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James Purcell, Fur Trapper

February 26, 2018

From Colorado, the Story of a Western Commonwealth.

1933, the first American in Colorado was James Purcell, who hunted beaver and traded with the native Americans for furs.   In the early years of the 19th century, beaver skins could bring $6-$8 a piece in the eastern market, making the difficult and dangerous life of a trapper worth the effort.

In the book The Leading Facts of New Mexican History, Vol II, by Ralph Emerson Twitchell, James Purcell (or as he was sometimes called Pursley) was a native of Bardstown, Kentucky.  He set out from St. Louis in 1802 with two other trappers headed for the country of the Osage Indians.  After a season of good trapping he was beset bu Kansas Indians and robbed of his furs.  He managed to get his property back only to lose it in the Missouri River.  Purcell then met a trader on his way to the Territory of the Mandan Indians and decided to join the party.  In early 1805 he found himself with his Indian companions near the source of the South Platte River, near Spanish settlements.  The Indians sent him to Santa Fe to ask for permission to enter their territory.  Beginning in June 1805, Purcell chose to remain in Santa Fe, where he worked as a carpenter.   According to the history recounted in the book, “he was held under very strict surveillance, was not permitted to write, and very narrowly escaped being shot for having broken the local law by manufacturing some gunpowder for his own use.”

Captain Zebulon Montgomery Pike, who was sent out to explore the southwestern portion of the Louisiana Territory purchased from France in 1803, was captured by Mexican soldiers what is now New Mexico and taken to Santa Fe.  While he was in their hands, he met James Purcell, who had also been captured in Spanish Territory.  In Pike’s 1807 journals he recounts the meeting with Purcell and noted in his journals that he was considered the first white fur trader in Colorado.  “He was the first American who ever penetrated the immense wilds of Louisiana [Territory] and showed the Spaniards of New Mexico that neither the savages who surround the deserts which divide them from the habitable world, nor the jealous tyranny of their rulers, was sufficient to prevent the enterprising spirit of the Americans from penetrating the arcanum of their rich establishments in the New World.  Pursley [as he called Purcell] was from near Bairds Town, Kentucky, which he had left in 1799.”.”  Purcell showed Pike some gold nuggets he had found in South Park, which he had first explored in 1804 in what is now Colorado.   Pike noted that Purcell seemed to have contempt for those who dug in the earth, whether farmers or miners, and he threw the nuggets away.

Additional sources:  Treasure Tales:  Colorado:  A General History of Colorado

Salt Of America article:  Colorado’s Early Adventurers, The Fur Trappers 1810-1840, Leroy Hafen, 2014

A War-modified Course of Study for the Public Schools of Colorado, Vol 1, 1918

Central City and Gilpin County:  Then and Now,  Robert L. Brown, 1994

A search of the 1790 Reconstructed Census does not include Nelson County Kentucky, where Bardstown is located.  In 1800 however, there are several possible families in Nelson County:

Benjamin Purcel, Edmund Purcell, Lawrence Purcell, Dennis Pursell, James Pursell

A search of those families would indicate that this James is almost certainly related to the Daniel Purcell (about 1696-after 1773) and Keiziah Hite family.  Daniel was the son of Thomas and Christiana Von Woggelum Pursell of Staten Island, first noted in the 1670s.  Their son Dennis  (born 1740 in Dover, Kent County, Delaware) married Susanna Biggerstaff.  He died in 1812 in Bardstown, Nelson County, Kentucky.  Some of their eight known children were born in Kentucky, some of them found in records for Bardstown.  The eldest was named James.  Born about 1765, he would have been about the right age in 1803 to have been an intrepid trapper/explorer in the west and southwest.  Indeed, although several of his siblings were found in census records for the early 1800s in Kentucky, he is not.  His ultimate fate is not known.

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