mountain men

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

mountain men

mountain men, fur trappers and traders in the Rocky Mts. during the 1820s and 30s. Their activities opened that region of the United States to general knowledge. Since the days of French domination there had been expeditions to the upper Missouri River, and in the early 19th cent. there were several expeditions to and through the mountain country, notably the Lewis and Clark expedition, the land voyage to Astoria and the return voyage under Robert Stuart, and the ventures of the Missouri Fur Company. The mountain region was still virgin fur-gathering country, however, when William Henry Ashley led his trading expedition up the Missouri in 1822. Of the men who accompanied him, many were to spend most of the next few decades living in the mountains, sharing the hardships of Native American life, learning the paths, the rivers, and the peaks, and gathering furs.

Unlike the Hudson's Bay Company, which maintained permanent forts in the wilderness and bartered with the native people for their furs, Ashley's group had no traders, no permanent forts, no Native American trappers. The mountain men more often than not gathered the furs themselves and brought their harvest to an annual rendezvous at some previously appointed spot in the fur country. There they received their year's wages and obtained new supplies for the fall hunt. Because they spent many years together in the mountains they were known then and thereafter as the mountain men. They were a tough and self-reliant crew, able to deal with and fight the Native Americans and to survive in the wilderness alone.

The mountain men were members of loose companies; after Ashley retired, the company of Smith, Jackson, and Sublette was formed, to be succeeded by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. The annual rendezvous was an occasion of rough celebration—for many of the mountain men the nearest approach to civilization that they had for several years at a stretch. Prominent among the mountain men were Thomas Fitzpatrick, James Bridger, Jedediah S. Smith, Kit Carson, John Colter, William Sublette, Hugh Glass, W. S. (Old Bill) Williams, and Ceran St. Vrain. The country of the Southwest where Carson, the Bent brothers, Ewing Young, and others traded among the "civilized" Native Americans is also often considered part of the territory of the mountain men.

The Hudson's Bay Company from the Columbia River country also sent men into the mountains and the Great Basin, notably Alexander Ross and Peter Skene Ogden. In 1832 the American Fur Company began to send traders and trappers into the territory of the mountain men; some of their agents were outsmarted by their rivals and killed by the Native Americans, but the company persisted with its activities and ultimately employed many of the old mountain men.

With the expeditions of John C. Frémont (who was guided by mountain men) and the beginning of the wagon trains of settlers to Oregon (also guided by mountain men), the old life began to change. Its end was hastened by a change in fashions, which undermined the fur trade. In the late 1830s the beaver hat went out of style with the result that the price of beaver pelts declined to such a low point that it was no longer profitable for the mountain men to pursue their intense struggle with the wilderness. By the early 1840s their trapping activities had ceased.

See also fur trade.

Bibliography

See H. M. Chittenden, The American Fur Trade of the Far West (3 vol., 1902; repr. 1974); S. Vestal, The Mountain Men (1937); B. De Voto, Across the Wide Missouri (1947, repr. 1964); I. Stone, Men to Match My Mountains (1956); D. Berry, A Majority of Scoundrels (1961, repr. 1971); P. C. Phillips, The Fur Trade (1961); R. M. Utley, A Life Wild and Perilous (1997).

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