Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Milton G Sublette:

Milton Sublette was born in Somerset, Kentucky, the second of eight children.  The date of his birth is uncertain, but was probably in 1801.  The Sublettes were descendents of French Huguenot refugees who first settled in Virginia in 1700. Succeeding generations of Sublettes migrated westward to Kentucky seeking the advantages offered by the frontier, those being land and opportunity.  In the fall of 1817, Milton’s family moved to St. Charles, a small community west of St. Louis. Within a few years of the move, both of the parents would die, leaving the care of the children to near relatives and the oldest son, William Sublette.

For the five Sublette sons, life in St. Charles was to be a training ground for frontier survival and existence.  There they were exposed to the hardships of primitive living, as well as the fur trader’s culture growing up around the Upper Missouri River.  Eventually four of the five Sublette sons would themselves participate in the fur trade.  

By the earliest 1820’s St. Louis and by proximity, St. Charles, would be the gateway to the trans-Mississippi West. To the southwest, lucrative trade routes to Mexican Santa Fe & Taos were being developed, while to the west and northwest a wealth of furs was being taken from the Upper Missouri River and Northern Rocky Mountain regions.  From St. Louis, wealth and empire seemed to stretch along the western horizon.

In 1821, William Ashley and Andrew Henry would form a partnership to exploit the fur resources of the Upper Missouri River Basin, and in 1822 and 1823 would field large expeditions to the mountains.  At least by 1823 both Milton and William Sublette would be in the employ of the Ashley-Henry partnership.

Prior to 1826 little is known of the activities of Milton Sublette.  He probably continued to work for the Ashley-Henry partnership, gaining skills as a trapper and trader.  By this time he would be described as a man standing well over six feet tall, large of stature, strong of arm, audacious and reckless of life and fortune – the stereotype mountain man.

In the spring of 1826 Milton Sublette was recruited in St Louis by Ewing Young to join a trapping venture to the southwest.  By September of 1826 Milton Sublette was engaged in trapping on the Gila River in a party under the leadership of LeDuke and Thomas L Smith.  During the course of the hunt, Coyotera Apaches ambushed the party.  In the ensuing skirmish, Sublette was hit in the leg, but was saved from death by Thomas Smith, who carried Sublette off to safety.  This injury would plague Sublette for the rest of his life, and eventually would be the cause of his death.

The trappers were driven back to the Rio Grande by the hostility of the Apaches. Here Ewing Young would consolidate his trapping parties into a single large brigade. In addition to Milton Sublette and Thomas Smith, Ewing Young’s brigade would include such notables as Isaac Williams, Ceran St. Vrain, John Rowland, Sylvestre Pratte, James O Pattie and Miguel Robidoux.  Confident with the combined fire power of ninety some rifles, Young lead the brigade back into Apache territory in search of beaver.   

Although the 1826-1827 season was moderately successful trapping beaver, it also proved to be quite dangerous.  Young’s brigade trapped up the Salt and Verde Rivers.  While in this area, Young, who believed in revenging Indian aggressions, set an ambush for the Apaches, and raided a village of Papagos Indians.  Young’s brigade then followed the Gila River down to the Colorado River where they passed near three Mojave Indian villages.  

Although Jedediah Smith and his party had spent a few days with these Indians peacefully several months earlier in the fall of 1826, the relationship between the Mojaves and Young’s brigade was extremely tense and unfriendly.  This may have been a result of Young’s general contempt for all Indians which he did little to conceal.  In any case, the trappers, anticipating trouble, forted up.  When the Mojaves did attack, sixteen Indians were killed.  The trappers then moved up the Colorado River unmolested.  However, the Mojave Indians followed the brigade, and four days later, in a night attack killed two trappers and wounded two others. The trappers then divided into two groups, one group responsible for trapping the streams and rivers, while the other group ranged the surrounding country to prevent further Indian attacks.

Young’s brigade followed the Colorado River up to its headwaters, then passed over the continental divide and followed the South Platte River to the vicinity of present day Denver.  Then they headed south to the upper Arkansas River where they again skirmished, this time with Blackfoot Indians.  The hunt being over with and seeking to avoid further trouble, the brigade headed rapidly south to the Rio Grande, and thence on to Santa Fe.

During the year that Young and his brigade were out trapping, the political situation in Mexico had changed drastically.  Strict regulations prohibiting trapping by foreign nationals were promulgated, and the former Governor, who had indulged the Americanos was replaced by a new Governor, Manuel Armijo, who was decidedly unfriendly to Americans.

As they approached Santa Fe, the trappers were made aware of the changed political/commercial environment.  The years catch was hidden in the village of Penablanca, while the trappers continued on to Santa Fe.  Somehow, rumor of the hidden furs must have leaked out, because Governor Armijo issued search and seizure orders, resulting in the confiscation of the packs of furs.

When returned to Santa Fe, the seized furs were found to be damp, and they were spread on the parade grounds of the local militia.  While the furs were drying, Milton Sublette inquired of Young, where his furs were.  Young pointed them out, and Sublette sprang forward, gathered them together and carried them off “before the eyes of the whole garrison.”  The Governor mobilized the garrison to capture the offender, but Sublette and the furs had disappeared.  Sublette would be the only trapper in the brigade to profit from this season.

After hiding out for the remainder of the summer, Milton Sublette joined in the expedition of Sylvestre Pratte and Ceran St. Vrain in the fall of 1827.  Thomas L Smith was also present.  The movements of this fur party during the 1827-1828 season are unknown, but were probably to the northwestward, both to avoid Apaches and Mexicans.  This expedition was moderately successful gathering in furs, although the dangers of the mountains would again take their toll.  Sylvestre Pratte died at Park Kyack (also known to the Mountain Men as New Park, today known as North Park, Colorado) on September 1, and was succeeded in command by Ceran St. Vrain.  Later, Thomas L Smith would be shot in the leg just above the ankle in a skirmish with Indians, probably in also in North Park.  The shattered leg would need to be amputated, most of which would be done by Thomas Smith himself.  His friend, Milton Sublette would complete the amputation.

After Pratte’s death, the party would move on to the Green River to winter.  In April 1828, part of the company decided to return over the mountains and down the Platte to St. Louis, however, they crossed the trace of a large group of Indians, and fearing an attack, most of the trappers directed their course back to Taos, which they reached on May 23 1828.  When the furs were sold, Sublette's share came to $919.07.

Rather than going to Taos, Milton Sublette probably continued on to St. Louis, because in the spring of 1828, he accompanied the party of Colonel Meredith Marmaduke to Santa Fe with trade goods.  While in the vicinity of the Arkansas River, they were attacked by approximately 200 Commanches.  That the party survived at all probably owes a great deal to the skill and long experience of Milton Sublette in fighting Indians.  

The Marmaduke party was in Santa Fe only long enough to acquire a herd of twelve hundred horses to take back to St. Louis.  Such a large herd of horses proved to be irresistible to Indians all along the trail.  On August 28, near the confluence of the Pawnee Fork and the Arkansas River, Commanches were successful in driving off over half of the herd.  The rest of the animals were driven on to Missouri without further adventure, arriving in late September.  

By early spring of 1829, Milton Sublette had entered the employ of his brother William Sublette, working for Smith, Jackson and Sublette.  Initially he assisted with the supply caravan going up to rendezvous.  (For more on the 1829 Rendezvous) After the rendezvous on the Popo Agie, Milton Sublette joined with Henry Fraeb and Jean Baptiste Gervais as company trappers.  During the 1829 season they would work the streams and rivers of the Bighorn Basin.  This association would set the stage for his participation as a partner along with Thomas Fitzpatrick, James Bridger, Henry Fraeb and Jean Gervais in a new firm, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, which would buy out Smith Jackson and Sublette at the 1830 Rendezvous for a sum of $16,000.   

Milton Sublette married an Indian woman in 1829.  By 1831 she had a child, and was traveling on horseback along with Milton Sublette during the hunt.  A second child was born in 1832.  Nothing is known regarding Milton Sublette’s wife’s name, tribe, or even her eventual fate.

Milton Sublette captained one of the company’s two brigades during the 1830-1831 season.  Sublette’s brigade was composed of about 80 men, included Thomas Fitzpatrick, James Bridger, and Joseph Meek.  This large brigade would travel deep into Blackfoot Indian country, where they would trap the Three Forks region of the Missouri River.

Although the new company would have a successful season, poor timing in ordering supplies would jeopardize the existence of the company.  There would be no trade goods or supplies at the 1831 Rendezvous for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company trappers because the new company could not get a man to St. Louis until two months past the deadline for completing the arrangements.  Consequently the supplies would be shipped out of Santa Fe, and would not arrive in the mountains until long after rendezvous was over.  As a result, it was necessary to track down the separate fur brigades in order to re-supply them.

In the fall of 1831, James Bridger and Milton Sublette, along with Joe Meek and about fifty other trappers worked the forks of the Snake River, before establishing their winter quarters in the same area.  At this same time the American Fur Company was intent on becoming a power in the Rocky Mountain Region. Although this company had immense resources in men and money, this company lacked “on the ground” experience in the Northern Rocky Mountains.  As a result, an American Fur Company brigade, under the leadership of William H Vanderburgh and Andrew Dripps, followed the Rocky Mountain Fur Company men all through the spring hunt, learning mountain trapping and geography from the experts, but spoiling the hunt for both companies.

At the 1832 Rendezvous, the partners of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company would propose dividing the fur country between the two companies.  Vanderburgh and Dripps resoundingly rejected the proposal, confident in the resources and staying power of the American Fur Company, and intent on driving all competitors out of the mountains.

This rendezvous would begin to break up around July 17th.  One of the groups under Milton Sublette, accompanied by Nathaniel Wyeth and his men, 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 supply train under Lucien Fontenelle and Etienne Provost for the American Fur Company men, which was tardy arriving to rendezvous.

As the caravan approached, it became clear that it was a large party of Blackfoot Indians.  A disorganized day-long battle ensued (Battle of Pierre’s Hole).  The battle was joined by additional mountain men, lead by William Sublette, riding out from the rendezvous.  There are conflicting accounts of this battle, though the results would be a small number of trappers killed or injured, and an unknown number of Blackfoot Indians killed.  The Blackfoot Indians withdrew from the scene during the night.

Following the breakup of rendezvous, a brigade of American Fur Company trappers continued to dog a brigade of Rocky Mountain Fur Company men under James Bridger and Thomas Fitzpatrick.  This high stakes game of hide-and-seek would eventually turn deadly when the brigades of both companies would be separately ambushed by Blackfoot Indians.  William Vanderburgh would be one of those who would die (See also The Death of Vanderburgh).

During the 1832-33 season, Wyeth would continue to travel with Milton Sublette’s party.  They would revive a business concept first tried by John Jacob Astor in 1810, that is trapping parties would come overland across the Rocky Mountains, and thence down into the Columbia River Basin, while supply ships would be sent to meet them at the mouth of the Columbia River.  In this way they hoped to gain a competitive edge on the American Fur Company.

At the same time, William Sublette and Robert Campbell were preparing to launch a direct attack against the American Fur Company.  The objective of William Sublette and Robert Campbell was a partition of the fur country, with them in control of the transmontane region, while ceding the Upper Missouri Basin to their competitors.  To accomplish this they would establish a series of forts and posts in direct competition with those operated by the American Fur Company.  William Sublette and Robert Campbell, in their capacity as supplier to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company again at the 1833 Rendezvous, raised their prices to levels such that the Rocky Mountain Fur Company would never be able to payoff its debts.   Less than one month after the breakup of the 1833 Rendezvous, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company would enter into a secret agreement with Nathaniel Wyeth to supply trade goods and supplies at prices far lower than those charged by William Sublette and Robert Campbell.  

During the fall and winter of 1833, Kenneth McKenzie, who was in charge of the American Fur Company’s forts on the Upper Missouri River would do everything possible to destroy the St. Louis Fur Company (William Sublette and Robert Campbell) as a fur trading outfit including offering as much as $12/pound for beaver.

Even still William Sublette and Robert Campbell remained fierce competitors to be dealt with.  During the winter of 1833-34, both Milton Sublette and Wyeth would travel to the east coast to obtain trade goods for the coming years rendezvous. While traveling, Milton would be troubled by an inflammation in his foot, almost certainly a result of his leg wound received in 1826 while trapping on the Gila River.  Although he would receive treatment, there would be little improvement, and his leg would continue to trouble him.

At about this same time, William Sublette traveled to New York, with the purpose of negotiating with the American Fur Company for the partition of the western fur country.  Sublette was successful at selling the St Louis Fur Company to the American Fur Company.  Most of the competing forts and posts owned by the St Louis Fur Company would be abandoned, and the American Fur Company would withdraw from the mountains for a year.  As part of this agreement, it would appear that William Sublette had assured the American Fur Company that the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was on the edge of ruin, and would go out of business within a year.  This final assurance was threatened by the secret agreement between the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and Nathaniel Wyeth.  William Sublette would become aware of this agreement when a letter intended for Milton was mistakenly delivered to William.

In April 28, 1834, Nathaniel Wyeth’s supply caravan would set off for the mountains with about 75 men, including Milton Sublette.  Milton would turn back to St. Louis after only ten days of travel because of the “fungus” in his leg, that made it impossible for him to proceed (Townsend, 1839).  William Sublette with a competing supply train left St. Louis on May 5th, seven days after Wyeth, but because of his long experience in running supply caravans to the mountains, William would pass Wyeth on May 12th.

Although Wyeth sent a message ahead to Thomas Fitzpatrick, one of the partners of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, to await his arrival, William Sublette forced the dissolution of the company due to it’s debts by arriving first.  By the time Wyeth arrived, there wasn’t much left besides resentments and hard-feelings. Wyeth would take his unsold goods on to the Snake River Basin where he would establish Fort Hall, which would eventually be sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Milton Sublette’s leg would continue to worsen (the problem was probably osteomyelitis De Voto, 1947), and in February 1835, Dr. Farrar would amputate Milton’s leg.  In the early 1800’s nothing could be done for the pain of such an operation, short of getting drunk or being knocked unconscious, and many, faced by amputation would chose to die of their injuries.  (See Glossary of Medical Precedures, etc-Amputations)

Not only did Milton Sublette survive, but he departed in the spring of 1835 for the mountains to continue his fur trade activities.  Milton Sublette was a partner in a successor company to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, known as Fontenelle and Fitzpatrick Company, which also included as partners James Bridger, Andrew Drips, Thomas Fitzpatrick and Lucien Fontenelle.  On August 7th, Fitzpatrick and Fontenelle returned to St. Louis to make supply arrangements for the 1835 rendezvous.

The main problem faced by the new company was they were dependent on the American Fur Company for supplies.  The American Fur Company, in its previous takeover of the St. Louis Fur Company had promised William Sublette that they would stay out of the Northern Rocky Mountains in 1835.  Through a complicated three-way deal, an agreement was made whereby Sublette-Campbell would sell Fort William to Fontenelle-Fitzpatrick with a percentage of the operations going to Sublette-Campbell.  The American Fur Company would send a supply train to the mountains, and Sublette-Campbell would cease sending supply trains to the mountains.

This would be William Sublette and Robert Campbell’s last trip to the mountains. From this time forward they would put their efforts into real estate and mercantilism in Missouri.  Thomas Fitzpatrick, accompanied by Milton Sublette left Bellevue on May 14, 1836 with a supply train for this years rendezvous.  This supply train included about 70 men, with 400 head of livestock, mostly mules, and seven wagons and one cart.

Dr. Marcus Whitman and his party of missionaries would accompany the train to rendezvous, but they wouldn’t catch up to the train until May 24th, in the vicinity of Loup Fork.  The Whitman party consisted of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Henry H. and Eliza Spaulding and William H Gray.  

Due to the rigors of the trail, and the reoccurrence of the “fungus” in his leg, Milton Sublette would not proceed any further than Fort William.  Here he would serve as the “majordomo” of the fort until he would succumb to the infection in his leg on April 5th, 1837.  Milton Sublette, “Thunderbolt of the Rocky Mountains” was dead at the age of 36.

To learn more about Milton Sublette see the following references:

A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific, by Robert M Utley, published 1997 Henry Holt and Company. 392 pages.  

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. Milton Sublette chapter by Doyce B Nunis, Jr.  

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