the life of a mountain man -- 11/30/20

Today's selection -- from Wyoming: A History of the American West by Sam Lightner Jr. The legendary mountain men of the western U.S. were most often those men employed by the fur companies to trap animals for furs to be sold on the East Coast and in Europe:

"The mountain men, as they came to be known, loved the sense of exploration that went hand in hand with this job. Trapper Warren Angus Ferris wrote in his journal that he had 'a strong desire of seeing strange lands and of beholding nature in the savage grandeur of her primal state.' Trapper Moses Harris was once asked if he ever felt lonely spending entire seasons without the company of another person. He laughed and replied, 'I've never known what "lonely" felt like.' Kit Carson spent sixteen years in the wilderness before returning to St. Louis. He was so depressed by civilization, he went back West after only four days in the city.

"In 1822, General William Ashley of the Missouri militia took out an advertisement in the Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser. It read: 'To Enterprising Young Men: The subscriber wishes to engage one hundred men to ascend the Missouri to its source, and there be employed for one, two, or three years.' The job was pretty obvious, that being a trapper, and names of those who answered the call would read like a who's who of Wyoming mountain men. William and Milton Sublette, Hugh Glass, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Davey Jackson, Joe Meek, Jedediah Smith, and Jim Bridger would all join Ashley, and they would all go down in history, their names ever since given to mountains, forests, counties, and scores of public buildings, roads, and towns.

Jim Bridger 1876

"Ashley and his business partner Andrew Henry created a company, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, with the goal of gaining a monopoly on the fur-bearing animals of the Northern Rockies. Animal fur was still the go-to for warmth in the cold, and the worldwide industry had a market for many creatures. Otters, lynx, bison, and even deer all had hides that could bring a few dollars to a good hunter. However, it was the North American beaver, the largest rodent on the continent, that was in demand in the eastern United States and Western Europe. Specifically, hats made from felt composed of the animal's fur, which were warm and shed rain and snow in the worst of storms, were the trendy garment of the time. While a hunter might be able to fetch twelve dollars for a thirty-pound bison cape, a 1.5-pound beaver pelt would bring in six dollars. When you had to carry everything you sold, the math was easy to follow.

"The life of a trapper was set according to the season and was fairly uniform throughout the intermountain West. In fall, the mountain men would begin preparing for winter by cutting wood, fortifying the cabin or dugout, smoking meat for the leanest months, and doing any repairs that were needed on the traps. In November, as it got cold, the beaver pelts were just starting to become 'prime,' so a trapper would begin walking streams to learn where the beaver were the most prolific. A typical beaver trap weighed about 3.5 pounds and came with an anchoring chain. The trap would be placed in 3 feet of water where a beaver had been working and a twig marked with castoreum, a musk taken from a previously trapped animal, was put on a stick above the water as an attractant. The animal would attempt to stand and reach up to the castoreum, step in the trap and it would snap shut. If done right, the beaver was trapped under water and drowned, and if not, the trapper could kill the animal by hand.

"Six to eight traps might be out overnight, and in the early years it was possible every trap would have a beaver in it the following morning. The animals were skinned on the spot, folded fur-on-fur, and carried back to camp. Each pelt was then pulled tight on a hoop of willow and dried by the fire overnight. The standard for the industry was to sell the pelts in bundles of twenty. If a trapper worked a few drainages, he would create a cache of pelts in a dry, hand-dug cave, so they did not have to be carried all the time. (Readers will note that every state in the intermountain west has numerous 'Cache Creeks' or 'Cache Canyons' on its map, many stemming from the 'caches' of trappers.) In spring, the pelts were gathered from the various storage spots, then taken to the nearest trading post or, if the trapper needed a respite from the wilderness, all the way to St. Louis. A good trapper would harvest 125 to 150 pelts per year, and would come away with about two hundred dollars after purchasing his supplies.

"This was obviously a dangerous job, but for most mountain men, the Native Americans were a secondary worry. The trappers were few and far between, so the depletion of resources that would create hardships for the Plains and Rocky Mountain tribes had not materialized. Certainly trapping in Blackfeet or Sioux territory was dangerous, and outright robbery by a small band of Crow or Shoshone was not uncommon, but for the most part you could avoid armed confrontations by avoiding the more dangerous areas. The real worry were the bears. A trapper's job, skinning and perhaps gutting animals every day, then hanging the pelts over a fire in the camp, was like ringing a dinner bell for a grizzly. Walking the traps usually meant travel along stream beds, where willows are thick and bears often hunt.

"If a bear attacked, a trapper would be lucky to get off a single shot with a flint musket, and even that shot was rarely fatal to the big animals. Bear encounters had been so common for the Corps of Discovery that Meriwether Lewis had to make a rule that no man could leave camp, for anything, without a second man backing him up. …

"In October of 1823, Hugh Glass was taken down by a sow with two cubs. Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald stayed with him for about a week, but knowing he would soon die and the Arikara Sioux were approaching, they abandoned the badly injured, unconscious man. Glass regained consciousness and crawled 200 miles to the nearest fort. That same year, near Devils Tower, Jedediah Smith was taken down by a large bear. The animal is said to have held onto the trapper by the head and thrashed him about in an effort to snap his neck. The grizzly eventually let go and Smith escaped in tatters. He then convinced fellow trapper Jim Clyman to stich his scalp and ear back on with a needle and thread from the same kit used to fix pants and moccasins. The ear went on a bit crooked, but it healed, and Smith wore his hair long for the rest of his days to hide the off-kilter appendage and horrible scars. Charles 'Semino' Lajeunesse, close friend of Bill Sublette, received the nickname 'Bad Hand' after he was forced to cram his fist down an attacking grizzly's throat. The damage done by the angry bruin would never completely heal. Many other trappers were mauled by bears, and an unknown number of men disappeared while in the West, perhaps having been taken down by a bear. If a bad encounter with an Indian war party led to a fight, you were labelled a coward if you fled the scene. However, running from a charging grizzly was completely understandable." 



Sam Lightner Jr.


Wyoming: A History of the American West


Sam Lightner


March 2020


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