The brotherhood of free trappers of the Rocky mountains,
came into existence 200 yeas ago and flourished until about 1850,
when it began to decline, was up of the boldest, most reckless adventurers that ever glanced down the sights of a rifle or challenged death each day the sun arose.
No man could face the untold perils of the wilderness as did they unless his eye and hand were ever ready and lightning quick to act; unless his heart was steeled against fear, and unless he could walk alone in a wild and terrible land and ignore that grim shadow that stalked ever at his elbow.
These free trappers were men of lion courage, with the cunning of the
black fox. Wily as were the plains Indians, the free trappers were even
more crafty. Many of them used to boast that the scalps of a hundred
reds were worn at the belts of the trappers for every trapper’s scalp that
was used to trim the war leggings of the Indians.
And, trained in the brutal school of plains and mountain warfare, these
white pathfinders reverted in some respect toward the status of the savages, although it would be unjust to rate them with mere renegades and desperadoes. The trapper, whatever his faults, was yet every inch a man.
Bravest of the brave, cool and sagacious in the strategy of border war,
capable in any emergency, faithful to his own code of honor, generous with
out limit to all but his foes, there was something heroic in this fierce and
uncouth figure who dominated for a time the vast area that today comprises Montana and its neighboring states along the eastern and western slopes of the Rockies.
These free hunters of the far west were great rangers. Men of the type
of Bill Williams. Killbuck, La Bonte, Bridger and Walker, whose names are
found in the pages of every story written about early western fur trapping
and trading, knew not only the valleys and mountain defiles of our Montana, but had traveled as well every hunting ground as far south as the Mexican line. Many had pushed through from the Great Salt lake across the desert to the southern Californian missions, whither they rode in small bands on horse stealing expeditions. Two of the most famous of the free
trappers were Killbuck and La Bonte, mentioned above, whose adventures on the Yellowstone were recounted by that unfortunate young English explorer and hunter, George Frederick Ruxton, who died at St. Louis in 1848 after spending a couple of years with the free trappers in the Rocky mountains.
Ruxton, in his story of the trappers, gives a graphic account of an expedition of 14 trappers of which La Bonte and Killbuck were members, which
rode on a foray after horses all the way to southern California and returned the same year with 200 head of fine Spanish mares and stallions, which they sold at Bent’s fort in Colorado at a big profit. They were attacked by Indians and lost 200 horses, or half of the number they stole from the Spaniards at the missions on the way back. They also lost two of their own in the battle with the Spaniards which they fought and won before they were able to round up the horses and drive them away. The other was killed in a fight with Indians. There are doubtless ranging the Montana prairies today many descendants of these mares and stallions that were brought back on that and other raids made from this side of the main
range Into Spanish settlements, view of this, a brief summary of the
trip Is of interest to Montana readers.
Killbuck and La Bonte, after an exciting episode with the Blackfeet on the Yellowstone, headed south and by chance met the party of 12 seasoned
trappers, whom they joined, swelling the number of the band to 14, as men
mentioned above. Although not a large party, it was a formidable one that pushed down toward Salt Lake to the to southern California. Fourteen rifles in the hands of 14 mounted men, well mounted and equipped, spelled trouble in plenty for any foe that might bar their way. Before them stretched a thousand miles of dreary desert, Infested with hostile savages.
Famine and drouth threatened them.
Beyond these dangers lay the civilized
settlements of the Spaniards the least of which contained 10 times their number of armed and bitter enemies. When they reached these there must follow their sudden swoop upon their countless herds of mules and horses the fierce attack and bloody battle. Then, if success attended their adventure, there still awaited the perils of the return Journey, for all along their dangerous trail would await war parties of Indians determined to slay the whites and capture their horses. But they rode merrily along without thought of what might lie ahead. Never a more daring band crossed the mountains. In the hearts of the trappers burned a desire for vengeance against these southern Indians. Grudges for many privations, for wounds and for lost comrades remained to foe paid. So reckless were they, says Ruxton, that they invited trouble and at night their wild war songs and grotesque scalp dances, borrowed from the Blackfeet and other tribes, made a weird scene in whatever valley they happened to be camped.
Soon after Killbuck and La Bonte Joined them, they suddenly one day surprised a band of 20 Sioux, scattered on a small prairie, butchering buffalo.
Before the Indians could concentrate or escape, the trappers were on them with their war cries, and in a few minutes 11 scalps were dangling from their saddle horns.
On their way to Salt Lake, they passed rapidly the heads of the Green
and Grand rivers, and at last reached the edge of the desert lying along the
southern shore of the Great Salt lake, Plunging into the desert, they no longer chanted Indian songs and charged forward with war whoops ringing Instead they rode silently and were more thoughtful. They passed many bands of Yutas and miserable Digger Indians, who scurried out of
Soon they entered the country of the Yamparicas or Root Diggers, the most abject and degraded of all the western tribes. These Indians, although cowards had their brutish wits sharpened by hunger and their attacks were often more feared than those of boulder tribes, especially if they gathered an overpowering number and charged into camp at night. Early one morning an attack came and the diggers killed one of the trappers who was standing guard, scalping him and running off three horses. Five trappers at
daylight tracked the lndian’s to their village, into which they recovered the stolen horses and bringing back 13 scalps dangling at their belts.
They suffered from thirst and hunger, having to kill several of their horses and eat them, but they replaced these after a battle with a band of Indians returning from a successful raid into California after horses. In the fight with these reds the trappers killed six and got 20 horses.
They met with one horrible experience, when, reduced to the last straits of hunger, they met a small band of Indians who proved friendly and offered them meat. Starting to eat it they discovered It was human flesh, and from
white men, at that.
At last they reached their destination, the Mission of San Fernando, which appeared like a paradise after their weeks spent in the desert. Fig trees, bananas, cherry and apple trees abounded, and the landscape became
dotted with groves of olive trees. The Mission of San Fernando was situated
on a small river called Las Animas, a branch of Los Martires. They could see
its rude tower and cross peeping out of a grove of fruit trees. About it were
scattered the huts of the Indians, built of stone and adobe. The monastery
housed a queer assortment of priests and servants, with attaches of all degrees of Spanish and Indian blood mixture. Fray Augustin, a Capuchin
monk with a huge paunch and fat jowls, was in charge.
Being apprised by a cattle herder of the approach of the trappers, the
inmates of the mission prepared to fight. Half a hundred half-breed cowboys, a handful of Spaniards and a few Indians were mounted and armed, An old brass cannon was mounted on the walls and loaded to the muzzle with bullets and powder. Fray Augustin, too fate to move fast, exhorted the men to fight well, the women screamed, and confusion reigned.
Meanwhile, the trappers trotted steadily toward the mission in a line
The Californian horsemen moved forward and broke into a gallop. The
trappers then dashed forward into the middle of the faltering troop, their
loud war cries and the crack of their rifles spreading terror. In a minute
half a dozen saddles of the Californians were emptied, and one of the
trappers had fallen with a bullet through his heart. Fray Augustin shot
the cannon in the air, but it did no more harm than to knock him down,
and the fight was over.
For three days the mountain men feasted and drank. Then they gathered
a choice herd of 400 horses and started back, for it was now October and they wished to cross the Rockies again before winter set in.
On their return, the trappers followed for a distance the old Spanish
trail, which led them south of the Sierra Nevada’s. Their trip across the
desert was attended by Indian attacks, but they came through safely and in
early December crossed a divide of the Rockies, losing many horses in the
snow. They struck for the headwaters of the Arkansas river in Colorado and
followed that stream to a valley in the mountains known as the Bayou Salade, famous as a rendezvous for traders and trappers. Here they let
their stolen horses grow fat. They then took them to Bent’s fort, on the Arkansas, where they sold the animals for a big price. The money was evenly divided, and the 12 trappers proceeded to have a huge carousal that lasted for several weeks.
A few weeks later Killbuck and La Bonte threw in with a company of trappers headed for Taos, N. M., a visit to Taos being the only civilized relaxation coveted by the mountaineers. In this band were many famous
frontiersmen, including Dick Wooton,who died In Colorado years ago; Rube Herring, Marcelline and Chabonard. Not one of these trappers measured less than 6 feet 6 inches in height,Killbuck and La Bonte were almost of
equal size. The smallest man in stature, but first in every other quality that made the free trappers famous, was Kit Carson, paragon of the mountain men and the most famous frontiersman of then all.
Slight of build and slenderly limbed, With fair hair and quiet manner, none
who did not know Carson would ever suppose that he was a very devil In
an Indian fight and had raised more hair from the heads of redskins than
any other two men In the western country. At this time, although but 30
years old, he was at the height of his reputation.
When the trappers reached Taos, they rode clattering down the street,
while the dark eyes of the senoritas followed them, and the owners of the
eyes began at once to make preparations for the dance, or fandango,
which always followed the advent of the mountaineers. The men of the
town were not so pleased and leaned sulkily against the walls, their scrapes
turned over their left shoulders and concealing the lower part of the face,
The women found the dashing mountain men entertaining company. The
men hated the Intruders and looked on them with jealous eyes.
When evening came the women gathered briskly for the fandango, their men sullenly following them to the rude hall where the affair was to be held. The dusky beauties were all arrayed In similar style. Their long,
black hair was combed tightly behind their ears and plaited m a long queue
down their backs. Petticoats of gaudy color were fastened around the waist
with ornamental belts, and above this a snow-white camlsta was worn, cut low Gold and silver ornaments of ancient pattern decorated their ears and
necks. They wore quaint little shoes and no stockings. They showed extreme grace in dancing.
At one end of the long room were seated the musicians, their instruments
being a species of guitar, a “bandolln,’ – and an Indian drum. Round the room lounged the groups of Mexican men, scowling out of their scrapes at the more favored mountain men, with jealous eyes. The free trappers, di-
vested of their buckskin hunting coats, appeared In their brand new shirts of gaudy calico and close-fitting buckskin pantaloons, with long fringes down the outside seam from hip to ankle, wore moccasins ornamented
bright beads and porcupine quills.
Each around his waist wore his mountain belt and scalp knife. Most bad
pistols sticking in their belts.
During Intervals gourds of whisky would go the rounds, and as the night advanced the dancers grew more bolsiterous, while the hatred of the Mexican men burned fiercer. Suddenly an Infuriated Mexican stopped La- Bonte, and pulled his sweetheart from him. Standing erect, La Bonte raised his hand to his mouth and gave a ringing warwhoop; then he seized the rash Mexican, lifted him over his head and dashed him against the wall.
Twenty Mexicans drew their knives
and rushed upon La Bonte, who stood his ground and swept one after an
other down with his huge fist, while with an answering warwhoop, his comrades rushed to the rescue. Knives glittered in the light as the trappers stood shoulder to shoulder, and many a hilt was driven “up to Green River,” as mountaineers phrased it, meaning up to the Green River trade mark stamped on the steel near the hilt.
The shrieks of the women brought reinforcements for the Mexicans, and
the odds were beginning to tell against the whites when Kit Carson’s quick
eye caught sight of a heavy stool with three long, thick legs. Seizing this, he
tore off the legs, which were soon in the hands of himself, Dick Wooton and
La Bonte. Sweeping their heads they charged the Mexicans and cracked many a skull. The Mexicans could not stand before the assault and bolted. The trappers also beat a hasty retreat to the hotel, where their rifles had been left.
The town prefecto, or marshal, soon appeared and demanded their surrender. A yell of derision greeted his proposal, but as they wished to re-
main In Taos for a few days, the trappers settled with justice by handing forth a few beaver pelts, to be sold to pay for the singing of masses for the souls of the dead Mexicans.