Malachite’s Big Hole
Alexander Sinclair was born about 1790, probably in Tennessee. Little is known of his early life, except that he became a very good shot with the rifle, and developed skills as an Indian fighter. An injury resulting in the loss of his toes and part of his left foot made travel afoot difficult for him.
In 1828 he was found at Fort Smith, on the Arkansas River near its confluence with the Canadian Fork. He was joined here by George Nidever in a venture to raft cedar logs down the Canadian Fork and Arkansas River, and thence on down to New Orleans where the logs would be sold. Sinclair, Nidever and some engaged men spent nearly a year cutting the logs and constructing the raft, only to have it run aground and break up. They then gave up on this venture.
Sinclair and Nidever decided to take up hunting and trapping and in May of 1830 they joined a brigade of trappers forming just above Fort Smith. This trapping venture was being promoted by John Rogers, a sutler at Fort Smith. In August of 1829, John Rogers ran a notice in the Little Rock Gazette which was strikingly similar to those run by Ashley and Henry in 1822 and 1823. The text of Rogers notice is as follows:
The venture did not develop as planned, but by the following spring there were forty-two recruits, including Alexander Sinclair and his younger brother, Prewett. Other members of the brigade included George Nidever, Job Dye, Isaac Graham, Jacob Leese, and Henry Naile.
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. The brigade up to this point was under the leadership of “Colonel Bean” an elderly gunsmith who was totally inexperienced in hunting, trapping or Indian fighting. During the skirmish with the Pawnees, Bean hid himself. Afterwards he “was totally disregarded and hardly treated civilly...”.
By tacit agreement, Alexander Sinclair became the defacto leader 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, Sinclair and about fifteen 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 parties under 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 tardy supply train under Lucien Fontennelle and Etienne Provost for the American Fur Company men.
As the caravan approached, it became clear that it was 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.
Again Washington Irving writes “They took the lead by turns, each advancing about twenty yards at a time, and now and then hallooing to their men to follow. Some of the latter gradually entered the swamp and followed a little distance in their rear. They had now reached a more open part of the wood, and had glimpses of the rude fortress from between the trees. It was a mere breastwork, as we have said, of logs and branches, with blankets, buffalo robes and the leathern covers of lodges, extended round the top as a screen. The movements of the leaders, as they groped their way, had been descried by the sharp-sighted enemy. As Sinclair, who was in the advance, was putting some branches aside, he was shot through the body. He fell on the spot. “Take me to my Brother,” said he to Campbell. The latter gave him in charge to some of the men, who conveyed him out of the swamp.”
Sinclair's wounds would prove to be fatal. Alexander Sinclair was about 42 years old. With his death, the Fort Smith trappers scattered, some to remain in the Northern Rocky Mountains, others headed for California. Alexander’s younger brother, Prewett would continue trapping for another decade. (Click here for more information about the Battle of Pierre's Hole.)
For more information about Alexander Sinclair see:
The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Volume IV; edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published by The Arthur H Clark Company, Glendale, California, 1966. Alexander Sinclair Chapter by LeRoy R Hafen.