Smoke Signals

Jan/Feb 2012


 Blowin' Smoke

Staff Writer


Bill Cunningham learned the lessons of woods craft early, growing up in the Maine backwoods. Early on he had an abiding interest in American history, muzzle loaders and buckskins. Work took him to California where in his off hours he began to test the early colonial and fur trade skills he read about. Some of them were no different than what he had learned in the forests of home. But there were many that were new to him and he stuck with them until they were mastered. Dressed in leathers and often horseback, he drew stares from the hikers and hunters he ran across in the mountains and deserts.

Bill began his writing career by penning articles and stories for various magazines and interests, but eventually devoted his efforts exclusively to buckskinning and muzzle loading. He spent nine years as the managing editor of the American Mountain Men’s magazine, The Tomahawk and Long Rifle. His three Rocky Mountain novels about the adventures of modern - day mountain men, based loosely on actual events, have met with acclaim as have his how-to book, Lighting Grandma’s Fire, and the very successful Rendezvous - Back to a Simpler Time, a text and photo work about modern rendezvous. Bill is currently working on a new novel extending the adventures of his well-established characters in the Rocky Mountain series.

                                                             Bill Cunningham

NAF #006 Mountaineer - AMM Hiveranno



Because most organizations and clubs interested in the American fur trade, and the mountain men who were part of it, date their involvements from about 1820 to 1840, they seem to ignore what happened to the trade and the men afterward. Neither the trade nor the men ended with the decline of the market for beaver. The fur trade merely shifted to the pelts of other animals (consider the market in buffalo hides) and continues to this day. The mountain men and trappers continued living and either went on to more civilized pursuits or remained in the inter-mountain west trapping, guiding and/or working as interpreters for various organizations, or otherwise providing for themselves.

It is pretty well known where the trappers whose names have remained in our consciousness, names like Bridger, Meek, Fitzgerald, Sublett, Carson and so on, ended up. But there were a plentitude of mountain men whose names are no longer remembered but who were important to the business. They too had hair raising adventures and were an important part of the history of the times. Men like Marcelino Baca, James Baird,, John Burroughs, Richard Campbell, Joseph Dickson and the still remembered, although not so well, James Baker, and many others who had their moments in the sun. And they too had productive and interesting lives after 1840.

Many people know that on Lewis and Clark’s return voyage, John Colter asked for and received permission to leave the expedition and go back up river to trap with two free trappers they’d met who were headed for choice beaver country, wherever that might turn out to be. Those two men were Joseph Dickson and his partner, Forest Hancock. Neither of the pair knew anything of the country ahead of them but Colter did. It seemed like a win - win, but taking him on proved to be a poor decision for Dickson, experienced trapper though he was.

Dickson had embarked on the trip to trap enough prime (winter) furs to finance the purchase of land on which to build a home for the family he’d left behind. He and Hancock had spent a few weeks hacking a pirogue out of a huge cottonwood tree. Finished with their preparations, they paddled upstream past where Sergeant Floyd was buried. They dug a cave in the sunny side of a hill and prepared to face their first winter in the wilderness. Over the next two years, each time they had an appreciable amount of furs the packs were stolen or taken by unfriendly Indians. In time, they got past them and near the mouth of the Yellowstone River they met, first, Captain Clark and the next day, Captain Lewis, who, up to that moment, hadn’t known whether he was ahead or behind Clark. Shortly after they made their arrangement with Colter and made for virgin beaver streams. It is probable that the place they decided to winter and trap was Clark’s Fork Canyon. Shortly after they arrived Colter had a disagreement with Dickson and persuaded Hancock to leave with him. They deserted Dickson, leaving him, however, with most of the supplies.

That winter, (1806 - 1807), was a real monster, long and with heavy snows, perhaps six to eight feet on the flats. Dickson’s trapping required that he be daily exposed to long walks in bright sunlit snow. Ultimately, he became snow blind.

He had never been particularly religious but now he knelt and prayed. He promised God that if he would just get him out of this mess he’d be a devout Christian the rest of his life. When his prayer was finished he was left with the strong impression that he should take and use the inner bark from a tree that stood just outside the cave in which he was camped. This he did, pounding the bark until it was suitable, soaking it in water, and applying it to his eyes as a poultice and rinse. Not knowing whether it was day or night, he lay down and slept. When he awoke, although imperfect, he could see. In time his eyes healed completely. He continued to trap.

In the spring, he made up two canoes, loaded them with somewhere between fifteen and twenty packs of beaver and took off for St. Louis. Along the way he was attacked by some Indians. One large fellow waded out and grabbed a canoe while on the bank another raised his rifle to shoot. Dickson quickly laid hold of the burly Indian and pulled him near. The bullet meant for him instead struck and killed the Indian. While the other Indians stood for a moment, aghast at what had happened, Dickson made his escape.

When he arrived at St. Louis he sold his pelts for several thousand dollars, this was in July of 1807. He returned home after an absence of three years. Shortly after he’d left his wife had borne a fourth child. Dickson was baptized and joined the Methodist church. He stayed there in the American Bottom long enough for his wife to bear five more children. He decided it was time to move to the Sangamo country. At the ferry landing at Cahokia, he took his wagon wheels to the local blacksmith where they could be tightened. The job was done by the smithy’s apprentice, a youth named Jim Bridger. Twenty five years later Bridger established a business at what is now Fort Bridger, Wyoming.

In May, 1818, Dickson settled on Horse Creek, next to what is now Springfield, Illinois. The cabin he built that summer was the first white man’s cabin in Sangamon County. There he farmed (mostly wheat) and trapped. Joseph Dickson kept the promise he made to God in that awful winter of 1806 - 1807. He donated five acres of his farm (which he did not have title to—that would come when the government made Illinois a state that December) for a church (it still stands though it has had to be rebuilt three times)and cemetery. He remained for the rest of his life an active member. He promoted and helped pay for a school, became an election judge, and though a Jeffersonian Democrat, in 1835 he joined the anti - Jackson party called Whigs.

Joseph Dickson died at the home of a daughter in Franklin, Illinois in 1844. He is buried there.



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