Old Bill Williams was the mountain man of all mountain man, the epitome of the term. His contemporaries described him as “a master fur trader”, “whiny”, “colorful”, surly”, “charitable”, “dirty”, “honest”, ”eccentric”, “unpredictable”, “reckless”. A Ute associate described him as being as solitary “as the eagle in the heavens, or the panther in the mountains.” On some occasions he was the man you wanted beside you, on others you wished you’d never met him. Old Bill started life normally enough, as William Sherley Williams. He was born in North Carolina in 1787 but grew up in Missouri where he learned about wilderness life, trapping and hunting. It is said he was influenced by a Baptist preacher so left home at age 17 to become one himself. In his twenties, he was living with an Osage wife and their two daughters while he preached the gospel to the tribe. He joined the nation, was a trapper and trader in Missouri and Kansas as well as a missionary, and went into trading among the Indians. He was adept with languages and served the military as an interpreter and guide. For some years, traders and adventurers had been trying various routes into Spanish Nuevo Mexico. Markets there were considered to be ripe for the
picking since the settlements were so far removed from supply points in Mexico. These men left from St. Louis, from the upper Missouri River, from Arkansas and Louisiana. In the early 1820s, the most popular route was from St. Louis. Many of these early travelers found themselves in Spanish jails. The route across Kansas seemed the most feasible. By popular demand, Congress passed a bill in March 1824 to survey the Kansas route. President Monroe appointed three men as road commissioners to survey the route. One of these men was George C. Sibley, longtime “factor”, or agent, at Fort Osage. Bill was asked to translate at a council with the Indians to gain permission to cross their lands along the Kansas and Arkansas rivers. The meeting was in a grove of trees along the seldom used trail to Santa Fe. Sibley called it Council Grove, and the name stuck. The commissioners had a group of about 40 men to help survey. They got as far as the supposed border with New Mexico in September 1825 where they were forced to wait for permission to cross into Mexican territory. They did not receive this until June 1826. By that time, most of the party had returned to Missouri, leaving Sibley, Williams and about 10 others. Somewhere on this journey, the 32-year-old became known as Old Bill. Once in Taos, Old Bill was enchanted. He met other trappers and learned of a [secret and illegal] trip being organized to the Gila River country in Arizona with Ceran St. Vrain and up to 60 others. Old Bill joined the group and had great success. Selling his pelts in Taos the following spring, he went on a binge of gambling and drinking, and was soon broke again. After that, he joined other expeditions into the mountains. On one trip, his group roamed through northern Colorado and up into the Yellowstone area. He was on the trip when Tom Smith was shot by Indians through the leg, breaking both bones beneath the knee. Old Bill and St. Vrain were with Smith when he fortified himself with some Taos Lightning and amputated his own lower leg. Instead of dying as expected, he healed, and while doing so, whittled himself a replacement, thereby entering history as Peg Leg Smith. One thing Old Bill loved was the annual rendezvous of the mountain men. He loved the drinking, the tall tales, the gambling, the orgies. He most likely left most of these happy gatherings with absolutely nothing to show for his winter’s worth of trapping. Even among his peers, or possibly, especially among his peers, Old Bill was considered independent. He was capable of disappearing over a hill, into a copse of trees or hidden valley, only to turn up just as suddenly months or even years later. He often traveled alone, and when other trappers found a cold mound of ashes, they figured Old Bill had preceded them at that particular campsite. Old Bill traveled all over the western frontier. On a trip in 1839, he and other American Fur Company trappers learned they were unemployed when the company ceased operation. To add insult to injury, Indians stole their horses. So, Old Bill and his buddies went to nearby Fort Hall, Idaho, owned by the Hudson Bay Company, and stole all the horses. During their getaway, they enjoyed the hospitality of an old Snake man. On leaving his home, they stole all his horses, too. Louis Vasquez and Andrew Sublette, much respected trappers, were camped with their men not far away, and when they heard of the horse stealing, they forced Old Bill and the others to return the horses, fearing reprisals as well as condemning the disrespect. Old Bill did not give up horse rustling. Instead, the thieves simply continued west and collected about 2,000 head from ranchers and missions in California. Not surprisingly, they lost about half the animals crossing the desert on their way home to Taos. Old Bill took his share of animals to Bent’s Fort and traded them for “four or five” gallons of whiskey. Old Bill at another time charged $300 worth of trapping equipment at Bent’s Fort, and failed to pay it back. Ever. What he didn’t spend money on was clothes. When Frederick Ruxton, a traveler in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, met him, he noted the man’s singular appearance and while he was not favorably impressed, he was notably taken by his filthy, ill-fitting clothes and “little twinkling eye” that seemed to see everywhere. With the end of the beaver trade, Old Bill somehow squeaked out a living by serving as guide, interpreter, especially with the Ute and their allies, and buffalo hunter. Oh, and by not paying his debts. Old Bill had just returned from an extended stay in the Pacific Northwest when he was hired by John C. Fremont as a guide for his third expedition through Colorado and on to California in 1845. Old Bill had a sometime Ute wife, and her relatives asked him in 1847 to sell several packs of furs for them in Taos. Bill did, pocketed the proceeds and “got howling drunk”. The Utes were insulted and revengeful. In the summer of 1847, he was with a trapping and trading party in Kansas, after which he retreated to the mountain men havens at El Pueblo and Hardscrabble. He was there in the fall of 1848 when he offered his services as guide for Fremont’s fourth, and fatal, expedition. This was the trip Old Bill was blamed for sabotaging, or, at least, leading astray. Fremont blamed the entire debacle as well as all 10 deaths (possibly 11) on Old Bill, who was also accused of cannibalism. Old Bill wasn’t arguing, he’d been killed too, just months after surviving the horrendous experience that killed his fellow travelers. Historians generally agree that his former Ute “friends” had done him in.