Thomas Fitzpatrick

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Thomas Fitzpatrick

Thomas Fitzpatrick (1799-1854), American trapper, guide, and government agent for Native Americans, was one of the most prominent mountain men during the mid-19th century.

Thomas Fitzpatrick, one of eight children, was born in County Cavan, Ireland. Little is known about his early life, but by the time he was 17 he had arrived in the United States. In 1823 he accompanied William Ashley's fur trading expedition up the Missouri River, and he participated in the Arikara War that summer.

For the next 17 years Fitzpatrick and other trappers crisscrossed the Rocky Mountains and the central and northern plains searching for beaver. He worked for companies headed by Ashley and later by Jedediah Smith and others. In 1830 one company sold its business to Fitzpatrick, James Bridger, and three other trappers, who formed the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Four years later the company was dissolved, although Fitzpatrick, Bridger, and Milton Sublette soon combined to continue trading. In 1836 the powerful American Fur Company forced them out of business, and Fitzpatrick became an employee of that organization.

That same year Fitzpatrick began his work as a guide; he led the Marcus Whitman and Samuel Parker missionary party west to the annual trappers' rendezvous in the mountains. In 1837 Fitzpatrick escorted Sir William Drummond Steward and artist Alfred Jacob Miller to the summer rendezvous. Four years later he led the Bidwell-Bartleson train to Ft. Hall and took a missionary party into country dominated by Flathead tribes. In 1843 Fitzpatrick led John C. Frémont's second expedition to California; he guided Col. Stephen W. Kearny's expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1845. The next year, meeting Kearny's army marching to California, he guided it to Socorro in New Mexico, where he and Kearny met Kit Carson carrying dispatches to Washington, D.C. Kearny gave the messages to Fitzpatrick and sent him east. Then Kearny used Carson as guide to California.

In Washington, Fitzpatrick learned that he had been appointed agent for the tribes of the Upper Platte and Arkansas regions, so he returned west. The Native Americans knew and respected him, calling him Broken Hand or Bad Hand because of an injury he had received years earlier. For the next 8 years he worked with tribes such as the Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Shoshone, Sioux, Commanche, and Kiowa of the central plains. While serving as agent, Fitzpatrick married Margaret Poisal, and when he died in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 5, 1854, he left two small children, Andrew and Virginia.

Further Reading

The standard biography of Fitzpatrick is Le Roy R. Hafen and W.J. Ghent, Broken Hand: The Life Story of Thomas Fitzpatrick (1931). This was considered complete when written but is being revised to include new material. J. Cecil Alter, James Bridger: Trapper, Frontiersman, Scout, and Guide: A Historical Narrative (1925; new ed. entitled Jim Bridger, 1962), is an accurate account of a fellow mountain man and partner of Fitzpatrick. Dale L. Morgan, Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West (1953), and John E. Sunder, Bill Sublette: Mountain Man (1959), also provide useful material.

Additional Sources

Hafen, Le Roy Reuben, Broken Hand, the life of Thomas Fitzpatrick, mountain man, guide and Indian agent, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981; 1973. □

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Thomas Fitzpatrick, c.1799–1854, American trapper, fur trader, and guide, one of the greatest of the mountain men, b. Co. Cavan, Ireland. He emigrated early to the United States, and by 1823 he was engaged in St. Louis for a trading expedition of William Henry Ashley up the Missouri. Like others of the mountain men, he spent many of the succeeding years opening up the West. He went with Jedediah S. Smith into the Green River country through the South Pass in 1824. Fitzpatrick worked for the Ashley interests until Ashley withdrew (1826) from the trade; then he was a trader for Smith, Jackson, and Sublette until 1830, when the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was formed with Fitzpatrick as senior partner. After that company was dissolved (1834), Fitzpatrick became a guide. He piloted the John Bidwell party, the first emigrant train bound for California, as far as Fort Hall in 1841, and the next year he performed the same service for the first train to Oregon. He gained some celebrity as guide to John C. Frémont on his second expedition and in 1846 was guide to Stephen W. Kearny on the march to Santa Fe. In Nov., 1846, he was appointed Indian agent for a large part of the present Colorado and was successful in negotiating treaties.

See L. R. Hafen and W. J. Ghent, Broken Hand: The Life Story of Thomas Fitzpatrick (1931); B. De Voto, Across the Wide Missouri (1948).