by lyle e davis
"I wanted to be the first to view a country on which the eyes of a white man had never gazed and to follow the course of rivers that run through a new land."
We who live in California today have it pretty soft. Air conditioning, the best of steaks, fruits and vegetables just a few minutes drive away from our comfortable, modern homes, in our sleek, modern, fast moving cars.
Wasn’t always that way.
Enter Jedediah Smith, the first American to enter California overland . . . one of many occasions when he would fulfill his often quoted mission in life of being the first white man to view a country.
Jedediah Smith is one of the better known ‘Mountain Men.’ Those hardy souls who opened up this country by serving as trappers, guides, interpreters, journalists, hunters, and explorers.
The legends and feats of the mountain men have persisted largely because there was a lot of truth to the tales that were told. The life of the mountain man was rough, and one that brought him face to face with death on a regular basis--sometimes through the slow agony of starvation, dehydration, burning heat, or freezing cold and sometimes by the surprise attack of animal or Indian.
Mountain Men in general are admired in today’s society. They were tolerated in the society of the frontier . . . and barely, at that; particularly if they wandered into a salon frequented by some of the finer ladies and gents of the big city.
"I supped this minute at a tavern table, amidst village politicians, pedantic doctors, and wise looking lawyers- My dirty hunting shirt and greasy leather breeches seemed to offend their hypercritical eyes and too curious olfactories- God Help them!." "The Rocky Mountain Journals of William Marshall Anderson", pg. 54
"...Naturally, if some of this mixture (speaking of castorium) spilled on their hands, they wiped it on their buckskins; they didn't stop there, but wiped their greasy hands on their skins after eating, and wiped off the blood when skinning. The resulting color and flavor of the skin was not the clean gold of fresh-tanned hides, but, as Berry says....black. Dirty black, greasy black, shiny black, bloody black, stinky black. Black." "Journal of a Mountain Man" by James Clyman, pg. 7 "I was still wearing my city clothes, and mountain men present asked Williams what he was going to do with that city lad in the mountains. This remark cut me deeply, and I hurried to the frontier store and traded all my fine clothes, shirts and dickies, which were worn in those days, for two suits of the finest buckskin, such as these merchants always kept on hand to fleece greenhorns like myself, making five hundred percent profit in the trade. The next morning I appeared dressed "a la prairie" and the old trappers noticed the change and said "Williams, that boy of yours will make a mountaineer if he catches on at this rate." pgs. 18,19 "My Sixty years on the Plains" by William Thomas Hamilton.
You might say the Mountain Men were the original hippies. More than casual in dress, long hair, usually rather unkempt, often with scraggly beards.
What attracted men to the adventurous life of the trapper?
To find men for the first expedition of what would become the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, William Ashley and Andrew Henry ran this advertisement in the St. Louis Gazette and Public Advertiser in the winter of 1822: "Enterprising Young Men...to ascend the Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two, or three years."
Answering the call were such names as Jedediah Smith, Etienne Provost (after whom Provo, Utah, would be named), Jim Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Hugh Glass (about whom the book Lord Grizzly was written). Jedediah Smith quickly proved himself and became the leader of subsequent parties from 1823-1830. Smith explored both the Rocky Mountains and the southwest. Over the course of his explorations he rediscovered the South Pass, went all the way to Arizona, across the Mojave Desert to California and back across the Great Basin.
Contrary to the common image of the lonely trapper, the mountain men usually traveled in brigades of 40 to 60, including camp tenders and meat hunters. From the brigade base camps, they would fan out to trap in parties of two or three. It was then that the trappers were most vulnerable to Indian attack. Indians were a constant threat to the trappers, and confrontation was common. The Blackfeet were by far the most feared, but the Arikaras and Comanches were also to be avoided. The Shoshone, Crows and Mandans were usually friendly, however, trust between trapper and native was always tenuous. Once the beaver were trapped, they were skinned immediately, allowed to dry, and then folded in half, fur to the inside. Beaver pelts, unlike buffalo robes, were compact, light and very portable. This was essential, as the pelts had to be hauled to rendezvous for trade. An approximate 3,000 men ranged the mountains in the window between 1820 and 1840, the peak beaver harvesting period.
While there were some individual mountain men, known as free trappers, most were employed by fur companies.
In 1824, the rendezvous system began. Companies would haul supplies to specific mountain locations in the spring, engage in trading with trappers, and bring pelts back to communities on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers in the fall. Major William Henry Ashley started this system through the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. He sold this business to the outfit of (Jedediah) Smith, Jackson and Sublette, while still making a profit by selling that firm their supplies. This system continued when other firms, particularly the American Fur Company, entered the field.
Beaver pelts had been needed to make the beaver hats, initially popular in England. Fashions changed in the early 1840s, making beaver less valuable at the same time they became harder to find due to over trapping. The opening of the Oregon Trail and the use of the Mormon Trail provided trappers who wished to stay in the West opportunities for employment as guides and hunters.
The equipment of the mountain man was sparse and well used. Osbourne Russell provides an apt description of the typical mountain man from one who was there.
"A Trappers equipment in such cases is generally one Animal upon which is placed...a riding Saddle and bridle a sack containing six Beaver traps a blanket with an extra pair of Moccasins his powder horn and bullet pouch with a belt to which is attached a butcher Knife a small wooden box containing bait for Beaver a Tobacco sack with a pipe and implements for making fire with sometimes a hatchet fastened to the Pommel of his saddle his personal dress is a flannel or cotton shirt (if he is fortunate to obtain one, if not Antelope skin answers the purpose of over and under shirt) a pair of leather breeches with Blanket or smoked Buffalo skin, leggings, a coat made of Blanket or Buffalo robe a hat or Cap of wool, Buffalo or Otter skin his hose are pieces of Blanket lapped round his feet which are covered with a pair of Moccasins made of Dressed Deer Elk or Buffaloe skins with his long hair falling loosely over his shoulders complete the uniform."
"Partly from inclination and partly from necessity the hunter in his dress adopted the customs of the indians. The clothes he brought from form the states quickly fell to pieces under the wear and tear of the life in which he engaged. The indian costume was the most convenient substitute. There was moreover a manifest pride on the part of the hunter in imitating the garb of his red brethren, and it is doubtful if the fondness of the latter for the incongruous combination of his own and white men's clothes was more marked than that of the wild attire of the savage." Volume one of "The American Fur Trade of the Far West" Hiram Martin Chittenden, pgs. 59-61
Each mountain man also carried basic gear, which could include arms, powder horns and a shot pouch, knives and hatchets, canteens, cooking utensils, and supplies of tobacco, coffee, salt and pemmican. Horses or mules were essential, a riding horse for each man and at least one for carrying supplies and furs.
With the exception of coffee, food supplies duplicated the diet of native tribes in various locations. Fresh red meat, fowl, and fish were generally available. Some plant foods, such as fruit and berries, were easy for the men to harvest. But foods which required time for preparation, such as roots, dried meat and pemmican, were generally obtained from tribes through trading. However, in times of crisis and bad weather, mountain men were known to slaughter and eat their horses and mules.
Some of the more notable Mountain Men were:
Jedediah Smith (1799 - circa 1831) was a hunter, trapper, and fur trader whose explorations were significant in opening the American West to expansion by white settlers. Smith is generally considered the first man of European descent to cross the future state of Nevada, the first to traverse Utah from north to south and from west to east; and the first American to enter California by an overland route. He was also first to scale the High Sierras and explore the area from San Diego to the banks of the Columbia River. He was also a successful businessman, being a full partner in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
On May 27, 1831, while en route to Santa Fe, New Mexico, Jedediah Smith was surrounded and killed by Comanche Indians at a water hole near the Cimarron River. His body was never found.
Jim Bridger (1804 - 1881) came west in 1822 at the age of 17, as a member of Ashley's Hundred exploring the Upper Missouri drainage. He was among the first non-natives to see the geysers and other natural wonders of the Yellowstone region. He is also considered one of the first men of European descent, along with Étienne Provost, to see the Great Salt Lake. Due to its salinity, for a time he believed it to be an arm of the Pacific Ocean. In 1830, Bridger purchased shares in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, working in competition with the Hudson Bay Company and John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company. He established Fort Bridger in southwestern Wyoming. He was also welknown as a teller of tall tales.
John "Liver-Eating" Johnston or Johnson (c.1824 – January 21, 1900). In a biography by Dennis McLelland, Johnston is seen roaming Wyoming and Montana, gathering in beaver, buffalo and wolf hides. Johnston was a free trapper, unaffiliated with a company and charging what he wanted for the hides he worked to secure. He is said to have been born in New Jersey with the name John Garrison. He deserted the Navy, changed his name to John Johnston, and traveled west to trap and hunt in Wyoming. He also became a "woodhawk," supplying cord wood to steamboats. He was described as a large man, standing around six feet tall and weighing over two hundred pounds.
In 1847, his Native American wife is said to have been killed by members of the Crow tribe, and Johnson set out to take revenge, his personal war on the Crows lasting more than 20 years. The legend says that he would cut out and eat the liver of each man killed. He eventually became known as "Liver-Eating Johnson" (usually spelled without the t in Johnston). Since eating the liver of a victim is a symbolic way of completing a revenge slaying, some credence might be given to this activity.
One story is that Johnson was ambushed by a group of Blackfoot warriors in the dead of winter on a foray to visit his Flathead kin, a trip that would have been over five hundred miles. The Blackfoot plan was to sell him to the Crow, his mortal enemies, for a handsome price. He was stripped to the waist, tied with leather thongs and put in a teepee with an inexperienced guard outside. Johnson managed to chew through the straps, then knocked out his young guard with a two-finger jab between the eyes, took his knife and scalped him, then quickly cut off one of his legs. He made his escape into the woods, and survived on the Blackfoot's leg until he reached the cabin of Del Gue, his trapping partner, more dead than alive, a journey of about two hundred miles.
Eventually, Johnson made peace with the Crow, who became "his brothers", and his personal vendetta against them finally ended after twenty-five years and scores of Crow warriors had fallen.
In December 1899, he was admitted to a veteran's hospital in Sawtelle (now a part of Los Angeles), died on January 21, 1900, at the age of about 76, and was buried in nearby Sawtelle National Cemetery. In the early 1980s his body was disinterred and moved to Cody, Wyoming. Johnson is now buried at Old Trail Town in Cody, Wyoming, with several other local old west characters.
Elements of his story were portrayed in the hit movie, Jeremiah Johnson, starring Robert Redford.
The mountain man's life was ruled not by the calendar or the clock but by the climate and seasons. In fall and spring, the men would trap. The start of the season and its length were dictated by the weather. The spring hunt was usually the most profitable, with the pelts still having their winter thickness. Spring season would last until the pelt quality became low. In July, the groups of mountain men and the company suppliers would gather at the summer rendezvous. There, the furs were sold, supplies were bought and company trappers were divided into parties and delegated to various hunting grounds.
The rendezvous we mentioned earlier was a chance for the hunters/trappers to gather in the off season. What began as a practical gathering to exchange pelts for supplies and reorganize trapping units evolved into a month long carnival in the middle of the wilderness. The gathering was not confined to trappers, and attracted women and children, Indians, French Canadians, and travelers.
Mountain man James Beckworth described the festivities as a scene of "mirth, songs, dancing, shouting, trading, running, jumping, singing, racing, target-shooting, yarns, frolic, with all sorts of extravagances that white men or Indians could invent." An easterner gave his view: "mountain companies are all assembled on this season and make as crazy a set of men I ever saw." There were horse races, running races, target shooting and gambling. Whiskey drinking accom
panied all of them.
It is estimated that 1,000 trappers roamed the American West in this manner from 1820 to 1830, the heyday of the Rocky Mountain fur trade.
In November the streams froze, and the trapper, like his respected nemesis, the grizzly bear, went into hibernation. Trapping continued only if the Fall had been remarkably poor, or if they were in need of food. Life in the winter camp could be easy or difficult, depending on the weather and availability of food. The greatest enemy was quite often boredom. As at rendezvous, the motley group would have physical contests, play cards, checkers and dominos, tell stories, sing songs and read. Many trappers exchanged well worn books and still others learned to read during the long wait for spring, when they could go out and trap once again.
After the decline in the beaver trade and the final rendezvous in 1840, the mountain men needed to find other means to support their lives in the wilderness.
During the summer of 1845 alone an estimated 5,000 emigrants went west. These emigrant trains from the east and government surveying expeditions provided a new realm of employment for the trappers. Military service was often the natural progression for trappers who guided for surveying expeditions. Sometimes the trappers joined the service out of loyalty to a particular officer, or because they were in the right place at the right time. Actual titles were not often needed and sometimes only given after long service.
Jim Bridger also turned to a service career after the collapse of the fur trade. He established Fort Bridger near the Oregon and California Trails and provided well needed supplies for the wave of emigrants from 1842-1848. Bridger's guiding resume is also long and distinguished. He guided Captain Howard Stanbury through what would become Bridger's Pass in 1850. This route shortened the Oregon Trail by 61 miles and would eventually be the route of the overland mail, the Union Pacific Railroad, and even Interstate 80.
On these expeditions the title of "guide" was many faceted. By the 1840's, most of the routes were well traveled and little geographical guiding was required. However, the trapper-guides did show their charges how to survive in the rough climate of the mountains and more importantly, they also helped them handle the often touchy encounters with Indians.
The mountain men had a great deal of first hand experience in dealing with Native Americans, and though they were not always sympathetic, they at least understood the Indian. Their experience proved invaluable as they helped military and emigrant parties try to avoid conflict. Though often of limited literary capacity in their native tongue, most mountain men could speak one or more Indian languages and also communicate with sign language. A few of the mountain men even used their skills in a more formal setting: as Indian agents for the federal government.
Jim Bridger's long life in the mountains provided him with both the expertise and the opportunity to facilitate relations with the native population. During the expedition through Bridger's Pass in 1850, he saved the surveying excursion of Howard Stansbury from a confrontation with the Ogalalas through his outstanding use of sign language. Bridger also interpreted at the Fort Laramie treaty council in 1851. He continued to advise military commanders through the opening campaigns of the wars with the Sioux.
The mountain man was a slave to the fur market created by the competition between companies. The amount of control a company had over a trapper depended on what contract for his services he was under. "Engages" were men that were supplied and salaried by the company. The furs which they collected were all company property. "Skin Trappers" or "Share Croppers" were outfitted by the company in exchange for a set share of the pelts at the end of the season. The "free-trapper" was at the top of this social pyramid. He was beholden to no company. He outfitted himself and trapped with whom and where he pleased. In the edited words of mountain man Joe Meek:
"They prided themselves on their hardihood and courage, even on their recklessness and profligracy. Each claimed to own the best horse; to have had the wildest adventure; to have made the most narrow escapes; to have killed the greatest number of bears and indians; to be the greatest favorite with the indian belles, the greatest consumer of alcohol, and to have the most money to spend."
The free trapper did pay a high price for his freedom as he was at the whim of market fluctuations and he was sometimes still at the mercy of a company to give him credit at the end of a bad year.
All told, the typical trapper, though he might have a good season, or a good year, never got out of debt. It was the company owners and suppliers back in St. Louis that reaped the economic harvest of the fur trade.