On a crisp, clear afternoon in what is now southwest Montana, in January 1836, a thin bearded man in his mid-30s, dressed in buckskin, was racing across the valley of the meandering Yellowstone River on the back of a very fast horse. Ahead of him in the distance, lit by the bright sunlight, he could see the picturesque, snow white peaks of the Rocky Mountains, but he was in no position to admire them. Not far behind, in hot pursuit, was a band of the Blackfoot tribe, the most strident enemies of the mountain men of all the tribes of the Northern Plains.
As he looked back, he saw clumps of snow and dirt were flying from his horse’s flashing hoofs. Thinking that crossing the river might buy him time, he saw the dangerously steep bank too late. Horse and rider made it to the water, but as they reached a sand bar, it was clear the horse was badly injured in the stumbling descent and was going no further.
He grabbed the top of the cover on his musket with his left hand to yank it off, but another disaster befell him --the weapon discharged, blowing off part of two fingers. There was no time to worry about the pain; screaming death was nearly on him. The first Blackfoot warriors, war cries piercing the air, were splashing into the stream. Loading and firing as quickly as he could, with blood streaming down his left arm, he hit the first two that tried to make it over the frigid stream. The Blackfoot had seen their old enemy, “White Hair,” many times before. Perhaps they would get him one day, but it would not be this day. The survivors beat a hasty retreat. Thomas Fitzpatrick was alone and injured, and now on foot, hundreds of miles from any settlement in the dead of winter, but there were few men alive at the time who were better equipped to survive such a situation.
Born in County Cavan, Ireland in 1799, in his childhood, Thomas couldn’t have even dreamed of the life he would one day lead. Little is known of his life in Ireland beyond the fact that the family was Catholic, his mother’s maiden name was Kiernan, and he had two brothers and four sisters. He most likely received a fairly good education there as well, judging by his later writing. Like so many young Irishmen in those times of limited opportunity in his native land, he left for America at age 17.
Unlike the majority of Irish immigrants who arrived two decades later in the large cities on the East Coast and stayed there, Thomas disembarked in New Orleans. It’s possible he got there by signing on to a merchant vessel in Ireland and jumping ship there. By 1822, the young man had moved up the Mississippi to the bustling town of St. Louis. When he saw an ad (left) in a newspaper from William Ashley for 100 young men to voyage up the Missouri River into the wilds of the West to trap beaver, he jumped at the chance. The pay was $200 per year. Half your pelts went to Ashley and half were yours, but you had to sell them to him. There was the possibility of making a decent living, but Fitzpatrick and the others were likely more interested in the adventure of it. These mountain men are known in Western history as “Ashley’s Hundred.”
Fitzpatrick left on the second of the famous Ashley expeditions in the spring of 1823. Ashley’s expeditions have been called, “the most significant group of continental explorers ever brought together.” Among them were Jedidiah Smith, Jim Bridger, James Clayman, William Sublette, Robert Campbell, and Etienne Provost. The iconic mountain men of our imaginations, among the most romanticized figures in the history of the early American West, are depicted as trappers in buckskin and fur hats who were usually out in the mountains alone. It’s part of the folklore of the nation, but the reality is not quite the same as the legend. They usually worked in groups, for both efficiency and safety, though there still would be times when they were on their own far from those groups.
Fitzpatrick’s group, commanded by Ashley, never made it to their destination, which was the mouth of the Yellowstone River. Near the present-day border between South and North Dakota, on June 2nd, they fought with a large group of Arikara at their village, after buying horses from them. It was a serious battle, with 12 trappers killed and 10 or more wounded. Though no one wrote a detailed account of this fight, the inexperienced Fitzpatrick must have performed extremely well, because Ashley appointed him second in command to Jedediah Smith on an overland expedition into Wyoming to find a pass through the Rockies later that year.
(Above: Arikara village on the Missouri River, painted by George Catlin in 1832. It is possibly the location of the battle nine years earlier.)
Smith was attacked by a grizzly bear and badly injured during his group's move westward, and young Fitzpatrick found himself the leader for a time. Smith had half his scalp and one ear nearly torn off and had another trapper sew them back in place. This life was not for the faint of heart.
(Right: A 19th century depiction of Smith's fight with the grizzly bear.)
In March 1824, they discovered the South Pass through the Rockies in what is southwest Wyoming today. It was an essential geographical feature in Western history. It not only allowed trappers access to the beaver-rich Green River valley, it was later a vital part of the Oregon Trail and the route of the transcontinental railroad.
Fitzpatrick got his first lessons in beaver trapping on this trip and his first lesson in what often caused tension with plains tribes. Many of the fights the trappers had with Indians involved attempts to steal the trapper’s horses. Horse stealing, which the plains tribes often did among themselves, was almost like a sport for them. After Smith and Fitzpatrick split up to trap, Thomas’ group had horses stolen by a group of Shoshones that had seemed friendly before the theft. But he demonstrated his own tenacity when he led his group in tracking them down on foot and got their horses back. He split his forces in two, with Jim Bridger commanding the other group and confused the village enough that they got off with the horses without losing a man. It was the first time he commanded a fight against the Indians. He was adapting to this life quickly.
Smith then trusted Fitzpatrick to try to get their pelts back to St. Louis using bull boats, a small buffalo hide boat (left), floating down the Sweetwater River. When they ran into problems they “cached” the pelts, burying them to come back to later, near Independence Rock. This would later be a famous landmark on the Oregon Trail, where many settlers would chisel their names. It’s said that Fitzpatrick’s name is there in several places.
Fitzpatrick returned with Ashley the following year. Ashley had a new idea for resupplying trappers -- bring the supplies to them. Ashley supplied them with coffee, sugar, knives, tomahawks, cloth needles, buttons, and other goods to trade with Indians, saving them the long trip back to St. Louis They called it a rendezvous. The first rendezvous was near what is now McKinnon, Wyoming, in July 1825. As many as 129 trappers attended. The mountain-man rendezvous would continue for another 15 years. Along with supplies, whiskey was abundant, as well. The rendezvous would be the big social event of the year, with many sporting events, races, and wrestling matches and a large number of friendly Indians from various tribes attending.
At the rendezvous in 1826, Smith, Dave Jackson, and William Sublette bought out Ashley and named their enterprise “The Rocky Mountain Fur Company.” Ashley was later elected to Congress. Fitzpatrick went out trapping as second in command with Jackson for several years afterward.
(Right: The 1837 rendezvous, painted by Alfred Jacob Miller.)
In the fall of 1829, on the Madison Fork of the Missouri, in western Montana, Fitzpatrick’s group got into a fight against the Blackfoot, during another attempt at horse theft. One of the trappers, Joe Meek, reported: “In an instant’s time, Fitzpatrick was mounted and commanding the men to follow. He galloped at headlong speed round and round the camp to drive back such horses as were straying. … in this race two horses were shot from under him, but he escaped and the camp-horses were saved.” They then drove off the Blackfoot in a battle that lasted several hours.
At the rendezvous in August 1830, Fitzpatrick, Bridger, Milton Sublette, Henry Fradb and Jean Baptiste Gervais bought the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. from Smith and his partners. Fitzpatrick became the de facto leader of the group.
In 1831, Fitzpatrick was with Smith on the Santa Fe trail, bringing supplies to that year’s rendezvous in a roundabout route. The two of them were scouting ahead, and, while separated, Smith was set upon by a band of Comanches and killed. His body was never found, but some of his belongings were discovered among the Comanches years later. This was a constant danger for all the mountain men.
(Left: Jedediah Smith's party crossing the Mojave Desert in 1826, painted by Frederick Remington.)
On the same trip, Fitzpatrick found a young Arapaho boy, alone and nearly starved to death. He named him “Friday,” for the day of the week he was found, and adopted the boy. He later sent him to St. Louis to be educated. His parents eventually heard his story and asked for him back, which was done. Friday lived out his days with the Arapaho, becoming the leader of a small band for a while. He was a fluent English speaker as a result of his early schooling and a staunch advocate for peace all his life. Perhaps that was because he had seen so much of the white world and knew how futile resistance would be. Fitzpatrick and the adult Friday would cross paths several times over the next two decades. (See the comments thread below for more on Friday.) On his way to the 1831 rendezvous, he also picked up a new recruit to the ranks of the mountain men in Taos, New Mexico -- Kit Carson.
Returning from St. Louis for the 1832 rendezvous, Fitzpatrick was scouting ahead of the group in the South Pass when a group of Blackfoot came very close to ending his life. He was forced to abandon his horse and hide in a branch-covered hole in the ground for two nights. He lost all his food and lost his rifle later while crossing a stream. Surviving on roots and berries, he was at one point trapped in a tree by a wolf pack. The pack may have saved his life, however, as he was able to salvage some meat from a buffalo they killed. He had nearly been given up for dead by the others when two of them out searching for him discovered him collapsed and near-death and brought him into the rendezvous in Pierre’s Hole, Idaho. He was emaciated and his hair had turned white at just 33 years of age during the ordeal. “White Hair” would become his first nickname among the Indian tribes.
(Right: A Blackfoot warrior, painted by Karl Bodmer.)
That 1832 rendezvous may have been the largest ever, with more than 1,000 trappers and Indians present. It ended abruptly in mid-July when a large force of the Gros Ventre tribe, allies of the Blackfoot, attacked the camp. It was said the now recovered Fitzpatrick acted as the commander of the trappers in the fight. The trappers were too ill-disciplined to ever be totally controlled, but it was an indication of his standing among them. The Gros Ventre were routed in what came to be known as the Battle of Pierre’s Hole, and Fitzpatrick was delighted to find his recently lost horse among the spoils left behind by them.
The American Fur Co., bankrolled by John Jacob Astor, was now moving in, making it harder for the Rocky Mountain company to turn a profit. Having few experienced men, the AFC men would shadow the Rocky Mountain Co. groups to find beaver. That fall, Jim Bridger was in Fitzpatrick’s trapping party, and they were again attacked by the Blackfoot tribe, with Bridger barely surviving two arrows in his back. Meanwhile, the AFC group following them was also attacked and scattered, with their leader and several other men killed. The competition between the groups had become very cut-throat. Had Fitzpatrick and Bridger headed to this most dangerous of trapping areas knowing the inexperienced AFC group would follow? That will never be known.
(Left: "Mountain Man," by Alfred Jacob Miller.)
At the 1834 rendezvous, the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. surrendered to the pressure of competition and the dwindling beaver population and was dissolved. The days of the mountain man were rapidly coming to an end. Fitzpatrick and Lucien Fontenelle got a license to trade with the Indians and bought Fort William on the Laramie River in Wyoming from William Sublette as a trading post. It is now more famously known as Fort Laramie.
Not long after that, Fitzpatrick had the harrowing adventure on a trip to the forts of the upper Missouri previously chronicled, in which he lost part of two fingers. This would obtain for him a new sobriquet from the plains tribes, “Broken Hand." He had been traveling with Peter Sarpy of the American Fur Co., and the two had become separated for a time. He once again managed to survive being alone on foot in the stomping grounds of the Blackfoot, eventually encountering Sarpy later.
Fitzpatrick commanded supply trains west to the mountain man rendezvous in 1836 and 1837, with noteworthy companions on the journey both years. In 1836, a group of missionaries led by Dr. Marcus Whitman came. The wives of this party became the first white women to make the trip through South Pass into the West. They caused quite a stir with the trappers at the rendezvous, many of whom hadn’t seen a white woman in years, and the Indians, most of whom had never seen one at all. In 1837 the trip included artist Alfred Jacob Miller, whose famous painting during the trip are the only known, first-hand visual account of the fur trade.
(Right: "Trapping Beaver," by Alfred Jacob Miller.)
Fitzpatrick’s trapping days were over at this point, and the trapping business itself was going into rapid decline. Silk hats were beginning to replace beaver hats, and the beaver population was being greatly depleted by the increased trapping. He seems to have been in the St. Louis area for most of these last years of the beaver trade. In the summer of 1840, the last rendezvous was held in the Green River Valley, not far from the first one 15 years earlier. It was a bittersweet affair, with a very small number of trappers present. For Fitzpatrick and most of his comrades, the romantic era of the mountain man, traveling the Rock Mountain wilderness in search of beaver, was over. It was time for them to move on to the next phase of their lives. They had two very valuable commodities as a result of their trapping careers, though: knowledge of the Western Plains and the Rocky Mountains and of the Indian tribes who inhabited those regions.
In the late spring of 1841, the first large immigrant wagon train left Missouri headed along what became the Oregon Trail, but their destination was California. History records them as the Bidwell-Bartleson party. They were members of the newly formed Western Emigration Society. They combined with a famous group of Catholic missionaries under Father Pierre Jean De Smet to total about 80 people. The man they hired to guide them on this dangerous venture was Thomas Fitzpatrick.
Somewhere along the Platte, one of the group was out hunting and nearly caused a battle with a group of Cheyenne, but “Broken Hand” defused the situation. Later the stampede of a buffalo herd threatened to destroy the wagon train until he organized the firing line to deflect them. Father De Smet, who would later be a key figure in relations between the government and Upper Plains tribes, and would become a close friend of Fitzpatrick’s, said of him, “Every day I learned to appreciate him more.” John Bidwell, whose group would make it to California, wrote, “Not one of us would have reached California” [without him]. Fitzpatrick probably wintered with the Flathead tribe and De Smet’s group in Idaho.
(Below: “Oregon Train” painted by William Henry Jackson.)
In the summer of 1842, Fitzpatrick was at Fort Laramie when the second wagon train to traverse the Oregon Trail arrived. He was hired to get them through to the mountains. He once again demonstrated his greatest strength. Though he was a veteran Indian fighter, his greatest asset was the high regard for him among the tribes, which allowed him to negotiate a peaceful end to conflicts. Twice he did so with this second wagon train, but the second group of Indians that threatened the train told Fitzpatrick that they would let this train pass, but no more after it. While the mountain men had often been looked at as trading partners, who could benefit the tribes and posed no great danger, they were beginning to recognize the threat posed by white settlers.
In the summer of 1843, Fitzpatrick was hired by John Frémont to guide the second of his famous Western expeditions. Thomas’ old friend Kit Carson had guided the first, and became a national hero after "The Pathfinder," Frémont, published his report of the trip. At one point the group has split up, and when Fitzpatrick’s portion of it ran into serious problems due to drought conditions and lack of game in the area, they were aided by a group of Arapaho who were happy to help “Broken Hand.” Among them was Thomas’ one-time adoptee, Friday. The expedition eventually went over the Sierras to California and then came back through Arizona in 1844.
(Below-right: Illustration of Pyramid Lake, northwestern Nevada, U.S., from the report on John C. Fremont - Library of Congress)
Perhaps Fitzpatrick could have become a more celebrated figure in Western history as a result of guiding this expedition -- he certainly deserved such recognition -- but Frémont by chance ran into Carson again in Pueblo, New Mexico, and hired him to guide along with Fitzpatrick. Carson’s presence, already exalted in the previous trip, over shadowed Fitzpatrick’s service.
In the summer of 1845, Fitzpatrick guided a patrol of the 1st Dragoons under Col. Steven Kearny out to South Pass and back. The goal was to impress the Plains Indians with the power of the U.S. Army and intimidate them into letting emigrant trains pass. They met with a large contingent of Sioux near Fort Laramie and another large group of Cheyenne on the way back to St. Louis. They believed that a demonstration of the firing of the cannon would so awe the Indians that most resistance would cease. The tribes were, in fact, quite impressed, but history tells us they were less than thunderstruck.
(Below: “Comanche Feats of Horsemanship” by George Catlin.)
Later in 1845, Fitzpatrick was the guide on another army expedition under Lt. James Abert further to the south than Kearny's, “… southward and eastward along the Canadian River through the country of the Kiowa and Comanche." After Abert had returned to Washington to give his report, he sent Fitzpatrick a letter requesting some information on the Western tribes and their language. The Irishman sent two letters in reply, filled with speculation and theory on how various Indian languages developed and spread that read like they were written by a linguistics professor. They reveal him to be a highly intelligent and intellectually curious man. It’s unlikely any other mountain man had ever given the subject as much thought.
When the war with Mexico broke out in 1846, Fitzpatrick was attached as a guide for Kearny’s “Army of the West,” which was tasked with capturing Santa Fe. This was done peacefully as the Mexicans retreated without fighting. Soon after that, Thomas was appointed Indian agent to the Plains Indians. As the hostility and tension between the emigrants and Plains tribes increased, no one in the country could have been better suited to this vital role. The stereotype of the corrupt “Indian agent” that has come down to us from Hollywood was often of a man interested only in enriching himself with little concern for the tribes he was supposed to help. Thomas Fitzpatrick was the polar opposite of that stereotype.
(Below: "Sunset on the Plains" by Frederic Remington.)
Fitzpatrick was the first government official to urge the government to compensate the Western tribes for the damage done by settlers. He had taken note of what had happened to the Eastern tribes and didn’t want to see that mistake repeated. “Must the course of removals from place to place, and successive contractions of territory, and perpetual isolation, which has thus far been fraught with such enormous expense, be likewise applied to the nations of the interior?” he asked. “This must be called by its name: the legalized murder of a whole nation. It is expensive, vicious, inhumane, and producing these consequences, and these alone. The leaders of this nation must realize that humanity will judge its policies by its fruits, not by the gloss of its high-tone words.” One seldom reads such eloquence in defense of Native American rights from any American at that time, and time has certainly proven him correct. In the mid-19th century, unfortunately, the former mountain man’s words were akin to the biblical “voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Few were listening.
Fitzpatrick was not averse to fighting those tribes that remained hostile, however. In 1848 he suggested that the best way to defeat the Comanches, who were a constant threat on the Sante Fe Trail, was to attack them in the winter when they believed they were safe in their camps. This idea was born of decades of experience among the tribes. His suggestion was ignored then, but many years later the tactic would be employed with devastating effect against the Sioux and other tribes.
In 1849, at age 50, Thomas married Margaret Poisal, the 17-year-old daughter of French-Canadian trapper John Poisal and an Arapaho named Snake Woman, who was the daughter of Chief Left Hand. Though her age, and the age difference, might raise our eyebrows today, in mid-19th century marriages, neither were that uncommon. They would have two children -- a son, Andrew, and a daughter, Virginia.
It was Fitzpatrick who came up with the idea of bringing all the Plains tribes together for what would eventually result in the famous Laramie Treaty of 1851. From 1849 until the convocation, he worked relentlessly trying to convince the government to agree to it and traversed thousands of miles tirelessly working to convince the tribes to agree to come. He possessed a unique knowledge of both the white world and culture and the mindset of Native Americans. Fitzpatrick had a sincere desire to avoid the disaster that he clearly foresaw for the tribes of the Plains and the Rockies.
(Left: Fort Laramie, painted by Alfred Jacob Miller.)
In July 1851, the tribes began to gather near Fort Laramie. There would eventually be an estimated 10,000 there, the largest gathering of the Native Americans ever seen. The major Southern tribes -- the Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches -- did not attend. Still, the Lakota, Cheyenne, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa, Shoshone, Crow, and Arapaho all came, and it was in large part their respect for “Broken Hand” that got them there. Many of these tribes had been mortal enemies for all their living memories, but their regard for Fitzpatrick also kept the peace between them. Bringing it together was an amazing historical achievement, though he has received little recognition for it. Fitzpatrick's old friend, Father De Smet, arrived with a band of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara.
Fitzpatrick was deeply involved in the negotiating and cajoling of his many old friends, and old enemies as well, among the tribes, for “Broken Hand” was held in high esteem by both. On September 16th this remarkable treaty was signed. It laid out the boundary lines for the territory of each tribe, and the tribes promised to allow the peaceful transit of settlers moving west.
After the treaty, Fitzpatrick took a large group of chiefs of the various tribes, including his Arapaho "son," Friday, on a trip to Washington. There they were feted by numerous groups, and they met with President Fillmore. Leading them into the White House, the Irish country boy had reached the pinnacle of a career that was inconceivable in his youth.
(Right: A map of showing the territory set out for various tribes drawn by Father De Smet.)
Of course, history tells us that all the work he did attempting to lessen the disaster he saw coming for the tribes of the West went for naught. Still, that does not diminish the honor he deserves for the monumental work he did to avert it. The sincerity of his attempt is a noble legacy.
Thomas would not live to see the failure of his efforts, however. In late 1853, while on his way to a meeting in Washington, he had a serendipitous meeting in New York with his sister Mary, who had been an infant when he left home. One can only imagine the joy he felt at this sudden connection to a family and homeland he’d left at age 17. When he realized she was financially strapped, he gave her a thousand dollars. It was a huge sum of money at the time and illustrates the unselfish character of the man. He had last seen her as a baby and had no contact since. There was no personal bond, they were essentially strangers, yet she was family, and that was enough for him.
Fitzpatrick reached Washington in January 1854 and quickly came down with a severe cold, which turned into pneumonia. The physically arduous and mentally stressful life he had led on the frontier for three decades may have hastened his end. “Broken Hand” died February 7th and was buried in the Congressional Cemetery.
Today, in the West he loved, you will find him commemorated in Wyoming, with both Fitzpatrick Peak in the Salt River Range and the Fitzpatrick Wilderness, and by Broken Hand Peak in Colorado.
(Left: Fitzpatrick in his later years.)
By any measure, Fitzpatrick lived an extraordinary life. That other mountain men, like his friends Jim Bridger and Kit Carson, are far more well-known today has much more to do with better public relations than it does accomplishment. He is one of the few figures of the day whose treatment of Native Americans does not leave us having to say, “it is not fair to judge him by modern standards.” He treated Native Americans with a respect and honesty that was very rare in the mid-19th century. Years later, Chief Little Raven of the Arapaho would call him the only fair agent they ever had.
Fitzpatrick was a fearless mountain man and explorer, a guide who saved countless lives while conducting emigrants to new lives in the West, and an Indian agent who worked tirelessly in the pursuit of justice for the Native Americans who had often tried to end his life and had barely failed several times. He could survive the harshest wilderness alone; he could find his way through the most barren mountains; he could fight the fiercest Indian warriors if hostile, or smoke the pipe and negotiate an agreement with them if they were not. He could do all that, and also pontificate on the origins of Indian languages and confront and debate government officials on the folly of their Western policies. Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick is truly a legendary figure of the American West.
(Right: "Matau-Tathonca - Bull Bear" -- an Oglala painted by Alfred Jacob Miller)
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