Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

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Eating Beaver Tail: A Mountain Man Delicacy

Or Mountain Man Joke:

I’ve heard reenactor discussions and read posts on message boards that state that it is only a myth that mountain men ate beaver tail and considered it a delicacy. These modern-day mountain men claim that it has a poor flavor, that it consists only of fatty gristle and should be considered inedible. They also claim that eating beaver tail was simply a joke that somehow made it into the record that was perpetrated by the mountain men on their unwitting greenhorn companions.   

Based on my own research of historical records, I would maintain that this was not a joke and the mountain men did indeed consider beaver tail a delicacy.  References to eating beaver tail are too widespread in the historical record and the context of these references does not indicate that this is some tall tale.  Tastes have changed in the last two hundred years; mountain men ate and drank many things which today we would consider unappetizing, or even revolting.  During good times the diet of the mountain men consisted almost entirely of lean animal meat-protein.  These men were literally starving for fat, and beaver tail represented one source of dietary fat.

Below are some representative descriptions of beaver tail as a viand:

George Frederic Ruxton:  “They [beaver] live to a considerable age, and I once ate the tail of an old "man" beaver whose head was perfectly grey with age, and his beard was of the same venerable hue, notwithstanding which his tail was tender as a young raccoon.”  From: Wild Life in the  Rocky Mountains in a section describing the life and habits of beaver.    

Rufus Sage:  “The beaver possesses great strength in his tail, which is twelve or fifteen inches long, four broad, and a half inch thick. This part of the animal is highly esteemed by trappers, and assimilates a fish in taste, though it is far superior to any of the finny tribe.”  From: Rocky Mountain Life in a section describing trapping beaver.   

Wislenzus:  “In summer, the beavers are lean, and their fur is poor, for which reason they are usually not caught at this time. But in winter they get fat and have thicker hair. Their meat is very palatable.  The tails, which are fat all through, are especially regarded as delicacies.“  From:  A Journey to the Rocky Mountains in 1839.

Meriwether Lewis and/or William Clark:  “We kill whatever we wish. The buffalo furnish us with fine veal and fat beef. We also have venison and beaver tails when we wish them.”  The Journals of Lewis and Clark.  

Nathaniel Wyeth:  "22nd Snowed part of last night and rained the residue and the forenoon of today snow the rest and part of the night in morning our hunter went out and wounded a deer which the wolves ran down but before he could find him they had eaten up all but enough for 2 meals this morning breakfasted on two beaver tails which I had laid by and forgotten so we have not yet on this trip lost a meal as yet."  Journal of Captain Nathaniel J Wyeth's Expeditions to the Oregon Country-Second Expedition, 1834.

George Catlin:  "I cannot deny myself the pleasure of occasionally giving you some little sketches of scenes that I have witnessed, and am witnessing; and of the singular feelings that are excited in the breast of the stranger traveling through this interesting country.  Interesting (as I have said) and luxurious, for this is truly the land of Epicures; we are invited by the savages to feasts of dog's meat, as the most honorable food that can be presented to a stranger, and glutted with the more delicious food of beaver tails, and buffaloe tongues."  Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians-Mouth of the Yellowstone 1832.

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