The first man to make a permanent home in Uinta County was John Robertson. He was commonly called “Jack Robinson”, and more familiarly “Uncle Jack”.
Robertson was a familiar character among the early trappers. He had come to the mountains with the Hudson Bay Company, and had later cast his lot with the Ashley men. Having followed the roving life of the trapper for some years, in 1834 he built a cabin well up on Black’s Fork of Green River and made it his home. Other trappers were soon attracted to the beautiful valley and moved in with their squaw wives, and thus formed the first permanent settlement in the Rockies west of Fort Laramie.
By a rare piece of good fortune we have come into the possession of some papers that throw light upon the early years of John Robertson, and serve to bring nearer to us the life of the frontier. While Robert Calverly, later deputy sheriff under John Ward of Uinta County, was serving as foreman of the Chapman ranch, he heard of a trunk in the lodge of an Indian woman that was said to contain some of the belongings of “Uncle Jack.” This woman readily handed over the only thing that was of interest to him, a package of letters. Some of these came into the possession of D. G. Thomas, former prosecuting attorney of Uinta County, and he has kindly placed them at the service of the author. There are among them a number of bills and receipts interesting as voices from the past. The oldest is dated January 1, 1826, and bears no address. (See illustration.) There are three from the year 1829, the first being a liquor bill to a certain John Smith. A receipt from a man named Charles B. Tomlinson to John Robertson for $18, is dated September 5, 1829, and holds an added interest because of the name of the famous William L. Sublette written in one corner, although we have no means of knowing why it is inscribed there. The third, dated December 24, reads : “Received from John Robertson Ten Dollars on account of Mr. Cressant,” and is signed “Sam Berry”.
Of greater interest because of the personal character is the following:
Rocky Mountains Pierre’s Hole
July 15, 11832
My dear Father,
I write these lines to let you know that I am enjoying good health at this time. I am now about to make a fall hunt having bought horses and traps which has taken all the money I had made ; and if I have success catching beaver * * * * I have got a little spending money but it is not a thousand dollars, still afloat and plenty of friends. I should have come down this fall but Sublette and Fitzpatric persuaded me to stay out this year, and besides I got to be lazy and do not believe I could go to work. I have sent down $100 by Mr. Sublette to pay for the land. If he says he will get me the coat give him the hundred dollars, and you can take his receipt in full. You must look out for yourselves, I can’t always be with you. We are poor in this country but I am trying to make a living and want you to do the same. John Robertson.
Pierre’s Hole, Sublette. Fitzpatric-all names to conjure with on the frontier in the days of the fur trade ! As we trace these lines, penned nearly a century ago, there is brought nearer to us that first wild tide of new world life that swept westward over the Rockies, leaving in the mountains, plains and valleys the’ beginnings of civilization.
In the following letters there is no mention of his father, and it is probable that the loss referred to in a letter to his mother, written in 1835, was his death. This letter was written after he settled on Black’s Fork, which was then part of Mexico.
Green River Rocky Mountains
Aug. 19, 1835
My dear Mother,
I received your letter and was very much hurt at hearing of the loss we have met with, but it is a debt we all have to pay.
I had made every calculation on coming down this fall, but I am disappointed, but -if God spares my life and yours will see you next fall.
I have sent you four hundred dollars which Capt. Stewart will hand you. Remember me to all my friends. Your affectionate son
On the outside of the sheet, folded as was the custom before the use of envelopes, is the address,
Mrs. Sarah Robertson
near St. Louis Mo.
favored by Wm. Daniels.
For some reason the promised visit was not made, for two years later he writes
Green River Rocky Mts. August 3, 1837
My dear Mother,
It is two years since I received a letter from you but hear from you verbally every year. I understand James started this year for the mountains. Should he have returned my advice is to remain in the states doing anything whereby he can support himself.
Had I received a letter this year which I expected I would have come home-had everything special called in line. I made no arrangements to remain until within a few days past when I engaged in the same employ where I’ve been since coming to the mountains.
I sent by Capt. Dripps who goes to the states an order for $1,000 which he will draw for me and put the same in the hands of Mr. Wm. Sublette, and to him I shall give orders to put the money at interest.
I was last year employed by a party as partizan to a trapping party and trapped in the Mexican provinces and I start again tomorrow for the same country and I shall not return to this country until next rendezvous when I shall expect to hear from you not verbally from what other people may hear but by letter.
Captain Dripps intention was to return to this country next year, and any communication you may hand him will be forwarded for if I am alive I shall see him when he comes.
Please give my regards to all enquiring friends. Your dutiful son
The address on the reverse side of this sheet is
Mrs. Sarah Robertson
Favored by the politeness of Capt. Stewart.
How these letters, having reached their destination through the “favor” or “politeness” of trusted friends found their way back again to the writer is a matter of conjecture, but the probability is that they were returned to John Robertson at the settlement of the family estate. As far as we can learn, he never visited “the states” after his first journey west. But we are fortunate to be able, through them and information given by acquaintances, to piece out something of the story of this first settler of Uinta County.
Proofs are many that John Robertson was, in his time, a man of great influence. The keynote of his life was kindness, and to the very end red men as well as white came within its spell. He started his pioneer experience somewhat in advance of most of his associates as concerns education, for it is to be noticed that the letters are well written both as to style and penmanship. But when the old order gave place to the new, we find him left hopelessly behind, bound by the shackles of indolence and of the drink habit. He is described by one who knew him well as “very tall, honest, jolly, slouchy and dirty, never sober except when away from liquor.” His first wife, Marique, or “‘Marook,” as she was sometimes called, was a very dark Indian, evidently not of the Shoshone tribe. She brought him a girl from a former union with a Frenchman, who had deserted her. She was named Lucille, and “Uncle Jack” is said to have “loved her as his own.” There is a story that while Robertson was at one time absent from his ranch Marique learned of a plot to drive off some of his cattle, and for some reason did not warn her husband. He felt the lack of her fidelity keenly, and, although he continued to provide for her, he never lived with her again. His second wife was a Shoshone, and she, too, brought him a child, who went by the name of “Bill Robinson.” With other hangers-on Bill cared for the cattle, of which Robertson had accumulated three or four hundred head. He died before his foster father, and left several children, for whom Uncle Jack provided as long as he lived. When he came to die it was found that they and Lucile, who had married a son of Robert Hereford, a native of New York, were the beneficiaries of his will.
Besides this ranch at Robertson, which consisted of a few rough cabins surrounded by tepees to which the Indians often came, he had a place about a mile south of the present site of Mountain View-land that now belongs to William Thomas. A field near by was known as “Jack Robinson’s Indian Camp,” and there were often hundreds of Indians there. Neither place had fences except the cattle corrals.
Many are the stories told of Uncle Jack’s hospitality and kindness. One human tale comes from the pen of Mrs. Annie Summers, whose father, Jonathan Hoopes, accepted the offer of one of his cabins in the summer of 1872. One August day an Indian woman, young but desperately weary and footsore, came to their place and sat down. Before long Uncle Jack came riding up, and after talking a while to the weeping girl, he brought her in to Mrs. Hoopes and asked her to give her something to eat, as she had traveled sixty-five miles and had eaten nothing for two days. After finishing her meal the girl sat out under the trees and gave way to grief in true Indian fashion. The blanket drawn over her head could not silence the sound of her mournful wails, but at last, on seeing another horseman approach, she fled to the house. The newcomer was a rancher known as Shade Large, and he sprang from his horse and demanded of Robertson the girl. He was furiously angry, but the firm, gentle voice of Robertson was scarcely raised, and when Large had calmed down, he came for the trembling girl. Standing beside her he talked to her in her native language and then to the white man in English, and at the end of the parley Large got on his horse, Uncle Jack helped the woman up behind him, and they rode away to his ranch Mrs. Summers learned that the Indian was one of Robertson’s wards, whom Large had married, and that he had treated her with such cruelty that she had braved the long journey to seek the help of her protector. Large and his Indian wife lived together and had a number of children, and it was said that he was always kind to her from that time on. The scene made an indelible impression on the mind of the watching child, for after fifty years she writes : “It seemed so strange to see that Indian. woman riding off with that handsome man.”
Whether there is any truth in the romance that wove itself about the youth of John Robertson we cannot say, but the story goes that he came to the mountains because the lady of his choice married another who failed to make her happy, or even provide for her. It is said Robertson never saw her again, but from time to time he sent her money.
John Robertson lived to be about eighty years old and died in 1882. The commanding officer at Fort Bridger had a coffin made for him and he was buried in the post cemetery. The funeral was largely attended, for his kindness had won him friends from all walks of life. Among them were a few who could recall him in his days of influence when his wise counsel was sought by all. The grave was unmarked at the time, but a movement is on foot to erect a suitable monument f or this first settler of Uinta County.