Greg Nokes authored a feature for Columbia Magazine on Black Harris, a mid-1800s mountain man who pioneered the West.
Black Harris — The Northwest’s Mountain Man of Mystery
By R. Gregory Nokes
Moses “Black” Harris was known to tell some pretty tall tales. Perhaps the tallest was the one about a petrified forest he knew of in the American West that had petrified so suddenly, and so without warning, that the birds singing in the tree branches were petrified, too. And not just petrified, but petrified with their mouths open in mid-song!
Tall tales aside, Harris was much more than a storyteller. He was a mountain man, fur trapper, explorer, and a guide on the Oregon Trail who in just a few short years made significant contributions to the American development of the Pacific Northwest. Over time Harris acquired a mystique that became larger than life. He was spoken about with respect, even awe, by his peers. Newspapers delighted in reporting his travels. A St. Louis weekly, the Reveille, wrote of Harris in 1845: “He is fearless as an eagle, strong as the elk, preferring the wild haunts of the Indian and the buffalo to the tameness of civilized life.”
We know a great deal about Harris’s accomplishments but very little about his personal life. He seems to have revealed almost nothing about his background to his friends—not untypical of fur trappers who often spent months at a time with little or no human companionship. As an adult, Harris may never have had a real home until he settled in the Willamette Valley, and once there he remained only a few years. Where did Harris come from? Union County, South Carolina, possibly. Or maybe Kentucky. No record of his birth has been located. He is not mentioned in any United States census. He may have had a Native American wife and children, but, if so, he kept them secret.
Even his race has been questioned. Harris was dark-skinned, and there is evidence he was African American. There are also credible historical references to Harris as white—with his skin color described as an aberration. There is one reference to Harris as Native American. Alfred Jacob Miller, best known for his paintings of early Western scenes, painted Harris and described his appearance as “of wiry form, made up of bone and muscle, with a face apparently composed of tan leather and whip cord, finished off with a peculiar blue black tint, as if gunpowder had been burnt into his face.” Miller did not make specific mention of Harris’s race.
Absent documentation, Harris’s racial origins cannot be proved, but some of the evidence for him as African American lies in the names “Black Harris” and “Black Squire,” by which he was known. He was once quoted as calling himself “a nigger,” although most of the conversation in which that took place was almost certainly contrived.
Darrell Millner, retired professor of black studies at Portland State University, said the nickname of “Black” for Harris was likely a reference to his race, and no one would feel the need to add that he was a Negro, colored, or mulatto—the racial descriptions used at the time:
My final personal conclusion was that he was indeed “black” for a pretty simple reason. . . . In the writings of his mountain man contemporaries, that’s what they call him. . . . Those were insulting “fighting words” if he did not consider himself to be that [black], and goodness knows those mountain men didn’t need much of an excuse to start a fight—in effect, he would have been in constant combat.
Harris would not have been alone among African Americans who went west as fur trappers and guides, lured by a life of independent isolation and the ability to escape much of the racial hostility prevalent elsewhere. Harris sometimes traveled with James Beckwourth, a prominent African American trapper who was born to a white slave owner and a slave mother in Virginia. Others included Edward Rose, a well-known trapper and interpreter described as part African American, part Cherokee, and part white; and Potette Labross, also known as Polite Robiseau.
It is possible that Harris may have been born to a slave mother and white father, the same as Beckwourth. If so, it might explain why he said little about his early life. Harris was literate—reflected in occasional letters to newspapers and others—at a time when slaves were generally denied an education, but his early life is a mystery. He first appears in records in 1822 as a fur trapper with the famed Rocky Mountain Fur Company, trapping beaver for their pelts, which were in high demand for a wide variety of hats in North America and Europe. He trapped both independently and for several other companies in a career spanning 20 years.
Harris would have been with William Ashley, one of the owners of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, in June 1823 when Ashley suffered what has been described as “the worst disaster in the history of the western fur trade.” Ashley had taken 90 men on two keelboats up the Missouri River from St. Louis. A large force from the Arikara Indian villages attacked the party with rifle fire while the men were exposed on the riverbank. Casualties included 14 dead and 11 injured, and they lost their horses and most of their provisions.
During much of his time in the mountains, Harris worked as a so-called free trapper, a category of especially accomplished trappers who worked alone or in small groups. Dale Morgan, biographer of Jedediah Smith, wrote that “the free trapper became the rock on which the [American] fur trade of the West was built.” The best among them might make $1,500 in a good year.
The work of a trapper was arduous, frequently requiring work in snow and ice—beaver pelts were at their prime in the coldest months. The trapper maneuvered iron traps into an icy stream near a beaver’s lodge, anchoring the trap with a chain. Using scented bait, the object was to catch a beaver by his feet to drown it. Each trapper might be responsible for five to ten traps; beavers were skinned on the spot.
An undisciplined lot, trappers fought among themselves and also frequently clashed with native tribes. Not surprisingly, Harris seems to have had a few scrapes of his own. In a dispute over who was to lead a missionary party across the Rocky Mountains to Fort Hall in 1840—and at what price—guide Robert Newell claimed Harris shot at him from a distance of 70 or 80 yards, but missed.
Harris had a reputation for great endurance, so much so that other trappers avoided working with him. Beckwouth wrote in his memoirs that while camped along the Missouri River in 1825, Ashley asked Harris to travel to a distant Pawnee village to obtain some needed horses, an ordeal of several hundred miles in winter weather. He said no one else wanted to accompany Harris because “whoever gave out on an expedition with Harris received no succor from him, but was abandoned to his fate in the wilderness.” But Beckwourth accepted the challenge.
They set out on foot, each man carrying a rifle, 25 pounds of provisions, a blanket, and ammunition. After 10 days, with their provisions nearly exhausted, they found the Pawnee village deserted, the Pawnees having gone to winter quarters. After trudging on for another week, and still 30 miles from the nearest trading post, Beckwourth, in what may have been a self-serving claim, said it was a weakened Harris who gave out.
A sense of the hardships undertaken by trappers is evident in another journey by Harris, this time with William Sublette, a leader of the trapping party, from their camp at Cache Valley north of the Great Salt Lake to company headquarters in St. Louis. The distance was nearly 1,400 miles. Harris and Sublette set out with snowshoes on January 1, 1827, to report to Ashley on the success of their trapping party and to get supplies for the next season. To obtain favorable prices, they needed to be in St. Louis by March 1, a contract deadline.
Unable to travel with horses through deep snow, Sublette and Harris brought along an Indian-trained pack dog on whose back they strapped 50 pounds of sugar, coffee, and other provisions. On their own backs they carried a supply of dried buffalo meat. However, it was impossible to carry enough food for such a long trip; failing to find sufficient game, they eventually killed and ate the dog.
Several hundred trappers worked the West for competing companies—three of the biggest were the Rocky Mountain Fur Company; its successor, the American Fur Company; and the British Hudson’s Bay Company, with its major outpost at Fort Vancouver.
The first mention of Harris crossing the Continental Divide was in 1826 when he and Sublette led Ashley’s trapping party through South Pass. Everything west of the Rocky Mountains and north of the California border was considered the Oregon Country. It was during this period that Harris gained a fondness for Oregon and wanted to see it brought under the American flag. Indeed, he was outraged when, in 1837, the Hudson’s Bay Company acquired Fort Hall, the American-established trading center in present-day Idaho, as part of the consolidation of the fur trade.
The Hudson’s Bay Company had waged a two-front campaign aimed at driving American trappers out of the Pacific Northwest. First, they attempted to create a “fur desert” south of the Columbia by trapping and killing all the beaver. A directive from the company’s London headquarters in March 1827 ordered employees “to hunt as bare as possible all the country south of the Columbia and west of the [Rocky] Mountains.”
The second part of the strategy was to raise the price the company paid for beaver pelts and, at the same time, lower the price of British goods—especially trapping equipment—to undersell Americans. This helped ensure the trappers’ loyalty while undercutting commerce at Fort Hall. The fort’s importance was as a trading post, not a rest stop, although it was that too. Harris was offended by the presence and practices of the British. In an outburst of patriotic fervor, he wrote to St. Louis businessman Thornton Grimsley, urging formation of a military force to expel the British, along with Native American tribes. His letter on June 4, 1841, read in part:
Your name is well known in the mountains by many of your old friends who would be glad to join the standard of their country and make a clean sweep of what is called the Origon [sic] Territory; that is, to clear it of British and Indians. I was one of the seven hundred who invited you to take command and march through to California, and will be with you if you can get the government of the United States to authorize the occupancy of the Origon Country.
Obviously, there was no armed incursion. The United States gained control of the entire region diplomatically by treaty in 1846, after which Congress established Oregon Territory in 1848. The new territory encompassed an enormous area from the Pacific to the Rocky Mountains, from California to the Canadian border. Harris’s improbable call to expel the native population suggested he still had little familiarity with Oregon and was swayed by the conflicts fur trappers experienced with some tribes.
By the time American missionaries began emigrating to the Northwest, hoping to minister to the tribes, trapping activity had passed its peak, as beaver pelts were no longer in great demand. Harris, along with other trappers, looked for other opportunities.
Resupply of American fur trappers occurred at what became known as the “rendezvous,” where supply caravans from Missouri would meet trappers at a specified time and location. The rendezvous attracted crowds of trappers and hundreds of usually friendly Native Americans. They were typically times of revelry, if not outright mayhem. Alcohol flowed freely.
The Rocky Mountain Fur Company carried supplies to the rendezvous until the company dissolved in 1834, after which the American Fur Company took over until 1840, the last year of the rendezvous. Harris helped lead the supply trains, which also escorted three missionary parties as far as the rendezvous in 1836, 1838, and 1839. Missionaries Narcissa and Marcus Whitman were in the 1836 party, along with Eliza and Henry Spalding, who established a mission at Lapwai, near present-day Lewiston. The 1838 party included Myra and Cushing Eells. One early settler wrote that Harris also escorted Marcus Whitman on his scouting mission into the Oregon Country in 1835.
Trappers were often less than pleased to have missionaries tagging along—Marcus Whitman recalled being bombarded with rotten eggs in 1835. Black Harris, however, had a reputation for being helpful, even charming. Narcissa Whitman wrote that she had invited “Major Harris” and others to tea at an encampment along the Platte River. Bernard DeVoto, in his book Across the Wide Missouri, wrote that Narcissa seemed “delighted” to be in the company of the trappers, and “at a guess[,] in Harris most of all.”
Harris also attracted Myra Eells’s admiration. Eells wrote in her journal on April 28, 1838, that while many in the supply caravan seemed hostile, Harris was both welcoming and helpful. “Major Harris comes; gives us a large piece of pork.”
On July 4, Harris reappears in her journal after a long absence to scout the trail ahead. “Major Harris comes to us again; says that 9 days out of 11 it rained and snowed constantly since he left us and the snow was 12 to 14 inches deep in the mountains.”
Narcissa Whitman described the 1836 caravan as “a moving village” of fur trappers, wagons, and cattle. “If you want to see the camp in motion, look way ahead and see first the pilot [Harris] and the captain, Fitzpatrick, just before him, next the pack animals, all mules, loaded with great packs; soon after you will see the wagons, and in the rear, our company,” she wrote in a letter home. “We all cover quite a space.”
Myra Eells was less poetic about the 1838 caravan. ”We had much the appearance of a large funeral procession,” she wrote of the 60 men, 200 horses and mules, and 17 carts and wagons.
The missionary women had dramatically different experiences at the rendezvous. Narcissa was charmed by the reception from Native American women, probably including trappers’ wives, at the 1836 rendezvous at Horse Creek along the Green River near Pinedale, Wyoming:
As soon as I alighted from my horse, I was met by a company of matrons, native women one after another shaking hands and saluting me with a most hearty kiss. This was unexpected and affected me very much. They gave Sister Spalding the same salutation. After we had been seated awhile in the midst of the gazing throng, one of the chiefs . . . came with his wife and very politely introduced her to us. They say they all like us very much, and thank God that they have seen us, and that we have come to live with them.
Narcissa had written, following mention of the tea with Harris and others, “I was never so contented and happy before.” Eleven years later, on November 29, 1847, Narcissa and Marcus, with 13 others, were massacred at their mission by members of the Cayuse tribe.
For Myra Eells, the 1838 rendezvous held at the confluence of the Wind River and the Popo Agie proved an appalling experience. She wrote on July 5 that during the previous night as many as 20 “mountain men and Indians” descended on the missionaries’ tent, dancing, beating drums, firing their weapons, and carrying the scalp of a member of the Blackfeet tribe. “If I might make the comparison, I should say that they looked like the emissaries of the Devil worshipping their own master.” The episode was repeated the following night. “No one could describe the horrible scene they presented. Could not imagine that white men, brought up in a civilized land, can appear to so much imitate the Devil.”
Cushing Eells said Harris may have written the note advertising that white women would be at the rendezvous: “Someone who was somewhat friendly to the missionaries, either Dr. Robert Newell, an independent trapper, or a ‘half-breed’ named Black Harris, who had learned of the rendezvous of the American Fur Company, had with charcoal written on the old storehouse door, ‘Come to Popoazua [sic] on Wind River and you will find plenty trade, whiskey, and white women.”
In both 1836 and 1838, after escorting the missionaries as far as the rendezvous, Harris appears to have returned to St. Louis, bringing the year’s catch of beaver pelts. In 1839 he was back on the road with a supply party, helping escort another missionary group toward Oregon.
Harris was hired in 1844 as guide, or pilot, for a wagon train led by Nathaniel Ford, a prominent central Missouri landholder who had fallen on hard times and was lured by the promise of free land in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Ford’s wagon train was one of the largest of the early wagon trains, with 54 wagons, 358 emigrants, and about 500 cattle. Ford also brought six slaves with him. The Ford wagon train left Independence on May 14.
Another wagon train, this one led by Cornelius Gilliam, said to be a former bounty hunter of slaves, left St. Joseph, Missouri, about the same time with 74 wagons and 323 emigrants. The Gilliam party also wanted Harris, and he served as guide for both, with the trains traveling in close proximity. There were no known slaves in the Gilliam wagon train, but there was a wealthy free African American, George Washington Bush, who settled south of Puget Sound with his large family.
Harris remained in Oregon for three years after guiding the Ford-Gilliam wagon trains in 1844, settling for a time along the Luckiamute River in Yamhill County. By chance, Harris happened to be in The Dalles when several exhausted riders arrived in the Columbia River town in September 1845 seeking help for what became known to history as the lost wagon train of Stephen Meek.
About 1,000 settlers in 200 wagons had been lured by trail guide Stephen Meek’s promise that he could save them time and distance on a southwest track from Fort Hall through eastern and southern Oregon, before turning north into the Willamette Valley. Ostensibly, it was a shorter alternative to the perilous though established journey down the Columbia. Meek lost his way, however, and the emigrants wandered for weeks in Oregon’s high desert, their wagons strung out over many miles.
Short of food and water, and forage for their cattle, some of the settlers were near collapse when they found themselves stranded near the end of their journey—unable to cross a deep gorge on the Deschutes River about 35 miles south of The Dalles. Meek and some others rode to The Dalles for help. They were first refused—according to several versions—by the Methodist mission there. Meek then found Harris, whom he knew; Harris organized a rescue party with provisions supplied by local tribes.
Joel Palmer arrived in The Dalles just a day after Meek sought help—Palmer had traveled from Missouri over the established Oregon Trail. Although Meek had been hired as guide for the Palmer wagon train when it departed Independence in May, the emigrants had soon split into three groups, with Palmer serving as captain for one party of about 30 wagons. At some point, Meek left the wagons behind and rode ahead to Fort Hall, where he organized another wagon train to follow him on his new trail. This must have included some of the original wagon train as well as other emigrants who had congregated at Fort Hall.
Palmer told in his journal how the complicated rescue evolved:
At this place [The Dalles] they [Meek and the other riders] met an old mountaineer, usually called Black Harris, who volunteered his services as a pilot. He in company with several others started in search of the lost company, whom they found reduced to great extremities; their provisions nearly exhausted and the company weakened by exertion, and despairing of ever reaching the settlements [in the Willamette Valley]. They succeeded in finding a place where their [settlers’] cattle could be driven down the river and made to swim across; after crossing[,] the bluff had to be ascended. Great difficulty arose in the attempt to effect a passage with the wagons. The means finally resorted to for the transportation of the families and wagons were novel in the extreme. A large rope was swung across the stream and attached to the rocks on either side; a light wagon bed was suspended from this rope with pulleys, to which ropes were attached; this bed served to convey the families and loading [belongings] in safety across; the wagons were then drawn over the bed of the river by ropes.
Palmer said it took two weeks to get everyone across; the last of the rescued settlers reached The Dalles in mid-October. Palmer said that about 40 emigrants died during the journey or shortly thereafter. But the Harris-led rescue unquestionably saved lives.
It was a fortunate coincidence for the Meek party that Harris happened to be in The Dalles and not on his way to the East Coast. Harris had been serving as escort to former Indian agent Elijah White on a mission to Washington, DC, carrying a copy of Oregon’s new voter-approved organic act—in effect, a constitution. Oregon’s provisional government wanted the act known to and hopefully endorsed by Congress as an important step toward becoming a territory. Harris and White, with three others, departed Oregon City on or about August 16. However, Harris left White’s party soon after it got under way.
Newspapers in the east, which closely followed events in Oregon, denounced Harris’s actions in leaving White as inexplicable and irresponsible. The newspaper’s source presumably was White. However, there was much more to the story.
After the White party’s departure, the provisional government, meeting in Oregon City, withdrew White’s authority as the official bearer of the organic law, accusing him of manipulating the contents for his own political purposes—he evidently wanted to be appointed governor when Oregon became a territory. Rather than entrust White with the mission any longer, the provisional government sent the same information to Washington by ship, via the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). Harris must have concluded he wanted no part of a cross-continent trip that had lost its purpose. While the Richmond paper quoted White as saying Harris returned to the Willamette Valley, he actually went as far as The Dalles, and was still there when Meek arrived a few weeks later seeking help.
Following the rescue, Harris returned to the Willamette Valley, where he became involved in developing a new wagon road for emigrants into Oregon. He is mentioned in a newspaper article about a Nathaniel Ford-led expedition to find a passage into the Willamette Valley from the south. Ford took out an ad in the Oregon Spectator on April 15, 1846, seeking volunteers. Under the headline, “Over the Mountains,” the ad read:
The company to examine for a practicable wagon route from the Willamette valley to Snake river, will rendezvous at the residence of Nat. Ford on the Rickreal[l] so as to be ready to start on the trip on the first day of next May. The contemplated route will be up the Willamette valley, crossing the Cascade mountains south of the three snowy buttes [Three Sisters]. . . . Those agreed to start at the time above mentioned, are Solomon Tetherow, Nathaniel Ford, Gen. C[ornelius] Gilliam, Stephen H. L. Meek, and Moses Harris, and many others, it is expected, will be ready by the time above specified.
Even with this considerable exploring talent, however, Ford turned back, apparently concerned that he had too few men to meet threats, perceived or real, from tribes encountered en route.
That same May, a new expedition was organized, again involving Harris and a dozen others, including Levi Scott and the brothers Jesse and Lindsay Applegate. The Applegates had a special motive for finding a new route into Oregon. Each brother had lost a son in the Columbia River during their journey to Oregon in 1843.
This time the explorers met with success, or at least a degree of success. They blazed a rudimentary wagon road south from the Willamette Valley over the Calapooya and Umpqua Mountains, southeast across southern Oregon and northern California into Nevada, then east across Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to connect with the established California Trail near the Humboldt River. The California Trail extended north to Fort Hall where it intersected the Oregon Trail.
Harris and Jesse Applegate followed the California Trail to Fort Hall to recruit emigrants for the new trail. With Applegate’s assurances that the trail was shorter and easier—less dangerous—about 160 emigrant families in nearly 100 wagons signed on. However, the journey did not go well. The emigrants endured thirst in the Black Rock Desert, frequent lack of forage for their cattle, harassment by hostile tribes who sometimes fired arrows into their cattle, and unseasonable drenching rain in the Umpqua Mountains. Twelve adults and an unknown number of children died, typhoid fever taking the greatest toll.
Responding to angry criticism from some of the emigrants, Harris wrote a long defense in a letter to the Oregon Spectator, printed on November 26, 1846, in which he included a veiled reference to Nathaniel Ford’s earlier failed attempt to cross the Cascades.
Let me tell you, Mr. Editor, the company to which I am proud to belong, did not leave their homes to ride a few days up the Willamette river and return with a false report to the people: they went seriously determined to find a road, if one was to be found: they went actuated by the purest motives, and in the spirit of patriotism and philanthropy, and were more than successful.
The same edition of the Spectator carried the editor’s response to the letter, in which he insinuated doubt that Harris was the sole author. “We have a ‘bone to pick’ with Mr. Harris; for, by the article over his signature, he makes it our unpleasant duty, not only to deny some of his . . . facts, but to prove that which is quite the reverse.”
Whatever criticism was deserved by the Applegate party, the new trail soon became a reliable and well-used road for emigrants to the Willamette Valley. Lindsay Applegate blamed much of the early criticism on the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had a commercial interest in the Columbia River route.
Whether from disappointment over the criticism or simply from his restless nature, Harris left Oregon City on May 5, 1847, with Levi Scott and some others, following the Applegate Trail to Fort Hall. They reached St. Joseph about October 27, after which Harris evidently resumed trapping for a time—perhaps he had never entirely quit.
Harris resumed being a trail guide as well. An article in the St. Louis Republican on April 27, 1849—picked up by newspapers nationwide—reported that the first wagon train of a new “Pioneer Line” to California had “secured the services of the celebrated Moses Harris, known to everybody, who has lived in the mountains, or passed the road to California or Oregon,” But it ended with an ominous reference to an outbreak of cholera at Independence, near where the wagons were camped: “There are a few cases of sickness here—some two or three deaths within the past week, supposed to be cholera.”
Ten days later, on May 6, 1849, cholera claimed Harris. His death was reported in a letter written by someone identified only as “Gerald,” which appeared in several Missouri newspapers:
Within the last 24 hours I have seen the eyes close in death, of three individuals at the hotel…all victims of cholera, after but a few hours warning. The first was “Black Harris,” the well-known mountain guide. He had been chosen to lead us across the Rocky Mountains, but poor fellow, he goes before us on another journey. But in [his] last moments he whispered to a bystander that away in the mountain fastnesses, far from the haunts of any other white man, among some unknown tribe of Indians, he had a wife and two children, the only objects on earth for which he could desire to live.
This is the only known reference to Harris’s having a family, although it was common for trappers to take Native American wives, sometimes more than one. His place of burial is unknown, adding yet another mystery to the story of his life.
Trapper and guide James Clyman, who kept a diary of his travels, counted Harris among a small circle of valued friends, “Equal to any I have ever found in the warmth of feeling kindness [sic] and generosity without any of that selfishness so often seen in the States [sic].” He said Harris was among trappers who enjoyed telling their tales, such as the story of the petrified birds, around the campfire at night. Clyman penned what amounted to an epitaph:
The bones of old Black Harris
Who often traveled beyond the far west
And for the freedom of human rights
He was a free and easy kind of soul
Especially with a belly full.
The reference to Harris’s advocacy of human rights is one indication that he may have been African American. It seems unlikely that a white fur trapper of that period would be so remembered.
Some well-known trappers who worked alongside Harris wrote or told their experiences later in life, among them Beckwourth, Meek, and Clyman. Perhaps if he had lived, Harris, too, would have shared his experiences. However, it seems more likely this mountain man of mystery would have kept his story to himself.
Gregory Nokes is a journalist and author of Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon and Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory.