The boy from Horse Creek

Published 11:54 am Wednesday, August 23, 2023

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 Near the foot of Skyuka Mountain where Horse Creek tumbles into the Pacolet River, Old Bill Williams was born on a cold January day in 1787. The son of a Revolutionary War veteran who was homesteading here in the wild, untamed hills of Polk County, William Sherley Williams learned early on to value the land and appreciate the beauty of God’s creation. He took to the woods at a young age, hunted with his father and fished in the crystal-clear waters of the Pacolet. 

His family didn’t remain in Polk County long, though. When Bill was eight years old, they packed up their few belongings and moved to St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi. Truly the gateway to the West, Young Bill must have watched with youthful fascination as brave pioneers crossed the great river and forged westward to find their fortunes. Maybe it was here that the boy developed a thirst for adventure, and he soon found it.

After a dramatic conversion to Christianity at the age of seventeen, Bill Williams believed he was called to preach the gospel, so he took up his Bible, mounted his horse and began riding the circuit as an itinerant minister. Now young Bill was known as Parson Williams. But once again, the wanderlust got under his skin and Bill soon abandoned the ministry to go further into the expansive western frontier. 

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There he found a new career as a tracker and guide for the Army. He had considerable skills in the wilderness, perhaps learned while living with the Osage. The Osage called him Red-Headed Shooter because of his mane of red hair and his skill with a rifle. He married an Osage woman and remained with the tribe long enough to learn the ways of the wilderness. He also became adept at hunting and trapping. Beaver pelts were bringing high prices in eastern markets, and Williams intended to cash in on the boom.  

Once again, Old Bill, as he was now known, took up his wandering ways and moved even further west. Now he had a reputation as an intrepid mountain man, mentioned in the same breath as Jim Bridger and Kit Carson, and he may have even achieved their level of fame and renown had it not been for an ill-fated expedition he joined in 1848.  

Soldier, adventurer and politician John Fremont had been tasked by the U.S. government to find a route for the railroad to take through the western prairies and over the mountains. The ambitious goal was to chart a course from St. Louis to San Francisco. Fremont employed Old Bill Williams to act as his guide. Williams met the party in Pueblo, Colorado, with the intention of traveling from there to California. The experienced mountain man warned Fremont that as winter approached it was wise to wait it out before proceeding through the high mountains. Fremont refused Williams’ advice and the party advanced on and soon found themselves snowbound in the San Juan Mountains. 

Old Bill and two others went for help, but many of the stranded travelers soon perished of starvation and exposure. Fremont and the other survivors finally trudged on and made it safely to Taos, New Mexico, but not before Fremont began making rash accusations against Old Bill, even accusing the scout and guide of cannibalism. Bill Williams had survived much hardship in his life, and though he was cleared of all charges, he found this ordeal to be almost too much to bear. He was never the same. 

Soon, though, the great adventurer would meet a tragic end as a Ute war party overtook him and a companion in Colorado. After they had Killed Williams, they prepared to scalp him. That’s when they recognized their old friend by his thick shock of red hair. They buried him with great fanfare as a mighty chief and hero. That was March 14. 1849.  

Today the boy from Horse Creek is memorialized by a State Park in Arizona bearing his name. There’s also Bill Williams Mountain in Arizona. But in his home state of North Carolina, the only memorial to this mountain of a man is a lone historical marker in the town square of Columbus, miles from his birthplace at the foot of Skyuka Mountain, where Horse Creek tumbles into the Pacolet.