Malachite’s Big Hole
William Tharp was born in St. Louis on July 20, 1817, the third of four children born to William Tharp and Eleonora Dubreuil Tharp. William Tharp’s maternal grandparents were Louis Dubreuil, and Susan Santous Dubreuil. Louis was a respected and wealthy merchant in St. Louis. Susan was also grandmother of Ceran St. Vrain. Thus William Tharp and Ceran St. Vrain were cousins, although Ceran was fifteen years older than William.
By at least the winter of 1841-42 Tharp had come west in the employment of the Bent, St. Vrain & Company where he worked out of Bent's Fort (Fort William) as a trader to the Cheyenne Indians. In addition to his responsibilities as a trader to the Cheyenne, he regularly traveled with the wagon trains hauling the returns from Bent’s Fort to St. Louis, and fresh stocks of trade goods from St. Louis back to Bent’s Fort. During these early years his annual salary was $340.
By the winter of 1844-45 Tharp had struck off on his own and was now trading in opposition to the Bent, St. Vrain & Company. He apparently used El Pueblo, located about 70 miles up the Arkansas River from Bent’s Fort as the operational center for his trading company. Tharp’s typical method of doing business was to load a wagon with goods, and travel out to the Indian camps where he would conduct his trade. Will Boggs described Tharp’s operations at about that time as: “…a small log hut occupied by a man by the name of Tharp, who traded the Indians whiskey and sometimes he got a robe or two from some straggling Indian from the Cheyenne village, but his trade did not amount to much.” Obviously Tharp was doing much better than this because in the spring of 1845 he returned to St. Louis with 187 packs of robes and skins worth roughly (by my estimate) $6,500. Some of the whiskey dispensed by Tharp may well have been distilled by Simeon Turley of Rio Hondo.
During the winter of 1844-45 while at El Pueblo, Tharp probably met Joseph Doyle, a businessman living in Hardscrabble, a small community 30 miles up the Arkansas River from El Pueblo. Sometime in early 1845 the two men formed a partnership, to be known as Doyle & Tharp, to conduct trade with the Indians. The partnership was so successful on the South Platte River in opposition to Marcellin St. Vrain (younger brother of Ceran St. Vrain) of Bent, St. Vrain & Co, that by February of 1846 Charles Bent wrote: “Doile & Tharp have traded all thare goodes, so we have an open field for the ballence of the trade…” In spite of the apparent success of the company, the partnership was dissolved by the time Tharp took the winter returns east in the spring of 1846.
While in St. Louis, Tharp applied for and received a one-year license to trade at “the Big Timbers on the Arkansas river; on the Platte river about five miles from Cache la Poudre; on Horse creek north fork of the Platte river; and at Bayou Salade [South Park] near the headwaters of Arkansas river, with Cheyennes, Sioux, Arrapahoes, Eutaws and such other Indians as may frequent said places."
Tharp was partners in this new venture with A.G. Boone and Richard Pearson, and the company listed eight employees. Doyle meanwhile had formed a new partnership with J.B. Guerin. Because the trading licenses issued to both men were essentially identical, (Doyle’s did not include Bayou Salade, and Tharp’s did not specify El Pueblo), the competition between the two ex-partners must have been intense.
Sometime prior to 1846 Tharp was married to Antonia Luna of Taos with whom he had two children, Mary and James. Antonia Luna was described as a half-wit and was commonly known as “Antonio Fool.” Before marrying Tharp, she had lived in Taos for a period with Jim Beckwourth, followed by Kit Carson, who quickly abandoned her after she told him she preferred Beckwourth as a lover. In spite of Luna’s mental condition and history, Tharp was devoted to her and the children, often taking his family along with him on his trading ventures to the Indian camps.
In January of 1847 Tharp was trading with a Cheyenne Indian village then located at Big Timbers fifty miles down river from Bent’s Fort. He was residing here with his wife and family in an Indian lodge, where he was temporarily set up for business. At this time, Blackfoot John Smith assisted by Lewis Garrard, arrived in the village to trade. Smith and Garrard were employees of Bent, St. Vrain & Co.
Garrard was a seventeen-year old, who had come west for health reasons, as well as for adventure. Garrard maintained a wonderfully detailed journal of his observations and experiences. At the time they arrived in the Cheyenne village, Garrard’s single pair of pantaloons were completely worn out and he need buckskins for material to replace them. From Smith he learned that he could trade for buckskins from William Tharp. Here is what Garrard had to say about Tharp and his unexpected meeting with Tharp’s family: “Being in want of buckskins, I took my rifle, and, skirting the village, crossed to William Tharpe’s [sic] trading lodges. In the largest was the owner, reclining on robes and smoking, and judge of my surprise, when before me sat a fair-skinned woman and two children. She was the proprietor’s Mexican wife. When Mr. Tharpe was getting the buckskins, I could do no less than stare at his wife, and the other appendages of civilization, hanging around, in the shape of dresses, etc….”
Tharp returned to Pueblo in early April of 1847 with two prisoners he had ransomed from the Kiowa Indians. Ruxton (In wild life in the Rocky Mountains) states: “Tharpe, an Indian trader, who had just returned from the Cheyenne village at the "Big Timber" on the Arkansa, had purchased from some Kioways two prisoners, a Mexican and an American negro.” Ransoming prisoners from the Indians was not at all unusual for traders, however, the ransomed individuals were expected to provide labor in at least partial exchange for the purchase price.
Tharp returned to Pueblo where he was preparing the winter returns for shipment to St. Louis. He had made arrangements for George Ruxton to accompany his party. Tharp, however, was delayed in waiting for a trading party from the North Platte to arrive, and Ruxton went on without him.
On May 5, 1847 , Tharp left Pueblo with his wagons. He soon caught up with a train of wagons lead by Ceran St. Vrain and George Bent which were also proceeding to St. Louis. In the year 1847 the Comanche and Pawnee Indians were extremely riled by the passage of numerous large bodies of soldiers traveling along the Santa Fe Trail (the Mexican-American War was still being fought). The two parties combined forces for mutual protection against the Indians.
By May 27th, the combined wagon train had reached Walnut Creek, and had circled up that evening for protection as was usual. The following morning a herd of buffalo in the vicinity seemed to indicate that there were no Indians in the area and a number of men set out to make meat, including Tharp and Frank DeLisle. Before the hunters had gotten 300 yards from the camp, mounted Indians appeared, shooting at the hunters, cattle and wagons. The Indians may have been Pawnee as indicated in a second-hand report by Ruxton, however, there were Comanche in the area as well. DeLisle was able to hold off the Indians until rescued, but Tharp was wounded. Although Tharp continued to return fire, he was eventually overwhelmed and slain, his body scalped and mutilated before the Indians withdrew. Tharp and another victim of the attack named McGuire were both buried on the north bank of the Arkansas before the train moved on. Tharp was thirty years old.
For more information about William Tharp see:
The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. III, edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published 1965 by the Arthur H Clark Company.
There are also passages in the following which contain descriptions of William Tharp:
Ruxton, George Frederick. Wild Life In the Rocky Mountains. From edition by The MacMillan Company, New York, copyright 1916.
Garrard, Lewis H. Wah-to-yah and the Taos Trail; First published in 1850, new edition copyright 1955 University of Oklahoma Press.