Hand" Fitzpatrick 1799-1854
Thomas "Broken Hand"
Fitzpatrick was born in 1799 in Ireland. Since his parents were fairly
well off, he received a good education. At 17, he ran away to sea and
became a sailor. A few years later, he jumped ship at New Orleans. He
worked his way up the Mississippi to St. Louis.
Unemployed and 23 he saw an advertisement in the paper looking for 100
men to follow the Missouri River to its source. It did not say what the
nature of the work was, but Fitzpatrick signed up anyway. Other famous
men who answered the call were Jedediah Smith, Mike Fink, William Sublette,
Jim Bridger, and Jim Clyman. They soon found out what they were in for.
The expedition was led by one William H. Ashley. His partner was Andrew
Henry, who had trained in the fur trapping business under the great Manuel
Lisa. Ashley would supply each man with traps and powder, food and supplies.
Half of their catch went to Ashley. The other half of their catch they
could keep as long as they sold it to Ashley. In May 1822, Henry led Fitzpatrick
and the other men up the Missouri River. At the junction of theYellowstone
they built a stockade. They did some trapping that fall and did very well.
They suffered through the cold winter, and in the spring they began trapping
the headwaters of the Missouri.
In their eagerness to get the beaver, they had not been watching the Blackfoot
very closely. But Fitzpatrick was the exception; he was always on the
lookout for them. One day while out setting traps, he saw a movement in
the rocks. He shot at it, even though he wasn't shooting at anything in
particular. The gunfire threw off the rhythm of the attack and alerted
his men at the same time. His quick thinking saved all but four of his
Another Indian attack led the fur companies to ask for assistance from
the army. General Henry Leavenworth at Fort Atkinson came out with 250
men. Unfortunately, Leavenworth had not been in a fight before and was
hesitant in his moves. Fitzpatrick grew impatient over his lackluster
performance. He gathered up ten trappers and snuck into the Indian camp
at night and started shooting. Even though there was only eleven of them,
to the Indians it seemed like a whole army. They ran to and fro and fled
the village. Fitzpatrick and the others helped themselves to the Indian
ponies. Then they reported back to Leavenworth what they had done and
how easy it had been. The stunt added to Fitzpatrick's already growing
Soon after this, Ashley hand-picked some of his men to search for a land
route to the Rockies. He considered Fitzpatrick and Jedidiah Smith his
two best men. They would lead the expedition. With them would go Edward
Rose, a part Cherokee scout, Sublette, Clyman, and ten other trappers.
They scouted and trapped and then settled for the winter on the Wind River,
in Wyoming. The following spring, the expedition headed out. Shortly afterward
they discovered the famous South Pass, which would become a popular trade
and immigrant route. They trapped in the Green River valley that summer.
A couple months later, they arrived back at Fort Atkinson. Fitzpatrick
sent word to Ashley that they had found a passage through the mountains.
Ashley was thrilled as it meant they no longer had to rely on one route
through the mountains. He set up a base on Henry's Fork on the Green River
and placed Fitzpatrick in charge. He had some 40 men under his control.
By 1825, he made the fort a regular rendezvous for traders, white and
The following year was when Fitzpatrick obtained his nickname. A musket
exploded in his left hand and cut off two fingers. Because of this, the
Indians called him Broken Hand, Chief of all Mountain Men. Also that year,
Ashley sent him to scout a route from the Platte River to the mountains.
That route would later become part of the Oregon Trail.
In 1827, Ashley sold his interest in the fur company to some of the trappers.
Henry had already left the previous year. It did not do well, so the trappers
sold it again to FitzPatrick, Bridger, and some others. It became known
as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. It was very successful for the next
In 1832, Fitzpatrick came close to losing his life. He was riding down
a narrow canyon with steep rocky sides. He was leading a pack horse carrying
his supplies. He knew there were dangerous Indians about. But he was in
a hurry to meet a wagon train that was on its way to Pierre's Hole. But
luck wasn't with him that day. About 30 Blackfoot Indians charged down
the canyon walls and surrounded him on all sides. He dropped the lead
of his pack horse. Then he dug his spurs into his horse. The horse reared
up, scattering several Indians to the ground. Then he jumped over them,
and charged up the rocky hill.
It wasn't long before the horse was exhausted. He jumped off the horse
and rolled around looking for a good hiding place. He found a crevice
in the ground and quickly plunged into it. It was several feet deep. He
maneuvered some brush and rocks around the top to camouflage it. It worked.
The Indians went back and forth over his hiding place several times but
never discovered him. When it got dark, they left. Fitzpatrick got away
with his scalp, but unfortunately both of his horses were gone. He started
walking in the direction of Pierre's Hole. For several weeks he lived
on roots and berries. Finally he trudged into Pierre's Hole, barely alive.
The fur trade days were dwindling by then. The runs were getting trapped
out and settlers were coming west. One day in the mid 1830s, Fitzpatrick
was buying supplies in Independence, Missouri when he ran into Jed Smith.
He talked Fitzpatrick into accompanying them on the Santa Fe trail. When
they reached Santa Fe, they met the young Kit Carson. They signed him
up as trapper. But by 1841, the fur trade was through.
Fitzpatrick and the others changed professions and became guides and scouts.
In 1841, Fitzpatrick led the Bidwell-Bartelson train, which went through
Nevada, into California. In 1842, he guided Father Pierre De Smet to Oregon.
He also guided John C. Fremont's second expedition. During the Mexican
War of 1848, he served as a scout for General Kearney.
In 1849 he married an Arapaho Indian girl, though he was 51, and she was
just a teenager. But this fact sat well with the Indians and was probably
a factor in Fitzpatrick's successful dealings with them. In 1851, he was
an integral part of arranging a treaty with the Cheyennes, Arapahoes,
and Sioux. Later he was dismayed at the shabby way the government treated
the Indians and how it broke its promises.
In 1854, Fitzpatrick returned to Washington D.C., where he became sick
and died. Sadly, he was buried in an unmarked grave in the congressional
-Copyright 2000 by Beth