THE GREAT BASIN AND
IN MASTERY of the mountain man's craft, none surpassed Joseph R. Walker. In exploratory achievement, only Jedediah Smith surpassed Joseph R. Walker. Unlike Smith, however, Walker lived to expand his record year after year. And after the era of the mountain man closed, he continued to make important contributions to geographical knowledge and national expansion. Joe Walker lays strong claim to the distinction of the greatest mountain man of them all.1
A Tennessean, Walker had early learned the arts of the frontiersman. At fifteen, in 1814, he and his older brother fought under Andrew Jackson against the Creek Red Sticks in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Afterward, like so many of their restless creed, the Walkers moved to Missouri, where they tried their hand at farming. And like so many of their neighbors, Joe Walker gravitated still farther west to make a life beyond the frontier.
In some ways Walker typified the mountain man. For one, he looked the part—a heavily bearded giant weighing more than two hundred pounds and towering four inches above six feet. In the fullest splendor, moreover, he affected the attire and trappings of his comrades, for his horses and Indian wives as well as for himself. To physical strength, endurance, and fortitude, he added the mountain man's restlessness, rootlessness, individualism, and aversion to authoritarian restraint. His wilderness skills sharpened to perfection, he also knew that mountain men could be led but not commanded.