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Introducing: The Mountain Men By Lance Cawkwell




Tough rugged individuals, keen eyed and alert, usually bearded and long haired, dressed for the most part in fringed buckskins often decorated after the style of a favoured Amerindian tribe, the Mountain Men. Inured to a way of life presenting daily dangers of the elements, wild animals and often hostile tribes, these men are the ideal subject for many a skirmish wargame or western gunfight, but who were they?


The North American Fur Trade, 1820 – 1840s.

Many, such as Jim Bridger and Kit Carson were to become famous scouts in the early days of western expansion, but Bridger started out in 1822 and Carson in 1829, as trappers. It was the beaver that brought these men into the untracked west. Beaver pelts had long been popular for making gentlemen’s hats, but beaver were rare in Europe and had been trapped out completely in Britain by the sixteenth century.  The fashion for hats made from beaver pelts waned in the 1680s, but from the late eighteenth century until it was replaced by the silk hat in the 1840s, the tall beaver hat was an essential item of fashionable dress for European and eastern American gentlemen, and pelts were at a premium. A beaver hat had a natural waterproof sheen and held its shape in any weather. The Hudson’s Bay Trading Company supplied the English market with enough pelts to manufacture 600,000 beaver hats, and still fell short of demand.

Entrepreneurs such as John Jacob Astor, pursuing the considerable profits to be had from the fur trade, engaged hundreds of trappers to go west. The Hudson’s Bay Company had dominated the North American fur trade since it received its charter from the British government in 1670, but now it was to find new competition in the market for pelts from companies such as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and the American Fur Company.

The business of the fur companies had mostly been conducted by trading on the northern plains. Trading posts were established which were seldom seen as any threat by the Amerindian tribes as they had little adverse impact upon their traditional way of life. These posts would usually be manned by twenty to thirty employees of whichever fur company had established it, together with their Amerindian wives.   The tribes absorbed the fur trade with Europeans and Euro-Americans into the established patterns of inter-tribal trade.  By 1830 smaller loghouses or blockhouses (trading huts) would quickly be erected each Autumn by small groups of traders sent out from the main posts, centrally located in the hunting land of an Indian band, and at a point designated by them, usually at their request. The Indians were quite discriminating traders, as William Gordon recorded in 1831:

‘Woollen goods of coarse fabric, such as blue and red strouds, Blankets etc. constitute the most costly items of trade – they are almost exclusively of English manufacture, and tho’ coarse are good – the Indians are good judges of the articles in which they deal, and have always given a very decided preference for those of English manufacture – knives, guns, powder, lead, and tobacco are also among the primary articles, some of which are American and some of English manufacture.’

Other trade goods would usually include kettles (a term which covered cooking pots), hoes, metal awls, nails, arrowheads, pins, gun flints, clay pipes, vermilion, glass beads and brightly coloured ribbons. Particularly sought after were red Hudson’s Bay Company blankets, of a hue which appealed to the Amerindians and which would follow the inter-tribal trade routes throughout the west to be used as they were, made into blanket cloth garments, and even unwoven so that the red thread could be re-woven into the patterns of the south western tribes.

Fort Tecumseh, on the Missouri River where it bends towards the Black Hills was built in 1822 by The Columbia Fur Company and traded with the Teton and Yankton Dakota. Fort Union, built in 1829, traded with the Assiniboine, Cree and Cheppewa and served as a receiving point for furs trapped in Crow and Blackfoot lands. It also formed a link between the Upper Missouri Fur Trade and the Rocky Mountain Trapping System.  Fort William, built in 1834 and rebuilt in 1840 as Fort John but popularly known as Fort Laramie, traded with the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Oglala band of the Teton Dakota. Fort Clark received the trade of the Mandan and Hidatsa, Fort Cass, the Crow, and so on. 

Due to demand, and the growing awareness among the tribes of the value placed upon beaver pelts by the traders, beaver became all but trapped out by the mid 1830s on the rivers of the plains, and the emphasis here swung over to buffalo robes. Beaver was still plentiful in the lands of the Crow and Blackfoot. In 1830 the Upper Missouri Outfit’s Kenneth McKenzie, through veteran trapper Jacob Berger, arranged a treaty with the Piegan band of Blackfoot. In 1831 the trading post Fort Piegan was built in Blackfoot territory at the mouth of the Marias River and two years later was moved six miles and re-named Fort McKenzie. The Blackfoot traded great quantities of robes and furs through the mid 1830s, now dealing to their advantage directly with the whites, but continued to aggressively defend their territory against any attempt by the mountain men to trap there. Nontheless, many would try.  

The Mountain Men.

Trappers employed by the big companies were known as engagés, and could earn many times the salary of a skilled artisan in the East. The first organised group to undertake a beaver trapping and trading expedition in the American West is said to be that organised by William H. Ashley and Andrew Henry in 1822.

Some trappers would prefer to work alone or in pairs, others in small parties. Beaver abounded throughout the west, and were most populace along tree-lined waterways, where they built their timber mounds with the entrances well below water. Most of the fur companies concentrated their efforts in the Rocky Mountains and Black Hills, where the beaver were to be found in great numbers. There were two regular trapping seasons for beaver, late autumn to early winter and late winter to early spring, when the fur was at its oiliest, and the skin at its thickest. Pelts taken in the summer were considered worthless.

Each evening a trapper would take with him four to six heavy iron traps and set them in shallow water, each close to the entrance of a burrow. A leaf baited with scented secretions from a beaver’s castor glands would be suspended above the trap. The beaver would usually stand on its back feet to reach the bait, and when the trap sprung would react by diving, taking the heavy trap with him and drowning. At dawn the trappers would visit their traps, and usually skin any beaver they had caught on the spot. It has been said that a good trapper could run a string of between fifty and a hundred traps, the limitation being how many of the heavy traps it was possible for him to transport. Wading in icy water to set and check their traps, Mountain Men found that complaints such as rheumatism were just another occupational hazard.

As well as the engagés of the great fur companies, free trappers working alone or in small groups and accompanied by their Amerindian wives and children, were self financed and traded and trapped when and where they chose. Engages were permitted to take along a quantity of goods with which to trade with the Indian tribes, and were able to keep the proceeds to further boost their income.

Each summer from 1825 to 1840, with the exception of 1831, the mountain men would gather at a pre-arranged meeting point, known as the rendezvous, at such places as Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River and the Upper Platte River to trade their pelts for necessities and luxuries, liberally spiced with licentious and riotous living. Between trapping seasons the mountain man would spend most of his time gambling, drinking, feasting and telling ever taller tales. Mountain men were generous with their possessions, loyal friends and would give assistance to others even when it meant risking their own lives.

Supplies and trade goods were shipped upriver from St. Louis, Missouri, and beaver pelts, buffalo hides and other traded skins were shipped back out by the same route. As far as possible these travelled by steamboat, when the spring floodwater allowed; and when it didn’t, or beyond such navigable points, the supply system depended on the voyageurs. Voyageurs were hardy French-Canadian boatmen who navigated the rivers and lakes in their birch-bark canoes, bateaux and buffalo-hide bull boats. Many of them were full or part-blood Iroquois, and when they moved camp they would take their women, children and possessions with them. Mackinaws were flat bottomed boats purpose built on the northern plains near trading posts such as Forts Pierre, Clark and Union. Loaded with bundles of Buffalo Robes and other furs and hides, they would be dispatched downstream on the “June rise”.    

It was normal for a Mountain Man to have a comely young Amerindian squaw and raise a flock of “half-breed” children. Mountain men were usually preferred by the Native American women, as with them they would generally be treated better and have a less hard life, as well as having having greater prestige and better access to the aspirational manufactured goods from Europe and the east. A Mountain Man’s squaw could skin and dress any animal, butcher meat and make jerky, cook, sew, take care of the children and stock and take charge of the camp when he was absent. The mountain man and his wife usually made a very good team.

The diet of the mountain man was made up largely of meat, and almost any variety might find its way into his pot, buffalo, elk, antelope and  deer were the most popular, but rabbits and game birds were welcome additions and at a pinch wolf and even bobcat would suffice. As a result of this carnivorous diet brought about by the availability and convenience of free game, many would suffer and some would die from a form of dysentery known as “le Malle de Vache”. The only foodstuffs a mountain man would carry with him other than dried meat were tea and coffee, flour and salt. Wild fruit and nuts would be added into the diet when available, and in times of desperation roots and tree bark would serve.

Much of a mountain man’s clothing was also supplied from the game he hunted.  Buckskin trousers or leggings worn with a breech clout in the style of the Indians, above which a buckskin jacket or pull over shirt, often worn over a shirt made of linen, cotton, wool, calico, linsey-woolsey, muslin or ticking. Trade-cloth shirts were in natural colours, bleached or washed white, or dyed in a plain colour or small patterns. Buckskins were usually fringed, the fringes could be cut off as needed to make ties, and provided a channel to drain off rain water before the garments could become sodden. A fringed buckskin storm cape would often be attached to the shoulders of buckskin jackets. Buttons were made of sawn sections of antler, or leather sewn into a ball shape. Buckskins would often be decorated with coloured beading or quilling, or stained or tattooed with patterns according to taste or after the style of an Indian tribe. Blanket-cloth coats were also popular, and leggings of blanket-cloth were worn by some.

Moccasins were the most popular and practical footwear. Underwear was virtually unknown. Hats were anything from a kerchief tied around the head, through low crowned, broad brimmed beaver hats in black or brown, often made and waterproofed by the trapper himself, to big fur caps, often with the animal’s head left on.

A ready supply of gunpowder would usually be carried in a powder horn. Rifle, pistol or musket balls could be carried in a separate pouch, or in the mountain man’s “possibles bag” which carried his gun tools, some food, fire lighting equipment, tobacco and other necessaries.

As well as the equipment and weapons he carried on his person, a mountain man would require his traps, twenty five pounds of gunpowder and a hundred pounds of lead together with bullet moulds. He would usually also have some reading matter, ash frame snowshoes, cooking and eating utensils, blankets and spare shirts to transport, together with his pelts. To carry this he would usually choose an Indian pony or a mule. Mules were popular due to their sure-footedness in the mountains and their load-carrying ability, many considered them also to perform an excellent “watch-dog” role when Indians were about.

The Mountain Man’s Weapons.

Every mountain man needed at least one good muzzle-loading longarm. At the very least he would have a large calibre musket, but although useful enough at closer ranges and in a pitched battle, these were not so good for hitting a moving attacker at any range that would give him time to reload, and all but useless for hunting big game. As soon as a trapper had enough money or any experience, he would buy himself a rifle, and the very best to be had were the English sporting rifles, some of which were shipped to St. Louis. Few could afford these, and those who could would have to get on the waiting list. So the best viable purchase for most mountain men would be a “plains rifle”. This is a generic term used by latter-day collectors to denote the muzzle-loading rifles manufactured and intended for use on the expanding western frontier. These were made from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the 1870s and were more often referred to at the time as “mountain rifles” or sometimes as “buffalo rifles”. They were developed from the various styles of Pennsylvania (and later Kentucky) rifles, and manufactured by gunsmiths based in and around St. Louis. They were shorter in the barrel, larger in the bore and of a more rugged construction than the long slender Kentuckies, and therefore easier to use on horseback and for shooting big game and less prone to sustain damage requiring the attentions of a gunsmith, which were not readily available in the Rockies. Barrel lengths averaged thirty six to thirty eight inches with bore sizes usually between fifty and sixty calibre.

The early developments and characteristics of these rifles can be traced to Samuel and Jacob, the Hawken brothers, gunsmiths who emigrated from Maryland to St. Louis about 1820. Most of the plains rifles retained the characteristic dropped neck, half stock and deeply curved butt-plate of their predecessors, but had a chunkier look and had cleaner less elaborately decorative furniture; if they had patchboxes, these were usually simple elliptical or circular shapes. These rifles were made before the introduction of mass production and were individually crafted, and varied in detail. The earliest Hawkens were made by Jacob around 1815 and are mostly flintlock, some still fully stocked. Models produced after 1822 are marked J&S Hawken, as Samuel was by then working at St. Louis with his brother. These days we would say that the Hawken rifles were just one of a range of “brands” that fulfilled the market requirement; through popularity gained by reliability and performance they became the “brand leader” and an aspirational mark.

This was the period of the transition between the flintlock and percussion ignition systems, and the transition was slow out west, as much through the preference of custom as any more practical considerations, so both systems were in use through the mountain man period, with percussion very much in the minority in the 1820s and beginning to gain the majority by the 1840s. With the introduction of the percussion system multi-barrelled sporting rifles although still rare became more available and reliable. These included side-by-side and over-and-under double-barrelled rifles, three barrelled and four barrelled pieces. Often these would be rifle-shotgun combinations, the difference in the barrel being the lack of rifling and the size of bore for a shotgun. Guns of three or more barrels would usually have all barrels loaded, which would be rotated manually as fired, using the same hammer; of course the major disadvantage for a weapon of this sort when it came to everyday use was weight, which made them awkward to handle. The single barrelled muzzle-loading rifle remained the favourite.

As well as his rifle, the mountain man would usually be armed with at least one knife, probably one or two pistols, either flintlock or percussion, often of the Kentucky type, and in addition many would also have a “fusil”, a term used at this time to describe a short barrelled musket or single-barrelled shotgun, a very useful close quarters “back-up” in a fight. 

Trade and War Among the Tribes.

While some tribes became married-into by mountain men, providing trading links and places of sanctuary amongst their villages in time of need, others, such as the Blackfoot remained unwaveringly hostile to the white man. Since 1806 when Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition across the continent in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase, shot a Blackfoot warrior, they were the implacable enemy of the ‘whites’. The Gros Ventres were allies of the Blackfoot, and just as hostile towards the whites, as were the Arikaras.

Inter-tribal trade was a part of everyday life, as was inter-tribal warfare. The artist George Catlin, who left a superb visual record of North American Indians of this era writes:

‘The Blackfeet are, perhaps, one of the most (if not entirely the most) numerous and warlike tribes on the Continent. They occupy the whole of the country about the sources of the Missouri, from this place to the Rocky Mountains; and their numbers, from the best computations, are something like forty to fifty thousand – they are (like all other tribes whose numbers are sufficiently large to give them boldness) warlike and ferocious, i.e. they are predatory, are roaming fearlessly about the country, even into and through every part of the Rocky Mountains, and carrying war amongst their enemies, who are, of course, every tribe who inhabit the country about them.

The Crows who live on the head waters of the Yellow Stone, and extend from this neighbourhood also to the base of the Rocky Mountains, are similar in the above respects to the Blackfeet; roaming about a great part of the year – and seeking their enemies wherever they can find them.

They are a much smaller tribe than the Blackfeet, with whom they are always at war, and from whose great numbers they suffer prodigiously in battle; and probably will be in a few years entirely destroyed by them.’ 

During the 1820s, before they had access to a trading post, the Crows bartered their furs and robes at the villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa, introducing furs into their usual trade goods of dried meat, skin lodges and fine leather crafts produced by their women, and placing the Mandan and Hidatsa in the position of “middle men” between them and the fur companies. In return the Crow received European metal knives, arrow heads, kettles and second-hand guns which had in turn been traded from the fur companies. In their turn the Crow traded these manufactured goods for horses, Spanish riding equipment and horn bows from the Nez Perce, Shoshone and Flatheads. Gradually the Crows began taking their furs to Fort Union or Fort Clark, but in 1832, at their request, the Upper Missouri Outfit built Fort Cass at the junction of the Yellowstone and Bighorn Rivers to trade with them.

The Mandan’s trade in buffalo robes suffered considerably during the 1830s when for long periods at a time they were unable to leave their villages to hunt because of the likelihood of attack from Yankton, Yanktonai and Assiniboine.

In 1837 an accidental introduction of the fur trade was to change the balance of power on the northern great plains and greatly affect the attitudes of the tribes to the trade. The American Fur Company’s steamboat The St. Peters was carrying, as well as trade goods and supplies on its annual journey to Fort Union, smallpox. The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara were the first to contract the epidemic. In August a band of Teton Dakota fought with a Mandan party, and came away incubating smallpox. Despite warnings from the traders to stay away from the post, the Assiniboine, who believed this to be some ruse aimed at keeping them from their gifts and trade goods, entered, caught the disease, and fled to spread it throughout the Canadian prairies.

By November it had reached the Cree, but proved to be less virulent among them. It reached the Blackfoot from two directions, from the Blood Indians via the Piegan and Atsina, and then from trade goods arrived at Fort McKenzie from Fort Union, which the trader there was unable to prevent them opening as among the other items were arms which they intended to use in their annual attacks on the Crows and Flatheads. Wisely the Crow avoided the epidemic by staying away from Fort Cass.

Late in 1837 an Ogalala party fought a band of Pawnee, along with their captives the Pawnee took smallpox back to their camp. The Pawnee lost a quarter of their number to smallpox, but this loss was light in comparison with some of the other northern plains tribes. The Pawnee had been partially immunised by earlier, less virulent epidemics. It has been estimated that among the tribes who suffered worse: the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Dakota, Assiniboine and Blackfoot, a total of over seventeen thousand people died. The Mandan were virtually wiped out, being reduced to twenty-three men, forty women and sixty to seventy children.

The until-now relatively sanguine Mandan blamed the traders for the epidemic, and took an aggressive stance. Their chief Four Bears urged them to rise and kill all the traders, but they were by now too weak to carry this out. Conversely, the Blackfoot saw the epidemic as divine retribution for their hitherto unbridled hostility to the Americans, and became much less of a threat to the trappers.

In Part 2, “Some Fights Involving Mountain Men”.

Coming soon.

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