LIKE A MOUNTAIN MAN
most modern rendezvous or other gatherings of mountain men or reenactors
and while you are there you will likely hear someone talking in an idiom
they believe to be the way the original mountain men talked.. To a lot
of folks who have done their research it sounds phony and out of place,
more like little children playing mountain man and Indians than
authentic. It reminds one of someone who has never been in a saloon
trying to act like an inebriate. They just can’t pull it off in a
all the idea that mountain men talked in a near unintelligible patois
comes from is not clear, but there is reason to believe it was
originally fostered by George Frederick Ruxton .in his novel, Life in
the Far West. Evidently in an attempt to capture the cadences of
speech and the accents of each individual, Ruxton was quite ingenious.
And he managed to work in slang as everyday usage. He influenced many
writers who came after. Motion pictures and television were in turn also
guilty of perpetrating the myth that the trappers talked this way.
were many men of many trades and backgrounds involved in the fur trade.
It is important to keep in mind that they did not call themselves nor
each other “mountain men.” When they did refer to themselves with
the name of a trade they most often used the term “mountaineers” or
“trapper,” “hunter,” or even “trader.” And only a relative
handful remained in the far west after their contracts (one year
seemingly the regular one) expired.
mountain men—as they are usually called today—did not customarily
travel to the mountains and prairies by themselves, but were members of
fur brigades, each hired to do a specific job. Those brigades were
composed of men from many geographic areas and of differing backgrounds
and ages. (I’ve read of a brigade that was composed of men from the
ages of sixteen to seventy years). Some came from the south, some from
eastern cities, some from as far north as Maine (Osborne Russell) and
there were not a few even from as far away as Hawaii. Antoine Clement
was a half-breed—half white Canadian and half Indian—and there are
many accounts of Indians involved as brigade members, especially
Delawares. With such a variety of backgrounds, imagine the varieties of
all the people in the brigades were trappers, either. To maintain a
profitable venture, there were many different jobs to be performed. Camp
tenders were required to support the actual trapping. Occupations such
as blacksmiths, cooks, hunters, teamsters, and the men who hooped,
scraped, and salted the hides, all had descriptive terms for the jobs
they did Appellative terms
naturally found their way into the language but as clarifications, not
as changes for common usage or corruptions.
employees were for the most part poorly educated at the best, and their
terms could be inventive and differed in pronunciation and spelling from
individual to individual, depending upon where they came from. Even in his
days as military commander, the very well known Kit Carson could barely
write and for formal reports he usually had to have a scribe to do it for
him. The near Middle-English of the north east was very different from the
soft accents of the south.
inventive spelling that is found in the journals of Lewis and Clark did
not disappear at the advent of the fur trade. Journals such as those of
David Adams are filled with words spelled in wild abandon: tuck for took,
a buv for above, sow for so, trid for tried, litl for little and so on.
But despite the spelling, one can work out that the writer had a good
vocabulary and was merely trying to spell the words the way they sounded
to him. Regional dialects differed from man to man and therefore did not
form a new common dialect within brigades.
who remained in the west for long periods of time were not hermits. They
often congregated in winter camps or from time to time traveled to such
places as Taos, California, and Oregon where they sometimes picked up
words from the local vocabularies or languages. Despite their time in the
field they did not attend every Rocky Mountain rendezvous nor did they
necessarily “blow in” all their earnings in annual Bacchanalian
drunks. And they did not speak like the mountain men are often portrayed
in novels and movies.
generally write close to the way they speak. A reading of diaries and
journals from the men who populated the west of the fur trade provide a
clear understanding of the language they used from day to day. Those
sources do not support the modern concept of corrupted English many
suppose the mountaineers used.