Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

William Vanderburgh:

William Vanderburgh early into his career proved himself to be adept at the business of the fur trade.  He was a natural leader, and was widely respected by his peers.  Had he not been killed in an ambush by Blackfoot Indians at a relatively young age, he almost certainly would have been recognized today as one of the outstanding individuals of the fur trade.

William Vanderburgh was born December 6, 1800, the fifth of ten children born to Henry and Francoise Vanderburgh.  He was born at Vincennes, Indiana Territory, where his father was a territorial judge.  When he was 12 years old his father died; subsequently his brother-in-law, Thomas Hempstead ,who was married to an older sister, was appointed as his guardian.  

Vanderburgh received some education while at Vincennes, and then starting October 13, 1813 attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  He was discharged from West Point on April 1, 1818, without having graduated.  No reason for his discharge was given, and it is unknown whether it was by Vanderburgh’s choice, or for some infraction of the rules.  

In the summer of 1818 he traveled to St. Louis where he visited his older sister and Thomas Hempstead.  Hempstead was involved with in Manuel Lisa’s Missouri Fur Company, and he used his influence to obtain a position for Vanderburgh with that company.  (Lisa’s second wife, who he married sometime after 1817 was Mary Hempstead Keeney, possibly Thomas Hempstead’s sister)  Initially Vanderburgh was employed at the company trading post at Bellevue where he was grounded in the business of the fur trade.  

Vanderburgh was apparently a quick learner and an outstanding performer because in 1821, only three years after he started working for the company, a new fort on the Missouri River about 12 miles above the confluence with the Knife River (in what is now N. Dakota) and named the post “Fort Vanderburgh.” The purpose of this post was to control trade with the Mandan Indians. Although a post at this location had great potential, subsequent events would cause the fort to be abandoned in two years.  In May 1823 the Missouri Fur Company suffered a staggering loss when a trapping brigade lead by Michael Immel and Robert Jones were attacked by Blackfoot Indians along the Yellowstone River.  Seven men were killed including both Immel and Jones, furs valued at $15,000 were lost as were all of the horses and equipment.  Also in May 1823 the Arikara Indians located in permanent villages south of the Mandan villages along the Missouri River turned back William Ashley’s fur brigade with fifteen men killed and another nine wounded on the beach below the villages.  Although the Arikara were subsequently evicted from their villages by a combined force of trappers, Sioux Indians, and U.S. Military (see Ashley for more details about this campaign), travel and resupply along the Missouri River had become vastly more dangerous.  Fort Vanderburgh was abandoned as the company retrenched following these losses.  In 1829 the Upper Missouri Outfit (American Fur Company) would construct Fort Clark in this same area, which would be a successful post until 1837 when the 1837 Small Pox epidemic decimated the Mandan population.  

Vanderburgh returned to Vincennes for the summer of 1824 to visit family and friends.  

When he returned to St. Louis he found that the Missouri Fur Company had not been able to survive it’s losses and had collapsed.  In 1826 a new company was formed to exploit the fur resources of the Upper Missouri River.  Partners in the new company included Vanderburgh, Joshua Pilcher, Charles Bent, Lucien Fontenelle, and Andrew Dripps.  Taking advantage of his early experience in the fur trade, Vanderburgh returned to Bellevue for the winter of 1826-27.  In September of 1827 the partners lead a fur brigade of about 45 men up to the Green River area where they wintered.  The following summer the men attended the Bear Lake Rendezvous of 1828.  Afterwards the company dissolved and all of the partners except Pilcher returned to Bellevue.  During the winter of 1828-29 Vanderburgh worked for Bernard Pratte & Company (the French Company) as a trader to the Ponca Indians.

It was at about this time that the Western Department of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company (the Western Department was managed by Pratte, Choteau and Company) bought out the Columbia Fur Company.  Most of the Columbia Fur Company personnel, including Kenneth McKenzie, were incorporated into the Western Department to form a new operating group known as the Upper Missouri Outfit.  In 1829 McKenzie built Fort Union at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers.  In April 1829 Vanderburgh was sent to Fort Union along with Andrew Dripps, Lucien Fontenelle and Joseph Robidoux to assist McKenzie with the trade at that important location.  

Up until this time the Western Department had been satisfied to trade for furs with the Indians from fixed posts along the Missouri River and its tributaries. The company now decided to field its own brigade of trappers in order to compete directly with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.  

Vanderburgh was chosen to lead a brigade of about 50 men from Fort Union.  In late July of 1830 the brigade set off for the Green River area.  By the beginning of winter the brigade was on the Powder River where they went into winter encampment.  Later in the winter fresh supplies and horses were brought out by Etienne Provost from Fort Union in preparation for the spring hunt.  

Vanderburgh’s  movements during 1831 are largely unknown.  He and his brigade spent the winter of 1831-32 at the southern end of Cache Valley so it may be inferred that they spend at least some time trapping in the vicinity east of Salt Lake.  Warren Ferris, (reference) who had come to the mountains with an American Fur Company party under Andrew Dripps, joined Vanderburgh’s party on March 23, 1832.  Ferris regularly recorded events in his journal, so from this time forward Vanderburgh’s activities are well known.  

From late March to April 25, 1832 Vanderburgh’s brigade trapped up the Bear River as far as Soda Springs, then crossed Smiths Fork, finally rejoining Andrew Dripps brigade of 48 men on the Muddy River.  From here the combined party would make their way to the 1832 Rendezvous at Pierre’s Hole in July.

It was intended that the combined Vanderburgh/Dripps party would be resupplied while at the 1832 Rendezvous by Lucien Fontenelle, by pack train out of Fort Union. The supplies and equipment were freighted by steamship up the Missouri River to Fort Union.  However, due to delays in arrival of the needed supplies, Fontennelle was late and Rendezvous was over before he arrived.  

As Rendezvous was gradually breaking up, a party of Rocky Mountain Fur Co trappers encountered a band of Blackfoot Indians (actually, Gros Ventre, a close ally of the Blackfeet) one day out from rendezvous.  The Indians were traveling with their women and children at the time and were not looking for a fight (Although previously this same band had been responsible for Fitzpatrick’s difficulties-See Fitzpatrick’s Blackfoot Adventure).  One of the trappers, Antoine Godin, who had a grudge with the Blackfoot, deliberately initiated hostilities, resulting in what is known as the Battle of Pierre’s Hole.  Messengers were sent back to the Rendezvous site seeking reinforcements for the battle. Vanderburgh was one of the men who subsequently participated in the battle.  

Since Fontennlle had failed to arrive at rendezvous with the needed supplies, Vanderburgh and Dripps brigades set off in search of the supply train.  The trappers crossed the Teton Mountains into Jackson’s Hole and thence on to the Green River area where they met up with the supply train on August 8 1832.  The meeting was brief and businesslike and four days later Fontenelle was on the trail back to Fort Union with the returns of the previous season.  

It was now the intention of the American Fur Company men to both follow their more experienced counterparts in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to the best trapping areas, and if possible to simultaneously spoil their hunt.  Vanderburgh and Dripps recrossed the Tetons in order to pick up the trail of Fitzpatrick and Bridger of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company who had proceeded north after the breakup of rendezvous with the intention of trapping in Blackfoot country. There followed a high stakes game of cat and mouse in which the Rocky Mountain Fur Company men eventually gave up any effort at trapping, simply trying to throw off Vanderburgh and Dripps.  The chase wound its way across both sides of the continental divide in what was then some of the most dangerous country in the northern Rocky Mountains.

When the chase reached the Three Forks of the Missouri River in the autumn of 1832 Vanderburgh and Dripps separated.  From here Dripps continued his pursuit of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company men, and Vanderburgh, with about 50 men set about trapping the beaver rich streams in the Three Forks area.  On October 6, Vanderburgh’s brigade encountered some trappers from the Rocky Mountain Fur Company who had managed to separate themselves from Dripps.  According to Ferris (reference) “They had caught but few beaver, and were several times alarmed by parties of Indians, who were lurking about them, but as yet no person had been injured.”  This exchange of intelligence suggests that although relations between the two companies may not have been cordial, the men were still on speaking terms.  The two parties camped in the same general area until October 11, 1832 when the Rocky Mountain Fur Company trappers raised camp and moved upriver with the intention of trapping its sources.  On October 12, Vanderburgh’s brigade raised camp and moved downriver.  

Two days later, as Vanderburgh’s brigade was moving camp, they discovered the remains of a freshly butchered buffalo.  Signs indicated only a small band of Indians was responsible.  The trappers encamped while Vanderburgh and seven other men (including Ferris) went out to assess the threat.  This party had proceeded about six miles from camp along the river.  As they approached a grove of trees, expecting an ambush, they were without warning ambushed.  Here are Warren Ferris’ words (Reference) “Suddenly the lightning and thunder of at least twenty fusils burst upon our astonished senses from the gully, and awoke us to a startling consciousness of imminent danger, magnified beyond conception, by the almost magical appearance of more than one hundred warriors, erect in uncompromising enmity - both before and on either side of us, at the terrifying distance (since measured) of thirty steps.”  In the confusion of the assault, every man saw to his own safety.  Vanderburgh and a trapper named Pilou were slain and others were wounded.  Here is Warren Ferris’ description of the attack and death of Vanderburgh.  

Of Vanderburgh, Ferris latter eulogizes;  “Thus fell Wm. Henry Vanderburgh, ….. Bold, daring and fearless, yet cautious, deliberate and prudent; uniting the apparent opposite qualities, of courage and coolness, a soldier and a scholar, he died universally beloved and regretted by all who knew him.

Several days later the trappers returned to the scene of the ambush.  Pilou’s body was recovered and buried, but no trace of Vanderburgh’s body could ever be found.  

In later years, others who did not participate in the events of that day suggested that the Rocky Mountain Fur Company men had deliberately lead Vanderburgh’s brigade into the ambush.  In my opinion these accusations are without basis.  That the country was dangerous there can be no doubt; but it was equally so for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company men as for the American Fur Company men.  The Blackfoot Indians were hostile to any invaders they found in their country, regardless of employer. Furthermore, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company had departed for the Blackfoot Country weeks before the American Fur Company men had received their supplies for the fall hunt.  Even if there had been rumor at rendezvous that they were to be trailed by the Vanderburgh and Dripps, the decision on where to conduct their fall hunt took place without an active pursuit in place.  The last encounter between Vanderburgh’s brigade and men of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company had taken place three days before the ambush.  And though relations between the two groups may not have been cordial, from the record of Warren Ferris, neither do they seem have been overtly hostile.  And finally, Warren Ferris, who was a participant in the events of that day in no way suggests that the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was involved.  Just the opposite, Warren Ferris shows that there was a series of decisions made based on observations and circumstances specific to that day that lead to Vanderburgh’s death.

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