Those are the mountain men we know and love.
Are there other mountain men that we don’t know that much about, however?
I’d say that when it comes to mountain men and fur trappers, we don’t know most of ‘em.
I sought to change that with my book Tribes and Trappers, but honestly, I just profiled the well-known names.
Now, more than three years and nine mountain man novels later, I know a helluva lot more.
I’d like to share some of that knowledge with you today.
He may have killed a sheriff in Virginia when he was 18-years-old and fled west because of it. Thus began his career as a fur trapper and mountain man, one that saw him spend 26 years among the Mandan and the Crow.
All of that is conjecture.
- We get the date of his birth from a conversation Greenwood had with Edwin Bryan in California in 1846, when Greenwood claimed he was 83-years-old.
- We get the sheriff story from a widow of one of his sons.
- We get the 26 years with the Crow and Mandan from a statement Greenwood made to Moses Merrill at Fort Bellevue in 1834.
The first concrete fact about Greenwood comes to us from Wilson Price Hunt in December 1810.
Greenwood was tagging along with the Astoria expedition that was going overland from the Missouri River to the Pacific. Greenwood was with them as they wintered at the mouth of the Nodaway River, though Hunt’s mention of him ends in late-January 1811.
It’s likely that Greenwood took his leave of the men, just using them to get upriver to the Mandan safely.
What he did after that is unknown but he does show up again in 1812 as a member of Manuel Lisa’s upriver expedition that year.
Other members of that expedition included Rueben Lewis, Edward Rose, Antoine Ledoux and his brother Abraham, as well as 8 other men.
They left in the summer, went upriver for trapping and trading, and got back to Fort Manuel near today’s Council Bluffs in March 1813.
“As a free trapper,” Leroy R. Hafen tells us in his 10-volume history of the mountain men, “Greenwood was indebted to Lisa’s company on April 13, 1813, for $211.45.”
Greenwood next shows up on the Chouteau-Mun expedition to Santa Fe in 1815, though he stayed in Huerfano instead of going all the way south into Spanish-controlled Mexico, and rejoined the party on its return trip to St. Louis in 1816…though not all the way.
Greenwood disappears until the 1820-21 trapping season, when Indian agent Benjamin O’Fallon blacklisted him for illegally going up the Missouri with 5 other men.
By 1824 he was working for William Henry Ashley, for the trapper, trader and politician credited Greenwood in his account books for “202 pounds of beaver at $3 per pound.”
The general theory is that Greenwood was with Captain Weber’s company of fur trappers that were funded by Ashley.
In 1825 Greenwood was at Fort Atkinson and in 1827 he married Batchicka Youngcault, a half-French, half-Crow woman that “bore him a number of children.” Jim Beckwourth, never a very reliable source, confirms that he was with the Crow at this time.
One of Greenwood’s sons was William Sublette, born in 1838. I find this interesting, as the famous William Sublette that we know was born in 1799. Perhaps it’s another person or Hafen got this wrong.
In 1843 Greenwood took his family to St. Louis, where his wife died. In 1844 he was guiding a team of 27 wagons heading for Oregon. They went through Fort Hall using what would become known as the “Greenwood cutoff,” later called the Sublette cutoff.
In 1846 Greenwood was in California, and we get our first description of him. He was described as “about six feet in height, raw-boned and spare in flesh, but muscular, and not withstanding his old age, walks with the erectness and elasticity of youth.”
A few years later he was described as “a rough-spoken character dressed in dirty buckskin, roistering and drinking and living the legendary life of the Mountain Men.”
By 1847 he was known as “Old Greenwood” and participated in the Donner relief party. In 1849 he participated in the California gold rush, and may have had a hand in starting it when he talked about “a lake full of gold” near Coloma.
Shortly after that they moved to El Dorado County. The area became known as Greenwood Valley.
It’s suspected that Caleb Greenwood died in 1850 at the age of 87, “reportedly somewhere between Bear and Yuba rivers, in the open and threatening to shoot anyone who tried to move him indoors.”
Hafen finishes his biographical sketch of Greenwood by describing him as a “shadowy character, who in his old age managed to impress some of his younger contemporaries as a crusty relic of a more primitive time that had already vanished.”
Hafen doesn’t have a biographical sketch of this man, though we know that he was around the Big Bend of the Arkansas River on June 23, 1813.
That was the date he and some other whites – along with some Osage Indians – were hunting and learned about Ezekial Williams.
Williams had been trapping upriver for the past year, and after seeing many members of his party die, he went downriver alone on a canoe and was subsequently captured by the Kansas Indians.
Larrison went out with another white named Joseph Larivee (perhaps Larivier), but their attempts to negotiate Williams’ release yielded nothing.
Williams was eventually released, but what happened to Larrison is unknown.
Bissonet is the hereditary name and Bijou was derived from a second marriage of his mother.
Bijou’s brother was Joseph Bissonet, dit Bijou and he was born in St. Louis on June 15, 1778. Louis was older and probably born a few years earlier.
We know a lot about Joseph Bissonet but little about his brother Louis. One fact we do know is that Louis Bijou died in 1836.
Manuel Lisa had problems when he made it upriver to the Mandan villages in 1812 for a winter of trapping and trading.
Downriver a ways from the Mandan, the Arikara were not happy with his desire to move his fort downriver. For some reason, Manuel relented and moved the fort upriver 12 miles.
This didn’t turn out too well, however, as the upriver situation was “extremely volatile” due to the incursions made by the British and the now-questionable loyalty of many upriver tribes.
The Gros Ventre, for instance, had killed 2 American hunters while driving off 26 horses. Usually that tribe was peaceful. The Gros Ventre chief, Le Bourgne, refused to talk restitution.
Manuel contented himself with sending out two trapping parties that winter – seventeen men led by Rueben Lewis for the Little Horn and four men led by Louis Lorimier for the Wind River. Neither party did that well.
We know little of Lorimier, aside from the mention of this time upriver in 1812-13. One of the four men he went to the Wind River with was Maurice LeDuc. The others may have been John Dougherty, Caleb Greenwood, and a man named Weir.
When Manuel Lisa abandoned his upriver fort in the spring of 1813, Lorimier was sent back upriver to the Crows to “warn other traders of the abandonment of the post and the danger from Indians.”
And that’s all we know of Louis Lorimier. No date of birth, no time of death…nothing but his short time with Manuel Lisa’s men upriver on the Missouri as the War of 1812 was just starting up Back East.
They’d been on the Three Forks, an area that’d been known to be dangerous to whites for more than 15 years at that point.
The men had been under the command of Joshua Pilcher, who’d taken over the Missouri Fur Company after Manuel Lisa died in August 1820.
Pilcher had sent 300 men upriver in 1822 and it netted him $25,000 in furs. He also built two new forts that year – Fort Vanderburgh on the Knife River near the Mandan and Fort Benton at the mouth of the Bighorn on the Yellowstone, a spot that had first been used by Lisa in 1807.
By 1823 he was ready to expand, and Jones and Immel and their five men were sent to the Jefferson River, where they trapped 52 packs of beaver. One of these men was Charles Keemle and another was a man named William Gordon.
The men then started back to Fort Benton but the Blackfeet were not ready to accept these whites in their territory. First the men met 38 Piegan Blackfeet on May 17, a party that appeared friendly. A brave named Iron Shirt “showed them a letter in English which attested to his good intentions.” They talked and then the Indians rode off.
Unbeknownst to the whites, the Blackfeet “returned to their village not far distant and recruited a war party of three hundred to four hundred men.”
Then, “while the trappers were passing through a narrow defile on the Yellowstone on May 21, near present Billings, Montana, the war party, lying in ambush, attacked.”
It was a terrible spot, a “buffalo path at the base of a steep hill washed by the river,” and the men were strung-out for half a mile along its length.
Jones and Immel and a few others were killed and their “furs, horses and equipment,” valued at $15,000, was captured.
The story goes that Immel and Jones were targeted first, as they’d been shown the letter. The Blackfeet rushed the men but “Immel brought down the first attacker,” though he was then “immediately cut to pieces by more than thirty Indians.”
Jones, “bleeding from two wounds,” somehow managed to rally his men and “attempted to pass the narrow part of the trail but a renewed attack scattered the party.” Jones died from the Blackfeet’s lances.
Some men in the party got away. One of them was Gordon, who “ran seven miles to escape.” Another was Keemle, who “assumed command of the survivors” and “crossed the river to take shelter in a Crow village.”
The remaining men made bullboats and loaded up the 32 packs they had left and got downriver to Fort Vanderburgh. After the loss, Pilcher contented himself with his downriver holdings.
The company left the Northwest and even destroyed Fort Vanderburgh that very same year. Pilcher “later attributed the death of his two traders as a major cause contributing to the failure of the Missouri Fur Company.”
Montana would remain off-limits to whites for another decade until Kenneth McKenzie set up his fort 6 miles up the Missouri from the Marias River at the tribe’s request in 1833.
Hafen, Leroy H (ed.). The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West: Biographical sketches of the participants by scholars of the subject and with introductions by the editor. The Author H. Clark Company: Glendale, 1972.
Vol. I, 45, 74-5; Vol. IV, 49, 77, 208, 252-3; Vol. V, 197; Vol. VI, 228-29; Vol. VIII, 119, 123, 205; Vol. IX, 27-32, 187-192, 399.