Ezekiel Williams
Grandfather of the
Santa Fe Trail

Ezekiel Williams Drawing

     Ezekiel Williams (or Zeke as he was known) had exploration and adventure coursing through his veins as surely as the rich Welsh blood with which he was born. His forebears came to this nation many years before it was a nation. The men of his family explored and settled each new frontier as America moved farther and farther west. His father explored and surveyed the Kentucky frontier. That frontier was where Ezekiel was raised.

     Young Zeke learned very early how and when to use a gun. From the time he was old enough to carry a gun he was a "crack" shot. When he was nineteen years old he was made Captain of the Cornstalk Militia, first in Green, and then in Cumberland County. Always moving to the advancing frontier, Zeke gained a wealth of frontier savvy. It was that frontier savvy that sustained him and allowed him to survive one of the most daring and difficult adventures of his life. It was those adventures that gained for him the wealth of knowledge about the area that William Becknell (who has rightfully been called the "Father of the Santa Fe Trail") would need when he traversed the same area in 1821.

     In the late 18th and early 19th centuries many men had ambition to be the first to reach Santa Fe and begin commercial ventures with the Spanish. But the Spanish government was suspicious of the motives of the Americans. They became especially concerned when they thought that there was wealth of silver and gold in their area.

     The American government established prohibitions against men trapping in Spanish Territory, as they did not want to get into a war with Spain.

     Sometimes Americans ventured in anyway. When they were found, they were usually hauled off to Chihuahua and put into jail. The Indians of the area were also not fond of having Americans in their territory so if the Spaniards didn't get them, the Indians might, and possibly kill them on the spot. Some Americans, however, ventured in and became so fond of the area and the people that they settled there and never returned.

     One Spaniard, however, by the name of Manuel Lisa, migrated from his home in New Orleans and settled in St. Louis. Lisa was a self-made entrepreneur, the founder of several Missouri River fur trapping companies, and a man of many ambitions who has been referred to as a 'wiley' businessman. One of his ambitions was to open trade with Santa Fe. He believed that his Spanish heritage would enable him to have access. He made several attempts to contact and establish a rapport with the officials in Santa Fe but each attempt met with failure.

     Circumstances were about to unfold however, that would bring about another opportunity, this time from the upper Missouri.

     In August of 1806 Lewis and Clark had just returned from their "Voyage of Discovery." They had been instructed by President Thomas Jefferson to extend an invitation to any influential Indian chief, to come to Washington City and visit the President or "Great White Father." Mr. Fred Lee, in his book entitled "Sha-Ha-Ka: Lewis and Clarkís Mandan Indian Friend" states that the invitation was extended with the following words: "We have enjoyed your hospitality now it is time that you should enjoy ours.

     A Mandan Chief called "Sha ha ka or Big White" accepted their invitation, provided he could take along his wife, nine-year-old son, and one Rene' Jessaume, a Frenchman (and interpreter), who was living among the Indians along with his wife and two infant children [1]

     A promise was made that the government would provide safe passage for their return. The Sioux Indians were mortal enemies of the Mandan and at the time the Arikara Indians had had a falling out with the Mandan's. These tribes lived on the Missouri just below the Mandan villages. Sha ha ka knew that once they were spotted on the river there would surely be an attack. The explorers granted the Chief's request.

     In the spring of 1807, after a successful visit to Washington, Sha ha ka and party returned to St. Louis to await an escort for their trip home. Ensign Nathaniel Pryor (who had been with the Lewis and Clark expedition) was assigned the task of returning them, and they left St. Louis that summer.

     When they got up the Missouri to the Arikara Territory, their enemies saw them and opened fire on the flotilla. Several men lost their lives or were wounded. Sha ha ka and his family narrowly escaped injury. The party was forced to return to St. Louis. [2]

     Three years after the Mandan Chief and family had left their villages they still had not returned to their home. President Jefferson had had no word from Meriwether Lewis regarding the safety of Sha ha ka. To Jefferson's mind the relationships with the Indians were in jeopardy. On July 17, 1808, the President wrote Lewis, then Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory, this scorching letter:

     Since I parted with you in Albemarle in Sep. last I have never had a line from you, nor I believe has the Secretary of War with whom you have much connection through the Indian department. The misfortune, which attended the effort to send the Mandan chief home, became known to us before you reached St. Louis. We took no steps on the occasion, counting on receiving your advice as soon as you should be in your place, and knowing that your knowledge of the whole subject & presence on the spot would enable you to judge better than we could what ought to be done. [3]

     (This admonishment from President Jefferson has been thought by some to perhaps have been so embarrassing for Lewis that it may have been that which caused him to die at his own hand on the Natchez Trace. Lewis was subject to depression.)

     The second attempt to return Sha ha ka and his family was planned early in 1809. It had been determined that only a "show of force" could get Sha ha ka safely up the Missouri and back to his people and their villages. Therefore, to go along with the well-armed militia, the government contracted with the newly formed St. Louis Missouri Fur Company and the previously mentioned, Manuel Lisa. [4]

     The contract was signed by Governor Meriwether Lewis who promised to pay $7,000.00 to the Missouri Fur Trapping Company for the safe return of Sha ha ka and his entourage and also promised not to license any other trader above the Platte River before the last date set for departure. This would give the Missouri Company a head start for their trapping in the upper country. [5]

     The exact reason for Ezekiel Williams' appearance in the Louisiana Territory (Missouri) at this time in not known. However, we believe that his wife had passed away and he was alone, with a small son to support. Some time prior to 1809 he left his son with family in Kentucky and made his way to the frontier for the opportunities that were available there. After the return of Lewis and Clark, there had been much talk throughout the country of the abundance of fur beyond the Mississippi. Ezekiel Williams was a frontiersman and entrepreneur; he no doubt sought to take advantage of this opportunity and to resolve his grief over the loss of his beloved wife.

     While in the Louisiana Territory Zeke heard about the group that was traveling up the Missouri for trapping and that there was a large flotilla with a military escort. It sounded good.

     He agreed to go along, either as a free trapper or possibly as a member of the military escort. There are no records of him being an employee of the Missouri Fur Trading Company, until 1814.

     According to Lee, the flotilla consisted of thirteen keelboats and barges. Certainly there was enough show of force to discourage any band of marauders. There were around 350 men who traveled the course from St. Louis in 1809. The group was made up of 160 men who formed a body of militia with Pierre Chouteau in command. The rest were trappers of the Company and free trappers. There were a few Indians for hunting, a few French and Creole boatmen and hunters. There was one physician, a Dr. Thomas.

     Lee also tells us that, according to Dr. Thomas; on May 17, 1809 the flotilla pushed off and slowly began its passage up the Missouri. The first stop on the voyage was at Fort Osage near present day Independence, Missouri. They 'laid on' foodstuffs and other supplies and after taking care of business with the factor, George Sibley and Captain Clemson, the commanding officer of the post, they again pushed out on to the river. [6]

     Sometime in September they arrived at the Chief's village. As they approached, they fired a salute from the barges. Immediately there was an answer. An American flag was raised and soon the barges were crowded with natives who were eager to see the return of their Chief.

     There was a flurry of excitement and wild rejoicing as the Chief and his entourage disembarked and made their way up to the village. While Sha ha ka and family were renewing their friendships, his brother came to the flotilla and extended and invitation to dine with their people. The invitation was accepted and a large feast of meat, corn and vegetables was prepared and set before them in an atmosphere of great joy and happiness.

     But the joy and happiness that was such welcome relief was about to give way to concern for what lay ahead up the river. Chouteau received word that three agents of the British Northwest Company were in the area and that they had erected a fort at Three Forks of the Missouri. That news together with the fact that thirty American hunters in the area had not been seen or heard of for eighteen months could mean that the Missouri Fur Company was in trouble. At the very least the news of the British so entrenched with resources so close at hand was disturbing. [7]

     Undaunted by the dangers, the trappers pushed up the river. Zeke and several men trapped near the headwaters of the Missouri.

     In August of 1811 Ezekiel Williams, John Baptist Champlain, and twenty-three trappers, returned to Fort Mandan from their expedition. They had been trapping the area for about two years. Upon their return they, advised Lisa that a group of Spaniards had sent a party each year to trade with the Arapahos. This was exciting news for Lisa. If a connection could be made, then the possibility of trade between St. Louis and Santa Fe could at last be permanently established. Author Oglesby sites Herbert Bolton's, "New Light on Manuel Lisa and the Spanish Fur Trade," Southwest Historical Quarterly, XVII. In short order Lisa equipped Williams and Champlain with suitable goods for Spanish trade and sent them and a group of men to the south towards the Platte in the hopes that they would meet someone from Santa Fe. [8]

Ezekiel Williams Expedition
Ezekiel Williams Expedition 1811/13 Map

Ezekiel Williams wrote on August 7, 1816:
     "In August [1811], a party started to go towards the south to hunt. There were in all near twenty men, each man on his own footing except two who were in Champlain's employ; Champlain and myself were of the company. Manuel Lisa, who was an agent of the Fur Company, commanded a fort on the Missouri, from whence we started, promised to keep up the fort, and a good understanding with the Indians, so that our return should not be cut off. We journeyed south forty or fifty days, struck a river I since found to be the Arkansas, where we hunted the first fall unmolested. The next spring the Indians commenced robbing and harassing our company in every quarter. Some time in June, we all assembled on the head of the river, since known to be the Platte, where we held council and agreed to part. Eight or ten crossed the Rocky Mountains about, as many started southward along the mountain. Champlain and myself were with the later party. We proceeded until we crossed the Arkansas, where we were informed by Indians that the fort on the Missouri was broke up, that Manuel Lisa had fell out with the tribes near there, and that they were killing each other as they could find them. We now thought it impossible to return to the Missouri, we concluded to part again. Four of our company determined to find the Spanish settlement, six remained; Champlain, his two hired men, two other Frenchmen and myself. We then set out to hunt in October in a cove in the mountain, taking care not to go more than a few miles apart. About the first day of November, we found three of our men killed; there now remained Champlain, one Porteau and myself. We then took protection amongst the Arapaho nation of Indians; there we found the horses and equipment of our three men just killed. The head chief advised us as the only means to save our lives was to stay with him, which we did, and passed a wretched winter, filled with despair of ever being able to return home. The Indians told us that said Manuel's fort was broke up, and that if we attempted to go back that way we would certainly be killed. Champlain, and Porteau insisted that we should stay with the Indians until some white person came there who would be able to give the necessary information respecting the Fur Company, or the place where we were, and of the means of escaping from thence. I decided to find white people or some place of safety, or lose my life in the attempt. From the best information the Arapahos could give me, the river that we were on lead to the country of a nation, which from their description, I thought to be the Osage, and therefore determined to descend that river. My comrades assisted me to make a canoe, and on the first day of March according to our reckoning, I was accompanied by my two companions and a numerous band of Indians to the waterside, where I took final farewell of them. Champlain shook my hand and said farewell, the other turned his back & wept. --A few minutes before we parted, they told me they would start about three days afterwards. I have never seen them since. I promised them to inform the people at St. Louis of their situation, if I should reach there before them. They made me a similar promise. I traveled down the Arkansas about four hundred miles, trapping for beaver the most of the way. I could proceed no further because of low water. About the first of June the water raised and I started down until the last (nearly) of said month, I was taken by the Kansas; they soon distributed my little property among themselves and bound me fast. Luckily I had but little except the skins I had caught descending the Arkansas; I had hid all my furs before that I left the Arapahos, and never expected to see it again---The Kansas kept me with them. A party of the Osages was in that country, and heard the Kansas had a white man prisoner, and sent Messrs. Daniel Larisson & Joseph Larivee with ten Osages to demand me from the Kansas. They would not give me up to the Osages, but would keep me until they returned to their town and send me home: after forty days we set off. I gave my gun &c. to a mulatto man to be my friend and speak for me, the Indians returned me part of my furs, the balance was since demanded by Governor William Clark and surrendered. Four Indians and the mulattoes brought me in, on the first day of September I arrived at Boons Lick. I was shortly afterwards in St. Louis where I seen Manuel Lisa, who told me all the above difficulties they had with the Indians at the post where he was, that my comrades had not got in, but were certainly killed if they went that road, of which we talked when we parted." [9]

     Zeke's letter goes on to tell how he took twenty men with him and returned to the Arapaho country to retrieve his furs. When he got there he called a council of the chiefs and asked in the presence of his men "what has become of Champlain and Porteau, whom I left in this village last year?" The chief said that the two had continued to stay and hunt for a few days then determined to try to get back to the fort on the Missouri. They left with eleven horses loaded with furs and started towards the Missouri. Zeke now despaired of ever finding his companions alive.

     He then hired a man named Michael LeClair and with two companions, Cooper and May collected part of his fur and started down the Arkansas. They had to stop because of low water and hid the fur, intending to go back in the spring following and get it.

     That winter someone told Zeke that LeClair and a group of men were starting out to get the furs. Zeke enlisted the help of Joseph and William Cooper to go with him. Again he struck out, this time with the intention of getting to the furs first. After they retrieved them they found out that LeClair had every intention to steal the furs and, if necessary, to murder Zeke. [10]

     During the ensuing years many American adventurers left St. Louis and tried to make their way to Santa Fe, but with little or no success. It was well known that the difficulties of the trip would be enormous. Tales of disaster such as being robbed by the Indians and left to starve to death were enough to put off the heartiest of souls. Before daring to take such a risk there were questions that needed answers such as: which way was the best route? Where were the Osage, Kansas and Arapaho Indians? What were they like? Where could water be found? Where might heavily laden wagons be able to ford streams? Where were the buffalo for food and grass for the livestock? Fortunately when these questions needed answers Ezekiel Williams was available and willing to share his experiences of having traveled and lived in that area.

     Enthusiastically he would tell the stories of his experiences upon the headwaters, in the mountains and his unequalled adventure on his return to Franklin as well as the other dangerous trips to the area to retrieve his furs. He loved to tell one particular story about how he got his most prized keepsake. It was one that he kept with him and drew out at a momentís notice whenever the opportunity presented itself to tell the story.

     On his return down the Arkansas he would hide his canoe during the day so as not to be discovered by the Indians and travel the river by night. One starry night after he had had his evening meal, which consisted of venison, he cut up the remainder and placed it on the bow of his canoe. As was his custom, this particular night he was asleep in his canoe. Quite suddenly he was startled awake by something approaching the canoe through the bushes and along the riverbank where he had tied up for the night. His custom was to leave a sufficient length of rawhide from the bank to the canoe so that if needed he could cut the hide and glide away quickly and quietly. Tramp, tramp, tramp through the underbrush went the footsteps. His first concern was that it might be an Indian, however, he knew that no Indian would be so careless. As the footsteps came closer he observed a large grizzly bear approaching the edge of the water and lifting his head as if to scent something close by. He then slid into the water and headed for the canoe. Zeke grabbed his axe as a means of defending himself and stood up in the canoe ready to drive it into the bearís head. The bear reached the canoe and immediately placed his fore paws on it. It nearly turned over. Zeke gave him a whack with his axe and this made the bear let go his hold with that foot. He still had hold with the other foot and Zeke let go with another blow this time to his head. The bear disappeared. Zeke supposed that he was in the water and drowned. The next morning there were the bear's claws in the canoe. These were the trophies that Zeke loved to exhibit and tell the tale of how he came about them floating down the Arkansas.

     One young man who loved to listen to Zeke tell of his adventures was an apprentice to a saddlemaker, the young Kit Carson. One of Carson's biographers has stated that Ezekiel Williams tales of the west were strong inspiration for young Carson. As a matter of fact Kit Carson stole away on one of the early caravans to Santa Fe.

     Considering Zeke's knowledge and popularity around the town of Franklin, Missouri it should be no surprise that in 1821 when William Becknell, determined to make that first trip to Santa Fe, he advertised in the Missouri Intelligencer that all who were interested "meet at Ezekiel William's on the Missouri."Although Zeke was not on that first trip, he was subsequently the Captain of the largest caravan (and most profitable of that time) to traverse the route to Santa Fe. They left Blue Springs, Missouri, their place of rendezvous, on the 15th of May, 1827. In the company were 105 men and 53 wagons and pleasure carriages. Col. Augustus Storrs who was one of the party wrote: "Our line of march is at least one mile in length, and is said to be extremely beautiful to the eye of a spectator, and certainly must appear formidable in the estimation of Indians. The company is the largest which has traversed this route, are in fine spirits, and do not entertain a doubt of going through in perfect safety." "The following is a list of the officers which have been appointed. Rev. John Pearson, Chaplain, Captain- Ezekiel Williams, Aids -Presley Samuel, Jas. Glenn, Clerk - James L. Collins, Marshall - Richard Gentry, Pilot - Joseph Reynolds, Court - Joshua Fletcher, John Dade, and James Ramsay. Commander of the Guards - E. Williams, P. Samuel, J. Glenn, S. Turley, J. Rennison, R. Stowers, L. Morrison, A. Barnes, and D. Workman." "If fighting should be necessary, it will be as much a matter of pride and ambition to sustain glory of our arms and the honor of our country as to protect our own interests rights."

     Sixty men of this party, with their wagons, returned to Missouri about September 30, 1827, with eight hundred head of horses and mules worth about $28,000.00; and the profits of the expedition were calculated at about forty per cent, net. This was a very lucrative commercial expedition. It was the most lucrative to that time.

     Zeke was out on the trails for several years until he settled in a then-remote area of Cooper County, Missouri in 1830. There he became the first Postmaster, the first elections were held in his home, a creek and a township are named for him.

     Having weathered plains blizzards, mountain storms, squalls of litigation, and many other hardships, in the midst of his family, his slaves, his crops, and herds, there in present Benton County Ezekiel Williams lived out his years. He was comfortably situated, and he had many possessions lacking the average Benton County farm home of his day. Not only was his farm well stocked and well equipped; he also had a furnished house. And, he had something not then usual in that part of Missouri - a small library, in a bookcase.

     Perhaps at a glance his little library will provide some insight into the character and mentality of the man. There was a volume of 'American Biography, a History of the United States, a volume of the Statutes of Missouri, a map of the United States, a map of Iowa, 2 volumes of the works of Flavius Josephus, a History of the Methodist Church, a hymn book and of course the Bible. Williams' literary interests then, were history, religion and the law, a combination of subjects that, then as now, would be considered dry by all but the small minority (of people) several cuts above average. [11]

     Thus is the story of a man whose life as an explorer, pioneer, entrepreneur, and trapper, brought him into history as the first Anglo American to live in the Colorado Territory and return. [12]

     He was a man who shared his life's adventures to inform and educate those first men who finally made it to Santa Fe and established the long sought after trade route with Mexico.

     How sad that Meriwether Lewis could not have lived to see it. The dream that he shared with his mentor and friend, President Thomas Jefferson, for a trade empire which had finally begun to come true thanks, in part, to the man we call " The Grandfather of the Santa Fe Trail."
© By S. Hess
All rights reserved,
including the right of reproduction
in whole or in any form.
Kansas City, Missouri 2003

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