William L. Sublette
- This article written by Sherry Steckel was featured in the book "Haskell County, Kansas, 100 Years Beneath the Plow". Sherry was a resident of Sublette and served as Liberian of the Haskel Towhnship Library. Sherry was a creative contributor to her community and to many of the children at the library.
"The vision to see and the courage to do is part of our American heritage."
Some early pioneers became larger than life-myths, legends, our very own folk heroes. One of Haskell County's towns bears the name of one such pioneer folk hero: William L. Sublette, mountain man.
William was born to Phillip and Isabella Sublette in a territory along the Cumberland River in Kentucky, September 21, 1799. His birthplace was not a one-room log cabin but a two-story home of his maternal grandfather, Colonel Whitley.
Before Bill was 2 years old his family had moved to Somerset Kentucky, where his father planned to enter politics and speculate in land along this fertile area of the Cumberland River. The family opened an inn (they called it ordinary) where travelers could eat, drink and lodge. Young Bill spent long hours drinking in the stories and yarns of western travelers. It was, perhaps, at this young age when his love of exploration and adventure began to develop.
By 1817 the Sublette family had moved to St. Charles, Missouri. Bill had just turned 18. Although he still lived at home, he leased 200 acres of timberland and cut this into fence rails to sell. In the spring of 1820 Bill was appointed deputy to the constable of St. Charles. Sublette was poorly educated but shrewd and politically minded even as a young man. His deputy work let him broaden his circle of friends and probably his enemies, too. In 1822 he defeated two opponents to become the new town constable. At age 23 William stood 6 feet, 2 inches tall with fair skin sandy hair and blue eyes.
In the spring of 1823 he decided to seek adventure and his fortune in the fur trade. He was hired by the lieutenant governor of Missouri, General William Henry Ashley. For one year of mountain service he was promised the princely sun of $100. Although he had no experience in trapping, he had practical experience in law, politics, business and land speculation.
Having survived Indian skirmishes, long winters and stiff competition from other fur trappers, Sublette formed a partnership in 1826 with Jed Smith and David Jackson, taking over Ashley's fur interest. After nearly 4 years of partnership the firm was barely solvent and no mistakes could be made. The common belief that "the new firm did not prosper financially, for the hey-day of the fur trade was past" was the quite possibly true.
The partners, after considering their fur returns and the cost of the expedition, realized that they had enough to pay their note to Ashley and to provide each of them with small profit. This was their opportunity to escape the mountains trade before conditions grew worse. They decided, suddenly and unexpectedly, to sell their interests and dissolve their partnership. Perhaps they can follow in Ashley's footsteps: prepare and send annual supply trains to the mountain rendezvous, then trade, carry and sell beaver caught by others. They were aware that the supply of mountain beaver was diminishing and that there might be a decided decline in market value if a short supply should bring about the substitution of some other material for beaver fur.
There were more personal reasons for wishing to disband their business. Smith and Jackson had seen little of civilization in many years and were eager to rest and relax awhile and comfort. Their mountain exploits were passing into legend. A new decade was beginning, and the time was ripe for the dissolution of their partnership.
Their returning caravan created a sensation upon its arrival within the settled area of western Missouri. Although many of them were unaware of it, they had participated in a monumental western event. Their wagon caravan was the first to utilize a large portion of the Oregon Trail. Sublette's faith in himself and his men had borne results. He had taken wheeled we'll vehicles west to Popo Agie and had bought them back to St. Louis. He had proven that the Overland Trail could be crossed by wagon; he had opened the immigrants' road to Oregon.