted. Gale’s men, who were poorly supplied and nearly out of ammunition, were of little help in this battle and took charge of the horses and camp goods.  Meek (in River of the West) names the following as in the forefront of the battle:  “Meek, [Kit] Carson, [John] Hawkins, [Joseph] Gale, Liggit, Rider, Robinson, Anderson, [Osborne] Russell, Larison, Ward, Parmaley, Wade, Michael [Mark?] Head, and a few others whose names have been forgotten.”  

The battle continued for most of the day and the remainder of Bridger’s brigade didn’t show up until the Blackfeet had already withdrawn.  Gale’s party, which had been substantially reduced in size by previous desertions and with the loss of horses in this battle could no longer present a credible defense if again confronted by Indians.  Because of this the Wyeth men joined with Bridger’s brigade for the remainder of the season’s hunt. 

In June 1836 Hawken, Kit Carson and Lafore arrived at Wyeth’s Fort Hall.  The men apparently need supplies.  Whether Fort Hall wouldn’t extend them credit because they worked for the opposition or the men didn’t wish to be indebted to Wyeth is unknown.  Instead Hawken worked in one of the fort’s shops for a few days practicing his old skills repairing guns.  On June 26, the men bought an assortment of merchandise, but returned most of it the following day before going on their way. 

In the spring of 1837 Pratte, Chouteau, and Co. (still commonly known as the American Fur Company) built Fort Jackson on the South Platte River a few miles north of present day Fort Lupton,  Colorado.  This fort was in direct competition with Fort Vasquez and Fort Lancaster (Fort Lupton) and shortly thereafter in competition with Fort George (Fort St. Vrain).  All of these forts were located along a sixteen mile stretch of river.   During the parts of two years that Fort Jackson operated (1837 and 1838) the fort was run by the veteran traders Henry Fraeb and Peter Sarpy.  Twenty-five men signed contracts to work at the fort during all or part of this period including John Hawken (listed as Jacob Hawkins). In general, wages paid to these men was less than $200 per year. 

By the winter of 1837-38 Hawken is reported to be back up on the Powder River with Jim Bridger.  Sometime during the period of 1839-1840, Hawken came “in for about a year.  In 1840, the Hagerstown Mail (Maryland) carried an article stating that John C Hawken was providing gunsmithing services out of the shop of his uncle, William Hawken.  

Like many other Mountain Men, Hawken apparently was unable to adjust to life in the States after living in the mountains because later in 1840 he appears in the records as an employee of the Bent, St. Vrain and Company working out of Bent’s Fort.  While in the employ of Bent, St. Vrain & Co, Hawken helped pack merchandise to Taos and furs and specie back to Bent’s Fort.  During this time he was often an associate of Dick Wootton.  In 1843 he was reported as trapping on the Gila and Salt Rivers with one other companion. 

In 1846 George Frederick Ruxton (Reference) met John Hawken living with his Mexican wife at El Pueblo, a small community of trappers located about 70 miles up the Arkansas River from Bent’s Fort.  Hawken’s Mexican wife had had her share of adventures.  She had been captured by Comanche Indians at Durango, Mexico, and later traded to the Kiowa Indians.  She may have spent six months amongst the Indians.  When given the opportunity, the Bent brothers and Ceran St. Vrain would purchase white captives from the Indians, and this woman was eventually bought from the Kiowa at Bent’s Fort (This wasn’t simply done as charity.  If the former captive didn’t have family willing to reimburse the ransom the former captive was required to provide an equivalent amount of labor for the fort).  

Hawken continued to live at El Pueblo till about 1848-49.  Documents and accounts at this time show that he would have known John Burrows, Edward and William Tharp, and Rube Herring while at El Pueblo.

In 1849 John Hawken moved with his family to California with several others under the leadership of Joe Walker.  In 1852 Hawken moved to a location on the right bank of the Merced River about three miles from its mouth. 

John Hawkens died in 1859, at the age of 49 years old, leaving behind his widow, three sons and four daughters.  

For more information about John C Hawken see:

Glenn R & Juanita M Scott; John Christian Hawken-Fur Trapper and Rifle Maker, 1992 Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2/3

Lecompte, Janet:  John Hawkins: in Hafen L.R. editor, The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. IV, 1966 published by The Arthur H Clark Co., Glendale, California. 

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