Thursday, February 28, 2008

King of the West

Every once in a while I feel the urge to write about one of my favorite topics, the mountain men, that short lived phenomena of tough fur trappers and explorers who wandered the West, exploring the country for Americans after Lewis & Clark blazed the first long narrow trail across it. A few started out in a trickle in L&C's wake, but their glory years were the 1820-40s, after which large numbers of prospectors, business men and families began to fulfill the idea of manifest destiny.

I came to the subject backwards, first reading in law school (in lieu of concentrating on what I was supposed to be reading) a biography of John Fremont, who made three long expeditions throughout the wilds of the West, and popularized his trips and himself in his books, along with making a heroic figure out of Kit Carson (a decent soul and decent mountain man, but, despite his fame, not one of the greats in my humble opinion). Fremont's father-in-law, Thomas Benton, a U.S. Senator from Tennessee, was Mister Manifest Destiny himself.

Like many biographers, the author loved his subject, and played some of which I have otherwise learned about Fremont, including, his running away from a battle in California, his court martial when he returned East, and his bizarre generalship during the Civil War. But the most important thing I got out of the book was the obvious fact that there were any number of men who were out West long before Fremont, men who were Fremont's guides, including the subject of this little piece, Joseph Rutherford Walker, or just Joe Walker, or Cap'n Joe Walker, in my mind, the King of the Mountain Men, although he is pretty much completely forgotten today except for a river, lake and mountain pass in the Sierra Nevada. In fact, if you looked him up on the web, you would more often see his middle name as Reddeford, a misspelling (although the error long preceded the digital age).

Why the King? Not because of any one shoot out, or glorious event, although there were more than enough battles and exciting moments. But because of his longevity (most of the famous mountain men died or left the West quite young), the belief by many that he was the most knowledgeable of the explorers and guides, particularly in the huge area known as the great basin, and the fact that although he led hundreds of men and later women, probably far more, and lost but one or two, whereas others lost most or significant amounts of their charges, particularly in the earlier days. Few doubted at the time, that the safest place to be in the wilds was with Joe Walker.

The usual rules apply when dealing with mountain men. It is hard to know what to believe and always there are holes you could drive a wagon train through in their histories, as unless they were with someone who recorded their adventures, it was lost or, the opposite, greatly exaggerated. The former is especially true of Walker (who fortunately played a role in a few memoirs or books) as he was known for his reticence, his particular reluctance to talk to reporters, and his refusal to participate in the dime novel rage which would have made him immortal. Almost nothing we know comes from him directly. Actually, he did start writing a biography, but lost it fording a river. After that he determined not to rely on his memory and possibly give false impressions about his life. He felt there was too much of that.

Walker's family was one of the great Scotch-Irish frontier families constantly pushing the borders West. At one point they settled in Southern Virginia not far North from where I live, near present day Lexington, Virginia. When Walker was still a relatively young teenager (he was born in December, 1798, when Washington was still alive and Lincoln would not be born for over ten years), he went with his older brother, Joel, also quite a frontiersman, but one who settled down early, to fight with General Andrew Jackson in one of the most famous and bloodiest battles with Indians in the Eastern U.S., leading to the destruction of the Creek Indian Nation as a power (1814). Ironically, the Creek Nation was also the name for Walkers' settlement in Virginia. For the sake of history, I have to add that there is no definitive evidence Joe Walker was with Jackson, although there is for his older brother, but it appears more than likely he was present along with many others of the Walker clan.

Around 1818, some of the family along with family and friends went further West to what at the time was the furthest Anglo-American outpost from the East, Missouri.

In the early 20s Joe and his brother, Joel, began traveling along and helped shape what would become the Santa Fe trail to New Mexico. Without definitive evidence (there just aren't records) but based on the solid information known, he was one of among a small group of men involved in laying out the historic trail. He would not have been the leader yet though. The issue is very shadowy due to the loss of records, although his close family certainly believed he was in New Mexico as early as 1820.

One story from this era prefigures Walker's future. Traveling on the trail in 1823, Joel Walker was stranded when Indians stole his horses. They also had men missing along the way. A figure came riding out of the distance. At first, Joel thought it was another Indian, but there appeared his long haired and Indian garbed brother, Joe, to the rescue. Returning from New Mexico he had followed signs indicating their were Americans in trouble. It would be far from the last time.

After years of trading along the trail, the family then helped in founding Independence, Missouri, then the furthest point West. The 6' 4" Joe Walker became the town sheriff in 1827. Records only show him in three altercations, none involving a gun. Besides, there were no rapid firing pistols yet. It is likely that Walker's size, considered quite large even now and certainly larger then, would have intimidated most likely agressors anyway.

However, he was soon back to being a trader and guide for those venturing out West. By then the fur trade was in full swing, beaver hunters traversing throughout the country.

In the 30s, Walker met the mysterious explorer (military spy?) Lieutenant Benjamin Bonneville, who would later be lionized by the great writer, Washington Irving, in a number of books. Somehow, Walker became the fall guy in the relationship according to Irving, to help explain away Bonneville's failed missions. Supposedly at the end of the relationship, again according to Irving, Bonneville chewed out Walker and sent him slinking back to Missouri. However, all the other evidence including a number of written evidence and memoirs indicates nothing of the sort happened. In fact, although Walker often disagreed with Bonneville's plans and split off from him, they parted friends, and even saw each other again the next year. There is no indication at all from Bonneville himself that he was anything but greatful for Walker's help. Unfortunately, for Walker, Irving's works remained well known. Still, it does not appear that historians take it seriously.

It was in the 30s that Walker began to be known as Captain Walker. It was nothing official or military. It was just that he was the boss. Zenas Leonard was among Walker's men for a while during this time period. He left what is in my mind the best mountain man memoir, full of honesty about his own fears and problems, Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard. He describes Walker this way:

He was "well calculated to undertake a business of this kind. He was well hardened to the hardships of the wilderness -- understood the character of the Indians very well -- was kind and affable to his men, but at the same time at liberty to command without giving offense -- and to explore unknown regions was his chief delight."

Through Leonard, we get a great deal of our information about Walker's great explorations. George Nidever, another one of Walker's men and a reknowned rifleman, similarly wrote of Walker: " He was one of the best leaders I have ever met, a good hunter and trapper, thouroughly versed in Indian signs and possessed of good knowledge of the mountains. He could find water quicker than any man I ever met".

While split off from Bonneville in 1933 (according to Irving, against orders) Walker explored the Great Basin surrounding the Great Salt Lake and through Bonneville, who made a map based on Walker's description, was able to rule out the existence of a river leading from The Great Salt Lake to the Pacific, which had long been sought.

However, Walker was determined to find an easier way through the mountains to the California, finally succeeding after a terrible month through the pass that later bore his name. Despite extreme hardship Walker managed to do so while losing none of his men. In the famous trip made by mountain man Jedediah Smith in the 1820s, he lost 26 of his 32 men and was taken prisoner for a while.

During this exploration, Walker faced a tough battle, as he and his men were surrounded by angry Indians after some of their tribe were killed by some of Walker's men (behavior which, according to Leonard, Walker angrily suprressed once he learned of it). Walker, it seemed, would always rather talk peace than fight. The men formed a quick barricade and Walker put his riflemen up front and had them demonstrate the power of their rifles. The Indians appeared to be more afraid of the noise than the effect on the ducks that were shot. When this did not deter the tribe, the men killed dozens of them, finishing them up with bow and arrow.

During this trip, it appears that Walker discovered Yosemite Valley, although there is also other evidence that he may have just camped near it.

Although the men under him suffered privations for over a month, they agreed at the end that due to the wonders they had seen, it had all been worth it. And, again, he lost no men. At one point, when mutiny was approaching, he told those who wished to leave to feel free, but they could take no supplies with them. It worked. Instead, they ate their horses.

When they reached California, the men were treated to the greatest meteorite shower in recorded history (11/12/33 - paintings done of the event make it seem as if it were literally raining meteorites) which terrified all but Walker (he really seemed unflappable); and were amazed to see a beached whale and Indians growing pumpkins, melons and squash. Unlike his predecessor Smith, Walker made sure he got an introduction to the authorities and, rather than being treated with suspicion, was offered 30,000 acres of his own if he would settle there. He ruled it out due to his love of travel. He was also offered a wife by a local Indian tribe, but turned that down as well.

Walker continued gathering fame and respect during the 30s and 40s as a guide. Often he is described as celebrated or famous, although we have now long forgotten him. He was unusual in a number of respects. Unlike those few famous mountain men who were not killed by Indians or bears while still young, or who settled while young in one area, Walker continued to explore and guide for decades. Caravans heading West sought him out. Sometimes they were frustrated that he refused to move on until they were well supplied while others passed by them, yet he always got his charges where they were going safely, and sometimes had to rescue the groups that had moved ahead of them without foraging or hunting first.

Walker made friends with many tribes, although particularly the Snakes (a Shoshoni tribe). He also made friends with the terror of the Great Basin, an Indian who specialized in kidnapping and horse thievery by the name of Walkara. After they met, Walkara even took to calling himself Walker or even Joe Walker, which led to a little confusion. Supposedly Walker endeared himself to Walkara by returning his kidnapped wife and children to him. This was not unusual for Walker as he seemed often to buy or otherwise obtain kidnapped woman and children and return them to their families.

Walker himself married an Indian woman whom he often traveled with from 1937 to 1946. Other than their marriage and the fact that they had children, little is known of her, including what happened to her; just that she was gone after that. Although Walker sided with whites in a conflict, on at least one occassion he organized a posse to track down and return horses whites had stolen from Indians.

It was in the 40s that Walker gained greater fame by twice guiding Fremont. The first time, Fremont was being guided by othe" legendary figures, including Carson, Fremont's favorite,and Tom Fitzpatrick (aka "Brokenhand"). They were lost, and believed they were about to be attacked and massacred by local Indians. Walker road into camp with men and many horses (horse trading had become a profession for him). Walker told him they had nothing to fear and even introduced Fremont to his friend, Walkara, smoothing out any further problems.

Fremont, who, remember, was already accompanied by two exceptional guides later wrote of Walker: "Nothing but his great knowledge of the country, great courage and presence of mind and good rigles could have brought him safe from such a perilous enterprise."

To Walker's credit, he later said that Fremont over-dramatized: "The fact is, the danger was all in Captain Fremont's fears . . . (I) would have traveled at that time with eight mountain men, well armed, anywhere over the length and breadth of the plains."

Walker, for reasons you will see below, thought little of Fremont, once saying that "morally and physically, (Fremont) was the most complete coward I ever knew". Probably not fair, as Fremont, an egomaniac, did show courage as was attested to by others (and during the Civil War made an effort to free slaves within his control which order Lincoln overruled). However, Walker had watched him run away from a fight and it stuck with him.

Walker took over as lead guide for the expedition (he had been offered the lead by Fremont on his first expedition but had turned it down), with which even Fitzpatrick could have no quarrel. It is hard to conceive of any other Western man who would have been thought Fitzpatrick's superior, and only a handful, his equal. There was no question though concerning Walker.

It would not be only time either than other famous mountain men guides had to take a backseat to Walker, although not always with the grace Fitzpatrick showed. On Fremont's third expedition, they met Walker in Utah. Carson, Lucien Maxwell of the famous Maxwell clan, and the another legendary figure, Ole' Bill Williams, one of the greatest and most colorful of mountain men, who had been in the mountains even before Walker, were all along. Williams was many things: certainly one of the great guides and trappers, but also a hard drinker, gambler, horse thief and even murderer. Nevertheless, the captain was given the lead role. When Williams protested too mightily, the captain faced him down and Williams stalked out of camp that night, taking a couple of Walker's horses for good measure. Although Williams had last many decades in the wild he had betrayed the Utes, his Indian family, and was killed by them not too long later.

It was on that trip that Walker, with Fremont, came into conflict with the Mexican government (we took California and much of the Southwest that very year) and barricaded themselves on top of Hawkes' Peak, ready to battle. It was from this that Fremont fled. Walker was furious, but the group disbanded (it was after this that Fremont was successfully court martialed, although it little hurt his reputation).

This isn't a book, so I have to leave out a lot of Walker's adventures, but one which deserves mention is the 1862 (thus during the Civil War) stand off between Walker, who was leading a group in Arizona, and Mangas Colorado, father-in-law of the more famous Cochise. Colorado and his tribe followed Walker for weeks in a battle of wills, almost like a chess game. Each time the Indian chief thought he had them penned in, they escaped. Finally, in a strange and celebrated move that is not entirely clear, Walker sent a tough guy named Jack Swilling out to arrest Colorado. He found him, approached Colorado and his men alone, put his hand on his shoulder and apparently told him that they were surrounded and he had no choice but to surrender. For whatever inexplicable reasons he had, Colorado surrendered, saying to his men -- "Tell my people I will see them when I see them". He was imprisoned, but quickly murdered by the U.S. troops to whom he was turned over.

It may have been more impressive for Walker if he had done the job himself, but remember, he was at this time 63 years old, and, although able to tramp about, was not impervious to age.

Walker soon after settled on a ranch in California where he operated a horse business with his family members who had settled there, particularly a nephew James from whom much about Walker was learned. He lived until 1876, dying at the age of 77. For famous Western guides, this was exceedingly long.

Think about it. Lewis & Clark certainly deserve front rank for their great expedition. But there travels went on for 5 years. Ole Bill Williams was killed by Indians as was the impressive Jedediah Smith while still in his twenties. The astonishing Ed Rose and the equally tough Hugh Glass were both also killed by Indians. Jim Bridger, also incredibly impressive, lived to about the same age as Walker, but had a few big black marks on his record, and settled down to one area (Bridger Fort in Utah) in the earlier 40s. Walker was active exploring and guiding well into the 1860s though he was about 5 years older than Bridger (who died in 1881). Solid Thomas Fitzpatrick, who we have seen would take a back seat to Walker, was active as a guide until the 1840s and died in the mid '50s back East. Carson, who was rarely a leader of men, but certainly was an experienced trapper and guide, never challenged Walker for leadership -- he died at age 59 (a personal note -- while in Taos I sought out his grave and asked a guard at the cemetary where he was buried where it was located. The next day, miles away, I read that the headstone had been vandalized that day and that they were looking for the culprit -- I think of this whenever I have an unexpected knock at my door).

Most importantly, the hundreds of thousands of people he led, many times greenhorns and settlers, all lived but for possibly two of them, neither of which could in any way be tied to his choices or leadership. It is not difficult to understand why. He came prepared for any fight, was fearless, but sought out the friendship of Indians, never treating them hostily unless he was attacked. His friendship with Walkara provided him with great leeway. He was always prepared ahead of time for hardship, and seemed to have not only an uncanny memory of places he had been decades earlier, but an almost eery ability to locate water. Wherever he went, because of his gentle nature and leadership qualities, he seemed to impress everyone.

I would only put one Western explorer in his company, but I hope to write about him another day. My secret.

Walker's nephew set his headstone, which briefly summarized his life in geographical terms:

Born in Roan County, Tenn -- December 15, 1798
Emigrated to Mo -- 1819
To New Mexico -- 1820
Rocky Mountains - 1832
California -- 1833
Camped at Yosemite -- Nov. 13, 1833

For a man who constantly traveled around the West for nearly five decades, any epigraph can only be an understatement. It does help place him in New Mexico at the very beginning though, and adds at least the family opinion that he had seen Yosemite first.

The King of the Mountain Men is an opinion, but it is my opinion. We should at least celebrate Walker as much as we do Daniel Boone, Kit Carson and Davey Crockett. But, this is what happens when you won't talk to the press.


  1. Clearly, you now have an internet connection. A mixed blessing to be sure. Yeah, I'm sure this Walker is the greatest of the great, since we know practically nothing about him, it's not much of a stretch. Sheesh. All cause he didn't keep his press secretary in the loop? Are you kidding?

  2. Bear weighing in, as usual, with all the subtlety of his namesake.

    What I am saying, Kemo Sabe, is that despite him not having his own biographer or literary lion gilding his lillies, he still stands head and shoulders on top of the pile, as seems to have been recognized to some extent at the time. Next week, Barney Fife, gunslinger.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .