Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

William W McGaa (aka Jack Jones):

William McGaa is better known as one of the founders of the city of Denver than as a mountain man.  Little is known of his early life.  He was probably born in 1822. According to his obituary in the December 18, 1867 Rocky Mountain News, he was 45 years old at the time of his death on December 15, 1867.  The "News" obituary also stated he was a "companion of Beckwourth, Bridger and other mountaineers of less note."  

McGaa was probably a trapper for some time before he became an Indian trader. By the summer of 1858 McGaa was in partnership with "Blackfoot" John Smith. The two men had a large stock of Indian trade goods which they were trading at a location near the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River.  At the time both men were probably trading for Elbridge Gerry (Lavender 1954). By this time John Smith had had a long association with the Bent and St. Vrain Company working out of Bent’s Fort, and it is quite possible that McGaa had also been earlier employed with that company.

On September 24th, 1858, McGaa and Smith were joined by six gold prospectors in organizing the St. Charles Town Company at the mouth of Cherry Creek. Almost immediately most of the prospectors decamped for other locations.  Soon thereafter another party of prospectors arrived and convinced McGaa and Smith to join them in organizing the town of Auraria on the west side of Cherry Creek. Then on November 16th, 1858 another party under William Larimer arrived and convinced McGaa and Smith to join them in organizing the Denver Town Company.  

Fitzpatrick had made a treaty in 1851 which expressly reserved lands north of the Arkansas River for the Sioux, Arapahoe and Cheyenne Indians.  This included the area of the townsites which were being organized.  Legally the prospectors were not entitled to own land, settle or organize towns within this area. Apparently the prospectors recognized this and involved McGaa and Smith in organizing the townsites hoping that the Indian traders would be able to minimize problems with the Indians (Lavender, 1954).  

Sometime before the arrival of the gold prospectors, McGaa had married the daughter of white Indian trader John Adams and an Ogallala Sioux mother.  On March 18, 1859, McGaa and his wife had a son, the first child born in Denver. The boy was named William Denver McGaa.  

Due to his efforts in organizing, settling and promoting the town of Denver, McGaa had a street named after him.  McGaa Street was located between Larimer and Blake Streets in what is now downtown Denver.

By the 1860's McGaa and his wife were mostly living in Laporte (west of present day Fort Collins) where a number of other trappers with their Indian wives had congregated.  McGaa continued to make visits to Denver, where he often proceeded to get inebriated.  Eventually the residents of Denver became so disgusted with McGaa's drunken behavior that they renamed his street to Holladay, after a local stage coach company owner (the street was later again renamed Market Street).  

McGaa continued his drunken ways, and after one extended bout, he was placed in the town jail to sober up.  The town jail at the time was a miserable, poorly ventilated, old building.  That night, December 15, 1867, McGaa died while in jail at the age of 45.  

During most of his years in Denver, William McGaa was more commonly known as Jack Jones.  Second hand stories explain the origin of the name as follows: McGaa had supposedly caused great embarrassment to his parents in England and was not welcome in their house.  He then traveled to America where he eventually came to the mountains.  

"After McGaa became prominent in the organization of the Denver towns and had acquired, as he supposed, considerable real estate, he though it a capital idea to write home [to England] to learn if his parents were still living and to let them know how he was prospering in America.  The letter was written on the printed letter paper of a prominent Denver business firm, and was to this effect; 'There is a bright young man in my employment here who says he is your son.  I have tried to get him to write to you, and as he seems determined not to do it, I concluded I would write myself and let you know his whereabouts.'  McGaa signed this letter, "Jack Jones."  In due time came a reply from England from John McGaa urging "Jack Jones" to persuade the young man to return home, as he would soon inherit the property of his parents, who were growing old and wanted to see him again.  "Jack Jones" was invited to accompany the young man to England where, the elder McGaa said, neither would ever want for anything."  (From Hafen Volume VIII).  However, although McGaa was commonly known as Jack Jones, this explanation of the origin appears to be fiction.  The 1860 federal census lists William McGaa as being born in Missouri. 

Most of the above information on William McGaa (unless otherwise noted) comes from:

The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Volume VIII; edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published by The Arthur H Clark Company, Glendale, California, 1966.   

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