Who Were the “Mountain Men?”

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Jim Bridger

Some were frontiersmen, some pioneers, some western trailblazers, some guides and scouts. Many of them just wanted to get away from society.

“Once the trapper tasted the wine of freedom,” wrote George Laycock in The Mountain Men, “he could never erase the memories of wilderness from his mind.”

“Mountain men,” in the basic definition of American history, were early American farmers and adventurers from the eastern states who loathed encroaching civilization. They yearned for adventure and freedom—and found it, high in the Rocky Mountains and beyond. Despite daunting challenges of nature and suspicious natives, they determined to make the western mountains their home.

Fur Trading Made Mountaineering a Business

The first order of business was simply to live off the land. Mountain men also needed to generate a marketable commodity for trading. They required, for example, manufactured rifles, knives, ammunition, blankets, clothing, tack for their horses and mules—not to mention tobacco, coffee and other luxuries.

From the earliest European settlements and explorations of the 16th Century, fur trading provided a profitable livelihood for Europeans in North America. Beaver, in particular, for more than two centuries brought excellent prices abroad. Fashionable society elites treasured fur hats and other adornments.

As the United States spread westward, fur traders pressed the frontier toward the Rockies. French, Dutch and English companies established trading enterprises in the New World.

Trapping for beaver pelts and gunning for larger animal skins was part of life for mountain men. Their perpetual task, though, was survival—avoiding mishaps and providing daily game for the pot.

By some accounts, mountaineers considered a Hawken rifle an essential tool of their trade. Firearm historians point out that other gun makes were equally effective and popular.

Legendary Mountain Men

* Joe Walker (1798-1872), born in Tennessee, signed on to western surveying and exploring expeditions as a young man. He then was engaged as an army scout. Noted for his marksmanship, he also was a savvy trapper, leading trapping parties into the headwaters of the Missouri River system and other remote regions.

* Jim Bridger (1804-81), a Virginian, joined a western exploration party at age 18. He soon entered a fur-trading partnership and established a trading post. Bridger is equally famous as a mountain man, army scout, guide and negotiator between native groups and white settlers. He helped develop the Oregon Trail; he also found alternate passes and routes between mountain locales.

* Jedediah Smith (1799-1831) was a New York State native who became an adventurer, making two expeditions to the West Coast (then Mexican territory) while in his 20s. Smith is credited with exploring the western mountains, plains and river valleys and helping open the vast territory to expansion by white settlers. Smith is believed to have been slain by native American hunters when he was only 32 years old.

Historians disagree as to which rugged woodsman was “king” of the mountains. Laycock praises Jim Bridger. Bil Gilbert in his Time-Life volume The Trailblazers credits Joseph Walker. The 1972 Sydney Pollack/Robert Redford film, Jeremiah Johnson, was based on the character of frontiersman “Liver-Eatin’” Johnson, so called because he allegedly ate the livers of Crow warriors who tried to kill him in an ongoing feud. (There is no liver-eating allusion in the movie—although there is in a western comedy of the same vintage, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.)

Life in the Wild Was No Picnic

It’s a realm of history Hollywood has treated with credible authenticity. Jeremiah Johnson chronicled the young hero’s near-fatal struggle against the elements—learning to live off forest and stream, chopping timber to build his log cabin, negotiating and coexisting with Crow and Flathead peoples.

The Mountain Men seven years later likewise portrayed the grim, daily challenge to survive. The 2005 television serial Into the West included a gruesome depiction of Jedediah Smith’s fight with a grizzly bear.

Sources:

  1. Gilbert, Bil, et al. The Trailblazers (“The Old West” Series). Time-Life Books (1973).
  2. Hembrock, Bill. “Jeremiah Johnson: The Story of a True Mountain Man.” East Tennessee State University, Envirofilm Review. (Posted November 2007).
  3. Into the West TV Serial. DreamWorks Television/TNT (2005).
  4. Jeremiah Johnson (film). Sanford Productions Inc. & Warner Bros. Inc. (1972).
  5. Laycock, George. The Mountain Men: The Dramatic History and Lore of the First Frontiersmen. Lyons & Burford, Publishers (1996).
  6. O’Neil, Paul, et al. The Frontiersmen (“The Old West” Series). Time-Life Books (1977).
  7. The Mountain Men (film). Polyc International B.V. (1979).