Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

The Death of William Vanderburgh:

Warren Ferris provides an excellent description of Vanderburgh's death, and events leading up to it in his book "Life in the Rocky Mountains"

"On the 14th [October 1832] we descended from the hills, and encamped near this run, eight miles below the narrow, on a small plain, surrounded by the most imposing and romantic scenery.  During our march we had an alarm of Indians from some of our hunters; and myself and others went to ascertain the truth.  We proceeded, however, but a short distance when we found the remains of a cow [buffalo], just butchered, and evidently abandoned in haste, which satisfied us that the butchers had fled for safety or assistance.  We returned and reported the discovery to our partisan [Vanderburgh].  In the mean time a rumor was current that a party would go and ascertain more of the matter, after we should encamp.  Not doubting that it originated with our leader, previous to unsaddling, I went to him, and inquired if he thought it necessary for some of us to go.  “No,” said he, “for this reason; if there are many of them, and they are enemies, we shall see them soon enough; but on the contrary if they are but few, they are already far beyond our reach, in the neighboring mountains.”  I left him without making any reply, and turned out my horse; but observed him soon after in the act of re-saddling his own, which excited my curiosity to ascertain his intentions.  I therefore approached him, and was informed that he had again considered the matter, and though it best for some few of us to go, and gain, if possible, more positive information; as the trappers could not be persuaded to hunt when danger was apparent. Accordingly we equipped ourselves, and sallied out of camp one after another, where we collected to the number of seven, a short distance from it.  We proceeded up the river about three miles, and found a fire yet burning, near a cow evidently killed but a short time previous, and also perceived traces of Indians following a buffalo trail up along the margin of the river.  The neighboring hills were covered with vast herds of these animals that appeared to be quite unalarmed, and from these favorable appearances, we were confident there were not more than seven or eight Indians in the party.  We continued on about three miles further, directing our course towards the only dense grove of timber on this part of the river, where we were certain of finding them unless they had fled to the mountains.  About fifty yards from the river, we crossed a deep gully through which a part of its current flows, during the spring tides, and were carefully scrutinizing the grove, on which every eye was fixed in eager curiosity, watching each wavering twig and rustling bough, to catch a glimpse of some skulking savage.  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. Imagination cannot paint the horrid sublimity of the scene.  A thousand brilliances reflected from their guns as they were quickly thrown into various positions, either to load or fire, succeeded the first volley, which was followed by a rapid succession of shots, and the leaden messengers of death, whistled in our ears as they passed in unwelcome proximity.  At that instant I saw three of our comrades flying, like arrows, from the place of murder.  The horse of our partisan was shot dead under him, but with unexampled firmness, he stepped calmly from the lifeless animal, presented his gun at the advancing foe, and exclaimed “boys don’t run;” at the same moment the wounded horse of a Frenchman threw his rider, and broke away towards camp.  The yells of these infernal fiends filled the air, and death appeared inevitable, when I was aroused to energy by observing about twenty Indians advancing, to close the already narrow passage, between the two lines of warriors. Dashing my spurs rowel deep into the flank of my noble steed, at a single bound he cleared the ditch, but before he reached the ground, I was struck in the left shoulder by a ball, which nearly threw me off; by a desperate effort, however, I regained my upright position, and fled.  A friend (Mr. R.C. Nelson) crossed the gully with me, but a moment after he was called to return.  Without considering the utter impossibility of rendering assistance to our devoted partisan, he wheeled, but at the same instant his horse was severely wounded by two balls through the neck, which compelled him to fly; he yet kept his eye for some moments on our friend, who seeing himself surrounded, without the possibility of escape, leveled his gun and shot down the foremost of his foes.  The Indians immediately fired a volley upon him-he fell-they uttered a loud and shrill yell of exultation, and the noble spirit of a good and a brave man had passed away forever. Thus fell Wm. Henry Vanderburgh, a gentleman born in Indiana, educated at West Point in the Military Academy, and, at the time he perished, under thirty years of age. 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. 

The Frenchman, who was thrown from his horse, was also killed; his name was Pillou. 

I had not gone above two hundred paces from the ravine, before I heard Nelson calling for me to stop.  I did so until he came up exclaiming “our friend is killed!- our friend is killed! Let us go and die with him.”  Believing that I would shortly have to undergo the dying part of the affair, without farther assistance from the Indians than I had already received, I felt little like returning, and we continued our rapid flight.  The blood ran freely from my mouth and nose, and down my body and limbs; I became so faint that I reeled on my horse like a person intoxicated, and with extreme difficulty prevented myself from falling.  I gave my gun to one of my comrades, the three who first fled having now joined us, and succeeded in getting to camp, where I was taken down, and soon agreeably disappointed with the cheering intelligence that my wound was not dangerous, and I would shortly be a well man.  It was probed with a gun stick, by a friend who had some knowledge of practical surgery, and dressed with a salve of his own preparation, by which it healed so rapidly, that after the expiration of a month I felt no inconvenience from it." 

Fitzpatrick, the leader of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company brigade which was being followed by Vanderburgh's brigade and who had been desperately attempting to lose his competitors, has been accused by some historians of deliberately leading Vanderburgh and his men into an exposed position.  The Ferris account entirely refutes this.  According to Ferris, the American Fur Company men had stopped trailing the Rocky Mountain Fur Company brigade some two days prior to the attack. Furthermore, the American Fur Company men were well aware that there were Indians in the immediate vicinity, and they were also aware that they were deep in Blackfoot territory.  Thus Fitzpatrick cannot be held responsible for the unfortunate events of that day.  

Back to the Top
Back to William Vanderburgh
Back to The Men