Rendezvousing with the Mountain Men

Sunset, June 1985 | Go to article overview

Rendezvousing with the Mountain Men


Tepees and canvas lean-tos stretch as far as the eye can see. Milling about, visitng and playing amidst them, are people of all ages--clad, every one of them, in some variation of buckskins, beads, cotton, silk, breechcloths, coats fashioned from wool blankets, moccasins, or kilts.

The crack of rifles sounds in the distance. Over open fires, iron pots bubble and boil with an assortment of aromas. Almost nothing of the modern day can be seen or heard (even cameras are disguished under leather), and soon the modern visitor, in a moment of eeerie disorientation, can't be entirely sure this isn't 1835.

It's the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association's Western National Rendezvous, pictured above one of the largest and most authentic of the West's mountain man gatherings.

We have located more than 50 similar, though smaller, events occuring from Memorial Day weekend through fall. At almost all, visitors in street clothes are welcome. If you live near an event, or if any are on your vacation route, a stop for a few hours or longer offers a living history lesson impossible to duplicate in a classroom.

At least half are staged by clubs of buck-skinners (anyone reenacting the fur trade era, 1790 to 1840). You can learn a lot from sone of these amateur historians. Don't be afraid to ask questions: they're proud of their hobby and eager to share it.

Sites are usually scenic or historic places. Events are informal, suitable for families, and free unless otherwise noted. Bring a picnic; food isn't always available.

The fur trapper: a breed apart

The mountain men of the American West were a bold and reckless breed with no counterpart anywhere else in the world.

Armed with their wits, a muzzle-loading rifle, and love for the out-of-doors, they combed the West trapping beaver and living off the land. Superb explorers, mountain men like John Colter, Jed Smith, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and Peter Ogden also blazed the trails for later settlers.

It was at great outdoor summer fairs once each year that the trappers swapped their pelts for necessities--usually at enormously inflated prices. Noisy, wild, lasting about a month, these rendezvous began in 1825 and most occurred in the central Rockies. They ended in the late 1830s, after silk replaced beaver for the fashionable man's hat.

Of modern "rondys": contests for rifles, tomahawks, liars

At all rendezvous and most festivals, you'll find variations of the following:

Traders' row. Collectors of folk art may find treasures both rough-hewn and of museum quality spread out on blankets for sale or trade.

Some buckskinners become experts at making one item: hand-tanned leather clothes and bags lavishly decorated with beads and bone, carved powder horns, knives and black-powder rifles, wrought-iron gear for open-fire cooking, tin-and-candle lanterns. Some traders publish catalogs and have more items in shops back home, so ask around if you don't see exactly the item that interests you.

Competitions. For their survival and livelihood, trappers relied on their skills with rifles, knives, and tomahawks and their ability to set traps, so games of skill involving all these things are popular.

It's all rather loosely scheduled, and you may have to ask a few people to find out what is happening where. Then hang around. Anyone interested can likely wangle an invitation to take a turn at shooting a musket or throwing a 'hawk.

Games may simply involve hitting a target, or they can get elaborate. Senecas, for example, are mountain man marathons where individuals or teams must race through an unfamiliar course and on cue set traps, fire muskets, throw 'hawks at surprise targets, leap into canoes, race across lakes, or run through creek bottoms, and finally try to start a fire with only flint and steel.

Other popular rendezvous events include contests for best costume, tallest tale, and ugliest face. …

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