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Bill Williams, Mountain Man
Old Santa Fe Trail: The Story of a Great Highway

Old Bill Williams was another character of early days of the Trail, and was called so when Carson, Uncle Dick Wooton, and Maxwell were comparatively young in the mountains. He was, at the time of their advent in the remote West, one of the best known men there, and had been famous for years as a hunter and trapper. Williams was better acquainted with every pass in the Rockies than any other man of his time, and only surpassed by Jim Bridger later.

He was with General Fremont on his exploring expedition across the continent; but the statement of the old trappers, and that of General Fremont, in relation to his services then, differ widely. Fremont admits Williams' knowledge of the country over which he had wandered to have been very extensive, but when put to the test on the expedition, he came very near sacrificing the lives of all. This was probably owing to Williams' failing intellect, for when he joined great explorer he was past the meridian of life.

Now the old mountaineers contend that if Fremont had profited by the old man's advice, he would never have run into the deathtrap which cost him three men, and in which he lost all his valuable papers, his instruments, and the animals which he and his party were riding. The expedition had followed the Arkansas River to its source, and the general had selected a route which he desired to pursue in crossing the mountains.

It was winter, and Williams explained to him that it was perfectly impracticable to get over at that season. The general, however, ignoring the statement, listened to another of his party, a man who had no such experience but said that he could pilot the expedition. Before they had fairly started, they were caught in one of the most terrible snowstorms the region had ever witnessed, in which all their homes and mules were literally frozen to death. Then, when it was too late, they turned back, abandoning their instruments, and able only to carry along a very limited stock of food. The storm continued to rage, so that even Williams failed to prevent them from getting lost, and they wandered about aimlessly for many days before they luckily arrived at Taos, suffering seriously from exhaustion and hunger.

Three of the men were frozen to death on the return trip, and the remaining fifteen were little better than dead when Uncle Dick Wooton happened to run across them and piloted them into the village. It was immediately after this disaster that the three most noted men in the mountains - Carson, Maxwell, and Dick Owens - became the guides of the pathfinder, with whom he had no trouble, and to whom he owed more of his success than history has given them credit for.

At one period of his eventful career, while he lived in Missouri, before he wandered to the mountains, Old Bill Williams was a. Methodist preacher; of which fact he boasted frequently while he trapped and hunted with other pioneers, Whenever he that of his early life, he declared that be "was so well known in his circuit, that the chickens recognized him as he came riding by the scattered farmhouses, and the old roosters would crow 'Here comes Parson Williams! One of us must be made ready for dinner,'"

Upon leaving the States, he travelled very extensively among the various tribes of Indians who roamed over the great plains and in the mountains. When sojourning with a certain band, he would invariably adopt their manners and customs. Whenever he grew tired of that nation, he would seek another and live as they lived. He had been so long among the savages that he looked and talked like one, and had imbibed many of their strange notions and curious superstitions.

To the missionaries he was very useful. He possessed the faculty of easily acquiring languages that other white men failed to and could readily translate the Bible into several Indian dialects. His own conduct, however, was in strange contrast with the precepts of the Holy Book with which he was so familiar.

To the native Mexicans he was a holy terror and an unsolvable riddle. They thought him possessed of an evil spirit. He at one time took up residence among them and commenced to trade. Shortly after he had established himself and gathered in a stock of goods, he became involved in a dispute with some of customers in relation to his prices. Upon this he apparently took an intense dislike to the people whom he had begun to traffic with, and in his disgust tossed his whole mass of into the street, and, up his rifle, left at once for the mountains.

Among the wild ideas he had imbibed from his long association with the Indians, was faith in their belief in the transmigration of souls. He used so to worry his brain for hours cogitating upon this intricate problem concerning a future state, that he actually pretended to know exactly the animal whose place he was destined to fill in the world after he had shaken off this mortal human coil.

Uncle Dick Wooton told how once, when he, Old Bill Williams, and many other trappers, were lying around the camp-fire one night, the strange fellow, in a preaching style of delivery, related to them all how he was to be changed into a buck elk and intended to make his pasture in the very region where they then were. He described certain peculiarities which would distinguish him from the common run or elk, and was very careful to caution all those present never to shoot such an animal, should they ever run across him.

Excerpted from The Old Santa Fe Trail
The Story of a Great Highway
By Henry Inman, 1893, about mountain man Bill Williams.

Henry Inman, 1893

Excerpted from the book, "The Old Santa Fe Trail
The Story of a Great Highway" by Henry Inman, 1893, about mountain man Bill Williams.


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William Sherley Williams statue