William Sherley (Old Bill) Williams

June 3, 1787 - March 21, 1849

Williams, William Sherley (Old Bill), mountain man (June 3, 1787-Mar. 21, 1849). Born in Rutherford County, North Carolina, he was educated and with the family moved to Missouri, settling near St. Louis in 1795. At 16 Bill moved among the Osage with Big Hill's band, married, fathered two daughters, and may have trapped southern Rockies rivers as early as 1807. Early in the War of 1812 he served as sergeant and scout with Company C, Mounted Rangers, along the Mississippi. Williams was interpreter at Fort Osage in 1817-1818 and later at a post on the Marias des Cygnes River. He was instrumental in compiling an Osage-English dictionary for United Foreign Missionary Society people, but was not in print credited for his efforts at the time. He eventually declined to interpret the missionaries sermons into Osage, and they "dared not preach without his approval." Williams eventually became a trader on the Arkansas River among Osages and Kickapoos. In the fall of 1824 he headed for the Rocky Mountains, reaching a Hudson's Bay Company post on Clark's Fork of the Columbia; as a free trapper he worked with Jedediah Smith and other Ashley men, skirmishing with Blackfeet, killing some of them, acquiring the soubriquet "Old Bill" (he was then 37), and by 1825 was back with the Osages. In August he signed on a government expedition to chart the Santa Fe Trail, reaching Taos October 20. He trapped the Rio Grande, and perhaps the Gila that winter, then returned to the upper Rockies, trapped, skirmished some more with Blackfeet, and returned to New Mexico in the summer of 1826. Bill worked the Gila that winter, was robbed by Apaches, succored by the Zunis, spent some time among the Navahos and returned to Taos. He trapped the upper Rockies again, returning to Taos about May 23, 1832, roamed the middle Rockies and Ute country, then, in 1832, trapped the southern Plains rivers. He again trapped the north country, then roamed the western New Mexico and Arizona regions, visiting the petrified forest and Grand Canyon, wintered in 1834-1835 near what became known as Bill Williams Mountain, reached the Colorado and went north to Salt Lake, and resumed trapping the upper Rockies. In 1837 Williams explored what became known as Bill Williams Fork of Colorado, reached the 1838 rendezvous on the Popo Agie, spent several years among the Utes, and took part in the great 1840 horse raid on southern California ranchos. Bill spent 1841-1842 in Missouri, returned to the Rockies, fought Blackfeet again, traded with the Shoshone and went back to Taos. Bill visited Oregon in 1843, went to California from Taos in 1844, fought the Modocs, guided Fremont (with Kit Carson) in 1845, roamed the Rockies some more, joined Major William W. Reynolds of the 3rd. regiment, Missouri Mounted Rifles, for a military campaign against Utes and Plains Apaches, and was badly wounded in the arm. In November 1848, he was hired by Fremont for his fourth expedition at The Pueblo, on the Arkansas River, and after warning him that winter was no time to cross the Rockies, went with him anyway. He had a role in rescuing the expedition from disaster; with Dr. Benjamin J. Kern, the expedition's physician, Williams left Taos in February of 1849 to recover expedition property but the two were killed east of the Rio Grande and southwest of Mt. Blanca; their slayers probably were Utes with possible Mexican connivance. Williams was 6 feet, 1 inch in height, sinewy, of considerable power, his eyes blue and his hair red. He considered himself a "master trapper," and deserved the claim. He was probably the greatest character among the mountain men (made permanently famous by Ruxton), shot "plumb center" with a "double wobble," was slightly stooped, tireless, ever alert, wily, survivor of countless scrapes and adventures, and was well traveled and acquainted with the West as any man. He married or lived with a considerable succession of women, had a high-pitched, cracked voice, was an "impressive speaker," something of an actor, had a superior intelligence with a knowledge of Greek, Latin and comparative religion, and possessed a lively sense of humor. He prepared an account of his experiences among southwestern Indians, attempted water color sketching, but nothing save his Osage primer is known to have survived. He was twice painted by Edward M. Kern, neither work surviving, Bill loved children, was generous with his extensive knowledge, and in all things was a true mountain great.


Alpheus H. Favour, Old Bill Williams: Mountain Man. Norman, Univ. of Okla. Press, 1962 Robert V. Hine, Edward Kern and American Expansion. New Haven, Yale Univ. Press, 1962; George Frederick Ruxton, Life in the Far West. Norman, Univ. of Okla. Press, 1951.