On 13th February, 1822, William Ashley placed an advertisement in the Missouri Gazette and Public Adviser where he called for 100 enterprising men to "ascend the river Missouri" to take part in the fur collecting business. Those who agreed to join the party included Fitzpatrick, Hugh Glass, Jim Beckwourth, David Jackson, William Sublette, James Bridger and Jedediah Smith.
Ashley's company was the first to depend primarily upon trapping the beaver rather than buying them from Native Americans. Ashley did not pay the trappers a fixed wage. Instead, in return for transporting them to the Rocky Mountains, he took a share in the furs they obtained. One historian has claimed that Fitzpatrick was "one of the greatest mountain men of the age, perhaps second only in fame and achievement" to Kit Carson.
On 30th May, 1823, Ashley and his party of 70 men, including Fitzpatrick, were attacked by 600 Arikaras. Twelve of Ashley's men were killed and the rest were forced to retreat. Jedediah Smith volunteered to contact Andrew Henry and bring back reinforcements. A message was sent back to St Louis and Colonel Henry Leavenworth of the U.S. Sixth Infantry and later 200 soldiers and 700 Sioux allies attacked the Arikara villages.
Fitzpatrick worked as a trapper for several years and worked with David Jackson and William Sublette in the Uinta Mountain streams. In 1830 Fitzpatrick and four other mountain men, purchased the Rocky Mountain Fur Company from William Ashley and his associates. Fitzpatrick became head of the new organization.
Fitzpatrick had several near escapes during his time as a mountain man and after the battle of Pierre's Hole, in July 1832, his hair turned grey. After this his nickname was "White Hair". He was also known as "Broken Hand" (his left hand had been severely damaged as a result of a firearms accident). Fitzpatrick sold his Rocky Mountain Fur Company to the American Fur Company in 1836. He then hired himself out to them on an annual basis and guided several parties into the Rocky Mountains.
Pierre-Jean de Smet, a missionary, decided to take a small party to California. De Smet, two Jesuit fathers and three lay brothers boarded the riverboat at St. Louis on 24th April, 1841 and reached Westport, Missouri on 30th April. To help him De Smet recruited five mountain men: Tom Fitzpatrick, Jim Baker, John Gray, George Simpson and William Mast. At Sapling Grove they joined forces with the wagon train led by John Bidwell. According to the author of Wagons West: The Epic Story of America's Overland Trails (2002): "His engagement as a guide by De Smet was in itself was in itself the surest possible sign that the fur-trading days of the Far West were over."
The combined party left Sapling Grove on 12th May, 1841. As Frank McLynn pointed out: "The missionaries' four carts formed the vanguard, each drawn by two mules hitched in tandem. The main party consisted of eight wagons drawn either by mules or horses. In the rear were the slowest-moving vehicles - six wagons drawn by oxen." They followed the Sante Fe Trail for two days before branching off on a faint path created by fur traders who had already made the journey to Fort Laramie.
On 16th May, 1841, Pierre-Jean de Smet wrote in his journal: "I hope that the journey will end well; it has begun badly. One of our wagons was burned on the steamboat; a horse ran away and was never found; a second fell ill, which I was obliged to exchange for another at a loss. Some of the mules took fright and ran off, leaving their wagons; others, with wagons, have been stalled in the mud. We have faced perilous situations in crossing steep declivities, deep ravines, marshes and rivers."
The journey became even more difficult after crossing the Kansas River. The long grass interspersed with trees, resulted in most of the families abandoned the heavy furniture they were trying to transport in their wagons. Father Nicolas Point wrote that the "terrain between Westport and the Platte is one of those endless undulations which bear a perfect resemblance to those of the sea when it is agitated by a storm." Point also recorded that on a single day the party killed a dozen rattlesnakes with their whips without leaving the trail.
On 4th June, one of the party, Nicholas Dawson, went out hunting alone and was captured by a group of Cheyenne braves. They removed his clothes and stole his mule, rifle and handgun. Dawson was then released and chased back to the wagon train. Fitzpatrick went out to meet the Cheyenne and after negotiating the return of the mule and rifle, they smoked a peace pipe together.
Nine days later the wagon train experienced its first death. As John Bidwell explained: "A young man by the name of Shotwell, while in the act of taking a gun out of the wagon, drew up the muzzle towards him in such a manner that it went off and shot him in the heart. He lived about an hour and died in full possession of his senses."
On 22nd June the travellers reached Fort Laramie in Wyoming. They had so far covered 635 miles at an average of fifteen miles a day. The Methodist preacher, Joseph Williams, was shocked when he saw that the mountain men at the fort had Native American "wives". He also recorded that he disapproved of Fitzpatrick's attitude towards religion: "Our leader, Fitzpatrick, is a wicked worldly man, and is much opposed to missionaries going among the Indians. He has some intelligence, but is deistical in his principles."
The wagon train left the fort two days later. They travelled along the south bank of the North Platte River until they reached the dreaded North Fork crossing. It was too deep for fording so so they had a great deal of difficulty reaching the other side. However, the pioneers got across with the loss of just one drowned mule.
In July the travellers had difficulty finding enough buffalo to kill. The difficult terrain meant that the wagon train was travelling at a slower pace. The journey from Fort Laramie to Soda Springs in Idaho, took forty-eight days to cover the 560 miles, an average of twelve miles a day. There was a short pause at Soda Springs for hunting.
On 11th August the two groups went their separate ways. Tom Fitzpatrick and Pierre-Jean De Smet heading north to Fort Hall, whereas the John Bidwell party continued on the route to California. Only thirty-three people elected to go with Bidwell. Fitzpatrick tried to convince Bidwell to abandon his trip to California and proceed instead to Oregon. Smet later recorded: "They started purely with the design of seeking their fortune in California... and pursued their enterprise with the constancy which is characteristic of Americans."
Recognized as an outstanding guide Tom Fitzpatrick was employed by John C. Fremont (1843) and Stephen Kearny (1844). He was also Kearny's guide during the Mexican War. Fitzpatrick then became Indian Agent for the Upper Platte and Arkansas rivers. In this role he suggested the building of military posts at Fort Laramie and Fort Hall.
Fitzpatrick also negotiated with the Cheyenne at Bent's Fort in 1847 and helped to arrange the Laramie Treaty conference of 1851 with the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Shoshone and Sioux. The historian, John D. Unruh, has argued in The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West (1979): "The resultant treaty established tribal boundaries, specified peaceful relations among tribes, authorized the laying out of roads and construction of military posts in Indian territory, and provided for punishment and restitution of any depredations committed - by either Indian or white." Two years later he arranged a treaty with the Comanche and Kiowa.
Tom Fitzpatrick died in Washington on 7th February, 1854.
The veteran of a dozen major Indian fights - with the Blackfeet, Crows and Gros Ventres - he had endured so much razor-edged stress that his hair went prematurely white. Strangely enough, his nickname Broken Hand derived not from one of these engagements but from an accident when his left hand was crippled by a misfiring pistol.