| The Stuff of Legends:
The Ways of the Mountain Men
The legends and feats of the mountain men have persisted largely because there was a lot of truth to the tales
that were told. The life of the mountain man was rough, and one that brought him face to face with death on a
regular basis--sometimes through the slow agony of starvation, dehydration, burning heat, or freezing cold and
sometimes by the surprise attack of animal or Indian.
The mountain man's life was ruled not by the calendar or the clock but by the climate and seasons. In fall and
spring, the men would trap. The start of the season and its length were dictated by the weather. The spring hunt
was usually the most profitable, with the pelts still having their winter thickness. Spring season would last until the
pelt quality became low. In July, the groups of mountain men and the company suppliers would gather at the
summer rendezvous. There, the furs were sold, supplies were bought and company trappers were divided into
parties and delegated to various hunting grounds.
The tradition of the rendezvous was started by General William Ashley's men of the Rocky Mountain Fur
Company in 1825. What began as a practical gathering to exchange pelts for supplies and reorganize trapping
units evolved into a month long carnival in the middle of the wilderness. The gathering was not confined to
trappers, and attracted women and children, Indians, French Canadians, and travelers. Mountain man James
Beckworth described the festivities as a scene of "mirth, songs, dancing, shouting, trading, running, jumping,
singing, racing, target-shooting, yarns, frolic, with all sorts of extravagances that white men or Indians could
invent." An easterner gave his view: "mountain companies are all assembled on this season and make as crazy a
set of men I ever saw." There were horse races, running races, target shooting and gambling. Whiskey drinking
accompanied all of them.
After rendezvous, the men headed off to their fall trapping grounds. Contrary to the common image of the lonely
trapper, the mountain men usually traveled in brigades of 40 to 60, including camp tenders and meat hunters.
From the brigade base camps, they would fan out to trap in parties of two or three. It was then that the trappers
were most vulnerable to Indian attack. Indians were a constant threat to the trappers, and confrontation was
common. The Blackfeet were by far the most feared, but the Arikaras and Comaches were also to be avoided.
The Shoshone, Crows and Mandans were usually friendly, however, trust between trapper and native was always
tenuous. Once the beaver were trapped, they were skinned immediately, allowed to dry, and then folded in half,
fur to the inside. Beaver pelts, unlike buffalo robes, were compact, light and very portable. This was essential, as
the pelts had to be hauled to rendezvous for trade. It is estimated that 1,000 trappers roamed the American West
in this manner from 1820 to 1830, the heyday of the Rocky Mountain fur trade.
In November the streams froze, and the trapper, like his respected nemesis the grizzly bear, went into
hibernation. Trapping continued only if the fall had been remarkably poor, or if they were in need of food. Life in
the winter camp could be easy or difficult, depending on the weather and availability of food. The greatest enemy
was quite often boredom. As at rendezvous, the motley group would have physical contests, play cards, checkers
and dominos, tell stories, sing songs and read. Many trappers exchanged well worn books and still others
learned to read during the long wait for spring, when they could go out and trap once again.
The equipment of the mountain man was sparse and well used. Osbourne Russell provides an apt description of
the typical mountain man from one who was there.
"A Trappers equipment in such cases is generally one Animal upon which is placed...a riding Saddle and bridle a
sack containing six Beaver traps a blanket with an extra pair of Moccasins his powder horn and bullet pouch with
a belt to which is attached a butcher Knife a small wooden box containing bait for Beaver a Tobacco sack with a
pipe and implements for making fire with sometimes a hatchet fastened to the Pommel of his saddle his personal
dress is a flannel or cotton shirt (if he is fortunate to obtain one, if not Antelope skin answers the purpose of over
and under shirt) a pair of leather breeches with Blanket or smoked Buffalo skin, leggings, a coat made of Blanket
or Buffalo robe a hat or Cap of wool, Buffalo or Otter skin his hose are pieces of Blanket lapped round his feet
which are covered with a pair of Moccasins made of Dressed Deer Elk or Buffaloe skins with his long hair falling
loosely over his shoulders complete the uniform."
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