JOHN ALBERT- ONE OF COLORADO'S OWN
By Mike Moore
Jim Baker Party
When you study Colorado's recent history, many names of individuals come to our attention. And when we narrow the list down by confining it to the ones of the fur trade, you might come up with some of the following: Dick Wooten, Jim Baker, Kit Carson, the Bent brothers, Bill Williams, Lancaster Lupton and John Albert. John Albert? Yes. One of the many individuals which came out west in the early days before the land became a state, and little recognition is given to him.
He was born John David Albert in 1806 at Hagerstown, Maryland. His father died in war of 1812, mother soon after. He lived with a married sister in Harrisburg, Penn. and traveled to Zanesville and Cincinnati (Ohio), Louisville (Kentucky) and then to St. Louis. Where he took a keel boat journey to New Orleans and back in 1833. He called working on the keel boat "the most laborious journey of his life."
In 1834, he went to the mountains with group of 60 men to trap. And continued for the next three years trapping and during that time bartered his furs at Fort Hall and went on a trip to the Great Salt Lake.
He was a part of the Western department of the American Fur Company at Fort Laramie and was sent to the South Platte area in winter of 1836 (probably to trap and trade with the 150 lodges of Indians camped there) and was caught in a big snow storm on the Cache La Poudre, where it joins the Platte. He describes the time:
"On the first day of December, snow began to fall and did not let up until the earth was covered to the depth of seven feet on the level, and it remained until spring. Not much antelope in that kind of snow. No sir. We lived on horse flesh. Our horses froze to death, and the meat kept all winter."
When he could leave, he went to Fort William (on the Arkansas) to replace the horses lost during the winter. (early in 1837) From March 1, 1838- Oct 1838 he was employed by Peter Sarpy and Henry Fraeb at Fort Jackson. And the records show when the fort was bought out by Bent and St. Vrain Company. He had $124.52 due him.
Next you hear of him, he lives down at Toas, New Mexico and is employed at Simeon Turley's ranch / mill / distillery about 12 miles above Toas on the Rio Hondo. He is one of two men to escape the fighting at Arroyo Hondo alive. This battle was part of the "Toas Uprising". The attack on the ranch happened on January 20th, 1847. The mill was attacked by 500 Mexican and Indians from the Santa Fe area. Only people inside were eight to ten mountain men. Attack was in retaliation of General Kearny taking over Santa Fe and declaring it American soil. The Mexicans and Indians who surrounded the place had just came from killing
Governor Charles Bent and any other Americans they could get their hands on in Toas before coming to the ranch. The attack started early in the day and lasted till dark. John said in a interview:
"They commenced the attack upon Arroyo Hondo by sending in to us a flag of truce, demanding our arms and ammunition and an unconditional surrender of ourselves. I told the boys they could do as they pleased, but I knew of their treachery and it would lead us to certain death in the end, and if I was going to die it would be with my gun in my hands, and not be murdered like a common dog. This was the turning point in the matter, and they all concluded to fight it out as best they could. We of the mountains had collected in the distillery belonging to Mr. Turley, a building of considerable size, and the only one in the place that was two stories in height. The dancing Indian was within gunshot and I killed him. Billy Austin stood close behind me, and when another man came to drag the body back, Austin shot him. By this time my gun was loaded and I killed the third man. Then a hurrah commenced and the air was filled with bullets from the guns in the hands of the me n who laid behind the top of the hill. The Bullets rattled against the house like hail. There was not a window left in it. Although we saw we were in a trap, we fought all day."
When the sun was setting the Mexicans made a curious charge and set fire to the house we were in, and got under the walls of other buildings. Soon everything was ablaze; the uproar of the yelling devils on the outside and the excitement of the men on the inner side was deafening. We tried to escape by digging through the floor down into the grainery. The house was filling with Mexicans and everything was confusion.
Fortunately for me, in the confusion, I escaped from the house. I don't know how many shots were fired at me, but none took effect. I had a bullet in my clothes, one cut off the brim of my hat, and another cut the band and I lost it from my head. In the excitement I forgot my coat and was out in the world alone without coat, hat or friends, and with 140 miles of mountain roads between me and safety, in the winter time.
My comrades behind me were all killed. I alone in the world of snow, without a human soul on whom I could depend, and with no provisions and no hope of getting any unless I could kill some animal while I was traveling. I never look back to the dark hours of that day and to my sufferings in the days following, but the devil gets in me bigger than a wolf. I traveled the entire night and reached little Red River just as the rays of the morning light were creeping over the Sierra Madra Mountains. I thought I would freeze, it was so cold in the last hours of the night. I arrived at Costilla about midday and at Indian Creek at the setting of the sun. Here I took my first rest.
When the light of morning came I went to the trail and had not gone far when I saw two large deer standing near the trail. I shot and broke the back of the largest. As soon as I could I opened it and cut out a piece of liver and began to eat. I had eaten raw liver and raw meat many times before without any inconvenience, but this made me sick. I laid down upon the ground and snow with my head upon the dead animal, and for an hour or more suffered all the pains of death. When that passed away I was anxious to resume my march as ever.
Fifty miles remained between me and the trading post at Pueblo, my nearest source of relief. My appetite for venison broil was gone for the time. I took the skin of the deer and wrapped it around my head and shoulders as a substitute for a coat, the hair next to my body. It served a very good purpose. Then taking a small cut of venison, I started on my journey. "The ones which escaped from this scene had dashed out the back, fired wildly into the crowd and the man next to John was killed. It was Turley himself. Albert made it though and then hid in the fenced garden. When he took off he had his gun with his shooting bag, a knife, and the clothes on his back. One of the others to escape the fight you might have heard of- Tom Tobin. He walked to Santa Fe. Where the American army had stationed over 100 men.
John says he first made it to the Greenhorn settlement, and rested a day before going to Pueblo. He made it to Greenhorn on the 23rd. So at 41 years of age, he walked 140 miles in three days though winter weather and with less than adequate supplies, to warn others of the fight and to prepare themselves.
He was a close friend of Jim Baker. John and Jim were two of the three men who lead the parade of Denver's Festival of Mountain and Plain in 1895.
Later, he settled in the Taos valley, the married half Mexican/ white daughter of William Pope. He out lived three wives (all were full or half Mexican), had 21 kids between the three women. When each of his wives died, he divided up the assets between the kids and started out fresh. He carried mail out of the Spanish Peaks post office at Cuchara station every Saturday. Delivering it on horse and mule back. He trapped on the Purgatory and Cuchara Rivers. And is credited with building of the "fort" at La Plaza de la Leones. (A structure which had a good view of the whole town and could hold 30- 40 people.) John died April 24, 1899 and is buried in the old Catholic Cemetery at Walsenburg, Colorado. Many of the town's people called him "Uncle John" and he sat for hours telling others of his experiences on the porch of the Sporleder Hotel.
His name is not usually found listed in any well known group of mountain men and fur traders of Colorado. But men like this
helped make Colorado what it is today. It is a shame not many people know of him. His name should be right up there with Tom Tobin, Jim Beckworth, Henry Fraeb, Baptist Charbonneau and others. Frank Hall wrote of John Albert:
"His whole life is a drama that far exceeds in interest any fiction. A volume could be filled with his interesting reminiscences of the great Rocky (mountain) region that occurred in the days when the dim, gray outlines of the mountains was regarded as an impassable barrier to the advancement of civilization."
So when you hear of Colorado's mountain men and their exploits, add John Albert's name to the list. And with his life, a little more of Colorado's rich history comes alive.
"Bent's Fort" David Lavender, Bison Books, pages 184-5, 304-5.
"Jim Baker- the red headed Shoshone" Leighton Baker, page 164.
"Colorado" Hafen and Hafen, Page 119, Old West Publishing Company.
"Trappers of the Far West" page 257, Hafen and Carter, Bison Books.
"Pueblo, Hardscrabble, Greenhorn" Janet Lecompte, pages 193-5.
"Ruxton of the Rockies" George Fredrick Ruxton, University of Oklahoma Press, pages 219-20.
"John Albert" Leroy Hafen, "Mountain Men and Fur Trade of the Far West" (Volume two) pages 21-26.
"Mountain Men" Stanley Vestal, Houghton Mifflin Company, pages 223-5.
"Rocky Mountain News" obituary dated April 24, 1899.
"A Colorado Pioneer" Article in Rico, Colorado paper Oct. 31, 1885.
Denver post article- "Three Old Timers who came to Colorado in the Early Part of the Last Century", Jan. 24, 1904.
Colorado Magazine- volume X pages 29, 30 and 56-62.
W. B. Hamilton interview with him.
"History of Colorado" Frank Hall, 1891 volume III, pages 496-7.
"Thomas Dawson scrap books" Colorado History Museum, volume 1 pages 369 and 427; Volume 75 pages 277-79.
Contact Bill Klesinger