This is one of the most important historical accounts we have of the American frontier. It also happens to be one of the greatest true adventure stories ever written.
In 1809 Thomas James joined up with the Missouri Fur Company. They were to trap beaver on the upper river, and to escort home an Indian Chief that Lewis and Clark had brought to the White House. But things went poorly within the party and James split off with some companions. They faced starvation and hostile natives constantly:
We … soon found the dead bodies of the last mentioned hunters, pierced with lances, arrows and bullets and lying near each other. Further on, about one hundred and fifty yards, Druyer and his horse lay dead, the former mangled in a horrible manner; his head was cut off, his entrails torn out and his body hacked to pieces.
His next two expeditions were to New Mexico as a trader in 1821 and again in 1822. As James says, “I was the first American that ever visited the country and escaped a prison while there.” His account of Indian and Mexican life at the time is detailed and colorful. His witnessed attacks and counter-attacks:
The militia of Santa Fe when on parade, beggared all description. … Such a gang of tatterdemallions I never saw before or since. They were of all colors, with all kinds of dresses and every species of arms. Some were bare headed, others bare backed-some had hats without rims or crowns, and some wore coats without skirts; others again wore coats without sleeves. Most of them were armed with bows and arrows. A few had guns that looked as if they had been imported by Cortez, while others had iron hoops fastened to the ends of poles, which passed for lances. The doughty Governor Facunda Malgaris … was five feet high, nearly as thick as he was long, and as he waddled from one end of the line to the other.
As commercial ventures, all three of James’ forays were failures. He was too early in the game. But even if James did not die rich, he left us a treasure.