On a spring day in 1825, in what is now Utah, a party of some two-dozen Iroquois trappers deserted from the Hudson’s Bay Company and defected to the Americans. This was mostly a labor action by disaffected contract workers — but it was also a salvo in the British/American cold war over the region west of the Rocky Mountains. The incident had geopolitical consequences. It was a blow to HBC dominance in the region, and gave the Americans a cadre of experienced, knowledgable guides who enabled them to further penetrate the region that would eventually become the Oregon Territory.
The leader of the Iroquois was an all-time badass Frontier Partisan trapper and grizzly bear killer of Scottish/Mohawk descent named John Grey.
There were many Iroquois in the Western Fur Trade, many of them Kahnawake Mohawks — people who had gravitated to a Jesuit mission along the Saint Lawrence River near Montreal in the 18th Century. The Catholic affiliation is reflected in John Grey’s other name: Ignace Hatchiorauquasha, after St. Ignatius. Grey is believed to have been the son of a Scottish soldier of the American Revolution and a Mohawk mother, born around 1795.
Starting in 1816, the North West Company began employing large numbers of Mohawks as canoe paddlers and trappers in the Western Fur Trade, extending all the way out to the Pacific Coast. The Iroquois were not company employees; they were freelancers, referred to in company records as “freemen,” similar to the American Free Trappers of a slightly later vintage.
The work was congenial to the Mohawk, and it became a family business for many of them. As the monograph The Spark In The Powder — Iroquois Freemen and Métis Trappers in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade notes:
“Fur trading employment provided an economic opportunity for hundreds of Iroquois because they could continue a hunting/trapping lifestyle among coworkers who shared similar culture, values and language, and could earn a modest living while enhancing their warrior traditions. The fur industry allowed them to maintain a tribal identity, often living and traveling in family and kinship groups, even when they traveled far from their native homeland. Significantly, women performed much of the skinning, tanning, and fur/hide preparation using skills honed since childhood. Indian women prepared pemmican and other food, carried burdens, and sewed shirts, leggings, and moccasins. While Iroquois trappers in the field worked for the company, they could live a familiar tribal life focused upon kinship and First Nations cultural identity rather than on company loyalty.”
While they certainly had higher status than company employees, freemen were not all that free. Like the coal miner in the song Sixteen Tons, they owed their soul to the company store — or, in this case, the trading post. They had enjoyed relatively favorable, if not ideal, conditions under the North West Company, but their condition became acute when the Hudson’s Bay Company absorbed the NWC in 1821, and gained a total monopoly on the fur trade. HBC charged a premium for supplies and equipment, and paid poorly for furs.
The Iroquois knew that they were getting ripped off, but they didn’t have any real option — until the American Ashley-Henry men like Jedediah Smith and Jim Bridger started penetrating into the Rockies. In 1822, a handful of Mohawks deserted HBC and headed out to link up with American trapping brigades.
A good year before things came to a head at what would become known as Deserters Point, John Grey had acquired a bad reputation with management. Alexander Ross, who led an expedition out of the Columbia District into the Snake River Country, flat hated him.
The Snake Country expeditions were designed to create a “fur desert” between HBC territory and the American interlopers — trapping out every stream to discourage the Americans. This scorched earth policy was a deviation from HBC’s generally more sustainable fur harvesting protocols, and an indication of how concerned the powers of the Company — and the British government — were about the threat of American economic competition and territorial ambitions.
Ross’ company was snowed in in the spring of 1824, in what became Ross’ Hole in present-day Montana. They had snowshoes, but they couldn’t get the horses out, and a Western fur brigade could not operate without horses. Ross wanted the Iroquois to dig a road through the snow. With John Grey (sometimes spelled Gray) as their spokesmen, the freemen effectively said, “fuck that.” Grey told Ross that the trappers were not slaves and that they preferred to simply go off on their own to hunt.
Ross attempted to persuade Gray, telling him he was “a freeman of good character and be careful not to stain it,” but privately Ross “saw John in his true colours, a turbulent black-guard, a damned rascal.” Gray backed down but Ross was left with the realization that “if his party walked oﬀ the expedition would fail.” — Spark in the Powder.
“It was evident from the sullen conduct of the Iroquois, that if left together they would still be plotting mischief. To divide them as quickly as possible was my only plan. I therefore fitted out and despatched a party of ten men to cross the mountain in pursuit of buffalo; not forgetting to place four of the Iroquois with them. The other hunters were dispersed in every direction, in quest of smaller game; and I kept my friend John Grey in the camp with myself.”
There was a big party of American trappers on the West side of the Divide under the command of John Weber. Jim Bridger was one of the men, and had just made an exploration of Great Salt Lake. When the Americans got wind of an HBC camp upriver, a free trapper named Jonson Gardner’s patriotic sensibilities were tweaked. Flying the Stars and Stripes, he rode into Ogden’s camp with several men on May 23-24, 1825, and demanded that Ogden get off American soil. Ogden — rightly — pointed out that this territory was, by agreement, “jointly occupied.”
Gardner told him to “remain at your peril.” Then he switched tack to labor agitation, and he found a ready ally in John Grey.
We have Ogden’s report of a meeting in Grey’s lodge.
“I must tell you that all the Iroquois as well as myself have long wished for an opportunity to join the Americans and if we did not sooner it was owing to our bad luck in not meeting with them. But now we go and all you can say cannot prevent us.”
Gardner must have previously encountered disaffected HBC Iroquois, because he had good intel. He told Ogden:
“You have had these men already too long in your service and have most shamefully imposed on them selling them goods at high prices and giving them nothing for their skins.”
Grey let Ogden know that it wasn’t personal, just business — at least with him. Other HBC officials might have had a rougher time of it. Seems that Grey might have still been pissed at Ross over getting a pistol pulled on him…
“Grey then said that is true [that HBC was exploiting the freemen] and alluding to the gentlemen he had been with in the Columbia they are said to be the greatest villains in the world and if they were here this day I would shoot them. But as for you sir you have dealt fair with me and with us all, but go we will and we are now in a free country and have friends here to support us. If every man in the camp does not leave you, they seek not their own interest. He then gave orders to his partners to raise camp and immediately all the Iroquois were in motion.”
They rode off with a cache of beaver.
In a masters degree thesis on debt in the Fur Trade, Kristopher M. Skelton notes:
Ogden’s letter has an interesting change of possession in the last paragraph of his account of the Iroquois’s leaving. At first he wrote “galling to see them going off with our Furs,” then changed the possessive to “villains escaped with their furs.” This ongoing question of possession appears to be a sticking point for HBCo in regards to the freemen.
Grey would become successful as an American free trapper, attending numerous Rendezvous, and battling with the Blackfeet, with whom the Iroquois were locked in a blood feud that Cimmerians and Picts would understand.
Whether John Grey could be fairly deemed “turbulent” and a “black-guard” and a “damned rascal,” there is no doubt that he was a 100-proof badass. American trapper Milton Sublette learned that the hard way. Ol’ Milton had a reputation as a ladies man — whether the ladies appreciated his attentions or not. Grey’s entire fur trade career was conducted in the company of his family. He was married to Marienne Neketicho, aka, Mary Ann Charles, a Kahnawake Mohawk, and they had at least one daughter. Sublette made unwanted advances, and Grey stuck a knife in him. As one does.
It looked like Sublette would die, and he was left behind by his fur brigade, under the care of the legendary Joe Meek. This would lead to several adventures that must be recounted at the campfire one day, but those are outside the purview of this story.
Milton pulled through, and he continued to chase buckskin skirts — but none that contained the kin of John Grey.
Grey was also regarded as something of a specialist in fighting grizzly bears, which, while surely an exhilarating sport, doesn’t promise a long career.
“John Grey, a herculean trapper, has fought several duels with them (bears), in which he has thus far been victorious, though generally at the expense of a gun, which he usually manages to break in the conflict.”
With the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade in permanent decline, Grey and his clan moved in about 1835 to a community of Iroquois, French Canadians and Metis that had formed in Missouri, where Kansas City would rise. As the fur trade finally collapsed and trappers sought other employment, Grey served as a guide to an 1841 expedition that carried the missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet through the Rocky Mountains to minister to the Flathead Nation. De Smet recalled that:
“One evening the party was preparing camp. Gray was out hunting. Suddenly a great deal of firing was heard at a distance and the party, thinking that Gray was in a fight with Indians, rushed to the source of the sound. Upon arrival they found Gray in a circle of five bears finishing off the last.”
After the trip with De Smet, Grey seems to have retired. He had been in the mountains for a quarter-century, made a decent living as a trapper, had fought Blackfeet and grizzly bears, and raised a family. It was a good run, but it came to an incongruous end for a man who could stack five grizzlies: This all-time badass Frontier Partisan would be killed in a dispute with a neighbor in 1848.
There are so many fascinating figures on the frontier.
lane batot says
GREAT post! Never heard of Grey, although it’s surprising I haven’t before. But glad to know of him now! Thanks, Frontier Partisans! I have read of a few, interesting bits on displaced Eastern Indians roaming the West, but never very much, and tantalizingly little even then–the Seneca that Victorio’s sister Lozen fell in love with(and she never did take another man, apparently), a Delaware scout for Kit Carson, those Cherokees that tried to settle in Texas(it didn’t go well for them), the Great Lakes Kickapoos that settled and resettled and were driven out of just about everywhere, and ended up in Mexico(where their descendants are to this day!) Seminole scouts used by the U. S. army in campaigns against the Plains Indians, etc. And no doubt much just lost to history(sigh)……
Thanks Lane. I love stories of these men, as you know.