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The Wild Freedom Of The Mountain Men
The imagined liberty of Rousseau’s primitive individual was actually attained by the free trappers who helped America gain a continent
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
The free trapper who owned to the most unrestrained reputation in the mountains and was proud of it, and was therefore in certain literal respects at least the freest of them all, was one William Sherley Williams, known as Old Bill. He lived more than forty years withdrawn from civilization. The last 23 or 24 were spent in the Rocky Mountains. As a young man he had been for a time a preacher in backwoods Missouri; in his old age he was famous even among the mountain men for his rugged individualism.
Old Bill carried free self-determination a step farther than most of his colleagues. Generally, the trappers liked to move and camp together in small parties. This meant added protection against Indians, help in case of injury or accident, more hunters to bring in meat, and the human satisfaction of companionship. But Old Bill went much alone, especially as he grew older, so much so that one of his many titles came to be Old Solitaire. He frequently spent the winters living with Indians, most often with the Utes, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, but through the long hunting seasons he walked by himself. Companies of other trappers occasionally came across him in deserts or mountains, far from a base, and wholly alone.
He was secretive about his trapping grounds. If Bill Williams was the envy of the shaggy, independent mountain men because among them he was the most independent, the shaggiest, the dirtiest, and could go on the biggest sprees, he was also envied for the rich loads of furs he brought to rendezvous or Bent’s Fort. But only he knew where he had trapped them, and so an air of mystery was added. Stories were told of his mountain knowledge and trail wisdom, his witchery at trapping, his supernatural skill in hunting, at which he outrivaled the predatory beasts of the forests; his uncanny instinct for danger, his boldness and ferocity in a fight, and the scalps he had taken, and the wounds he had received; his pranks and his hell-roaring Taos drunks; and his solitudes, and it was this last that impressed the mountain men more solemnly than all the rest.
Stories were told of his unbelievable strength and endurance. Stories were told that pictured him as rabid and treacherous, or as compassionate, generous, warmhearted and true.
Ruxton made of Old Bill a character typed so strikingly that he has lived ever since in western fiction—the old man of the mountains, the past master frontiersman who has seen more things with his faded eyes than can be dreamed of in tenderfoot philosophies, the eccentric old-timer, full of hard liquor and ancient reputation, who saves the wagon train in between comical jets of tobacco juice.
“Do’ee hyar now,” Ruxton has him say, as a constant expression. “Do’ee hyar now, boys, thar’s sign about? this hos feels like câching.” And “Do’ee hyar now, boys? thar’s Injuns knocking round, and Blackfoot at that; but thar’s plenty of beaver too, and this child means trapping anyhow.” And the trappers, scattered at work on the streams, are attacked, and one of the boys staggers into camp, dripping blood, with a Blackfoot arrow in his back. Old Bill, graining a skin, looks up to say, “Do’ee feel bad, now, boy? Whar away you see them darned Blackfoot?” The wounded trapper not unreasonably tells him first to pull the arrow out of his back and then he’ll feel like talking, and Old Bill, going on with his work, says, “Do’ee hyar now!” And Old Bill, all alone in the mountains, makes himself known to a startled trapping party by rising out of the brush six feet away and saying, “Do’ee hyar now? I was nigh upon gut shootin’ some of e’e—I was now; thought e’e was darned Rapahos, I did …”
But Old Bill Williams was more enigmatic than comic, and toiling, godless, worn Ishmaelite, he was essentially more pathetic than either.
When he was 61 years old he betrayed his friends, the Utes, while on an extended Taos binge, and led a detachment of soldiers against them. In the ensuing fight his arm was shattered by a bullet “most horribly.” (He kept on fighting until the battle was over.) A few months later he joined John Charles Frémont’s fourth expedition as guide. The expedition ended in disaster in a Rocky Mountain winter, nearly a third of the men died of cold or starvation, and Old Bill, after desperate efforts to save the expedition, was brought into Taos unable to walk, nearly sightless, frozen, according to one report, as high as his hips, and so emaciated as to be unrecognizable. And accused, incidentally, of cannibalism. Only a few weeks later he returned to the mountains alter the expedition’s baggage. He and his companion, another survivor of the expedition, disappeared and were never heard of again. It is presumed they were killed by Indians.
Schopenhauer parabled the social structure in his story of the porcupines, who huddled together for warmth, in spite of being pricked and tormented by each other’s sharp quills: it was better to suffer the annoyances of the crowd than to be cold and alone. They fell into a pattern, these porcupines, a tight little knot of the coldest and most dependent in the center, surrounded by somewhat more independent porcupines not quite so close together, and on the outermost fringes those few individuals, proud and strong, who could stand the cold best of all. These might represent the mountain men. And the one farthest apart from all the rest was Old Bill Williams.