The Mountain Culture

Life in the early 1800’s was brutally hard, for men and women, both in the settlements and in the wilderness. On average, the life expectancy of a woman was 25-30 years old. For men, it was 35 years old.

tenderexotic2Women of European descent were known as “Tender Exotics” and were almost unknown in the fur trade, with many developing mental health issues and returning to the motherland or eastern cities. Most of the problems encountered by these women had their roots in the class-conscious nature of British society of the time. The wife of a fur company manager was expected to associate only with other women of her class. In the remote posts, there would be no-one else at that level, and it wasn’t proper or allowable for her to associate with Indian or mixed-heritage women, even if, by some remote chance, there wasn’t a language barrier. As a manager’s wife, servants took care of the domestic tasks about the house. Thus, she felt very little purpose, with the exception of being there for her husband, who was gone, sometimes, for several months at a time. Wilderness conditions and societal demands created a “rock and a hard place” environment in which “Tender Exotics” lost their will.

hidetanningOn the northern plains and Rocky Mountain regions, the role of the Indian women, in the affairs of the tribe, was as the authority in domestic matters, with primary responsibilities for housekeeping. From the European perspective this role, in many ways, had a greater resemblance to slave than partner. The women were responsible for child rearing, cooking, butchering, preparing hides, skins, and robes, gathering firewood, preserving foods, all aspects of agriculture (if any) making and mending clothing and moccasins, constructing the lodge and most aspects of establishing and raising camp. Tanning and preparing buffalo robes was very labor intensive, and an ambitious man wishing to increase his wealth might have multiple wives to increase robe production.

Women were often treated as property. A suitor for marriage would have to provide the woman’s father (or oldest brother in the event that the father was deceased) with a horse, guns, blankets, kettles, etc., in exchange for the woman. The bride’s price was determined, in part, on the value placed by the father on the loss of the woman’s productivity and work around the lodge.

natawistaTo become the wife of a fur trader, the Indian woman was offered the prospect of an alternate way of life that was often easier physically and richer in material ways. Such an alliance did require some sacrifice in personal autonomy as the Indian woman was forced to make some adjustments to the traders patriarchal views of home and family. One Nor’Wester noted that Cree women considered it an honor to be selected as wives by the voyageurs.

PortraiAn Indian woman, who married a trapper/trader, might remain with her village where he would visit her periodically, or she might live at the fort/post with her trader husband, or accompany the nomadic wanderings of her trapper husband. It is said that the only authority that the Free Trapper would acknowledge was that of his Indian spouse. This authority was asserted as much with a white spouse as well as with a man of her own tribe. The household was effectively the property of the woman, and to a certain extent the products of her labor were hers to dispose of as she wished. In some aspects the Indian woman enjoyed considerably more autonomy than her European counterpart, at times leading to considerable confusion amongst the patriarchal trader/trappers.

apachewomenIf she remained with the village or accompanied her trapper husband, her life probably didn’t change much from village life, except that she would have first access to many luxury items not available to other women. Indian wives expected and received lavish gifts, for their husbands strove to exhibit them as the most brilliantly clothed and ornamented of the women whether at the village, post or rendezvous.

weddingBecause there were no clergy in the mountains, marriages were “after the custom of the country” or an indigenous marriage which met both the needs of the trader and the natives. The Indians initially encouraged the marriage alliances between their women and the European and European descent traders. The Indian viewed the marriage in an integrated social and economic context, whereby the marriage created a social bond which served to consolidate economic relationships with the traders. In return for giving the traders sexual and domestic rights to their women, the Indians expected reciprocal privileges such as access to posts, provisions and trade goods. Among the Cree Indians it became customary to reserve one or more daughters specifically to offer as wives for the traders.
payforwifeThe benefits of marriage also accrued to the traders.  It didn’t take traders long to realize that marriage to a daughter of a leading hunter or respected chief not only secured the furs of the father-in-law, but of all his relations as well. Marriage to an Indian woman furthermore provided the trapper/trader with a translator and cultural liaison/ambassador within her tribe. The domestic chores performed by the Indian woman greatly assisted the trapper/trader and greatly enhanced his ability to successfully prosecute his end of the fur trade.

mixedbloodchildTrappers, who chose to raise mixed blood families, often found themselves acting as mediators between the two cultures, interpreting each to the other and many would even find themselves aligned with their adopted people in times of conflict. Women and children often traveled with the trapping brigades. If it was not possible to travel with their husbands, the women might return to their tribal families, or might camp near the trading post until their husbands returned from the hunt.

Marriage was not always viewed as a long-term commitment by either the trapper/traders or by the women. A fur company man might also have multiple Indian wives, with one or more tribes in the mountains, and a European descended city wife as well. Under these circumstance care was exercised so that the city wife would never meet the “country” wife (wives) or children in the event she should travel to the remote post where he was stationed.

fur trapper2Although the stereotype of the trapper would suggest that he had many wives, often at the same time, statistical analysis of marriage data suggests otherwise. Marriage data shows that most trappers had only one wife, and that marriage lasted on average for 15 years with the majority of these marriages terminated by the death of one of the partners. Second marriages also lasted on average for 15 years. Only 10 percent of marriages are documented to have been terminated by separation or divorce. Nearly half of all marriages were with Indian or mixed heritage women. Anglo-American and French-American women constitute about one-quarter of marriages. In most of these cases, the wedding took place prior to the man leaving for the mountains. About 17 percent of women were Spanish or Spanish-American, particularly with those men that frequented Taos or Santa Fe.

Of those men with women that remained behind in the settlements, it is unlikely that they remained celibate while in the mountains trapping. Unrecorded temporary liaisons with Indian women of very short duration for purposes of relieving sexual tension were probably frequent.

furtradersIn some cases, when a trader or trapper retired from the mountains to return to civilization he would “turn off” his country wife, that is simply leave her behind, and, if generous, would return her to her village before leaving. A woman who was “turned off” would return to her father’s lodge (or brother’s lodge should the father be deceased) where she would work for the household until another suitor purchased her hand. The Indian women didn’t anticipate that such relations would be permanent.

A woman could initiate divorce just as simply as the man. If an Indian woman decided to divorce her husband, she would simply put his things outside the door of the lodge. When the man returned, he had two choices. He could try to talk his way back in, or he could simply pick up his belongings and move on.

The trapper would often “turn off” his Indian wife on retiring from the mountains. Although some of the men, particularly officers in the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company, would provide an annuity for their women and dependents, far too many simply disappeared from the lives of their native families.

In other cases, if the relation wasn’t working for the trader or trapper, he would directly attempt to sell his wife and recover some of the bride’s price. Dr. Wislizenus, a traveler in the mountain west in 1839 writes of meeting a party of trappers including one Fleming:  “He had a squaw with him, of the tribe of the Eutaws, whom he had bought at one time for $500.00, but was disposed to sell for half the purchase price. She was a little, unshapen bundle of fat; but otherwise seemed to have very good qualities, for he recommended her to us in the following terms, characteristic of the cardinal virtues of a squaw: ‘She is young, gentle, easy, and in first rate order.” Wislizenus does not mention if the trapper successfully sold the woman to anyone in his party.

Walker and Wife - Alfred MillerThe woman would certainly be exposed to the same dangers and hardships as her husband. If she accompanied her trader husband back to a fort or post, she would still have been occupied with many of the same domestic tasks that would have been hers in her village, but she wouldn’t have had to work as brutally hard and the quality of her life would have improved. The following entry from David Adams journals December 26, 1841 illustrates this:  “The 26 Sunday this morning the sun ris clear and worm and thawing to day thar nothing strang and we hav had but one visitr today and he did dow his damdost to git my squaw to run of with him but I discuvrd it and did throw a curs on his head and you ort to sean this poor Indian how he did run fur fear that I wold kill him and I expet that he is running yet thow the squaw says that she had now noshon of going with him to the vilig to liv a mesarable life she says when you throw me on the porary [prairie] and I cant dow now betr then I will hav to gow to my vilig and liv with my pepl and lead a dog life but I shant dow until I cant dow now betr.” To paraphrase the woman, she is saying that there is no way she will willingly leave David Adams to return to a woman’s life in her peoples’ village, which she describes both as “a miserable life” and as “a dog’s life.”

kettle2Perhaps even more so than the native men, the Indian women welcomed the introduction of European technology. Items such as kettles, knives, awls and woolen and cotton fabrics greatly eased the domestic burdens of the women. In many instances it was the Indian women who acted as an ally or peace-maker to advance the cause of the fur trader, suggesting that it was in the woman’s interest to do so.  There are documented cases where Indian women actively interfered in attacks by their warrior-husbands on fur traders. Furthermore, because of her gender, the Indian woman could be absorbed into fur-trade society in a way not open to the Indian man.

Typical Tools of the Fur Trapper

The equipment of the Mountain Man was, by necessity, rugged, durable and given the technology and materials of the times, generally heavy.

awlneedle3

Awls and needles, used in Europe were made of iron. They were brought by the fur traders to North America and were quickly seized upon, by the Indians, as a superior implement to the sinew or rawhide thongs they used to sew, lace or bind rawhide. French trade awls generally appear to be straight, whereas English awls might be either straight or offset.

tomahawk

The Axe, Hatchet and Tomahawk have always been an important tool whether made of stone, bronze or iron. The axe was indispensable to the security, comfort and general morale of every person, both white and Native American, living on or beyond the frontier.

blanket

Blankets (at least 2)

pirogues

A Boat (Bull Canoe, Flat, Keel or Pirogues) was used to move the Mountain Man and his gear.

mule

Pack horses or Mules were used to move the Mountain Man and his gear

bullet mold

Bullet Mold

gunpowder

Gun Powder

lead

Bullet molds, Gun Powder and Lead, in the 1800s, were the tools used to create the implements for putting meat on the table. If the resulting creation would go in a cartridge and ultimately out a barrel it would do that job. Today, we have become too caught up with technology and ballistics to appreciate the simplicity of the basic skill of bullet making. The February 1, 1806 entry in Captain Lewis’ journal (Lewis and Clark) said, “…today we opened and examined all our ammunition, which had been secured in leaden canesters (sic). We found twenty-seven of the best rifle powder, 4 of common rifle, three of glaized (sic) and one of the musqut (sic) powder in good order, [9] perfectly as dry as when first put in the canesters, (sic) altho’ (sic) the whole of it from various accedents (sic) has been for hours under the water. these cannesters (sic) contain four lbds. (sic) of powder each and 8 of lead. had it not have been for that happy expedient which I devised of securing the powder by means of the lead, we should not have had a single charge of powder at this time. three of the canesters (sic) which had been accedentally (sic) bruized (sic) and cracked, one which was carelessly stoped, (sic) and a fifth that had been penetrated with a nail, were a little dammaged; (sic) these we gave to the men stock to last us back; and we always take care to put a proportion of it in each canoe, to the end that should one canoe or more be lost we should still not be entirely bereft of ammunition…

fire steel and flint

Flint and Steel The ability to start a fire could be the difference between a comfortable or miserable existence and even survival. A fire-steel and flint was an integral part of every Mountain Man’s equipment. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the lightweight steel retailed for a cent or two, and was often given, without charge, to Native Americans as a token of good will. A fort or post without a resident blacksmith to manufacture fire-steels would, by necessity, import this essential item. Huge quantities of fire-steels were shipped to the mountains for trade at the rendezvous.

flour

Flour (at least seven pounds)

kettle

Kettle

1892 44 WCF - SMOOTH BORE rifle - sn. 382819 - pic.  9c

Smooth Bore

rifle

Rifle The gun was a mountain man’s constant companion. Many different types of firearms went to the western wilderness, including both percussion and flintlock rifles. Smoothbore weapons were also common especially as a trade item because of their relative low cost and because they could also be used as a shot-gun for small game. Smoothbores were especially popular because they could be reloaded on the fly while on a galloping horse.

knife

Knives were indispensable to living and surviving in the mountains. A knife was so personal and intimate to the mountain man that, if lost or stolen, a very determined effort would be made to recover the knife. This sometimes involved days of back-tracking or even risking mortal combat. The knife was essential to the trapper and valued no less by the Indian. When the Indians, who had murdered Hugh Glass and his companions, joined Johnson Gardner and his party one evening around a campfire, Glass’s knife was immediately recognized. Gardner’s party seized the Indians, demanding to know how they came by Glass’s property.

lucifers

Lucifers were used more as a novelty item than as serious fire starting equipment. They were not available until 1836.

beaver trap

6-7 Beaver and Muskrat traps were all important tools. It usually took a full day to prepare the “sets,” to make the rounds of the traps, to skin the captured animals, and to flesh the pelts. Under favorable conditions a skilled trapper could be certain of taking a beaver at each set. Under very favorable conditions, certain traps could be visited twice a day, thus improving the average of six pelts per day. Prior to the coming of the white man and his steel traps, Native Americans had devised numerous types of deadfalls, underwater pens, snares, and other devices for drowning beaver. Almost, without exception, these devices were designed to quickly kill the beaver in a manner that would cause no breaks in the skin and no soaking of the fur with blood. It is reported that in some places beaver were so abundant that they could be taken by clubbing.

Marcus Whitman, Surgeon to the Mountain Man

marcuswhitmanIn 1835, two Protestant missionaries traveling to the Oregon Country stopped at the Green River Rendezvous. Before volunteering for missionary service, Marcus Whitman had been a doctor who had practiced medicine in Canada. His training came in handy at the rendezvous.

steamboatWhitman and Parker met in St. Louis in early April 1835 and traveled together via steamboat to Liberty, Missouri, where they joined the American Fur Company’s caravan to the annual Rocky Mountain rendezvous in western Wyoming. The caravan included about 50 rough-edged, hard-drinking, unchurched fur traders and voyageurs. The missionaries disapproved of their intemperate habits, and the men, in turn, resented the presence of the missionaries. “Very evident tokens gave us to understand that our company was not agreeable, such as the throwing of rotten eggs at me,” Whitman wrote to David Greene (May 10, 1839, ABCFM Collection).

choleraWhitman gained a measure of respect after an outbreak of cholera forced the caravan to halt for about three weeks near present-day Council Bluffs, Iowa. More than a dozen men, including the caravan’s commander, were sickened, and three eventually died. Whitman had had no direct experience treating the disease — a severe infection of the intestines, spread by contaminated food or water — but he had learned enough to associate it with lack of cleanliness. He recommended that the men be moved from a camp in a low-lying area adjacent to the Missouri River to “a clean and healthy situation” on a nearby bluff. In a letter to Narcissa, his wife, he attributed the outbreak to the traders’ consumption of alcohol and dirty water. “It is not strange that they should have the cholera, because of their intemperance, their sunken and filthy situation,” he wrote (June 21, 1835, cited in Mowry, 60).

jimbridger

Jim Bridger asked Whitman if he would extract an arrowhead lodged in his back. Three years earlier, Bridger and Thomas ‘Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick had led a party of trappers to the Madison River. TF-FitzpatrickHere, they encountered a band of Blackfeet Indians and, in the skirmish that followed, Bridger received two arrows in his back. After the battle Fitzpatrick dug one arrowhead out with his knife, but could not remove the second.

arrow

The report on Dr. Whitman’s removal of the arrowhead explains why Fitzpatrick could not pull it out. “It was a difficult operation, because the arrowhead was hooked at the point by striking a large bone.” The three years following the injury, a “cartilaginous substance had grown around it. The Doctor pursued the operation with great self-possession and perseverance; and his patient manifested equal firmness.” A large audience, including many Indians, looked on in awe as Whitman successfully extracted an iron arrowhead three inches in length from Bridger’s back. Afterwards, another trapper asked Whitman to remove an arrowhead that had been stuck in his shoulder for two and a half years.

missionThe caravan reached the rendezvous site on August 12, 1835. News that a doctor had arrived spread quickly. “Calls for medical and surgical aid were almost incessant,” Parker wrote (Journal, 80) as Whitman’s reputation as a surgeon quickly spread throughout the camps at the rendezvous. Both Jim Bridger and another mountain man, Joseph L. Meek (1810-1875) would later send their young, mixed-race daughters to school at the Whitman Mission.

Whitman and Parker were encouraged by the reception received at the rendezvous. They decided that Whitman would return with the fur company to the East, to organize a missionary party to travel to Oregon Country the next year, while Parker would continue westward with Nez Perce guides to locate mission sites.

Mountain Medicine

In the early 1800’s it was generally believed that illness and disease were caused by an accumulation of “poisons” in the body, and that if these poisons could be eliminated, the patient would recover their health.

bloodlettingThere were three main therapeutic principles for treatment of disease:

1.  Bleeding by opening a vein or use of leeches
2.  Purging the gastrointestinal system with laxatives, emetics (agents which cause vomiting) and enemas
3.  Sweating or blistering

laxative2Gastric and intestinal disorders were an everyday occurrence in these times because of poor sanitation, and poor food handling practices.

People who lived in the 18th and early 19th Centuries were largely helpless in the matter of health. They lived in constant dread of sudden death from disease, plague, epidemic, pneumonia, or accident.

letter2Their letters always began and usually ended with assurances of the good health of the letter writer, a query about the health of the recipient, and a wish for continuing good health for all.

Most doctors during this period learned their trade through apprenticeship and started as young as 15 years of age. Since, at the time, this was considered “middle age” it puts things in perspective. Most physicians opened their practices without the benefits of any degree or advanced training. Licensing of physicians was sporadic and medical practices were never inspected.

quackdoctorQuacks and charlatans practiced virtually unchecked.  Distrust of physicians ran high during these times, and often those afflicted with illness would attempt their own treatments medicine manthrough folk medicine or Indian remedies before resorting to “professional care.”

The Mountain Men, although experiencing all manner of wounds, lacerations, hypothermia and the like, may have had more successful recoveries from some illnesses, precisely because they lacked access to “professional” medical care.


Lewis_Clark2The list below provides the content of The Lewis and Clark Expedition’s medicine chest:

Assafoetida,
Basilicum Ointment, Benzoin,
Calamine, Cinnamon, Cloves, Copaiboe, Cream of Tarter,
Emplast, Epispastric,
Glauber Salts, Gum Camphor, Gum Elastic,
Ipecac,
Jalap,
Laudanum, Lead Acetate,
Magnesia, Mercury Ointment,
Nutmeg,
Opium,
Peruvian bark,
Root Colombo, Rhubarb, Rush Pills (Thunderbolts),
Saltpeter, Sulfate, Sulfuric Acid,
Tarter Emetic, Tragacanth,
White vitriol, Wintergreen

Old Ephraim

loganTucked away in the fertile Cache Valley of northern Utah, and less than an hour away from The Bear Lake Rendezvous, lies the agricultural college community of Logan. It was here that trappers scurried through the surrounding mountains and valleys hunting beaver and other fur-bearing animals. They “cached” their pelts in secretive locations then “cashed” in their bootie at the yearly “Vous.”zenasleonardmonument

Zenas Leonard describes the following encounter between two trappers and a grizzly bear in September of 1831 while trapping along the Laramie River:laramieriver

 “They had meandered the creek till they came to beaver dams, where they set their traps and turned their horses out to pasture; and were busily engaged in constructing a camp to pass the night in, when they discovered, at a short distance off, a tremendously large Grizzly Bear,oldephraimencounter rushing upon them at a furious rate. They immediately sprang to their rifles which were standing against a tree hard-by, one of which was single and the other double triggered; unfortunately in the hurry, the one that was accustomed to the single trigger, caught up the double triggered gun, and when the bear came upon him, not having set the trigger, he could not get his gun off; and the animal approaching within a few feet of him, he was obliged to commence beating it over the head with his gun. oldephraimhunt


Bruin, thinking this rather rough usage, turned his attention to the man with the single triggered gun, who, in trying to set the trigger (supposing he had the double triggered gun) had fired it off, and was also obliged to fall to beating the ferocious animal with his gun; finally, it left them without doing much injury, except tearing the sleeve off one of their coats and biting him through the hand.”

jedsmith2The following is an account of an encounter Captain Jedediah Smith, also with a grizzly bear.

In a brushy river bottom, while the trappers were leading their horses in single file, a grizzly charged into the line and lumbered toward the front. Jedediah Smith challenged the bear. By the time they drove the bear off Smith was sprawled on the ground bleeding.

jimclymanClyman, the second in command, checked the Captain over. Old Ephraim had broken several of his ribs. He had gotten Jedediah’s head into his mouth. The left eye was gashed. His skull near the crown was stripped bare. The right ear was hanging by a thread. Everyone stood around as Clyman asked Smith what should be done. The Captain said, “One or two go for water. Get a needle and thread and sew up the wounds around my head.

Clyman figured that if Smith, bleeding profusely, had enough gumption to give instructions, then he had enough to stitch him up. He floundered and fretted, Smith coaching him all the way. Finally he managed to sew the edges of the wounds back together except for the severed ear. He said he couldn’t do anything about it. “Stitch it together some way”, said Smith. Clyman looked, hesitated, and began to poke the needle through the various edges and pull the thread tight enough that flesh would touch flesh.

Smith crawled on his horse and rode a mile to water, and then let the men install him in the only tent. In ten days he was ready to ride. The scarred ear, the missing eyebrow, and the scalp scars would clearly stay with him the rest of his life.


grizzly3“Old Ephraim” is the Mountain Man name for Grizzly Bear.  The bear who truly owned the name was an infamous 1,100 pound beast, also known as “Old Three Toes.” The nickname was given by sheephearders due to a deformity on one foot of the grizzly.  Old Ephraim had a hearty appetite for sheep, cattle, and big game and was the last grizzly bear known to roam Utah.  His reign was from 1911 until his death on August 22, 1923.

Frank clarkFrank Clark shot Old Ephraim in the head on 8/22/1923 with a .25-35 carbine rifle. It reportedly took all seven rounds to kill the bear. At the time of his death, Old Ephraim stood 10 feet (3.0 m) tall. oldephraimskulls

OLD EPHRAIM’S SKULL WHILE ON DISPLAY

His skull was first sent to The Smithsonian and later returned for display in the Special Collections section of the Utah State University library in Logan, Utah. The skull has also been on display at The National Oregon/California Trail Center in Montpelier, Idaho.

Oldephraim1Boy Scouts placed a pile of stones over the bear’s remains. Later, an 11-foot tall stone monument, designed by Max Arthur and Howard Jorgensen, was placed at the grave site. This memorial was dedicated on 9/23/1996. Two plaques were placed. One was a poem that reads: “Old Ephraim, Old Ephraim, Your deeds were so wrong yet we build you this marker and sing you this song. To the king of the forest so mighty and tall, we salute you, old Ephraim the king of them all.”


From The Mountain Biker’s Guide to Utah, By Gregg Bromka:

oldephraimsignThe ride to Old Ephraim’s grave is a 20-mile loop rolling through the northern Wasatch Range, following dirt roads, jeep roads, and a touch of singletrack for bikers. The loop commences with several miles of moderate climbing up Cowley Canyon, followed by more climbing, at times rough and steep, to the upper trailhead for Ricks Canyon.oldephraimmap2

The Great Western Trail passes through here on its 3,000-mile course from Canada to Mexico. As the loop circles north, it winds through thick groves of aspens separated by lush meadows. At this point and over your shoulder is a grand view of the central Wasatch Range as it fades into the distant south from Ogden to Salt Lake City.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

The modern day CACHE

topogrpahy

The topography of Canada and the United States, west of Lake Superior and North of the forty-second parallel, was determined between 1793 and 1812.  With the exception of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, fur traders from the American and Canadian fur trading companies did all of the early exploration. sacagaweaThese fur traders were either accompanied by Native Americans, or Native Americans told them about the major passes and routes through the Rocky Mountains.

surveyorThe French explorers who mapped the shores of America’s Great Lakes were not trained in surveying. When we look at the maps they drew, in the 1600s and 1700s, there are many mistakes.  Modern surveying had to wait, in any case, until the invention of a reliable chronometer watch that could be used to observe astronomical objects and precisely fix longitudes.  The inventor who assembled the first longitudinal chronometer was an Englishman, a Mr. John Harrison, and he and his successors sold chronometers to the “sea dogs” of the Royal Navy.  chronometerStarting in the late 1700s, the Royal Navy calibrated its chronometers by the longitude of its headquarters in Greenwich, a suburb of London, and the longitudinal numbers that flash on our GPS devices are based upon Greenwich to this day.  Determining one’s precise location, which now can be done with the push of a button or two on a smart phone, then required tedious observations of several known angles – such as the elevation of the North Star – and then complex arithmetical calculations by the light of a grimy window, a candle, or an oil lamp.

cacheThe word CACHE stirs up visions of pioneers, gold miners, pirates and FUR TRADERS. Fur traders and early explorers often “cached” their goods. When Lewis and Clark were hiring men in and around Mackinac Island’s great rival, St. Louis, in 1803; they hired many trained fur traders. Two years later in 1805, pushing up the Missouri River into what is now western Montana, these men saw the Rocky Mountains rising in front of them. They knew they would be coming back, so they carefully memorized certain sections of the riverbank, dug at least two separate holes, deposited some of the goods that they did not want to portage over the mountains, and called the holes “caches.”

lewisdiaryIn 1806 the successful explorers, who had reached and wintered on the Pacific coast, re-crossed the mountains and retrieved their hoards. Lewis was sad, however, he admitted in his journal, that at least one of the caches, containing valuable bearskins, had gotten wet and the furs were ruined. Later fur traders learned how to dig and line relatively waterproof caches by searching for patches of well-drained sandy high ground and using grease, tallow, wax, or some other waterproofing agent to try to seal valuable goods.

Each cache was buried secretly and the extra dirt was piled on a blanket or hide and taken to a stream where it could be washed away.  Other tricks to hiding a cache include digging up the floor within the walls of a tent, burying the cache and then camping over it for a period of days to tamp down the dirt and remove any sign of the hole.  Many trappers would build a campfire over the cache as well.  Sometimes, it was over a year before the trapper returned to their cache treasure mapand to find it they made rough maps, identifying a large mound of dirt over here…a unique tree over there…a big boulder…They would then note the location of the cache by pacing the distance to the cache from each identified landmark.


Let’s fast forward to the current century. Although modern technology has given ease to what was once tedious, man’s desire to seek and discover has not waned.  We experience a Bill Murray type of “Groundhog Day” each day we live by getting up, going to work, doing the sleep thing and starting all over again most days of our lives.  It’s no wonder our desire for diversity and adventure is often achieved during our “down-time” by getting ourselves lost in the great outdoors.

satelliteOn May 2, 2000, at approximately midnight, eastern savings time, twenty-four satellites around the globe simultaneously processed new orders and instantly the accuracy of GPS technology improved tenfold.

An announcement, the day before, came as a welcome surprise to everyone who worked with GPS technology. The government planned to remove selective availability of GPS completely by 2006.

Sierra Exif JPEG

Dave Ulmer, the first geocache stasher

On May 3, 2000, Dave Ulmer, a computer consultant, wanted to test the accuracy of the now publically available GPS tracking by hiding a navigational target in the woods. He called the idea the “Great American GPS Stash Hunt” and posted it on an internet GPS users’ group.  Dave placed his own container, a black bucket, in the woods by Beavercreek, Oregon, which is near to Portland. Along with a logbook and pencil, he left various prize items including videos, books, software, and a slingshot. He shared the waypoint of his “stash” with the online community on sci.geo.satellite-nav:

N 45° 17.460 W 122° 24.800

Within three days, two different readers read about his stash on the Internet, used their own GPS receivers to find the container, and shared their experiences online. Throughout the next week, others excited by the prospect of hiding and finding stashes, began hiding their own containers and posting coordinates. Like many new and innovative ideas on the Internet, the concept spread quickly.

mikeWithin the first month, Mike Teague, the first person to find Ulmer’s stash, began gathering the online posts of coordinates around the world and documenting them on his personal home page. The “GPS Stash Hunt” mailing list was created to discuss the emerging activity. Names were even tossed about to replace the name “stash” due to the negative connotations of that name.  And Geocaching was born.

GEO: for Earth, was used to describe the global nature of the activity, but also for its use in familiar topics in gps such as geography.

CACHE:  The French word invented in 1797, referred to a hiding place someone would use to temporarily store items.

For the first few months, geocaching was confined to existing experienced GPS users who already used the technology for outdoor activities such as backpacking and boating. Those users had an existing knowledge of GPS and a firm grasp of the obscure lingo used. New players had a steep learning curve before going out on their first cache hunt and tools were initially scarce for this new game.

miketeaguejeremyirish

Brian Roth, Jeremy Irish and Elias Alvord

Jeremy Irish, a web developer for a Seattle company, stumbled upon Mike Teague’s website in July 2000 while doing research on GPS technology. The idea of treasure hunting and using tech-gadgets represented the marriage of two of his biggest interests. Discovering one was hidden nearby; Jeremy purchased his first GPS unit and went on his first hunt the following weekend.

After experiencing the thrill of finding his first cache, Irish decided to start a hobby site for the activity. Adopting the term geocaching, he created Geocaching.com and applied his professional web skills to create tools to improve the cache-hunting experience. The cache listings were still added by hand, but a database helped to standardize the listings. Additional features, like searching for caches around zip codes, made it easier for new players to find listings for nearby caches.

With Mike Teague’s valuable input, the new site was completed and announced to the stash-hunting community on September 2, 2000. At the time the site was launched there were a mere 75 known caches in the world.

slashdotSlashdot, a popular online magazine for techies, reported the new activity on September 25, 2000, introducing a larger group of technology professionals to the activity. The New York Times picked up the story and featured it in its “Circuits” section in October, starting a domino effect of articles written in magazines, newspapers, and other media outlets around the world. CNN even did a segment in December 2000 to profile the new hobby.

The growing community chanted the mantra “If you hide it, they will find it” to the newer players. After some reassurances, pioneers of the hobby started placing caches just to see whether people would go find them. They did.

Through word of mouth, press articles, and even accidental cache discoveries, more and more people have become involved in geocaching. First started by technology and GPS enthusiasts, the ranks of geocachers now include couples, families, and groups from all walks of life. The excitement of the hunt appeals to both the inner (and outer) child. Today you can do a search on just about anywhere in the world and be able to walk, bike, or drive to a nearby hidden cache.

geocachelogoGeocaching is a real-world treasure hunt that’s happening right now; all around you using GPS enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache hidden at that location.  There are now 2,590,242 active geocaches and over 6 million geocachers worldwide.

See!  Everyone, at heart, wants to be a Mountain Man!

laketown01There are also no less than 54 caches hidden in or around Laketown, UT. All you need is a smart phone and the coordinates to the cache, which may be found here:

https://www.geocaching.com/play/search/@41.82549,-111.32243?origin=Laketown+utah

meritbadgeIf you are bringing your family up to camp and visit the Rendezvous, consider giving geocaching a go. If you have a boy scout in your family, they can earn a merit badge for participating.  This is a FUN, FUN activity for the entire family!

cache3

A much younger Dana finding her first cache! July 2001

Dana is a member of Groundspeak and Geocaching.com.  If you have any initial questions about this activity, please feel free to leave a comment below and she will reply.  Or, you may contact her by email with your questions:

dana@bearlakerendezvous.com

The 1828 Sweet Lake (Bear Lake) Rendezvous

“None of the mountain rendezvous has (sic) been more obscure than the gathering of 1828.”
~Dale Morganmural14-large

Phillip Covington was born in North Carolina on December 1803. He moved to Kentucky, where he became a school teacher.  Then, at the age of 23, he left his Kentucky home for the far western edge of Missouri.

Fast forward to 1879: Covington wrote a manuscript about his adventures in the mountains for the Greeley Colorado Sun. His lively account is quite informative and provides a lot of “new” information about the Rocky Mountain fur trade, fills in gaps, corrects assumptions and tells us more than we ever knew about the 1828 Sweetwater Rendezvous.

william subletteCovington relates that William Sublette arrived in Lexington on September 15, 1827 with a train of pack mules, laden with beaver, to meet William Ashley’s party from St. Louis, who had several wagon loads of goods and groceries ready for transport. Sublette advertised for new recruits and Covington, along with several of his bachelor friends, answered the call.  In exchange for $250.00, the men agreed to dedicate 12-14 months to pack goods and trap beaver. The men purchased from the company, at what Covington called “very low” prices, two blankets, a capote, two heavy red flannel shirts, and as much extra clothing as each thought proper to lay in. Most also purchased two pounds of tobacco and a pound of salt.  On or around October 1, 1827, Jackson and Sublette took charge of the pack train and, with 45 men – Covington included – and 80 mules heavily loaded with good and groceries, they headed to the mountains with goods and supplies valued at $20,000.00.

packtrain2It was a brutally cold winter that year and by the time they reached the mountains the mules were starving and freezing.  Every night one or more mule died until every man was on foot. There was no place to cache goods, so the men were forced to carry the merchandise. Just before Christmas, in the Black Hills near where Fort Laramie is now located, they stopped in a cottonwood grove and made camp.  On Christmas morning Sublette distributed pure brandy which was well received by the company after such hard traveling.

When March arrived and the snow began to disappear, the party found a suitable spot on a bluff along the Platte to cache the supplies. After that, the men started trapping beaver along the many streams that flowed from the foothills.

beaver_slowCovington reports that during this time, the principal food of these trappers was beaver meat. This contradicts long-held beliefs of many historians who claim the mountain men seldom ate the meat of the beaver they trapped.

fabric boltDuring the spring, blowing snow and rain caused considerable damage to one of the caches. Several bales of calico, red and blue cloths, tobacco, sugar, coffee and raisins became wet and damaged. Entire bolts of cloth had to be opened and spread out to dry.

muleBlackfoot Indians killed Joseph Coté at Birch Creek, which later became known as Cote’s defile.  Dale Morgan stated that Cote’s death was “almost the only clue that Jackson and Sublette’s were present in the mountains in the spring of 1828.” The Indian that killed Cote’ slipped in among the mules, cutting several loose.  Coté was on guard duty and  although he crawled close to the Indian, with gun cocked, the Indian fired first. Cote’ was the only man of Sublette’s company lost that year.

Bodmer_--_Blackfoot_Indian,_1840-1843

Approximately two or three hundred Blackfoot warriors attacked Robert Campbell’s party as it was just a few miles from the rendezvous site. Things might have gone poorly for Campbell’s group if it had not been so close to rendezvous. 60-70 trappers and several hundred friendly Indians quickly arrived from rendezvous to reinforce Campbell’s group. skirmish

Depending on who is telling the story, the Blackfoot Indians are believed to have retired from the field before the reinforcements arrived. Lewis Bolduc was killed during this skirmish. Corroborated by Campbell as well as Daniel Pott and Jim Beckworth, Covington’s articles relate that a war party left, then returned after a week or so, with several enemy scalps. A scalp dance was held upon the party’s return and Covington provides many details of this celebration in his writing.

Covington provides the most detailed description known of the location of the 1828 rendezvous site. He wrote:

meadowville01We camped at the south end of the lake. It had a most beautiful shore, sloping gradually to the water’s edge, sandy and gravelly, with a considerable quantity of cottonwood trees growing without any underbrush. South of the lake was a beautiful a valley as eyes ever beheld, about two or three miles each way, all covered with the most luxuriant grass, which furnished excellent pasturage for our animals. About half a mile from the lake, a large spring came up out of the prairie, which made a stream about two feet deep and fifteen or twenty feet wide, with plenty of the finest quality of fish. This was on the east, and on the west, not more than half a mile, came out another spring of nearly the same description, both boiling up on the prairie, and dry ground all round. Both of these streams ran down a gradual slope into the lake.”

The valley Covington mentions is most likely modern day Meadowville Valley. The spring to the east could be Falula Spring and the spring on the west is probably what is now known as Big Spring.

cabinCovington stated that a small cabin was built up about eight feet high with poles laid across, then covered by cottonwood limbs with the leaves still on, forming a good shaded covering. They split poles for shelving for the dry goods and two or three poles formed a counter on which more goods were laid. The only other mention of a log building at a rendezvous comes from the 1838 event.

campRendezvous this year would last through the early part of July. Covington describes a lively time at rendezvous.  “Plenty of fine horses; plenty of fine brandy and whiskey at $2.00 a pint or tin cup full; plenty of goods and groceries of almost every description. Horse racing and shooting was carried on to a considerable degree, while card playing and drinking was not neglected.” Like so many rendezvous yet to come, the men let their hair down and celebrated another successful year in the Rocky Mountains.

hughglassMany of the most famous of mountaineers were present. Hugh Glass retold the famous story of his encounter with a grizzly and even pulled off his shirt to show the scars on his back and body as proof. Covington mentions becoming acquainted with Jim Bridger, Ezekiel Abels, Jim Beckwourth and Black Harris. Harris is believed to have gone west with Sublette in 1827. His whereabouts were unknown up until 1829, but it is now apparent that Harris was at Bear Lake in the summer of 1828.

joshuapilcherSupplied by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company and to add a little competition, Joshua Pilcher’s fur company was also present at the 1828 rendezvous.  Most of their supplies, which had been cached, were destroyed by water seepage. They were, however, successful in trading for 17 packs of beaver with the meager supplies that they were able to salvage. Many historians link Johnson Gardner to Pilcher, claiming Gardner acted as Pilcher’s clerk, but he did not hire on with Pilcher until after the end of the rendezvous. Covington’s dialogue indicated Gardner was a free trapper, who had the best rifle in the company short of Captain Sublette.  Gardner must have accompanied the furs east, then hired on with Sublette’s supply train.

packtrainThe partners of Smith, Jackson and Sublette were responsible for the task of returning furs themselves to St. Louis.  The company made their departure from rendezvous for St. Louis around the fifteenth of August, with 45 to 50 men and about 80 or 90 mules heavily laden with fur valued at nearly $36,000.00, consisting of 7710 pounds of Beaver pelts, 59 otter skins, 73 muskrat skins and 27 pounds of castoreum.  Antoine_JanisThe “big Bushaway” (probably Sublette) lead the way and the “little Bushaway” (most likely Antoine Janis) brought up the rear. Some of Pilcher’s men, also carrying their proceeds from trading at the rendezvous, accompanied Sublette back to St. Louis.  Although Sublette and Pilcher were competitors and rivals, it was not unusual for them to travel together, for the greater safety provided by their numbers.scouting

Camp fare was pretty rough. There was no bread, but Sublette brought along two or three mules loaded with side bacon and five or six fat steers to butcher.  That meat was gone well before the caravan got to buffalo country.

buffalo-herdOn the Platte River Plains the company was surprised to spot several hundred Indians riding toward them at full speed. The men halted, formed a circle, unpacked the goods and piled them up for breast works.  The mules were then picketed within the perimeter and the men hunkered down behind the packs, rifles aimed and ready, but the Indians proved to be Pawnee merely looking for buffalo.  A few tobacco plugs earned the company passage.

mtn-men-sleeping2a1Jackson and Sublette arrived in St Louis on October 13, 1828, netting a surplus of $16,000.00.  Upon their arrival, the men of the party all stood in front of Ashley’s fine home and unpacked the mules. General Ashley, his wife, and his sister-in-law hosted the company for a breakfast of coffee, tea, white biscuits, and good butter. Nearly all of the men were still attired in suits of leather, hunting shirts, and blanket coats – just as they came off the plains. Says Covington, they had not washed with soap for months!

50With breakfast over, Ashley gave each man $50 to go to town and purchase new clothes. Covington went to the barbershop for a shave and a haircut, got himself a new suit, then went to a hotel and called for a tub of hot water with PLENTY of soap. He returned to Ashley and settled accounts, receiving $210. He was only docked $40 for clothing and expenses for his year in the mountains.

“So you see I did not gamble nor spend much on alcohol, as some others did.”
~Phillip Covington