Mountain Men of the Gila

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Ben Lily

In his grip on the imagination, psyche and national character, the mountain man rivals the cowboy as the archetypal American Hero. In the Southwest the mountain man reached his zenith, and held his lifestyle longest, in the region’s last great wilderness – the Gila country of southwest New Mexico. Here within the mountains and canyons of the Gila, San Francisco and Mimbres Rivers, the mountain man era lasted well into the 20th century.

The fur trade brought the first mountain men west. From St. Louis, trappers seeking beaver went northwest up the Missouri and Platte Rivers, or, south and west on the Santa Fe trail to Taos. By the mid 1820’s, Taos was trapper’s headquarters. In the fall of 1825 a group of trappers outfitted in Taos, determined to explore a new range of mountains, beyond the desert to the south and west. Among them was a twenty-one year old of romantic notions named James Ohio Pattie (1804 – ?).

Pattie was from Kentucky and he was not, in retrospect, a great mountain man. He was only marginally successful as a trapper, nearly starved to death in the wilderness several times, and was once so foolish as to drop his gun in fright in the face of an angry grizzly bear. Yet he was with the first group of mountain men to explore the Gila drainage and is forever etched in mountain man history because he left a book detailing his adventures: The Personal Narrative of James Ohio Pattie.

Pattie’s Narrative remains a fascinating document for the modern reader. Though not always accurate as to dates and chronology, Pattie gives the reader a vivid picture of pristine Southwest New Mexico in the 1820’s: the lush, riparian bosque near Socorro, where he encountered his first grizzly; the climb over the Black Range at Emory Pass and descent to Santa Rita del Cobre near present day Silver City; the descent of Sapillo Creek to the Gila River where the trappers took 30 beaver the first night; the Gila Hot Springs, now a small resort community, where Pattie soaked himself in the steamy waters and, he claims, cooked a fish! Later, downriver, he describes the river entering such a narrow canyon that they had to detour their horses and mules far to the south. The detour was arduous and they survived only by butchering one of their horses for food. The modern reader recognizes the rugged Gila Middle Box Canyon; based on Pattie’s description, it’s changed but little.

That first winter, Pattie’s party trapped several hundred beaver, only to lose most of the pelts (and at least one of the trappers) to the Apaches. The next winter they had acquired nearly $20,000 worth of Gila beaver, only to have all the furs confiscated in Santa Fe by the Spanish governor. Here Pattie commented in his diary: “The whole fruit of our long, toilsome and dangerous expedition was lost, and all my golden hopes of prosperity and comfort vanished like a dream.”

By 1830 Pattie was back in the Midwest, penniless, his health broken, but with a headful of experiences and the remnants of a diary that his vivid imagination sometimes over-leapt. Fortunately for posterity, he promptly turned that diary into a narrative, imperfect but invaluable. Alas, James Ohio Pattie, Gila mountain man, was never to profit from his book. He disappears from history about 1833, probably the victim of a cholera epidemic.

The most historically significant of the Gila mountain men was a contemporary of Pattie’s named James Kirker (1793 – 1853). Kirker arrived at the Gila trapper’s headquarters, the Santa Rita copper mines, in 1826, and he stayed for a decade at least, trapping the Gila streams and acting as a guard, scout and manager of the mines. By his own account he was “highly successful” as a trapper. According to William C. McGaw, author of the Kirker biography, Savage Scene, Kirker was once gone off in the wilderness, hunting and trapping, for 18 months! As late as 1837, when beaver were of little economic consequence due to their scarcity, Kirker emerged from the Gila Wilderness with over 1,000 beaver pelts, only to lose the entirety to an Indian raid.

But Kirker would be of minor historical interest had his career ended with beaver trapping. Instead, following the Apache uprising in 1837, Kirker turned to a more lucrative pursuit: scalp hunting. Hiring out to the Mexican government at $200 per scalp, Kirker led vigilantes of 50 to 100 men, many of them Shawnee and Delaware Indians, on punitive expeditions against the Apaches. The scourge lasted a half dozen years and ranged over the wilderness, from Taos to Santa Rita to Chihuahua City. The toll of Apache dead eventually exceeded 500; the scalps hung in gruesome display in the Ciudad Chihuahua square. One of Kirker’s recruits, James Hobbs, wrote: “We would fight certain tribes . . . for the fun of the thing, and for common humanity, even if we were not rewarded for every scalp.”

Kirker’s life truly was a “savage scene,” yet he survived it all – the wilderness trapping, the Indian wars, the Mexican American War (1846) where he served as a scout – to die of natural causes in 1853. Further, he left a multitude of descendants, a number of whom still carry the Kirker name and work in the Santa Rita mines.

For a period following the decline in the beaver trade the mountain man as a type faded from the Southwest. He reemerged in the latter part of the 19th century in the form of a number of remarkable wilderness adventurers who hunted predatory animals. The first of these was a literate, one-armed Englishman named Montague Stevens (1859 – 1953).

Early in the 1880’s, Stevens established ranches over a broad range in what is now Catron County, roughly between Datil and Reserve. Ranching on the frontier would have been adventure enough for most, but not for Stevens. He turned to the pursuit of mountain lion, black bear, and, finally, the magnificent grizzly bear, then making its last stand in the Southwest in a losing war with the livestock industry.

Stevens’ grizzly bear hunting was unique. He hunted them horseback with hounds, wilderness pursuits that at times went on for 30 miles! Stevens reported that the largest of these grizzlies weighed 800 pounds. And he did it all – lest we forget – with one arm!

Stevens’ own volume on his adventures, Meet Mr. Grizzly, is of more than historical interest. His observations on the natural history of the grizzly bear are of value today. His methods for training hounds and horses, achieving obedience through kindness, presaged by many decades the training “discoveries” one reads about in modern dog and horse volumes. Finally, almost alone among the early hunters, he understood the difference between control and extermination. As the grizzly grew scarce, Stevens quit hunting them and, in his words: “I became a zealous convert to their preservation, to prevent so noble an animal becoming extinct.” Stevens died in Albuquerque at the age of 93.

A native of St. Louis, James “Bear” Moore (circa 1850 – 1924) arrived in southwest New Mexico about 1880. In 1892 in the San Mateo range southwest of Socorro he fought a grizzly bear in a death struggle, armed only with a knife. The bear died; James Moore survived, barely, but was left permanently disfigured. As he later told it to forest ranger Jack Stockbridge: “My face was left all twisted out to one side and I never shaved after that. I can’t talk very plain either. There’s terrible scars on my forehead and arms, and you can see my heart beat where that bear clawed my chest open . . . ever since, they’ve always called me Bear Moore.”

Always reclusive, Bear Moore drifted ever deeper into the Mogollon Range, killing his own meat, selling a few hides, and occasionally bringing in a few ounces of gold dust that he would trade for salt or ammunition – more a survivalist than an entrepreneur. Meanwhile he carried on a vendetta against bears. He built massive, log, bear traps, some of which may still be found in the Gila Wilderness. Stockbridge once witnessed the cruelty: “I heard the durndest racket . . . and rode down and there was Bear Moore with a bowie knife tied onto a stout stick, poking between the logs of a trap at the bear . . . and he kept on that way until he killed the bear.”

In January of 1924 Bear Moore, aged and emaciated, was caught in a snowstorm and died of exposure in his primitive camp in the Gila Wilderness. He was buried there at Little Turkey Park, near the head of Sycamore Canyon, on the west side of Brushy Mountain.

No review of New Mexico mountain men can avoid the mixture of fact and legend that surrounds the unusual Ben Lilly (1856 – 1936). Born in Alabama, Lilly arrived in New Mexico in 1911 and for the next two decades was probably the most skilled hunter who ever followed a hound. He worked alternately for ranchers or the federal government, essentially a bounty hunter in pursuit of bear and mountain lion. Some of his peculiarities are part of New Mexico’s lore. He would not work or hunt on Sunday, and if his hounds treed a lion on the Lord’s day he would refuse to kill it (though back there in the wilderness only the Lord could have known) till the Lord’s day had passed. He would roll up in a hide in a snowstorm rather than accept a warm bed inside a cabin or house. He was tougher than a boot. Indeed, his mountainous excursions could wear out a pair of hunting boots in a matter of months. And remarkably, the older Lilly got, the more his incredible fitness served him as a hunter.

Whatever the legends might say, it is a fact that Lilly was already 55 years old when he arrived in New Mexico. He was just coming into his prime. Jack Hooker, still living in Silver City, recalled in a recent interview that he hunted with Lilly in the 1920’s. Hooker was then in his twenties; Lilly was past sixty. “When the race started,” Hooker said, “and the hounds went over the hill, Lilly walked me down. After that I rode a horse when I hunted with Ben Lilly.”

The results of Lilly’s hunting talents were awesome, and alarming to a modern conservation ethic. In 1925 Lilly’s best hound, Crook, died along Sapillo Creek. Lilly buried him there and left a momento, written in pencil on the lid of a shoebox. Later, Jack Hooker dug it up. It reads: “Here lies Crook, a bear and lion dog that helped kill 210 bear and 426 lion since 1914, owned by B. V. Lilly . . .” J. Frank Dobie, Lilly’s biographer (The Ben Lilly Legend) wrote: “To watch his dogs work was a lively pleasure to Mr. Lilly. . . he detailed their trailing techniques and accomplishments with a kind of solemn glee – a pride transcending any egoism – and the plain dignity that belongs only to elemental life.”

Of course age in time captured Ben Lilly, too. He died feeble, “in his second childhood” as Dobie wrote, at the county poor farm near Pleasanton in December 1936.

Finally, Nat Straw (1857-1941) was a likeable guy and natural raconteur. Jack Stockbridge wrote: “Everybody liked Nat Straw . . . he was always welcome . . . he would tell you all kinds of stories and have his fun as he went along.” A native of Minnesota, Straw came to the Southwest as a young man and lived for a time with the Navajos where, according to Dobie, “he mastered their language, their lore, and at least one of their women.” By the 1880’s he was off in the mountains, alone with the lure of the Mogollon Range. Like Lilly, Straw was often afoot in the wilderness, moving his camp with burros, but he was a trapper more than a hunter. He trapped a jaguar in the Black Range in 1902, one of the few ever taken in the state. He was also a prospector and sporadically sought the (probably mythical) riches of the Lost Adams Diggings. Late in life he could comment, “I know ten thousand places where the Lost Adams Diggings ain’t.” He concluded, “The Adams Diggings is a shadowy naught that lies in the valley of fanciful thought.”

No book has been written on the life of Nat Straw but biographical sketches of his life, and that of Bear Moore, may be found in Wilderness of the Gila by Elizabeth McFarland.

Nat Straw was active in the Gila Wilderness until near his death in 1941. There hasn’t been a real mountain man in the Gila Forest since. Just as well, some would say, considering all the killing they did. Perhaps. But these were the men who broke trail, who went in and stayed for months at a time – no map, no trail guide, no camp stove, water filter, tent or air mattress. No helicopter to bail them out if they made a mistake. The wilderness life we can only dream of, they knew and lived. They were a product of their times, and of the singular wilderness that formed them – the Gila country. And what J. Frank Dobie said of Ben Lilly favors any one of these Gila mountain men: “He came from a solitary race.”