Some early pioneers became larger than life-myths, legends, our very own folk heroes. One of Haskell County's towns bears the name of one such pioneer folk hero: William L. Sublette, mountain man.
"The vision to see and the courage to do is part of our American heritage."
William was born to Phillip and Isabella Sublette in a territory along the Cumberland River in Kentucky, September 21, 1799. His birthplace was not a one-room log cabin but a two-story home of his maternal grandfather, Colonel Whitley.
Before Bill was 2 years old his family had moved to Somerset Kentucky, where his father planned to enter politics and speculate in land along this fertile area of the Cumberland River. The family opened an inn (they called it ordinary) where travelers could eat, drink and lodge. Young Bill spent long hours drinking in the stories and yarns of western travelers. It was, perhaps, at this young age when his love of exploration and adventure began to develop.
By 1817 the Sublette family had moved to St. Charles, Missouri. Bill had just turned 18. Although he still lived at home, he leased 200 acres of timberland and cut this into fence rails to sell. In the spring of 1820 Bill was appointed deputy to the constable of St. Charles. Sublette was poorly educated but shrewd and politically minded even as a young man. His deputy work let him broaden his circle of friends and probably his enemies, too. In 1822 he defeated two opponents to become the new town constable. At age 23 William stood 6 feet, 2 inches tall with fair skin sandy hair and blue eyes.
In the spring of 1823 he decided to seek adventure and his fortune in the fur trade. He was hired by the lieutenant governor of Missouri, General William Henry Ashley. For one year of mountain service he was promised the princely sun of $100. Although he had no experience in trapping, he had practical experience in law, politics, business and land speculation.
Having survived Indian skirmishes, long winters and stiff competition from other fur trappers, Sublette formed a partnership in 1826 with Jed Smith and David Jackson, taking over Ashley's fur interest. After nearly 4 years of partnership the firm was barely solvent and no mistakes could be made. The common belief that "the new firm did not prosper financially, for the hey-day of the fur trade was past" was the quite possibly true.
The partners, after considering their fur returns and the cost of the expedition, realized that they had enough to pay their note to Ashley and to provide each of them with small profit. This was their opportunity to escape the mountains trade before conditions grew worse. They decided, suddenly and unexpectedly, to sell their interests and dissolve their partnership. Perhaps they can follow in Ashley's footsteps: prepare and send annual supply trains to the mountain rendezvous, then trade, carry and sell beaver caught by others. They were aware that the supply of mountain beaver was diminishing and that there might be a decided decline in market value if a short supply should bring about the substitution of some other material for beaver fur.
There were more personal reasons for wishing to disband their business. Smith and Jackson had seen little of civilization in many years and were eager to rest and relax awhile and comfort. Their mountain exploits were passing into legend. A new decade was beginning, and the time was ripe for the dissolution of their partnership.
Their returning caravan created a sensation upon its arrival within the settled area of western Missouri. Although many of them were unaware of it, they had participated in a monumental western event. Their wagon caravan was the first to utilize a large portion of the Oregon Trail. Sublette's faith in himself and his men had borne results. He had taken wheeled we'll vehicles west to Popo Agie and had bought them back to St. Louis. He had proven that the Overland Trail could be crossed by wagon; he had opened the immigrants' road to Oregon.
During the next four years Sublette trapped, guided expeditions, fought Indians, opened up trading post and expanded his various business interests. He again led a party west from St. Louis in late April 1834. His departure went largely unheralded in the general confusion of prosperity and westward expansion activities. Sublette had plans to build a furpost on the Laramie which he hoped would be the primary link in the chain of post. These, he hoped, would give his partner, Campbell, and himself control of much of the central mountain trade. On June 1 at the Laramie, Sublette laid the foundation logs for his fort and immediately christened it Fort Williams. Men were left at the site to build the fort and to plant corn. Sublette took the remainder of the party across the Wyoming Black Hills to the rendezvous over a region of wild sage, scrubby pines, grizzly bears and petrified logs. They pulled into the rendezvous early and immediately sold supplies to some of the traders who had contracts with other suppliers. The other suppliers call Sublette's tactics foul and complained that he had raced them to the rendezvous and had acted very unfairly. It is doubtful that Sublette really raced them. More likely, he knew the trail had made faster progress. Sublette had won his point and relinquish the next year's supply duties to another group.
Back in St. Louis, the next five years saw Sublette building a new home, caring for business interests and seeing to the welfare of his brothers, but he always kept his hand in what was left of the fur trade. The last sale of furs directly attributed to him was transacted in August 1840 when two lots of deer in raccoon skins were sold in St. Louis. The economic picture was darkening and Sublette was forced to appear in court to collect on debts owed him and to foreclose on land in lieu of cash payment by some debtors. Although this was a busy time for Sublette, he provided a home for his sister and her daughter, dabbled in politics and waged a constant battle against his ever worsening health. Sublette's health problems were thought to be caused by his living for years in rough, primitive conditions and by poor eating habits.
Sublette saw one more mountain excursion as a solution for his restlessness and perhaps as it cure for his poor health. When he returned home he gave up his bachelor waysat age 45 and married his longtime friend, Frances Herford, March 31, 1844. He was happy in his marriage, but his health continued to fail, and he finally consented to go east to New Jersey. He, Frances and her sister left St. Louis by steamboat on July 14, 1844. By July 18 he was seriously ill. He was taken off the boat in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and he died July 23, far away from his beloved mountains.
(When I get began my research on Williams Sublette I assumed I would be able to find out why his name was chosen for town. I wondered why not the name of Jim Bridger or, perhaps, Jed Smith. They were also famous trappers and mountain men. Or, why not an Indian name such as Satanta? Several sources indicated that when the Santa Fe railroad was built through southwest Kansas the company chose the names for these small towns. This raises another question: What method did the railroad officials use to choose and assign the town names? Perhaps they tossed all the names into a hat and drew them out at random.)
- This article was written by Sherry Steckel and featured in the book "Haskell County, Kansas, 100 Years Beneath the Plow". Sherry was a resident of Sublette and served as librarian of the Haskel Towhnship Library. Sherry was a creative contributor to her community and to many of the children at the library.