Peg Leg Smith

by Malcolm Macdonald, August 10, 2016

The Logan Trace is a branch of Daniel Boone's Wilderness Road in central Kentucky. In this context a “trace” is a trail, particularly in a wilderness area. The Logan Trace takes its name from Benjamin Logan, an officer in the Virginia militia during the American Revolution. Later he followed Boone's path to Kentucky where he did battle with the Shawnee native to the region, burning a dozen or more of their settlements.

Near the end of Logan's Trace, down the trail from Boonesborough and below Hazel Patch, rests the early pioneer station of Crab Orchard, Kentucky. Daniel Boone himself references it as early as the autumn of 1777, when he recorded that a band of Indians entered upon an excursion into the district known as the “Crab Orchard.” The first recorded official settlement in Crab Orchard was noted in 1788.

Fish and game were so plentiful in this region that its original inhabitants, known to us today as the Shawnee and the Cherokee, fought almost constantly over boundary rights to the streams and hunting grounds. When the whites, predominantly of Scots and Irish descent, invaded in the late 1700s, the native peoples gave way only grudgingly, so much so that Kentucky become synonymous with the phrase, the dark and bloody ground. The weak of body, mind, and spirit fared poorly in such a place on into the early part of the next century when one Thomas L. Smith was born in 1801 at Crab Orchard. Even as a youth he could be picked out from a crowd with his dark hair and eyes that appeared blacker than black.

Perhaps childhood in Crab Orchard was too rough or that particularly American urge to explore the frontier caught hold in young Tom for he ran away in his teen years, taking on work aboard a flatboat on the Mississippi River. When the vessel reached St. Louis, then the westernmost of Anglo settlements, young Tom Smith hopped ashore. More or less immediately he procured employment with John Jacob Astor's fur trapping enterprise. Readers interested in Astor's attempt to conquer the worldwide trade in furs and set up a permanent American community on the northwest coast of North America in the 1810s should seek out Peter Stark's Astoria.

Young Tom Smith encountered, and was tutored by, legendary frontiersmen like Jim Bridger and Kit Carson. In 1824 Smith joined Alexander Le Grand's (Yes, it translates as Alexander the Great and this frontier trapper, surveyor, explorer is worthy of his own tale) wagon train of traders heading from St. Louis to the New Mexico territory and Santa Fe. Smith left the train at Taos to set out on a trapping venture in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, traveling as far north as the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers in present day Utah.  In 1826 and on into 1827 Tom Smith joined with noted trapper Ewing Young, who had been a part of the very first overland wagon train to traverse the trail from Missouri to Santa Fe, on the initial Anglo expedition into Arizona, wandering as far afield as the point where the Gila River meets the Colorado. At journey's end Tom returned to Missouri, but a year later we find him trapping north of the Platte River in Colorado with about twenty other men.

Often trappers such as these worked in pairs or with a third man, but Smith liked to trap alone. One particular day a Frenchman named St. Vrain followed Smith out to his lines to convince him to work with him and another trapper. While St. Vrain cajoled Smith, a lone Indian rose up nearby with a rifle in hand. The gunshot that ensued shattered bones slightly below Smith's knee. St Vrain carried his wounded companion back to camp. All the while Smith screamed in agony and begged each successive trapper who returned to camp to amputate his leg. St. Vrain temporarily silenced Smith by dosing him with whiskey until he passed out.

When he came to again there were more pleas for amputation assistance, but all the trappers refused. Whether it was the excruciating pain of the wound or a knowledge of the effects of gangrene, Smith ordered a knife be sterilized over a flame and brought to him. There is some debate whether the tool was Smith's own skinning knife or the camp cook's butcher knife; nevertheless, the instrument was delivered. Smith tied a length of buckskin tight immediately below the patella and embarked on slicing through his own flesh. The other trappers gawked for a time then took turns fetching fresh water, rags to mop blood, and more whiskey, for the wound and Smith's mouth. The knife dulled as he sawed at the bone, so his fellow trappers filed teeth into the blade and Smith took up sawing again until he passed out.

Seeing Smith's commitment to the task, trapper Milton Sublette grabbed the knife and finished carving through the bone. Blood gushed from the surgery until another trapper seared it shut with a red hot iron straight out of the camp fire. The men wrapped the stump in Smith's cleanest dirty shirt and covered him with a buffalo robe.

Smith woke the next day, cursing everyone in sight. His fellow travelers were ready to move on to more plentiful grounds, but they lingered an extra day, expecting Smith to die any minute. For whatever reason, he didn't die, so a makeshift stretcher was built to be pulled along behind a horse.

The men traveled more or less westward, pursuing better trapping grounds, with Smith in tow. At some point Smith became aware of two smaller bones protruding through his skin. He commandeered Sublette to jerk the bones out, apparently without complaint.

The trappers finally found some sympathetic Utes, who allowed Smith to recuperate with them through the coming winter. A section of a sapling was brought to Smith. This he used to whittle a wooden stump. By spring the Indians were calling him “Wa Ke To Go.” In English, from this time on he was called Peg Leg Smith.

No shirker to adventure Peg Leg was back on the trail in a year, trapping with several others along the Santa Clara and Virgin Rivers in Utah and Nevada. About half way through the season Smith and one of his companions set out to deliver the group's furs westward, across the Mojave Desert, over Cajon Pass, all the way to Los Angeles.

Peg Leg more or less settled in Los Angeles; less is probably closer to the truth because at this juncture his life slips deeper into legend. Despite his one stumpy leg Smith joined with “Old Bill” Williams and Jim Beckwourth (a mixed race man, born as a slave in Virginia, originally with the surname Beckwith) in one of the largest horse trading operations the old southwest has known. In actuality most, if not all, of their horses were stolen from northern Mexico before being sold anywhere from the Arkansas River to California.

Eventually hints from law enforcement ended this endeavor and in the late 1840s Peg Leg started prospecting around Borrego Springs in southeastern California. Now we plunge headlong into legend. Peg Leg was reportedly wandering nearly blind through a three day sandstorm in the Borrego Badlands when he picked up a handful of pebbles at the top of a butte. At first he passed them off as copper only to have others identify the rocks as gold nuggets.  Possibly due to the sandstorm conditions or Peg Leg's propensity for drink in those days, he never was able to relocate the precise spot where he found the nuggets.

Peg Leg spent his last years in San Francisco. He could oft be found along Montgomery Street telling tales in return for shots of whiskey. For a full bottle one could get vivid recollections as to the whereabouts of his gold find. But no one yet has ever found it.

So if you are looking for adventure this summer or fall, you can travel down to the Borrego Badlands. There are many disparate claims about the particular sight of Peg Leg's lost gold strike. Pick one and follow your adventurous spirit to wealth and fame. If you should fall and break a leg badly in that wilderness, make sure you've brought along a large, jagged edge knife and your own disinfectant.

(Read more facts and legends of the West at: malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)

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