Kirker, James (1793–1853)

By: Ralph A. Smith

Type: Biography

Published: February 1, 1995

James (Santiago) Kirker, merchant, Indian fighter, and frontiersman, was born near Belfast, Ireland, on December 2, 1793, the son of Gilbert and Rose (Anderson) Kirker. In his youth he received some formal education and learned the leather and merchandising trades. To escape the British draft he sailed for New York City, where he arrived on June 10, 1810. During the War of 1812 he served on the privateer Black Joke. He was captured and later exchanged for British captives. He returned to New York City, where he married Catharine Dunigan, with whom he had a son, James B., who became a major in the Union Army. In 1817 Kirker joined kinsmen from Ireland, left his family and store, and departed for the West. In December he reached St. Louis, where he worked for McKnight and Brady, the leading mercantile, mining, shipping, and trading firm of Missouri, and later opened his own mercantile business. In 1822 he traveled up the Missouri River as a member of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company trapping expedition of Ashley and Henry. He spent the winter in an advance post on the Yellowstone River and in the spring of 1823 participated in the famous attack of trappers upon the Arickara Indian village.

In 1824 Kirker entered the Santa Fe trade. During the winters of the next decade he trapped in the southern Rockies and along the Gila River. In 1826 he began working at the Santa Rita Copper Mine for Robert McKnight. While conducting copper trains to the mint in Chihuahua City, Kirker and his guards fought several skirmishes with Apaches along the way. He gained a reputation as a skillful Indian fighter and subsequently developed an escort and security service. In 1833, without divorcing his first wife, he married Rita GarcĂ­a; they had a daughter and three sons. In 1835 Kirker acquired Mexican citizenship. He combined trapping and mining with trading with the Apaches for livestock, causing the authorities to charge him with contraband in weapons and declare him an outlaw. But between 1839 and 1846 he entered into four contracts with governors of Chihuahua to fight Apache, Comanche, and Navajo Indians. With his private company of Delaware and Shawnee Indians and border adventurers, he was very successful in killing hostile Indians. Under his first contract he was promised $100,000, and under the others he was promised pay according to the number of captives and scalps that he delivered. Between contracts he operated in the Sierra Madre as a border lord, sustained by his personal followers as a law unto himself, fighting or trading alternately with the Apaches or the Mexicans. At one time he was called the "King of New Mexico."

In 1846 the Chihuahua government was no longer able to pay Kirker for Apache scalps and offered him instead the rank of colonel in the Mexican army. He refused, and, with a 10,000-peso price on his head as an enemy of the state, went north to join Col. Alexander Doniphan and his First Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers. Doniphan made him forager, guide, interpreter, and scout for his campaign through northern Mexico. His intimate knowledge of Mexican character, country, and resources made him very valuable to the invaders, and when he returned to the United States with the regiment he was received with much acclaim. In 1848 Kirker served as guide, interpreter, and spy for the campaign of Maj. William W. Reynolds and the Third Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers against the Apache and Utah Indians. In 1849 he guided a train of Forty-niners across the plains to New Mexico. In 1850 he reached California, without his family, and settled in Contra Costa County near what is known now as Kirker Pass and Kirker Creek. He died in 1853 and was buried by his Delawares in Somersville Cemetery.

Don Santiago QuerQuer, as he is called in Mexican records, was a large, agile man, a superb horseman who dressed in fringed Mexican leather and carried an assortment of weapons. He spoke and wrote Spanish fluently and knew a number of Indian languages. He was known throughout the West for his fearlessness. During his lifetime, Kirker was described as a man of great enterprise and vision. After his death, however, his name faded from memory. The unfavorable picture of him that later emerged came from a novel by Thomas Mayne Reid, The Scalp Hunters; or Romantic Adventures in Northern Mexico (1851), in which Kirker was portrayed as a villain.

William C. McGaw, Savage Scene: The Life and Times of James Kirker (New York: Hastings House, 1972). Ralph A. Smith, "The `King of New Mexico' and the Doniphan Expedition," New Mexico Historical Review 38 (January 1963).


  • Peoples
  • Native American
  • Military
  • Soldiers
  • Irish
  • Business

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ralph A. Smith, “Kirker, James,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 28, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 1, 1995