american mountain men -- 3/12/15

Today's encore selection -- from Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West by Hampton Sides. The expansiveness and fierce independence of the American character comes in part from the "mountain men" of the early American West. Here we find a very young Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson (1809 - 1868), who became the most famous of these mountain men, learning the trade of beaver trapping in the early 1800s:

"[Nineteen-year old] Kit Carson began to soak up the nuances of the trapping trade -- how to read the country and follow its most promising drainages, how to find the 'slicks' along the banks where beavers had slithered from their tree stands, how to set and scent the traps with a thick yellow oil called castoreum taken from the beaver's sex glands, how to prepare and pack the pelts, how to cache them safely in the ground to prevent theft and spoilage. And when the traps came up empty, how to invade and dismantle a dam and club the unsuspecting animals in their dark, wet den.

Early photograph (possibly the first) of Kit
Carson wearing a beaver hat

"From his new comrades, Carson learned to savor beaver tail boiled to an exquisite tenderness -- the trapper's signature dish. He became expert with a Hawken rifle and a Green River skinning knife. He began to pick up the strange language of the mountain men, a colorful patois of French, Spanish, English, and Indian phrases mixed with phrases entirely of their own creation. 'Wagh!' was their all-purpose interjection. They spoke of plews (pelts) and fofurraw (any unnecessary finery). They 'counted coup' (revenge exacted on an avowed enemy) and when one of their own was killed, they were 'out for hair' (scalps). They said odd things like 'Which way does your stick float?' (What's your preference?). They met once a year in giant, extended open-air festivals, the 'rendezvous', where they danced fandangos and played intense rounds of monte, euchre, and seven-up. Late at night, sitting around the campfires, sucking their black clay pipes, they competed in telling legendary whoppers about their far-flung travels in the West -- stories like the one about the mountain valley in Wyoming that was so big it took an echo eight hours to return, so that a man bedding down for the night could confidently shout 'Git up!' and know that he would rise in the morning to his own wake-up call.

"From these men, too, Carson began to learn how to deal with the Western Indians --how to detect an ambush, when to fight, when to bluff, when to flee, when to negotiate. It is doubtful whether any group of nineteenth-century Americans ever had such a broad and intimate association with the continent's natives. The mountain men lived with Indians, fought alongside and against them, loved them, married them, buried them, gambled and smoked with them. They learned to dress, wear their hair, and eat like them. They took Indian names. They had half-breed children. They lived in tepees and pulled the travois and became expert in the ways of Indian barter and ancient herbal remedy. Many of them were half-Indian themselves, by blood or inclination. Washington Irving, writing about Western trappers, noted this tendency: 'It is a matter of vanity and ambition with them to discard everything that may bear the stamp of civilized life, and to adopt the manners, gestures, and even the walk of the Indian. You cannot pay a freetrapper a greater compliment than to persuade him you have mistaken him for an Indian brave.'

Trappers Starting for the Beaver Hunt

"The fur trappers knew firsthand that Native Americans were ferocious fighters -- some legendarily so, like the Blackfoot and the Comanche. But they also knew that the Indian style of battle was often very different from European warfare, that it was difficult to engage Native Americans in a pitched battle, that their method was consistently one of raid and ambush, attack and scatter, snipe and vanish. The mountain men said that Indians were often like wolves: Run, and they follow; follow, and they run."


Hampton Sides


Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West


First Anchor Books


Copyright 2006 by Hampton Sides


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