THE MOUNTAIN MAN
The Mountain Man and Trapper lead a life that was dangerous and often ended in violence either by Indian attacks and ambush, or through encounters with Grizzly Bears. Many drowned while crossing rivers, or died while preparing a cache which had collapsed. Starvation and exposure was always a threat, particularly during the long winter months. Exposure and arthritis were common ailments of mountain men.
But still they came. Mountain Men were drawn to the wilderness. High prices paid for furs and skins, particularly for beaver fur, held out the promise of a quick income. Life in the mountains provided other motivations: adventure, freedom and independence.
In order to survive, mountain men learned skills including mastery of both rifle and pistol, swimming, mountain climbing, combat skills with gun, knife, and tomahawk, hunting, sign reading, horsemanship, trapping, and extreme condition survival.
The ability to speak a foreign language, particularly French, or Spanish was important. The ability to communicate with Indians, particularly the Crow, Blackfoot, Sioux, Ute, Cheyenne or Shoshone was also of great value. Sign language fluency allowed a degree of communication with nearly all of the Western Indians.
Personal attributes included physical, mental and emotionalprowess as demonstrated in survival situations and remembered today in the stories about the most famous of mountain men. Because of these requirements, there were never great numbers. In all, there may not have been no more than 3,000 total. Most mountain men were young, in their teens, twenties and thirties, although there was no limit on age. Jim Bridger was 17 when he made his first trip to the mountains, Kit Carson was 16. Conversely, Edward Robinson was in his late 60’s, Jim Beckworth was 68, and “Old” Bill Williams was 62 when they lost their lives. Then there were those mixed-blood children of a trapper/trader father and an Indian mother, who were born and raised to the life, knowing no other way of living, except to be a “Mountain Man”.
Contrary to popular notion, the Mountain Man was not a solitary individual, pitting his strength and skills against nature and man for survival in the wilderness. Most commonly the mountain men traveled in a well armed and organized group called a “brigade” containing 30, 50 or sometimes more than 100 men. Only after the brigade reached the area in which the hunt was to be conducted, would the brigade split into smaller groups which would again split into smaller groups. Small groups of two, three and sometimes one man would go out and trap an individual stream or reach for a day or so before returning to join up with one of the larger groups. Indian wives and families would often accompany the brigade.
The social structure of Mountain Man society was stratified, with two basic levels, the free trapper, and engagés, with further stratification of the latter.
The free trapper represented the pinnacle of Mountain Man society. The Free Trapper was responsible for equipping himself, but traveled and trapped with whom he pleased, and sold his furs and skins to whoever offered the best
prices. In spite of their elite social standing, the free trapper was at the mercy of the fur markets, and might leave the annual rendezvous penniless, or even indebted to the company suppliers.
The exploits and adventures of the Mountain Men became legendary as these individuals represented the cutting edge of exploration, at a time when the entire nation was focusing its attention to westward expansion.