Old Bill Williams statue in his namesake Williams, Arizona
Known as 'Old Solitaire,' as he preferred to ride alone
Mountain man lore notes that Old Bill Williams spoke fluently in French, Spanish, Osage, Navaho and Ute; as well as other Indian languages and dialects.
An excellent horseman, he could also walk long distances in
extraordinarily short periods of time. Additionally he was recognized an expert tracker, and unorthodox
and deadly fighter when necessary. He is said to have carried in his head a sharp mental map of western
rivers and mountain ranges which stretched from the British holdings in the north,
southward into Mexico and west to Oregon and Mexican California.
"The most interesting and enigmatic of these colorful mountain men was Bill Williams. They called him “Old Solitaire” because he preferred to ride alone. He was a stubborn, eccentric, independent man obligated to nobody but himself. In a land where it wasn’t safe to trap alone, Old Bill did, and he always returned with his pack mules loaded down with beaver pelts. He always knew when to make a stand and when to run. That’s probably why he lived to be an old man," according to Marshall Trimble, in a 2017 True West article.
Old Bill Williams was one of those rare individuals who can be characterized as a Mountain Man’s Mountain Man, says Malachite’s Big Hole, a site dedicated to the arts, skills and lore of the Mountain Man and is intended to be a resource for all aspects of life in the mountains and the men who lived there.
"Standing 6 foot 1 inches tall, he was lean and sinewy,
possessing unusual strength. He had blue eyes and red hair, and usually wore a full
beard. He so excelled in the skills of the trapper’s trade, that he became legendary
amongst his own peers. He marked his furs and skins “William S. Williams, M.T,”
the M.T. standing for Master Trapper. And although sharp in his business dealings,
he seldom could hang onto his returns for longer than a few days, being addicted
to gambling, whiskey and the tender attentions of the fairer sex."
"Old Bill became guide for Fremont on his fourth expedition, seeking a railroad route in 1848. They headed into the high San Juans in the dead of winter. All of the 120 mules froze to death and one-by-one dropped over like blocks of ice into the snow. One third of the thirty-three men perished in this unsuccessful attempt to cross the Rockies in winter. It was the worst explorers' disaster in Colorado history," says historian Leroy R. Hafen in presentation prepared for the Colorado Historical Society. Hafen was a historian of the American West and a Latter-day Saint. For many years he was a professor of history at Brigham Young University (BYU).
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. Frémont continued, and the expedition was defeated within the San Juan Mountains, where 10 expedition members died of starvation and exposure.
The next spring Old Bill and Benjamin Kern were sent back from Taos to recover the cached equipment. On the recovery trip they were killed by the Indians, probably Ute.