Captain - Staff Writer

   Smoke Signals

                   Sep./Oct. '10



                                                 By: Bill Cunningham



How many times have you heard someone say that they were born in the wrong century, or that when (or if) they have a chance they will put themselves in the wilderness and live off the land. Given the opportunity to become a real, honest to God, mountain man, they are going to jump all over it. They openly speculate that they can go into the wilderness naked, without possessions, and come out the other side fully equipped and fat. The reality of it is that most would simply never be heard of again. In truly survive or die circumstances, another individual would have bitten the dust. Today’s buckskinner, by and large, has never had the opportunity to learn the useful skills of trades long dead; skills that would be useful in many ways in the wilderness, just as they were during the era of the beaver days.

Let’s consider the situation. The fur trade was populated by men of diverse backgrounds. There were quite a compliment of farmers. Men like Isaac P. Rose and David Stuart had their beginnings on farms. Before they entered the fur trade they had learned much about woods craft, trapping, hunting, fishing; handling, training, and driving farm animals and fixing and repairing whatever broke or needed replacement.

Eighteenth and nineteenth century farming, despite today’s fanciful stories about it, was hard and most farm families earned, at best, a bare livelihood. Country life often meant fourteen hour days. Rocks and stumps had to be removed by brute force. Animals had to be carefully husbanded. Almost everything that was needed had to be made on the farm. At an early age boys learned to make soap, tallow candles, cut nails, square pegs for round holes, shakes for roofing, hand sawn boards for building, whiskey for snake bite and ague and to sell. The list goes on. The things that might have meant a better diet and therefor a more healthy life, were reserved for market. Forget the image of roses climbing the gateposts and neighbors gathered on the porch for iced tea. It just was not the norm! Mud was a given during the wet times, and dust for the rest. Animal waste, dirty water from the household chores and on occasion, dirty bath water in which the entire family had bathed, was dumped just outside the door and made a stinking mess that got tracked into the house and outbuildings. In that muck bred vermin—clouds of flies, ticks, worms and mosquitoes. Often refuse was dumped near the well where drinking water came from and as a result so did dysentery, cholera, and other debilitating sicknesses.

It is no wonder that the assured pay westering brigades promised lured experienced woodsmen away from the settlements. Many of the  now legendary mountain men and traders brought useful skills with them. Some of the men went out of necessity, sick and tired of staring at a future that promised only more of poverty and boredom. Some went for shining times and adventure.

Simeon Turley was by inclination a stay-at-home man who did little traveling but was an important figure in the fur trade. On the farm he had learned how to distill whiskey. By 1832 when he was 24, he was in New Mexico, married, and a naturalized citizen of Mexico. He soon had a flour mill and distillery. By all accounts his whiskey was pretty raw, but it got the job done. Staying at home most of the time, he hired others to take his products into the mountains and plains of the fur trade. Needless to say, he prospered.

As you probably know, the fur trade drew quite a compliment of Delaware and Shawnee Indians, often of mixed blood. They were generally accepted in the trade as white men. Jim Swanock, son of the Delaware chief William Anderson, was one of them. He not only understood the white’s technologies, but was well versed in the basic skills of the Indians. He became a leaders of parties of mountain men and is much noted in the annals of the era.

William H. Vanderburgh attended the Military Academy at West Point. Later he was trained in the fur trading business by Manuel Lisa and Joshua Pilcher.

Antoine “Baronet” Vasquez grew up on a farm. His father went into the trading business but went broke. Baronet, as Antoine was called, went to work for the United States Army. In 1806 he joined Zebulon Pike as an interpreter to travel and explore the Arkansas and Red rivers. He spoke French, English, Spanish, and several Indian languages. He also filled in as a hunter and messenger. He became well known and admired, and was a leader at the battle of Tippecanoe. He was one of the few to make significant money without being a partner or owner of a fur trade company.

A well known name in the fur trade is William Workman. He came to this country from England in the early 1820s and went to work with his brother as a saddle maker. A saddler had to be inventive, adept in the use of cutting knives, pincers, and hammers. He not only made saddles, but also bridles, harnesses of all types, and because he purchased the needed iron articles, leather pieces such as rosettes, as well as trees, buckles, brass furniture, and various cloths, he needed a good knowledge of the value and quality of those items.

Cyrus Alexander learned the tanning trade, shoe-making, milling, and lead mining, most of them useful skills that would come in handy as he traveled with the Sublettes, Jed Smith, David Jackson, Thomas Fitzpatrick (known as Broken Hand), and Peg-Leg Smith.

John Ball attended Dartmouth College and formed a liking for geographers. In 1831 he got interested in Nathaniel Wyeth’s proposed expedition. Up to that time he had worked as a school teacher, lawyer, and opened an oilcloth manufacturing business. But he had a roving spirit. He closed his business and joined up even though he did not bring much to the table.

James Bordeaux grew up on a farm, eschewed school, but became a great hunter and fisher. He was known, at a very young age, as a fine marksman. He ran off to join the fur trade at the age of twelve.

James Kirker, the magnificent business man and Indian fighter from Ireland who was early on taught the tanning and grocery businesses. As Bonaparte’s armies threatened Great Britain, his brother was conscripted into the army. At age 16, Jim was shipped off to America by his family in order that he not be conscripted into England’s military as his brother had. In the Americas, he used his early training to open several successful businesses, including a grocery. At age 30 he joined up with Ashley’s first expedition which he quit in disgust after the fiasco at the Arickaree village. His knowledge of sound business practices gleaned in his youth from tanning and grocer training stood him well and he was successful in several locales. But, eventually he became the dreaded Indian killer, taking scalps for pay for the governors of New Mexico.

James Bridger, that larger than life mountain man, was trained as a blacksmith. By the time he signed up with Major Henry in 1822 he had acquired many other skills such as teamster and boatman, which stood him in good stead in his years as a trapper and guide.

Christopher (Kit) Houston Carson at fourteen years of age was apprenticed out to a saddle maker. Probably because he detested that work he ran away. In 1826 he joined a Santa Fe bound caravan and in the ensuing few years went up and down the trails to Santa Fe and Taos, hired as a teamster. In 1828 he left Taos with Ewing Young’s first trapping venture to California. Young took a liking to Carson and by the time they returned to Taos he had taught Kit the secrets of beaver trapping and skills of survival in a tough country at a tough trade. From there Kit Carson went on to become a living legend.

There were many other trades involved in the settled areas where larger populations dwelt. Each trade had its own requirements of knowledge and experience—some of which came in handy in the mountain west, and some for which there was absolutely no need.

Jobs like brick maker, rope maker, weaver, pin maker, needle maker, wire drawer, paper maker, printer, bookbinder, calico printer, tin plate worker, button maker, glass blower, while useful in the cities and towns, didn’t have much application along beaver rich streams and mountain fastnesses.

There were some trades whose skills may once in a while have been tapped by western travelers . Jobs such as basket maker, carpenter, cooper, sawyer, wheel wright, ship wright, apothecary, tallow chandler, shoe maker, brewer and cutler would have had application among the caravans and boats going to and fro..

When the disparity in wages between what a skilled worker in the settlements might make, and the near fortunes that could, perhaps, be reaped in the fur trade, it is little wonder that men of an adventurous spirit were drawn to the dangers of the western wilderness.

During the heyday of the fur trade many tradesmen who went out with the brigades, spent a year or two with them, then returned to their families and former occupations. It appears that a majority of those who had no particular trade preferred to remain in the mountains and prairies. When the beaver business tumbled, many then turned to a new trade for which they had developed unique skills—guides and hunters. Others, like Joe Meek, settled in Oregon or California and got by quite well as farmers, real estate speculators, lawmen, and traders. And some, unable, for whatever reasons, to fit into the civilized business world, finished up as hunters, guides, prospectors, or interpreters and scouts for the army.


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updated  09/10/2010   

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