William Sublette

1799–1845 — Legend of the American West and Fur Trade Era

William Sublette was a Frontiersman, Fur Trader, and Mountain Man, during the Fur Trade Era. He is most famous for the years he spent trapping and exploring the American West and his connections to the famous Mountain Men of the time.

William Sublette, Mountain Man, Illustration

This illustration depicts William Sublette. Image Source: Bill Sublette: Mountain Man by John Sunder, 1959.

William Sublette Facts

  • Born — William Sublette was born on September 21, 1799 in Kentucky.
  • Died — Sublette died on July 23, 1845, at the age of 32, in Pittsburgh.
  • Buried — He is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.
  • Interesting Fact — Sublette worked as a constable when he first arrived in St. Louis.
  • Interesting Fact — He is believed to have introduced the first billiard table in St. Charles, Missouri.
  • Interesting Fact — The relatives on his mother’s side of the family claimed his grandfather, William Whitley, killed Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames.
  • Interesting Fact — William’s four brothers were also involved in the Fur Trade. Their names were Milton, Andrew, Pinkney, and Solomon.

William Sublette — Legendary Mountain Man of the American West

William Lewis Sublette was born on September 21, 1799, near Stanford, Kentucky, to Philip Sublette and Isabella Whitley.

His mother was the daughter of William Whitley, a well-known Kentucky pioneer who fought in the Northwest Indian War and War of 1812. According to legend, Whitley was the one who killed Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames.

The Sublette family moved to St. Louis in 1817, where his father ran a tavern, speculated in land, and engaged in local politics.

Ashley’s Hundred and the Arikira War

Along with his brother Milton, he joined William H. Ashley’s 1823 Expedition to the Rocky Mountains. He was with Ashley when they were attacked by Arikara Indians along the Upper Missouri River on June 2, surviving by swimming to safety. Afterward, he served as a Sergeant Major in the Leavenworth Expedition that retaliated against the Arikara (August 9–11).

Exploring with Jedediah Smith

Following the defeat of the Arikara, Sublette joined Jedediah Smith on an expedition to Wyoming and Crow Territory. They spent the spring of 1824 trapping along the Green River and its tributaries. Sublette and Smith traveled to the far northwest in 1824–25, eventually reaching the territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company. 

Jedediah Smith, Mountain Man, Illustration
This illustration depicts Jedediah Smith. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Smith, Jackson, and Sublette

In 1826, Sublette, Smith, and David E. Jackson bought Ashley’s company, which is generally referred to as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, but was formally known as Smith, Jackson, and Sublette. He made another supply run in 1829 and in 1830, he became the first to use wagons to transport supplies to the Green River region in the Rockies.

In 1827, Sublette carried supplies from St. Louis to the Trapper’s Rendezvous, trapped in the Snake-Salmon region, and returned to St. Louis by mid-1828. 

The Rocky Mountain Fur Company was successful, and Sublette and the owners sold to Milton Sublette, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Jim Bridger in 1830. 

Afterward, Sublette formed a new company and turned his attention to the Santa Fe Trade until Jedediah Smith was killed en route to Santa Fe in 1831. 

Sublette and Campbell

Sublette then formed a partnership with Robert Campbell.

In 1832, he led a supply expedition to the Pierre’s Hole Rendezvous, joined by Nathaniel Wyeth and Campbell. On July 18, he led trappers at the Battle of Pierre’s Hole against Gros Ventre Indians. Sublette was badly wounded in the arm during the but survived. Before the battle, Sublette and Campbell made oral wills, agreeing that if one died, the other would be granted his possessions.

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

Competition with the American Fur Company

Following the battle, Sublette and Campbell turned their attention to competing with the American Fur Company on the Upper Missouri River. They built Fort William at the confluence of the Laramie River and North Platte River in present-day Wyoming, to trade with the Assiniboine, Cree, and Gros Ventres. In 1835, the American Fur Company bought them out and they returned to St. Louis.

Sublette and Campbell opened a supply store in St. Louis. They dissolved their partnership in 1842 but remained close friends and business associates. For the next three years, he was involved in politics, managed a farm, and ran a hotel. 

John Jacob Astor, Portrait, Jarvis
John Jacob Astor. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Life After Sublette and Campbell

Politically, he was aligned with the Democratic-Republican Party. In 1841, he served as an aide-de-camp to the Governor of Missouri, Thomas Reynolds. 

In 1843, he took a trip to the Rocky Mountains with William Drummond Stewart.

He married Frances Hereford on March 21, 1844. Before the marriage, she was romantically linked to his brother, Solomon P. Sublette. According to some sources, she married William because of his wealth.

Death from Tuberculosis

In 1845, Sublette decided to pursue a position as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in St. Louis. He wrote to Senator Thomas Hart Benton and then set out for Washington, D.C. While he was on his way to meet with Benton, he stopped in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While he was there, he sought medical treatment for tuberculosis. Unfortunately, he died there on July 23, 1845, at the age of 32. He was buried in St. Louis.

Upon William’s death, his wife inherited his estate on the condition that she kept Sublette as her last name. Four years later, she married Solomon P. Sublette.

Competition in the Fur Trade

  • Sublette was one of the Mountain Men who explored the Rocky Mountains and unorganized territories of the American West
  • The western territories were largely controlled by British-Canadian fur companies, including the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company
  • The American Fur Company, established by John Jacob Astor, established a monopoly in the Fur Trade in the American West before 1830 and competed with the British-Canadian companies.
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.

The Trapper’s Rendezvous System

In 1823, Sublette joined the fur trapping group known as Ashley’s Hundred, which was owned by William H. Ashley and Andrew Henry. By then, the U.S. had passed laws that made it illegal to liquor to Indians for furs. Ashley responded by establishing the Rendezvous System.

  • Instead of traveling to Indian villages to trade for furs, Ashley set up a centralized location for both Indians and trappers to meet, trade, and buy supplies.
  • Ashley sent supplies to the Rendezvous, which were traded for furs.
  • Supplying the Rendezvous was a lucrative business.

The company is often referred to as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, but the name was not used until after Ashley and Henry sold their shares.

Fort William’s Transformation to Fort Laramie

Sublette and Campbell built Fort William in the foothills east of the South Pass through the Rocky Mountains. It was located just before the ascent to the South Pass, which was the only route wagons could travel over the Continental Divide. 

After Sublette and Campbell sold their interests to the American Fur Company, the fort was renamed Fort John. Later, the U.S. Army took control of the fort and renamed it Fort Laramie.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title William Sublette
  • Date 1799–1845
  • Author
  • Keywords William Sublette, Fur Trade, Ashely's Hundred, Rocky Mountain Fur Company, American Fur Company, Jedediah Smith, Robert Campbell
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 25, 2024