Irish trailblazer and trapper found a vital pass through the Rockies

Roamer’s mailbox continues to receive News Letter readers’ ever-welcome e-mails about a variety of topics, particularly the on-going 80th Anniversary of the Belfast Blitz.

Wednesday, 28th April 2021, 8:38 am
Broken Hand Peak, Rocky Mountains, Named After County Cavan's Mountain Man
Broken Hand Peak, Rocky Mountains, Named After County Cavan's Mountain Man

Our ‘wee blue blossoms’, reminiscent of flax growing and the linen industry, are still stirring distinctively-scented memories and there are all sorts of other local stories and accounts waiting to be shared.

They’ll all be here soon!

Meanwhile it’s time for another venture into the Wild West, and an Ulsterman’s vital role in opening the frontier to fulfil America’s ‘Manifest Destiny’ - the idea that it was God’s will that the US should rule the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

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Painting of Archetypal Early 1800s 'Mountain Man' in the Far U.S. West

But this isn’t about cowboys and gunslingers and shootouts at high noon, the stuff of a thousand movies.

That lasted from around the end of the US Civil War (1865) till the turn of the 20th century.

This story dates to an earlier Wild West, which centred around the fur trade, and it began in the early 1800s.

Big money could be made selling fur to the European market. Beavers were especially lucrative for their pelts, which made the felt for hats - and every man wore a hat!

Thomas Fitzpatrick. Studio Portrait of 'Broken Hand' in his Later Years

The rivers of the Rocky Mountains were ripe for exploitation and they drew adventurers from the ‘civilized’ east.

They were called Mountain Men. A breed apart, they lived, trapped and traded largely in isolation in the coldest and most unforgiving parts of the uncharted west.

Some of them became famous, men like Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Grizzly Adams and Hugh Glass (whose story was told in the 2015 movie ‘The Revenant’, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.)

But one Mountain Man didn’t get much scrutiny, probably because none of the ‘dime novelists’ of the time looked for him.

(Dime novels were short works of fiction, printed on cheap newsprint, bound in paper, usually costing a dime.)

He was Thomas Fitzpatrick from Killeshandra, County Cavan, who was known in his time as ‘Broken Hand’.

We’ll get to the reason for his curious nickname later.

Mitchell Smyth, originally from Ballycastle and now retired after a career with the Toronto Star (and one of the much-appreciated regular contributors to this page), is an admitted Wild West junkie.

He has been telling Roamer how he once followed the legendary Oregon Trail which, in the last half of the 19th century, opened the west to full-scale emigration from the east. (The pioneers were called emigrants at that time.)

On US Highway 28, he says, he stopped to read a historical plaque and found he was on South Pass, a gently sloping corridor between two high peaks in the Rockies.

The pass was vital to the opening of the land west of the Rockies for it carried the trail to the Oregon Territory (present-day Oregon and Washington states), with offshoots to California and Utah.

The Oregon Trail carried an estimated 350,000 emigrants west between 1841, when the pioneers signed up for free or cheap land, and 1869, when the trans-continental railway came into being.

But our story goes farther back. Back to 1824 when a band of Crow Indians told trappers led by Thomas Fitzpatrick of a pass through the mountains and he led his men through.

He was just 25 at the time of his great discovery and had been in America since he was 17.

Because of his discovery, it has been said that he is “probably the single most important Irish-born figure in western history.”

And so the Mountain Men regularly traversed the pass, both ways, in their trapping and trading.

But, as noted, it was not until 1841 that the great push westward - the wagon trains - began, accelerating in 1849 with the discovery of gold in California.

(To be fair, some revisionists have disputed Fitzpatrick’s achievement, but there appears to be a lot of evidence that he should get the credit.)

Fitzpatrick worked for 10 years, trapping and trading.

His adventures included an encounter with a bear, near-starvation when he got separated from his companions, and an ambush by a band of rogue-braves when, defending himself, his musket misfired and he lost two fingers of his left hand.

(He escaped.)

From then on, the Native Americans called him Broken Hand.

Fitzpatrick spoke several native tongues.

He respected the natives and was respected by them.

By the late 1830s, the beaver pelt trade was flagging as European hat-makers discovered that silk gave a better finish, and Fitzpatrick became, for a time, a wagon master for emigrants.

He led the very first wagon train into Oregon Territory in 1841, over the pass that he had discovered.

He was then appointed an ‘Indian agent’ for the government, administering tribes in a vast swathe of the Central Plains. In this he was aided by his wife, Poisal, the daughter of an Arapaho chief.

He also helped negotiate the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, which among other things ceded what would become South Dakota to the natives.

(This treaty was broken with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1876, when white prospectors flowed in.)

Thomas Fitzpatrick died in 1854.

He was only 55, but he had lived many lives.

He’s remembered today in Mount Fitzpatrick in the Rockies, and in Fitzpatrick Wilderness, a conservation area in Wyoming, and in Broken Hand Peak in Colorado.

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