Thomas Eddie: The Last Of The Old School Trappers

“You will do, boy, I will need you!”

The man who spoke—a grizzled old plainsman—nodded to a strong-looking young Scotchman who was standing before him, rifle in hand, and motioned to him to take a position among a number of trappers who stood near by. The fellow who thus spoke was John Ashley (a famous trader and explorer) who had just organized the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. As he was in need of vigorous young men his heart naturally warmed towards the stalwart youth before him, who was yearning for adventure in the Far West.

This athletic frontiersman was none other than Thomas Eddie, who was now twenty-four years of age, and whose aim with the rifle was steady and sure. Born on August 29th, 1799, he had naturally drifted to the plains, where he was as quick to volunteer upon a dangerous mission as were “Old Bill” Williams, Bill Gordon, or any of the other valiant pioneers. He was a fellow of iron will, and the older members of this expedition soon found that the canny young Scot would do and dare as much as any of them. As ready and willing to go to the relief of a stricken comrade as the most experienced man on the plains, he had not an enemy on the border, except among the redskins, whose hand was against every white man. As wiry as steel, as keen as a sword blade: such was the youthful Thomas Eddie, soon to be the hero of many a startling adventure.

The trappers under Ashley made their way up the waters of the Missouri in keel-boats. The muddy current of the turbid stream raged furiously against them, but by vigorous rowing they managed to thread their way among the numerous snags and sand-bars. At length they reached the vicinity of an Arickara village, filled with several hundred savages, and here they intended to trade, before passing up the Yellowstone River, where was splendid trapping. They rowed on with confidence, little suspecting that the redskins were in a terrible state of agitation and anger against all of the white men of the West. In fact, not many weeks before, an adventurous trapper, who had been travelling near by, had caught the son of the head chief of this nation, as he was stealing his horse. He had shot him down as he was in the act of throwing his leg over his mount. The Arickaras had soon heard of this, and, in spite of the fact that the white man had been perfectly justified in killing the horse-thief, determined to avenge the death of their comrade.

Ashley and his companions did not know of this adventure. Therefore they rowed onward with confidence, and soon sighted the tepees of the red men on the right bank of the stream.

“There they are!” cried Eddie, who was in the bow of one of the boats. “We will have good trade, for I know that they are greatly in need of arms and of ammunition.”

“Look out for them!” spoke a fellow named Rose, in one of the other vessels. “From certain signs I know that the red vermin mean mischief.”

This fellow was a Kentuckian who, for some misdemeanor, had been outlawed in his own state and had then lived among the Crow Indians, who had made him a chief. Ashley did not like him and believed him to be a villain. Eddie, however, knew that he spoke with keen knowledge of the redskins. He, therefore, turned around and cried loudly:

“Ashley, look out for the Indians! They mean mischief!”

To this, the head of the expedition paid not the slightest attention. Instead, he pushed forward, anchored his boat close in shore, near a long strip of small cottonwood trees, and pulled out his pipe, smoking it complacently.

“Be ready for an ambush,” said Rose, “I know that the Arickaras are in an ugly mood.”

“Oh, pshaw!” answered Ashley. “The red men are over anxious to trade. It has been ten years since they have been on the war-path against the whites and I know that they will treat us well. Why, man, these Indians love me like a brother.”

Rose frowned.

“I have lived among these redskins for many moons,” said he. “And I know them like a book. Look out. They mean trouble!”

Ashley again pooh-poohed the idea, and rowed to the bank, where he deposited his articles of trade upon several gaudy blankets. The Arickaras crowded around him, crying:

“Oh, palefaced brother, you have brought us fine things. Oh, good brother! Oh, kind brother!”

They showed feverish anxiety to obtain guns and ammunition, saying that they were soon going against their old enemies, the Sioux. The trade went on, many of the trappers coming ashore in order to better bargain with the redskins; a few, however, remaining in the boats. Ashley seemed to be well satisfied with the manner in which everything was going. He suspected nothing until one of his men came to him and whispered in his ear:

“Three of our trappers have secretly disappeared, and I fear that they have been murdered.”

The leader of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was at last alarmed. He made preparations for defense and gathered his men about him in a hollow square. But the Indians, finding that they no longer could conceal their enmity, now set up a loud whooping and yelling. A shot was fired. Another and another followed in quick succession, and the cottonwood thickets swarmed with the savages, who poured a rain of bullets at the trappers upon the bank and upon those in the boats.

“Drop to the ground, boys!” shouted Ashley, “and we will fight for our lives.”

A desperate encounter ensued. Although surrounded in the rear, the trappers fought their way to the bank, jumped into the river, and attempted to swim to their boats. Many were drowned, others were killed by bullets as they splashed towards their craft, but the majority clambered aboard in safety.

“Cut the ropes,” shouted Ashley, “and get away from here as quickly as you are able!”

Under a terrific fire the boats began to slowly drift down the river. Oars were soon run out and the trappers were well beyond range of the murderous Arickara rifles. Of one hundred and forty-nine men they had lost sixty killed and drowned, and scarcely one of them did not bear marks of bullet or arrow wounds. It had been a desperate affair. Had the confident Ashley but listened to the sage advice of the Crow renegade there would have been no such slaughter. Thus ended the famous stampede of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, on the ninth day of March, 1828.

But how about the stalwart young Eddie? This lucky plainsman escaped with only one arrow wound in his forearm. He was heroic in the defense of the boats, and, taking charge of one of them, managed to get her safely to Council Bluffs, where the Fur Company retreated in good order. Poor, old trappers! They had met with a warmer reception than they had bargained for!

As luck would have it, a Colonel Leavenworth was then at Council Bluffs with a detachment of United States troopers. Ashley soon told him his story, and wound up his sad tale with the request that he help him to chastise the savages.

“That I will do right willingly,” answered the gallant soldier. “White Bear, with his band of Sioux warriors, will go with me, I know. He says that he is just itching for a little brush with the Arickaras. He will be of great assistance to us.”

Eddie joined the detachment as it departed, and, marching speedily towards the village, the soldiers and allied Sioux found the Arickaras abandoning it. A sharp skirmish took place; the soldiers and trappers fell upon the rear guard, and, routing it speedily, dashed among the tepees, which were set on fire and quickly consumed. The Arickaras fled across the prairie. As the skirmish was in progress White Bear, the Sioux leader, was the hero of a desperate affair, which made him always well known among the whites, and greatly respected by all of the valiant men of the frontier.

While the fight was at its hottest this Sioux chieftain singled out a giant Arickara warrior, rushed upon him, tomahawk in hand, and cried out:

“If you are a man, halt and struggle with me. We will see which is the better.”

The Arickara had a bow in his hand, and, turning upon the Bear, sent a shower of arrows whistling around him. One of them pierced his thigh, but the Sioux stopped and pulled the missile from the wound. Then, with tomahawk upraised, he charged upon his enemy.

The Arickara chief had discharged his last arrow, and, seeing that it was too late to fly, wheeled and faced his antagonist. He was a large and powerful man, but the Sioux warrior was more agile. Uttering a loud and discordant yell, White Bear rushed at his foe. All the other combatants stopped for a moment, in order to view this strange and startling contest.

The sun gleamed upon the tomahawks of the two braves as they danced around each other. Again and again each endeavored to strike a blow, but, by skillful dodging, the weapon was evaded, and the warriors continued to prance about in a circle. Suddenly the Sioux bent over and struck the Arickara warrior a fierce stroke upon the knee; so fierce, indeed, that he nearly severed his leg from his body. White Bear leaped forward, dodged sideways, and evaded the descending tomahawk of the Arickara chieftain. The latter tottered and then fell to the ground.

Before he could recover, the Sioux had dealt a death-blow, and, amidst the wild yelling and screeching of the spectators, deftly scalped his enemy, holding the top-knot aloft, and himself uttering the wild yelp of triumph. “Um-Yah! Um-Yah! Uh-Yah!”

The Arickaras were dispersed and well punished for their attack upon Ashley and his men. The troops returned in triumph to Council Bluffs, and Eddie was congratulated by the head trapper for his part in the affair.

“But now, my boy,” said the veteran plainsman, “I want you to go up the Yellowstone, cross the mountains, and, with fourteen others, bring back a whole lot of peltries.”

“I’m your man,” said Eddie. “I’m off as soon as you say the word.”

The fourteen trappers moved to the Yellowstone, where they hunted and trapped with great success, until winter. Then they made their way to the village of some friendly Crows. They were treated with kindness and hospitality, and had great good luck in procuring beaver peltries. When spring came they travelled towards the Rocky Mountains, after making appropriate speeches of friendship to their hosts, and giving them many presents.

In the mountains their old enemies—the Blackfeet—were very mischievous. They often stole their traps, attempted to stampede their ponies, and fired at them from ambush. Nearly every night the alarm would sound: “Indians! Indians! Look to your horses!” And, during the day, the Blackfoot sentinels could be seen upon the skyline, perched upon the summit of some high hill. They would signal to their friends in the valleys below and tell them of the progress of the trappers. The pioneers were repeatedly ambushed, but they marched valiantly on, fighting as they went. At last they left the mountains, pressed onward towards the Pacific slope, and, almost perishing from hunger, were rescued by some trappers of the Hudson Bay Company, who took them to their post on the Columbia River. They spent the winter in this place.

When spring approached, the pioneers again set out for the Yellowstone. As they approached the Bear River, an Indian runner came bounding down the trail. He was of the Snake tribe and held up his right hand in token of friendship.

“I come from the people of the great chief, Pim,” said he. “The Great Spirit has taken our beloved ruler to the land of the hereafter. It is requested by his people that our white brothers read over him their medicine book (the Bible) and sing one of their songs. Then lay our great chief to rest upon the banks of the Bear River. Here he can ever hear the wonderful music of the stream, and here his spirit can make the beaver plenty for our white brothers.”

It was a strange request.

“Boys,” said Thomas Eddie, “we will do as our red brother wishes. We will bury our good friend Pim in a Christian manner, for he was always kindly disposed to all the trappers and pioneers who came in contact with him.”

Turning back upon their trail, the trappers travelled forty miles to the camp of the Snakes. In relays of four, they carried the dead chieftain slowly and tenderly to the banks of the roaring Bear River, and there laid him to rest, reading over him the burial service and singing a hymn. A volley was fired over the open grave, then, turning sadly towards the mountains, the men in buckskin left the red men to perform their own last rites over the dead chieftain.

As they neared the hills, the pugnacious Blackfeet again began to harass them. Every day they made an attack, but as they were principally armed with arrows they did little damage. A few had rifles, but they rarely used them. When the trappers had been fighting with these fellows, the year before, numbers of them had fallen beneath the steady aim of the whites, but not a single trapper had been killed or even dangerously wounded. This shows you what poor marksmen the Indians were.

Not long afterwards the little band of adventurers was passing through a narrow and lonely valley. As they reached a passageway through high and precipitous cliffs, a shot rang out, and a wild Indian yell told them the Blackfeet were again on their trail.

“We’re ambushed, boys!” cried Eddie. “Take to cover and ward off these skulkers, for from the sound of their fire it is apparent that they have plenty of guns and ammunition.”

He had scarcely spoken when he uttered a sharp cry of pain, for a rifle ball struck him in the thigh and penetrated well into his flesh. It was cut out by a trapper called Will Sublette, with a beaver knife, but our hero was in a serious condition for some time thereafter. Fortunately the members of the party were near water, so they threw up a rough barricade, by means of digging with their hunting-knives, and adding brush and tree trunks to the fortification. Several were unable to proceed, five had been killed, and twenty were severely wounded.

The Blackfeet could be easily seen as they circled about, some on foot, some on their ponies. They continuously yelped, howled like coyotes, and kept up a fusillade against the earth and brush fortification. Fortune favored the trappers, however, as there was an abundance of beaver in the stream which ran through the valley and these were easily captured. Trout were also plentiful and the wanderers managed to put up a fortification behind which they could catch the speckled beauties without molestation by the painted and bloodthirsty Blackfeet. The wounded made a rapid recovery, and in ten days were able to travel.

“Now, boys,” said Eddie, at this time, “it is important that we get away. Let us take our old clothes, stuff them with grass in order to deceive the red men, and light our camp-fires as usual. The Blackfeet will see the dark bodies near the flames and will not suspect that we have gotten away. We will move off towards the North, but you must make no noise.”

The trappers were eager to be off. That night they lighted their fires, placed the dummy figures so that they could be readily seen, and crept away from their little fortification. The Blackfeet did not suspect this departure, and, although it was a hazardous march over a rough path, allowed the men under Eddie to get safely away. By forced marches, and travelling over a crooked trail, the pioneers at length reached the Yellowstone. But their troubles were not yet at an end.

Trapper Eddie had left camp one day in order to look for game, and was returning to the place where the horses were tethered, when he saw a small band of Crow Indians who were endeavoring to drive off the stock. Firing at the leader of the expedition he knocked him to the ground. One of the braves jumped to the earth, lifted the dead chieftain upon his horse, and rode off with him. Eddie’s comrades heard the shooting and galloped to meet their leader.

Eddie knew the valley well. It doubled almost upon itself, making a horse-shoe curve, and he was aware that should he ascend the mountain on the right he would be able to head off the redskins.

“Boys!” cried he. “Follow me over that mountain. We will meet the red men, recapture our bronchos, and pay them well for their dastardly attempt to run off our steeds.”

His men gave a cheer, and, putting spurs to their horses, galloped up the steep slope of the mountain. Sure enough, as they reached the top, there were the redskins just below them. Uttering a wild cowboy yell, the trappers dashed to the assault.

A narrow pass in the mountains lay before them and for this the Indians hastened, yelping fiercely as they went. The trappers were as experienced men at shooting on horseback as Buffalo Bill, and they soon dropped most of the Crows as they vainly endeavored to escape. The fellow who was carrying the leader was badly wounded, and as he endeavored to ride his heavily burdened horse across a stream, which flowed through the valley, the animal stumbled and fell, throwing both the live and the dead man into the water. The trappers were close upon them as they went down, but what became of the dead chieftain and his attendant was never known. They disappeared from view. Whether the live Crow was killed by the fall, or was stunned and perished in the swift current, is still a question. Perhaps he made his way back to his own tribe. At any rate, a careful search failed to discover the whereabouts of either of them.

“By George!” cried “Old Bill” Williams, who was one of Eddie’s party, “I reckon that the dead one has carried the live fellow to Heaven with him.”

The horses were soon retaken, and with smiles of satisfaction upon their faces the trappers returned to their camp on the Yellowstone. Here, seated around the blazing camp-fire, they again fought over their battles, compared notes of the country, made rude maps of their routes, with the various rivers, mountains, and plains; and those who had seen the waters of the Great Salt Lake told their comrades of this vast inland sea, whose waters were bitterly salt, and into whose depths nothing could sink because of the great buoyancy of the waves.

There was an abundance of game in the Yellowstone country. The fourteen scouts spent the entire season, and part of the next, in trapping for mink, beaver, otter, and bear. They set their beaver traps in all the suitable streams between the head of the Missouri River and the upper waters of the Platte, meeting with great success. Indians were plentiful, but seemed to leave them alone, for they had undoubtedly heard of the summary vengeance which the trappers had taken upon the thieving Crows.

“Boys,” said Eddie, one day, “we are about all through with our ammunition and I would like to send seven of our number to Santa Fé, New Mexico, in order to get a supply. Who will be willing to undertake the trip?”

“I will,” came from the throats of many, and it was plainly evident that there would be little difficulty in getting volunteers for this hazardous duty.

Seven were chosen for the journey—seven of the strongest and most hardy—but the seven were never seen again. Cheerfully they set out across the sandy plains of Colorado. When they were just about to disappear from view, they turned and waved their hands to those left behind.

“So long, boys,” cried one. “We will meet again in a few months.”

But they never met again. From the time that they disappeared upon the horizon all trace of them was lost. Perhaps they fell before the arrows and bullets of the Sioux, Kiowa, Apache, Comanche, Navajo, or other red men. Perhaps the lounging and lazy Spanish banditti captured them and carried them across the Mexican line. At any rate, their fate is enveloped in impenetrable mystery.

Eddie and his companions waited for many months for some sign of their comrades. At length they gave up hopes of their return, and leaving a note to direct them where to go should they ever come back, made their way to the Yellowstone. Hostile red men hovered about them and endeavored to cut off their ponies, but these were dispersed in several smart skirmishes. Finally they reached a camp some forty miles above Boulder, Colorado, where Eddie and Bill Gordon had a rather serious encounter with some Arapahoes, when returning from an antelope hunt.

“By gracious!” cried Bill, the trapper, as he saw the redskins swooping down upon them. “I believe that we are about to lose our scalps, Eddie. ‘Never say die,’ must be our motto.”

“Let’s break for that canyon,” answered the lion-hearted Eddie. “If we get into those rocks the yelping redskins can shoot all they want to but they can’t hurt us. We’ll crawl over there by the water so that they cannot starve us out. We have food enough to last us for some time.”

Crack! Crack! sounded the rifles of the red men, and both Eddie and Gordon were struck. Nothing daunted, they ran to the shelter of the ravine, where they returned the fire with so much accuracy that two of the redskins fell to the ground. The Indians numbered about twelve, but only five were detached to follow the two scouts, while the rest rode away, carrying the two dead men with them. As they went in the direction of the camp of the plainsmen Eddie feared that they would surprise his comrades and would annihilate them.

“Gordon,” said he, “you must remain here, while I run back to camp and warn our companions of the approach of these murderers. You have only five to deal with, and I know that you can handle them.”

Eddie ran swiftly up the canyon, and then, back-tracking, hid himself behind a huge boulder. The redskins saw him and made after his retreating form with great speed, but failed to see him in his hiding-place. They were soon out of sight.

The scout darted down the canyon as rapidly as possible and dashed out upon the open prairie as hard as he could go. Before him was an Arapaho who was watching the Indian ponies. He was mounted upon a buckskin pinto and was armed with a rifle, tomahawk, and knife. As Eddie approached, he raised his rifle. The scout did likewise and both fired at about the same moment.

The trapper was struck in the shoulder, but the injury was not severe, while his own ball passed through the red man’s thigh, breaking the leg of the horse upon which he was riding. This brought him to the earth and pinned the warrior beneath him, but the savage frantically struggled to escape, and, as the white man approached, drew his knife. His tomahawk had dropped some distance away as he fell.

Now was a thrilling encounter. Notwithstanding the pain in his wound and his weakness from loss of blood, the Indian made a desperate fight. He hoped, no doubt, that the shots which both he and his antagonist had fired would bring his companions to his assistance. No such luck was in store for him. Eddie was a small and wiry man, while the Arapaho was a veritable giant in stature. The scout was armed with a tomahawk and endeavored to get in a thrust, but with ill success, for the redskin parried his every attempt. Just as Eddie had succeeded in making a sweeping blow, which, had it reached the red man, would have cut him down, the savage caught his arm, and the tomahawk flew from his grasp. The Indian’s knife was in his left hand and the scout made a desperate lunge in order to seize it.

It was a hazardous moment for Thomas Eddie. As he struggled for the possession of the coveted knife he saw four Arapahoes emerge from the mouth of the canyon and dash towards them. It was touch and go with the famous man of the frontier. The savage made a thrust at this moment. Eddie caught the blade in his right hand, but the knife cut him through and through, inflicting a desperate and gaping wound. In spite of the pain it caused him, the trapper held on. With his other hand he seized the Arapaho by the throat and pushed him to the earth.

A new complication arose. A shot rang out from the mouth of the canyon and the foremost Indian fell to the ground. The other three halted and faced the new enemy, while the big fellow with whom he was struggling turned his head for a moment, in order to see who was approaching. On the short moment hung his life, for Eddie wrested the long knife from him, and, as he looked around, buried the blade in his side. The Arapaho fell to the ground, with a long, gasping cry. The three savages, who were approaching, were now about fifty yards away and they fired upon the victorious scout, but did not hit him. Instead of this they wounded another one of their horses.

Hurrah for Eddie! He had certainly done well, and was in the same class with Adam Poe, who, if you remember, had such a desperate battle with Big Foot, the celebrated Shawnee warrior and athlete. The nervy fellow was not to be caught napping. Dashing to the nearest pony, he set off at full speed for the mouth of the canyon, circling as he did so, in order to avoid the three savages. To his surprise, he met Bill Gordon, who told him that from the top of a low mountain he had seen the Arapahoes engaged in a battle with a band of Crows, way off upon the plain, and that therefore he had returned to his assistance, as he knew that their companions in camp would not be molested.

“Well, let’s finish up these Arapahoes,” cried Eddie. “And punish them for their interference with honest men. Are you with me, Bill?”

Old Bill uttered a wild yell.

“Of course I’m with you, son,” said he. “Lay on! Lay on!”

Spurring their mustangs, the two scouts dashed madly after the fleeing redskins. They caught up with them, and by excellent shooting succeeded in killing them all. At once they returned to their own camp with the arms and ponies of the savages, and, upon narrating their adventures to the other scouts, it was decided to move as rapidly as possible from such a dangerous locality. Turning towards the turbid waters of the Yellowstone, they soon reached this wonderful stream, where no other bands of Indians molested them. Their battles were over.

Upon their return to the settlement at Council Bluffs all welcomed them uproariously, for many thought that the nervy fellows had perished in the wilderness. Their furs and peltries netted them a snug figure; so snug, in fact, that plainsman Eddie purchased a tavern of his own called the Green Tree. Here he dispensed a lavish hospitality and here he brought his bride in 1833. She was a Miss Clarke, a reigning belle of St. Louis, and, although the mother of eleven sturdy children (five boys and six girls) always remained a woman of remarkable beauty. Many were the tales which the trapper used to tell his children of his early experiences on the plains, and, although the frost of old age gradually touched his auburn hair with snow, the fire and imagination of youth always kept the spirit of the old pioneer as fresh as when, as a young man, he made that dangerous trip to the wild region of the West as a member of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Thus in peace and comfort passed the declining years of the last of the trappers of the Great Frontier.


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