Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

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The Mountain Man and Trapper lead a life that was dangerous, arduous and at times, down-right miserable.  The lives of many mountain men ended in violence, either by Indian attacks and ambush, or through violent encounters with Grizzly Bears, one of the few creatures of the Rocky Mountains which knew no fear of man.  Others drowned while crossing rivers, or died while preparing a cache which collapsed.  Starvation and exposure always threatened during the long winter months.  In order to obtain “Prime” beaver plew, it was necessary for the trapper to wade knee or waist deep in freezing mountain streams late in the fall and after breakup of the ice in the spring to set traps. Exposure and arthritis were a common ailments of mountain men.  

But still they came, in spite of the dangers, personal risks and discomforts. The Mountain Men were drawn to the wilderness, like the earlier generations of beaver men, primarily for the money. The high prices paid for furs and skins, particularly for beaver fur, held out the promise of quick money.  Driven by fashion, beaver pelts were in great demand from European and American hatters, who would pay high prices to obtain the primary raw material used in the manufacture of felt.  In addition to money, life in the mountains provided other motivations: adventure, freedom, independence, love of the outdoors, and the twin challenges of hardship and danger.

In order to survive, the mountain man needed to posses a set of learned wilderness skills and personal attributes.  Without these skills and attributes, individuals who came to the mountains either died early, or became discouraged and left the mountains after a season or so.  Learned skills included mastery of both rifle and pistol, swimming, mountain climbing, combat skills, both unarmed and armed with gun, knife, and tomahawk, hunting, sign reading, horsemanship, trapping, and survival under extreme conditions.  

The ability to speak a foreign language, particularly French, or Spanish was important, and the ability to communicate with Indians, particularly the Crow, Blackfoot, Sioux, Ute, Cheyenne or Shoshone was of particularly great value. Fluency in sign language was particularly important as it allowed a degree of communication with nearly all of the Western Indians. 

Personal attributes included the physical, mental, emotional characteristics of the individual.  Physical strength and endurance were critical to survival as was bravery and the ability to quickly and clearly analyze a situation and instantly act.  The extraordinary will power of these men, as demonstrated in survival situations, is still remembered today in stories about John Colter, Hugh Glass, Jedediah Smith and others.

There never were great numbers of mountain men.  In all there may not have been more than 3,000 individuals total that could be considered to be a “Mountain Man” (Swagerty, also Fehrman, p9-15 in Vol X)  And this was a diverse group of individuals of whom only half were Anglo-Americans, with large numbers of these coming from Kentucky, Virginia and the Louisiana Territory.  French-Canadians and French-Americans constituted one-quarter of the total, while European-born men make up about 15 percent.  The remainder are Métis, Spanish-Americans, Blacks and Indians.  

The French-Americans, French-Canadians and Creole were the remnants of the French colonial empire in North America which effectively ceased to exist in 1758, and was irretrievable lost with the sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United States on December 20, 1803.  Many of these men, who traced their origins to the Montreal-based French fur trading companies, maintained and continued their traditions, language, customs and culture, whether under the British, Spanish, or United States flags and companies.  Individuals of French origin continued to play a predominant role in the execution of the fur trade, from the trapper-traders in the mountains, to bourgeois (field management), to the highest levels of management in the great fur companies, long after France ceased to play a part in the affairs of North America.

Others of the mountain men were eastern Indians, full- or mixed blood, and mostly of Iroquois or Delaware ancestry.  These groups of Indians became caught up in the fur trade and the way of life it demanded in the 1600’s and 1700’s under British and French Rule.  As the locus of fur trapping and trading moved west, they and their descendents moved westward as well.  Like the French Canadians they worked comfortably under both English and American firms.   

Most mountain men were young, in their teens, twenties and thirties, although there was no limit on age.  Edward Robinson was in his late 60’s when he lost his life in an attack by “Bad Snakes” in what would one day become Idaho.  Jim Beckwourth was 68 when he died in a village of his adopted people, the Crow Indians.  “Old” Bill Williams was 62 when the Utes made him to “come”.  Jim Bridger was 17 when he made his first trip to the mountains, Kit Carson was 16, and undoubtedly there were others who were even younger still.  Then there were those mixed-blood children of a trapper/trader father and an Indian mother, who were born and raised to the life, knowing no other way of living, except to be a “Mountain Man”.

The life demanded by the fur trade in the Rocky Mountains was brutally hard and as a result, for most men this represented only a temporary career choice.  For those in the lowest positions in the trade, careers lasted on average 2.7 years, while those in mid-level positions such as traders and clerks lasted on average 6.3 years.  For directors, factors, and owners, with much greater financial incentives and better working conditions, careers averaged 15 years (Swagerty in Introduction to Chardon’s Journal).

Contrary to popular notion, the Mountain Man was not a solitary individual, pitting his strength and skills against nature and man for survival in the wilderness.  Most commonly the mountain men traveled in a well armed and organized group called a “brigade” containing 30, 50 or sometimes more than 100 men.  Only after the brigade reached the area in which the hunt was to be conducted, would the brigade split into smaller groups which would again split into smaller groups.  Small groups of two, three and sometimes one man would go out and trap an individual stream or reach for a day or so before returning to join up with one of the larger groups.  Bonneville (Reference page 336) describes the operation of a brigade in 1834.  “It had been the intention of Captain Bonneville, in descending along Snake River, to scatter his trappers upon the smaller streams.  In this way, a range of country is trapped by small detachements from a main body.... .. Two trappers commonly go together, for the purposes of mutual assistance and support; a larger party could not easily escape the eyes of the Indians.”

Indian wives and families would often accompany the brigade.  Hudson’s Bay Company brigades led by Peter Skene Ogden could contain more than 120 individuals, with approximately half being family members.

The social structure of Mountain Man society was stratified, with two basic levels, the free trapper, and engagés, with further stratification of the latter.  Engagés, or hired men, worked for the company and depending on the terms of employment, would receive a wage, and all or part of their equipment and supplies. The lowest level of engagé was the mangeur de lard (literally pork eater).  This was a derisive term applied to greenhorns who were new to the mountains.  They tended camp, managed the fire, butchered and cooked meals, cared for the pack animals, set up and broke down camp and were generally responsible for all of those distasteful tasks disdained by the more experienced men.

The next level of egagé was the engaged hunters or trappers.  In exchange for a salary and equipment, these men would return to the company all of their furs and skins.  The highest level of engagé would receive a salary and equipment for a set number of skins or furs.  Any catch beyond that amount could be sold back to the company for additional remuneration, or disposed of as the trapper saw fit.

The free trapper represented the pinnacle of Mountain Man society.  The free trapper was responsible for equipping himself, but traveled and trapped with whom he pleased, and sold his furs and skins to whoever offered the best prices.  In spite of their elite social standing, the free trapper was at the mercy of the fur markets, and might leave the annual rendezvous penniless, or even indebted to the company suppliers.

The exploits and adventures of the Mountain Men became legendary as these individuals represented the cutting edge of exploration, at a time when the entire nation was focusing it's attention to westward expansion.  Even as early as the mid-1840’s books were being written capitalizing on the incredible feats and stories of the mountain men.  Furthermore, the Mountain Man was at the epicenter of the nebulous concept of Manifest Destiny – that is a continent spanning nation.  Some, such as Jedediah Smith, Joseph R Walker, Ewing Young, Joseph Meek, Thomas Fitzpatrick and Christopher Carson consciously and deliberately advanced the process of exploration and expansion.  But whether they were aware of the concept or not, all became the point men of a nation unfolding westward, geographically and politically.

I would recommend the following books as a good general overview of the Mountain Men and the fur trade.  

Hanson, James A.  When Skins were Money: A History of the Fur Trade, 2005, published by Museum of the Fur Trade, Chadron, Nebraska.

Sandoz, Mari. The Beaver Men-Spearheads of Empire, published 1964, University of Nebraska Press.  332 pages.  A fairly comprehensive study of the entire span of the fur trade in North America, but runs out of steam for the 1803-1840 period. 

Utley, Robert M. A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific, published 1997 Henry Holt and Company. 392 pages.  This book is well written, and an easy read.  It illustrates the geopolitical role played by the American Mountain Men from 1804 through the 1840’s in fulfilling the concept of “Manifest Destiny”, a continent spanning nation.

De Voto, Bernard.  Across the Wide Missouri.  1947 Published by the Houghton Mifflin Company.  This book chronicles the Rocky Mountain Fur trade during its climax and decline, roughly from the years 1832 through 1838.  De Voto examines in particular the inter-relationship between the competing outfits during these years.  He also provides a glimpse of Indian life as it related to the fur trade, and gives a good sketch of the "typical" mountain man and his way of life.  Good reading and well documented for original sources.

Phillips, Paul Chrisler.  The Fur Trade, published 1961, University of Oklahoma Press, two volumes, approximately 1400 pages.  This is a comprehensive study of the fur trade in North America from the earliest 1600s to the collapse of the trade in the 1840s.  Strong focus on the geopolitics of the fur trade, and how it relates to and influenced events in Europe and China.  Dry as dust, but contains a lot of gold nuggets if you are interested in a “Big Picture” view of the fur trade in North America.  

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Antoine Clement

by Alfred Jacob Miller 1837