Malachite’s Big Hole
"Old" Bill Williams, M.T.
Old Bill Williams was one of those rare individuals who can be characterized as a Mountain Man’s Mountain Man. Standing 6 foot 1 inches tall, he was lean and sinewy, possessing unusual strength. He had blue eyes and red hair, and usually wore a full beard. He so excelled in the skills of the trapper’s trade, that he became legendary amongst his own peers. He marked his furs and skins “William S. Williams, M.T,” the M.T. standing for Master Trapper. And although sharp in his business dealings, he seldom could hang onto his returns for longer than a few days, being addicted to gambling, whiskey and the tender attentions of the fairer sex.
Although not averse to traveling and trapping with a party or brigade, he often preferred to work and travel alone. There were none who could exceed his ability to almost invisibly move himself and a string of pack animals through hostile Indian country. At times it would almost seem that he would “commute” back to Taos for the winter, no matter where on the continent the rest of his party went into winter encampment. He was fluent in French, Spanish, Osage, Navaho, and Ute as well as other Indian languages and dialects. He excelled in horsemanship, could walk long distances in extraordinarily short periods of time, was an expert tracker, and was an unorthodox and deadly fighter when necessary. He carried in his head a mental map of western rivers and mountain ranges which stretched from the British holdings on the north southward into Mexico and west to Oregon and Mexican California. At one time Williams prepared a series of sketch maps which were later incorporated into official maps of the West.
Wiliams was well educated, with some knowledge of Greek and Latin, widely read in fine literature, and had a good understanding of history, politics and religion. He would often combine his education and intelligence with an unusual sense of humor and propensity towards practical jokes. This reinforced his reputation as a character when those around him couldn’t distinguish between his personality quirks, his deeply held convictions and his odd sense of humor. With greenhorns he was known to assume a caricature of a “typical” Mountain Man.
William Sherley Williams was born June 3, 1787 in North Carolina. He was the fourth of nine children. His parents, Joseph and Sarah (Musick) Williams, were natives of Virginia. Sarah apparently had some education, and she schooled the children in the fundamentals of reading, writing, arithmetic and religion with some Latin thrown in.
In 1793 the Governor of the Spanish posts at the Illinois issued a proclamation encouraging settlers to move into the area. (The Louisiana Territory was still part of the New Spain ) Many members of the Musick and Williams families, including Bill Williams parents decided to move west at this time. Immigrating settlers under this proclamation could receive up to 800 arpens (also known as an arpent, this totaled about 680 acres) of land, providing they were willing to become citizens of New Spain. One requirement of citizenship was conversion to the Catholic faith. The Williams family were strong Baptists. How this requirement was officially met is not known, however, the Spanish Governor at the time was known to “overlook“ visits by protestant preachers to the area.
By the summer of 1795 Joseph Williams and his family were at a small settlement known as Owen’s Station, a community located about sixteen miles northwest of St. Louis. It was here that Joseph received his grant from the Spanish government on August 26, 1796 for 800 arpens of land located about four miles west of Owen’s Station and near the Missouri River. Various Indian tribes still frequented the area, including Osages, Delawares, Shawnee and others. From this farm all of the Williams boys would have learned the basics of trapping and hunting as well as the Indian customs.
1804 was the year in which the United States took control of the Louisiana Territory. With the change in government, came new freedoms of religion. Williams was 17 this year, which was considered to be a man, with all the freedoms and responsibilities that came with that. Coming from a religious household, Williams became a circuit preacher. In those times a person required no certification or training, merely needing to be “called” and to be able to get people to listen to his message. These were lean times for Williams. He received no pay for his efforts. At best he was given food, shelter, perhaps some clothing. After about five years of preaching he gradually turned his attentions to other pursuits. He had spent two winters trapping and hunting to improve his standard of living. He tried teaching with indifferent success. Finally he settled in with the Osage Indians, in part motivated by a desire to serve as a missionary to these people.
Bill Williams lived more or less continuously amongst the Osage Indians from 1803 till 1824. Williams did not have much success in his mission work with the Osage. Their religion was based on the Sun, Moon and other deities which could be seen, whereas Williams religion was based on faith in something invisible. During the time he spent with the Osage he became fluent in their language, was adopted into the tribe, married and had two daughters, Sarah and Mary. With time, he became influential in the tribe, especially in its dealings with the whites. Accompanying wide-ranging Indian hunting parties he developed a practical knowledge of the geography from the Northern Rocky Mountains to the Spanish settlements. Williams gradually came to have self-doubts about his Christian faith as he assumed the customs of his adopted people. As Micajah McGee, one of his friends later in life, put it “Bill laid aside his Christianity and took up his rifle.”
After the outbreak of hostilities between the British and Americans in the spring of 1812, Williams volunteered with a group of mounted rangers who were assigned duty in the area between St. Charles and along a stretch of the Mississippi River as scouts and spies. His service was brief and by December 1813 he was back at the Osage village. Jim Bridger also lived amongst the Osage Indians at about this same time, and it is almost certain Williams and Bridger would have known each other.
Fort Osage was constructed as factory on the Missouri River in 1808 to serve the Osage Indians. From at least May 13 1817 to June 30, 1818 Williams served as interpreter to George C Sibley, Indian Agent and Factor at the fort as well as preparing packs of furs for shipment and performing general labor. In July 1821, a sub-station of the factory was established about five miles from the mouth of the Marias des Cygnes River and near some Osage Indian villages. Paul Ballio was the factor at this post, and Williams was again hired to act as an interpreter.
Starting in 1820 Protestant and Catholic missionaries began working amongst the Osage Indians. Because of his years spent living amongst these people, Williams was now the most skilled interpreter of the Osage language and customs. He immediately became indispensable to the missionaries particularly the Protestant missionaries, to whom he provided services as an interpreter and translator, as well as providing practical information about their lifestyle and customs. By the end of 1821 Williams had produced a 2,000 word Osage-English dictionary, and was well along with a grammar study. The missionaries eventually published this as a book. Williams also translated portions of the Bible and some hymns into the Osage language.
The Protestant missionaries, however, were quite critical of the Osage customs. They found the eating of entrails (boudins to a mountain man) disturbing, and that these people “were given to idolatry” and their manners were rude and their habits of living far from clean. The negative attitudes of the missionaries were at odds with Williams own experience with the people he had adopted, which eventually led to his questioning his own Christian faith and a general disillusionment with civilization. Increasingly Williams became reluctant to be identified with the missionaries. To the missionaries he was perceived as becoming “selfish and perverse.”
By late in the summer of 1822 the Army was attempting conciliation between the Osages and the Cherokees who were then at war with each other. Williams served both Generals Henry Atkinson and Edmund P. Gaines as a guide and interpreter in this effort. Williams played a considerable role in reconciling the difference between the Osages and Cherokees, and a peace treaty was successfully negotiated.
At the Marias des Cygnes factory the position of interpreter was not demanding, allowing Williams plenty of time to pursue his own affairs and interests which included trapping. In December of 1821 Paul Ballio, factor at the Marias des Cygnes post, paid Williams $691 for furs and skins that he brought in and in the spring of 1822 an additional $307. This is at a time when $200 a year was considered a good wage. About this time the U.S. Congress abolished the factory system and it became effective amongst the Osage in mid 1822. As a result both Williams and Ballio lost their positions.
Williams and Ballio decided to become partners and set up their own trading post amongst the Osage. They established a post on the Neosho (Grand) River for the Indians and moved their families to a nearby Osage village.
The partners found the trade less rewarding then they might have expected based on their combined experience in the trade while at the factory. Both men had Osage wives, and because of this a large number of their customers were either friends and family. The partners found it difficult not to extend credit and as a result the venture was a loss. They closed the post and dissolved their partnership.
Williams gained from his experience at the Neosho Post, for by May 1824 he went back into the trade with a one-year license. This time however, he was trading with the Kickapoo Indians, with whom he had neither friends nor relations.
During the summer and autumn of 1824 Williams devoted considerable time as interpreter in a trial of five Osage accused in the murder of Major Curtis Welborn and four other men. Only two of the Indians were convicted and sentenced to be hanged. These two were subsequently pardoned by President John Quincy Adams five months later.
After the end of the trial, Williams traveled up to the Northern Rocky Mountains ending in the vicinity of the Hudson’s Bay Company Salish House (also known as the Flathead Post) in what is now northwestern Montana. During the winter of 1824-25 as a free trapper he accompanied a brigade of trappers under Jedediah Smith. The area Smith's Brigade was trapping was deep within territory claimed by the Blackfoot Indians and skirmishes were frequent and violent. It appears that due to the skills Williams demonstrated in trapping, hunting and fighting at this time that he was bestowed the title “Old” Bill Williams.
By May of 1825 Williams was back in the Osage village. Williams spent the next several months settling his business and personal affairs. On June 2, 1825 a land cession treaty was signed by the Osage and U.S. Government. One section of land was reserved for each of Williams daughters (his wife had died sometime before 1825), and at the request of the Osage, Williams received $250 for “credits given,” in part to make up for some of the losses he had sustained at the Neosho post.
On August 1, 1825, a military expedition under the command of George C. Sibley set out to survey and mark a trade road from Fort Osage to Santa Fe and to negotiate rights of way with different tribes through the Indian country. Williams was employed as “Interpreter, Runner, Hunter, etc. “ One of the other men employed by the expedition was Joseph Walker. Walker and Williams undoubtedly became well acquainted with one another as the expedition moved west. Since the expedition’s starting location was within the territory of the Osage, the first negotiations were with these Indians. The Osage met with the expedition leaders on the Neosho River at a place Sibley designated as “Council Grove.” (For years afterward Council Grove was the location where wagon trains traveling the Santa Fe Trail did their finally outfitting and shakedown) Williams probably played an important role in the negotiations because of his reputation and experience with these people. His signature is one of those found on the treaty documents. The expedition arrived in Taos on October 30th, 1825.
Not being content to wait in town through the winter while the military commanders treated with the local Mexican authorities, Williams was granted a leave of absence to trap on November 14. For his services he received $132.67 at a rate of $33.33 per month. It is not known where Williams trapped, but quite likely included locations along the Rio del Norte (Rio Grande) and Gila Rivers. Williams returned to Taos on February 24, 1826 , where he reported “good success,” in trapping. He immediately went on a drinking and gambling spree, a pattern which he would repeat consistently in the future after getting paid for his furs. When the military expedition was ready to leave on March 9th Williams had not yet ended his frolic and so his service with the expedition was terminated. Probably soon after his money ran out Bill Williams returned to the Northern Rocky Mountains where he rejoined his companions of the 1824-25 trapping season, possibly in the vicinity of the Great Salt Lake. Throughout the summer the brigade again experienced frequent skirmishes with the Blackfoot Indians.
By late summer of 1826 Williams was back in Santa Fe where he joined a venture with Ceran St. Vrain. St. Vrain, Williams and a party of 35 were given a license to “trade” by the Mexican Governor Antonio Norbona. The Governor must have suspected that the trading license was a deception, for the license specifically prohibited the party from lingering at any location to trap beaver. Once beyond the reach of the Mexican authorities, the party quite naturally went to work trapping in the Apache country north of the Gila River. The Apaches tolerated intrusion by trappers into their territory no better than the Blackfoot to the north.
While working his traps alone, Williams was captured by Apaches. The Indians relieved him of all his possessions, stripped him naked, and turned him loose in the desert, presumably to die. Before he could accomplish his captors purpose, he was found by Zuni Indians, who welcomed him into their pueblo, providing him with food, clothing and shelter. There is some question about whether Williams actually was rescued and spent time with the Zuni. The pueblo people were conspicuously isolationist, and not generally open to outsiders. After leaving the Zuni, Williams fell in with the Navaho where he may have spent most of the summer of 1827.
By early autumn of 1827 Williams had made his way back to New Mexico, where he joined a trapping party lead by Sylvestre S. Pratte with Ceran St. Vrain as clerk. The party was intending to trap on the Green River. As the party traveled northward, Pratte fell ill and died on October 1, in Park Kyack, also known as New Park, an intermountain basin bounded by Park Range and the Medicine Bow Mountains (today known as North Park, Colorado). St. Vrain assumed leadership of the party, and they continued on to the Green River where they wintered. The party broke up in April 1828, and most of the men, almost certainly including Williams made their way back to Taos arriving in late May.
Starting in the spring of 1828 Bill Williams apparently spent the next two years living and traveling with the Ute Indians in the Central Rocky Mountain region. During this time he became expert in the geography of the mountain ranges and rivers within the Ute Indian territory.
While in Taos, in the spring of 1830, he met Jesus Archuleta, who would accompany Williams, as a camp keeper and traveling companion on a number of expeditions. On this first trip the two men traveled up through the Bayou Salade (today known as South Park), northward into the Colorado River Basin, then eastward over the divide to the confluence of the South Platte and Cherry Creek, and thence southward ending at Bent’s Fort.
In September of 1832 a large brigade of approximately 75 trappers and adventurers, including Bill Williams, gathered about 27 miles south of Taos. At this time Williams was described by Albert Pike as “a man about six feet one inch in height, gaunt, red-headed, with a hard, weather beaten face, marked deeply with small pox….all muscle and sinew, and the most indefatigueable hunter and trapper in the world….a shrewd, cute, original man, far from illiterate” (Favour)
The brigade was assembled with purpose of trapping in Comanche country in the headwaters area of the Red River and Washita. The expedition was poorly planned and executed. No-one clearly knew the route. After much hardship and misdirection, the brigade eventually broke up without ever reaching the Red or Washita Rivers. Not a single beaver was taken on this hunt.
Williams returned to Taos in time to outfit for the 1832-33 trapping season. There is some uncertainty in the record as to where Bill Williams was in 1833. According to a letter written by Thomas Fitzpatrick to Milton Sublette on November 13, 1833, Williams was then acting as a guide to a party of about 20 men under Henry Fraeb, trapping on the Green and Colorado Rivers (Hafen Volume III- Henry Fraeb). Bill Craig (reference) recollects Bill Williams accompanying Joe Walker on his trapping/horse-stealing/spying expedition to California. This expedition left the 1833 Rendezvous in July and was out until about July of 1834. Williams could not have been in both California and on the Green River in the autumn of 1833.
I give far more weight to Fitzpatrick’s letter, being as it was a documentation generated in November 1833, then to Bill Craig’s recollections, which are actually a series of campfire stories told 20 or 30 years later and put together in a narrative form. Craig may have been partially correct though. Here is what I think may have happened. In July of 1833 when Joe Walker and his brigade left for California, Bill Williams was not a member of the brigade (although this was certainly the type of adventure that would have appealed to Williams.) By November of 1833 Williams was attached as a guide to Henry Fraeb’s trapping party on Ham’s Fork a tributary of the Green River. By early spring of 1834 Fraeb’s party had proceeded down the Colorado River as far as Bill Williams Fork (named for Bill Williams himself) in what is now Arizona. Here they met up with some of the men from Joe Walker’s expedition on their return from California (Victor). The two parties combined and traveled up the Moquis and Grand Rivers, through New Park (now known as North Park, Colorado) and then made their way again to Ham’s Fork for the Rendezvous of 1834. I believe that Craig is remembering Bill Williams from the time when the two parties combined.
Sometime prior to 1834, during one of his visits to Taos, Bill Williams took up residence with a Mexican widow and her three children. The woman’s maiden name was Antonio Baca. In 1834 the couple had a son who was named Jose.
On April 1, 1834 Bill Williams left on a two-man expedition (accompanied by his camp keeper and companion Jesus Achuleta) to explore the Mexican territory between the middle Rio Grand and the Pacific. The purpose of the expedition was to test stories he had heard regarding the “wonderful things” further west. The two men traveled at a leisurely pace about what is now New Mexico and Arizona. Before holing up for the winter they had visited modern tourist spots such as the Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon. They spent the winter of 1834-35 with a village of Walapi Indians. In the spring they rode west to the Colorado River where at another village of the Walapi they met a Franciscan Padre who dissuaded them from attempting to cross the Mojave Desert. From here they worked their way northward, finally ending up on Lake Couer d’Alene where they ran into a Hudson ’s Bay Company brigade. Here Williams outfitted to trap for the 1835-36 season and Jesus Archuleta worked as a cook in a hunters camp on Lake Pend d’Oreille.
Williams and Archuleta resumed their sightseeing tour in the spring of 1836. They toured the Clark ’s Fork, Hell Gate and Bitterroot Rivers, crossed the Rockies to Bozeman Pass and then down to the Yellowstone River. The two men spent the 1836-37 season trapping on the Yellowstone River, where they were quite successful. They took 600 beaver skins to the 1837 Rendezvous at the confluence of the Green River and Horse Creek. From here Williams and Archuleta returned to Bent’s Fort where they concluded their sightseeing tour of the west.
For the remainder of 1837 Williams appears to have done some work for Bent & St. Vrain, and some trapping on the lower Colorado River. Williams made an appearance at the 1838 Rendezvous on the Popo Agie. After this time the trade in beaver furs went into a precipitous decline, and Williams activities for the next several years are not well documented. He may have spent part of this time amongst the Ute Indians.
As the trade in beaver fur declined, many of the trappers turned to horse stealing in California. Many of these horses had formerly been owned by the Catholic Missions, but with the secularization of Mexico, ownership of the great horse herds was in left in doubt. The mountain men may simply have viewed this activity as simply gathering up semi-wild horses.
In the spring of 1840 a well organized brigade of men consisting of American trappers, French-Canadians, New Mexicans, and Indians raided the horse herds in the areas of San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, and San Bernardino. Bill Williams played a role in planning and organizing this particular raid. A total of some 3,000 horses were gathered up and then driven over Cajon Pass down into the Mojave desert and then along the Old Spanish Trail.
The raiding party maintained a hard pace as they were pursued by both Californios seeking to recover the horses and hostile Indians through whose territory they passed. More than half of the horses were lost or died before they had cleared the desert, and many more died along the trail. When they reached Bent’s Fort, it is rumored that Williams traded his share of the horses for a keg of whiskey and he, his friends, compadres and fort personal went on a wild drinking binge, after which Williams was no better off than he was before the raid.
In the fall of 1840 a small party consisting of Bill Williams, Kit Carson, Bill New, Bill Mitchell and a Frenchman named Frederick set out for the Green River country where they trapped before wintering at Brown’s Hole. Fort Davy Crockett, located in Brown’s Hole, had been abandoned earlier in 1840, however, it is probable that there were still structures remaining on the site and the men may have camped at that location.
In the summer of 1841 the party made its way down to Fort Robidoux where they probably traded their accumulated furs. After this the party made their way eastward to the Arkansas River basin. Here the party broke up, with Williams and Carson proceeding to Bent’s Fort. There is some disagreement as to the timing, but sometime between mid to late 1841 Williams and Carson decided to return to Missouri for a visit. Williams spent some of this winter visiting his daughter Mary, who was now married with a daughter of her own. The remainder of the winter of 1841-42 he spent with his elderly mother and his siblings in Gasconade and Franklin Counties, Missouri. During this visit he related this Blackfoot Adventure to his brother John and John's family.
Early in 1842, while in St. Louis, Williams formed a partnership with George Perkins, another experienced trapper to outfit a trading expedition to the mountains. Together they recruited six others and departed St. Louis in March for the mountains. Arriving in the general vicinity of Fort Laramie, they traded for furs and robes with Cheyenne and Sioux Indians. Shortly afterward, they ran into another trader, Louis Vasquez, who was hoping to trade with the Indians with whom Williams party had already traded. Instead Williams sold their accumulated furs to Vasquez for cash and a quantity of goods suitable for the Indian trade. This established the business model for the trip, that is trading/trapping and then selling the proceeds at the first opportunity for a cash profit. Leaving the vicinity of Fort Laramie, the party proceeded along the North Platte and Sweetwater up to the country east of the Wind River Mountains. This was within territory claimed by both the Crow and Blackfoot Indians. Williams party had an extended skirmish with war party of about a dozen Blackfoot warriors in which all of the raiders were killed.
Here the party encountered a band of Shoshoni Indians under the leadership of Washakie, an old friend of Bill Williams. The men learned from Washakie of other Blackfoot war parties in the area and of recent killings of both trappers and Shoshoni Indians. An offensive was planned by the united trappers and Shoshoni to drive out the Blackfoot. There followed a series of skirmishes and battles, in which the Blackfeet lost twenty-one warriors and many horses, while the trappers and Shoshoni lost a single warrior killed.
From here the party made its way to a fort operated by Jim Bridger at Black’s Fork of the Green River. While enroute, they were joined by another party of seven trappers, and the combined party was represented by Williams in the trade. They were paid partly in goods, partly in cash, and partly in St. Louis exchange. From Bridger's Fort they made their way down to Brown’s Hole from which they made trapping excursions into the Uintah Mountains.
About September 1, Bill Williams left the party, bound for Taos, promising to return the following spring to continue leading the trapping and trading expedition farther west. Williams apparently spent the winter in Taos. By early spring he was preparing to return to Brown’s Hole. In March 1843 Williams picked up traps and supplies at Bent’s Fort. Even though Williams had just had a very successful season, he was now broke. The supplies he acquired at Bent's Fort were obtained on credit.
By March 23 he had rejoined his companions of the previous year at a camp on the Green River. There were now forty-three men in the party, all except two who were hardened and experienced mountain men. They were about to head out on a two year journey that seemed to be more about maintaining a life-style, to hunt and trap and visit new places, then about increasing their wealth.
Much of 1843 was spent trapping and trading into the far northwest. From Brown’s Hole the brigade crossed the Uintah Mountains then worked their way northward to the Snake River, and then followed the Snake down to Fort Boise, a Hudson’s Bay Co. post were they sold their accumulated furs and robes. From there they went northward across the Blue Mountains to Camas Prairie (now known as the Grand Ronde Valley).
Here they were attacked by about 300 "bad" Bannocks. All of the trappers in this brigade were equipped with technologically advanced revolving pistols (probably Colt-Patterson) which vastly increased the firepower of the brigade. (Colt-Patterson revolvers were manufactured starting in 1836, and were used in the Seminole War in the early 1840's. However the Colt company was underfunded, and due to manufacturing difficulties the pistols were produced only in limited numbers. It wasn't until 1847 that the Colt-Walker revolvers attained any significant production volumes. However, William Hamilton confirms that the mountain men in this party had the Colt pistols in an entry in his journal published as My Sixty Years on the Plains where he writes "Our men with their deadly Colts told with terrible effect."
The first attack of the Indians was checked and driven back. The trappers immediately mounted their horses and counterattacked with such violence that the Indians were completely routed. Word of the battle and its results spread, and the brigade had no further trouble with Indians in the area.
From Camas Prairie the brigade proceeded at a leisurely pace to explore the John Day and Deschutes River country nearly up to the Cascade Range. They then directed their course in a southerly direction, coming to Upper Klamath Lake, where they established their winter quarters (Upper Klamath Lake is in SW Oregon).
Very soon after leaving winter quarters, in the vicinity of Tule Lake, the brigade encountered Modoc Indians. The first contact with the Modocs was most unfriendly and when offered the pipe said that they did not smoke with white dogs. Anticipating an attack, the men fortified their encampment. The Indians did attack and were most determined, but were no match for the combined firepower of forty mountain men. During the ensuing battle, the Modocs lost about thirty warriors, and the trappers three men. Even though the trappers soundly defeated the Modocs, they did raise camp and leave the area to avoid further hostilities with the Modocs.
They headed southward to Honey Lake. Most of the remainder of the spring of 1844 was spent hunting and trapping across the country which now comprises northern Nevada. The party passed Pyramid Lake, crossed over to the Mary’s River (now known as the Humboldt River) and followed it eastward up to the Thousand Springs area where they turned northward. This was Pah-Ute territory, and these Indians were also hostile.
One of the trappers, Frederick Crawford, who was well liked and popular amongst his companions, was brutally slain. When a party of these Indians attacked the trappers camp, the trappers savagely counterattacked and no quarter was given. Twenty-three Indians were killed, forty-three horses taken and Crawfords horse, rifle and pistols recovered. The trappers had only a few men wounded in the attack.
The country again proving hostile, the brigade then proceeded eastward, crossing to the Raft River, the Bear River, the Green River and then proceeding up the Wind River to the Hot Springs where they rested for a few days. The spring trapping season being over the brigade continued traveling southeastward to the North Platte River and then following that river down to Fort Laramie. Here the party disbanded, and the remaining proceeds from the previous two years were divided amongst the men. From here Bill Williams, George Perkins and six others would return to Santa Fe.
In August of 1845 Williams was at El Pueblo, where Captain John C Fremont of the U.S. Topographical Engineers, would find him and recruit him as a guide for an official exploratory mission. The party was nearly sixty strong, and included Kit Carson as another guide. Proceeding northwesterly to the vicinity of the confluence of the White and Green Rivers, they met Joe Walker who joined the party. The expedition then crossed the Wasatch Range down to Utah Lake, and then followed the Jordan River down towards the Great Salt Lake. At about this time there was a major disagreement between the guides and Fremont about the route across the Salt Desert. The disagreement was serious enough that Williams left the expedition on October 27.
For the next several years the record of Bill Williams’ whereabouts and doings is incomplete and sketchy. Probably part of this time was spent living amongs the Ute Indians. At other times and places he appears momentarily in the records. In July 1846 he was at Jim Bridgers Fort. In June 1847, during the war with Mexico, he was engaged as a guide and guard with a wagon train of military supplies from Fort Leavenworth along the Santa Fe Trail. Sometime early in 1848 the Ute Indians were in need of supplies and had furs to trade. Williams took the furs into Taos, but instead of returning with the needed supplies he went on a spree which consumed all of the returns. Williams felt he couldn't return to the Utes until he could find someway to smooth things over. In the spring of 1848 he was reported at the American Fur Company’s Fort Union at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. Later in 1848 he briefly formed a loose partnership with Josiah Webb to provide goods and supplies to travelers along the Santa Fe Trail. He then served as a scout and guide with Major W.W. Reynolds in a military assault against a large band of Apache raiders who had been harassing settlements in northern New Mexico.
The Apaches were trailed to a location at the south end of the San Juan Mountains . A series of skirmishes took place as the Indians fell back before the military forces. Finally the Indians settled into a strong and easily defended position called the Pass of St. Johne Mountain (now known as Cumbres Pass) Before the Apaches could be engaged in this final battle they were joined by a force of Ute warriors. During the engagement some 36 Indians and two soldiers killed. Williams was in the thick of the fray, and was shot in the arm, shattering the bone. By leading the military against a war party including Utes, Williams had now completely lost any standing he might have had remaining with the Utes.
Williams returned to El Pueblo to recuperate from his injuries and was there when Captain Fremont arrived on his fourth expedition on November 21, 1848. Fremont was attempting to establish the location for a railroad route to California, and by traveling along the proposed route during the winter intended to show that it would be useable year round. This particular winter was severe, with unusually cold and snowy conditions existing even at the relatively low elevations at El Pueblo. Fremont’s offer of the position had previously been turned down by several experienced mountaineers including Thomas Fitzpatrick and Dick Wootton, as being impossible to accomplish along Fremont’s intended route at that time of year. (Dick Wootton, who was entirely familiar with these mountains, did hire on and traveled with the expedition until he saw how much snow there was on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, at which point he quit)
While at Bent's Fort, John Hatcher and Tom Biggs, long time mountain men and with much experience in the region, told Fremont that crossing the mountains at that time could not be done. Fremont still persisted and pressing Williams, finally got him to agree to guide the expedition. The expedition left with thirty-three men and 120 mules. They traveled, under extreme hardship from the cold and deep snow, up the Arkansas River and across the Wet Mountains, across Wet Valley and then crossed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains through Robidoux Pass (now known as Mosca Pass).
A major disagreement between Williams and Fremont developed when the expedition reached the Sand Hills in San Luis Valley. Fremont intended to steer directly for California, on a heading approximately between the long established Old Spanish Trail to the south, and Robidoux’s trail up the Saguache Creek and over Cochetopa Pass to the north. Williams, who had lived in this country with the Utes, and had passed through it many times in his travels back and forth from Taos, knew full well that Fremont’s intended route was impassable. He attempted to lead the party along what he considered the least formidable route, that being through Cochetopa Pass, but was over-ruled by Fremont and relieved of his duties as guide.
Fremont now choose Henry King, and Alex Godey to guide the expedition. King and Godey, though veterans of previous Fremont expeditions and being well seasoned and knowledgeable, had no experience themselves with this part of the Rocky Mountains.
The hardships previously posed by cold and deep snow became unimaginably worse. It became so cold at times that mercury thermometers failed to register the temperature. The men suffered from snow-blindness and frostbite and the mules froze to death. The men carried the remaining supplies and equipment through deep snowdrifts.
Finally on December 26th, Fremont sent a party of four men back to the New Mexico settlements for help. Henry King was designated as leader of this party, which included Bill Williams, Tom Breckenridge and Frederick Creutzfeldt. Fremont allowed the party sixteen days to make a round trip of 350 miles. Fremont had extremely high expectations for these half-starved and weakened men, expecting them to walk nearly 22 miles a day through snow choked country with a minimum of supplies. It took the party 3 days to descend 20 miles to the San Luis valley. For the next eight days they struggled down the Rio Grande River, surviving on a hawk, an otter, parched boots, their belts and knife sheaths. On the eighth day they detected the distant smoke of a Ute camp, but Williams advised them that should they approach it for help, they would probably be scalped because of his involvement in the military action against the Apache and Utes the prior year. The men continued on without approaching the Ute camp.
On the 12th of January 1849 the party was still fifty miles short of the settlements. Henry King was no longer able to continue and died just before Breckenridge managed to kill a deer. Revived by the food, as the party again prepared to continue on towards the settlements, they were approached by four horsemen, who turned out to be Fremont, Godey, and two others. Fremont had somehow obtained horses from the Utes.
Accounts differ as to how Williams, Breckenridge and Creutzfeldt reached the settlement of Questa. According to Fremont he took the men there himself "by the aid of his horses he carried these three men to the Red River settlements." However, according to Tom Breckenridge, "Fremont stayed just long enough to cook some venison, then pushed on, ordering us to follow as fast as we could."
Ultimately ten men died of starvation or exposure, 120 mules died, and most of the equipment was lost. Thus ended Fremont’s disastrous fourth expedition. Even before all of the survivors of the expedition had made their way down out of the mountains, Fremont was at work on letters making excuses and laying blame to shift responsibility for the disaster from himself to others, including Bill Williams. In later years Fremont would further accuse Williams of cannibalism, incompetence as a guide and premeditated treachery. These charges have no basis or support from the letters, journals, or recollections of any of the other members of the expedition.
By mid-February of 1849 Williams was back in Taos where he recuperated from the hardships he had experienced. Later about the middle of March, he and Dr. Benjamin Kern, the expedition’s doctor set out with a couple of Mexican helpers to recover the doctor’s equipment and supplies as well as other items, journals and equipment belonging to the expedition as could be found. These items included the art materials and personal papers of Dr. Kern’s brothers, Edward M and Richard H Kern, who were trained artists. Two portraits of Bill Williams, a water color and an oil were supposedly made by Edward M. Kern. Neither of these have ever been found.
Williams and Kern did make it to the area where much of the equipment had been cached or abandoned and gathered as much as they could find. The two men were preparing to head back to Taos when on either March 14th, or March 21st, 1849 (the date varies depending on source) they were shot and killed, probably by Ute Indians.
At the time of his death, “Old” Bill Williams was almost 63 years old.
Most of the above information was taken from the following references:
Favour, Alpheus H. Old Bill Williams: Mountain Man. Copyright 1936 University of North Carolina Press.
The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Volume VII; edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published by The Arthur H Clark Company, Glendale, California, 1966.
A detailed description of the events and experience of the years from 1841-1845 can be found in: Hamilton, Bill. My Sixty Years on the Plains: Trapping, Trading and Indian Fighting. Edited by E. T. Sieber, published 1905 by Forest and Stream Publishing Co.