Mountain men came West before the miners, settlers, freighters, cowboys, lawmen and badmen. They came West right after the explorers; in fact they did much of the exploring themselves, thus opening the frontier doors to more "civilized" types. They were daring, rugged, self-sufficient individuals with an eye for beaver and adventure. They energized a short but extraordinary era in American history. They had survival skills galore. They had their freedom. They had their long solitary stretches in the mountains, but also their hell-raising days (mainly during the annual summer rendezvous). They liked to use the exclamation "Wagh!" to express surprise. They did not all have heavy beards.
"That's one of the big mountain-man myths," says Jeff Hengesbaugh, a hard-riding New Mexican author who seems to understand the aura of the mountain man about as well as a modern man can. "Jedediah Smith , for one, carried a razor and soap with him. Long hair was acceptable, but these individuals certainly didn't all look the same. They were not all white men, for one thing. There were blacks or mulattoes [such as Edward Rose and James Beckwourth]. Many were French Canadians. Some of them, not a lot, were literate. Most were extremely tough, of course, but they weren't stupid. They didn't go lie down in an icy stream to show how tough they were. Economy of movement was essential. They had to be skillful. Even so, a lot of them died. For every Hugh Glass, who survived despite being mauled by a grizzly and left to die, there were three other guys who were left in the wilderness to die and who did die!"
These trapper/traders--who operated in the trans-Mississippi American West from about 1806 to 1840 (Hengesbaugh suggests that the classic period for mountain men was 1822-1838)--apparently did not refer to themselves as mountain men. But traveler/writer George F. Ruxton did in the late 1840s, and that fabled label persists to this day.
"The classic period for mountain men really lasted only about 15 years," says Hengesbaugh. "In my definition, the mountain men were the free trappers who lived in the Rocky Mountains and were not tied down to one of the old trading companies. They were good hunters who trapped and sold where they wanted, to whom they wanted. Unfortunately, a lot of other men who came into the wilderness to trade or sell or transport have also been called mountain men. The term has become too generic."
According to Hengesbaugh's stricter definition, an 18th-century American fur trader such as Peter Pond was not really a mountain man. Neither were all those Hudson's Bay Company traders in Canada or all those French-Canadian trappers who paddled the wilderness rivers and streams for the rival (from 1784 to 1821) North West Company. In fact, those fellows--no matter how daring, rugged and self-reliant they were--have been given other labels, such as engagés or voyageurs. "Those earlier trapper/traders relied on waterways or traveled on foot," Hengesbaugh notes. "The mountain men could not have done what they did without horses and mules."
But even with those beasts of burden working for them, the mountain men could not do what they did for long. By the early 1840s, the demand for beaver fur had dropped drastically because of the introduction of silk hats in Europe and the East. What's more, the toothy, broad-tailed critters chased by the likes of Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger and "Old Bill" Williams had all but disappeared from Western creeks. At that point, those mountain men who didn't want to return to civilization as relics turned to trading bison robes, scouting for the U.S. Army or guiding the emigrants who were beginning to pour across the Great Plains.
Mountain men, in both words and paintings, receive top billing in this issue of Wild West, our eighth annual art special. Prize-winning historical writer James A. Crutchfield gives a fine overview of the Western American fur trade period in "When Mountain Men Ruled the West." You can also read about perhaps the most famous member of the mountain-man brotherhood, Kit Carson, who naturally did a few other adventurous things after packing up his beaver-hunting kit. Considerably less well known but fascinating in his own right is Pierre Louis Vasquez, who may have been the most educated and best dressed of all the mountain men.
Today, there are sometimes "mountain men" (often referred to as "buckskinners") who re-create the lifestyle of the 19th-century mountain men by wearing authentic clothing, shooting muzzleloaders, attending rendezvous, spending quality time in tepees and lean-tos, and striving for such things as self-reliance, freedom, brotherhood, affinity with nature, and wilderness etiquette. They come into the woods from all walks of life to do the mountain-man thing...except they don't emerge with any beaver pelts. Readers with an innate desire to get "primitive" might try the book/companion video Dress and Equipment of the Mountain Men 1820-1840 (Rocky Mountain College Productions/Housler, Cloudcroft, N.M.), by Hengesbaugh and master tanner Wes Housler.
The mountain-man era had to die, but the mountain-man spirit does live on. Sitting, with a runny nose, behind a cluttered desk on a winter's day, I find that thought comforting. Sure, you can argue that those 19th-century trappers were only in it for the money--that trapping in the Rockies was strictly business. It's the same argument made about modern-day baseball players, whether they play for the Colorado Rockies or not. But I can just imagine cantankerous Old Bill Williams telling a young reporter from St. Louis: "Wagh! Don't be such a durn fool! I make wampum, sure, but I luv the plew game so much I'd play it for free!"