Robert Newell never had much education but by the time he’d spent some time in the wilderness trapping beaver and shooting for food, he’d learned a lot about mountain medicine — removing Indian arrows, fixing broken bones, sewing up cuts and making medical potions and poultices from wild plants.
He got so good at it that they called him “Doc Newell” and the name stuck for the rest of his life.
There were about 3,000 mountain men roaming the West in the early 1800s, and Doc Newell was one of them. Mostly, they were hunting beaver — the fur prized for making top hats.
Living in the wilds with hardly any communication with the civilized world, few mountain man names made the history books — but Robert “Doc” Newell was one of the few that did. So also did some of his pals — William Sublette and brothers Milton and Andrew, Joseph L. Meek, Davey Jackson, Jed Smith, Tom “Brokenhand” Fitzpatrick, Alex Drips, Lucien Fontenelle, William and Charles Bent, Ceran St. Vrain and Kit Carson.
Those rugged guys worked for fur trading companies or for themselves — leading lonely lives with virtually no creature comforts, facing grizzlies, hostile Indians, searing heat and freezing cold, frequent hunger in an unforgiving landscape.
When trappers faced the reality that silk top hats were replacing the beaver top hats in the late 1840s, many of them moved to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where land was free and the climate better than trying to survive in the Rockies.
Most of the trappers had married Indian women. Doc Newell did too — marrying Kitty, the daughter of a Nez Perce chief. They had five children, and then in 1847 she died. That same year, he remarried. His second wife was Rebecca Newman and they had 11 children. He would marry a third time many years later.
In his book “Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer,” Peter Hardeman Burnett, California’s first governor, wrote, “These trappers and hunters constituted a very peculiar class of men. They were kind and genial, brave and hospitable, and in regard to serious matters truthful and honest.
“There was no malice in them. They never made mischief between neighbor and neighbor. But most of them were given to exaggeration when relating their Rocky Mountain adventures. They seemed to claim the privilege of romance and fable when describing these scenes.”
The writer noted however that Robert Newell was an exception to exaggeration — his word could be relied on.
Annually, the trappers would bring their furs to Rendezvous sites scattered across the Rockies and Northwest, hoping to make enough money to buy supplies to carry them through the year of trapping ahead.
Robert Newell was born near Zanesville, Ohio, in 1807 and grew up learning to make saddles. Then, after his dad passed away, he hit the adventure trail to the Rockies at age 18.
He joined the Sublette brothers’ band of trappers when he was 21 and spent the next 10 years plying his rugged and dangerous trade.
Doc was very different from the other mountain men. He has been described as a born leader and looked the part.
“He was of medium height, stout frame, and fine face,” wrote author Burnett. “He was full of humanity, goodwill, genial feeling, and frankness. He possessed a remarkable memory; and though slow of speech, his narrations were most interesting.
“In his slow, hesitating manner, he would state every minute circumstance in its own proper place; and the hearer was most amply compensated in the end for his time and patience. I knew him well.”
Though beaver trapping would last only a few more years, by 1838 everyone knew its days were numbered. “Times is getting hard all over this part of the country,” Doc lamented. “Beever Scarce and low all peltries are on the decline.”
As the beaver trade withered, most trappers switched to being hunting guides, scouts, wagon-masters and other trades that needed their skills — no doubt missing the camaraderie of trapper days, filled with “Mirth, songs, dancing, shouting, trading, running, jumping, singing, racing, target-shooting, yarns, frolic, with all sorts of extravagances that white men or Indians could invent,” as described by trapper James P. Beckwourth, a freed mulatto slave from Virginia.
In 1838, Doc and his life-long pal Joe Meek — one of the greatest mountain men of the Old West — decided on a new life in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
After leading some missionary settlers across the mountains to Fort Hall, they bought their three wagons and continued west with nine men, three women and children.
Doc would later write proudly in his journal, “This is to be remembered that I Robert Newell was the first who brought wagons across the rocky mountains.”
Willamette Valley at that time was little more than a wilderness, and after experiencing its weather, Doc wondered if he did the right thing. “This country is not So good as Supposed as the climate is not So healthy,” he wrote.
Nevertheless, he stayed and was joined by other fellow trappers out of work; settling in the Tualatin Plains, with Doc later moving to Champoeg. It was there in 1843 that Oregon began establishing its earliest form of government.
Doc Newell and Joe Meek were among the future state’s founding fathers. Both served in the provisional legislature, and Joe became Oregon Territory Marshall.
Doc also bought 640 acres of farm land and started a small shipping business with two keel boats.
In the same year that Kitty died, renegade Cayuse Indians raided Marcus and Narcissa Whitman’s Waiilatpu church mission, near Walla Walla, Wash., massacring them and 11 others. The Indians claimed Whitman — a medical doctor — poisoned 200 Cayuse under his care.
(Earlier scholarship claimed the reason was that Dr. Whitman couldn’t or wouldn’t cure the Indians who contracted measles.)
After the murders, the Indians held 54 mission women and children as captives for ransom. Some of them died in captivity.
One of them was Helen Mar Meek — Joe Meek’s daughter.
Doc Newell went to the mission site to investigate. “The remains looked horrible,” he wrote after his party buried them.
Rumors abounded that Indian tribes were joining forces to wage war against the settlers.
Newell was sent to try to keep the peace. He talked with the Nez Perce, who in turn convinced the Cayuse to help bring the killers to justice and avoid war. Doc’s leadership abilities paid off — mission accomplished.
In the years that followed, Doc stayed active in Oregon politics but also devoted more and more time with the Nez Perce in Idaho, listening to their mounting troubles and trying to help.
In 1861, the Willamette River flooded, and in Champoeg, Doc’s house was one of the few that survived, as it was on a hill. Helping the flood survivors almost bankrupted him.
Doc and his family then moved to Lapwai, Idaho, where he served as interpreter and commissioner for the army outpost there. In an unprecedented token of appreciation for his help, the Nez Perce gave him a parcel of land on their Lapwai lands.
Six years after moving to Idaho, Doc’s second wife, Rebecca, died.
In 1868, Doc and several Indian chiefs went to Washington, D.C., pleading for amendments to some unfair treaties. President Andrew Johnson then appointed him as Indian Agent in Lapwai.
Doc Newell left a positive footprint in Oregon and Idaho, spending 40 years trying to help the Nez Perce, who were ignored by a disinterested government in Washington, D.C., that misunderstood their actions and refused to listen to their words.
In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant took away his job as Indian Agent for the tribe, in preparation for turning those duties over to Christian missionary groups. The Nez Perce pleaded that Doc be kept on as agent, but the government denied the request.
That same year, he married Jane M. Ward, only to die from a heart attack at 62 three months later.
The tragic Indian Wars were just ahead. That included the U.S. Army chasing Nez Perce Chief Joseph and his band of 700 men, women and children 1,170 miles from Oregon to the Canadian-Montana border.
Forty miles shy of safe harbor, they surrendered.
How different might the history of the American Northwest have been had Doc Newell lived to continue his fight to protect the Nez Perce.
• • •
Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Doc Newell Sidebars
Gift from the Nez Perce…
Article 9, Treaty with the Nez Perces, 1863:
Inasmuch as the Indians in council have expressed their desire that Robert Newell should have confirmed to him a piece of land lying between Snake and Clearwater Rivers, the same having been given to him on the 9th day of June, 1861, and described in an instrument of writing bearing that date, and signed by several chiefs of the tribe, it is hereby agreed that the said Robert Newell shall receive from the United States a patent for the said tract of land.
Doc Newell takes a scalp…
“Newell too had a desperate conflict with a half-dead (Blackfeet) warrior, who having fallen from a wound, he thought dead and was trying to scalp. Springing from his horse he seized the Indian’s long thick hair in one hand, and with his knife held in the other made a pass at the scalp, when the savage roused up knife in hand, and a struggle took place in which it was for a time doubtful which of the combatants would part with the coveted scalp-lock.
“Newell might have been glad to resign the trophy, and leave the fallen warrior his tuft of hair, but his fingers were in some way caught by some gun-screws with which the savage had ornamented his coiffure, and would not part company. In this dilemma there was no other alternative but fight. The miserable savage was dragged a rod or two in the struggle, and finally dispatched.”
— Joseph L. Meek
Doc and Joe…
After the 1840 trapper Rendezvous at Green River, Oregon Country (now in Wyoming):
“Come, we are done with this life in the mountains — done with wading in beaver dams, and freezing or starving alternately — done with Indian trading and Indian fighting. The fur trade is dead in the Rocky Mountains, and it is no place for us now, if ever it was.
“We are young yet, and have life before us. We cannot waste it here; we cannot or will not return to the States. Let us go down to the Wallamet (Willamette Valley, Oregon) and take farms … What do you say, Meek? Shall we turn American settlers?”
— Robert “Doc” Newell
Sad story of Joe Meek’s daughter…
Doc Newell and Joe Meek stopped at Marcus and Narcissa Whitman’s church mission at Waiilatpu, WA on their way to Willamette Valley, and Meek persuaded the Whitmans to raise his two-year old daughter Helen Mar — named by her father after Lady Helen Mar, the heroine of Jane Porter’s novel “The Scottish Chiefs,” after Joe’s first wife, a Nez Perce deserted him.
In a letter to her sister, Narcissa wrote that the girl was half-starved, her body covered with lice, and that she was stubborn and difficult to control. Nevertheless, the child filled a void in Marcus and Narcissa’s hearts, having lost their little girl who drowned about a year before.
Seven years later, Helen Mar was murdered in the Whitman Massacre by renegade Indians.