The early fur trappers who worked the icy streams of the Rocky Mountains lived a hard, lonely life. With the westward push of pioneers and gold seekers still years in the coming, the trappers of the early 18008 had the alpine meadows, the craggy peaks, and the rolling hills of the high country virtually all to themselves.
They became known as mountain men, the bold, rugged individualists who learned to survive nature’s extremes and stay alive among hostile Indian nations.
⛰️ Becoming mountain men
Most of the mountain men started out as young, ordinary men who had the simple skills and requirements of a farm laborer: a strong back, a good constitution, and experience with tools and weapons.
Many were ex-farm hands who were bored with agricultural life and wanted the adventure, the escape, and the money that fur trapping could pay — between one to two thousand dollars for a season’s harvest of quality pelts.
One of the best descriptions of a typical mountain man comes from Rufus Sage, himself a fur trapper and small trader of the 1830s.
“His skin, from constant exposure, assumes a hue almost as dark as that of the Aborigine, and his features and physical structure attain a rough and hardy cast. His hair, through inattention, becomes long, coarse, and bushy, and loosely dangles upon his shoulders.
His head is surmounted by a low crowned wool-hat or a rude substitute of his own manufacture. His clothes are of buckskin, gaily fringed at the seams with strings of the same material cut and made in a fashion peculiar to himself and associates. The deer and buffalo furnish him the required coverage for his feet, which he fabricates at the impulse of want.
His waist is encircled with a belt of leather, holding encased his butcher-knife and pistols — while from his neck is suspended a bullet-pouch securely fastened to the belt in front, and beneath the right arm hangs a powder-horn transversely from his shoulder, behind which, upon the strap attached to it, are affixed his bullet-mold, ball-screw, wiper, awl, etc.
With a gun-stick (a homemade ramrod) made of some hardwood and a good rifle placed in his hands, carrying from thirty-five balls to the pound, the reader will have before him a correct likeness of a genuine mountaineer when fully equipped.”’
🌱 The life of mountain men
A mountain man traveled light —with scarcely more than a little flour, coffee, tea, and salt, he carried no food. He lived almost entirely off the land. His gun was usually a powerful .40 to .60 caliber rifle made by the Hawken brothers of St. Louis, and with it, he could knock down a buffalo or grizzly bear at 200 yards. He also learned to gather wild berries, rose hips, plums, and nuts, and when times were hard, he lived off whatever else was at hand — roots, bark, or even beaver skins.
Fur trapping was split up into two seasons: the first was in the fall when the animal’s light summer coat was replaced with a prime winter coat of thick fur. This lasted until the streams froze solid.
While waiting for the ponds to thaw out, the trapper retired to a crude canvas tent or small log cabin and spent the worst of the winter preparing the skins for the market. When the ice broke up, he was back out again, wading in the ice water and snow to service his trapline.
The life of a mountain man was far from glamorous. It was, at times, miserable, dangerous, and just plain hard work. Many trappers developed rheumatism from the constant immersion in ice water. Many died of drowning, infected injuries, dysentery, smallpox, hydrophobia, tetanus, and accidental or intentional gunshots by their companions. They also fell off mountains, were bitten by rattlesnakes, or mauled by grizzly bears. And then there was the constant threat of Indians.
🏹 The dangerous natives
John Colter, one of the very first mountain men, had a terrifying encounter with Blackfeet Indians that has become a legend. His wilderness training was finely honed as a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, (an amazing two-year journey to find a commercial route across the Rockies to the Pacific coast).
On their return to St. Louis, he got permission to leave the expedition and go back into the wilderness with two beaver trappers as their “technical advisor.”
Soon after this partnership dissolved, he joined Manuel Lisa’s trapping party in the Rockies. In 1808 while trapping near the Jefferson Fork of the upper Missouri river, he and a companion, John Potts, were suddenly confronted by over 500 Blackfeet warriors. His partner tried to resist and was instantly riddled with arrows and killed on the spot. Colter was taken prisoner and stripped naked.
After discussing various ways to torment and torture him, a chief asked Colter how fast he could run. Colter replied that he was a terrible runner, like a turtle — while the fact was, he had a reputation of being very fast on his feet. They told him to run for his life and gave him a 30-second head start before setting out to mutilate him.
Colter sped off, ignoring the pain of running barefoot through prickly-pear thorns and the rocky scree of the canyon, he headed for the Jefferson Fork six miles away. After three miles, he had outrun every pursuer except one.
As the lone warrior gained ground and was about to overtake him, Colter maneuvered, tripped him, and killed the Indian with his own lance. He continued to run at full speed to the river and dived in. When the Blackfeet search party arrived, they scoured the shoreline but found no trace of the mountain man.
Colter had hidden under a driftwood raft, and then later that night, he swam about five miles downstream. When he hit the beach, he was running again. Seven days later, he arrived at Lisa’s fort, naked, half-starved, and feet full of festering thorns. He had covered 150 long, torturous miles with only a raw desire for survival to overcome the obstacles.
🔥 Survival tactics
The mountain men survived by blending into their environment. For many, just being out in the beautiful untamed wilderness was reason enough to continue in such a hazardous occupation.
Most importantly, they learned the Indian’s language and customs and were constantly improving their hunting and warfare skills. Many took an Indian girl to wife, and a few actually played Indian full-time and lived with the tribes.
Read next: Survival Lessons From The Native Americans
Each summer, a rendezvous was held where the traders and trappers came together to do business. Although the trappers earned huge amounts of money for their pelts, it was the traders who usually ended up rich. Outfitting supplies such as tobacco, coffee, sugar, gunpowder, and lead were marked up over 500 percent compared with prices in St. Louis.
The traders had a virtual monopoly going in rendezvous concessions, and unless the trapper wanted to travel over a thousand miles to sell his pelts, he simply spent his money in the mountains and came away broke.
The rendezvous was also the time when the mountain men could let down their guard and blow off steam. For a whole month, they talked, bragged, held shooting contests, gambled, and spent the rest of their money on whiskey and the local Indian girls. As the rendezvous wound down, they packed up and headed out for another perilous year in the mountains.
🛣️ Discovering new trading routes
Because the mountain men traveled through stretches of wilderness unknown to outsiders, many became trailblazers and scouts for those seeking new routes to the west.
Two of these men show a stark contrast in the way they planned and executed expeditions westward. Their methods of survival are also enlightening.
Jedediah Smith was one of the best fur trappers of his day. In the 1824-1825 season, he brought in some 668 pelts, which was probably a record for a single mountain man. He later joined with two partners and bought William Ashley’s fur business.
It was agreed that while the other two partners worked the central Rockies, Jed Smith would lead an exploring party to the southwest for a new trapping country. Smith took 15 men from Salt Lake and pushed south through the Wasatch Mountains into a country of sagebrush and desert.
Smith himself described it as “a Country of Starvation.” They eventually crossed the Colorado River and followed the left side of the river into the Black Mountains of Arizona. With little food, they were in a dangerous position.
Recommended reading: Making Trail Foods For Wilderness Exploring
In his own journal, Smith wrote that he “had lost so many horses that we were all on foot — my men & the remainder of my horses were worn out with fatigue & hardships & emaciated with hunger.”
They eventually stumbled into a camp of Mojave Indians who resupplied them and directed them to the California Missions for more horses and supplies. Crossing the Mojave Desert was a grueling 15-day trek for the men. They suffered terrible thirst and hunger and lost nearly all of their horses. When they finally arrived on the West Coast, they were immediately thrown in jail by the Mexican government.
Jed Smith was able to get out with the help of an American sea captain, and he later returned to the Bear Lake Rendezvous in 1827 with only three men, 11 had been left stranded in California.
That summer, Smith went back to rescue the men stranded in California and took a new group comprised of 18 men and two women. Unfortunately, he made the same mistakes, had a terrible journey down, and got thrown into prison again in San Diego.
After getting free, he led his men north-ward out of California only to have 15 killed by Indians along the Umpqua River. Of the three years, Jed Smith had tramped the southwest, 26 out of 33 had been killed, and two had deserted him. He failed to learn from his own mistakes, made terrible errors in judgment, and relied too heavily on mountain man grit and tenacity to make it out alive.
💰 Being prepared rewards you in the end
On the other hand, Joseph Reddeford Walker was probably the most successful and talented of all-mountain men. At the Green River rendezvous of 1833, he proposed an expedition to find a route westward to the coast of California — not the dangerous southern route taken by Jed Smith, but a more direct route across Nevada and into the Sierras.
One of the 40 men that accompanied Walker was Zenas Leonard, and he described his leader as follows:
“Mr. Walker was a man well calculated to undertake a business of this kind. He was well hardened to the hardships of the wilderness — understood the character of the Indians very well —was kind and affable to his men, but at the same time at liberty to command without giving offense — and to explore unknown regions was his chief delight.”
Walker believed in being heavily provisioned: each man was mounted, and each led three additional horses packed with “every article necessary for the comfort of men engaged in an expedition of this kind.”
On the Bear River, four days after they had left the rendezvous, Walker had his men hunt game until each man had added 60 pounds of dried and jerked meat to his pack.
Another tactic that Walker used was that of asking the local Indians for information on the unknown country they hoped to traverse. Even though the going was hard, they picked the safest route through Nevada by following the Humboldt River.
When the men came to the wall of peaks comprising the Sierra Nevada range (some over 14,000 feet), they ran low on food and had to butcher two horses before continuing across the snow-laden mountains.
For three weeks, they struggled through the snow as they beat a path over the mountains. Finally, they were rewarded with an awesome sight. They became the first white men to gaze into the glacier-cut valley called Yosemite.
Although the view was spellbinding, there was the problem of descending the monolith walls to the valley below. They had to rig up ropes around their horses and lower them one by one. Even after they had gotten over the rocks, the course down was steep and difficult. Joe Walker was so impressed with Yosemite that he had the epitaph on his headstone read: “Camped at Yosemite, November 13, 1833.”
Once in the Sierra foothills, they were able to rest up, and with plenty of deer, elk, and bear, they found plenty of food for the rest of the trip to the Pacific Coast.
Joseph Walker’s expedition had been handled with great skill, and although his party had traversed some very dangerous country, he had done it without the loss of one man. His prestige as a frontiersman grew steadily throughout his life, so much so that he became the epitome of the ideal mountain man.
Although the days of the mountain men were comparatively short, their lessons of survival and the daring spirit they exhibited will long be remembered. They knew how to blend with their environment, but most importantly, they knew how to use every resource available to its fullest.
The life of a mountain man was a never-ending lesson, and it was vital for them to improve their skills in order to face Mother Nature and the Natives.
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