Mountain men were so much more than just fur trappers, they were explorers who traversed and traveled routes previously unknown, paving the way for future generations to move westward. Today, many view manifest destiny with a jaundiced eye, ashamed of the conquering and taming of the vast wilderness that is America; however, for good or bad, these men earned their place in history with their undaunted courage and zest for exploration.
While a trip undertaken with any one of the approximately 400 known mountain men, would have made for an exciting, dangerous journey – there is one man who stands out for his leadership and bravery. This man isn’t as well known as Kit Carson, Jedediah Smith or Jim Bridger, but for miles traversed and men lost, his record stands above them all. He may well have been the greatest mountain man of all time.
The annals of history have given little credit to Joseph Rutherford (Reddeford) Walker for his achievements, but he is one man I would have followed to the Pacific and back. Walker was a tough but fair man whose heritage included extended family ties with Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston as well as a stint as sheriff in Jackson County, Missouri, while living in Independence – a major starting point for the Santa Fe and Oregon trails.
Walker lived with the Snake Indians for about fifteen years, later married a Shoshone woman, his almost constant companion for at least ten years (it is believed she and their children died from cholera) and his ties to the Shoshone and Snake Indians may well explain why he encountered few troubles with them. Walker was never one to embellish stories or tell wild tales, to the point of not taking credit for many of his discoveries.
Daniel Conner, a member of the Walker party in Arizona, kept a journal detailing his experiences. This is what he wrote about Joseph Walker:
“I was with him [Walker] two years of his last explorations of our mountain country under the most desperate hardships and still I could never see any change in him. Always cool, firm, and dignified. “I never heard him tell any wonderful story. He was too reticent about his certainly bleak and wild experiences and he was never given to saying foolish things under any circumstance. Brave, truthful, he was as kindly as a child, yet occasionally he was ever austere. I was but a boy and he kept me out of dangerous places without letting me know it or even know how it was done. “. . . my greatest concern is the fear that his character will never be known as well as it ought to be. His services have been great and unostentatious, unremunerated and but little understood. Modesty was his greatest fault.”
His known achievements include:
1821 – Part of the first wagon train to Santa Fe
1826 – Guide and hunter for the Santa Fe Trail Survey
1832 – Led first wagons over South Pass
1833 – Was the first to cross the Great Basin via the Humboldt River
1833 – First to see Yosemite
1833 – Explored a large portion of the California Trail
1834 – Discovered Walker Pass across the Sierra Nevada Mountains
1834 – Created the first concept and outline of the Great Basin
1834 – Led the first wagons into Owens Valley, California
1845 – Guided the third Fremont Expedition into California
1861 – Discovered the gold fields in Prescott, Arizona (As a direct result President Lincoln, et. al. created the Arizona territory)
Some believe that Walker’s greatest achievement was in blazing the trail to California, a trail followed by hundreds of thousands of pioneers. However, to my way of thinking, his greatest achievement was that in over 34 years of leading countless trapping and exploring parties, Walker lost only one man to a skirmish with Indians.
Joseph Walker was one of the few mountain men to die of old age (74 years), and fittingly, he is buried in the Alhambra Pioneer cemetery near Martinez, California.
For further reading: try “The Adventures of a Mountain Man” by Zena Leonard and “The Adventures of Captain Bonneville” by Washington Irving