The North American Frontiersmen



Captain - Staff Writer

Smoke Signals

July/Aug 2011



Although there are a lot of books on the fur trade out there, there isn’t much that is written by people on the scene who put it all down while it was fresh in their minds so that dates and places and people’s names were more likely to be correct.

Perhaps a name familiar to many, Rufus B. Sage is a grand read. His book was first published in 1846 and has been reprinted many times since. My personal copy is a hardback of 363 pages printed in 1887. The actual title is, Rocky Mountain Life; or, Startling Scenes and Perilous Adventures in The Far West. It is a delightful book, replete with woodcut illustrations that in themselves are worth the purchase price to me. Although the time period it covers is just outside the normal rendezvous trade, it is close enough that he was able to capture many of those little details we look for and usually fail to find in journals and diaries from the period.

Born in 1817, Rufus B. Sage was out on his own when he was nineteen. He had some basic education and was trained as a printer, a valuable skill in those times and with that training he could get a job anywhere—in one year he earned 364 dollars! Quite a salary for the times.

But cities and civilization paled. He ventured on a trading expedition down the Ohio and to the lower Mississippi—alas, it was a bust! He wandered about for while, and ended up in St. Louis. He determined to travel west with a trading or fur company and gather enough material to write a book. As an employee he was to receive $20.00 to $25.00 a month. Once again though, his employer going bust, all he gained from his efforts was experience. Of course, he also learned quite a bit about the far west, including the White River, and west to the upper Platte.

Not discouraged, by August of 1842, Rufus headed back to the mountains. In a letter to his mother that perhaps explains part of his enthusiasm for the travels: ". . . In hospitality, the Indians excel all others....The chastity of the Sioux women surpasses that of their fairer sisters. Indeed, it is seldom you see a prostitute among them. Since I left the States, I have been among the following nations—Shawnees, Delawares, Kickapoos, Iowas, Sacs, Pottowotomies, Mohaws, Osages, Otows, Pawnees, Shians and Sioux, all by whom I have been treated with great friendliness. . . . .I have collected specimens of gold and mineral coal which can be procured in that neighborhood in almost any quantity. It is a country rich in minerals. The climate is most delightful—soil fertile. . . Our only subsistence during the past winter was buffalo meat, which, by the by, is the best meat I ever tasted. . .

He traveled west as a free trapper, visiting such places as Fort Lupton and Pueblo in Colorado. He traveled to New Mexico and up to Fort Uinta in Utah. Later he made his way to Fort Hall in Idaho. All along the way he listened, asked, and learned about diverse subjects: the operations of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the west coast being not the least.

He continued wandering about, Texas felt his footsteps and eventually he wound up in the Estes Park of Colorado to spend the winter. By August of 1844, he was back in Ohio, working on a newspaper. In 1845 he was back in Connecticut, his old home. He had been gone for ten years. At that time he went to work on his book and in the following year it was published. No wonder it was successful; passages like the following captivated the readers:

A genuine mountaineer is a problem hard to solve. He seems a kind of sui genus, an oddity, both in his dress, language, and appearance, from the rest of mankind. Associated with nature in her most simple forms by habit and manner of life, he gradually learns to despise the restraints of civilization, and assimilates himself to the rude and unpolished character of the scenes with which he is most conversant. Frank and open in his manners and generous in his disposition, he is, at the same time, cautions and reserved. In his frankness he will allow no one to acquire an undue advantage of him, though in his generosity, he will oftentimes expend the last cent to assist a fellow in need. Implacable in his hatred, he is also steadfast in his friendship, and knows no sacrifice too great for the benefit of those he esteems. Free as the pure air he breathes, and proudly conscious of his own independence, he will neither tyrannize over others, nor submit to be trampled upon. . .

His dress and appearance are equally singular. His skin, from constant exposure, assumes a hue almost as dark as that of the Aborigine, and his features and physical structure attain a rough and hardy cast. His hair, through inattention, becomes long, coarse, and bushy, and loosely dangles upon his shoulders. His head is surmounted by a low crowned wool-hat, or a rude substitute of his own manufacture. His clothes are of buckskin, gaily fringed at the seams with strings of the same material, cut and made in a fashion peculiar to himself and associates. The deer and buffalo furnish him the required covering for feet , which he fabricates at the impulse of want. His waist is encircled with a belt of leather, holding encased his butcherknife and pistols—while from his neck is suspended a bullet-pouch securely fastened to the belt in front, and beneath the right arm hangs a powder-horn transversely from his shoulder, behind which, upon which, upon the strap attached to it, are affixed his bullet-mould, ballscrew, wiper, awl, &c. With a gun-stick made of some hard-wood, and a good rifle placed in his hands, carrying from thirty to thirty-five balls to the pound, the reader will have before him a correct likeness of a genuine mountaineer, when fully equipped.

At our noon encampment we commenced the process of "making meat,". . . .It consists simply in cutting into thin slices the boneless parts of buffalo, or other meat, and drying them in the wind or sun. Meat thus cured may be preserved for years without salt. . . It is astonishing how long a time fresh meat may be kept without injury, upon the grand prairies, in dry weather, when it receives the free access of air. . . .I have known it to be preserved in this way, for ten or twelve days in the heart of summer.

The usual mode of dressing skins, prevalent in this country among both Indians and whites, is very simple in its details and is easily practiced.

It consists in removing all the fleshy particles from the pelt, and divesting it of a thin viscid substance upon the exterior, known as the "grain"; then, after permitting it to dry, it is thoroughly soaked in a liquid decoction formed from the brains of the animal and water, when it is stoutly rubbed with the hands in order to open its pores and admit the mollient properties of the fluid—this done, the task is completed by alternate rubbings and distensions until it is completely dry and soft.

In this manner, a skin may be dressed in a very short time, and, on application of smoke, will not become hardened from any subsequent contact with water.

Now, how could you not purchase a book like that!

Respectfully Yr Hmbl, Ob’t Etc.  

Bill Cunningham





Page 6  

This website may not be reproduced in part or in whole without the written permission of the North American Frontiersmen. All Rights Reserved, Copyrighted 2005-2011.