Ewing Young cast a long shadow, though nowadays only Oregon historians and fur trade aficionados know his name.
Young was one of the hard-driving entrepreneurs who built the 19th American fur trade in the Far West. His theater of operations was in the Southwest out of Taos and west to California. When he tired of trying to “ketch beaver” he headed north to Oregon in 1834, where he became a pioneer cattleman in the Willamette Valley and the first European-American to build a house west of the Willamette River.
He was some doin’s, was old Ewing Young — though he’s been completely eclipsed in his fame by a young feller he helped break into the trade on an epic Southwest trapping expedition of 1829-1831. That young feller happens to be the subject of the forthcoming first season of the Frontier Partisans Podcast: Christopher Houston Carson.
Ewing Young was a Tennessean, a carpenter by trade and an entrepreneur by temperament. He came West along the Santa Fe Trail in 1822 in search of economic opportunity, and he would turn his hand to a variety of enterprises in search of wealth.
We probably all soaked up the image of the lone mountain man living his Jeremiah Johnson life in the Rockies. I know I did, and it’s hard to shake. The real deal Fur Trade was nothing like that. Trapping expeditions were major business enterprises, conducted by groups of men ranging from around 20 to as many as 60, sometimes with native and mixed-blood families in tow, organized along military lines. They didn’t call them trapping “brigades” for nothing.
Young was a leader of such expeditions. From his arrival in New Mexico — then part of Old Mexico — Ewing Young was a boss, and he always would be.
Operating out of the sleepy pueblo of Taos, Young partnered with other men to trap in the southern Rockies, interspersing the time in the beaver streams with trading runs back to Missouri along the Santa Fe Trail. Like all those of his ilk, Young wasn’t satisfied following in other men’s footsteps. He told his partner William Wolfskill:
“I want to get outside of where trappers have ever been.”
He also wanted to get away from pesky Mexican officialdom. Seems the Mexican government took a dim view of all of these Americans coming into their territory, plundering its resources and sending that wealth back to the United States. They’d give an American a license to trade, but trapping licenses were mighty hard to come by. But south and west of Taos lay a river said to teem with beaver, in a land remote, rugged and, though still in Mexican jurisdiction, far from the interfering reach of its government. The Gila River, in the land of the Apache.
Young’s 1827 expedition got mauled by Coyotero Apaches, and ran into even more trouble with Governor Armijo of New Mexico. The governor confiscated Young’s entire haul and threw him in the calaboose for a while. Young was nothing if not stubborn, and he resolved to try again in 1829. This time he played it cunning, taking 40 men north toward the Rockies before cutting southwest across the land of the Navajo and the Zuni Pueblo.
Among his men was a 19-year-old Missouri immigrant who had been working for Young as a cook and a teamster. Name of Christopher Houston Carson. Young Kit was now an apprentice fur trapper.
The expedition once again ran into the Apache. Young doesn’t seem to have had much regard for Indians at all. He didn’t trouble himself build the kind of relationships that many Mountain Men did with the tribes (and granted, the Apaches were not as open to relations with the whites as, say, the Arapaho or Shoshone , the Flathead or the Crow). Nor did he seem to harbor a particular hatred for them as some frontier whites did. They were an obstacle, like a desert or a mountain range — to be evaded or overcome. If they became an impediment to his business… well, he wasn’t having any of that.
On the Salt River, a tributary to the Gila, the Apaches gathered in numbers to menace Young’s party. Carson described the fallout in his laconic, ghost-written autobiography:
“We, on the headwaters of the Salt River, met the same Indians who had defeated the former (1827 Young) party. Young directed the greater part of his men to hide themselves, which was done, the men concealing themselves under blankets, pack saddles, and as best they could. The hills were covered with Indians and seeing so few, they came to the conclusion to make an attack and drive us from our position. Our commander allowed them to enter the camp and then directed the party to fire on them, which was done, the Indians losing in killed fifteen or twenty warriors and great number in wounded.”
Young’s brutally effective action was a perfect example of the Free Trappers’ National Security Doctrine: Don’t Fuck With Us. The trappers were very much in he minority in the vast landscape of the Rocky Mountains and the desert Southwest, and they had to establish the principle that the cost of attacking them far outweighed the potential in plunder.
Some of Young’s men returned to Taos as he set off across harsh deserts to California. Carson rode with his commander, across a barren, punishing landscape he would traverse again in later years, in the service of the U.S. Army.
Ever since I was a kid reading about the adventures of the Mountain Men, I’ve been awestruck by the vast distances their expeditions covered — across the most rugged terrain on the continent, a good bit of which I’ve traveled (often on routes they discovered) in considerably greater ease. The most intense privations of thirst and hunger, heat and cold, were all in a day’s work for these men. Small wonder that they came uncorked when they had access to the oblivion of liquor and the pleasures of Indian or Mexican women…
Young’s party of 19 men crossed the Mojave Desert and entered Mexican California. They trapped up the San Joaquin Valley, which had been trapped hard by Hudson’s Bay Company men, but was a veritable American Serengeti of game animals. Makes the heart of this California native ache. They called it Paradise…
Young curried favor with Mexican authorities by chasing down a party of mission Indians from San Jose who had run away into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where they found refuge among free natives. Young detailed Carson and 12 men for the operation. A daylong firefight in an Indian village routed the tribesmen, and the Mountain Men burned the village to the ground. The trappers demanded the surrender of the runaways on penalty of slaughtering every native in the area. The Indians who had given the mission runaways refuge had little alternative but to turn the fugitives over to the custody of the Mountain Men, who returned them to San Jose.
For Young, this was just business. The appreciative Mexican authorities in Monterey left the illegal expedition alone. The American entrepreneur sold his catch to a schooner captain at San Francisco Bay and headed back south.
The expedition nearly ran into disaster in Los Angeles (of course) when the men got hopelessly drunk and more or less mutinied. They wanted to stay in the land of sunshine, seacoast and dark-eyed women. One of the trappers, likkered up to the point of madness, shot one of his comrades down.
Young finally got a handle on the his unruly crew, and the men headed east and trapped back up the Gila River, making a good haul. They lucked into a windfall when they ran across a party of Apaches who had stolen two hundred horses in raids on haciendas in Mexico. The Mountain Men seized the horses, to sell back in Taos.
The wily Ewing Young cached the company’s take of furs in a mine shaft at the Santa Rita del Cobre copper mines in Apache country, rode into Taos and secured a trading license, retrieved his peltries and passed them off as having been traded for from the Indians.
The ruse worked, and young’s 1829-31 expedition went down in Fur Trade history as one of the most lucrative and successful of them all. As historian Robert Utley notes:
“The Young Expedition of 1829-31 had several important results. It further spotlighted the country of the Salt, Gila and Verde as prime beaver grounds. It added to the rising awareness that ships in California ports afforded a ready market for furs. Perhaps more important, it dramatized for Taos trappers and traders the economic opportunities of California. Many, including Ewing Young himself, began to think of moving their base from Taos to Mexico’s province on the Pacific.”