Fitzpatrick, Thomas "Broken Hand"

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Fitzpatrick, Thomas "Broken Hand"

Born c. 1799

County Cavan, Ireland

Died February 7, 1854

Washington, D.C.

Trapper, guide, government agent

Thomas Fitzpatrick was a prominent trapper and explorer who helped blaze the trails that allowed settlers to cross the difficult Rocky Mountains. He was also a seasoned guide who helped lead some of the most important mapping and military expeditions of the 1830s and 1840s.

Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick was not your ordinary mountain man. Like his peers—the famous mountain men Jim Bridger (1804–1881; see entry), Jedediah Smith (1799–1831), Kit Carson (1809–1868; see entry), and a few others—Fitzpatrick was a veteran trapper, an able explorer, and a seasoned and brave Indian fighter. Along with these men, Fitzpatrick blazed the way for the settlement of the vast lands west of the Mississippi River and helped guide important expeditions across the torturous Rocky Mountains. Unlike the others, however, Fitzpatrick was an educated and ambitious man who late in life established a distinguished reputation as a government agent to the Plains Indians. Fitzpatrick was largely responsible for the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, a short-lived but important peace treaty between the United States and the many tribes living in the West.

Little is known about Fitzpatrick's early life. He was born in County Cavan, Ireland, into a Catholic family of eight children, and must have received some formal education, for he later proved to be a skilled writer. By the age of seventeen he had come to the United States and seems to have spent several years doing various jobs in the Midwest. By 1823 found himself on the verge of a great adventure, for he had signed on to join one of William Henry Ashley's fur trading expeditions that was leaving St. Louis and venturing into the nearly uncharted American interior.

First expedition

Ashley's expedition introduced Fitzpatrick to the hard life men faced in the West. The men had to push, pull, and drag their boats up the Missouri River, all the while looking out for hostile Indians. Along the way they met a band of Arikara Indians in a fierce battle that left twelve dead and as many wounded. Unable to proceed upriver, Ashley sent a party of men—including Fitzpatrick—to discover an overland route to the rich fur-trapping grounds in the Rocky Mountains.

Fitzpatrick was second in command to Jedediah Smith on what would become a historic expedition. The party crossed the wide plains of present-day South Dakota and Wyoming, and though they kept peace with the Indians they met, Jedediah Smith was badly mauled by a gigantic grizzly bear, leaving Fitzpatrick in charge. Winter set in and travel became more difficult, but still the explorers kept on, until one day in March 1824 they realized that the streams they encountered were no longer flowing east but were now flowing west. The men had discovered the long-sought South Pass through the Rocky Mountains. "Little did these hardy pioneers dream that they were marking a trail destined to be, for nearly half a century, the most important route to the Pacific," writes Fitzpatrick biographer LeRoy Hafen in Broken Hand: The Life of Thomas Fitzpatrick, Mountain Man, Guide and Indian Agent. More importantly for Fitzpatrick and the others, they had discovered some of the richest beaver-trapping country in the West. When they returned east in the fall of 1824 the men were laden with furs—and Fitzpatrick was a confirmed mountain man.

Life as a fur trapper

For the next dozen years, Fitzpatrick enjoyed the life of a fur trapper in the Rocky Mountain West. Working in small parties, fur trappers searched throughout the region for untrapped streams. When they found such streams they set up camp and sought to catch as many beaver as they could to supply the demand for beaver fur in the east and in Europe. They endured the harsh mountain winters hunkered down in the small cabins they built, and they looked forward to the annual summer Rendezvous, a great meeting of trappers and traders from throughout the West. The Rendezvous was the social event of the season, providing ample entertainment and allowing the trappers to trade their furs for guns, clothes, or other supplies.

By 1830 Fitzpatrick had joined with Jim Bridger, Milton Sublette, and several others to form the Rocky Mountain Fur Company; according to Hafen, Fitzpatrick was the "brains of the outfit." Though the partners hoped that their company would allow them to extract more profit from their labors, their timing was not the best. Fur trapping in the West was becoming very competitive, with several American and British companies sending trappers into the region. (Much of the country was jointly claimed by England and the United States, so the trappers were competing not only for fur but to establish their country's claim to the land.) By 1834 the partners had dissolved the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Fitzpatrick continued to trap for a few more years, and it was during this time that he earned the nickname "Broken Hand." While out trapping alone, Fitzpatrick was chased by a band of fierce Blackfeet Indians. Trapped on the edge of a high river bluff, he urged his horse to jump. Fitzpatrick survived the leap, though his horse didn't, and he promptly prepared to fire on the Indians—only to shoot a hole in his left wrist. He eventually scared off the Indians, but his hand was maimed for life.

Trusted guide to Whitman and Spalding

In May of 1836 Fitzpatrick signed on as a guide for an expedition headed west to Oregon. This famous missionary party was led by Dr. Marcus Whitman and the Reverend H. H. Spalding, and included their wives, who would soon become the first white women to cross the Continental Divide (see Narcissa Prentiss Whitman entry). The party followed a route along the north bank of the Platte River that would later become famous as the Mormon Trail, so named because it was the route on which Mormon religious leader Brigham Young (1801–1877; see entry) led his followers to the Great Salt Lake.

The Fight for Fur

In the 1820s, when fur trappers first began extensive trapping in the western half of the present-day United States, most of the fur trappers shared information and were glad to give their fellow trappers a hand. French-Canadian, American, and English trappers all got along fairly well, for there seemed to be more beaver than the men could ever hope to trap. By the 1830s, however, conditions had changed dramatically. Competition had heated up between the British Hudson's Bay Company, Fitzpatrick's Rocky Mountain Fur Company, John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, and several other smaller companies. More and more men seemed to be chasing fewer and fewer beaver. Friendly relations among trappers soon broke down.

Fitzpatrick, Bridger, and the experienced members of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company were often trailed by less experienced trappers, who "stole" the territory that the experienced men had discovered. According to Joe Meek, one of Fitzpatrick's men and quoted in Hafen, "They tampered with the trappers, and ferreted out the secret of their next rendezvous; they followed on their trail, making them pilots to the trapping grounds.... In this way grew up that fierce conflict of interests, which made it 'as much as his life was worth' for a trapper to suffer himself to be inveigled [coaxed] into the service of a rival company." When novice fur trapper Zenas Leonard met up with Fitzpatrick in 1831, he found the seasoned trapper less than helpful, as he remembered in Adventures of Zenas Leonard Fur Trader:

He was an old hand at the business and we expected to obtain some useful information from him, but we were disappointed. The selfishness of man is often disgraceful to human nature; and I never saw more striking evidence of this fact, than was presented in the conduct of this man Fitzpatrick. Notwithstanding we had treated him with great friendship and hospitality, merely because we were to engage in the same business with him, which he knew we never could exhaust or even impair—he refused to give us any information whatever, and appeared to treat us as intruders.

Leonard was wrong about one thing: the fur trade could be exhausted, as most trappers discovered by the late 1830s. Diminishing demand for beaver furs soon ended the fur trade altogether.

Fitzpatrick was soon serving as a guide to a number of historic expeditions into the West. It was a job for which he was well suited, for he had as good a knowledge of the western lands as any man and had proven himself a dedicated and loyal guide. His good relations with many western tribes proved invaluable to the several parties he led along the Oregon Trail. Fitzpatrick knew how to tread the fine line between respecting the Indians' claim to the land and giving in to their demands and threats.

In 1843 Fitzpatrick signed on as the guide to John Charles Frémont's (1813–1890; see entry) second expedition to the West. More than a guide, Fitzpatrick actually commanded one section of the traveling party, which often split into separate groups to explore alternate routes. After mapping the territory along the Oregon Trail all the way to The Dalles in present-day Oregon, the party headed south along the eastern side of the coastal mountains, finally crossing a high snowy pass (elevation 9,338 feet) of the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California in late February 1844. From California the expedition crossed present-day Nevada and Utah on their long way back to St. Louis, which they reached on August 7, 1844. It had been an expedition of nearly three thousand miles, and Fitzpatrick had proven himself one of the best guides in the land.

For the next several years Fitzpatrick continued to serve his country as a guide for several military expeditions. He first accompanied Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny on an expedition to South Pass and back that was intended to scare the Indians from interfering with the ever-increasing traffic on the Oregon Trail. Then he joined Lieutenant J. W. Abert on an expedition to survey the no-man's-land of eastern New Mexico, northern Texas, and western Arkansas. Upon the out-break of the Mexican-American War (1846–48; a conflict over the position of the southern border of Texas), Fitzpatrick served as a guide on several missions into New Mexico, but by this time his heart was set on a new career: he was to serve as an agent to the Indians living on the vast plains between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.

Becomes an Indian agent

On December 1, 1846, Fitzpatrick began his service as Indian agent (a government official in charge of protecting Indians on a reservation and distributing government aid to them). He had good experience in dealing with the many western tribes, and he hoped to develop a way for whites and Indians to live peaceably together. Fitzpatrick believed that Indians should receive justice—by which he meant compensation for the lands that were taken from them—and that they should be taught the skills they would need to survive alongside the white race that would surely continue to spread across the continent. Fitzpatrick thought that the Indians' future lay in learning to farm like the white man. He also believed that Indians who would not give up their warlike ways should be punished, severely if need be. With these policies in mind Fitzpatrick worked diligently to bring about the peace treaty that was signed at Fort Laramie (in present-day Wyoming) in 1851.

Called by Fitzpatrick, legions of Indians began to travel to Fort Laramie in the summer of 1851. Some estimates suggest that as many as sixty thousand Native American from dozens of tribes camped near the fort, though a more conservative estimate places the number at ten thousand. The Plains Indians—the Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and Sioux—arrived first and were soon joined by their enemies from the mountains, the Shoshone (or Snakes) and Crows. Beginning on September 8, the whites and Indians talked peace for eight days. On September 16 they signed a treaty that allowed the United States to build roads and military posts in Indian country, fixed the boundaries for the various tribes, set punishments for attacks committed by whites and Indians, and promised a payment of fifty thousand dollars in goods to the Indians each year for fifty years. Fitzpatrick's vision of peaceful coexistence had triumphed—at least for the moment.

But the peace was not to last. The Indians soon forgot their peace resolutions and launched attacks on the whites, who were crossing the land in ever-increasing numbers and killing off the buffalo on which the Indians depended. Worse for Fitzpatrick, the U.S. Senate refused to endorse fifty years of payments and asked Fitzpatrick to return to the Indians with the message that they would receive payments for only fifteen years. Fitzpatrick continued his work as an Indian agent, but it became increasingly clear that the great conflict between whites and Indians must resolve itself in violence. For his part, Fitzpatrick died peacefully far from the mountains that he loved. He succumbed to pneumonia and died in his hotel room in Washington, D.C., on February 7, 1854.

Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick made three distinct contributions to the settling of the West. First, he was a prominent trapper and explorer who helped blaze the trails that allowed settlers to cross the difficult Rocky Mountains. Later he was a seasoned guide who helped lead some of the most important mapping and military expeditions of the 1830s and 1840s. Finally, he served his country in the difficult role of Indian agent, managing to press the needs of his nation while honoring the culture of the Indians that he admired.

For More Information

Garst, Shannon. Broken-Hand Fitzpatrick, Greatest of Mountain Men. New York: J. Messner, 1961.

Hafen, LeRoy R. Broken Hand: The Life of Thomas Fitzpatrick, Mountain Man, Guide and Indian Agent. 1973. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

Leonard, Zenas. Adventures of Zenas Leonard Fur Trader. Edited by John C. Ewers. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959.

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Fitzpatrick, Thomas "Broken Hand"