Thomas Fitzpatrick - Mountain Man

Thomas "Broken 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 men.
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 legend.
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 Indian alike.
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 four years.
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 cemetery.

-Copyright 2000 by Beth Gibson