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Baker, James (19 December 1818–15 May 1898), trapper, army scout, and early settler of Colorado and Wyoming, was born in Belleville, Illinois, and grew up near Springfield. His parents were of Scots-Irish ancestry from South Carolina. With little formal schooling but adept with a rifle, Jim Baker left home for St. Louis in 1838 and signed an eighteen-month contract with the American Fur Company. On 25 May 1838 the Rocky Mountain–bound party, led by ...

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Barnwell, John (1671– June 1724), frontier settler and Indian fighter, was the son of Alderman Matthew Barnwell of Dublin, Ireland, and Margaret Carberry. The elder Barnwell was killed in the siege of Derry in 1690 as a captain in James II’s Irish army, which attempted to restore the last Stuart king after the revolution of 1688. The family seat, Archerstown in County Meath, was forfeited as a result of this support of James II against William and Mary....

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Bent, George (07 July 1843–19 May 1918), frontiersman, soldier, and Indian interpreter, was born at Bent’s Old Fort on the Arkansas River in present-day southeastern Colorado, the son of William Bent, a pioneer merchant and Indian trader, and his Cheyenne wife, Owl Woman. Named after an uncle who had been killed by Comanches on the Santa Fe Trail in 1841, George was the third of four children. When he was only four, his mother died giving birth to his sister Julia, and subsequently his father married Owl Woman’s sister, Yellow Woman, who was the mother of George’s half brother, Charles. George grew up bilingual and at age ten was sent with his siblings to the farm started by William Bent and his brother ...

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Bowie, Jim (1795– March 1836), popularizer of the bowie knife, speculator, and co-commander of Texan forces at the Alamo, was the son of Rezin Bowie and Elvy Jones; his formal given name was James. Bowie’s birthday and his mother’s name are the subject of dispute. Some sources claim that he was born in 1795, while others believe the correct year was 1796; some claim that his mother’s name was Alvina, perhaps shortened to Elvy, and that the reading of her name as “Jones” from Spanish documents is an erroneous extrapolation from markings that could have been intended as “Jane.” Similarly, some sources state that Bowie was born in Burke County, Georgia, while others opt for Elliot Springs, Tennessee. ...

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Bridger, James (17 March 1804–17 July 1881), fur trapper and trader, explorer, and scout, was born in a tavern near Richmond, Virginia, the son of James Bridger, a surveyor and innkeeper, and Chloe Tyler, a barmaid. Bridger and his family moved in about 1812 to a farm near St. Louis, where, on being orphaned five years later, he became a blacksmith’s apprentice. In 1822 he responded to an advertisement calling for a hundred able-bodied young men to join a fur-trapping expedition, lasting from one to three years, up to the headwaters of the Missouri River. The organizers of the expedition were ...

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California Joe (08 May 1829–29 October 1876), plainsman and army scout, was born Moses Embree Milner in Standford, Kentucky, the son of Sarah Ann and Embree Armstead Milner, planters. Plantation life in the Kentucky wilderness was hardly genteel; the Milner home was a log cabin, as was the schoolhouse where the young Milner was an able student. Along with “book learning,” Milner excelled in tracking and hunting, which meant his family always had fresh meat to eat. Even as a boy he was known for his skill in shooting his father’s long-barreled rifle, a talent his family regarded as wholly in keeping with his father’s past military experiences in ...

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Campbell, Arthur (03 November 1743–08 August 1811), frontiersman, soldier, and politician, was born in Augusta County, Virginia, the son of David Campbell and Mary Hamilton, immigrant Scotch-Irish Presbyterian farmers. He was not quite fifteen when, during the French and Indian War, he joined a company of Virginia rangers stationed in western Augusta County. At Fort Young on the Jackson River in September 1758, Campbell was captured by Wyandot Indians and spent two years in captivity in the vicinity of Detroit before escaping....

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Kit Carson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-107570).

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Carson, Kit (24 December 1809–23 May 1868), mountain man, army officer, and Indian agent, was born Christopher Houston Carson in Madison County, Kentucky, the son of Lindsey Carson, a farmer and revolutionary war veteran, and Rebecca Robinson. In 1811 Lindsey Carson moved his family to Howard County, Missouri, to find “elbow room.” He died in 1818, hit by a falling limb while clearing timber from his land. Christopher enjoyed no schooling and never learned to read or write, other than signing his name to documents. In 1825 his mother and stepfather apprenticed him to David Workman, a Franklin, Missouri, saddler whom Kit described as a kind and good man. Nevertheless, he ran away because he found saddlemaking tedious and distasteful work and yearned to travel. Following in the footsteps of a brother and a half-brother who were in the Santa Fe trade, Carson joined a caravan as a “cavvy boy” (an assistant to the wrangler in charge of the horse and mule herd). Though not unsympathetic, Workman was obliged by law to advertise for his runaway. But he misleadingly suggested to readers of the ...

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Clark, George Rogers (19 November 1752–13 February 1818), revolutionary war general and "conqueror of the Northwest", revolutionary war general and “conqueror of the Northwest,” was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, the son of John Clark and Ann Rogers, planters. The Clarks were descended from Scottish immigrants who came to Virginia early in the eighteenth century; George Rogers Clark’s flaming red hair was a mark of his Celtic ancestry. Four of his brothers were officers in the revolutionary army, and his youngest brother, ...

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Clay, Green (14 August 1757–31 October 1828), pioneer and soldier, was born in Powhatan County, Virginia, the son of Charles Clay and Martha Green, farmers. Green Clay had little formal education but at an early age mastered the techniques of surveying. Born poor, he realized that a fortune could be made by acquiring land and accompanied a surveying party to Kentucky in 1777. He was with ...

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Cleveland, Benjamin (26 May 1738– October 1806), frontiersman and militia officer in the revolutionary war, was born in Prince William County, Virginia, the son of John Cleveland, a house-joiner, and Martha Coffee. Cleveland had a limited education and hated the drudgery of farm life. He spent his early years hunting, gambling, drinking, fighting, and “frolicking.” Marriage to Mary Graves in 1761 did little to reform his ways. They had two children, but Cleveland also fathered a child by another woman in Virginia....

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Cocke, William (1748–22 August 1828), legislator, soldier, and Indian agent, was born in Amelia County, Virginia, the son of Abraham Cocke, a member of the tobacco gentry. As a young man, Cocke studied law and soon became prominent in public affairs. After moving in the early 1770s with his wife, Sarah Maclin (whom he married in 1773 or earlier), and the first of their nine children to a settlement in the Holston Valley near the present Virginia-Tennessee boundary, he served in the Virginia House of Delegates and was an officer in the Virginia militia. Sometime later, he married Keziah (or Kissiah) Sims; they had no children. While in the Holston Valley, he participated in the formation of Sullivan and Washington counties and held several minor positions. In 1776 he raised a company of troops, was commissioned captain, and established “Cocke’s Fort” in the nearby wilderness. He took part in several military encounters with the British and Indians and in 1780 led his troops—along with ...

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Buffalo Bill Cody. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111880).

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Cody, William Frederick (26 February 1846–10 January 1917), frontiersman and entertainer, better known as “Buffalo Bill,” was born in Scott County, Iowa, the son of Isaac Cody and Mary Ann Bonsell Laycock. Cody’s father managed several farms and operated a state business in Iowa. In 1854 the family moved to the Salt Creek Valley in Kansas, where Cody’s father received a government contract to provide hay to Fort Leavenworth. After his father died in 1857, Cody went to work as an ox-team driver for fifty cents a day. Shortly thereafter, the firm of Majors and Russell hired him as an express boy. Cody attended school periodically, although his formal education ended in 1859 when he joined a party heading to Denver to search for gold. He prospected for two months without any luck. He arrived back in Kansas in March 1860 after a trapping expedition. He rode for a time for the Pony Express during its short lifetime (Apr. 1860–Nov. 1861). After the start of the Civil War he joined a group of antislavery guerrillas based in Kansas. Later the Ninth Kansas Volunteers hired him as a scout and guide. On 16 February 1864 Cody enlisted into Company F of the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. He saw quite a bit of action in Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas during his one year and seven months of duty. He was mustered out of the army as a private on 29 September 1865....

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Cresap, Michael (29 June 1742–18 October 1775), frontiersman and soldier, was born in Old Town, Maryland, the son of Thomas Cresap, a frontier trader and a member of the Ohio Company of Virginia, and Hannah Johnson. Michael attended school in Baltimore County, and shortly after leaving school he married Mary Whitehead, of Philadelphia, in 1764; they had five children. Cresap began his career as a merchant in Old Town. He failed in this endeavor. In an attempt to provide for his growing family Cresap decided to “improve” western lands, intent on selling them to future settlers. After hiring some men, Cresap traveled westward in the spring of 1774. The party took Nemacolin’s Path to Redstone (present-day Brownsville, Pa.), and then traveled the Mingo Path southwesterly past Wheeling (present-day Wheeling, W. Va.)....

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Gardiner, Lion (1599–1663), military engineer and colonist, was born in England. His birthplace and parentage are uncertain. He served in the English army and went to the Netherlands, where he became a “Master of Works of Fortification” in the armies of the prince of Orange. In 1625 he married a Dutch woman, Mary Wilemson (or Duereant) of Woerden, Holland. They eventually had three children, of whom David Gardiner (born in 1636) was the first white child born in Connecticut, and Elizabeth (born in 1641) was the first English child born in New Netherland (present-day New York State). In 1635 Gardiner made contact with ...

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Harrod, James (1742– July 1793), frontiersman and soldier, was born at Big Cove (in present-day Bedford County), Pennsylvania, the son of John Harrod and Sarah Moore, pioneer farmers. Harrod’s father, an immigrant from England, was killed by Indians in 1754. Harrod himself had no schooling and was barely literate, although in his youth he learned woodcraft. In 1755 the family narrowly escaped from a Delaware Indian raid. The sixteen-year-old Harrod served as a private in the campaign of 1758 against Fort Duquesne led by General ...

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Mathews, George (30 August 1739–30 August 1812), soldier, frontiersman, and governor of Georgia, was born in Augusta County, Virginia, the son of John Mathews, an Irish immigrant. His mother’s name is not available. Little is known of his early life, but in 1757 he commanded a company of volunteers fighting against the Indians on the Virginia frontier. In 1762 he married Anne Paul, with whom he is thought to have had eight children. That same year he established himself as a merchant in Staunton, Virginia, and during the next decade he served as a vestryman, justice of the peace, tax collector, and sheriff in Augusta County. In 1776 he was elected to the House of Burgesses. Later that year he joined the army under ...

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Meigs, Return Jonathan (17 December 1740–28 January 1823), revolutionary war officer and federal Indian agent, was born in Middletown, Connecticut, the son of Return Meigs, a hatter and member of the Connecticut General Assembly, and Elizabeth Hamlin. Nothing is known of his early life and education. Meigs married Joanna Winborn in 1764. They had four children, one of whom was ...