Malachite’s Big Hole
Little is known regarding Antonio Montero, and as an individual he appears to be confused by historians with others of his contemporaries. Adding to the difficulties, his name appears in a number of forms including Matéo, Montano, Matara, Montaro, etc. Antonio Montero was born in Oporto, Portugal. The year of his birth, as well as his early history, and background are unknown. He was partially literate, so he did have some schooling. Also unknown are the circumstances of his emigration to North America and entering the fur trade.
The first documentary evidence of Montero is a letter of credit written at the Horse Creek Rendezvous of 1833 from Lucien Fontenelle to William Laidlow, both employed by the American Fur Company, for Montero in the amount of $260.25. This amount probably represents Montero’s wages for the preceding year’s work for the American Fur Company. That same day Montero signed over the letter of credit to Michel Sylvestre Cerré who was an employee of Captain Benjamin Bonneville at this time, perhaps to purchase personal goods and equipment for the coming trapping season. Montero changed his allegiance to work for Bonneville at this time.
Montero’s actions with Bonneville’s group during the 1833-34 season are unknown. Bonneville split his men, approximately 40 going with Joe Walker on an expedition to California, another group of men to trap along the Bighorn River, yet another group of men which accompanied Michel Sylvestre Cerré transporting furs back to St. Louis via the Bighorn, Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, and a small party of men Bonneville kept with himself while exploring in the area of the Wind River Mountains. Eventually Bonneville established his winter camp on the Portneuf River north of Soda Springs, from which he set out in an unsuccessful attempt to explore the Snake and Columbia River basins in the spring 1834. Bonneville rendezvoused with his men at Bear Lake in mid-June 1834. (This is not the Ham's Fork Rendezvous of 1834. Perhaps Bonneville intended to avoid the extremely competitive environment at the big "Rendezvous” this year.) After Bonneville’s rendezvous, Montero was put in charge of a brigade and directed to trap in the area of the Bighorn Mountains and then to move south and winter on the Arkansas River.
Late in the autumn of 1834 Montero sent messengers to Bonneville stating that he had trapped the region he had been directed to, but would winter where he was at, on the Powder River in the vicinity of some Crow Indian villages. Bonneville returned the messengers, along with some requested supplies to Montero, on November 17, 1834 . Bonneville directed Montero to rendezvous with him at the end of the June, 1835 at the confluence of the Wind and Popo Agie Rivers. (Again Bonneville would avoid the big Green River Rendezvous of 1835.)
It was during the autumn of 1834 that Montero constructed the post that would become known as the Portuguese Houses on the Powder River. Montero constructed the post several miles away from the Crow villages, both to be out of the immediate vicinity of Crow idlers and to avoid trouble with with the Blackfeet Indians, an enemy of the Crows (by being seen as not associating too closely with the Crow). The Blackfoot Indians did eventually find the post and spent some time harassing its inmates, but other than appropriating a few horses, were unable to cause other loss or injury.
The post appears to have been strongly built out of hewn logs and consisted of a number of buildings, surrounded by a strong picket wall. In later years Jim Bridger is said to have told a story wherein the post successfully resisted a siege of 40 days by Sioux Indians.
During the winter of 1834-35 Montero had charge of 50 men while at Portuguese Houses, some of whom were sent into the field to trap. During that same winter, Montero remained in communication with another of Bonneville’s brigades, headed by Joe Walker and in winter encampment about 150 miles west and south of the Portuguese Houses. In January of 1835 Montero traveled between the two camps.
And as directed by Bonneville, all of his men were assembled at the confluence of the Wind and Popo Agie Rivers by June 22, 1835. Within a few days Bonneville would head east to attempt to reinstate his commission with the Army (which had been lost because he had overstayed his leave), however, Bonneville did intend to return to the mountains during the summer of 1836. With this intent, he left two trapping parties behind to complete the fall hunt of 1835 and spring hunt of 1836. Joe Walker and Antonio Montero headed these trapping parties.
Bonneville did return to the mountains in the summer of 1836, where he probably met with Montero at Portuguese Houses and would meet Joe Walker's brigade at Popo Agie River. It was Bonneville’s intention to quit the mountains, and he was making arrangements to terminate his affairs with Montero and Walker after one more year of trapping.
The winter of 1836-37 was difficult for Montero at Portuguese Houses. About Christmas, Jim Bridger, who was then one of the partners in Fontenelle, Fitzpatrick and Company, a successor company to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, with about 300 men went into winter quarters in the neighborhood of Portuguese Houses.
Bridger’s men proceeded to wage a war of mischief upon Montero, in part based on a desire to cause injury to a commercial rival, and in part by a desire for revenge against Bonneville on account of his reported censure of Joe Walker for the poor showing during the California expedition (as reported by Washington Irving). According to a story related by Joe Meek (River of the West) “The appearance of three hundred men, who had the winter before them in which to do mischief, was therefore as unpleasant as it was unexpected; and the result proved that even Montero, who was Bonneville’s experienced trader, could not hold his own against so numerous and expert a band of marauders as Bridger’s men, assisted by the Crows, proved themselves to be; for by the return of spring Montero had very little remaining of the property belonging to the fort, nor anything to show for it.”
Also, in October of 1837, Osborne Russell and another man, named "Allen", also in the employ of Fontenelle, Fitzpatrick & Company, had been robbed of equipment, horses and furs by the Crow Indians. Lucien Fontenelle, through a show of strength, recovered most of the equipment directly from the Crows, but was informed that the Indians no longer had the furs, that those had been traded to “a Portuguese by the name of Antonio Montaro”. Fontenelle then proceeded to the Portuguese Houses where he confronted Montero. From Osborne Russell’s journal Fontenelle speaks “I immediately continued to the Cabins and asked Mr. Montaro what right he had to trade Beaver skins from Indians with white mens names marked upon them knowing them to be stolen or taken by force from the Whites? and asked him to deliver them to me which he refused to do. I then ordered him to give me the key to his warehouse which he reluctantly did I then ordered my clerk to go in and take all the Beaver skins he could find with your names marked upon them and have them carried to my camp which was done without further ceremony.” 1837 was not a good year at the Portuguese Houses.
By the summer of 1838 Montero was in St. Louis, but remained here only a short time before returning to the Portuguese Houses. Montero appears to have been involved in some kind of a dispute regarding property at this time. Joshua Pilcher, the newly appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs, wrote an order, dated September 2, 1838 , denying Montero the right to remain in Indian country. A portion of Pilcher’s order reads as follows: “Whereas Antonio J. Montero a man notoriously of bad character, and one capable of inciting the Indians to acts of mischief, and embarassing Such of our citizens as are lawfully ingaged in the trade or otherwise in the Indian country - has gone into the country without permit or licence and that too with the avowed intention of breaking upon a cache or deposit of Furs & Peltries belonging to one of our citizen…”
Somehow, Montero was able to redeem himself, because in 1839 Pilcher granted him a one year license which reads in part “with the Crows at Fort Antonio [Portuguese Houses] on Powder River; with the Sioux at Larames Fork of the River Platte, with the Cheyennes at the foot of the mountains on the South fork of the River Platte, or with any other Indians that may visit either of those posts.” Montero’s capital was minimal at $469.05. He took only twelve men with him on this, his last trading venture in the Upper Missouri River country.
By early 1841, Montero seems to be associated in some way with Bent’s Fort and for the next couple of years was active in northern part of the colony of New Mexico (then a part of Mexico)
He married Maria Francisca Vigil on August 9, 1841 , probably in Taos, and had two children, a daughter born in February 1843 and a son born in May 1845.
Montero’s time in northern New Mexico was contentious. During the early to mid 1840’s he was involved in at least two lawsuits with Charles Bent and appears to have had legal entanglements with Lucien Maxwell as well. The nature of these suits is unknown, but must have been quite serious. Montero won the first suite, and Bent was forced to pay a considerable sum of money to settle. Charles Bent won the latter suit and Montero was sentenced to prison.
The last known reference to Montero is in a letter dated February 23, 1845, from Charles Bent to Manuel Alvarez, U.S. counsel at Santa Fe, in which Bent writes that Montero “has run off God knowes where, but J.M Vigil says he has gone to joine the Texians” an allusion to the ongoing disputes between Texas and Mexico leading to the annexation of Texas by the United States.
With that final statement, “has run off God knowes where” Antonio Montero disappears forever from the record.
For more information regarding Antonio Montero see:
The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Volume V; edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published by The Arthur H Clark Company, Glendale, California, 1966.