The Mountain Man & The Fur Trade

The term "mountain man" is usually applied to American fur traders who explored and trapped the western half of the North American continent during the first half of the nineteenth century. No one knows for certain who was first to push past St. Louis, but John Colter was certainly one of the most famous of the earliest to go into the mountains and is the first documented mountain man. Colter accompanied Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as part of the Corps of Discovery on their 1804-1806 journey across the continent and joined with Joseph Dickson and Forest Hancock to return to the mountains in 1806 to trap beaver.

During the first few decades of the 18th century the height of male sartorial splendor in Europe and America required a hat made from beaver fur. Oliver Wendell Holmes advice to his friends was "have a good hat; the secret of your looks lives with the beaver in Canadian brooks." The animal that raised such a stir in male fashion circles was a large brown rodent that usually weighed about 45 to 60 pounds and lived in rivers, streams, lakes and marshes throughout Canada and the western United States. It built a lodge of interwoven twigs and branches on the water's edge with an entrance under the waterline and frequently damed small streams to form ponds. The earliest trappers were aware of the fact that the beaver did not reproduce rapidly and they consciously attempted to manage the resource so as to provide a constant supply. (This policy changed when the British attempted to discourage American intrusion into the Northwest by adopting a policy of over-trapping in the belief that if there were no beaver left the Americans would lose interest in the Oregon Terriory.)

The American Mountain Man was a colorful character. They wore handmade buckskin clothing, crude woolen or broad brimmed hats, and moccasins of buffalo or deer hide. They were almost always armed with rifle or shotgun, shooting stick, pistol, and knife. They carried their powder in a horn slung over their shoulder and their shot in a bag tied around their neck. Somewhere on their person they carried flint and steel for fire making and usually had a pipe and some tobacco. After spending anywhere from six months to three years in the wilderness, their hair and beards were unkempt and their personal hygiene was a sometimes thing. Their skin was weatherbeaten and scared and many had lost various body parts to the rigors of cross country travel and winter weather, as well as encounters with animals and Indians.

The American Mountain Man was strong of body and mind, but usually short on formal education. This is not to say that he was stupid or unintelligent. His life in the wilderness required that he master a specific set of skills which included venture capitalism, trapping, tanning, hunting, fishing, river running, trail craft, horseback riding, stock husbandry, and at least the basics of cartography. He had to be an expert marksman and have endurance, fortitude, physical strength, and bravery in greater measure than the average man. In dealing with Indians and fellow trappers he had to be something of a linguist and diplomat and be ever ready to fight for his life if necessary. The very first men that went into the mountains did so alone or with one or two partners. They learned the hard way. Later entrants into the fellowship of the mountains were sometimes able to apprentice with those that had gone before, but it was still a hard school. Self-reliance was essential and death was a common occurrence.

Many, if not most, of the early trappers fratinized freely with Indian women and frequently took Indian wives and had children by them. Wives accompanied their husbands into the wilderness and were important helpmates on the trail. Their knowledge of which plants were edible and how to prepare them for consumption filled a critical nutritional need. Their knowledge of the medicinal properties of wild plants and herbs was frequently the difference between life and death for wounded men stranded far from civilization They helped with camp chores and played an important role in tanning the all important beaver pelts trapped by their husbands. They regularly served as interpreters and negotiators for trappers interacting with Native Americans. The most famous of the Indian wives in American literature is Sacagawea, married to Toussaint Charbonneau, interpreter for Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery. Sacagawea's infant son, Jean Baptiste, went along with his parents on the famous Voyage of Discovery and was adopted by William Clark at the end of the trip. He later went on to be a trapper himself and continued to live in the West during the Era of the Pioneers.

The American Mountain Man had a remarkable constitution and a formidable immune system. There was, of course, something of a natural selection process at work. The life was so rigorous that none but the healthy attempted it. The early trappers did not bring with them the fatal diseases that were to later decimate the Indian tribes. They did experience venereal diseases and suffered from colds and flu, but were spared the deadly small pox which was brought in with the early traders and pioneers on their way to California and Oregon. The mountain men lacked modern medicines but, by and large, had an excellent command of herbal remedies. Most mountain men were dead by middle age or sooner, but the causes were usually more dramatic than conventional sickeness. Many starved to death, others froze to death, a significant number drowned, some fell to their death on the trail, a handful died of shooting accidents, not a few fell victem to wild animals, and many were killed by Indians and some by other trappers. Even though the profession had a high mortality rate, a number of the most famous of these men lived well into old age. The life was so hard that just remaining alive long enough to live into old age, like Caleb Greenwood, was a way for a mountain man to attain fame.

Because they were after beaver, the trappers were usually working in the frigid mountain streams in spring when the beaver pelt was at its most lustrous. As the trappers penetrated further and further into the Rockies it became increasingly inconvenient to return each year to St. Louis to sell their pelts. In the summer of 1825, and each year after that until 1838, a rendezvous of fur trappers was held in the mountains. Traders brought supplies and trappers brought furs. It quickly became an important social as well as business event and was attended by a wide variety of participants that included hundreds of trappers, traders, Indians, professional gamblers, newspaper reporters, missionaries, government officials, and sightseers. Everone in the mountains was invited. The party usually lasted for several weeks during which business was transacted, old friends exchanged information and experiences, and plans were made for the next season's trapping. A great deal of raw liquor was consumed and a number of contests were held during which contestants exhibited their skill with horses and firearms. Most of the trappers spent everything that they earned for the previous year's work and obtained enough in the way of supplies to last through the forthcoming season.

The stories that these men told were as colorful as they were themselves. Some were true and some were meant to be rendezvous entertainment that should be taken with liberal amounts of Taos Lightening (a mixture of red pepper, gunpowder, and alcohol that flowed during the annual get-to-gether at rendezvous). Jim Bridger is usually given credit for having been the biggest liar in the mountains, but many others regularly challenged him for the honor. The best stories were the ones that have been documented and verified by several sources. Jeddediah Smith's encounter with the grizzly bear after which his trail mate sewed his scalp and ear back on. John Colter's run naked and barefoot through winter snow for weeks with Indians in close pursuit. Hugh Glass's repeated recovery from the dead, etc, etc, etc. These men routinely underwent hardships and suffered disasters which would kill most modern men and they took it in their stride.

During the thirty some years of the era of the Mountain Man, the West from Missouri to California and from Canada to Mexico was thoroughly explored and the beaver was brought to the brink of extinction. (It was saved by a change in fashion that dictated a hat made of silk rather than beaver.) Initially, the Mountain Man obtained most of his local knowledge from Native Americans, but he was the first to tie it together into a bigger vision of the continent. Rivers and mountains were mapped crudely at first, but they were adequate to set the stage for more sophisticated exploration by various government explorers like Fremont, Pike, and Bonneville. American Mountain men were at the forefront in the struggle with Great Britain for control of the Oregon Territory and were instrumental in facilitating the conquest of California. Letters and reports from the Mountain Man did much to trigger the movement of pioneer settlers into California and Oregon before the Gold Rush. They were a very important element in the westward movement of the United States in pursuit of what was perceived as being America's "Manifest Destiny."