Q. While scanning the front page of a 1939 Belleville News-Democrat, I found a brief mention of a Jim Baker, who, the story said, was born in Belleville and became a famous frontiersman. I’ve heard of Kit Carson, Daniel Boone, etc., so how famous could this guy be? Fill us in, please.
— S.G., of Belleville
A. If Davy Crockett was king of the wild frontier, Jim Baker has to be in the running for at least the title of crown prince.
When Colorado was celebrating the great advances it had made in 20 years since becoming a state in 1876, Baker, then 76, enjoyed the seat of honor during a Denver gala, according to the Denver Daily News.
“Baker ... was the pioneer of pioneers of Denver and Colorado and the most celebrated living hunter, guide and Indian fighter in the West,” according to a story taken from the Daily News that was published in the Nov. 25, 1895, Belleville Daily Advocate. “He was given the leading place at the head of the procession in the Pageant of Progress and every honor was shown him.”
You just need a peek at his resume to see why he was held in such esteem. Probably still in his teens, he became a fur trapper for famed mountain man Jim Bridger. He was part of the Federal Army sent against the Mormons when the U.S. government feared the Utah Territory might declare its independence. By many accounts, he married six Indian women, including the daughter of two chiefs. He also reportedly served as a scout to Gen. George Custer at the Battle of the Rosebud — just one week before Little Big Horn.
Even the surviving anecdotes about this man are fascinating. According to those who knew him, he refused to use spittoons because they were too pretty for such a vile purpose. And if you ever want to see the log cabin where he lived his final years in Wyoming, you can. After Wyoming won a fight with Colorado over rights to the home, the Little Snake River Museum in Savery, Wyo., had it reassembled in 1976 as a permanent monument.
Yet when Ned Buntline, a popular 19th-century dime novelist and the man who claimed to have given William Cody his nickname of Buffalo Bill, asked to write his biography, Baker declined. So it was up to future historians to piece together how this boy from Belleville turned into an almost larger-than-life figure of the Old West.
It didn’t take long for him to get his start. He was born here Dec. 19, 1818, just two weeks after Illinois had become the 21st state. But when his Scottish-Irish parents sent him to Springfield for his education, he quickly realized book-larnin’ wasn’t for him.
“I didn’t like to go to school, so I ran away,” he told a Denver paper in 1886.
On foot, he wound up in St. Louis, where he met Bridger and signed up for an 18-month stint with the American Fur Co. On May 22, 1839, he boarded the old steamer St. Peter and left for Kansas City, where keelboats and pack animals transported the group to Fort Bonneville in the wilds of western Wyoming.
“Beaver were worth $5 or $6 apiece and half a dozen beaver made a good day’s catch,” he told the Daily News in 1895. “I found that an independent trapper could do better for himself than one who worked upon a salary. So at the first opportunity I began life for myself, acquiring money enough to return home and notify my parents that I was still alive.”
It would be his last trip to Illinois. Just months later, Baker rejoined Bridger’s band of trappers, but this time life was anything but peaceful. Indians in the area were becoming increasingly upset over the large number of white immigrants traveling through the area. Fearing an attack imminent, Baker volunteered to find Bridger’s friend Henry Fraeb and tell him to abandon their hunt.
“There we had a lively fight with a party of about 500 Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahos,” Baker recalled in the 1886 article. “There were 23 in our party. Old Fraeb was in command. The Indians made about 40 charges on us, coming up within 10 to 15 paces of us every time. Their object was to draw our fire, but Old Fraeb kept shouting, ‘Don’t shoot till you’re sure! One at a time!’ We hid behind stumps. Old Fraeb was killed ... ”
The 22-year-old Baker immediately took charge, and, when darkness fell and the Indians finally withdrew, led the 19 other survivors safely back to Bridger’s camp.
The near-massacre did nothing to squelch Baker’s love of adventure. In 1845, Baker joined John Fremont’s third expedition to Los Angeles, where he was asked to join a party that included Kit Carson and take a series of dispatches to Washington, D.C. While returning, he was met by Gen. Stephen Kearney, who took the messages, which allowed Baker to return to his trapping.
It was during this time, too, that he became close with the Shoshones, embracing their customs, habits and religion, according to Nolie Mumey’s 1931 book, “The Life of Jim Baker.” In 1847, he was adopted into the tribe, where he was known as the “Red Headed Shoshone.”
It proved a smart move by the tribe. That fall while Baker and other tribesmen were on a buffalo hunt, their camp was attacked by the Blackfoot, who killed many while taking others as captives, including the chief’s daughter, Marina. Baker reportedly played a major role in rescuing the captives and earned Marina’s hand in marriage as a reward.
Finally in 1859, having just turned 40, Baker settled down on a tract of land three miles north of Denver. He also built a toll bridge and reportedly owned the first Colorado coal mine, 18 miles west of Denver. It was a year after the discovery of gold along Cherry Creek set off the Pike’s Peak gold rush, but Baker told the Denver paper he had no interest in the yellow metal.
For someone like Baker, however, “settling down” was a relative term. That very same year, Baker was appointed a captain in the Colorado militia. And, in 1873, Baker picked up stakes and moved his family to a ranch in Savery, Wyo., just across the Colorado border. There, he and his three daughters — Isabel, Madeline and Jennie — chopped cottonwood trees to build the family’s cabin. At first, the cabin had three stories, with the upper one serving as a watchtower until it was dismantled as the Indian threat eased.
That, however, would take a while. In 1875, Baker, now 56 years old, would join Custer as a scout during the Battle of the Rosebud, where Crazy Horse and 750 Lakota and Cheyenne Warriors attacked Brig. Gen. George Crook in a six-hour battle. (Custer would be killed a week later at Little Big Horn.) Then, four years later, Baker was asked to take part in one last fight, the so-called Meeker Massacre sparked by the killing of Indian agent Nathanial Meeker and 10 of his employees by the Utes in Colorado.
Through it all, Baker escaped unscathed — at least in battle. While visiting Denver late in life, he was showing a friend a Spencer carbine. According to the 1895 Denver Daily News article, the gun exploded in his hands, tearing off his right thumb and leaving fragments buried in his face and chest. Thanks to a Denver surgeon, however, Baker would nearly make it to his 80th birthday. On May 15, 1898, Baker died quietly in his cabin, and his body was laid to rest in a small cemetery overlooking his beloved Little Snake River Valley, far from his hometown that he had escaped so many decades before.
And there was one final effort to bring this famous frontiersman that few have heard of even more peace. Author Leighton Baker, who became so fascinated with this man who shared his last name that he wrote “Jim Baker, the Red-Headed Shoshoni,” managed to find the remains of Jim Baker’s first wife, Marina, and reburied them alongside his.
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Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-239-2465.