“Old Bill Williams” played a very important role in Harmony Mission history. Bill Williams was an interpreter and helped the missionaries in teaching and educating the Osage in Christian religion. He was also a well skilled trapper and was fluent in speaking Spanish, Osage, Navaho and Ute as well as other Indian languages and dialects. He was a circuit preacher for five years before coming to live with the Osage.
William Sherley Williams later known as “Old Bill Williams” was born in North Carolina on January 3, 1787. However, he grew up in eastern Missouri near St Charles. The Williams family home was near the trail along which the fur traders, Osage and other Indians tribes, traveled to dispose of their furs in St Louis. They would often stop by the Williams cabin and visit. Bill Williams moved to this area, lived with the Osage and married an Osage woman by the name of A-Ci’n-Ga (meaning “Wind Blossom”). Before moving to the Missouri area he was a circuit preacher, but quit the preaching and took up the live style of the Osage.
He gave up his preaching when he was hired by the government to be an interpreter. He had a difficult time trying to substitute in the minds of the Osages an invisible God for the visible sun, moon, thunder, land and etc., which were self-evident in which they had long recognized their deity.
In 1817 he was hired by the Government to be an interpreter and paid $40.00 per month at a government factory established on the Marais Des Cygnes near what is now Papinville.
When the missionaries came to establish Harmony Mission he was a great value to them, because he was able to communicate with the Osage and helped the missionaries to understand the Osage language. He composed the “First Osage Book”, for use in the missionary work. He interpreted some of the sermons that the missionaries preached and interpreted the Bible from English to Osage language. He was regarded as the most skillful interpreter of the Osage and English languages. Williams was the government interpreter at Ft. Smith when a treaty was made to bring peace between the Osage and Cherokees in 1821, was interpreter at the treaty of Council Grove in 1825, by which the Osage conceded the right-of-way for the Santa Fe Trail, also at the treaty with the Kansas Indians the same year for the same purpose.
He was known as the first white man to live with the Indians. It is known that after the Marais des Cygnes factory closed in 1822, he didn’t stay long helping at the mission and went out west to live around Taos, New Mexico.
Nov.1848 he was sought to lead a transcontinental railroad survey into the Sangre de Cristo range after other mountain men rejected Fremont’s proposition. Once the team entered the mountains Williams changed his mind due to the heavy early snowfall. He warned the party against continuing and insisted on a southern route. Fremont continued and the expedition was defeated within the San Juan Mountains (southern Colorado along Rio Grande). Ten expedition members died of starvation and exposure.
“Old Bill Williams“ died on March 14, 1849 at the age of 62. His death was caused by an ambush by the Ute Warriors. He was returning to Taos from helping to trace the expedition trail hunting for survivors who lost their lives in the transcontinental railroad expedition.
He was taken back to Coconino County, Arizona. The town of Williams, Arizona is named after “Old Bill Williams”. There is an organization today called the Bill Williams Mountain Men that carry on the legacy of Bill Williams. They dress up in old fashioned buckskin clothing, hats made of animal hides and moccasins. They follow old trails and sleep under the stars. They explore the mountains, canyons and deserts of Arizona during their annual spring 200-mile Rendezvous Ride. They have been in five United States Presidential Inaugural Parades.
Williams had two daughters, Mary and Sarah. When he was helping at Harmony Mission the girls attended Harmony Mission School. After leaving Taos, New Mexico he headed to Williams, Nevada. The town of Williams was named after “Old Bill Williams.” There is a statue of Williams in the town of Williams, Arizona. He was six feet tall, wore a full beard, red headed, his body scared, face weather beaten, a high-pitch voice with a crackle and was considered as an odd fellow. He called his rifle “Kicking Betsy”.
Next week the story will be about Rev. Nathaniel Brown Dodge. The story the following week will end the series on Harmony Mission and what happened to Harmony Mission after the missionaries moved out and what happened to the buildings. Hope you have enjoyed the story about “Old Bill Williams” He was a real Mountain Man.
Submitted by Phyllis Stewart (Activity Director) Papinville Historical and Cemetery Association)
Information from: “Old Bill Williams Mountain Man” by Alpheus H. Favour ; “The First Protestant Osage Missions 1820-1837” by Wm. W. Graves