By Dick Schmal
Many area residents have traced their ancestors to Europe, to the Mayflower and so on, but few have traced them back to the "Mountain Men."
James Baker (Dec. 19, 1818 - May 11, 1898) was born at Bellville, Ill., of parents said to be of Scotch-Irish stock, and to have come from South Carolina.
He learned the use of firearms early in life, though he had little formal education. His adventurous spirit caused him to go west at the age of nineteen.
He met the famous explorer-scout Jim Bridger (1804-1881), a man who had been exploring and trapping in the mountains since 1822. Bridger was recruiting a company of trappers for the American Fur Company, and on May 22, 1839, young Baker left St. Louis with him, heading for the annual rendezvous in the mountains.
The journey was, according to Baker, a hazardous one, for the Indians along the trail were as thick as bees, and unusually hostile. The pacifying genius of Bridger, however, brought the party safely to its destination.
Baker, after two years of trapping, returned to St. Louis in the summer of 1840, and also made a brief visit to his boyhood home at Belleville. But when the spring of 1841 arrived, off he went to the mountains.
He took part in a desperate fight at the junction of Bitter Creek and the Snake River (on the Colorado/Wyoming border) on Aug. 21-22, when 35 trappers beat off a large force of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahos, losing their leader Henry Fraeb and three others.
In the spring following the famous "cold winter of 45," when most of the horses and many of the wild animals of the mountains perished, Baker took part in a trappers' raid on the horse herds of the Southern Californians. Though the decline of the fur trade in the early forties drove most of the trappers to abandon the field, he stayed on.
Little is known of his movements, however, from 1844 to 1855, when he emerged as Chief Scout for General W.S. Harney of Ft. Laramie, a major supply point for American trappers in southeastern Wyoming.
In 1857 he guided as far east as Ft. Bridger, founded by his old trapper friend in 1842 as a trading camp on the Oregon Trail. On this trip, he was a part of the Federal Army sent against the Mormons.
With Tim Goodale as his assistant, he served as guide to Captain Marcy's expedition, which left Ft. Bridger on Nov. 24 to cross the Colorado Mountains to Ft. Massachusetts, where both guides lost their way and the party barely escaped destruction. They returned along the foothills of the Rockey Mountains and passed by the future site of Denver, where one of the men discovered gold, then went on to Ft. Bridger in June 1858.
Baker remained a short time in the Green River region and then returned to the Colorado Placers of Clear Creek, near the scene of the famous battle. Here, he built a cabin with a watch tower, and began to raise livestock. He died on his farm, his grave marked with an inscribed stone, about a mile from the town of Savert, Wyoming.
Baker was married six times (each time to an Indian woman), had a number of children, and was one of the most picturesque figures of the old frontier. He adopted Indian dress and habits and was considerably swayed by Indian superstitions.
He tried some 'store bought clothes' one time, but said, "Confound these store bought boots, they choke my feet! I'll never wear any more store bought, or act like a gentleman again." His stalwart form was crowned by a thick shock of chestnut hair which was curled in ringlets all over his head, and which still destinguished him, only slightly grizzled, when he reached the age of 70.
All who knew him esteemed him highly, including Captain Randolph B. Marcy, a soldier and explorer who wrote of him as "a generous, noblehearted specimen of the trapper who would peril his life for a friend at any time or divide his last morsel of food." In 1917 the Wyoming legislature appropriated a sum for the purpose of purchasing and removing his cabin to Frontier Park at Cheyenne, Wyoming; on July 23 of that year, it was dedicated with appropriate ceremonies as its new location.
One of Baker's six wives was an Indian princess, the daughter of a chief of the Cherokee. Twins were born to this woman, though only one survived. The baby boy was named James C. Baker, born in 1856. As a young boy, James C. Baker followed his father's love of hunting and trapping, until in 1883 he married Lucinda Upchurch, who was just 15, born in Kentucky 1868. In 1886 a son was born, and then a baby girl who passed away as an infant.
The baby boy was George Washington Baker (1886-1948), later known as "Wash." True to his heritage, Wash was only 15 when he began to roam Kentucky and Tennesssee, seeking his fortune. Not succeeding in that venture, he returned to Monticello, Ky., where he had been born.
At the age of twenty, Wash met Pealry Mae Burton (1891-1975) of Mills Springs, Ky., and soon they were married at Monticello, when she was 16. After a baby girl was born, Wash traveled north to Lowell to find work on the Addison Clark farm and the John Buckley farm (now Buckley Homestead County Park). He soon returned to Kentucky and brought his family to the Lowell area and settled on Fuller Island, southeast of Lowell in Kankakee Valley, where he began work on the Thomas Grant farm.
Between the years 1907 and 1947, Wash and Pearl Baker raised 9 children: Mary Baker Taylor of Puryear, Tenn.; James A. Baker of Lowell; Ruby Baker of Phoenix, Ariz.; Joseph T. 'Tom' Baker of Griffith; William R. Baker of Phoenix; Barbara Baker Kurtek of Phoenix; Dorothy Jean Baker, deceased; Beulah Baker Petro, deceased; and Luana Baker Wulitich, deceased.
Information for this story was furnished by Jim Baker's great grandson and namesake, James A. Baker of Lowell, and by the Lowell Public Library.
Born in a log cabin in the Kankakee Marsh, the younger Baker is now retired. He was active in clubs and organizations in the community, including the Jaycees, Scouts, Lowell Vol. Fire Dept. and the Three Creeks Historical Assn. On Apr. 19, 1986, the Indian Trail Grange presented Baker with its "Outstanding Community Citizen Award."
Through the years, both Jim A. Baker and his son Jim D. Baker have dressed in the skins and equipment familiar to mountain men of the 1800's, like ancestor Jim Baker, trapper, explorer, and guide.