After Lewis and Clark: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific

By Robert M. Utley | Go to book overview

6

ÉTIENNE PROVOST:
L'HOMME DES MONTAGNES

L'HOMME DES MONTAGNES, the "Man of the Mountains," the French scientist Joseph N. Nicollet labeled Étienne Provost in 1839. Not until the 1830s, when Provost was in his fifties, did observers give face and form to the name. "Monsieur Proveau," noted one, "with a corpus as round as a porpoise." "A burly Bacchus," added another, "a large heavy man, with a ruddy face, bearing more the appearance of a mate of a French merchantman than the scourer of dusty plains." The Etienne Provost who first appeared in the West more than two decades earlier doubtless prefigured the rotund, muscular, hard-drinking, canny mountaineer who moved entrepreneur Bartholomew Berthold to pronounce him "the soul of the hunters of the mountains."1

Born in Quebec in 1785, Provost first came to the mountains in 1815. Over the next decade, he epitomized the American trappers who based themselves in New Mexico and probed both north and west. Under Spanish rule, New Mexican officials turned back all American efforts to trade or trap anywhere near the undefined international boundary. Imprisonment and confiscation of property awaited those caught in the toils of Spanish officialdom. Under Mexico, following the expulsion of Spain in 1821, traders found a warm welcome, but trappers had to pursue their calling covertly or under a dubious official guise acquired through subterfuge or bribery.

Even the unforgiving wrath of Spain failed to slow the approach of daring Americans. Manuel Lisa never gave up his dream of a New Mexican

-69-

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