When it comes to trading posts in the West, most history-minded folks can easily recall Fort Bridger, Fort Hall and Fort Buenaventura (Miles Goodyear's place near Ogden), even Fort Uintah, southeast of Roosevelt. But Fort Davy Crockett? That's pushing it, some might say: Davy Crockett didn't make it to Utah; he was killed in the Alamo fight in 1836.
Even so, a trading post was named for the legendary folk hero by his admirers--and it was on the Green River, ten miles or so above the Gates of Lodore in the valley of Brown's Hole. As romantic as it sounds, the trading post had a short life in the twilight of the fur trade. It was built in 1837 and abandoned in 1840. It was destroyed and put to the torch, probably by Utes who took the warpath in '45 and burned Fort Uintah near the confluence of the Green, the Duchesne and the White rivers that same year.
As trading posts go, Fort Davy Crockett was not much pumpkins. A small, inferior establishment at best, across the river from Hoy Draw in present northwestern Colorado; at worst it was a squalid insect-infested place, and the few diarists who saw it had little good to say of it. A German traveler, Frederick A. Wislizenus, complained he couldn't get an hour's rest there because of the mosquitoes. Wislizenus stayed over in '39 and described it as "the worst thing of the kind that we have seen on our journey. It is a long one-story building--of wood and clay, with three connecting wings and no enclosure. The whole establishment appeared somewhat poverty-stricken." It was bad enough, despite the sublime natural setting, Wislizenus added, that the trappers called it Fort de Misere (Fort Misery). T.J. Farnham also dropped by that year and described it as "a hollow square of one-story log cabins with roofs and floors of mud."
Brown's Hole--a valley some fifty miles long stretching from the eastern border of Utah's Daggett County through western Moffat County in today's Colorado--took its name from one Baptiste Brown, a Hudson's Bay man who quit in 1827 and with his native wife drifted downriver to settle in the beautiful basin. (John Wesley Powell euphemistically renamed the locale Brown's Park.)
It came to pass in 1837-38 that mountaineers William Craig, Prewitt Sinclair and Philip F. Thompson pooled their resources to build a trading post in Brown's Hole; it was a marvelous setting and a favorite wintering place of Indians and whites. Trapping and trading aside, whatever other skills the partnership enjoyed, cabin construction was not among them. They hoped to capitalize on the winter season at Brown's Hole, where as many as 15,000 Indians could be found at one time. Still, the enterprise was shaky at best.
By 1839, the men of the mountains could sense their time had come. In these autumn years of the fur trade, just before the founding of Fort Bridger, Brown's Hole had become a gathering place of choice and watering hole for free trappers. Precisely why the partners chose to name the post after Davy Crockett has never been absolutely clear, but it probably was Thompson's idea, since he, like the frontiersman, was a Tennessean.
By the first of October, 1839, thousands of trappers and Indians fresh from the rendezvous at Horse Creek, Wyoming, now thronged to winter at Brown's Hole. Here was Kit Carson, Joe Walker, Jim Baker, and old Jack Robertson. Joe Meek and his brother-in-law, Robert "Doc" Newell, also arrived with their wives, a pair of Nez Perce sisters. Most of the mountaineers at Fort Davy Crockett that season had lost their livelihood since the disbanding of the American Fur Company and were much concerned about the future. Already a number--William Craig among them--were considering a move north to Oregon territory.
Such was the setting for an incident that split the ranks of mountaineers and led to the scattering of Brown's Hole inhabitants. The coming of winter had seen some horse-stealing among the whites, and while this was considered common warfare among Indians, trappers considered their horses safe among other trappers. When a white man stole from another white man, it was a matter for comment, and even Doc Newell, sparing of word and judgments, was so shocked as to remark: "Such thing has never been known till late."
An eyewitness to subsequent events, E. Willard Smith, picks up the story in his journal: "On the evening of November 1, 1839, a party of Sioux who had tracked a band of Snake Indians discovered Brown's Hole and its secret. The war party located the horse herd and made off with 150 head." So confident had the trappers and the Snakes become about their wintering place they allowed their mounts to run loose and unguarded in the valley. It was secure from hostiles--or so they thought.
The raid caused considerable commotion at the fort, and the victims were determined to recapture their property. But the next morning the idea was abandoned as impractical and ill-timed. Instead, a dozen men under Philip Thompson set out for Fort Hall, the Hudson's Bay supply post 200 or so miles to the northwest. Thompson's party stole a number of horses at Fort Hall, even though they had always been treated well there. On the return ride, the trappers stopped at a small camp of friendly Snakes and ran off forty horses from them--an unthinkable breach of mountain ethics. When Thompson's bunch rode into Davy Crockett, they found themselves roundly cursed as thieves by the better element among mountaineers.
Thompson and his renegades took the horses and headed south, following the ice-covered Green to the White River. Not far behind, the remaining mountain men set out to retake the stolen herd before tribes sought vengeance on all trappers, friendly or not. It brought about the demise of Fort Davy Crockett and broke up the Thompson-Sinclair-Craig partnership. Sinclair wasn't at Brown's Hole at the time, and Craig joined the "posse" chasing his partner.
In this group were Kit Carson, Joe Meek, Doc Newell and twenty-five others--all under the leadership of Joseph Reddeford Walker. They tracked the renegades to the vicinity of Fort Uintah and encircled them, cutting off retreat. While Walker's men didn't relish the notion of spilling the blood of their comrades, they were determined. Thompson, however, recognized his dilemma and surrendered the horses to Walker, who returned them to the tribes at Brown's Hole, thus avoiding an Indian war. So ended the great horse raid of 1839.
Fort Davy Crockett was abandoned as the trappers scattered to the winds--the curtain was falling on the fur-trade era. The later record is silent about the trading post except for the rare remark from passing travelers. Over the next century, traces of the log fort vanished and eluded historians attempting to locate the site from vague descriptions and John C. Fremont's flawed star-sightings. Possible locations ranged from ten miles into Utah to a dozen miles east into Colorado.
Then, in 1975, Glade Ross, a ranger at the Lodore Station of Dinosaur National Monument, decided to again check the area near Sterling Spring, just over the border in Colorado. On a steep cutbank near the river he found some large river cobbles that couldn't have come there naturally. In the bank itself, two feet below the surface, he spotted a definite line of charcoal. A team of archaeologists from Denver examined the site and found trader's beads, musket balls, melted lead, a percussion cap, gun flints, a musket hammer, a brass gun forestock, presumably from a Hawken rifle, and some five-hole buttons. The remains of a log wall 140 feet long were uncovered.
Fort Davy Crockett had been found; its location is now on the National Register of Historic Sites, and today is protected by the National Wildlife Service.