Our rangers, especially Stumpy, often talk about mountain men and have mentioned a few by name. Well then, who or what are mountain men? Where do they live and work? How do they differ from frontiersmen or hunters and trappers?
The first mountain men are generally considered to be American and Canadian hunters and trappers who lived and worked in the Rocky Mountains mostly from 1810 to the mid-1840's. But these weren't ordinary hunters and trappers. These men were living in the wild, remote, unexplored regions of the Rockies. These men were trying to survive alone or almost alone in some of the most inaccessible and inhospitable areas. The Louisiana Territory was most of the land from west of the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. It's area was over 800,000 square miles. In 1803 the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. Some foreign hunters and trappers had worked in the Rockies long before 1803. Once this region became part of the United States, hunting and trapping opened up for Americans. The best regions for trappers proved to be too rugged and difficult for all but the heartiest souls to attempt.
The beginning of the 19th century brought a new reason for going to the Rockies - huge demand for animal furs. Fur coats and hats, and especially raccoon hats, became popular in Europe. This brought high prices for animal hides. Still the Rockies were too dangerous for most. But during the period from 1810 to 1830, several thousand mountain men braved the hazards of mountain life to work trap lines.
His Life and Look
The stereotype mountain man wore buckskins, coonskin cap, and fur coat; grew a bushy beard; and carried a Hawken rifle and Bowie knife. He usually had one horse for riding and one or two horses or mules to carry food, coffee, tobacco, salt, cooking supplies, furs, and other gear. He had to deal with wild animals and unfriendly Native Americans. He needed to build a cabin to live in to survive the long and bitterly cold winters and deep, deep snows. That cabin needed to be in friendly native territory. He often had to deal with hunger. He treated disease with roots and herbs.
Most independent trappers worked alone. Fur companies organized their men in groups of 4 or 5 who took turns trapping, cooking, cutting fire wood, etc. The groups reported to a leader called a "boosway."
Fur companies, such as North West Company, Rocky Mtn. Fur Company, and American Fur Company, would hold gatherings called "rendezvous" in the spring to trade with the trappers and mountain men. They would exchange the trappers' pelts for food and other goods. The men would play games of skill, like hatchet throwing and rifle and bow and arrow shooting, have large meals, exchange books, and send mail.
Nearly Their End
The Hudson Bay Company successfully destroyed all other fur companies as well as most trapping in the United States by overtrapping the Rockies in the US. Only a handful of mountain men now trap in the Rockies compared to the early 1800s. Also around 1840 demand for furs and raccoon hats dropped off markedly further damaging trapping in the US.
Notable Early Mountain Men
John Colter was a member of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery (1804-1806). He was a master hunter and tracker. He left the Corps of Discovery a few months early to assist others exploring the northern portions of the Louisiana Territory. He is considered one of the very first mountain men. He is the first white man to see Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, and the Teton Mountains. While trapping, he escaped a group of Blackfeet by outrunning them in what is called "Colter's Run."
James Beckwourth was born a slave and freed by his father. He worked for the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. and lived among the Crow people. James also found Beckwourth Pass and Trail which goes through the Sierra Nevadas to Marysville. CA.
Jim Bridger went west in 1822 at the age of 17. He became part of Ashley's Hundred, the first of several trapping expeditions of Ashley and Henry to the Rockies along the upper Missouri River. He eventually saw the geysers of Yellowstone and owned shares in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. He established Fort Bridger, a fortified trading post, in SW Wyoming. He was most famous at the time for his tall tales.
Jedediah Smith was a hunter, trapper, and trader who explored the American west and opened it to white settlers. He was the first American to get to California by land. He was the first person of European descent to entirely cross the territory that is today Nevada. He also crossed Utah north to south and east to west. He was the first to scale the High Sierras and was also a partner in the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. He was known for significant facial scarring from a bear attack.
Even notable western cowboy Kit Carson began his career as a mountain man guiding John C. Fremont, "the Pathfiner," to and through California, Oregon, and the Great Basin region.