Malachite’s Big Hole
John Robertson (aka Jack Robinson)
Robertson is one of the few mountain men who found financial success in the mountains. He was careful with his earnings, and surplus funds were invested rather then spent. At one time he was reported to have had assets worth some $75,000 mostly in the form of real estate in and around St. Louis. Robertson was highly respected by all that knew him. Matt Field said of him “A noble fellow, highly estimated among the mountain men and all who know him.”
John Robertson was born in North Carolina sometime in 1805. When he was eleven years old, his family moved to Missouri. Although nothing is known of his childhood, he must have had a good education, based on his written communications over the years.
In 1831, then at the age of 25, he joined the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, first traveling to Santa Fe with Thomas Fitzpatrick. The year previous, Smith, Jackson and (William) Sublette had sold out their interests to Thomas Fitzpatrick, Jim Bridger, Milton Sublette, Henry Fraeb and Jean Gervais. The new company was named the Rocky Mountain Fur Company (RMFC). As part of the contract, Smith, Jackson and Sublette agreed to furnish and transport equipment and supplies for the RMFC to the mountains providing the partners sent an express down, probably on or before March 1st.
Fitzpatrick didn’t return from the mountains to St. Louis until mid-May 1831, long past the notification date. When Fitzpatrick arrived in St. Louis he found that Smith, Jackson and Sublette had decided to enter the Mexican trade, purchased their goods, supplies, wagons and animals and had already departed down the Santa Fe Trail. It was at this time that Fitzpatrick hired John Robertson. The men were able to catch up with the train, and Smith, Jackson and Sublette agreed to provide an outfit for the RMFC, but starting out of Santa Fe.
It wasn’t until July 1831 that Fitzpatrick was able to depart with the supplies for the mountains, about the same time the trappers were gathering in the mountains for rendezvous (See 1831 Rendezvous) The pack train Fitzpatrick lead traveled north up the Rocky Mountain Front Range till it reached the North Platte River and then took the usual route up into the mountains. By the time the supplies arrived, the trappers had dispersed to their hunting areas. It was left to Henry Fraeb to deliver the supplies to small groups of men scattered through the mountains.
Once in the mountains, Robertson remained with the RMFC trappers and wintered on the Salmon River in what is now northeastern Idaho. He attended the 1832 Rendezvous and afterwards was one of those that participated in the Battle of Pierre’s Hole. During the battle he was shot through the shirt, but other than that received no injury.
Robertson had had enough success as a trapper during the year that he was able to purchase necessary horses, traps and equipment, and had a surplus of $100. Rather than spend the money on alcohol and wild living, he entrusted the funds to William Sublette with whom he had apparently become a good friend. Sublette was to invest the money in land near St. Louis.
Robertson continued trapping in the Northern Rocky Mountains, but during the period from 1835-1837 he expanded his range to include the territories of northern Mexico (now parts of Arizona and New Mexico). The 1836-37 season was very successful for Robertson and he sent down an order for $1,000 for William Sublette to invest.
By sometime prior to 1839 Robertson had established himself as a trader, purveying goods and supplies to both Indians and trappers. In 1839 Thomas Farnham (reference) reports Robertson at Fort Davey Crocket. Although Robertson was not a partner in this post, he apparently regularly conducted trade at this location. Farnham writes in his journal, “Here also are the lodges of Mr. Robinson, a trader, who usually stations himself here to traffic with Indians and white trappers. His skin lodge is his warehouse; and buffalo robes were spread upon the ground and counter, on which he displayed his butcher knives, hatchets, powder, lead, fish-hooks, and whisky. In exchange for these articles he receives beaver skins from the trappers, money from travelers (sic), and horses from the Indians. Thus one would believe, Mr. Robinson drives a snug little business.”
In 1843 Sir William Drummond Stewart lead a large party of sportsmen-hunters and pleasure seekers to the mountains. Stewart, who had attended many rendezvous previously, was trying to recreate excitement and camaraderie one last time before he took up his duties as the Baron at Murthly Castle. Shortly after the party arrived at Stewart Lake (now known as Fremont Lake) they were joined by John Robertson, Miles Goodyear, their Indian wives, and a band of Shoshone Indians. Matt Field (reference), a newspaper reporter for the New Orleans Picayune, was a member of Stewart’s party. He generally refers to Robertson as Jack Robinson. Field writes this description of the camp which includes Robertson’s wife. “These Snakes, or Sho-sho-nees, threw up their lodges alongside of our camp, while the trappers did the same in close vicinity, and we did not part company again for nearly a fortnight. A busy trade time commenced, and after getting our skins from the trappers, we set the Sho-sho-nee girls to work tailoring up mountain dresses for us. Some of them were famous costumers, but the principal modiste and fashionable lady of the crowd was Madam Jack Robinson, the intelligent lady of one of the trappers. Her lodge was called the St. Charles Hotel, as it was the popular resort in camp, and in it we always found the best entertainment. Jack himself was a noble fellow…… Madam Jack was quite a leader of Snake fashions. The trappings upon her horse did not cost less than three hundred dollars, and the amount of beads and bells that hung about the saddle, bridle and crupper was really dazzling to behold. The greatest lady we saw in the Indian Country was Madam Jack Robertson.” What the “best entertainment” found at the St. Charles Hotel, was never specified. However, because Stewart’s party was largely composed of rowdy young pleasure seekers, the entertainment almost certainly included both gambling and probably the tender attentions of dusky young Indian maidens. It was during this camp that Field quotes Robertson with the following statement, “I should like to see the man to make me do what I don’t want to-that’s all I live for!”
Over his career, Robertson was very successful as both a trapper and as a trader. At one time it is said that he owned assets worth $75,000 mostly in St Louis real estate. In spite of his wealth, he preferred living in the mountains in the company of his Indian relatives. Robertson established a small community near which Fort Bridger would later be constructed by Jim Bridger and Henry Fraeb. From this location Robertson would pursue ranching operations. It eventually consisted of a few rough cabins and a number of tipis. Indians were always welcome, and at times there might be as many as several hundred camped at the community.
Robertson continued to live in the mountains until his death at age 80 in 1882. The commanding officer of Fort Bridger had a coffin constructed for him and he was buried in the post cemetery.