Smoke Signals

Sept/Oct 2011



Captain - Staff Writer


Educated or Not ?

I don’t know about the rest of the country, but here on the western slope of Colorado the weather has been diverse enough for even the old-timers to complain. It was a hard winter with more snow and colder temperatures than usual, almost no spring, and in early summer near desert-like temperature. In one week it jumped from the low seventies to the low to mid nineties with hotter promised by mid-week. You may ask why I am telling you about this mundane stuff that is probably not germane to your situation. Well, I don’t have much of a reason except that I needed a lead in—and a theme.

Today there seems to be a widely held supposition that many of the early trappers were uneducated, lower class, untrained men, unsuited for normal society. Jim Bridger is known to have been illiterate and Kit Carson barely able to sign his name or write an official report. Of course, others such as Yount, Young, Wolfskill, Jed Smith, Fitzgerald, Fowler, Pattie, and many others give the lie to the suppositions of general illiteracy—but that hasn’t prevented the picture many carry about the men of the fur trade.

I have listened to many conversations around campfires that for some reason have failed to address a common situation in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries in America. Class distinctions were much more prevalent than they are today (yes, class attributes are part of life even now). A reading of many of the journals left to us by fur trade participants readily show class as a defining influence among them. I think, left to their ‘druthers, those distinctions and benefits derived from them, would never have changed.

Here is where my thinking might (probably) give historians problems and arguments, if not downright disdain (historians seem to clutch at a class distinction of their own. As a good example, I know that at one point in time at least, Bruce Catton, the prolific writer of many Civil War books, was denied by historians the right to be considered one himself—all because he had not obtained high enough education in history to suit them).


 Judging from events of those days I think the constant battle against the elements brought all class together in such a manner as to make their clothing, diet, accouterments, language, and tools, all much alike. It is difficult to look down ones’ nose at another who looks just like you do. Likewise, it gets difficult to look up to someone who seems like you. And anytime someone perceives that someone else, no matter who they think they may be, considers you to be inferior in any way is grounds for a fight.

Day to day living in the mountains and deserts wreak havoc on clothing. As we know, all levels of fur trade company men ended up wearing leather clothes. This included Factors, Booshways, Brigade leaders, and company owners. Now there were no class distinctions because of differences of clothing. (In the east the "upper class" wore lots of finery while the tradesmen wore coarser clothing). In the west of that time there were no hospitals, cities or towns. What would have been diet distinctions went away—everyone ate the same stuff for the most part. When hurt (like Jed Smith and the grizzly bear) the upper class bled just as much and the same color as anyone else. Their care (like getting stitched up with needle and thread or sinew) was the same. They groaned just as much. That seems to have been a great equalizer.

Weather conditions such as bitter, days long, blizzards, pounding hail storms, tornados out in buffalo country, rain and mud to be traveled through and slept in, drought and its attendant dust and lack of water had to be borne, often with nothing but the shelter of an overhanging ledge or clump of trees (unwise in a lightning storm). All of these factors and more, experienced by the entire population of a company or brigade, had to have had a social democratizing effect.

Part of my reasoning is drawn from the later careers of many of the people involved, such as Joe Meek becoming a sheriff, Bridger an army scout, and Carson a military commander. As to be expected, some of the moneyed or socially upper class went on to great success (take a look at what Campbell did in St. Louis), while others had little accomplishments—but whenever they met in later years, no matter the social differences, the bonds of equality forged in the mountains were still there. So in summary, it just makes sense that the attitudes and mores¢ developed in the mountains would travel to wherever in the settlements the mountain men ended up and cause a change in attitudes and practices.

Hope your rendezvous season is going swimmingly. I know that I really enjoyed the NAF event in southern Utah this year and I’m looking forward to the NAF camp at the western nationals up at Creed. Howdy will be running the first aid tent, and the eastern Factor, Harry Carlson, will be there—so will I. Sure hope to see a lot of you in camp.

Respectfully Yr Hmbl, Ob’t Etc.

Bill Cunningham



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