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Cover Story November 27th, 2008

  Untitled Document



by lyle e davis

Osborne Russell was a trapper in our far western frontier. He was born in 1814 and obviously had some education as his journal narrations reveal. Even so, he had frequent misspellings and we submit them as his journal shows them. He learned to be tough as nails but still had the eloquence of a writer as he set down his memoirs.

As a Mountain Man, Osborne Russell was quite ordinary. He was not a leader, he did not become wealthy, nor did he add to the geographic knowledge of Western North America. What makes Russell unique is that he was a keen observer, and he kept, and managed to preserve, a journal which documents his experience in the mountains from 1834 to 1843. The journal provides us with a glimpse into the everyday life of the Mountain Man, the foods they ate, the types of shelter they used, how a fur brigade traveled and operated, and how life changed with the seasons.


From his journal, we can see the human who was the mountain man. We see that Russell truly appreciated the beauty of the places through which he passed. More than once he notes that he climbed a mountain or other high place to be able to view a special scene at sunrise or sunset. He observes the decimation of beaver and buffalo populations and remarks “…that it is time for the white man to leave the mountains…” We see a man who cared for, and was loyal to his comrades, but could also be irritated by their decisions. We see a man who held a grudge against one of his comrades, but healed it before leaving the mountains. We experience his fear when attacked by Blackfoot Indians near the shore of Yellowstone Lake, and the enmity carried between the mountain men and the Blackfoot Indians. But we also see compassion towards these same enemies as a planned attack against a party of Blackfoot Indians is turned into a trading session when it becomes apparent that the Indians have already suffered greatly from small pox.

Osborne Russell was born June 12, 1814, in the village of Bowdoinham, Maine. He was one of nine children in farming family. As a child, he did receive sufficient education that he could easily read and became a proficient writer.

Russell left home at 16; at age 19 he would spend three years in the employ of the Northwest Fur Trapping and Trading Company, which operated in what would become Wisconsin and Minnesota. After this, Russell joined Nathaniel Wyeth’s Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1834. The company was contracted to deliver $3,000 worth of supplies and trade goods to Milton Sublette and Thomas Fitzpatrick of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company for the 1834 Rendezvous at Ham’s Fork. Men for this venture were recruited on the frontier at St Louis and Independence, Missouri. It was here that Osborne Russell joined the company. The term of service was for eighteen months at a wage of $250.

The Fur Trade

There were three approaches an individual could pursue as a trapper. An "Engages" was a man supplied and salaried by the company. All the furs collected belonged to the company. "Skin Trappers" were outfitted by the company on credit and paid off their debts at the end of the season. After paying for the goods at inflated mountain prices the trapper was allowed to keep the difference. More often than not they returned to the mountains once again in debt to the company. "Free Trappers" were considered the kings of the mountain. They worked for no single company and sold their furs to the highest bidder. Generally they worked alone or in small groups. By the 1830’s there were usually several hundred free trappers in the mountains at any one time.

A good trapper could harvest 120 skins in a season. At the long awaited Rendezvous, the furs would be exchanged to replenish an outfit for the following year and for luxuries such as alcohol and tobacco. No currency exchanged hands at Rendezvous. Any credit left over was issued as a note payable in St. Louis upon return to civilization. Most goods at Rendezvous were traded to the trappers at a 600% markup. As a consequence, after a Rendezvous, most trappers headed back to the mountains in debt or, at best, broke.

The Rendezvous was the event of the year for the trappers. It was a time to see old friends, celebrate and re-supply. The William Ashley ledgers provide some details as to what was provided at Rendezvous and the prices asked for supplies.

Gunpowder $1.50 per pound
Lead $1.00 per pound
Shot $1.25 per pound
Blankets $9.00 each
Scarlet Cloth $6.00 per yard
Beaver Traps $9.00 each
Tobacco $3.00 per pound

The company inflated prices over and above that. Daniel Potts states "powder traded for $2.50 a pound, coffee at $2.00 a pound, 3 point blankets at $15.00 each, scarlet cloth at $10.00 per yard, and horses cost from $150.00 to $300.00 and some as high as $500.00". Considering the fact that yearly salaries for the trappers ranged between $200.00 - $400.00 it is apparent why trapping was not necessarily a lucrative profession at least to anyone other than the company.

The location for Rendezvous was generally an expansive valley with plenty of grazing land. The number of pack animals at a Rendezvous would be immense. At the 1830 Rendezvous there were "ten wagons drawn by five mules each, two Dearborne carriages drawn by one mule each, and twelve head of cattle with one milch cow." This was just the supply caravan; with the addition of other pack animals and horses it would exhaust grazing land rapidly. As a consequence the Rendezvous would move around the valley to allow continued grazing. A person can only imagine what a Rendezvous location would look like after a month of festivities.

In his journals Russell paints a vivid word picture of what a trapper looked like:

A Trappers equipments in such cases is generally one Animal upon which is placed one or two Epishemores a riding Saddle and bridle a sack containing six Beaver traps a blanket with an extra pair of Mocasins 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 enough to obtain one, if not Antelope skin answers the purpose of over and under shirt) a pair of leather breeches with Blanket or smoked Buffaloe skin, leggings, a coat made of Blanket or Buffaloe robe a hat or Cap of wool, Buffaloe or Otter skin his hose are pieces of Blanket lapped round his feet which are covered with a pair of Moccassins made of Dressed Deer Elk or Buffaloe skins with his long hair falling loosely over his shoulders complets his uniform. He then mounts and places his rifle before him on his Saddle.

Russell never married. As he got older, his health continued to deteriorate, and toward the end of his life he was paralyzed below the waist. He died August 26, 1892, at Placerville, California.

Russell died in 1892 but in his journals, he gave each of us a glimpse of life as it was back when the west was just being discovered by the white man.

Herein, extracts from his journal:

It has been my design whilst keeping a journal to note down the principal circumstances which came under my immediate observation as I passed along and I have mostly deferred giving a general description of Indians and animals that inhabit the Rocky Mountains until the latter end in order that I might be able to put the information I have collected in a more compact form. I have been very careful in gathering information from the most intelligent Indians and experienced White hunters but have excluded from this journal such parts (with few exceptions) as I have not proved true by experience. I am fully aware of the numerous statements which have been given to travellers in a jocular manner by the hunters and traders among the Rocky Mountains merely to hear themselves talk or according to the Mountaineers expression give them a long yarn or `Fish Story" to put in their journals. and I have frequently seen those `Fish Stories" published with the original very much enlarged which had not at first the slightest ground for truth to rest upon

I have never known but one Rocky Mountain[eer] to keep a regular journal, and he could not have visited the Northern part of them as I am confident his Compiler (Mr. Flint) would not knowingly be led into such errors as occur in James O'Patties Journal, both in regard to the location of the country and Indians inhabiting the northern section of it. He says the `Flathead nation of Indians flattened their heads and lived between the Platte and Yellow Stone rivers" which is not nor ever was the case in either instance, he also says that Lewi's river and the Arkansas head near each other in Long's Peak. I never was at Longs Peak or the head of the Arkansas river but am fully confident can [not] be within 300 Mls. of the source of Lewi's river. These are among the numerous errors which I discovered in reading James 0 Pattie's Journal Embellished by Mr. Flint of Cincinnati These are among the reasons for which I offer this to public view hoping that it not only may be of interest to myself but the means of correcting some erroneous statements which have gone forth to the world unintentionally perhaps by their authors.


The vast numbers of these animals which once traversed such an extensive region in Nth. America are fast diminishing. The continual increasing demand for robes in the civilised world has already and is still contributing in no small degree to their destruction, whilst on the other hand the continual increase of wolves and other 4 footed enemies far exceeds that of the Buffaloe when these combined efforts for its destruction is taken into consideration, it will not be doubted for a moment that this noble race of animals, so useful in supplying the wants of man, will at no far distant period become extinct in North America. The Buffaloe is already a stranger, altho so numerous 10 years ago, in that part of the country which is drained by the sources of the Colerado, Bear and Snake Rivers and occupied by the Snake and Bonnack Indians. The flesh of the Buffaloe Cow is considered far superior to that of the domestic Beef and it is so much impregnated with salt that it requires but little seasoning when cooked.

The rutting season of the Buffaloe is regular commencing about the 15th of July when the males and females are fat, and ends about the 15 of Aug. Consequently the females bring forth their young in the latter part of April and the first of May when the grass is most luxuriant and thereby enables the cow to afford the most nourishment for her calf and enables the young to quit the natural nourishment of its dam and feed upon the tender herbage sooner than it would at any other season of the year. Another proof is that when the rutting season commences the strongest healthiest and most vigorous Bulls drive the weaker ones from the cows hence the calves are from the best breed which is thereby kept upon a regular basis. The cows are fattest in Octr and the Bulls in July. The grass on which the Buffaloe generally feeds is short, firm and of the most nutritious kind. The salts with which the mountain regions is much impregnated are imbibed in a great degree by the vegetation and as there is very little rain in Summer Autumn or winter the grass arrives at maturity and dries in the sun without being wet it is made like hay; in this state it remains throughout the winter and while the spring rains are divesting the old growth of its nutricious qualities they are in the meantime pushing forward the new.

The most general mode practiced by the Indians for killing Buffaloe is running upon horseback and shooting them with arrows but it requires a degree of experience for both man and horse to kill them in this manner with any degree of safety particularly in places where the ground is rocky and uneven. The horse that is well trained for this purpose not only watches the ground over which he is running and avoids the holes ditchs and rocks by shortening or extending his leaps but also the animal which he is pursuing in order to prevent being `horned' when tis brot suddenly to bay which is done instantaneously and if the Buffaloe wheel to the right the horse passes as quick as thought to the left behind it and thereby avoids its horns but if the horse in close pursuit wheels on the same side with the Buffaloe he comes directly in contact with its horns and with one stroke the horses entrails are often torn out and his rider thrown headlong to the ground After the Buffaloe is brought to bay the trained horse will immediately commence describing a circle about 10 paces from the animal in which he moves continually in a slow gallop or trot which prevents the raging animal from making a direct bound at him by keeping it continually turning round until it is killed by the rider with arrows or bullets. If a hunter discovers a band of Buffaloe in a place too rough and broken for his horse to run with safety and there is smooth ground nearby he secretly rides on the leward side as near as he can without being discovered he then starts up suddenly without apparently noticing the Buffaloe and gallops in the direction he wishes the band to run the Buffaloe on seeing him run to the plain start in the same direction in order to prevent themselves from being headed and kept from the smooth ground The same course would be pursued if he wished to take them to any particular place in the mountains - One of the hunters first instructions to an inexperienced hand is "run towards the place where you wish the Buffaloe to run but do not close on them behind until they get to that place" for instance if the hunter is to the right the leading Buffaloe keep inclining to the right and if he should fall in behind and crowd upon the rear they would separate in different directions and it would be a mere chance if any took the direction he wished them - When he gets to the plain he gives his horse the rein and darts thro the band selects his victim reins his horse up along side and shoots and if he considers the wound mortal he pulls up the rein the horse knowing his business keeps along galloping with the band until the rider has reloaded when he darts forward upon another Buffaloe as at first A Cow seldom stops at bay before she is wounded and therefore is not so dangerous as a Bull who wheels soon after he is pushed from the band and becomes fatigued whether he is wounded or not. When running over ground where there is rocks holes or gullies the horse must be reined up gradually if he is reined at all there is more accidents happens in running Buffaloes by the riders getting frightened and suddenly checking their horses than any other way. If they come upon a Gully over which the horse can leap by an extra exertion the best plan is to give him the rein and the whip or spur at the same time and fear not for any ditch that a Buffaloe can leap can be cleared with safety by a horse and one too wide for a Buffaloe to clear an experienced rider will generally see in time to check his horse gradually before he gets to it.

It also requires a considerable degree of practice to approach on foot and kill Buffaloe with a Rifle A person must be well acquainted with the shape and make of the animal and the manner which it is standing in order to direct his aim with certainty - And it also requires experience to enable him choose a fat animal the best looking Buffaloe is not always the fattest and a hunter by constant practice may lay down rules for selecting the fattest when on foot which would be no guide to him when running upon horseback for he is then placed in a different position and one which requires different rules for choosing.



The appellation by which this nation is distinguished is derived from the Crows but from what reason I have never been able to determine They call themselves Sho-sho-nies (modern spelling: Shoshone - editor) but during an acquaintance of nine years during which time I made further progress in their language than any white man had done before me I never saw one of the nation who could give me either the derivation or definition of the word Sho sho nie - Their country comprises all the regions drained by the head branches of Green and Bear rivers and the East and Southern head branches of Snake River They are kind and hospitable to whites thankful for favors indignant at injuries and but little addicted to theft in their large villages I have seldom heard them accused of inhospitality on the contrary I have found it to be a general feature of their character to divide the last morsel of food with the hungry stranger let their means be what it might for obtaining the next meal The Snakes and in fact most of the Rocky Mountain Indians believe in a supreme Deity who resides in the Sun and in infernal Deities residing in the Moon and Stars but all subject to the Supreme control of the one residing in the Sun - They believe that the Spirits of the departed are permitted to watch over the actions of the living and every warrior is protected by a pecular guardian Angel in all his actions so long as he obeys his rules a violation of which subjects the offender to misfortunes and disasters during the displeasure of the offended Deity. Their Prophets Jugglers or Medicine Men are supposed to be guided by Dieties diffring from the others insomuch as he is continually attended upon the devotee from birth gradually instilling into his mind the mysteries of his profession which cannot be transmitted from one mortal to another. The prophet or juggler converses freely with his supernatural director who guides him up from childhood in his manner of eating drinking and smoking particularly the latter for every Prophet has a different mode of handling filling lighting and smoking the big Pipe - Such as profound silence in the circle whilst the pipe is lighting the pipe turned round three times in the direction of the sun by the next person on the right previous to giving it to him or smoking with the feet uncovered Some cannot smoke in the presence of a female or a dog and a hundred other movements equally vague and superstitious which would be too tedious to mention here. A plurality of wives is very common among the Snakes and the marriage contract is dissolved only by the consent of the husband after which the wife is at liberty to marry again Prostitution among the women is very rare and fornication whilst living with the husband is punished with the utmost severity The women perform all the labor about the lodge except the care of the horses. They are cheerful and affectionate to their husbands remarkably fond and careful of their children

The Government is a Democracy deeds of valor promotes the Chief to the highest points attainable from which he is at any time liable to fall for misdemeanor in office: their population amts. to between 5 and 6,000 about half of which live in large Villages and range among the Buffaloe: the remainder live in small detached companies comprising of from 2 to 10 families who subsist upon roots fish seeds and berries They have but few horses and are much addicted to thieving from their manner of living they have received the appellation of "Root Diggers” -they rove about in the mountains in order to seclude themselves from their warlike enemies the Blackfeet - their arrows are pointed with quartz or obsideon which they dip in poison extracted from the fangs of the rattle snake and prepared with antelopes liver these they use in hunting and war and however slight the wound may be that is inflicted by one of them - death is almost inevitable but the flesh of animals killed by these arrows is not injured for eating - The Snakes who live upon Buffaloe and live in large villages seldom use poison upon their arrows either in hunting or war - They are well armed with fusees (fusee - a gun - editor) and well supplied with horses they seldom stop more than 8 or 10 dys in one place which prevents the accumulation of filth which is so common among Indians that are Stationary. Their lodges are spacious neatly made of dressed Buffaloe skins, sewed to gether and set upon 11 or 13 long smooth poles to each lodge which are dragged along for that purpose. In the winter of 1842 the principal Chief of the Snakes died in an appoplectic fit and on the following year his brother died but from what disease I could not learn. These being the two principal pillars that upheld the nation the loss of them was and is to this day deeply deplored - immediately after the death of the latter the tribe scattered in smaller villages over the country in consequence of having no chief who could control and keep them together - their ancient warlike spirit seemed to be buried with their leaders and they are fast falling into degradation, without a head the body is of little use.

Shoshone Encampment


This once formidable tribe once lived on the North side of the Missouri East of the mouth of the Yellow Stone about the year 1790 they crossed the Missouri and took the region of country which they now inhabit, by conquest from the Snakes It is bounded on the East and South by a low range of Mountains called the "Black Hills" on the West by the Wind river Mountains and on the North by the Yellow Stone river The face of the country presents a diversity of rolling hills and Valleys and includes several plains admirably adapted for grazing. the whole country abounds with Coal and Iron in great abundance and signs of Lead and Copper are not infrequently seen and gypsum exists in imense quarries. timber is scare except along the streams and on the mountains wild fruit such as cherries service berries currants gooseberries and plums resembling the pomgranate are abundant - The latter grow on small trees generally 6 or 8 feet high varying in color and flavor from the most acute acid to the mildest sweetness - Hops grow spontaneously and in great abundance along the streams. When the Crows first conquered this country their numbers amtd to about 8,000 persons but the ravages of war and small pox combined has reduced their numbers to about 2,000. of which upwards of 1200 are females They are proud treacherous thievish insolent and brave when they are possessed with a superior advantage but when placed in the opposite situation they are equally humble submissive and cowardly Like the other tribes of Indians residing in the Rocky Mts. they believe in a Supreme Deity who resides in the Sun and lesser deitys residing in the Moon and Stars. Their government is a kind of Democracy The Chief who can enumerate the greatest number of valiant exploits is unanimously considered the Supreme ruler All the greatest warriors below him and above a certain grade are Counsillors and take their seats in the council according to their respective ranks. the voice of the lowest rank having but little weight in discussing matters of importance. When a measure is adopted by the council and approved by the head Chief it is immediately put in force by the order of the military commander who is appointed by the Council to serve for an indefinite period A standing Company of soldiers is kept up continually for the purpose of maintaining order in the Village. The Captain can order any young man in the Village to serve as a soldier in turn and the council only can increase or diminish the number of soldiers at pleasure. The greatest Chiefs cannot violate the orders which the Capt. receives from the Council - No office or station is hereditary neither does wealth constitute dignity. The greatest Chief may fall below the meanest citizen for misdemeanor in office and the lowest citizen may rise to the most exalted station by the performance of valiant deeds - The Crows both male and female are tall well proportioned handsomly featured with very light copper coloured skins. Prostitution of their wives is very common but sexual intercours between near relatives is [strictly] prohibited - when a young man is married he never after speaks to his mother in law nor the wife to the father in law altho they may all live in the same lodge If the husband wishes to say anything to the mother in law he speaks to the wife who conveys it to the mother and in the same way communication is conveyed between the wife and father in law - This custom is peculiar to the Crows They never intermarry with other nations but a stranger if he wishes can always be accommodated with a wife while he stops with the Village but cannot take her from it when he leaves

A Crow Warrior

Their laws for killing Buffaloe are most rigidly enforced. No person is allowed to hunt Buffalo in the vicinity where the village is stationed without first obtaining leave of the council - for the first offense the offenders hunting apparatus are broken and destroyed for second his horses are killed his property destroyed and he beaten with rods the third is punished by death by shooting - When a decree is given by the council it is published by the head Chief who rides to and fro thro. the village like a herald and proclaims it aloud to all - They generally kill their meat by surrounding a band of Buffaloe and when once enclosed but few escape - The first persons who arrive at a dead Buffaloe is entitled to one third of the meat and if the person who killed it is the fourth one on the spot he only gets the hide and tongue but in no wise can he get more than one third of the meat if a second and third person appears before It is placed on the horses designed for packing. A person whether male or female poor or rich gets the 2d or 3d division according to the time of arrival each one knowing what parts they are allowed - This is also a custom peculiar to the Crows which has been handed down from time immemorial - Their language is clear distinct and not intermingled with guttural sounds which renders it remarkably easy for a stranger to learn It is a high crime for a father or mother to inflict corporeal punishment on their male children and if a Warrior is struck by a stranger he is irretriveably disgraced unless he can kill the offender immediately Taking prisoners of war is never practiced with the exception of subjecting them to servile employments - Adult males are never retained as prisoners but generally killed on the spot but young Males are taken to the Village and trained up in their mode of warfare until they imbibe the Crow Customs and language when they are eligible to the highest station their deeds of valor will permit. The Crows are remarkably fond of gaudy and glittering ornaments. The Eye teeth of the Elk are used in connexion with [?] are used as a circulating medium and are valued according to their size - There exists among them many customs similar to those of the ancient Israelites A woman after being delivered of a male child cannot approach the lodge of her husband under 40 dys and for a female 50 is required - and 7 dys seperation for every natural menses. The distinction between clean and unclean beasts bears a great degree of similarity to the Jewish law. They are remarkable for their cleanliness and variety of cookery which exceeds that of any other tribe in the Rocky Mts. They seldom use salt but often season their cookery with herbs of various kinds and flavors.

Sickness is seldom found amongst them and they naturally live to a great age. There is no possibility of ascertaining the precise age of any Mountain Indians but an inference may be drawn with tolerable correctness from their outward appearance and such indefinite information from their own faint recollections of dates as may be collected by an intimate acquaintance with their habits customs traditions and manner of living I have never known a Mountain [Indian] to be troubled with the tooth ache or decayed teeth nither have I ever known a case of insanity except from known and direct causes. I was upon one particular occasion invited to smoke in a circle comprising thirteen aged Crow warriors the youngest of whom appeared to have seen upwards of 100 winters and yet they were all in good health and fine spirits - they had long since left the battle ground and council room to young aspirants of 60 and under it is really diverting to hear those hoary headed veterans when they are collected together conversing upon the good old times of their forefathers and condemning the fashions of the present age - They have a tradition among them that their most powerful Chief (who died sometime since) commanded the Sun and Moon to stand still two days and nights in the valley of Wind River whilst they conquered the Snakes and that they obeyed him. They point out the place where the same chief changed the wild sage of the prarie into a band of Antelope when the Village was in starving condition I have also been shown a spring on the west side of the Big horn river below the upper Mountain which they say was once bitter but thro. the medicine of this great Chief the waters were made sweet. They have a great aversion to distilled spirits of any kind terming it the `White mans fool water' and say if a Crow drink it he ceases to be a Crow and becomes a foolish animal so long as he senses are absorbed by its influence

In 1842 he joined a wagon train of emigrants destined for the Willamette Valley of Oregon. There on June 6, 1843 he lost his right eye and suffered other injuries in an accident while blasting rock for a millrace at Oregon City. While convalescing he studied law. Later Russell became a judge and was also active in politics in the Oregon Territory. In 1848 with news of gold in California, Russell joined in the rush. Due to poor health from his previous injuries, he was unable to prospect and became a merchant. Later Russell was ruined by a dishonest partner and is said to have spent the remainder of his life trying to pay off creditors.

There is extensive information and journal entries available to read. If you wish to spend more time exploring this marvelous journal, go to:


Or, if you Google Osborne Russell you will find dozens of entries about him, both works that he has written as well as what others have written about him.









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