Thomas (Broken Hand) Fitzpatrick

1799 - February 7, 1854

Fitzpatrick, Thomas (Broken Hand), mountain man, Indian agent (1799-Feb. 7, 1854). Born in County Caven, Ireland, Fitzpatrick became one of the three or four greatest mountain men and Indian managers. He reached America about 1816, engaged in the Middle Western Indian trade, and in 1823 went up the Missouri with Ashley. He was involved in the Arickara fight and the subsequent indecisive Leavenworth operation. He and Jedediah Smith led an overland party to the Wind River valley, where they wintered. With the opening of the trapping season, Fitzpatrick and others worked up the Green River, brought a good catch to the Missouri where he met Ashley late in 1824 and guided the trader to the Green River, arriving in April. Fitzpatrick remained in the mountains, trapping the Uinta Mountains streams and elsewhere, associating with William Sublette and David E. Jackson, and by 1829 was with the Flatheads where Jedediah Smith joined him, fresh from California and Oregon adventures. That fall Fitzpatrick and others trapped the Blackfeet country on the upper Missouri and in 1830 he was one of five purchasing the Rocky Mountain Fur Company from Smith, Jackson and Sublette, Fitzpatrick becoming head of the new organization. After trapping the Three Forks area, he went to St. Louis in 1831, was diverted to Santa Fe, took the necessary supplies north to the rendezvous, and returned to St. Louis again. On his hurried return to the mountains in 1832, he had a brush with the Gros Ventres, narrowly escaping with his life after immense hardships, during which his hair was grayed and whereafter he was sometimes referred to as "White Hair." Fitzpatrick was prominent in the battle of Pierre's Hole, July 18, 1832, again trapped the Blackfeet country, wintered on the Salmon River. He trapped the Crow country in the fall of 1834, was robbed by those Indians, but escaped to the Green River once more. Fitzpatrick apparently spent the following winter in St. Louis, then went out to Fort William on the Laramie River, which his new firm had purchased from Sublette and Robert Campbell. Fitzpatrick traded with the Sioux there until early 1836, made a trip to St. Louis and, when his firm sold out to the American Fur Company, hired out to the AFC on an annual basis, occasionally guiding parties into or across the Rockies. He continued his involvement with the fur trade until 1841 when he guided a wagon train of emigrants from Missouri to Oregon, his services being commended by Father Pierre De Smet, Bidwell and others. He guided a second party that year from Fort Laramie to Fort Hall, then returned to the states following a serious brush with the Pawnees. In 1843 Fitzpatrick was guide for Fremont's second expedition, becoming at times virtual second in command to the "Pathfinder," visiting Oregon and California before returning to Missouri by 1844. The next year Fitzpatrick guided Stephen Watts Kearny to the mountains, then joined J.W. Abert on a trip through the Comanche country. He guided Kearny at the outset of the Mexican War until the command met Kit Carson at Socorro, New Mexico, when Carson took up the role of guide and Fitzpatrick took Carson's dispatches from Fremont to Washington, D.C. At the capital Fitzpatrick received an appointment as Indian Agent for the Upper Platte and Arkansas rivers, the action generally welcomed on the frontier. Fitzpatrick recommended at Leavenworth the constriction of military posts at Laramie, Hall, the Great Bend of the Arkansas and near Fort Bent, his recommendations being followed. As Indian Agent, Fitzpatrick counseled with the Cheyennes at Bent's Fort in 1847, with Indians on the South Platte in February 1848, and was instrumental in organizing the great Fort Laramie Treaty conference of 1851, agreement following week long negotiations with Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Shoshones and Sioux, an arrangement which established the format for Indian-white relations on the Great Plains and adjoining areas. Fitzpatrick took a delegation of Indians to Washington. Two years later, as sole commissioner, he met with Comanches and Kiowas, concluding another treaty, but while at Washington on matters connected with it, died of pneumonia. He was buried in the Congressional Cemetery. He had married a woman of mixed French-Snake ancestry and fathered two children. Fitzpatrick was nicknamed "Broken Hand" because his left hand had been crippled in a firearms accident, it was reported. Fitzpatrick was not only influential in shaping the fur trade during its formative years, but equally so as an early guide to emigrants and army expeditions, and as an Indian agent, being generally respected by red and white alike for his work in this connection. He has occasionally been hailed with some justification as the greatest of all frontiersmen of his period.

LeRoy R. Hafen, Broken Hand: The Life of Thomas Fitzpatrick: Mountain Man, Guide and Indian Agent. Denver, Colo., Old West Pub. Co., 1973.