On February 7, 1854, America lost one of her greatest adopted sons; his name was Thomas ‘Broken Hand’ Fitzpatrick. Born in 1799 in Killeshandra, County Cavan, into a Catholic family of eight, he had some education which he later showed as a skilled writer. However, at 17 he left home to seek his fortune in America. He arrived in New Orleans and traveled up the Mississippi to St. Louis where in 1823, he signed on to a trapping expedition sponsored by Missouri’s Lt. Governor William Ashley into the nearly uncharted American interior. The goal was to trap highly sought-after beaver pelts to satisfy the fashion for beaver hats popular at the time as the soft yet resilient pelts could be easily made into a variety of shapes from top hats to fedoras. That expedition introduced Fitzpatrick to the hard life of a trapper as they pushed and dragged their boats up the Missouri River, all the while avoiding hostile natives. After a fierce battle with a band of Arikara that left twelve dead and as many wounded, they abandoned the river and set out to find an overland route to the rich trapping grounds in the Rocky Mountains.
(Left: "Mountain Man," by Alfred Jacob Miller.)
They found an overland route and for the next dozen years, Fitzpatrick lived the life of a fur trapper in the mountains. In small parties, trappers searched the region for un-trapped streams and set up camp to catch as many beavers as they could to supply the high demand. They endured harsh mountain winters hunkered down in small cabins they had built and looked forward to the annual summer Rendezvous. A great meeting of trappers and traders from throughout the West, the Rendezvous was the social event of the season, providing entertainment and allowing the trappers to trade their furs for guns, clothes, or other supplies. Fitzpatrick had been second in command to Jedediah Smith on a historic expedition across South Dakota and Wyoming. They kept peace with the Indians they met, but when Jedediah was badly mauled by a grizzly, Fitzpatrick took charge.
As winter set in, travel became difficult; then one day in March 1824 they realized that the streams were no longer flowing east, but west. They had found the long-sought South Pass through the Rocky Mountains! In Broken Hand: The Life of Thomas Fitzpatrick, historian LeRoy Hafen wrote, ‘Little did these hardy pioneers dream that they were marking a trail destined to be, for nearly half a century, the most important route to the Pacific.’ More importantly for Fitzpatrick, they found some of the richest beaver-trapping country in the West. When they returned in late 1824, laden with furs, Fitzpatrick was a confirmed mountain man. Hafen also wrote, ‘Fitzpatrick was not your ordinary mountain man. Like his peers, Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, Kit Carson, and others, he was a veteran trapper, an able explorer, and a seasoned and brave Indian fighter. Along with these men, Fitzpatrick blazed the way for the settlement of the vast lands west of the Mississippi and helped guide important expeditions across the torturous Rocky Mountains.’
In 1830, Fitzpatrick joined with Jim Bridger (right) and others to form the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. However, fur trapping was becoming very competitive with U.S. and British companies sending trappers into the region. Much of the area was jointly claimed by both countries, so trappers were competing not only for fur but to establish their country's claim. Fitzpatrick, Bridger, and the experienced members of their company were often trailed by less experienced trappers, who ‘stole’ the territory that they had discovered. Fierce competition arose and on one occasion, Fitzpatrick deliberately let himself be followed to an area totally devoid of beaver and at night, quietly slipped away leaving his followers abandoned in a worthless fur trapping area alive with hostile Blackfeet – the harshest enemies of the mountain men.
In 1834, Fitzpatrick sold his interest in the company yet continued trapping. It was during that time that he earned the nickname ‘broken hand.’ While trapping alone, he was chased by a band of Blackfeet. At the edge of a steep river bluff, he urged his horse on and they tumbled down to the river; he survived, but his horse didn’t. He pulled the cover off his musket barrel and the weapon discharged, blowing off part of his left hand. Despite the pain, he quickly reloaded the musket and shot the first two of his pursuers. The survivors beat a hasty retreat. Alone, with a broken hand and on foot hundreds of miles from any settlement in the dead of winter, few could have survived such a situation; but this hardy Irishman did and in the process had acquired a nickname.
By May 1836, the fur trade was no longer viable so Thomas was hired on as a guide to an expedition headed to Oregon. It was a missionary party was led by Dr. Marcus Whitman and Rev. H. Spalding with their wives, who became the first white women west of the Great Divide. The route became known as the Mormon Trail after Brigham Young led his followers on it to the Great Salt Lake; it would later be mapped as the Oregon Trail. Fitzpatrick was soon serving as a guide to a number of historic expeditions into the West – a job for which he was well suited, for he had as good a knowledge of the west as any man, and his good relations with many western tribes proved invaluable to those he led along the Oregon Trail. He respected the Indians' claim to the land and negotiated their demands. In 1843, he guided John Charles Frémont, early explorer and map maker of America’s West, and actually commanded one section of the expedition which split into separate groups to explore alternate routes. After mapping the territory along the Oregon Trail all the way to Oregon, the party headed south along the east side of the mountains, finally crossing a high snowy pass of the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California in February 1844. From California, the expedition crossed present-day Nevada and Utah on their long way back to St. Louis, which they reached on 7 August 1844. It had been an expedition of nearly 3,000 miles and Thomas had proven himself one of the best guides in America.
(Below: The Oregon Trail and the California Trail cut off.)
For the next several years, he served as a guide for military expeditions beginning with Colonel Stephen Kearny’s expedition to South Pass to scare off Indians interfering with the increasing traffic on the Oregon Trail. Upon the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, he guided several missions into New Mexico, but by this time his heart was set on a new career as an agent to the Indians living between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains. He had good relations with the many Western tribes and hoped to develop a way for whites and Indians to live in peace. He felt that Indians should be compensated for the lands that were taken from them. On 1 December 1846, he became an Indian agent. He worked diligently and brought about the peace treaty that was signed at Fort Laramie, Wyoming in 1851 at which he led more than 10,000 Indians to the fort. The Plains Indians – Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Sioux – arrived first and were joined by their former enemies from the mountains, the Shoshone and Crows. After eight days of whites and Indians talking peace, on September 16 they signed a treaty that allowed the U.S. to build roads and military posts in Indian country, fixed the boundaries for the various tribes, set punishments for attacks committed by Indians as well as whites and promised a payment of $50,000. in goods to the Indians each year for 50 years. Fitzpatrick's vision of peaceful coexistence had triumphed. But it was not to last.
The Indians soon forgot their resolutions and attacked the whites who were crossing the land in ever-increasing numbers and killing off the buffalo on which the Indians depended. Worse for Fitzpatrick, the U.S. Senate refused to endorse 50 years of payments and asked him to return to the Indians with the message that they would receive payments for only 15 years. He did so but realized that the great conflict between whites and Indians would only be resolved in violence. Nevertheless, he persevered and was negotiating the Treaty of Fort Atkinson in July 1853 with Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche when, in the winter he went to Washington, D.C., to finalize the treaty. While there, he contracted pneumonia and died February 7, 1854. He is buried in the Congressional Cemetery.
Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick made three distinct contributions to his adopted country. First, he was a prominent trapper and explorer who blazed the trails that allowed settlers to cross the difficult Rockies, secondly, he was a seasoned guide who led some of the most important mapping and military expeditions of the West and finally, he served in the difficult role of Indian agent, pressing the needs of his nation while honoring the culture of the Indians he admired. It was fortunate that he didn’t live to see the defeat of Custer’s 7th Cavalry in 1876 or the revengeful massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 that finally signaled the end of the Indian Wars. In 2004, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners in the National Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma.
Mike McCormack is AOH New York State Historian Emeritus.
For a detailed study of this great man, see thewildgeese.com/ Mountain Man Thomas Fitzpatrick: Legendary 'Broken Hand' posted by Joe Gannon.
(Right: "Matau-Tathonca - Bull Bear" -- an Oglala painted by Alfred Jacob Miller)
MORE ON THE IRISH IN THE AMERICAN WEST
Searching Robert Campbell's Family Tree for Fortune (Campbell, born in Plumbridge, near Strabane in County Tyrone, trapped with Fitzpatrick in the 1820s and 30s)
'Born a Soldier': Myles Walter Keogh - Part 1 of 3: From Carlow to America's Civil War By Brian C. Pohanka
Custer's Last Irishmen: The Irish who fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn