Thomas Fitzpatrick — Fur Trade Legend and Indian Agent

1799–1854

Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick was an Irish-born Frontiersman, fur trader, and businessman who played an important role in the Western Fur Trade. He is most famous for his years trapping and exploring alongside legendary Mountain Men like William Henry Ashley, Jedediah Smith, and Jim Bridger.

Thomas Fitzpatrick, Trapper, Fur Trade History

Thomas Fitzpatrick. Image Source: American History Central Digital Illustration.

Who was Thomas Fitzpatrick, the Pathfinder?

Thomas Fitzpatrick played an important role in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and served the U.S. government during the era of Westward Expansion. Although much of what is known about Fitzpatrick is based on undocumented stories, he is known to have ventured into the mountains with William Henry Ashley and became one of the owners of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1830. Despite the decline of the Fur Trade, Fitzpatrick remained out West, where he was frequently hired as a guide and worked as an Indian Agent. Fitzpatrick died in 1854 and is recognized as one of the most important Mountain Men of the era, alongside Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and Jedediah Smith. Fitzpatrick earned several nicknames during his career, including “Broken Hand,” “White Hair,” and “The Pathfinder.”

Thomas Fitzpatrick Facts

These important facts about Thomas Fitzpatrick provide a quick look at his life, accomplishments, and highlights from his career as a trapper, guide, and Indian Agent.

Personal Life

  • Born — Thomas Fitzpatrick was born in Ireland in 1799.
  • Died — Fitzpatrick died on February 7, 1854, at the age of 55. 
  • Buried — He was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
  • Nicknames — Fitzpatrick was known as  “Broken Hand,” “White Hair,” and “The Pathfinder.”

Accomplishments

  • Thomas Fitzpatrick was with Jedediah Smith when the South Pass through the Rocky Mountains was rediscovered.
  • Fitzpatrick guided the first Wagon Train over the Oregon Trail from Missouri to California.
  • He successfully organized and negotiated the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

Interesting Facts

  • Thomas Fitzpatrick was associated with the Ashley-Henry Fur Company, which is often referred to as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
  • Fitzpatrick fought in the Arikara War in 1823.
  • He attended the first Trapper’s Rendezvous in 1825.
  • In 1830, Fitzpatrick and two partners, Jim Bridger and Milton Sublette, bought the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. They were the ones who gave it the name.
  • Fitzpatrick was on the 1831 expedition to Santa Fe when Jedediah Smith was killed.
  • Fitzpatrick fought in the Battle of Pierre’s Hole.
  • When the Fur Trade declined, he went to work for his rival, the American Fur Company.
  • He was involved in military expeditions led by John C. Frémont and Stephen Watts Kearny.
General John C. Fremont, Civil War, USA
John C. Frémont. Image Source: National Archives.

The Life and Career of Thomas Fitzpatrick, Immigrant, Frontiersman, and Trapper

Thomas Fitzpatrick was born in County Caven, Ireland, in 1799. Very little is known about his early life, other than he received an education, joined the crew of a ship, and sailed to New Orleans. It is believed he arrived in America around 1816.

Fitzpatrick and Ashley’s Hundred

By 1822, Fitzpatrick was in St. Louis when William Henry Ashley published an ad in the Missouri Gazette & Public Advertiser, looking for “one hundred enterprising young men” to sign up for a trapping expedition, which was intended to last for up to three years. Fitzpatrick saw the ad, responded, and was hired.

The expedition moved out in stages. Ashley’s partner, Andrew Henry led the first group and built Fort Henry at the mouth of the Yellowstone River. The second group, which included Jedediah Smith, set out on the keelboat Enterprise. However, after moving 300 miles upriver, the boat sank. The group was stranded until another Ashley arrived with his boat and nearly 50 more men.

Ashley's Hundred, Newspaper Ad, 1822
William Henry Ashley’s newspaper ad. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Ashley’s expedition reached Fort Henry at the mouth of the Yellowstone River on October 1. Soon after, Ashley returned to St. Louis to gather supplies. The trappers at Fort Henry were divided into groups and sent out to hunt for the winter.

Throughout the winter, some of the groups were attacked by Blackfoot Indians and had some of their horses stolen.

The Arikara War

In March 1823, Ashley left St. Louis and proceeded up the Missouri River to rejoin Henry’s group. Henry sent Jediah Smith to meet Ashley and deliver a message, informing him the expedition needed horses. Henry wanted Ashley to see if he could trade with the Arikara Indians for horses.

Jedediah Smith, Mountain Man, Illustration
Jedediah Smith. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Smith found Ashley near the Arikara villages along the Upper Missouri River and delivered the message. Unfortunately, the Arikara were upset over the company’s activity in the local fur trade and attacked Ashley’s camp on June 2, 1863. 

10 men were killed, and two more died later. Many of the survivors escaped by swimming to safety. Fitzpatrick survived the attack.

Ashley and his men fell back to the mouth of the Cheyenne River, where most took shelter for about a month. Ashley sent Smith and at least one other man to Fort Henry to tell Andrew Henry what had happened and ask for reinforcements. Soon after, Ashley traveled to Fort Atkinson where he informed Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth about the attack and asked for help.

Leavenworth organized a military expedition that included 230 men from the U.S. 6th Infantry Regiment, 750 Sioux warriors, and about 50 of the trappers, including Fitzpatrick. The Leavenworth Expedition attacked the Arikara villages on August 9 and the two sides negotiated a treaty, ending hostilities, on August 11.

The short conflict, known as the Arikara War, was the first conflict between western Indians and the U.S. Army.

Fall 1823 — Western Expedition with Jedediah Smith

Despite the end of hostilities, the trappers were forced to find an alternate route to the Missouri River. Fitzpatrick joined an expedition led by Jedediah Smith that traveled to Fort Kiowa and then headed west toward the Rocky Mountains. They were joined by William Sublette, James Clyman, Thomas Eddie, and Edward Rose, among others.

They were the first Americans to explore the Black Hills, traveling through present-day South Dakota and the eastern portion of Wyoming. At one point, they needed horses and directions, so the group searched for the Crow tribe, who they thought would help them. 

While they were looking for the Crow, Smith was viciously attacked by a grizzly bear before he could shoot it. The bear broke some of his ribs, clawed at him, ripping one of his ears off, and had his head in its mouth went it suddenly stopped the attack and ran off.

Remarkably, Smith was able to remain calm while his men cleaned his wounds and James Clyman sewed his ear back on. Smith was badly scarred from the attack and kept his hair long from then on to cover the scars.

Fur Trade, Grizzly Bear Attack, Miller
Narrow Escape from a Grisly Bear by Alfred J. Miller. Image Source: Alfred Jacob Miller Online Catalogue.

Winter 1823–1824

Fitzpatrick and the others spent the winter in the Wind River Valley, in central Wyoming. At some point, they located the Crow, who told them about a passage — the “South Pass” — through the Rocky Mountains that would safely take him across the Continental Divide, which ran between the Central and Southern Rocky Mountains.

Spring 1824 — The South Pass and the Oregon Trail

In February 1824, Smith, Fitzpatrick, and the others went through the South Pass and traveled to the Green River in present-day Utah. They stayed there for the spring, trapping along the river and its tributaries. The South Pass became an important part of the Oregon Trail.

Fur Trade, Trappers Crossing River, Miller
Caravan Trappers Fording River by Alfred J. Miller. Image Source: Alfred Jacob Miller Online Catalogue.

Summer 1825 — The First Rocky Mountain Rendezvous

Smith sent Fitzpatrick back to St. Louis to deliver the news of the South Pass to William Henry Ashley, who used it to establish his Trapper Rendezvous system. Ashley organized a supply expedition and Fitzpatrick led him from St. Louis and through the South Pass. The first Rocky Mountain Trapper’s Rendezvous was held at Henry’s Fork near present-day McKinnon, Wyoming, and started on July 1, 1825. 

Fall 1825 to Spring 1830

Fitzgerald spent the next five years trapping in the west, working for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and William Henry Ashley.

Ashley sold the company to Jedediah Smith, David Jackson, and William Sublette in 1826, and Fitzpatrick continued working for them. 

Fitzpatrick hunted in the Uinta Mountains and met with the Flathead Indians in 1829. That fall, he hunted in Blackfoot Territory on the Upper Missouri River.

Summary 1830 — The Rocky Mountain Fur Company

At the 1830 Rendezvous, Smith and his partners sold their company to Fitzpatrick, Jim Bridger, Milton Sublette, Henry Fraeb, and John Baptiste Gervais. The new owners renamed the company, officially calling it the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. They officially took ownership of the company on August 4, 1830.

Jim Bridger, Mountain Man, Scout, Portrait
Jim Bridger. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Fall 1830

Following the 1830 Rendezvous, Jackson, and Sublette set out for St. Louis with 190 packs of beaver. They arrived at St. Louis on October 10.

Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick, Sublette, and Bridger led an expedition of more than 200 men northward through the Bighorn Basin in north-central Wyoming. They crossed the Yellowstone River and continued moving northwest until they were near the Great Falls of the Missouri River. From there, they went south, ascending the Missouri River to the Three Forks, and then followed the Jefferson Fork to the Continental Divide.

This portion of the expedition was successful, and because there were so many men, hostilities with the Indians were limited.

Encounter with Ogden and the Hudson’s Bay Company

After crossing the Divide, the expedition continued south for several hundred miles until they arrived at Ogden’s Hole, on the northeast shore of the Great Salt Lake. It was there they encountered trappers from the Hudson’s Bay Company, led by Peter Skeen Ogden. 

Fitzpatrick took advantage of the situation by alcohol to Ogden’s men — which is said to have earned the equivalent of a year’s worth of profits from pelts.

Soon after, Fitzpatrick’s expedition went east to the Powder River Valley. Upon arrival, they had traveled more than 1,200 miles during the fall hunt.

Winter 1830–1831

They spent the winter in the Powder River Valley, which was abundant with game, particularly buffalo, and provided grazing for their horses. Fraeb and Gervais decided to leave and returned to their hunting grounds in the south. 

Rendezvous Near Green River by Alfred J. Miller. Image Source: Alfred Jacob Miller Online Catalogue.

Spring 1831

In the spring of 1831, the expedition set out for the Blackfoot Territory. However, a party of Crows stole most of their horses. A party was quickly assembled to recover the horses. It was successful — and they even took some of the horses belonging to the Indians.

Fitzpatrick Returns to St. Louis

Soon after, Fitzpatrick returned to St. Louis to procure the supplies for the 1832 Rendezvous, which was scheduled for the Green River Valley. By April 19, he was near Council Bluffs, Iowa, roughly 420 miles northwest of St. Louis.

The Santa Fe Expedition and the Death of Jedediah Smith

Upon reaching St. Louis, Fitzpatrick was convinced to join Smith, Jackson, and Sublette on an expedition to Santa Fe. He intended to go to Santa Fe and then move on to the Rendezvous.

During the journey, Jedediah Smith disappeared, and it is said a party of Comanche warriors killed him. 

Fitzpatrick eventually left Santa Fe with his merchandise and traveled north along the eastern base of the mountains. He reached the North Platte River near the mouth of the Laramie River in 1831.

Friday, the Arapaho Boy

During the Sante Fe trip, Fitzpatrick found a young Arapaho boy who was alone and starving. Fitzpatrick found him on a Friday, and he called the boy “Friday.” When Fitzpatrick returned to St. Louis, he enrolled Friday in school, According to some accounts, he adopted the boy as his own. What is known is Friday traveled with him on western expeditions. In 1838, Fitzpatrick encountered a party of Arapaho Indians. Friday’s mother was with the group and recognized her son. Friday returned to his tribe but remained friends with Fitzpatrick.

1831 Rendezvous

While Fitzpatrick was in Sante Fe, he added a new trapper to their ranks — a young man named Kit Carson

Meanwhile, Sublette and Bridger conducted their spring hunt and then traveled to the Rendezvous site where they were joined by Fraeb and Gervais. Together, they waited for Fitzpatrick to arrive. When he failed to do so, they were concerned and decided to send Fraeb out to find him.

Kit Carson, Portrait, American Explorer
Kit Carson. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Fitzpatrick Reunited with His Partners

After an extensive search through the Black Hills, Fraeb finally found Fitzpatrick just as he reached the Platte River. The partners in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company eventually reunited in the Power River region for the fall hunt.

Fall 1831

During the fall hunt, trappers from the American Fur Company entered the region. The first were William Henry Vanderburgh, Andrew Drips, and Lucien Fontenelle. Instead of scouting on their own, they followed the trappers working for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to see where they hunted and trapped.

Vanderburgh and Drips followed Fraeb and Fitzpatrick. When Fitzpatrick found out, he and Fraeb led the men on a march of more than 400 miles to the Snake River to escape their followers.

John Jacob Astor, Portrait, Jarvis
John Jacob Astor, owner of the American Fur Company. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Winter 1831–1832

Over the winter, they traded with the Flathead and Nez Perce Indians and planned their next rendezvous for the Pierre’s Hole Valley. 

Spring 1832

Fitzpatrick and his fellow men set out on their spring hunting expedition, following a path that led them up the Snake River Valley, over a mountain range, and into the Bear River Valley. Soon after they arrived, they discovered Vanderburgh and Drips.

They decided to relocate but were attacked by Indians. Milton Sublette was wounded and had to remain in the Bear River Valley. Joseph Meek stayed with him while the rest of the expedition carried out the spring hunt.

When the hunt concluded, the trappers set out for Pierre’s Hole and the 1832 Rendezvous. By then, William Sublette was on his way from St. Louis with the company’s goods, which they would sell to the Indians and other trappers.

However, they soon discovered Vanderburgh and Drips were in Pierre’s Hole Valley. It appears they were attempting to beat Fitzgerald and his partners to the Rendezvous, where they intended to sell supplies of their own. If that happened, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company stood to lose a significant amount of money.

Fur Trade, Fur Traders on the Missouri, 1845, Bingham
Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, George Caleb Bingham, 1845. Image Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Fitzpatrick Joins Sublette

The partners sent Fitzpatrick to find Sublette and hurry him to the Rendezvous. Fitzpatrick found Sublette on the Platte River, downstream from the Laramie River, about 400 miles from Pierre’s Hole. On the journey to the Rendezvous, Fitzpatrick hired a group of trappers from Gant and Blackwell, a rival company.

Fitzpatrick Rides Ahead

When they reached the Sweetwater River in Wyoming, Fitzpatrick rode ahead to inform his partners Sublette was near. Fitzpatrick took two horses with him and alternated riding them, to keep going and make it to Pierre’s Hole as fast as he could

Fitzpatrick Evades the Blackfeet

When he arrived in the Green River Valley, he encountered a group of Blackfoot Indians. He mounted the spare horse and went into the mountains and hid from them. 

After three days, he emerged and resumed his journey, only to cross paths with the Indians again. This time, he lost his remaining horse along with most of his equipment and blankets. The only things he was able to save were his rifle and a small amount of ammunition. 

Fitzpatrick escaped by hiding in the mountains again for several days. Once again, he set out for the Rendezvous, but this time on foot. Two Iroquois trappers happened to come across him and offered help. They gave him a horse so he could make it to the Rendezvous.

When he arrived, he was exhausted and starving — and his hair had supposedly turned white earning him the nickname “White Hair.”

Fitzpatrick’s harrowing adventures with the Blackfeet delayed him so long that Sublette had already arrived at the Rendezvous.

1832 Rendezvous

While Fitzpatrick was dealing with the Blackfeet, Sublette and his expedition arrived at the Rendezvous site on July 6, ahead of the competing expedition from the American Fur Company, which was led by Lucien Fontenelle.

Upon his arrival, he found members of the Rocky Moutain Fur Company had been joined by groups new to the region. 

  • There was a large party from the American Fur Company led by Vanderburgh and Drips.
  • Nathaniel J. Wyeth led a party of inexperienced trappers from New England.

As usual, the plains around the site were filled with the tents of free trappers and Indians. Because Sublette arrived ahead of Lucien, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company dominated the trade.

The Battle of Pierre’s Hole

The Battle of Pierre’s Hole took place on July 18, 1832. It was the most significant battle between trappers and Indians.

The Rendezvous started to break up on July 17, and the members of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company made their preparations for the fall hunt.

It was decided that Milton Sublette would lead an expedition into the region north of the Salt Lake desert. Wyeth and the New Englanders were headed to the Pacific Coast, which took them in the same direction. The two parties decided to advance together, believing it would protect them from Indians.

The group traveled 6 to 8 miles from the Rendezvous site and camped for the night. The next morning, they saw a group of men on horses approaching the camp, but they were far off and it was impossible to identify them. As the horsemen neared the camp, it became clear it was two parties of Indians, about 150 in total. 

The trappers mistakenly believed the Indians were Blackfeet, but they were Gros Ventres.

The Indians carried two flags. One was a white flag of truce. The other was a British flag they took from a group of Hudson’s Bay trappers they had recently fought with and defeated. The Indians had a reputation for deception, so the trappers were skeptical of the white flag.

In the trapper’s camp, some men sought revenge on the Blackfeet for past incidents. Two of the men were Antoine Godin and a Flathead Indian chief. Together, they rode out to meet with the chief of the advancing Indians. When Godin shook his hand, the Flathead chief shot him. The two spurred their horses and fled back to the trapper’s camp.

The Indians scattered, took shelter in some trees, and built defensive fortifications. The trappers sent a rider back to the Rendezvous site to request reinforcements. Meanwhile, Sublette and his men fired on the Indians in their fortifications and Wyeth ordered his men to fortify their positions.

William Sublette and Robert Campbell arrived at the site of the battle, along with a large party of trappers and Indians. Sublette took command, ordering Wyeth and the other inexperienced men to stay back and leave the fighting to the experienced trappers and Indians.

Robert Campbell, Fur Trader, Frontiersman, Photo
Robert Campbell. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Seeing the trappers had received reinforcements, the Gros Ventres took shelter in their defensive works, where the trappers and Indians proceeded to fire on them. Despite the heavy fire, the Gros Ventres were well-protected and remained.

Sublette decided to storm the Gros Ventres and led about 30 men, including Campbell, in the attack. As they approached the Gros Ventres, they moved into an open area where they were exposed and suffered casualties. Sublette himself was shot and badly wounded in his arm before his men retreated.

The back and forth carried on for most of the day and Sublette decided the only way to dislodge the Gros Ventres was with fire. The trappers and Indians laid wood, which they intended to set on fire. However, while they were doing this, the Gros Ventres told them a large war party of 600-800 men would arrive soon. Believing this war party would attack the Rendezvous site, the trappers and Indians returned to warn the remaining traders and defend the site.

The trappers and Indians soon realized they had been tricked. The Gros Ventre war party never materialized and the others were gone by the next morning.

Fall 1832

The Battle of Pierre’s Hole caused a delay in the departure for the fall hunt. In early August, Fitzpatrick and Bridger departed for the headwaters of the Missouri River, hoping to avoid the men from the American Fur Company. 

Needing supplies, Vanderburgh and Drips set out on August 2 to find Fontenelle and gather supplies and equipment before Fitzpatrick and Bridger could travel too far. They met Fontenelle on the Green River on August 8 and set out to follow Bridger and Fitzpatrick on August 12.

Fitzpatrick and Bridger were trapping along Jefferson Fork when they discovered Vanderburgh and Drips were tracking them. Unable to lose their rivals, they decided to lead them deep into Blackfoot Territory. Unfortunately, this led to the death of Vanderburgh when the Blackfeet attacked.

Soon after, Bridger was attacked. He barely escaped and suffered for the next two years from an arrowhead that was stuck in his back.

Winter 1832–1833

As winter set in, the various expeditions of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company congregated in the Snake River Valley.

1833 Rendezvous

In the spring of 1833, they carried out the spring hunt and then traveled to the head of the Green River for the 1833 Rendezvous. It was a large gathering, estimated to have more than 300 participants, including the members of the Rocky Mountain Company, the American Fur Company, Benjamin Bonneville, and Nathaniel J. Wyeth.

Robert Campbell arrived at the site with the supplies, on behalf of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.

Trading started around June 15 and lasted until June 24.

Campbell, Fitzpatrick, and Milton Sublette

On June 24, Robert Campbell, Fitzpatrick, and Milton Sublette, along with Nathaniel J. Wyeth and others, set out for the Bighorn River, with them 55 packs of beaver pelts. They intended to return to St. Louis by way of the Yellowstone River and Missouri River, likely intending to meet with William Sublette. 

When they were along the Bighorn River, they stopped to prepare the bull boats to go downriver, and Fitzpatrick parted ways with Campbell and Milton Sublette and went out to conduct the fall hunt.

Wyeth Agrees to Supply the 1834 Rendezvous

On August 14, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company reached an agreement with Nathaniel J. Wyeth to supply the 1834 Rendezvous. Wyeth agreed to secure $3,000 worth of supplies and transport them to the Green River site.

Milton Sublette, Campbell, and Wyeth then continued their journey by boat and arrived at the mouth of the Yellowstone River, where they met William Sublette and his rival outfit. Campbell and Milton stayed with William, while Wyeth continued to St. Louis.

Fall 1833 — Fitzpatrick Robbed by the Crow

Fitzpatrick journeyed to the Tongue River valley, where he hoped to receive permission from the Crow to conduct his fall hunt in their territory. 

Fitzpatrick recalled, “But before I had time for form or ceremony of any kind, they robbed me and my men of everything we possessed.”

Fitzpatrick accused the American Fur Company of instigating the attack, which both the Crow and American Fur Company trappers appear to have confirmed.

Winter 1833-1834

Fitzpatrick spent the winter in St. Louis. 

Meanwhile, trouble was on the horizon for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Milton Sublette and Wyeth traveled to Boston, where Sublette helped Wyeth secure merchandise he had committed to take to the 1834 Rendezvous.

Despite the agreement between the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and Wyeth, William Sublette also gathered supplies to sell at the Rendezvous and it became a race to see which expedition could arrive first.

1834 Rendezvous

Milton Sublette and Wyeth started the journey to the Rendezvous, but Milton was forced to drop out due to illness. Meanwhile, his brother arrived at the Rendezvous ahead of Wyeth. Upon his arrival, he negotiated with Fitzpatrick, who agreed to purchase his supplies.

When Wyeth arrived, he was outraged, since he had a written agreement with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.

Situations like this led to the Indians losing faith in trading with and working for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, American Fur Company, and others. This greatly contributed to the decline of the Fur Trade.

Fitzpatrick, Sublette, and Bridger

With profits declining and trouble increasing, Fitzpatrick and the others decided to dissolve their partnership. Fraeb and Gerais sold their shares to Fitzpatrick and Bridger. 

Those two, along with Milton Sublette, formed a new company — Fitzpatrick, Bridger, and Sublette — and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company ended.

Purchase of Fort William

In the fall of 1834, Fitzpatrick, Sublette, and Bridger bought Fort William, the trading post established by William Sublette and Campbell on the Laramie River. With the transaction, they became employees of the American Fur Company, which appears to have paid Sublette and Campbell to abandon the business. The two of them returned to St. Louis where they opened a successful mercantile business.

Fitzpatrick and the American Fur Company

Fitzpatrick traded with the Sioux until 1836. That year, Milton Sublette died, leading to the dissolution of Fitzpatrick, Sublette, and Bridger. Afterward, Fitzpatrick and Bridger went their separate ways. However, they both remained in the West, and Fitzpatrick often worked as a guide for the American Fur Company.

Broken Hand

In 1836, during another encounter with the Blackfeet, Fitzpatrick’s gun misfired and he lost two fingers on his left hand. From then on, the Indians called him “Broken Hand.”

Oregon Trail Campfire, Painting, Bierstadt
Oregon Trail Campfire, Albert Bierstadt, 1863, Image Source: Wikipedia.

1841 — Bidwell-Bartleson Party

In 1841, Fitzpatrick led a Wagon Train to Oregon and was praised for his skills as a guide. The Bidwell-Bartleson Party left Missouri for California. They joined forces with Catholic missionaries led by Father Pierre Jean De Smet, forming a group of around 80 people.

During the journey, Fitzpatrick helped avoid a conflict with the Cheyenne Indians and organized defenses when the pioneers were threatened by a buffalo stampede. Father De Smet admired Fitzpatrick’s abilities and the two of them became close friends.

The Bidwell-Bartleson Party successfully made it to California.

1842 — Fitzpatrick Leads More Wagon Trains Over the Oregon Trail

In 1842, Fitzpatrick led a second Wagon Train over the Oregon Trail. During this expedition, he encountered a group of Indians who allowed him to pass but warned him against leading any more settlers westward.

1843 — Fremont’s Second Expedition

In 1843, John C. Frémont selected him to lead his second expedition to Oregon and California.  By then, Fitzpatrick had earned the nickname “The Pathfinder.” Fitzpatrick successfully guided the expedition over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to California. On the return trip, he guided it through Arizona before returning to St. Louis in 1844. Kit Carson was also involved in this expedition.

Among the Sierra Nevada, Painting, Bierstadt
Among the Sierra Nevada, Albert Bierstadt, 1868, Image Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum.

1845 — Kearney’s Expedition

In 1845, Stephen Watts Kearny hired Fitzpatrick to guide a military expedition through the South Pass. Fitzpatrick led Kearny and his 1st Dragoons to the region. The goal was to impress the Plains Indians with the strength of the U.S. Army, which would convince them to allow Wagon Trains to pass on the Oregon Trail. Although the Indians were impressed with Kearny’s army, hostilities continued.

Later that year, Fitzpatrick guided Lieutenant James Abert on an expedition into Kiowa and Comanche territory, along the Canadian River.

Mexican-American War

At the start of the Mexican-American War, Fitzpatrick served as a guide for Kearny and the Army of the West. He guided the army to Sante Fe, New Mexico, which was successfully captured. 

Indian Agent

Afterward, Kearny sent Fitzpatrick to Washington, D.C., to deliver reports. Kit Carson succeeded him as Kearny’s guide. Upon his arrival in Washington, Fitzpatrick was appointed as the Indian Agent for the Upper Platte River and Arkansas River. 

In this role, Fitzpatrick defended the Plains Indians, arguing the U.S. government needed to appropriately compensate them for land and treat them with respect. Although his advice was largely ignored, he did his best to help strengthen the relationship between the Indians and the U.S. However, he still understood that some tribes would remain hostile, and advocated the use of military force.

Marriage to Margaret Poisal

In 1849, he married 17-year-old Margaret Poisal. She was the daughter of John Poisal, a French-Canadian trapper, and Snake Woman, an Arapaho who was the daughter of Chief Niwot. At the time, Fitzpatrick was 50 years old. They had two children together, Andrew and Virginia.

Treaty of Fort Laramie

For nearly two years, Fitzpatrick visited the Plain Indian tribes and worked to convince them to attend a conference at Fort Laramie, which he planned to hold in 1851. It was part of Fitzpatrick’s plan to maintain peace and treat fairly with the Indians.

In July 1851, the Indians gathered at Fort Laramie. It is estimated there were 10,000 Indians, including Arikara, Assiniboine, Crow, Gros Ventre, Lakota, and Shoshone. However, the Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache refused the invitation.

The Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed on July 16 and laid out the territorial boundaries for each tribe. In exchange, the Indians agreed to allow settlers to travel the Overland Trails in peace.

Afterward, Fitzpatrick led a group of chieftains to Washington, D.C., where they met President Millard Fillmore.

Fort Laramie, Interior, Painting, Miller
This painting by Alfred J. Miller depicts the interior of Fort Laramie. Image Source: Walters Art Museum.

Death of Thomas Fitzpatrick

In 1853, Fitzpatrick traveled to Washington. He arrived in January 1854, after visiting his sister, Mary, in New York. Soon after his arrival, he contracted pneumonia. Fitzpatrick died on February 7 at the age of 55. He was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Thomas Fitzpatrick APUSH Definition and Significance

The definition of Thomas Fitzpatrick for APUSH is a celebrated Mountain Man and Fur Trader who is remembered for his extensive journeys in the American West during the 19th century and for organizing the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

The significance of Thomas Fitzpatrick for APUSH is the role he played in the Fur Trade as an employee and owner of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, along with his work as a guide, leaving the first Wagon Train over the Oregon Trail.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Thomas Fitzpatrick — Fur Trade Legend and Indian Agent
  • Date 1799–1854
  • Author
  • Keywords Thomas Fitzpatrick, Mountain Man, Frontiersman, Oregon Trail, South Pass, Ashley's Hundred, Arikara War, Rocky Mountain Fur Company, William Sublette, David Jackson, Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, Battle of Pierre's Hole
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 19, 2024

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