Among the Mountain Men
Among the Mountain Men
Liberty or Savagery? With the explosive growth of the Rocky Mountain fur trade in the 1830s, mountain men, who lived in the wilderness trapping and selling animal pelts, captured the American imagination. To some they symbolized the rugged freedom of the frontier, to others, anarchy and degradation. In The Prairie (1827) James Fenimore Cooper’s trapper hero, Leatherstocking, possessed natural virtue. Lewis H. Garrard, who traveled along the Sante Fe Trail in 1846 at the age of seventeen, admired the trapper’s independence. His Wah-To-Yah and the Taos Trail (1850) celebrated the “grand sensation of liberty and a total absence of fear” he found in the trappers’ camps. Other commentators, however,
saw the mountain men as corrupt renegades. Timothy Flint’s The Shoshonee Valley (1830), the first novel to feature mountain men as characters, suggested that they had “an instinctive fondness for the reckless savage life … interdicted by no laws, or difficult morals, or any restraints.” Charles Sealsfield, the popular German American novelist and travel writer, agreed with Flint; his Life in the New World (1844) represented mountain men as violent, cunning monsters who killed with “a real fiendish joy.” The debate surrounding the character of mountain men was, at its core, really a debate about the nature of the West: was the frontier the site of healthy independence or dangerous dissolution?
Kit Carson. The most legendary of mountain men was Christopher (Kit) Carson, who gained fame first as John Fremont’s scout during his expeditions into the Far West and then as Fremont’s dispatch bearer in the Mexican War. In Fremont’s reports of his expeditions into the Rocky Mountains, Oregon, and Northern California (reports skillfully edited by his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont), published in the 1840s, Carson appears as a reallife Leatherstocking figure, a brave but humble man of the wilderness. Carson soon became the subject of a number of biographies, novels, and sketches. As with the popular figure of Daniel Boone, Carson’s character reflected varied interpretations of the West. On the one hand, Carson appeared as a refined man of virtue, an agent of civilization in the open West. In DeWitt C. Peters’s The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson (1858), Carson mingles with the crude mountain men, but he rises above them: he “contracted no bad habits, but learned the usefulness and happiness of resisting temptation.” Charles Burdett, in an 1862 biography, depicted Carson as a man who never drank liquor and carefully saved his money. At the same time Carson also appeared in popular literature as the self-reliant man of action. In Charles Averill’s Kit Carson, The Prince of the Gold Hunters (1849) Carson is a man of daring and skill, “the noble figure of the hunter-horseman,” possessing “a look of proud indifference to all, and the conscious confidence of ennobling self-reliance.” Averill even went so far as to claim that it was Carson who first discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in California. The real-life Carson went on to serve as a Civil War general and federal administrator in New Mexico. In the popular imagination his daring and skill became the model for many Western heroes to come. Some historians have recently challenged this heroic image of Carson, arguing that he took part in atrocities committed against the Navajo.
Alfred Jacob Miller. Visual artists also popularized the image of the mountain man. The first professional painter to document the lives of the mountain men was Alfred Jacob Miller. He studied under the portraitist Thomas Sully and then traveled to Europe to study at the famed Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Miller returned to Baltimore in 1834, and in the fall of 1836 he set up a studio in New Orleans. His career took a dramatic turn when he was visited by Capt. William Drummond Stewart of the British army. Stewart had served under Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, at Waterloo in 1815, and after his retirement from the military he sought adventure and fortune among the mountain men of the Far West. Impressed by Miller’s landscapes and portraits, he asked Miller to accompany him on his next expedition; Stewart wanted Miller to document the upcoming Mountain Man Rendezvous. The Rendezvous was the most significant social and business event of the American fur trade during the 1820s and 1830s. Rocky Mountain fur trappers and their Indian allies met with the trading companies in order to purchase supplies and exchange the year’s pelts. The Rendezvous was also a raucous holiday, a celebration of surviving the year’s hardship, isolation, and danger. The mountain men drank, gambled and fought, exchanged tall tales, challenged each other in athletic contests, and bartered for wives. Miller made field sketches during his travels with Stewart and, once he returned to New Orleans, painted finished canvases. Compared to Catlin and Bodmer before him, Miller’s work was informed by a romantic vision; his paintings celebrated the mountain man’s unfettered life in an idyllic landscape. “Only in savage life [does] real and absolute liberty exist,” he would write. In Trappers Starting for the Beaver Hunt (1857–1860), completed long after his journey with Stewart, two mounted trappers, their backs to the viewer (and by extension, Eastern culture), move across an open plain and toward the distant horizon. Miller described these trappers as leading “the van in the march of civilization” and as “adventurous, hardy, and self-reliant—always exposed to constant danger from hostile Indians, and extremes of hunger and cold.”
The Trapper’s Bride. First painted in 1840 and painted again from 1858 to 1860, The Trapper’s Bride is one of Miller’s most popular works and depicts the wedding ceremony between a trapper and an Indian woman. This interracial marriage, painted at a time when the issue of race and slavery was dividing the Union, spoke to a romantic vision of universal brotherhood and displayed a hope for the peaceful reconciliation of nature and civilization. In fact, The Trapper’s Bride borrowed its imagery from European renditions of the marriage of the Virgin, lending an idealized air of sanctity to the union of white and Indian. At the same time it represented the mountain man’s escape from the confines of Eastern society and sexual mores; indeed, marriages between whites and Indians were forbidden by law in Miller’s home state and many other states of the Union. If Catlin’s work documented a “doomed” race’s fall from innocence, Miller’s celebrated the West as an escape from civilization, a West where the white man realized a rugged and ennobling freedom.
Deas and Others. Many other painters of the period also celebrated a romantic vision of the mountain man. In the 1840s Charles Deas’s paintings represented the trapper as a daring hero; his Death Struggle (1844) depicts, in sensational fashion, a fight to the finish between an Indian and a lone trapper. Deas made periodic excursions into the frontier, adopting the customs and aura of the trapper himself. Dressing in a “broad white hat,” he was called “Rocky Mountains” because, as one observer put it, “he had a Rocky Mountain way of getting along; for, being under no military constraint, he could go where he pleased, and come back when he had a mind to.” William Ranney’s mountain men, in such works as The Trapper’s Last Shot (1850), are more understated than Deas’s, highlighting the trapper’s vulnerable isolation in a wilderness that is both barren and dangerous. In the 1850s and 1860s Nathaniel Currier and James Merrit Ives popularized the images of the trapper through a series of lithographs done after paintings by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait. Although he never traveled further West than the Adirondacks, Tait reached the widest audience of any of the midcentury painters. His works celebrated—often in violent terms—the mountain man’s triumph over “savage” Indians. The Prairie Hunter/One Rubbed out (1852), depicts a trapper escaping distant Indian pursuers after “rubbing one out” with his rifle. Another Currier and Ives print, done after Louis Maurer’s The Last Shot (1858), depicts a fallen hunter about to be dispatched by his Indian enemy’s tomahawk. The hunter surprises the Indian, however, with the “last shot” from his revolver. Maurer confessed that both he and Tait learned about the Plains Indians from reproductions of Catlin’s and Bodmer’s work; nevertheless, such lithographs fostered the myth that Indians were savages wielding primitive weapons while white Americans possessed superior technology, industry, and character.
Dawn Glanz, How the West Was Drawn: American Art and the Settling of the Frontier (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1978);
R. C. Gordon-McCutchan, ed., Kit Carson: Indian Fighter or Indian Killer? (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1996);
Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800–1860 (New York: Atheneum, 1985);
Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950).
MOUNTAIN MEN, as early-nineteenth-century fur trappers were called, first came west to the Rocky Mountains, drawn by their search for the pelts of beavers, which they lured to traps by castor bait. Virgin streams producing the prize catches rewarded trailblazing and transformed trappers into explorers of the Far West. French traders, the most experienced nonnative fur gatherers, mingled with Americans, American Indians, and Spaniards at Saint Louis in the first decades of the nineteenth century and made this the great western emporium of the fur trade. Trapping parties and trading company caravans laden with supplies and goods for the mountain trade left from Saint Louis. After a season or two of trapping, the adventurer boasted the sobriquet of "mountain man."
Trappers cultivated trade relationships with the local Indian groups, who controlled the areas and had the power to evict unwanted visitors. The interactions between traders and American Indians changed both groups. Trapper life held an irresistible appeal to a variety of men—to the restless and daring it offered adventure; to the homeless, a home; to the lawless, an asylum. Fur traders of European extraction often married American Indian women. Their children served as a bridge among the various groups, routinely working as translators and intermediaries. The mixed cultural strains produced a polyglot jargon, spiced with metaphor and known to some as "mountain talk." Mountain men adopted some aspects of their Indian trading partners' manner of life, including their approaches to food, shelter, morals, and even some aspects of religion. At the same time the local Indian communities became increasingly accustomed to goods that they could not easily produce for themselves, such as copper kettles, metal spear points, and guns. Jim Bridger, Christopher ("Kit") Carson, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Bill Williams were famous examples of the fraternity of "mountain men." There were three classes: the hired trapper, paid annual wages by a fur company; the skin trapper, who dealt with one company only; and the free trapper, who trapped and disposed of his furs when and where he pleased.
The summer rendezvous at Green River, Wyoming, or at some other appointed mountain valley became the most interesting and typical institution of fur-trading days. Trappers and Indians gathered there. Fur companies from Missouri brought out their supplies and goods, and barter flourished. With drinking, gambling, racing, and contests of skill, the mountain man had a holiday. His regular meat diet was now augmented with limited supplies of flour, coffee, and similar luxuries from the "states." In a few days of prodigal living, he frequently spent his year's earnings.
With the introduction of the silk hat and the consequent decline in beaver-skin prices—from six or eight dollars apiece to two dollars or less—the the mountain men gradually forsook their traps. Buffalo robes replaced beaver pelts, and the trading post supplanted the rendezvous. With the coming of emigrant homeseekers, government exploring, and military expeditions, the trapper-trader became scout and guide to lead newcomers over the paths he knew. Advancing European-American settlements eliminated the mountain man's economic niche.
Barbour, Barton H. Fort Union and the Upper Missouri Fur Trade. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.
Ekbreg, Carl J. French Roots in the Illinois Country: The Mississippi Frontier in Colonial Illinois. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
Foley, William E., and C. David Rice. The First Chouteaus, River Barons of Early St. Louis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Nestor, William R. From Mountain Man to Millionaire: The "Bold and Dashing Life" of Robert Campbell. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999.
Sleeper-Smith, Susan. Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.