Malachite’s Big Hole
George Nidever was born in east Tennessee in 1802. He was the third child of six sons and three daughters. As was often the case with frontier families, his family had difficulty setting down roots in any location. When Nidever was five years old the family moved to Boscombe County, North Carolina, and then nine years later on to the Moreau River area of Missouri. When he was 18 he joined a party scouting farm locations in the Six Bull River area north of the Arkansas River, but finding it was given over to Cherokee and other Indians they went on to the vicinity of Fort Smith. Shortly after this the entire family relocated to this area.
In 1828 George Nidever and Alexander Sinclair joined in a venture to raft cedar logs down the Canadian Fork and Arkansas River, and thence to New Orleans. The partners, plus some engaged men, spent nearly a year cutting logs and assembling the raft, only to have it run aground an break up.
After this unsuccessful venture both Nidever and Sinclair decided to take up hunting and trapping. In May of 1830 they joined a brigade of trappers forming at Fort Smith in a venture being promoted by John Rogers, a sutler at Fort Smith.
As envisioned by Rogers in August of 1829, the brigade was to number some 100 men, but the venture did not develop as planned. By the following spring only forty-two men had signed up to participate in the expedition. By a popular vote a gentleman named Colonel Bean was made bourgeois of the brigade. However, Bean’s only qualifications for this position was the honorific preceding his name.
The brigade set out from Fort Smith in early May, 1830. It moved up the Canadian Fork, and after passing the Cross Timbers, had a skirmish with Comanche Indians. Afterwards, some eight or ten men decided this was enough adventure for them and returned home. The remaining part of the brigade continued north to the Arkansas River, where it skirmished again, this time with a band of Pawnees. During the skirmish with the Pawnees, Bean hid himself. Afterwards he “was totally disregarded and hardly treated civilly...”. After the first difficulty with Indians ten men turned back and two were killed. Later Bean and others gave up on the venture and returned to Arkansas leaving only fifteen men from the original party.
By tacit agreement, Alexander Sinclair became the defacto leader of the remnants of the brigade. The party continued up the Arkansas River and then northward into South Park. Here they found plenty of beaver, but hostile Indians as well. After two men were killed, and winter snows began falling, they decided to seek refuge in Taos, Mexico. During the winter in Taos, a number of men deserted.
In March of 1831, the party of men set out to trap in the Colorado region. They spent most of the spring season on the North Platte drainage and returned to Taos in July with about 120 beaver skins. They set out again in September of 1831, again working the headwater areas of the Arkansas and Platte Rivers, before crossing the mountains to the Green River, where they went into winter quarters at Brown’s Hole.
In the spring of 1832, they trapped in the Green River basin where they met a party lead by Kit Carson. Trapping eastward to the North Platte River, they ran into yet another band of trappers, with whom they would join, headed to the 1832 Rendezvous at Pierre’s Hole. While at rendezvous, the Fort Smith trappers were described by Washington Irving as “a band of fifteen free trappers commanded by a gallant leader from Arkansas named Sinclair, who held their equipment a little apart from the rest.” This rendezvous would begin to break up around July 17th.
One of the departing parties under the leadership of Milton Sublette consisting of about 60 men were proceeding to the southwest and made about 8 miles from the site of the rendezvous before setting up camp. The following morning as the men were raising camp, a caravan was seen proceeding over the pass and down in to the valley. No alarm was given, because this was expected to be the overdue supply train under Lucien Fontennelle and Etienne Provost for the American Fur Company men.
As the caravan approached, it became clear that it was rather a large party of Blackfoot Indians (Actually Gros Ventre a closely aligned tribe). A disorganized day long battle ensued, joined by additional mountain men from the rendezvous. The Blackfoot Indians retired to a dense mass of trees in a swampy area, where they constructed a crude fortification behind which they effectively fought off the advances of the mountain men. A disorganized offensive effort against this fortification was led by William Sublette, Robert Campbell and Alexander Sinclair. During this encounter Sinclair was severely wounded and would later die. (For more about the Battle of Pierre’s Hole.)
With Sinclair’s death, the Fort Smith trappers trapped in the Northern Rocky Mountains. At the Rendezvous of 1833 George Nidever and a couple of others joined with Bonneville’s company where he became part of a brigade of men under the leadership of Joseph Walker. The assignment of this brigade was to cross the deserts of present day Nevada, then the Sierra Nevada Mountains and on into Mexican California where they intended to trap beaver, trade (or steal) horses and scout California. When Walker returned to the Rocky Mountains, Nidever remained behind in Monterrey, California.
Here Nidever met George C. Yount and the two men took up hunting sea otter along the California coast and periodically throughout the remainder of his active career Nidever was involved in sea otter hunting. During the war with Mexico 1846-47 Nidever did provide support to Fremont, though he never really became part of Fremont’s “army.” After gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, he got caught up in the prospecting fever, though never found much success at that. From 1860 to the time of his death in 1883 Nidever lived quietly in Santa Barbara still making an occasional otter hunt.
For more information see also
The Life and Adventures of George Nidever:1802-1883, edited by William Henry Ellison, University of California Press, 1937
George Nidever, by Margaret E Beckman and William H Ellison, in Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol I pages 337-354.