The life of a Mountain Man was a dangerous one. A man could get mauled by a griz or drown in an icy stream. A broken leg could be a death sentence, and you could die of thirst or starvation out on the desert.
And then there were the Indians. Every once in a while, some native tribesman — especially the Blackfeet — would raise the hair of some unfortunate trapper.
Pitched battles were, however, a very rare occurrence for the Mountain Men. There was no percentage in outright warfare. The Mountain Men were in the Rockies on business. Their business was trapping beaver, not Indian-fighting. Sometimes though, a big fight broke out.
Such an occasion arose in July 1832, in what is now Idaho. A trapping outfit led by Milton Sublette left the annual summer rendezvous at Pierre’s Hole, headed southeast toward the Snake River. Pierre’s Hole is classic mountain man country — a well-watered valley shadowed by magnificent pillars of granite. The trappers only made about eight miles on the day of departure, and were still in the valley when they camped. It’s likely that the men were nursing massive hangovers.
As they prepared to break camp on the morning of July 18, the trappers espied a large group of riders moving into the valley through a mountain pass. Weren’t trappers, neither. It was a whole village of Blackfeet. Well, not exactly Blackfeet; they were Atisina, aka Gros Ventres, close allies of the Blackfeet-proper. Same damn thing. Bugs Boys. The terror of the Northern Rockies; the Mountain Man’s bête noir.
Damn-near everybody in the Rockies knew someone who had had their outfit stolen or who had gone under at the hands of those badass, dangerous lords of plain and mountain.
The trappers sent out two men to parlay with the Atsina. They maybe weren’t the best choice for a diplomatic mission — and maybe that’s not exactly what the trappers had in mind. Antoine Godin was half French and half Iroquois, and his father had been slain by these same Bugs Boys in some earlier mountain scrape. His compadre was a Flathead chief (or a half-Flathead “breed” named Baptiste Dorian; accounts vary). The Flathead had been preyed upon by the Blackfeet and their allies since forever. What could go wrong?
An Atsina chief rode out to meet the two trappers — unarmed and carrying a peace pipe. The chief extended his hand. Godin grabbed it and pulled, and the Flathead stuck out his rifle and pulled the trigger, dumping the Atsina chieftain to the ground. Godin swept up the chief’s scarlet blanket and rode back to his comrades waving it like a banner, like a blood trophy.
Nobody seemed to have any qualms about this act of treachery. Nobody trusted Bugs Boys — it was do unto them before they do unto us.
The Atsina scrambled for cover, forting up in a swampy willow grove, while the trappers dove into a ravine. The forces exchanged sporadic fire.
The Atsina — about 250 all told — vastly outnumbered the trappers, but they didn’t act quickly enough to overwhelm the white men. They weren’t a war party, in any case — they had women and children in tow. A rider galloped back to the Rendezvous camp and a passel of trappers, along with Nez Perce and Flathead Indian allies came roaring down the valley to get into the fight. They were led by Milton Sublette’s brother William, one of the leading men of the Fur Trade.
The Atsina fortified their position in the willow grove, building a makeshift breastworks out of logs and dirt. The trappers were ace riflemen, but the fort made it impossible to make a good shot on the defenders. William Sublette, who had automatically assumed command, decided the fort would have to be stormed.
The Mountain Men passed around a jug in preparation for the operation, and began crawling forward into the grove, rifles cradled in the crooks of their arms. A sharp firefight ensued. One of the trappers, who had apparently taken a good belt off the jug, crawled right up to the edge of the log breastwork and peered over. He got two bullets in the forehead for his trouble.
Commander Sublette had taken a ball in the shoulder, and called off the assault. He decided to burn the fort and flush the Atsina out into the open. His native allies protested mightily. Think of all the plunder that would go up in smoke!
Meanwhile, the Atsina were hollering and hooting and taunting the Mountain Men, threatening them with a large force of their kinsmen who were headed this way and would take revenge upon the trappers. Somehow, the translation of this taunting got garbled and a rumor shot through the force of Mountain Men that a bunch of Bugs Boys was in their camp. All the goods and proceeds of a year’s trapping were under threat from this, so most of the Mountain Men saddled up and rode back up the valley lickety-split to protect their possibles.
Of course, when they got to camp, everything was quiet. It was getting dark, though, and too late to head back to the battlefield, so they plopped down and camped for the night. By the time they got back to the Atsina fort, their enemies had slipped away.
Mountain Man Joe Meek recalled that:
“On making this discovery, there was much chagrin among the white trappers, and much lamentation among the Indian allies, who had abandoned the burning of the fort expressly to save for themselves the fine blankets and other goods of their hereditary foes.”
The Atsina left behind the bodies of 10 warriors and abandoned more than 30 horses. They later admitted to losing 26 killed in the fight — some of those being women and children. The Mountain Men took six KIA and six wounded and reported about the same tally among their Indian allies.
By mountain standards, it was a big fight. The Mountain Men won the field and the body count — and nothing else. The lasting enmity of the Blackfeet Confederacy was only enhanced by the brutal act of Godin and the Flathead. That hostility would be declawed in just a few short years by a weapon that was far more lethal than a Mountain Man’s rifle: In 1837, a steamboat would bring smallpox up the Missouri River and the Blackfeet and their kin and allies would be devastated in an epidemic that killed off two-thirds of their population.
You can get your copy of Warriors of the Wild Lands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans through my favorite trading post — Paulina Springs Books of Sisters, Oregon.