William Sherley Williams

Timeless are the tales spun of fabled characters from America's past; yet, little is known of a man who led an adventurous -- indeed, legendary -- life as a trader, trapper and scout along the old Santa Fe Trail. "Old Bill," he is called, and this is his story.

Photo of a sign near Columbus, North Carolina, marking the birthplace of Old Bill Williams. Photo is courtesy of Howard & Elea Williams.

In June 1787, William Sherley Williams was born as the fourth of nine children to parents of predominately Welsh ancestry in a remote area of North Carolina. On the family farm, where educational facilities were "meagre and insufficient," the children were taught fundamental academics by a knowledgeable mother: effectively so, for it is written that a sibling went on to become a famous preacher, and Bill is judged an educated man with appreciation for literature and understanding of history, politics, and comparative religion.

About 1793, the Williams clan packed their belongings and joined the flight of pioneeers going west, eventually settling in present-day Missouri. From here, Will -- as his family called him -- ranged widely and perfected the woodland skills that would earn him the admiration of his fellow Mountain Men many years later.

One day, only sixteen and hunting far from home, Will arrived at a village of the Osage Indians. Captivated by their ways, he re-appeared at the farm shortly thereafter and announced that he would from then on live as an Osage. Will settled with the Great Osages, learned their language, married into their tribe, and acquired considerable influence among them. Two daughters, Sarah and Mary, were born over the years, and he acquired two more wives. Will would remain with the Osage Indians for nearly a quarter of a century.

During the years 1803-25, Williams made excursions far to the west in pursuit of the indispensable buffalo and learned much about the huge expanse between Osage country (in Missouri-Arkansas) and the Rocky Mountains. Operating independently and frequently alone, there are indications that he knew his way around the mountains by 1810, long before organized brigades of hunters and government expeditions came into the area. In fact, his accurate knowledge of the land and influence with the Osage made Williams useful to the U.S. government as it charted the "unexplored" western regions of America.

When the War of 1812 broke out on the Missouri frontier, Will volunteered for service and was assigned to a region along the Mississippi as a scout for the Mounted Rangers, beginning a lengthy, though irregular, affair with the military. There are records to confirm his service as official interpreter and guide for several army concerns near the Osage Villages prior to 1822. Meanwhile, events of historic value were set in motion, about 1821, when a band of New England missionaries arrived in Osage country.

Williams aided the missionaries, at first, by furnishing practical information about the Osages and volunteering his services as interpreter and translator. His efforts produced material -- a dictionary, grammar, and familiar sentences -- that was later made into a book: Osage First Lines of Writing. Only five hundred copies were issued and the work is now very scarce.

However, Williams grew impatient with the white man's civilization and Christianity as he saw them practiced, making his relations with the missionaries increasingly more difficult. They, in turn, were concerned about the accuracy of his translations, distressed over his thought and manner of life. With this, Williams left the village about 1822, but continued his high influence and reputation among the Osages.

William S. Williams consequently embarked on his trek as a free trader and trapper in the Far West; a journey, in fact, that would mark him a hero of American Adventure. Bill's travels were broad until his death in 1849, and many a tale could be told of intrigue, conflict, mystery and prosperity.

In the fall of 1824, Williams headed for the Rocky Mountains and, working with a brigade of trappers near the Columbia River, ran into a hostile party of Blackfeet Indians. Although fighting bravely, Bill nonetheless escaped by slipping into a side canyon, where he hid for two days while the Indians hunted for him. On the third day, he emerged atop steep, rugged rocks in time to watch his enemies leave the vicinity. Fearing their presence still on the river banks, Williams fashioned a crude raft and quietly floated down the Columbia back to the trapper's camp.

Williams and his group of travelers preferred to associate with peaceful individuals, but if they encountered those otherwise inclined, they were prepared to deal with them in typical Mountain Man style. Masterful in snaking through dangerous Indian country, Williams was assuredly cunning, unorthodox, and effective in battle; a good man to have around in a tight spot. These abilities were tested repeatedly throughout the years in skirmishes with the Blackfeet, Apache, Comanche, and Modoc Indians. He is, however, remembered as having an uncanny way with American Indians and maintained comfortable relationships with several tribes.

About this time, Williams acquired the nickname "Old Bill," by which he was known the rest of his life.

Old Bill joined a government expedition, soon after, to survey and mark the trade road from Fort Osage to Santa Fe, New Mexico. As interpreter, his main duty was to help negotiate treaties with tribal leaders. Williams lost the job, however, when he began gambling after a successful beaver hunt. The experience was a passing of sorts, for Old Bill made Taos, New Mexico his new stamping ground, and he would now seek greater knowledge of the western frontier.

Late 1826, as Bill trapped alone in the "State of Senora" (Arizona), he was surprised by Apaches, stripped of everything, and turned loose in the desert. Naked and without a weapon, he journeyed 160 miles northeast through mountains, arid valleys, and the desert before being picked up by the Zunis Indians. The Zunis took Old Bill to their pueblo and treated him with great honor, almost worship. Ultimately he returned to Taos, some two hundred miles away. A few years later, Williams took up residence in a Taos adobe with a Mexican widow and her three children. She came of a good family, and son Jose was born to Antonia and Bill around 1834.

Old Bill once arranged a leisurely expedition to test stories heard of "some very wonderful things" farther west. It would be a splendid three-year journey across vast lands, countless rivers, and hundreds of mountain miles. Trapping all the while, Williams' experiences were far-reaching: he assisted the padres of Albuquerque in translating some Bible lessons into Navajo language, stood in enchanted stupor at the rim of the Grand Canyon, wintered in the neighborhood of what became known as Bill Williams Mountain, and nearly dared the inhospitable Mohave Desert. The trip ended in present-day Idaho, when Bill sold his beaver skins and took charge of a wagon train going south to Santa Fe.

Williams had a pattern, as a notoriously sharp trader, of buying and selling furs promptly for an immediate cash profit. However, the fur trade was declining by 1840, and many trappers pursued other interests. In a carefully planned enterprise, Old Bill joined a mixed band of American trappers, New Mexicans, French-Canadians, and Indians intent on "collecting" abandoned horses in Southern California. Three thousand animals were gathered and driven on a hard journey of about 1000 miles; over half were lost before clearing the Mohave Desert. Bill's usual, good business sense failed him in this instance, as he sold his share and settled for a barrel of whiskey.

To be sure, Old Bill's life is the stuff from which folk tales are made. Perhaps his best adventure came also as his last in an odyssey filled with stories of misfortune, conflict and suspense that is well-chronicled by about 200 different sources. A voyage, too, yielding tales of a mysterious death.

It was November 1848, and Williams probably knew better than to attempt a mountain crossing this late in the season; already, there were signs of extremely severe weather conditions ahead. Yet, Captain John C. Fremont, of the United States Topographical Engineers, was persistent in his search for a usable railroad route to California, and finally convinced Bill to guide the expedition. This, despite an incident of serious disagreement between these two only three years before.

Thirty-three men and 120 pack-mules left the Mountain Men's settlement in present-day Colorado, steering directly southwest for California, but leaving the two previously known travel-routes. Many, like Old Bill, knew the extreme difficulty of crossing the middle ranges of the Rockies this time of year, they were by no means sure a "practicable route" could be found. Winter settled in: snow storms, piercing winds, deadly drops in temperature, and deepening drifts.

Williams tried to lead the expedition toward the least arduous crossing but was halted by Fremont, who had already rejected this course. From then on, Old Bill ceased to function as guide, and his few words of counsel were generally disregarded.

Finding a barely tolerable "wagon road," the group struggled inch-by-inch up the canyons and slippery mountain sides. Mules dropped dead in their tracks, men became snow-blind and badly frostbitten. Food for either had about vanished. With despair, Bill and three others were dispatched to seek help from settlements located nearly 170 miles away. On the ensuing eleven-day struggle through bitter weather, the men subsisted on a hawk, an otter, parched boots and charred leather. Still, they crept along, until one of the group laid down, and soon died. Meanwhile, up in the mountains, ten men and 120 mules perished, twenty-three men were crippled (never to recover completely), and nearly all equipment was lost. Thus ended Fremont's fourth expedition, surrounded by controversy over responsibility for the disaster.

It's unclear how the remaining members of the expedition reached the nearest settlement, but Old Bill was back in Taos by the middle of February 1849. In March, he and a small group left Taos, heading for the scene of the debacle to recover any salvageable equipment. Almost immediately, rumors began to circulate that they had been murdered.

Bill and the others probably made it to area, gathered what they could, and started back for Taos. On March 21, 1849, they were shot and killed. No reliable records have been found to indicate that their bodies were recovered.

Today, William Sherley Williams -- Old Bill -- is remembered as a kind, honest, and brave man; charitable toward the less fortunate, expert in the fur-trading business. A river, and a mountain and its town have been named for him. Little is known of Old Bill and his exploits, but he served America honorably in the adventurous days of yore.

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