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Mojave River Valley Museum
People in Mojave Desert History
Thomas L. "Pegleg" Smith (October 10, 1801–1866) was a mountain man who, serving as a guide for many early expeditions into the American Southwest, helped explore parts of present-day New Mexico. He is also known as a fur trapper, prospector, and horse thief.
Born in Crab Orchard, Kentucky, Smith ran away from home as a teenager to work on a flatboat on the Mississippi River until reaching St. Louis, Missouri where he began working for John Jacob Astor as a fur trapper with other mountain men such as Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, and Milton Sublette.
Smith later accompanied Alexandre Le Grand's expedition into New Mexico as a scout, later learning several Native American languages. During the expedition he was shot in the right knee by a local Indian and had to use a wooden leg from which he later earned his nickname. Following the expedition, Smith became a successful fur trapper despite his handicap, later relearning how to maintain his balance while riding a horse.
By 1840, with the decline of the fur trade, Smith began kidnapping Native American children to sell as peons to Mexican haciendas. When the local tribes began searching for him, Smith fled to California, where he would become a horse thief for the next decade.
In one incident, Smith guided around 150 Utes under the leadership of Walkara across the Sierra Nevada, stealing at least several hundred horses from Mexican ranchers. Joining Jim Beckwourth and "Old Bill" Williams, Smith helped establish the largest horse theft operation in the Southwest until authorities eventually forced the gang to break up in the late 1840s.
Smith traveled to the Chocolate Mountains (and possibly the Santa Rosa Mountains, or the Borrego Badlands) where, after several years of prospecting, he was forced, by local tribes, to escape the area. Claiming he had discovered a large amount of gold-bearing quartz, Smith sold maps and claims to other prospectors of a mine known as the Lost Pegleg Mine until his death in a San Francisco hospital in 1866.
That Old Rascal, Pegleg Smith