JAMES, THOMAS (1782-1847)
Mountain man, frontier trader and entrepreneur, and explorer of the American Southwest, Thomas James was born in Maryland on November 1, 1782. In a career filled with adventure and travel, James met Manuel Lisa, Pierre Chouteau, John Colter, and other significant figures active in the trans-Mississippi West.
In the spring of 1809 James joined the expedition of the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company that returned the Mandan chief Shahaka, or "Big White," to his village. Soon after departing the Mandan village James left the company's service, purchased traps, and with two companions ventured to trap near the Three Forks of the Missouri River. Dangers were pervasive. His two companions were slain by Arikara, and he suffered from snow blindness and was attacked by grizzly bears. James returned to St. Louis by the end of July 1810, and despite the challenges and the lack of success he had experienced as a trapper, he chronicled those months in his Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans (1846).
In May 1821 James led a party of eleven men from St. Louis with more than ten thousand dollars in goods toward Santa Fe to trade on the southern plains. James's party descended the Mississippi River to the mouth of the Arkansas River and proceeded up that stream to the Cimarron River, which they followed some thirty miles. Seeking to trade with the Osage in present Mayes County, Oklahoma, James encountered Nathaniel Pryor, who had served with Lewis and Clark in 1803. Reaching an Osage village on the Verdigris River, James met Hugh Glenn and his party, who were en route to the Spanish country.
Again proceeding westward along the Cimarron, James and his men reached the Glass Mountains in present Major County, Oklahoma. Coerced by the Comanche into giving gifts, James found his trade less than profitable. With the aid of Spanish forces his expedition reached Santa Fe on December 1, 1821. Their attempts to develop trade with the Spanish were also unsuccessful, and James returned to St. Louis, his first trading venture upon Santa Fe a failure.
James returned to the southern plains in February 1823. Reaching the North Canadian River near present Oklahoma City, he predicted that the region would become densely populated. Although his attempts to trade beyond the Cross Timbers were disappointing, he provided valuable information on the Comanche and the land and fauna of Oklahoma. He spent the remaining twenty years of his life in Illinois, where he died on December 17, 1847.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Thomas James, Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans, ed. Milo Milton Quaife (Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1953). Phillip Drennon Thomas, "Thomas James, Hugh Glenn and Jacob Fowler, 1821-1823," in Frontier Adventurers: American Exploration in Oklahoma, ed. Joseph A. Stout, Jr. (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1976). Frederic E. Voelker, "Thomas James," in The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. 4, ed. LeRoy R. Hafen (Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1966).
Phillip Drennon Thomas
© Oklahoma Historical Society