| 
  • If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • You already know Dokkio is an AI-powered assistant to organize & manage your digital files & messages. Very soon, Dokkio will support Outlook as well as One Drive. Check it out today!

View
 

Lisman Page

Page history last edited by Sarah Lisman 9 years, 7 months ago

The American Mountain Man

By: Sarah Lisman

Summer Rendezvous, 1870, The River of the West

 

Introduction

A Mountain Man is often a mythical western figure, difficult to put a name or face to, as it is not as symbolic or popular as the American Cowboy or gold-seekers. The Mountain Man is a figure that led to expansion and success in the U.S. West, therefore, he should receive more credit and appreciation. The life of a Mountain Man as a trapper and explorer was one that was faced with harsh, life-threatening conditions, yet he still managed to open the West for other Americans. By participating in the fur trade, the Mountain Man had to maneuver and travel through different types of terrain and climate, designating paths along the way, for his fellow traders and future generations. He had to explore with the bare necessities, becoming innovative in the way he survived and lived. The Mountain Man had to interact with hostile Indians, who were displeased with white treatment, and manage negotiations. He had to bring in new civilization to the area to help it prosper. The Mountain Man took various responsibilities upon himself in order to become more successful, and subsequently served as the technician of the westward movement that allowed the United States to achieve its ideal of Manifest Destiny, making him one of the most influential and essential figures in the construction of the United States.

 

Origins of the Mountain Man

The story of the Mountain Man begins with the emergence of fur trading in North America. American Indians had been trading goods, including furs, for centuries before Europeans arrived in the mid-1600s. When the Europeans did arrive, the two groups began trading goods, like manufactured products for valuable furs.[1] After the Revolutionary War, the United States was constantly battling Great Britain for control of the North American fur trade, and by the War of 1812, there were only three remaining parties involved in the fur trade. They included the native Indians, fur trading companies, and the American government.[2] The Lewis and Clarke expeditions were able to discover unknown lands, and with it, unknown riches, including beaver from the Northern Rockies that had much thicker fur than any other of its kind. Men from the expeditions, after returning to the East, would spread word that rich beaver resources could be found out West.[3] This led to the creation of trading companies in the United States, including the American Fur Company, created by John Jacob Astor. It dominated the fur trade by absorbing and crushing its rivals through great success.[4] The fur traders were some of the first to explore the Far West, meaning there was not much influence of civilization that a majority of Americans enjoyed. The men were subsequently forced to interact with the Indians in order to receive certain goods, as well as live off of the land in order to survive. Thus, much of their survival relied on their surroundings, which were the rugged, difficult Rocky Mountains, resulting in the notable title of Mountain Man.


John Jacob Astor, 1825; John Wesley Jarvis

Fort Astoria, 1813; Gabriel Franchere

 

Geographical Importance

The Mountain Man name describes the geographical challenges in itself. The abundance of quality beaver was found, as mentioned previously, in the mountainous region of the West. As imagined, it was difficult to navigate, as well as survive, with varying harsh climates that can be attributed to the geographical features. John Colter, a member of Lewis and Clark's expedition, is the first known white man to have explored present day Wyoming.[5] He mapped his findings, creating reference for future explorers who roamed the passages, later named the Oregon Trail. As more men entered the region, they searched for other beaver rich regions, leading to the creation of more passes and trails. One of the most notable is the Bad Pass Trail. As its name portrays, it was quite a dangerous trek for the traders, with rugged terrain and a constant threat of grizzly bear attacks. Yet, it provided an efficient, quick path to St. Louis, the hub of fur trading.[6] The men would follow the Bad Pass Trail until they reached the Grapevine Creek, where they would load all of their belongings into boats, and float down river to St.Louis in order to collect their rewards.[7] While it was not a necessarily safe passage, it was used before overland routes were established, and used as a way to avoid the rapids and gorges of other passages like Bighorn Canyon. Mountainous regions are famously known for their difficult to navigate terrain, but the rivers of the Rocky region were where the valuable beaver populated, forcing the traders to find ways to travel. By creating and discovering various passages, the Mountain Men became experts of the land, allowing them to posses a title that directly correlated with the geographical features they conquered.

Map of Oregon Territory, 1838; Samuel Parker

 

Modes of Travel

The various terrains the Mountain Men faced forced them to use various methods of travel, and to even become innovative in creating efficient and reliable transportation. One of the most important uses of travel was a horse. The Mountain Men would typically have at least a few horses, or mules, on their treks, one for riding and the rest for carrying pelts and equipment.[8] Horses were vital, as they were strong and fast when needed, as well as able to navigate both land and water. In order to ensure the health of their horses, Mountain Men would "bleed" them.[9] Through this practice, the Mountain Men would purposely remove blood from a horse, which they believed would make them thrive since horses who are bled invariably fatted faster, allowing them better chances of surviving during the harsh winters.[10] In addition to horses, the Mountain Men also used different types of canoes and boats to navigate the rivers inhabited by beaver. They gained insight into how to make a reliable canoe or boat from the Indians. The bullboat was used to carry large loads, typically down river as they were more used for floating downstream than paddling upstream, especially in the case of traveling with pelts to rendezvous sites like at St. Louis.[11] The bullboats were made of buffalo hides, stretched over a frame and waterproofed with elk tallow.[12] Canoes were adapted over time, as the Mountain Men learned different techniques of constructing reliable boats from the Indians. The bark canoe was one commonly used by Indians because of its light weight, steadiness and rapidity, and used eventually by the Mountain Men.[13] As the Mountain Men learned from the experiences, as well as Indians, they began developing more efficient ways of traveling. They never traveled in exceptionally large groups, as doing so would create various problems including finding enough food and avoiding delays, however, they did need a group that would allow for ample defense against a threat.[14] In obtaining more experience, Mountain Men began writing instructions for others that wanted to travel in the region, advising them as to what techniques, methods, and routes were the most efficient and reliable. They became experts in various types of travel, managing drastically different landscapes from plains to rivers to mountains, and creating and discovering new, safer routes along the way.

Bullboat, 1860

Pelzhandler auf dem Missouri (dutch), 1845; George Caleb Bingham

 

Survival

The various landscapes provided not only problems for travel, but issues in simply surviving. The plains lacked trees or wood to make fire, so traders turned to buffalo pies, or dried buffalo excrement.[15] For food, they began hunting buffalo, which at times was difficult because the animal traveled in large packs and were not always easy to find. Yet, the traders were quite excited when they did find a pack because they enjoyed the buffalo meat.[16] It eventually became the main source of protein. A normal meal for the men would be boiled buffalo meat with the addition of a piece of buffalo fat.[17] The Mountain Men were forced to be frugal with their goods, as they spent much time away from civilization, and had to be innovative in the ways they used their possession. For example, if a colleague died, which was not a rare occurrence, and the other men did not have a shovel, they would have to use other products to dig a grave, like an axe and a frying pan.[18] At times, the Mountain Men would be in need of products that they perhaps lost, ran out of, or had stolen, so one of their only options was to turn to the Indians for help, as a white-man civilization could have been hundreds of miles away. When provisions ran out, the men faced death or would have to turn back and quit their expedition, thus it was essential to maintain a trade relationship with the Indians.[19] While some relations went sour, the Indians played a large role in the success of Mountain Men, teaching them survival methods and providing them with various provisions to aid in that survival. As a result, the Mountain Men played a middle man between the Indians and the American government, as well as between different Indian tribes, attempting to keep peace to ensure their business success and survival.

A Buffalo Hunt, 1870, The River of the West

 

Trapping, Hunting, Trading

The main goal of a Mountain Man was to trap enough beaver to sell for a profit in order to buy enough equipment and provisions for his next exploration. Thus, trapping was the most important aspect of a Mountain Man's career, as it provided his income. When they were out trapping, they lived a lonely life, as their only interaction with a structured society was during the annual rendezvous trading event.[20] Being in the wilderness changed a man. He became more like a primitive savage than a civilized man.[21] Spending much of their time away from civilization caused them to become animal-like, with revengeful and bloodthirsty characteristics.[22] They were strong, active and daring. This attributions were exemplified when a Mountain Men were to come face to face with an aggresive, western animal, like a buffalo. At times, the animal would walk into camps, posing a threat to the inhabitants. It was common for the men to then hunt that buffalo, without much emotion as it became a way of life and survival.[23] When their trapping season was over, the Mountain Men would all meet at a rendezvous site, which had already been predetermined, typically along a river making travel easier.[24] As the site, all the different men would sell their pelts, or even trade them for certain goods. At times, they traded goods they had obtained while visiting with the Indians. For a short while, the rendezvous sites resembled small, makeshift towns. The most popular hut of them all, was the one which sold liquor, as the men were deprived of it during an expedition. They would also trade for salt, sugar, tobacco, and new traps.[25] The constant presence of trapping, hunting, and then trading, created a cleavage in the social aspect of a Mountain Man's life. At times, he would spend months with very little human interaction, living off of only a few goods, and then when it came time to trade, he faced great influx of human interaction.

Pennsylvania Rifle

Rendezvous and Trading Post Map

 

Relations with Natives

Since the life of a Mountain Man did require some assistance from the American Indians, a certain level of communication was essential to the survival and success of the men. Some Indian tribes were welcoming to the white men, including the Nez Perce, Pawnees, Rees and Mandans.[26] These tribes would frequently work with and aid the Mountain Men, providing them somewhere to sleep as well as trade certain goods to help with survival. The Sioux, however, proved different. Their way of leaving was different than the other tribes. They did not have permanent villages, did not cultivate the soil, and mainly relied on hunting. Because of this, they were spread out, and travelled in relation to their choice of game, primarily buffalo.[27] Since they were so numerous and covered extensive land, they were often involved in war with each other. Fighting amongst different Sioux tribes often broke out between the Yanhtoneys and the Assiaboines.[28] Other times, they could be found waging war against the neighboring Mandans. This hostile environment did create certain issues for the Mountain Men, especially because trading with the Indians was so important. The Mountain Men were often faced with the difficult decision of choosing one tribe over the other during a time of conflict. Other times, the white man would attempt to help negotiate peace. Acting as a peacekeeper between tribes would better a Mountain Man's chance for survival as he would be decreasing the chance of hostility and also creating a relationship with certain tribes.[29] When imagining the relationship between Indians and whites, many automatically think of great hostilities and war, which is partially true. The United States government has conducted various actions that have resulted in the displacement and death of thousands of Indians. These occurrences did create a sour relationship with the whites, making it difficult for Mountain Men to interact, negotiate, and live amongst Indians, yet they were able to do so. They became a middle man between the Indians and the American government, helping foster communication for future negotiations.

Fur Trading at Fort Nez Perces, 1841; Joseph Drayton

 

Debut of Women

After decades of male dominance in the West, women arrived and began to play an important role in the life of a Mountain Man. One of the first documented accounts of a woman in the West during the fur trade was by Eliza Spalding. She provides an account that is different than that of any male, as it focuses on the will of God. In Eliza Spalding's diary, dated from June 15th to July 6th 1836, she discusses how an Englishman came to their camp, "wishing to obtain a testament."[30] He mentions how he had not enjoyed religious privileges for years because he had been associated with ungodly men, and subsequently, neglected his religious duties. Spalding serves as his savior by providing the man with a bible, saying "His will, not mine be done,' referencing God.[31] In this instance, a woman is bringing a conservative, Christian aspect to the West, which is filled with men who have strayed away from the religious beliefs. Women not only played a religious role in the West, but also a supportive role for the man. With the introduction of women in the West, the men saw an opportunity to abandon their previous loneliness, and obtain a partner to help with day-to-day necessities.[32] While this could potentially hurt the Mountain Man, the ability to have constant human interaction helped him escape a lonely life. Also, by bringing women into the West, and on expeditions, the Mountain Men opened a new type of civilization in the region, creating the potential of families being able to survive and thrive in the area.

Eliza Hart Spalding

Spalding, Whitman and Others Praying

 

Conclusion

While the Mountain Man may not have as many dramatized Hollywood movies like a cowboy or gold-seeker, his role plays the most important of any figure in the West before mass-expansion and habitation. By opening routes, interacting with the Indians, and establishing a new population, the Mountain Man is essential when examining the history of the U.S. West. Their legacy will not be superseded, as they are remembered for the sacrifices they gave up and the hardships they faced. The Mountain Men were proud, hardworking people who aimed for success. Even after the fall of the fur trade, many Mountain Men stayed committed to the region they had called home for so long, by becoming guides for wagon trains, military scouts, or buffalo hunters.[33] The Mountain Man allowed for the West to become inhabited by Americans, giving him a stake in how, in the present day, we understand westward expansion. 

 

Footnotes

  1. Historic Fort Snelling- The Fur Trade (n.d.). In Minnesota Historical Society. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  2. Historic Fort Snelling- The Fur Trade (n.d.). In Minnesota Historical Society. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  3. Mountain Men and the Fur Trade (n.d.). In National Park Service. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  4. Singh, S. (2008, November 4). American Fur Company. In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  5. Wyoming- Description (n.d.). In World Atlas. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  6. Mountain Men and the Bad Pass Trail (n.d.). In National Park Service. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  7. Mountain Men and the Bad Pass Trail (n.d.). In National Park Service. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  8. Sage, R. (1857). Rocky Mountain Life. , 26.
  9. Ferris, W. A. (1940). Life in the Rocky Mountain: 1830-1835. , 75.
  10. Ferris, W. A. (1940). Life in the Rocky Mountain: 1830-1835. , 75.
  11. Mountain Men (n.d.). In National Park Service. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  12. Mountain Men (n.d.). In National Park Service. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  13. Ferris, W. A. (1940). Life in the Rocky Mountain: 1830-1835. , 60.
  14. Sage, R. (1857). Rocky Mountain Life. , 26.
  15. Ferris, W. A. (1940). Life in the Rocky Mountain: 1830-1835. , 7.
  16. Ferris, W. A. (1940). Life in the Rocky Mountain: 1830-1835. , 6.
  17. Ferris, W. A. (1940). Life in the Rocky Mountain: 1830-1835. , 62.
  18. Ferris, W. A. (1940). Life in the Rocky Mountain: 1830-1835. , 27.
  19. Potts, D. T. (1826, July 16). Letter to Robert Potts. The Rocky Mountain Letters of Daniel T. Potts.
  20. Mountain Men and Trappers (n.d.). In National Park Service. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  21. Ruxton, G. F. (1848). The Beaver and his Trapper. Wild Life in the Rocky Mountains.
  22. Ruxton, G. F. (1848). The Beaver and his Trapper. Wild Life in the Rocky Mountains.
  23. Potts, D. T. (1826, July 16). Letter to Robert Potts. The Rocky Mountain Letters of Daniel T. Potts.
  24. Mountain Men and Trappers (n.d.). In National Park Service. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  25. Mountain Men and Trappers (n.d.). In National Park Service. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  26. Campbell, R. (1836, July 12). Rocky Mountains. The Rocky Mountain Letters of Robert Campbell.
  27. Campbell, R. (1836, July 12). Rocky Mountains. The Rocky Mountain Letters of Robert Campbell.
  28. Campbell, R. (1836, July 12). Rocky Mountains. The Rocky Mountain Letters of Robert Campbell.
  29. Campbell, R. (1833, July 10). Green River, Rocky Mountains. The Rocky Mountain Letters of Robert Campbell.
  30. Spalding, E. (1836, July 6). Diary of Mrs. Eliza Spalding. .
  31. Spalding, E. (1836, July 6). Diary of Mrs. Eliza Spalding. .
  32. Mountain Men and Trappers (n.d.). In National Park Service. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  33. Mountain Men and Trappers (n.d.). In National Park Service. Retrieved December 14, 2014.

Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.