Joaquin Antoine Leroux, also known as Watkins Leroux, was a celebrated 19th-century mountain man, scout, and trail guide based in New Mexico.
When he grew up, he began his life as a trapper by joining William Henry Ashley on an expedition with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1822. The men became known as “Ashley’s Hundred.” Unlike many of the “rough and ready” men who joined the expedition, Leroux was rather refined, having grown up in an affluent merchant family. Among some of the other employees known as “Ashley’s Hundred” were Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, and Old Bill Williams.
After trapping throughout the west for more than a decade, he settled in Taos, New Mexico, where he married Juana Catarina Vigil on November 4, 1833. The couple would eventually have one child. Upon his marriage, he became the principal owner of the 426,024-acre Los Luteros Land Grant, which extended north from Taos. It would then become known as the Antoine Leroux Land Grant. There, he established a large hacienda. While in Taos, he met and befriended Kit Carson.
Though he had become a wealthy sheep rancher and landowner, he began to act as a guide and scout on a number of expeditions throughout the west.
In 1846, Leroux served as the guide for the Mormon Battalion under Philip St. George Cooke, helping to blaze a wagon road from Santa Fe, New Mexico to California to assist in the Mexican-American War. The route they blazed became known as the Mormon Wagon Road or as the Gila Route.
He returned to Taos in time to serve on the jury which heard the trial of those charged in connection with the Taos Revolt of 1847.
By the time the Americans took over the region in 1848, Leroux was considered the most experienced, competent, and celebrated scout and guide in New Mexico.
In 1849, Leroux served under Lieutenant J.H. Whittlesey in a punitive campaign against the Ute Indians and that same year, acted as a guide in the hunting down of the Apache after the White Massacre occurred on the Santa Fe Trail.
In 1851, Leroux guided the Lorenzo Sitgreaves expedition across northern Arizona, advising them to explore the Little Colorado River Valley, where the party came across the Wupatki ruins built by prehistoric Indians. While camped on the west end of the San Francisco range, Leroux suggested they name a mountain after his old friend Bill Williams. Today, the town of Williams lies at the foot of that mountain. During the expedition, Leroux narrowly escaped death when he was shot by Indians and suffered three arrow wounds.
By 1853, he participated in two expeditions to help survey proposed routes for the proposed Transcontinental Railroad. In summer, he accompanied Amiel Weeks Whipple on an expedition at the 35th parallel and later that year worked with John W. Gunnison in surveying a central route between the 38th and 39th parallels. The second expedition was not as successful as the first, as Gunnison constantly quarreled with Leroux’s advice, and Leroux eventually quit the expedition. Two days later, most of the party, including Gunnison, was slaughtered when they unexpectedly came upon a group of Paiute Indians.
Over the years, Leroux spoke French and English fluently, and knew some Spanish, and could converse with many Native American tribes in their own languages.
He died at his home in Taos on June 30, 1881, of “asthma complicated by spear wounds,” apparently, the wounds suffered 10 years before on the Sitgreaves expedition. He was buried in the nave of Our Lady of Guadalupe or Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe at Taos, New Mexico. This church, damaged by fire several times, was torn down in 1960. The Leroux Land Grant later came into the hands of an English syndicate and was soon reduced to 56,428 acres.
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated December 2020.