The mountain man is an integral part of the frontier West. Although his original business was fur trapping, his experiences fired the imagination of people in the East, and their travels would guide the original pioneers West.
A nations mythology really highlights our ideals. From the leather stocking tales, and Natty Bumppo, and onward, Americans value the rugged individualist. People who can take care of themselves, seek no sympathy from others, and approach life confidently and fearlessly.The mountain man really does embody the rugged individualist. Not wanting the constraints of society, and looking for a job, as well as adventure,many of these men – often teenagers or men in their early 20s, went from uninitiated and unemployed immigrants,to legends.
Another aspect of the mountain man that excites our imagination is the sights that they must have seen. In the early 1820s and 1830s, not very long after Lewis and Clark, they had the opportunity to see and interact with Native American tribes before they were decimated by disease, and their culture permanently altered by contact with the white man. Endless herds of buffalo that covered the land to the horizon, antelope, elk, wolves, bighorn sheep, appeared as natural as in creation. The rivers were untamed, and the land unbroken by barbed wire.
By the 1840s,however the fur trade was mostly played out. Many of the Mountain Men would find work as scouts for the Army, and lead wagon trains to California and Oregon. Ranching,mining,businesses of all types, they understood the West better than anybody, and capitalized on it.
Across the valley from the Bar Kochba Ranch is Broken Hand peak. One of many named peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It is named for Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick, one of the most accomplished, and legendary mountain men.
Fitzpatrick was born in Ireland. He became a sailor and eventually in 1822 came to New Orleans. Soon after, at age 23, he found himself unemployed in St. Louis. He answered an advertisement to explore the Missouri River to its source, and became a fur trapper and wilderness explorer, although he had experience in neither. Fortunately, he was in very good company as he was about to head out with a bunch of young men who were smart, tough, and about to become Western legends. Other men on this trip included Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, Mike Fink, and William Sublette.
Fitzpatrick developed a reputation for boldness when fighting Indians. He studied their habits, and their beliefs,and used this knowledge to develop effective strategies in combating the Indians, particularly of the Blackfoot tribe In his developing world he quickly became a leader. With Jedediah Smith, he is considered to have discovered South Pass, which is in Wyoming.This became a major route for immigrants crossing into California and Oregon.
In 1826 when he was 27 years old, a musket exploded in his left hand, mangling it. The Indians thereafter referred to him as Broken Hand, and that nickname stuck.
Among Fitzpatrick’s many accomplishments was leading the first two wagon trains to Oregon in 1841 and 1842. He also guided John C Fremont’s second and longest expedition. Fremont was known as the “Pathfinder”, but it was really Mountain Men scouts like Fitzpatrick ,and Kit Carson, who led the way .
Fitzpatrick also guided Gen. Kearney during the Mexican war of 1848. . In 1849 he married an Arapaho woman . Fitzpatrick was respected by the Indians and was a key individual in the development of the Laramie Treaty of 1851 . . This was a very unique historical moment . Most of the Indian tribes of the Great Plains gathered together at Laramie to negotiate this treaty . . Some of these tribes had been hostile to each other for generations , but they recognized the importance of the meeting and the necessity of trying to come to an agreement with the American government . . The government was motivated by the large increase in migrants going to California and Oregon as part because of the California gold rush . . They were trying to ensure safe passage across the plains for these new immigrants . In exchange for allowing safe passage of the immigrants, and permitting the building of forts and roads , the Indians were guaranteed annuity payments and other considerations . . The terms of this treaty were never really honored by the government . . There were several reasons for this, including the fact that the massive number of immigrants simply couldn’t be contained, and their impact on the Indian way of life was too powerful . . Also, I don’t think that the government ever really felt duty bound to respect this treaty, and many other agreements with Native Americans, because of an inherent lack of respect for Indian beliefs, rights, and culture. Since Indians were not recognized as citizens, agreements with them were more lightly regarded . Many contemporary writers, and pioneers, regarded them as savages . .
I think this is a fundamental truth as to why treaty responsibilities were not respected . . Another major factor was the tremendous wealth available in the West . Mineral wealth, timber, farmland, all in great abundance , where there for the taking . . The obstacle of Mexican ownership and Native Americans were inevitably going to be overcome, one way or another . .
Thomas Fitzpatrick had an important role in convincing the Plains Indian tribes to not only attend the Laramie treaty conference , but to negotiate the agreement itself. His role is briefly revisited in the movie Into the West . . He only lived a few years longer, until 1854, but that was long enough for him to realize that the government had betrayed the treaty,. He was disturbed and embarrassed by these events , but like many others, was unable to alter the inevitable momentum of the Frontier West .