Feb 21, 2014

Old West: Mountain Men and Their Weapons

The Mountain Men of the Old West have lived on in legends written in books and depicted on film, and honored by reenactments in modern-day Rendezvous. Behind the legends and myths there is real history. One of the best books written about the American West and the Mountain Men is – Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol and Myth by Henry Nash Smith; Harvard College, 1950. E-Text of the books is available at the University of Virginia website, part of the American Studies created by Emily Zimmerman

The first Mountain Men began with the first American fur trading expedition led by John Jacob Astor, and explorer and trader who had hoped to cross the continent, one group by land and another by sea, to establish a trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River. The Lewis and Clark Expedition had supplied information useful that helped the Astor party that was guided by William Price Hunt. In February of 1812, the Astor party reached the mouth of the Columbia River where a fort was built and named Astoria, erected by Astor's seamen that arrived months earlier. John Jacob Astor would be the founder of a rich and powerful family of American history, whose great grandson would perish aboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic. Fort Astoria, sometimes called Fort George, but the town that developed is still called Astoria in Oregon.
The site is now part of our National Historic Landmarks in the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. It was the primary trading post in the Northwest, and the Pacific Fur Company that created the initial wealth of the Astor family was the first American-owned settlement on the Pacific coast. It became an important establishment of the Pacific Coast to keep it under control and a territory of the United States.
The Rocky Mountain Fur Company set up its first expedition in the winter of 1822, led by William Ashley and Andrew Henry who put an advertisement in the St. Louis Gazette looking for men to join the expedition:
Enterprising Young Men ...to ascend the Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two, or three years.
Kit Carson and John Fremont
Among those that answered the ad would later become famous Mountain Men of US history: Jedediah Smith, Etienne Provost (Provo, Utah named for him), Jim Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Hugh Glass (the book Lord Grizzly was written about). Smith became the leader of other parties from 1823-1830, and explored the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest. Smith rediscovered the South Pass that went to Arizona via the Mojave Desert and back across the Great Basin. Unfortunately, Smith was killed before he could edit his papers and update his maps; but when Ashley was elected to the House of Representatives in 1831, he ensured that Smith got credit for his explorations.
The 'golden era' of the Mountain Men, as well as the final Rendezvous, coincided with the decline in the beaver trade ending in 1840. The Mountain Men has to find other means of livelihood. By the summer of 1845, it is estimated that 5,000 emigrants went west to become American Pioneers, usually in large trains of wagons from the east as well as government surveying expeditions. This afforded former trappers to become guides for the pioneers as well as surveying expeditions; some volunteering military service as scouts. Most Mountain Men were familiar with native languages in the region they trapped, so this was an added bonus to those who hired them.  
Kit Carson was one of the most famous of these men. In 1842, he joined Lieutenant John C. Fremont, US Army and the Corps of Topographical Engineers on an expedition to survey the Platte and Sweetwater Rivers as far as the South Pass. Fremont's reports, written by his wife, was made public and boosted the pioneer movement and westward expansion. Fremont and Carson became close friends and Carson would participate in two more expeditions and fight in the Mexican War. Later he continued his service to the United States as an Indian agent for the Ute tribe of Native Americans in Taos from 1853 to 1861. By the time the Civil War began, Carson was a Brigadier General.
Jim Bridger also began a career of service after the collapse of the fur trade and establishing Fort Bridger near the Oregon Trail and California Trail which provided supplies for the pioneers from 1842 to 1848. He guided Captain Howard Stanbury through Bridger's Pass in 1850. Bridger was given the rank of major by Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston during the Mormon conflict of 1857. In 1859, Bridger led Captain Raynold's surveying expedition to the Yellowstone area and the next eight years was spent guiding and advising military commanders in campaigns against the Sioux.
Beaver Pelt
Thomas Fitzpatrick was another Mountain Man who changed careers, accompanying Fremont on his second expedition along with Carson, and in 1842, led the first missionary pioneer group of Bidwell and Bartleson to California. It was the first group to stop at Fort Bridger that had just been built. In 1845, Fitzpatrick led the famous Colonel Stephan Watts Kearney and his troops to establish military presence on the route to Oregon.
The former trapper Mountain Men has become invaluable for guiding expeditions as well as liaison with Native Americans; the latter still important when western expansion had mapped the West thoroughly. Most Mountain Men could speak more than one Native American language and could also communicate in sign language. A few Mountain Men used those skills to become native agents for the federal government agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
While Mountain Men have been depicted of being loners, this did not occur until after the decline of the fur trading business. Mountain Men usually traveled in groups, sometimes as large as 40 to 60 trappers, some serving as camp caretakers or meat hunters. The brigade of mountain men would establish base camps and then fan out into trapper parties of two or three. When they had separated they were most vulnerable to attack by hostile natives. According to the tales of mountain men, the Blackfeet were the most feared, but the Arikaras and Comanche were also avoided, if possible. Friendly tribes included the Shoshone, Crow, and Mandan. It is estimated that 1,000 trappers roamed the American West from 1820 to 1830, the golden era of the Rocky Mountain fur trade.
Mountain Men carried little equipment and what they did carry was well used. Osbourne Russell provided a detail about this:
A Trappers equipment in such cases is generally one Animal upon which is placed...a riding Saddle and bridle a sack containing six Beaver traps a blanket with an extra pair of Moccasins his powder horn and bullet pouch with a belt to which is attached a butcher Knife a small wooden box containing bait for Beaver a Tobacco sack with a pipe and implements for making fire with sometimes a hatchet fastened to the Pommel of his saddle his personal dress is a flannel or cotton shirt (if he is fortunate to obtain one, if not Antelope skin answers the purpose of over and under shirt) a pair of leather breeches with Blanket or smoked Buffalo skin, leggings, a coat made of Blanket or Buffalo robe a hat or Cap of wool, Buffalo or Otter skin his hose are pieces of Blanket lapped round his feet which are covered with a pair of Moccasins made of Dressed Deer Elk or Buffaloe skins with his long hair falling loosely over his shoulders complete the uniform.
Needless to say, the life of the mountain man was a hard one, living in constant danger in several ways.
Thomas J. Farnham described them:
Habitual watchfulness destroys every frivolity of mind and action. They seldom smile: the expression of their countenances is watchful, solemn, and determined. They ride and walk like men whose breasts have been so long exposed to the bullet and the arrow, that fear finds within them no resting place.
Most modern misconceptions and popular image of mountain men stem from Hollywood films, like Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson or Dan Haggery as Grizzly Adams.
The Mountain Man carried a Possibles Bag, which is the forerunner of the modern Prepper's bug-out bag. The following video is one way to make your own possibles bag:

If you do not want to make your own, Crazy Crow has the best possible bags I have found.
Trappers needed essential equipment to survive and ply their trade that included rifles, pistols, knives for various purposes (defense and skinning), and hatchets for cutting firewood and self defense. The weight of their cooking equipment, traps, food, spare clothing and other essentials was too much for a man to carry so a vital need for a horse and mule with pack saddles were essential. Many trappers had one horse for riding and another horse or mule to carry equipment.; depending upon the terrain. In rough terrain, the mule was preferred to carry and the trapper would be on foot. The possibles bag held equipment readily needed, carried on their person at all times. In the possible bag there would be black powder, powder measurer, flint and steel, lead balls (and mold with bars of lead to make them), patching material, a patch knife, and a skinning knife. A large knife was carried on their belt for defense. Other important things found in a possible bag would be trap repair kit, tobacco, sugar and anything of value, coins or whatever, to use for trading. A trapper was never caught without a possible bag slung across his shoulder.
Crow Killer Johnson
Some trapper-mountain men were infamous. John “Liver-Eating” Johnston (also known as Johnson or Crow Killer)who was a colorful historical figure and not always an honorable man, but definitely interesting. He was a frontiersman of many trades: farmer, sailor, teamster, trapper, guide, scout, deputy, Union soldier, and trader to name the primary occupations. He was born in New Jersey, he was a sailor until deciding to dig for gold in Montana Territory living through all types of dangers to old age – something that did not happen often to Mountain Men or frontiersmen. He was a burly, extremely strong man who preferred being a loner. Reportedly his birth name was Garrison and was born in 1847. Some say that he was a sailor in the US Navy in the Mexican-American War and deserted after striking his superior officer during a disagreement. He was about twenty years old when he headed west to become a hunter and fur trapper during the period he tried his hand digging for gold. He had learned about trapping from a man he had met by the name of John Hatcher. Learning trapping, hunting and survival skills as a mountain man, he soon became an expert with the .30 caliber Hawken rifle and Bowie knife. When Hatcher retired from the mountain man trade, Johnston took over his cabin and then one year later went to Bitterroot Valley in Montana where he had met a Flathead tribesman who offered his daughter in trade a year earlier. He made the transaction and he and his new wife went to his cabin on the Little Snake River. He learned the language of his wife's tribe and taught her how to use a rifle so she could hunt during the winter while he was trapping to supplement whatever supply of food he had put away.
In the spring he returned to his cabin to find the remains of his wife lying in the open doorway of their cabin and evidence showed that it was a Crow hunting party that killed her. When she was killed she was seven months pregnant.
After his wife was murdered by Crow warriors in 1847, he went on a revenge hunt and earned the name Crow Killer by the many Crow he killed. Scalped Crow warriors began to appear throughout the Northern Rockies and the plains of Wyoming and Montana. As part of the revenge, he would cut their livers out and eat them. After so many Crow warriors turned up dead, the Crow decided it was time to send 20 of its best warriors to hunt down and kill Johnston. The detail of the battle was unknown, but not one of the 20 warriors ever returned. The killing of Crow continued for years. One winter, as Johnston was traveling 500 miles to visit his Flathead tribe kinsmen, he was ambushed by a group of Blackfoot warriors who intended to take him to the Crow for reward. Placing him bound with straps in a teepee, a warrior was outside to guard him. Johnston chewed through the leather straps and slipped out of the shelter and hit the large warrior with a blow to the nose, took the warrior's knife and sawed off one of the warrior's legs at the hip. Using the knife and the amputated leg as weapons, he fought his way out of the Blackfoot camp and into the woods. As the story goes, Johnston began his 200-mile journey back to his cabin and used the guard's leg as food (it was mid-winter) until he could find food or get it at his cabin.
Twenty years passed by and after an unknown amount of Crows died from his attacks, Johnston finally ended the vendetta and made peace. The truce was the final and Liver-Eating Johnson never ate another human liver again.
Then the Civil War began and sometime in 1864, Johnson (Johnston) joined the Union Army in St. Louis, as a sharpshooter, being honorably discharged the following year. During the 1880s, he was appointed deputy sheriff in Leadville, Colorado and later as a town marshal in Red Lodge, Montana.
In December 1899, Johnson the Crow Killer, was admitted to a veteran's hospital in Los Angeles, where he died on January 21st, 1900. His grave and a bronze statue of him is located in Cody, Wyoming.
As you may know, the film Jeremiah Johnson starring Robert Redford was based on the Crow Killer's life.
Depicted by most historians as the rifle of choice for Mountain Men was the Hawken Rifle, produced in the shop of Samuel and Jacob Hawken, but it was not the only rifle that trappers used in their trade. Other rifles, like he Lancaster Rifle, Kentucky Long Rifle, or Pennsylvania Rifle were also used. Flintlock was used until percussion caps were invented. Smoothbore rifles were also used, but not often. Other Mountain Man weapons:
1803 Harper's Ferry Rifle: Issued to Lewis and Clark expedition, it was a .54 caliber, halfstock rifle used by the military in the West and trappers who had been former soldiers.
Northwest Trade Gun: Smooth-bore gun that was an early favorite of the Natives of the West, which was why they were made by the Northwest Trade Company, but also used by Hudson Bay employees. It was versatile because it could be fired with shot or ball, like a shotgun.
Double-Barrel Shotgun: Good for close attacks, the flintlock double-barrel was not widespread, but used in the Rocky Mountains by night watch guardsmen for guarding horses in camps.
Pennsylvania Rifle: Known as the Kentucky Long Rifle, this flintlock was made in Pennsylvania by several gun makers and considered the “work horse” rifle of the Mountain Man that had long barrels between 42 and 44 inches in calibers .50 and .54 or sometimes larger. Accurate and had good effective range of 400 yards.
Full-Stock Hawken
Hawken Rifle: Made in St. Louis and wasn't as common among Mountain Men as Hollywood and fiction writers would have people believe. It cost twice as much as a Pennsylvania/Kentucky Rifle, but it was strong and reliable. It sported the “new” percussion cap, which some mountain men didn't trust – besides, flint for the flintlock did not necessarily need to be bought, but found in nature. The normal Hawken flintlock was half-stock rifles, but some were made with a full stock. The half-stock rifle weighed over 13 pounds.
Flintlock Pistols: These pistols, used in the American Revolution were used as backup to their rifles in a fight. Usually they were carried on the saddle in pommel holsters. Thus, many Mountain Men called them 'horse pistols'. They were available in both flintlock and percussion, sometimes carried in the belt or sash for personal, close protection.
The following image is a picture of the various shot, powder, and patches from buckskin.
Click Image to Enlarge
In addition to the rifle, they carried a flintlock or percussion pistol in their belt or sash, as well as a Tomahawk (ax) and throwing knife and/or Bowie or Arkansas type large knives. Small patch knives, kept in the possible bag was used for trimming patch material when loading the rifle or pistol. A skinning knife was kept handy for skinning animal hides for selling and making clothing from deer hide.
The percussion cap came into use after 1835 and the long rifle had an effective range of 400 yards that had remarkable accuracy for an open-blade sight. Calibers ran from .36 to .54 caliber lead balls. 

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