Staff Writer

   Smoke Signals

                   Sep./Oct. '10



one of the many book ads in the Boston Globe, August 6th, 1841

Books that the Mountain Men Read

How calm and quiet a delight, It is — alone to read and meditate and write, To ride, walk or sleep at one’s ease, Pleasing a Man’s self, None others to displease…

F. A. Chardon

 There has been a lot of talk lately among us who recreate the western fur trade about what the mountain men read. In the west, we know that a wide variety of books and newspapers were in circulation at that time and were sought after. Sometimes, a book that was read is mentioned in a journal, either by having a passage taken from it, or having the title or writer’s name given in it.

Here are some examples, Albert Pike compares what he sees and knows about Indians to what he has read in James Fenimore Cooper and John Heckeweller’s books. George Brewerton writes in the following passage that he had read some of Lord Byron’s works. The poem that he takes the thought from could be his “Visions of Judgment” which he wrote in 1821.

I looked in vain for my ordinary drinking cup, but Senor Juan, with great forethought for his own comfort, had fastened it to his saddle before starting. As I stood racking my brain to discover some expedient, which might overcome the difficulty, I espied a human skeleton near me. A thought struck me. I remembered Byron, and his libations from the skull; and, revolting as it would have been under different circumstances, my strong necessity compelled me to make use of it. So I drank a most grateful draught of water from the bleaching bone, and then sat down to moralize upon the event, and wonder to whom it had belonged, and how its owner died; the result of all of which was, that I felt much obliged to the unknown individual for the use of that which could by no possibility be of further service to him; and as a committee of one, sitting alone in the desert by the side of the fountain, I voted him my thanks accordingly.

William Fairholme also tells us what was read in his camp: “ When I got to camp, I was completely done up, so having turned the poney out, I joined Greenwood, who was sitting by the fire reading the Arabian night’s entertainments (lent to him by Henry) and occasionally varying the monotony of his occupation by cooking little kabobs of Buffalo meat.

I should confess, that this book, One Thousand One Arabian Nights has in it my favorite story of all time, The Hunchback’s Tale. For those who might not know, the book is a collection of stories that a beautiful young lady told her husband, the king every night before going to bed. This king had a nasty reputation of being suspicious and killing his new wives after the honeymoon. The lady found out that he loved stories and she told one to him each night before going to bed. Each story connected to the next, so the king always had to wait to hear the end of one story (and the beginning of the next) which lasted 1001 nights.

Bill Hamilton tells us of some other books in use:

I found the Scotchman and the Kentuckian well educated men. The latter presented me with a copy of Shakespeare and an ancient and modern history book, which he had in his pack.

We had an abundance of reading matter with us; old mountain men were all great readers.

One interesting fact that many miss when talking or writing about this subject is the journal writers read each other’s books. John Woodhouse Audubon read John Fremont’s and Lieutenant James Abert’s military reports. Lewis Garrard says he also read the glowing reports of Fremont’s tour to the Rocky Mountains. Josiah Gregg notes that he read Captain Pike’s narrative and Susan Magoffin read Josiah Gregg’s book. These books were read to get a feel for what was ahead of them and to give insights on what to expect along the trails.

This might explain why books found their way into packs and bags. Weight and space limitations dictated what was chosen to go west and these books must have been very special to their owners. The volumes gave them something to read during the short days in winter quarters, plots to mull over and think about, and if a science book something to learn and share with others in camps.

This is certainly one of the “ varieties of life” as well as of traveling. To be shut up in a carriage all day with a buffalo robe rolled around you, and with the rain pouring down at ten knots an hour. And at the close of this to be quietly without any trouble to one’s self, into the middle of a bed in a nice dry tent, with writing materials around you and full privilege to write anything and every thing that may chance to enter one’s head whether foolishness, as this is, or wisdom. We have rainy days any place and they are not more disagreeable on the plains than in N. Y. I have books, writing implements, sewing, knitting, somebody to talk with, a house that does not leak and I am satisfied, although this is a juicy day en el campo! Susan Magoffin

One group of travelers in the early west, the missionaries made it easy to see what they carried. In their letters and journals, they tell of reading the Bible plus Matthew Henry’s set of notes and commentaries on biblical texts. We also find that others than missionaries carried Bibles with them. Lewis Garrard had a pocket bible given to him by his parents when starting out. James Clyman quotes a biblical passage in his book. Eliza Spaulding writes of giving a bible to a man while at the 1836 rendezvous and Sarah Smith another missionary notes, “ Mr S. has had some opportunity to furnish a little medicine for them and has also given them some Bibles which were kindly received.”

Others who were not in this group but recorded having a Bible said:

The day has been passed in reading my “Bible,” “the writings of Josephus,” and “Morris’s Sermons.” Susan Magoffin

There were 4 of us in the mess One was from Missouri one from Mass. one from Vermont and myself from Maine We passed an agreeable winter We had nothing to do but to eat attend to the horses and procure fire wood We had some few Books to read such as Byron’s Shakespeare’s and Scott’s works the Bible and Clarks Commentary on it and other small works on Geology Chemistry and Philosophy — The winter was very mild and the ground was bare in the valley until 15 of Jany. Osborne Russell

Some of the larger forts had small libraries in them. Fort Union’s library had:

Thomas’ Practice (a medical book), Conversations on Chemistry, Conversations on Natural Philosophy, A Boy’s Everyday Book, and Don Quixote. It is unique that another book is mentioned in this list and quite out of the ordinary for books in the west. It is “Kipp’s bible”. It is actually called The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland. But many just called it Fanny Hill after its main character. This is one of the earliest erotic novels written in 1749.

I need to make it clear that not every one could read books. Here is what Prince Maximilian wrote:

Belhumeur called for me and I had to help him to weigh out several buckets of metal, as he could neither read or write nor differentiate between the numbers on the weights. Among all the men who are at the fort there is not a single one who can read or write. I have to write down everything whenever something must be recorded. And when they receive letters, I have to read their secrets to them.

This might explain the popularity of books, as those who could not read, had them read again and again by those who could. And it wasn’t only whites who had a hard time with reading. Indians found writing hard to comprehend. In Among the Fur Traders, James Otis writes of how the tribe that held him captive, looked at a note he wrote on birch bark with the point of his knife. They could not imagine that those few symbols could say all he wanted to say.

Just as there was a wide range of writing abilities in their journals, there must of been a wide range of levels of reading ability. Some of these books listed in this article are very deep in thought and not thin in width. They would keep the readers busy from camp to camp, which is probably what they wanted. I want to finish this subject with a humorous comment from Susan Magoffin, on how a book saved a man’s life:

... the General’s interpreter out from town some five or six miles was attacked by a small party of he thinks regular [Mexican] cavalry and wounded in the arm, and a book in his cap only saved his skull from being cleaved, the cap and one back of the book having been cut in its place.



Mike Moore


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updated  09/10/2010   

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