Captain - Staff Writer

   Smoke Signals

                   Sep./Oct. '10


The Slightly Known

The adventures of Simeon Turley

For those who follow the moccasin path of the Rocky Mountains and the beaver trade, there are names that shine in their consciousness like beacons of holy light. Names like Bridger, Beckworth (Beckwith, Amahabus, et al, ad infinitum) Jedediah, Glass, Ashley, and a major handful of others light their way. For many, these are good enough. To get serious about lesser knowns is a waste of their time. Even in pleasure reading of novels, writers are favored who eschew names like Auguste, Elijah, Alexander and such in favor of those that seem somehow more heroic. Names like Matt, Drew, Con, and other modern derivatives. Men of great stature, of iron thews and steely sinews, with shoulders broad as the mighty mountains are envisioned as heroes. These are men of few words and great stamina and deeds. The reputations of some of the mountain men were often enhanced by dime novelists of the late 1800s and on. Today these stalwarts live in the national consciousness in much greater repute than in the times when they actually lived. Such a shame it is that history is so fickle! It brings to mind the famous saying of Voltaire: Ah, Fortune, thou art a bitch!

Among the actual fur trade personages there were many who made a far greater impact on the actual business, on the real history, of the time in which they lived, than ever did those considered by many today as the "great ones."

Within the rolls of the fur trade brigades resided men of many ages, some as elderly as 70, some striplings of 16, who marched west to make a living for families left behind or perhaps to find better opportunities for themselves—maybe with a little fun thrown in. Whether for adventure or other reasons, in 1830, at age 22 or 23, Simeon Turley, nearsighted and with a crippled knee, followed in the footsteps of a brother by leaving Boone’s Lick to relocate in New Mexico.

Simeon got at things right away. His knee and poor eyesight were not conducive to roaming the mountains. He settled for what he could do—things he had learned back in Kentucky. He built a store in Taos. Not long after he hired a sometime trapper named Job Dye to build him a still. The still wasn’t located in town but instead was put up on some land Simeon acquired out in Arroyo Hondo. The land he purchased is two miles below the village of Arroyo Hondo and twelve miles north of Taos. On his land he built a two story flour mill along with a distillery. The waters of the clear Rio Hondo creek ran the mill and provided water for his raw whiskey.

About that time he applied for naturalization papers but never actually received them. A year later, 1832, he was baptized a Catholic at Taos and took the name Francisco, his last name being put on the church roles as Toles and as Francisco Toles he was afterwards known in the region.

Perhaps Simeon’s religious conversion was done for reasons of business or even to make possible the taking a Catholic wife. Although no record is found of a formal marriage it appears that he took to wife Maria Rosita Vigil y Romero with whom he fathered seven children, although he never legally acknowledged them.

To ease the pressure of heavy competition in the local villages and Taos, Simeon in 1836 hired Charles Autobees, a man with much experience in the mountains, to pack his goods to trading posts along the North and South Platte and the Arkansaw. The flour and whiskey was traded for beaver, buff robes and drafts on banks back east. Evidently he made pretty good whiskey because it wasn’t long before it was well known throughout the mountains.

Things would seem to have been progressing swimmingly for Simeon but he was an ambitious man. By 1841 he was working regularly at a gold mine he’d found on his land. During that year he sent $1000.00 by Charles Bent to settle debts in Missouri along with some gold dust as presents to the folks back home. He continued to mine the gold and what he didn’t immediately use he hid in nooks and crannys around the house. He invested in goods brought from the east to the Santa Fe trade. Eventually he acquired so many goods that there seemed to be not enough room at Arroyo Hondo to store them. Upon his death it was found that he had goods and equipment a several other places.

It was in about 1841 that Roland and Workman began selling whiskey and goods for half price to build a kitty in case they had to suddenly vacate the area. They evidently felt that they might have to if their involvement in financing some of the Texans in their invasion of New Mexico. Simeon lay low, letting most of his business interests lie fallow until Roland and Workman did indeed leave. Before they left, however, Mexican suspicion fell upon Simeon as one of the gringos involved in aiding the Texans. But by 1843 business was doing better than ever.

With the absence of Roland and Workman Simeon had a much larger share of local business. His sale of whiskey to the Indian trade had become enormous since the government had begun enforcing the law that prohibited importation of alcohol to Indian country. His distillery, already well known, became famous. He even opened a store up at Pueblo where his bottled goods quickly found its way, through the hands of other traders, to Indian bands.

He was by now a very important and influential man. And he was noted as being generous and open-handed. And why shouldn’t he be? His business encompassed not only whiskey and flour but a complete assortment of store goods: dishes, clothing, hardware, cloth, gloves, bedding, and much else. He had cattle, oxen, and mules. He had employees that he kept busy in the mill, the distillery, his hog pens and his fields. His home had rooms with wood floors (a rare luxury for the time and place). During the winter of 1846 he was visited by George Frederick Ruxton who wrote very favorably of him and his operation. It was the last time anyone would describe the mill or Simeon.

A mob made up of Indians and Mexicans from Taos, on the 19th of January, 1847, killed all the Americans they could find in town and headed for Simeon’s mill. Simeon was warned by Charles Town as he galloped past but Simeon was certain he’d not be bothered. In any case he did close the gates, boarded up the windows and piled logs against the doors. Apparently a little concerned, he hid his available cash assets and wrote out directions for their disbursement.

Early morning on January 20th a mob of over five hundred arrived and a battle commenced. Simeon and his men (about 10 or so) forted up in the mill and stood off the mob all day, all that night, and all the next day. At sunset on the 21st the mob made it into the mill and set it afire. Some of the men tried to escape by charging through the mob—not the best of ideas. Simeon, Antoine LeBlanc and Tom Tobin escaped by digging a hole through the back wall and slipping away through the dark. Tobin and LeBlanc got away but after about eight miles Simeon’s crippled knee played out. But it seemed that fortune smiled on him. He met up with a Mexican friend who refused pay for helping Simeon. He showed him a good place to hide and said he’d ride on and send back some aid. Simeon did as his friend said, but the Mexican rode directly to the mill and turned him in. In a short while a large body of the mob found him and shot him dead.

Simeon’s home and mill were robbed of all the gold dust the murderers could find and the buildings were burned. Only some of the foundations can be seen today.

Throughout the fur trade period Taos and Santa Fe were places where the trappers could winter and resupply, traders could buy and sell goods (depending on the whims of the Spanish or Mexican governments) and were in general very important to the mountain men. Those intrepid trappers whose adventures became the stuff of legend mapped the rivers, streams, passes, and trails. They trapped the beaver to near extinction and in general turned the Indians from hosts to enemies. Much of what they did was made possible by supplies from Taos and Santa Fe.

New Mexico, outside the cities, can be tough country to travel even today. True, it is a beautiful land. Vast meadows where deer and elk abound, rushing rivers, fish filled lakes, mountains cut by tributaries dammed once again by beaver make it a buckskinner’s idea of heaven. It is a land where Lucien Maxwell, the Bents, Charles Beaubien (Don Carlos) and Simeon Turley, among others, made marks important to their times but pretty much erased today. Nevertheless, it was men like these that kept the supplies (yes, and the whiskey) flowing into the wide wilderness. They didn’t make maps—but they helped make the cartography possible. They didn’t trap beaver—but they made a market for them. They weren’t known for heavy drinking—but they made heavy drinking possible. Not the picture of a strapping mountain man, Simeon Turley, bad eyesight, crippled knee and all, made a significant mark on the fur trade.

                                      I remain, Yr Svt.

Bill Cunningham


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updated  09/10/2010   

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