Man Knowledge: Legends of the Northwest – Mountain Men

by Chris on August 1, 2010 · 17 comments

in Manly Knowledge

“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.” -Thomas J. Farnham

The pages of history are filled with masculine archetypes of every sort.  Tales of cowboys, explorers, and adventurers take us back to a world that now survives only in history books and the legends fathers pass on to sons. No image of the men of times past stirs a man’s desire for adventure and danger more than that of the mountain man of the early 19th century.  Clad in furs and leathers, rifle at his side and knife in his belt, the popular image of the mountain man is the picture of quintessential masculinity, an image which readily symbolizes the virtues of self-reliance, solitude, and bravery.  As with all of history’s larger than life characters, the legend of the mountain man has only grown with time.  As the decades go by, fact continues to mix with fiction, leading to the popular conceptions of these men that we have today.  As we will see however, little embellishment is needed to make the tales of these daring men any more interesting than they already are.

Common Misconceptions

The popular image of the mountain man or trapper is similar to that of Robert Redford’s “Jeremiah Johnson” or Dan Haggerty’s “Grizzly Adams.”  While these stereotypical images are rooted in fact, the life of mountain men varied person to person, and there are several notable exceptions to the commonly accepted notion of how mountain men lived.  Perhaps the most common misconception about mountain men was that they were loners, wandering the wilderness completely detached from the outside world.  Mountain men were not simply wandering the wild in search of adventure and solitude; they were there to make money.  The fur trade was booming, and trapping could be a very profitable venture for someone with the proper know-how and equipment.  Beaver, one of the most high demand pelts, fetched as much as $6 per pound, a sizeable sum at the time.  Trapping was not easy, however, nor was it cheap.  The initial investment in gear and supplies was more than most men could part with, leaving trappers of meager means only one option: joining a fur trading company.

Company Men vs Free Trappers

As “company men,” trappers would be outfitted with the gear necessary to properly harvest pelts in exchange for a contractual obligation to sell their harvest only to their company.  The equipment provided to them was not free, but was slowly repaid by the trapper through his toils.  It was only when a company man had fulfilled his contractual obligations and repaid the costs of his equipment that he had the option to go it alone as a free trapper.

Company men lived a life of contradiction.  While the solitude of a life apart from civilization in the wilds of nature was a defining theme of their lifestyle, they also depended on the camaraderie of their fellow company men, whom they were rarely apart from.  As a company, trappers could be much more effective than they could as individuals.  More importantly, there was safety in numbers.  While free trappers enjoyed the independence of working alone and for themselves, there was much more risk inherent to the job.

Yet many trappers of this era, usually gritty, hardened men, often shrugged off these hazards, as the payoff of not having company obligations was substantially higher for the successful trapper.  The pelts these men harvested were not sold back to a parent company, but were instead often traded at the next rendezvous, a regular business gathering of trappers and traders.  Initially, mountain men transported their furs out of the wilds themselves, but quick thinking traders realized that they could barter better trade deals if they went to the trappers, instead of the trappers coming to them.  The mountain man rendezvous quickly became the norm, allowing trappers to forgo the dreaded trip back to civilization to sell off their goods.

A Life of Danger

The life of a mountain man was constantly at risk, with new dangers arising from every direction and at any moment.  Every change of season brought with it new dangers, and mountain men had to be prepared for any situation.  The spring season was the most profitable, as harvesting was easier and the animals still retained their winter coats.  Yet these men plied their trade year round, forced to remain mobile as game moved between hunting grounds.  The wilds of the Northwest offered little shelter from the bitter cold of a harsh winter storm, and summer droughts constantly tested their will to survive.  Yet it was not only weather that threatened the life of a mountain man.  Grizzly bears and rattlesnakes remained a constant threat, as did the indigenous population in the area.  As a result of limited supplies that ran out all too quickly, mountain men were forced to trade with local Native American tribes in order to attain necessities. This left the mountain man to weigh the need to approach a tribe with trade goods with the risk that the tribe might be hostile, a common occurrence.  With the possibility of death literally around every corner, it becomes clear that the defining characteristic of a mountain man was not solitude, but preparation.

Always Ready

“The special thing that Carson had couldn’t be boiled down to any one skill; it was a panoply of talents.  He was a fine hunter, an adroit horseman, an excellent shot.  He was shrewd as a negotiator.  He knew how to select a good campsite and could set it up or strike it in minutes, taking to the trail at lightning speed…He knew what to do when a horse foundered.  He could dress and cure meat, and he was a fair cook.  Out of necessity, he was also a passable gunsmith, blacksmith, liveryman, angler, forager, farrier, wheelwright, mountain climber, and a decent paddler by raft or canoe.  As a tracker he was unequalled.  He knew from experience how to read the watersheds, where to find grazing grass, what to do when encountering a grizzly.  He could locate water in the driest arroyo and strain it into potability.  In a crisis he knew little tricks for staving off thirst – such as opening the fruit of a cactus or clipping a mule’s ear and drinking its blood.  He had a landscape painter’s eye and a cautious ear and astute judgment about people and situations.  He knew all about hitches and rope knots.  He knew how to make a good set of snowshoes.  He knew how to tan hides with a glutinous emulsion made from the brains of the animal.  He knew how to cache food and hides in the ground to prevent theft and spoilage.  He knew how to break a mustang.  He knew which species of wood would burn well, and how to split logs on the grain, even when an axe was not handy.” -Hampton Sides in Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West speaking about legendary mountain man and adventurer Kit Carson.

If a mountain man was not properly prepared, he was dead.  As the above excerpt illustrates, the average trapper had to be more than just skilled in trapping and skinning.  He essentially had to be a tradesman of every sort, because he had no town full of vendors, smiths, and other craftsmen to rely on when things went south.  A wealth of knowledge in skilled trades and survival tactics was essential, but it was not all a mountain man needed to survive.  The proper equipment often meant not only the difference between success and failure, but life and death.

In order to be considered properly outfitted, trappers needed to haul an inventory of weapons including rifles, pistols, knives suited for various purposes, and hatchets for wood harvesting.  The weight of these items, along with that of the traps, food, clothing, and other items made necessary a trapper’s most vital piece of equipment:  horses and mules.  Without these beasts of burden, trappers would never have been able to haul the necessary amenities to stay alive in the wild.  Additionally, mountain men needed several critical items on their person at all times, which brings us to a staple of mountain man gear, the possibles bag.

The possibles bag is perhaps most comparable to the bug out bags common among modern day survivalists and other well prepared types.  In it, your average trapper would store any small items he may have needed for any possible scenario.  While several items were common to all possibles bags, every bag had its own unique contents and character reflective of its owner.  Essential contents included black powder and a powder measurer, flint and steel, lead balls and patch, a patch knife, and a skinning knife.  Other items might include tools for trap repair, tobacco, sugar, and various other objects intended for trade with native tribes.  To be certain, a trapper was not a mountain man without a possibles bag slung over his shoulder.

Profile of a Mountain Man:  John “Liver-Eating” Johnson

While any true mountain man’s life can be classified as extraordinary, the life of John Johnson was infamous even among such larger than life company.  Make no mistake, the actions of Liver-Eating Johnson were not always honorable, as his name may imply, but he was certainly one interesting character (Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson was loosely based on his life).  Few confirmed facts are known about Johnson; he was believed to have possibly been a soldier in the Mexican-American War and later during the Civil War, and it is believed he was dismissed from service on the Union side after a physical confrontation with an officer.  The legends associated with the man would seem to confirm a violent streak running deep within him, with one particular tale which won him his namesake standing out from the rest.

Following his dismissal from the military, Johnson was rumored to have taken a Native American woman as his bride.  This was fairly common practice for mountain men of the time, with the trappers usually leaving their new families at home while they went to harvest pelts.  Legend holds that after returning from the wilds, Johnson found the bones of his wife along with the skull of the child she was carrying piled in the doorway of his cabin.  Overcome with rage, Johnson immediately fingered a Crow hunting party as the perpetrators of this terrible act, and set out for revenge against the tribe.  Over the next twenty years, Johnson killed untold numbers of the Crow tribe in an attempt to satisfy his bloodlust, leaving the bodies maimed and with their livers missing.  Rumor held that he ate the liver as an insult to the tribe, a play on the Crow tradition of eating the livers of the animals they hunted in order to ingest the energy and lifeblood of their prey.

Perhaps Johnson’s most notable exploit involved his escape from the brink of death at the hands of the Crow.  Johnson, on his way to trade with a friendly tribe, was captured by a hunting party from the Blackfoot tribe.  Bound with leather cords and left under the watchful eye of a Blackfoot guard, Johnson knew the inevitable:  His reputation, and more notably his vendetta against the Crow, had preceded him, and the Blackfoot planned to sell him to the Crow for a sizeable ransom.  Faced with certain death at the hands of the Crow, he had only one option…escape.  Managing to chew through the leather straps binding him, Johnson seized the guard and knocked him unconscious.  Once again confirming his brutal nature, he scalped the man and cut off one of his legs, which he then used as nourishment on the 200 plus mile journey to the nearest safe haven, the cabin of a fellow trapper.

Liver-Eating Johnson:  Honorable man?  Certainly not.  Badass?  You bet.


Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West by Hampton Sides

The West: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey C. Ward

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Charles the Brewer August 1, 2010 at 11:44 pm

You’ve just made a bad itch worse.

2 Paulo Sweetin August 2, 2010 at 12:27 am

Innards are pretty good if done correctly.

3 TedBike3000 August 2, 2010 at 2:27 am

While I practice Bushcraft and canoe and hunt occasionally….My friends and I agree… to actually live the life of a mountain man would be a terrifying prospect. The amount of support we have gotten accustomed to is just too hard to imagine giving up for good. Two weeks wandering, fishing, and hunting in a National Forest is one thing..saying goodbye to everything for a year or more is a bit much. And looking at the guys who rode, walked, or pushed a (heavy!) bike laden with gear to Alaska, they were hard to a degree we have to admit is more than we could imagine being.

4 Jesse August 2, 2010 at 8:20 am

“Badass? You bet!” Indeed. Another informative and well-written article. Much obliged, Brett.

5 Jesse August 2, 2010 at 8:21 am

And, of course, I posted before confirming the author. My apologies. Great article, Chris!

6 Brucifer August 2, 2010 at 11:08 am

When ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ came out, some city-folk movie critics panned Redford for acting “woodenly,” obviously expecting his usual persona of a gregarious, glamorous leading-man. I however, think he acted precisely like a Mountain Man would in his situation. Conversational when needing to be, but terse and to the point

7 Kurt August 2, 2010 at 11:09 am

I feel that this sort of figure has played a much more important role in Canadian History than American. After all, if it was not for the fur traders, most of Canada’s western hinterland would have gone unexplored for many more years, and likely would have fallen into American hands. The image of traders paddling up mighty rivers is somewhat iconic here in Canada, and in fact, the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was the first fur trading company in Canada, still exists. The fur trade even led to the ethnogenesis of the Métis nation, which has a significant impact on Canada today.

8 Ryan F. August 2, 2010 at 11:34 am

Great article-I found it really interesting. I always pictured the mountain man wandering aimlessly alone but never really took the time to think about what exactly he was doing there and what his actual life was like. And now I really want a “possibles bag!”

9 j. oliver August 2, 2010 at 2:39 pm

So was it John “Liver-Eatin” Johnson who coined the phrase, “last leg of the journey?”
But seriously, folks…

10 Turling August 2, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Excellent article. I think I’ll need to find a book or two on John Johnson.

11 Andy August 2, 2010 at 5:53 pm

With all the talk of “Liver Eatin’ Johnson” you could have given kudos to the book “Crow Killer” And ahem, the gent with the elk rack is Ben Lilly I believe….

12 Shady August 3, 2010 at 5:36 pm

If interested, check out Joseph R. Walker. He was a mountain man, trapper, explorer and sheriff, amongst other things. To me, he was the ultimate mountain man. He’s not as famous as Kit Carson or Jim Bridger or Jed Smith, but once you read about his life you’ll see how awesome he was. He was such a badass that he once chased off bandits with his gun. While elderly AND blind.

13 Mountain Man August 4, 2010 at 1:21 am

Interesting comments….I spent a year in the foothills of the rocky’s living in a wall tent that was 10 X 12…took a job for $ 25 a week playing guitar in a bar just to afford smokes and coffee.
It aint so hard, but I had a homemade wood stove in my canvas tent….did get a bit lonely on occation though….going back up there I think soon…probably cross over into montana maybe head south into the wind river area….dont know but since I been livin on the flats these past 6 years sure makes a fella soft !……………MM

14 Jeff Kraykovic August 4, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Excellent article!

15 Guy Miller August 7, 2010 at 9:42 pm

The mountain man era only lasted about 40 years and the average mountain man only lasted a couple of years. Starvation was frequent and a cast iron stomach was needed to hold down whatever animal parts they could find/kill/eat.

16 Dorman Nelson August 20, 2010 at 11:10 am

Great that you mention Johnston–the information that you have came from the book Crow Killer. There are numerous magazines, books and many news articles mentioning Johnston over the years–I’ve included my review. Best to all, Dorman Nelson, biographer.

CROW KILLER by Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker

Interesting to note that Crow Killer was written in 1957-8 and first published in 1959. Despite the cruel depictions of battle, attitudes and man vrs man and nature; Bunker actually wrote nurturing prose about the Native Americans in Other Men’s Skies and other publications.
Raymond Thorp was the mover and shaker in getting information and tracking down individuals involved in the Liver Eating Johnson saga. (He wrote about Black Widows and Jim Bowie’s knife, as well.) There are pictures of him with Johnston’s National Cemetery Stone in Sawtelle, California, of some of his weapons and areas in the Johnson arena while rambling after the real man. He spent a lot of time talking to veterans of the plains and mountains, many of them coming to Pasedena pastures to graze in arthritic old age. (Hard to move around in the cold crippled up.) Del Gue was the one
fella I could never find any historic facts about. Not even his name is mentioned anywhere. Others are looking as well.
White-eyed Anderson was another frontiersman. He was there, bunked and trapped with Johnston for a time and is now buried in California at Forest Lawn.

Robert Bunker was the actual writer; fleshing out the information that Thorp gave him. (I was fortunate to speak to and write him about this book over the years. Both have joined Johnston in eternal rest.) Together the authors have created a moving piece of folklore laced with truth about the frontier and this one man who was known to many in his time. Not mentioned is Johnston’s considerable time as a whiskey peddler in Canada out of Fort Benton and his time with an 1884 wild west show along with Crow Indians, Calamity Jane, Curley, Hardwick, LeForge and many others.

He did not have a beef with the Crow. Oh, but he enjoyed beef livers with them at least once by some accounts….during the agency slaughters. It was the Sioux that was stirring the warpath soup. Johnston earned his moniker against them, shot them, poisoned them and generally distrusted them. He got along with the Crow. So here is the subplot of Crow Killer and the movie Jeremiah Johnson that was made in 1972. The Crow were after him.

The book was supposed to be a history. It is, but it is one of tall tales. In that, I would explain that after a day’s work one would be laying or sitting by a good fire, full of buffalo rib and berries and perhaps a jigger of whiskey, enjoying a smoke or chew while each good-natured comrade is telling how it was and how it had been…Perhaps the best new book on this subject would be Dr. Dennis John McLelland’s The Avenging Fury of the Plains John “Liver Eating” Johnston in that he debunks (sorry Robert) Crow Killer and explains the real man and times.

Johnston has been my research subject since I saw his cabin at Red lodge, Montana in 1969. (See I have heard all the tales of men in their cups, men on the range, men of boast, men of action and quite a few gals therein while traipsing the historical trails in search of Crow Killer. One such tale in the book has to do with the frozen leg escape, which is a good grisly one, but was actually done by one Boone Helm. Imagine my surprise to get a call from one of his direct descendants to add to my knowledge of the rowdy Helm brothers!

What I would direct readers to enjoy is the fable, the boast, the roar and chest-thumping of men who in reality had not much to do but survive and hold on to memories as they got feeble and needed an outlet for that mental energy pent up inside from those long ago hair raising exploits. It was not an easy life, conquering the west. And many did not get to rest out in pleasant climes like California, having an arrow, bullet, blizzard, bear, fallen boulder or lack of food make their day end–sometimes not very quickly.

Crow Killer is a good book to flavor that time, feel the hone of a blade, duck from a loud crack of the buffler gun or wang of a bow string, smell the campfire, enjoy a good buffalo rib (online, if you want) and get some knowledge of survival and how those folks got along with their neighbors. Crow Killer must be on its’ twenty-ninth printing by now—if not it will be.

17 gene ryder October 16, 2013 at 7:00 am

We are so fortunate to have a tone of books out there, some great, some not so much, but all add to the mix. Here are some that get overlooked: James Pattie’s “Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans (a classic) , Ruxton’s “Wild Life in the Rockies” (another classic), and you simply bust read James Beckwourth’s autobiography, if for nothing else than to have a hoot at his amazing talent for the tall tale. Also, Ferris’s “Life in the Rocky Mountains.” But over and above all, the man who gets the least amount of ink (and would have liked it that way!), is Joseph Walker. HE was the quintessential, HE was a mountain man’s mountain man, and his trails and travails are astonishing in breadth. You can go to to read some of these books and journals online free. Some of these books are either hard to get/find, our of print, or cost a fortune. Happy Trails

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