The North American Frontiersmen





Captain - Staff Writer

   Smoke Signals

                   Mar./Apr. '09




By: Bill Cunningham

One of Alfred Jacob Millerís painting has two trappers laid out with weakness, about to devour a snake they had just managed to kill, their first food in days. Miller and the rest of Stewartís party had come upon them just in time to rescue them.  

There are other accounts, perhaps less dramatic, but just as real, of mountain men/trappers/explorers wandering about the west and getting in dire straits from lack of food or water or equipment. Based on modern novels and movies this would seem to be impossible for such knowledgeable, heroic personages. And many of us have been raised on the assumption that those old mountain men could get by on their own in any situation. But consider Ramsey Crooks and his party when, working for Astor, traveling in what is now Idaho country, they first nearly died of thirst and later came close to starving to death. Had it not been for some Indians who took pity on them and shared what little food they had, they would have died. As it was one of the party went insane and never did totally recover. Perhaps a better known incident was Jedidiah Smithís trek across the Salt Desert when he had to bury one of the party up to his neck in the sand to keep him cool and out of the sun while he himself went on for water.  

It is my belief that some of todayís buckskinners could teach many of the old mountain men some survival skills. I do not recall ever hearing of a fur trade era mountain man tracker who could match the skills of Ty Cunningham or Joel Hardin (if you donít know who they are Iíd suggest you get some of the back issues of Primitive Archery magazine in which Ty writes about tracking, or the book Tracker that Joel Hardin put out. Fantastic stuff!  

I know that Robert Ruark, in The Old Man and the Boy had his grandfather say that in the event that a mountain man had his rifle go bad heíd merely fashion himself a bow and twist a string from rawhide and make some arrows and survive with them. Much as I love the book, I donít think so. First of all, I never read of a mountain man making a bow (not to say it never happened, I just havenít heard about it). Second, I have made a bowstring from rawhide. It sucked. There is much better materialósuch as sinew or stinging nettle or the inner bark of several trees, or yucca, to make cordage, and thus bowstrings, from. To make an arrow that flies straight is not a spur of the moment thing, especially using primitive tools, and although a flint or bone arrowhead is functional, knapping is a skill I doubt many mountain men developed. But, by gum, I know many modern mountain men who have!

The tales of original mountain men who, for whatever reason, ended up alone, weaponless, and naked, are a theme that often surfaces, both in the far west and on the Santa Fe Trail. But how many of those tales speak of one who then appeared at a fort fully outfitted and fat? Colter didnít. Glass didnít. But a buckskinner I used to know who was called Knapper (I never knew his street name) did. He would take off in the spring with no clothing and no gear and show up later fully clothed, carrying a bow and arrows and more poundage than he weighed when he left a month before. And Knapper was not unique. There are numerous others who have, and do, the same (well, perhaps not totally naked when they leave).  

As a community, we share our knowledge. We teach anyone who wants to know how to make cordage, how to identify which mushrooms are edible, what trees can provide an inner bark for toilet paper, which leaves and plants can be chewed or brewed to get rid of a headache or to stop the squirts. We know how to brain tan a hide (which, for the most part, the mountain men depended on Indian women to supply), or to make deadfalls, snares, and primitive fish traps. Some of us know that a bull boat doesnít go in the water flesh side out and that, properly built, it doesnít go spinning down the stream like a tea cup, Bernard DeVoto to the contrary! We can put together our own clothing and make our own moccasins and to some extent repair our own firearms and make our own archery gear. We can pack mules and horses and if we had to we could pack and ride cows (well, maybeóread a little book titled Ox Team Days).  

The mountain men of the fur trade era were survivalistsóhad they not been thereíd have been more of them went under. But it is my belief that many of todayís leather clad persons with all their knowledge and experience could have kept right up with the trappers and at times surpassed them. If you doubt that you could have, then just keep studying the old journals and combine those with the writings and teachings  of todayís experts and then getting out on the ground and practicing.. Hang around with folks whose leathers have that worn patina that comes not from skillful applications of ďpretendĒ grime, but of actual use. Itís not hard to spot the difference. Stop by an AMM or NAF (for a couple) camp and youíll see the real thing.  

I donít denigrate the original mountain men. Some were a hoary old bunch of misfits from the settlements. Most of them were contract labor who came to the mountains for a year of specific types of work. Even the best sometimes got into tough circumstances because of bad luck but sometimes made mistakes out of lack of knowledge. Just like us.

It is my belief, based on the journals and diaries I have read, that the free trappers knew much more about survival than did the majority of the mountain population (the contract labor), but that even they did not know everything. They only learned what they needed in specific circumstances. We, on the other hand, read about the things that not just one of them knew, but what all them, collectively, knew. Those of us who really apply ourselves then end up with more skills and knowledge than many of the old-timers. So even though we donít live in those times, if we had, those of us who have done the work today probably could have fit right in among the best of yesterday.

Bill Cunningham




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updated  03/10/2009   

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