On the Fringe of Fame
Winter West of the Rockies
RICHARD, however, was not destined to rest quietly in an uninteresting town, writing reports. Suddenly both his family and the War Department were startled by the news that he had disappeared into the little known area west of the Rocky Mountains, with winter fast approaching. On November 18, 1833, he wrote from Abiquiu, New Mexico.
I am now at a small Indian town, the northern settlement of this province, on my way to the great salt lake [sic] which will be the rendezvous of a large party of trappers for the winter. Should I succeed in reaching that point which is somewhat doubtful as I have a large and difficult mountain to cross, it is my intention to make for Fort Union on the Missouri the principle [sic] depot of the American Fur Company, from when I shall be enabled to go to the United States as soon as the ice breaks up and I am in hopes reaching Washington in June or July. Should I fail in crossing the mountain I have no other alternative than to wait patiently until the return company which will probably start from Santa Fe in June. In this event it is my purpose to spend the winter on green river [sic] at another rendezvous of trappers and to turn trapper for the time being myself. I have with me a party of fifteen men well equipped for that purpose. As it will be impracticable to return to Santa Fe I shall from green river rendezvous to make my way to the Arkansas upon which there is a trading establishment and where I shall have an opportunity of becoming acquainted with most of the north western Indian tribes.
The cholera is said to be raging at Chihuahua and consequently all the communication between the ocean and this place cut off.
The enclosed letter to my wife, be good enough to forward to her with all possible dispatch.
I enjoy excellent health and am as hardy as the roughest hunter.1
The reasons given for this precipitous departure apparently worried Richard, for he rationalizes again in a later letter.
All communication between Santa Fe and the City of Mexico being interdicted, in consequence of the supposed prevalence of the cholera at the latter place; and the intermediate country being laid waste and overrun by the Apache Indians, I had no alternative but to undertake this Difficult and dangerous experiment, or to abandon the hope of reaching the United States before the ensuing autumn.2
Those reasons given the War Department must have been written with tongue in cheek, as no one would pick a winter route to the United States from Santa Fe, via the treacherous Rocky Mountains. The fact that the Apaches were on the war path in November did not necessarily mean that they would be a threat to travelers in the spring when the Santa Fe trail would be open. Richard was grasping at straws to find an excuse for his adventure. He knew that his government needed information about this little known land, and when he heard that Charles Bent and Ceran St. Vrain were looking for someone to take merchandise into this area, he realized that here was an opportunity to explore and to recoup his shaky finances as well.
Accordingly on the 19th of November I set forth with a small but well appointed party of twelve men, diligently pursuing my laborious and difficult march for forty-three days without intermission, which brought me to the junction of White and Green Rivers, and within full view of Green River Mountain the only remaining obstacle to my ultimate success.3
Because this was written as a hurried explanation4 of his failure to return at the expiration of his year's furlough, he says very little about his trip and companions. However, Kit Carson, the young guide whom Lee employed, describes the trip in his autobiography.
Carson, who was already an old friend of Bent and St. Vrain, tells us that Lee was a partner of those two men. Lee probably took the profits from his investments in the Santa Fe wagon train to purchase an interest in the merchandise which he was going to take into this area on the western flank of the Rockies.5
A few nights before they left, the sky dazzled with a great shower of meteors.6 Everyone paused and gazed with wonder at the heavens. The Indians feared that it was an evil omen, that disaster and tragedy faced their tribes. The trappers believed that it was a sign that a hard winter lay ahead.
The party started north along the old Spanish trail, once pioneered by Father Escalante. Traveling at first through high timbered country, the trail bore westward, past the headwaters of the Rio del Norte, then through desert lands and mesas, cacti, sage, and scrub oak. As they approached the Dolores River, they rode through chaparral along the edges of deep canyons, and crossing the Colorado River below the Dolores, they followed an Indian trail north to the White River.7
The weather had become increasingly cold, the snow lay deeper on the ground. The sky pressed down like a heavy lid of lead, and Kit told Richard that they would have to seek winter quarters, as the blizzards would soon make the trails impossible for the mules. Richard wrote:
Here I encountered the severest weather known for many years, the rapid mountain streams were frozen to their bottoms, and we were almost buried by successive snow storms. The mountains became impassable, and with my worn out animals and dispirited party I was forced to seek refuge in a large bottom of cotton wood and undergrowth.8
Groups of trappers habitually wintered in certain sheltered valleys called "holes," where the weather was milder, and there was some protection from the winter storms. Kit knew where most of these holes were located, and led Richard west with confidence. At White Rocks Creek on the Uintah, near its confluence with the Green (near today's Ouray, Utah), they found a party of twenty traders in winter quarters at Fort Robidoux.9
Antoine Robidoux, the factor, welcomed them cordially. He was from an old influential St. Louis family, and, like St. Vrain, had become a Mexican citizen, serving as President of the Junta des Ayntamiento (Town Council) of Santa Fe in 1830. Robidoux had been one of the first trappers in the Green River Valley, building the first trading post west of the Rockies on the Gunnison River. In 1831 he had completed Fort Uintah, which the trappers called Fort Wintey or Fort Robidoux.10
This simple adobe fort was surrounded by a settlement of skin lodges, where the wintering trappers played games, slept, read their well-thumbed books, and talked. The teepees were warm and comfortable. Screens protected the mn from drafts, and woven willow frames under buffalo robes made comfortable beds. There were even chair backs to recline against.
This was a time for rest and repair. The Indian wives11 of the trappers made clothing for the men, cooked continuously, and gathered the bark of the cottonwoods for the horses now that the grass was covered with snow. A tribe of friendly Indians who had camped nearby provided labor for the unmarried trappers, and Richard probably was able to have doeskin leggings, a fringed coat, and moccasins made to replace his worn woolen clothes. These new garments were made from the well-smoked and weathered hides of old teepees, so that they would not shrink as much as new skins.
The endless talk soon gave Richard a picture of the trapper's life. He learned that several hundred free trappers worked out of Taos each year and were greatly sought after by the different fur companies. These intrepid men scaled canyon walls, climbed mountains, and explored every stream bed they came to, looking for beaver. As the beaver with the best pelts were caught in the coldest months, the trappers spent many hours wading icy streams in late fall and early spring. The work was arduous: each five-pound trap had to be set in water, with a twig saturated with castoreum (oil from the beaver glands) as bait, and the trap was pegged with a five-foot chain so that the captured beaver would drown, unable to climb up on the shore where he would be able to gnaw the trapped foot free. After the beaver was caught, it was skinned and the pelt scraped and dried. The cured pelts usually weighed a pound and a half and, until this year, had brought around $6 a pelt.12 Unfortunately for the wintering trappers, the new fad for silk hats was bringing the price down in St. Louis.
It was a hazardous life; only 16 out of 160 trappers survived their first year.13 Yet, because of their diet of buffalo meat, the trappers were a healthy lot; no scurvy or other deficiency diseases were known. Venereal diseases, gangrene, tetanus, and rheumatism were their only illnesses; grizzly bears and Indians took the greatest toll.
Richard was also able to piece together the lives of these men, as the conversation ranged from Missouri to California, from Chihuahua to the Snake River. Kit Carson, twenty-one years old, slightly built with mild gray eyes and silky brown hair, did not look like an experienced explorer and mountain man, but had fabulous adventures to tell in his gentle voice, spiced with the colorful vocabulary of the mountain men who called strong liquor "Taos lightnin'," tobacco "kinikinik," and a prime beaver skin "a plew." He was one of the few Americans who had been to that distant land of fable, California. For the first time, Richard heard the names San Gabriel, Los Angeles, San Joaquin, and Sacramento Valley.
In 1830 Kit had joined Ewing Young's expedition of trappers and crossed the Colorado River, Mojave Desert, and San Bernardino Mountains to the Mexican territory that was then forbidden to Americans. After visiting the San Gabriel and San Fernando missions, they had traveled north to the San Joaquin Valley where they were surprised to meet British trappers from Fort Vancouver, Peter Sken Ogdon's Hudson's Bay Brigade. They had an amicable international trapping tour together, both groups eyeing California covetously.
With the departure of the British, Kit had won Mexican approval by helping a Mexican officer capture several neophyte Indians who had run away from the San José mission. As a reward, the trappers had been invited to visit the mission and trade there. While they were relaxing nearby, local Indians had raided their camp and had purloined sixty of their horses, a serious loss for the trappers. Kit and twelve companions had set out in hot pursuit, trailing the Indians for a hundred miles into the rugged Sierra Nevada. Here they surprised the thieves feasting on the stolen horses. With dispatch, the Americans killed most of the Indians and returned all of the surviving horses.
The telling of these tales about recovering stolen horses seemed to be setting the stage for action. One night six of Robidoux' horses were stolen by one of his employees, a California Indian who had been greatly trusted. Carson immediately asked Richard for permission to pursue the Indian and hastily departed, taking an Indian from the nearby village to help him. They followed the thief down the Green River; he seemed to be heading for his California home. After they had gone a hundred miles, the horse of Carson's companion became ill and the Indian refused to accompany him any further on foot. Carson continued alone, and at the end of the next thirty miles, caught up with the runaway. The Indian saw Carson approaching alone and "showed fight," and so Carson "was under the necessity of killing him."14 Carson then rounded up the horses and led them back to Richard and a very greatful Robidoux, who valued them at $200 each.
Soon after Kit's return, some trappers wandered into camp with the news that two legendary mountain men, Tom Fitzpatrick and Jim Bridger, were camped some fifteen or twenty days away on the Snake River.15 Richard decided to set out for the Snake, as the provisions at Fort Robidoux were running very low.
In this situation I remained until the 22nd of February exposed to many hardships and great suffering from the want of provisions being reduced to the slender allowance of one pint of flour per day to a man, and no meat except occasionally a dog or wornout horse. Having but a few days ration of flour left, and my animals being a little recrutied, I determined to force my way to the head of the Snake River, a country generally abounding with game, which I reached after twenty days, excessive toil and the loss of several animals. Here I had the satisfaction to find plenty of game.16
The trail from the Green to the Snake was a torture of high mountains, deep canyons, and overhanging sculptured walls, with snow and ice to imperil each treacherous step. Finally they reached the beautiful Snake Valley, where they found Fitzpatrick and Bridger camped at the mouth of the Portneuf (near today's Pocatello, Idaho), for they, too, had been forced to move because of the scarcity of game at their winter camp.
Richard felt that he already knew Fitzpatrick and Bridger: Carson had told him anecdotes about them as they had slogged through the heavy snow. Carson knew Fitzpatrick with the intimacy shared by those who have camped and traveled in the wilderness together; they had trapped in the Rocky Mountains in 1831–32.
Tom Fitzpatrick was an old-timer who had been fur trapping in the Rockies for ten years. He was called "Brokenhand" by the Indians because a rifle had exploded, tearing away a finger and cruelly crippling his left hand.
Although he was the same age as Richard, Fitzpatrick had acquired a second Indian name, "White Hair." Several years previously he had been surprised and surrounded by Indians. Seeing that he could not escape, he had jumped off his horse and had hidden in a crevice in the rocks while the Indians had searched all around him for two days. Hiding by day, traveling by night, he had finally succeeded in eluding the Indians, only to lose his rifle in a river. With just a knife for a weapon, he had kept himself barely alive with wild berries and a partly putrefied carcass, upon which wolves had been feasting. Almost starved, he had staggered towards Pierre's Hole where he had been rescued by friends. His hair had turned white soon after this experience, legend affirming that it had occurred overnight.
Jim Bridger was an equally famous pioneer trapper and claimed to be the discoverer of the Great Salt Lake. He had recently survived a hand-to-hand encounter with a Blackfoot chief and was suffering from two arrow wounds in his back. In spite of Fitzpatrick's strenuous efforts to pull one arrowhead out, it was to remain firmly lodged in his back for three years, until removed by Dr. Marcus Whitman, a missionary traveling to Oregon.17
Bridger had a blot on his name. When very young he and another trapper had deserted a comrade, Hugh Glass, on the trail, thinking that Glass was dying and beyond help. Glass had somehow survived and staggered back like a ghost to accuse the two young trappers.
Wintering this year with Bridger's Brigade was a fascinating British traveler, Captain William Drummond Stewart.18 Hawknosed, with bristling black mustache, thirty-seven-year-old Captain Stewart was a fearless tourist and hunter who traveled through the Rockies to Fort Vancouver from 1833 to 1838, and again in the summer of 1843. A veteran of Waterloo, Captain Stewart was on half pay from the dissolved Fifteenth Hussars, and possibly may have done a little quiet spying for the British government. Captain Stewart looked like a real dude, sporting a large white hat, colored shirts, and a white wool coat. The trappers laughed at his paraphernalia, which included rare wines, brandies, and gourmet delicacies. (In 1837 he even added an artist to his ménage, taking Alfred Jacob Miller along to make sketches for a large oil painting to hang in his castle, for soon he would succeed his brother as baronet of Grandtully in Scotland.) The mountain men's amusement, however, was accompanied by respect.
As a novelist, Stewart was a keen observer and sampler of the life around him, and he later filled his novels, Edward Warren and Altowan, full of his experiences in the West. One of his notes says:
It was in the spring of 1834, I was with Jem [sic] Bridger19 and one of the bravest and most dashing hunters of the day, Captain Lee of the U.S. Army, in a range of mountains whose western slopes gave birth to the waters of California and near the city of Taos.20
It was a great compliment for Lee to be called "one of the bravest and most dashing hunters of the day" by a famous sportsman in such a company of mountain men. Because Captain Stewart did not keep a journal, his notes were often inaccurate as to date and place. It seems probable that they met at Bridger's camp rather than near Taos.
Carson tells us that Lee sold his merchandise to Fitzpatrick and took his pay in beaver pelts. Carson was anxious to join Fitzpatrick and trap, so Lee released him and set out towards the east without his young guide, Lee writing ". . . After a few days rest proceeded slowly in the direction of the north fork of the river Platte—thence to the Black Hills, thence to the several heads of the different forks of the Platte."21
Lee probably did not sell his entire stock of merchandise because he would need a stock of gewgaws to facilitate his parleys with the Indians. As he had stated in his letter, one of the reasons for this venture into the wilderness was to provide "an opportunity of becoming acquainted with most of the north-western Indian tribes." The easiest way to meet and know Indians was through trading with them.
The Indian villages were hospitable. After being greeted ceremoniously by the chief, the traders distributed gifts and then unloaded their beaver pelts and wares in the chief's lodge. Two young braves were appointed to serve as a guard for the merchandise. This was a great honor and the guards were given old blue military coats with tarnished epaulets to wear while on duty. The merchandise of beads, wire, knives, blankets, iron for arrowheads, cloth, coffee, sugar, abalone shells, files, awls, mirrors, vermilion, and turkey and chicken feathers were carefully examined by each Indian, and the long, drawn-out process of bartering commenced. The most popular trade item, alcohol, was not countenanced by the Bent St. Vrain Company at this time; consequently, although Richard had carried a supply for the trappers, none was offered to the Indians.
The bartering could not be hurried, and each transaction was sanctioned by Richard and the Indian sharing a few puffs of a peace pipe Richard also talked at length to the Chief; he explained the government's desire for peace and friendship, and attempted to work out a means of communication between the tribe and the U.S. Government, probably through the fur traders.
Richard became a part of the village life. He watched the women scraping the buffalo skins, sewing clothes, cooking and gathering firewood, while the men worked endlessly fashioning arrowheads. He probably observed the manufacture of pemmican: the women took dried strips of buffalo meat, removed all the grist1e and fiber, and completely pulverized it. The meat was then sewn into bags, where it would keep indefinitely.
As they journeyed on they selected campsites which would provide good grazing for the mules. Daily, the 250-pound burden on each mule had to be loaded and unloaded, the men constantly on the alert for hostile Indians or grizzly bears. There were many grizzlies, and occasionally they saw more than one hundred in a day, the average number being fifty or sixty. This was a beast to treat with respect, and Richard's companions regaled him with a series of gruesome stories of men being clawed to death.
Lee continued to visit Indian tribes located on different branches of the Platte River until his trade merchandise had been replaced with pelts. Richard felt that he had gained valuable information about the six tribes he had visited and that it was time to return to the Army. He abandoned his fantastic plan to proceed to Missouri via the Missouri River, writing that he went "to the head of the Arkansas and thence to Santa Fe which place [he] reached on the 12th of June," after nearly seven months and 1,220 miles.22
From June 12 to August 5, Richard felt like a chained lion. The 1834 caravan, which had been escorted to the Arkansas by Wharton's dragoons, arrived in Santa Fe with news from the East, but Richard, anxious to go back with it, had to wait impatiently while the traders disposed of their merchandise. Finally the return caravan was loaded with gold, silver, and furs and Lee could depart for home. The return trip was without incident. After his arduous journey into the area of the Rockies, the Santa Fe trail seemed simple to Richard. He was now a veteran and consequently was elected captain of the wagon train.23
On the 5th of August (availing myself of the first opportunity) I joined a party of twenty-nine men with whom I traveled until within three hundred miles of the settlement of Missouri when I came in advance with four men, reached Independence on the 3rd and Washington the 29th ultimo.24
The most famous of the trading posts along the Arkansas River was the nearly completed Bent's Fort. This great adobe building on Purgatory Creek was a fortification with thick walls, fifteen feet high, guarded by round towers. Twenty-five small rooms and two large storerooms were built around a court. This was a self-sufficient castle, with corrals, blacksmith, tailor, carpenter, kitchens and a canon. Here Richard would have met Charles Bent's younger brother, William,25 and probably added beaver pelts and buffalo robes from Bent's Fort to the caravan.
Richard's return trip was written up in the October 14th Missouri Republican:
A small company of traders arrived in this city last week from Santa Fe. They left early in August, taking Taos in the route, and thus extending the journey across the Rocky Mountains to the trading posts in the Arkansas river. They met with very few Indians, and suffered no interruption whatever in their progress home. We understand that the regular Fall company was to leave Santa Fe in about four weeks after their departure. Trade in that quarter was very limited in consequence of the scarcity of money, and the depredations of the Apache and other Indians, who intercepted the transmission of goods and specie from the lower part of the country. Large numbers of mules, horses and sheep forming principal articles of trade among the inhabitants of those provinces . . . were constantly stolen by the Indians; and some of the American traders had suffered considerable losses in this way. A part, only, of the adventurers of last spring had been able to effect sales of their goods; the others would be compelled to remain, or send them to Chihuahua and other markets below. Among the number who have returned is Capt. R. B. Lee, U.S. Army.
The present company brought with them eleven wagons, which, with the contents, belong to Messers. St. Vrain, Bent & Co.26
We do not know much about Richard's partnership with the Bents, or what share of the eleven wagons belonged to him. We do know that the price of beaver had dropped abysmally, so that it is probable he returned a poorer man. As if financial loss were not enough to bear, he found no laurel wreath to greet him on November 4th, no fanfare for the returning hero. His requests for an extension of his leave had not been granted, and he was faced with charges of being absent without leave.
There is no report of Lee's western experience in the War Department files and no official record of what took place when he returned to Washington. According to oral tradition, handed down by four generations of the Lee family, when he returned to Washington he entered the War Department in high expectation. He felt that he had risked his life to extend the limited knowledge of the West and presented his report with pride. However, his hopes were short lived. The Secretary of War commented that it seemed impossible for one man to have traveled so many miles in the unknown wilderness in the dead of winter. Richard's quick anger flared up and with the words, "Never has the honor of a Lee been doubted!" he tore up his report, turned on his heel and departed.27
Although the AWOL charges were dropped, Richard was punished by the indifference of the War Department: no one consulted him about the West until the Mexican War, and the maps of the West remained uncorrected for another eight years until Fremont mapped some of these same trails with Carson and Fitzpatrick as guides, earning the sobriquet of "Path Finder."
1. Lee, R. B. to Adjutant General Roger Jones, November 18, 1833, National Archives. Abiquiu is on the Rio Chama about forty miles northwest of Santa Fe.
2. R. B. Lee's letter to Adjutant General Roger Jones, dated November 4, 1834, National Archives.
4. Ibid. "As this letter is merely an explanation of the causes of my unavoidable and protracted detention I have confined myself exclusively to that object—intending upon a future occasion to submit my observations in relation to the country and Tribes of Indians through which I passed."
5. Kit Carson's Own Story of His Life, edited by Blanche C. Grant, Taos, New Mexico, 1926, p. 30. "In Taos, I found Captain Lee of the U.S.A. a partner of Bent and St. Vrain. He purchased goods to trade with the trappers. I joined him and in the latter part of the month of October we started for the mountains to find the trappers." Also see Qualife, Milo Milton, editor. Kit Carson's Autobiography, Chicago, 1935.
6. November 12, 1833.
7. Kit Carson's Own Story, op. cit. "We struck White River, took down the White River till we struck Green River, crossed Green to the Wintey (Unitah)." The Quaife edition spells the river Winty.
R. B. Lee letter dated November 4, 1834. Op. cit.
9. Kit Carson's Own Story, op. cit. Carson mentions the twenty traders and Mr. Robidoux, but not the fort.
10. Reagan, Albert B. "Forts Robidoux and Kit Carson in northeastern Utah," New Mexico Historical Review, Vol. X. 1935, p. 121, provides convincing proof that the fort was completed in 1831 and was of adobe 95 ft x 78 ft.
11. An Indian wife, who worked like a slave, could be bought for around $50 in St. Louis merchandise and could be easily shed, as divorce was a simple matter to the Indians.
12. The free trappers worked independently and sold their pelts to the highest bidder at the summer rendezvous.
13. So said that great mountain man, James Ohio Pattee.
14. Kit Carson's Own Story, op. cit., p. 31.
15. Kit Carson, dictating his memoirs as an old man, says that Bridger and Fitzpatrick were fifteen days away. Lee, however, says twenty days.
16. R. B. Lee, Letter dated November 4, 1834, op. cit.
17. Marcy, R. B. Colonel, Thirty Years of Army Life on the Border, New York, 1866, p. 404.
18. Stewart was a veteran of Waterloo and would soon succeed his brother as nineteenth Lord of Grandtully and seventh Baronet.
19. Doubtless he meant Jim.
20. Stewart, Sir William George Drummond, Edward Warren, London, 1854, Vol. 1, p. 288. Stewart also mentions meeting Carson in the "Spring following the night of the falling stars somewhere southwest of the Medicine Bow Creek, [at] the camp of Jim Bridger." Ibid., p. 7; he later refers to Kit's having come from Wintey, p. 271. Most historians in the past have identified "Captain Lee of the U.S. Army" with Stephen Luis Lee of Taos who later, as Sheriff of Taos County, was butchered by a mob of Indians in 1847 just before Governor Charles Bent was slain and scalped. Stephen Luis Lee was never in the U.S. Army. It is hoped that the evidence presented in this book proves that "Captain Lee" cannot be anyone but Richard Bland Lee.
21. Lee, R. B. Letter dated November 4, 1834, op. cit.
22. Autobiographical Sketch, letter dated November 18, 1833, op. cit., and Lee, R. B. letter dated November 4, 1834, op. cit. In his autobiographical sketch Lee gives the following route:
I penetrated the western slope at the nothern boundary of New Mexico, and explored the extensive region of the head waters of the Rio-Del Norte to the South Park as far west as the base of Salt Mountain. Thence northerly, to the foot of Green River Mountain crossing Green River near its entrance into the great canon. Thence through the valley of Green River across the spur of a mountain to the confluence of Little Snake and Little Bear rivers, both of which I explored to their heads.
Near the head of the Little Snake river I crossed the grand divide of the Western and Eastern waters, striking Sweet Water river near the south pass to the great Salt Lake Lake, and near the base of Wind River Mountain, and thence across the Platte and Medicine Bow rivers meandering the valleys of the Black Hills and the eastern slopes of the mountains, and crossing the several forks of the Platte and the Arkansas rivers and their tributaries, reaching Santa Fe via Taos on the 15th of June 1833. Having in the period of seven months accomplished an exploration of an area exceeding twelve hundred miles in extent, and visited six tribes of uncivilized Indians, with all of whom I entered into friendly relations, and arranged plans of communication with the government.
Though Lee confuses the Little Snake with the Snake where he met Bridger and
Fitzpatrick and, like Carson, moves his date one year ahead, he can be excused,
as he was writing almost twenty-eight years later.
23. Lavender, David, Bent's Fort, op. cit,, p. 389.
24. Lee, R. B. letter dated November 4, 1834, op. cit.
25. William resembled Charles except that he was smaller and consequently was called "Little White Man" by the Indians. There is no evidence that Lee met William, but such an encounter is most probable.
26. Missouri Republican, St. Louis, October 14, 1834, p. 3, col. 1.
27. This is a word of mouth, father-to-child anecdote. After so many years, oral tradition becomes a legend, but as we find other instances of hurt pride in Lee's life, this legend seems very believable.
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