Old Bill and Williams, Arizona

Part 3 of Northern Arizona

Williams, Arizona, is a place that has always piqued my interest. It’s high up in the pines, about 30 miles west of Flagstaff. Summers there are mighty pleasant, very different from much of Arizona. Nowadays it’s a tourist town, famous for being the southern entrance to the Grand Canyon and the last stretch of Route 66 to be replaced by interstate highway. The area’s campgrounds and hotels serve the needs of thousands of tourists each year, many of whom take the train ride from Williams to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The town has numerous gift shops and specialty stores feature everything from quality handmade turquoise and other Indian crafts, to Route 66 flags, shot glasses and coffee mugs.

But once it was a high-living western town, supported by mining, forestry, and ranching. It was a rowdy place, with its bawdy houses and saloons to entertain the miners and cowboys, complete with sharp-eyed gamblers and hustlers to take your money. But even before that, it was the home of Old Bill Williams, one of the most eccentric of that strange breed of westerners known as Mountain Men.

Old Bill was born in North Carolina in 1787. At the ripe old age of 17 he became a traveling preacher, then changed professions to be a trapper and hunter. He never quit the ministry – though his preachings in later years were, shall we say, spicy and colorful. \ He roamed the west alone, at a time when it was very dangerous. Many of his fellow trappers did not come back from their wanderings, but Old Bill always did, returning to civilization with a full load of pelts to sell. Sometimes he’d go to California to steal a herd of horses to drive to Taos – like other mountain men, he found that to be lucrative.

As time wore on he settled in the northern Arizona high country. He became a famous scout and was part of several expeditions to explore and map the west. He was known as a man to ride the river with – even with the salty sermons he delivered to anyone who would listen. His last scouting trip was with John Fremont.

That trip was a disaster.

Fremont was looking for a southern route for the railroad, through the mountains of\Colorado. The mountain men knew it didn’t exist, but Fremont persevered, and Old Bill was one of the few men he could persuade to guide his team. But when the expedition foundered and Old Bill advised they turn around, Fremont ignored his advice. Eventually, 11 men died from exposure. The trip later proved fatal to Old Bill, too. Going back to retrace the expedition, he encountered a Ute war party and was killed.

Old Bill is remembered throughout the west, but especially in Arizona where there’s a river, a mountain and a town named for him. Truly, he’s a man worthy of the honor. But he probably wouldn’t recognize his old home today.

Coming up: Visiting the Navajo Nation.

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