James Ohio Pattie – Fur Trader, Mountain Man, and Explorer

“Burial of Mr. Pattie,” an illustration from James O. Pattie’s book.

Pattie’s family lived in Missouri when James was born. After his mother died of consumption, his father was despondent. About that time, fur trapping expeditions were heading west. It was an attractive idea to Sylvester so he could get away from reminders of his wife. James talked him into letting him go too. They left in June 1824 with a few companions. By the time they left Pilcher’s Fort with supplies, there were only two others. They first headed to a traiding post on the Missouri run by Prattle, Choteau, and Company.

When they arrived at Council Bluffs, they were told they couldn’t trade with the Indians without a license. So they changed their plans to head toward New Mexico. Another outfit was heading that way too. James remarked on the almost total lack of trees in the area. They met up with a band of Pawnee right away who treated them kindly. One of them guided the group to the Pratte party, which was also going to New Mexico. There were 116 men, 300 mules, and some horses. They followed the Platte to the next Pawnee village. Here they stocked up with trade goods. They left on August 11.

The biggest problem over the next several days was the horses feet getting chipped up by the rocky terrain. When they next killed some buffalo for food, they made some booties for the horses’ feet from the skin. They also used buffalo chips for fire since there were no trees. One night they were attacked by Arikaras, who killed two horses and wounded one man. Five Indians were killed.

On August 26, they camped on the Platte River. Here they trapped for beaver for the first time. They got four. On the 31st, they found two dead white men shot full of arrows and scalped. They buried the two men. The party was still nearby and the whites surrounded them. A fight ensued. Thirty Indians were killed and ten were taken captive. They were the Crow, let go to spread the word to leave the white men alone.

On November 23, they arrived at Taos, New Mexico. They arrived via the Cimarron cutoff of the Santa Fe trail. They arrived at San Ferdinando on November 26 at the base of the mountains. It was their first encounter with spanish people, and they were suprised how different they were in dress. From there, they headed to Santa Fe. At that time it was a town of four or five thousand, huge for the plains. While there, they were involved in a revenge raid against the Comanche who had supposedly attacked some whites and kidnapped some woman. The traders were successful in returning the two women. After that the local officials granted them their licenses to trap.

They followed the del Norte for awhile past Socorro. From there they left the river and passed through some copper mines and arrived at the Gila. On the first day they caught 30 beaver. But after traveling a ways upstream, they caught fewer and fewer. And by then they hadn’t eaten for four days. They killed one of their horses to survive. Finally they shot a couple of turkeys and then caught 37 beavers. Eventually they caught 250 over the next couple of weeks of January, 1825 on a river they called St. Francisco. On the 20th, they reached the Gila. They didn’t encounter any Indians during this time. They continued to follow the Gila but now they were high in the mountains. The weather was turning nasty. Provisions were running low. The horses and mules refused to budge. On the 28th they met some Indians, but they no one was killed. They followed a Gila tributary and finally got 200 skins. They next headed for the San Pedro, where they retrieved their cached furs. While camped by a small lake, some Indians stole all their horses so they had no way to carry their furs. They got four of the Indian horses though. So they cached the furs again and took only two traps and provisions on horse back.

The next several days travel were hard since they had very little to no food or water. They killed one of the dogs to sustain themselves. On April 5, they finally made it back to the San Francisco where all their furs were safely stashed. They reached the copper mines on April 29. After a rest and resupply they left on May 2. Pattie traveled to Santa Fe to retrieve some goods and furs and to buy new horses. He arrived back at the mines on June 1. When they returned to the San Pedro to retrieve their cached furs, they discovered they’d all been stolen. They returned to Santa Fe where the party agreed to guard the settlement for two or three months from Indian attacks. They were able to reach an agreement with nearby hostile Indians not to attack the miners. The local governor wanted them to stay forever, feeling that the Indians would become a problem again as soon as the trappers left. They agreed to stay until December when they would go on another trapping expedition on the Gila. Pattie’s father and two others stayed behind to work the mines after a generous offer by the governor. Pattie left January 2, 1826 with some French men to resume trapping.

Right away, Pattie had a falling out with the captain. Pattie thought he was being foolish in his treatment of a particular Indian encampment. Sure enough, the Indians attacked them at night. Pattie and another man who agreed with him escaped unharmed. They thought the rest were killed, though the captain managed to escape. They ran into a party of Americans, led by Ewing Young, who helped them take revenge on the Indian village. They killed 110 Indians. The trappers also buried the remains of the French men. They had several other small skirmishes with Indians in this area.

They continued to trap in Arizona and New Mexico and had several encounters with the Navajos. They returned to Santa Fe, where the governor confiscated all their furs claiming they had been trapping without a license. Pattie stayed three days visting his father. Next he visited several small Spanish towns and marveled at the sights. He thought the people were very lazy except in lassoing and horsemanship. He returned to Santa Fe and stayed a few months, occasionally working in the gold mine. While there, he killed a grizzly bear that had been harassing the people.

But Pattie got restless and headed out to trap on the Pecos. He noticed many Spanish buildings abandoned due to Indian troubles. They had troubles of their own w hen a band surprised them. Pattie was shot twice with arrows but survived. They were Mescallero Apache Indians. Eventually they took in their furs to a small village and traded them. Pattie then returned to visit his father. While he worked there awhile, his father’s clerk was sent to Santa Fe with $30,000 to buy supplies and goods to pay the miners since they preferred goods to cash. Unfortunately the clerk took off with the money, leaving the mines near insolvency. So a trapping expedition was organized to starting earning money back for it.

Pattie put together a party of 30 men and went to the Red River. They got the requisite license from the governor on September 22, 1827. Soon after, the majority of the party decided to strike off in another direction. Six men remained with the Patties. Some Indians made off with the rest of their horses. So they built some canoes and proceeded to float down the river to the nearest settlement to trade for horses. They trapped many more beaver and soon had to build another canoe to carry them all. At one point they decided to bury the furs and to back since the river became treacherous and there were Indians all around.

They were back on foot and soon needed water. They found a small lake near an Indian village where they refreshed themselves. After making a deal, two Indians agreed to guide them to the nearest Spanish town. They almost died for lack of water until they finally reached a mountain stream. When three miles from the Mission of Santa Catalina on the Baja Peninsula, James had to stop because his foot was injured. The rest went on and by nightfall had reached the mission. They sent some Indians back to carry Pattie to the mission.

They stayed there a week before soldiers took them to another mission at San Vicente on the Baja coast. They stayed there several weeks waiting for approval from the Mexican commander to buy horses. They hunted freely and saw many strange new ocean creatures that they had never seen before. Finally the soldiers were ordered to take the trappers to San Diego. They stopped at several missions on the way. They were treated as spies by the San Diego officers. They felt the Santa Fe pass was a forgery and that they were really spies for the Spanish government.

Their arms were taken away and they were locked up in separate jail cells. A kindly sargeant made sure they got decent food. Pattie’s father died while they were detained, without James ever seeing him again. He was allowed to attend his father’s funeral. He was used as a translator several times by the commander, and James hoped his services might gain freedom for himself and his friends. He also interpreted for the trial of Captain Bradshaw who had been charged with smuggling. The general finally agreed to let them go back for their furs under armed guard. At the last minute he changed his mind and decided James would remain as a hostage so the others would return, since he suddenly couldn’t spare any soldiers. As they would be going through hostile Indian territory, James doubted their return. All but two of them did return, without the furs because they were ruined. They did retrieve the traps. The general threw them all back in jail.

They were jailed for months with only the minimal amount of sustenance. During that time, a small pox epidemic broke out and the general wanted to save his own hide. Pattie knew how to administer the vaccine, but he refused to give it to the general unless he was freed. Finally he and his friends were given a year parole with the general’s option to remand them to prison if he chose. They went up the coast first to San Luis Mission at Oceanside, San Juan Capistrano, Los Angeles, and several other missions. At Monterey he participated in the force fighting against the revolt led by General Joachim Solis. They eventually overpowered him after several battles. As a reward for their efforts the local general awarded them citizenship.

Finally, the general pardoned Pattie, letting him return to America via Mexico City. There he would see the American consulate, where he would make a case for compensation for the loss of his furs due to being unlawfully detained. They sailed to the Mexican coast. Then they headed overland via horseback and reached Tepic on May 25, 1830. They reached Mexico City on June 9. He saw Anthony Butler, the consulate, and the Mexican president to plead his case. He was given a passport to Vera Cruz from which he would return to the U.S. by boat. Enroute by wagon to Vera Cruz, soldiers robbed them of their arms and hung a Mexican officer o on a nearby tree, in front of his wife. On July 18, he set sail for New Orleans. From there he took a steamboat up the Mississippi to Louisville, Kentucky. His story was published in 1831. It is not known what happened to him once he returned home but he is presumed to have died in the huge cholera epidemic that began near Augusta, Kentucky, in June 1833.