The Rocky Mountain Sweepstakes in 1843

Yvette D. Ison
History Blazer, May 1995

During the summer of 1843, Mountain Men, Native Americans, and fur traders throughout the region spread the word about an exciting event to take place in August. Sir William Drummond Stewart, an English nobleman, was sponsoring a horse race that would pit his Missouri horses against those of the American West. The race, officially called the “Rocky Mountain Sweepstakes,” brought observers and competitors alike to a meadow near Fort Bridger, between Willow Creek and the Green River.

Before the races began on August 14, those planning to participate in the events set up camp at Piney Fork. Trappers and Snake Indians camped alongside each other to facilitate trading. For nearly two weeks the camp was bustling with activity. Snake Indians negotiated with the fur traders for the best prices on beads, guns, and fur. Skilled seamstresses worked to prepare hides into fashionable clothing. In his diary Matthew Field recorded that he hired several Snake women to make mountain dresses out of his animal hides. The most skilled of these was the wife of Jack Robertson, one of the men that had signed up for the races. Field called her the “leader of Snake fashion.” In the evening people would congregate around Robertson’s tent, which Field humorously called the “St. Charles Hotel,” for nightly entertainment and storytelling.

When they were not trading, camp members were busy having fun. Men played a popular ball game called “hand” around the campfire in the evenings. On August 12, Sir William sent a letter to Jim Bridger asking him to come to the camp because “we have commenced an extensive game of ball, and we want you to come and keep the ball in motion.” Unfortunately, the letter was never dispatched. Matt Field, the man who was asked to carry the letter to Bridger, never reached his destination because he spent the entire day exploring the surrounding region. His laxity, however, was in the spirit of the relaxed atmosphere at camp. In his journal, Field described the time with Sir William as “great days of exploring and fishing and storytelling and drinking, culminating in three days of Rocky Mountain Racing.”

The Sweepstakes began with an opening race on August 14th. A crowd gathered at a meadow along the Green River. Flags were secured on various posts to mark the site and course. After a brief race consisting of five competitors, the participants went home to prepare for a long day of racing in the morning.

The most exciting race occurred on the second day of the Sweepstakes. Before the contest began, Sir William announced that the prize for the winner would include champagne, six leather shirts, one pair of pistols, Indian trinkets, and two mules. The value of the prize goods amounted to nearly $500. Anxious to win, the riders arranged their horses along the starting line. Jack Robertson, Sir William, Graham, and Miles Goodyear–the man who later became known as the first white settler of Ogden–were all popular participants in the race. The most noticeable rider, however, was a Snake Indian named Tom who was riding for Colonel Sublette on his sorrel horse. Tom rode naked except for a red handkerchief around his groin. His presence drew a large crowd of Snake Indians who came to support their fellow tribesman.

With a tap of a tin pan the race began. Tom’s horse darted ahead of the others and quickly gained a lead of 30 yards. Excited, the Snake fans rode along the track to encourage their speeding rider. Meanwhile, the other rider trailed behind. Graham’s horse fell on a pole and broke its collar bone. A medic, Dr. Tilghman, rushed to the scene to tend to the rider. But Tom sped on. When he neared the finish line, he rose in his stirrups, threw back his head, and tossed his arms gracefully in the air. Field recorded that “he made a picture of wild grace and grandeur that threw us all into loud shouts of admiration.” As if he were planning never to come back, Tom passed the judge’s stand and rode on for nearly 30 yards. He won the race at record speed of two minutes and five seconds.

The Rocky Mountain Sweepstakes ended the next day on August 17, 1843. Though several races had taken place during the three-day event, the most memorable was the one that marked the triumph of “Indian Tom.” This race, as well as the weeks preceding the Sweepstakes, represented a moment of union among Native Americans, fur traders, and Europeans. In a sense, Sir William succeeded in operating one of Utah’s first international sporting events.

Sources: J. F. McDermont and Kate L. Gregg, eds., Matthew Field: Prairie and Mountain Sketches (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957); LeRoy R. Hafen, ed., The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West 10 vols. (Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark, 1965-72), see “Miles Goodyear” in vol. 7; Dale L. Morgan, “Miles Goodyear and the Founding of Ogden,” Utah Historical Quarterly 21 (1953).