Tony Vagneur: The real mountain men
Back in the ’80s some time, I made my usual stop in Pinedale, Wyoming, my so-called “way station” when going to and from Montana. After getting the horse trailer parked and checking into a motel, I headed across the street to a steak house with a good bar. No sooner had I hit the sidewalk on the other side then a brute of a man, bearded, 6 feet, 5 inches or taller, dressed in buckskins topped off with a buffalo cape and fur hat grabbed me with a growl, threw me over his shoulder and carried me inside the bar.
I should have kicked his ass for messing with me like that, but considering he was surrounded by about a hundred other well-oiled, like-dressed and like-minded “mountain men,” I gave in to the odds and settled for the beer and whiskey he bought me. It was the commemorative Green River Rendezvous in Pinedale, and it was one hell of a party! (Six mountain-man rendezvous were held near Pinedale in the 1830s.)
We sometimes think of the mountain man as one of the great American individualists, an iconic symbol of frontiersmen striking out on their own to struggle against both nature and indigenous people for the elusive beaver pelt. That’s sort of true.
It all started back in the 1500s with the Indians, you know, the Native Americans, who eagerly (and competently) traded the furs and pelts they had in the village for knives, iron pots, guns, blankets and other civilized “foofaraw” the white man had. The beaver pelts turned out to be great for making hats, and in those days, nothing could show the rest of the world how important or successful an urban man was then the quality of the hat he wore. Unlike today, hats were a mandatory article of men’s and women’s clothing, particularly in the cities.
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It didn’t take long for beaver felt and wool hats to catch on, simply because beaver was superior to other fur, such as rabbit. Beaver brought more money, as well, and more and more traders went in search of the hard-sought pelts of the buck-toothed creatures. The truth of it was the natives, who continued to provide quantities of beaver pelts and other items in exchange for things such as tobacco, cloth, looking glasses, alcohol and kettles, couldn’t keep up with the burgeoning demand for beaver pelt.
This led to the formation of fur companies such as the Hudson Bay Co. in Canada and American Fur and the Rocky Mountain Fur Cos. in the U.S. The French, who were pioneers in this regard and are still famous for the canoe-paddling voyageurs, started the Compagnie d’Occident in 1718. It was later absorbed by the Hudson Bay Co.
These large companies went about the fur trade in a big way, often hiring as many as 60 to 100 men to work for them. It was mainly indentured servitude, unless one was an independent, but it was still a coveted job. The men would usually go out in pairs, running their trap lines up various drainages, bringing their goods back to camp periodically. Imagine if you were from a Native American tribe watching these interlopers taking bounty from your streams without trade or payment.
The Arikara were one such tribe, and in 1823 when they spotted William Ashley and Andrew Henry, founders of the Rocky Mountain Fur Co., headed to Yellowstone country along the border between North and South Dakota with about 70 men. The Arikara attacked, killing 12 of the small group of white men. The Arikara’s point was well made, and by the time the cavalry arrived, about 1,100 strong, the Arikara had wisely disappeared, until the army left.
Up until that time, the mountain men and their companies mostly had traveled up the Missouri to get to their trapping grounds. However, after the above skirmish and knowing the Arikara would be waiting for them the next season, the trappers were forced to abandon the Upper Missouri route and travel overland, predominantly by horseback. In that regard, you could say Native Americans changed the way industry in American was conducted.
Movies like “Jeremiah Johnson” and “The Revenant” give a glimpse into the lives of men who ranged the Rocky Mountain West trapping beaver. Whether independents or company men, they willingly lived without the comforts of then-contemporary civilization. In my estimation, it was probably like skiing — once it gets in your blood, that’s what you do.
Think about this — it’s 1815 and you’re the first white person up the Roaring Fork Valley, riding a fast walking horse in front of a pack animal carrying all your belongings, including the standard six beaver traps. Mount Sopris, then known as “The Mother Mountain” by the Utes, would have been cause to lay out your campsite early along the Crystal and bask in your very existence.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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