Beginning in 1807 when John Colter first passed through the area that became Yellowstone National Park through the 1830s, Mountain Men flourished in the Rocky Mountain West. Then a combination of over trapping and a shift in men’s fashions to silk hats ended the lucrative beaver trade. The last big Mountain Man rendezvous occurred in 1840.
Although a trapper couldn’t earn a fortune after that, a few hardy souls remained in the area making a subsistence living. Yellowstone tourists encountered such men until the 1880s. Here’s a description of an encounter with two Mountain Men and their entourage written by the Earl of Dunraven, a wealthy Irish nobleman who visited the Park in the 1874.
In the afternoon we passed quite a patriarchal camp, composed of two men with their Indian wives and several children; half a dozen powerful savage-looking dogs and about fifty horses completed the party.
They had been grazing their stock, hunting and trapping—leading a nomad, vagabond, and delicious life—a sort of mixed existence, half hunter, half herdsman, and had collected a great pile of deer-hides and beaver-skins. They were then on their way to settlements to dispose of their peltry, and to get stores and provisions; for they were proceeding to look for comfortable winter quarters, down the river or up the canyon.
We soon discovered that the strangers were white, and, moreover, that there were only two men in camp; and without more ado we rode in and made friends. What a lot of mutually interesting information was given and received! We were outward bound and had the news, and the latitude and the longitude. They were homeward bound, had been wandering for months, cut off from all means of communication with the outside world, and had but the vaguest notion of their position on the globe.
But, though ignorant of external matters and what was going on in settlements, they had not lost all desire for information. An American, although he lives with an Indian woman in the forests or on the plains, never quite loses his interest in politics and parties; and these two squaw-men were very anxious to hear all about electioneering matters
These men looked very happy and comfortable. Unquestionably the proper way for a man to travel with ease and luxury in these deserts is for him to take unto himself a helpmate chosen from the native population. With an Indian wife to look after his bodily comforts, a man may devote himself to hunting, fishing, or trapping without a thought or care. He may make his mind quite easy about all household matters. His camp will be well arranged, the tent pegs driven securely home, the stock watered, picketed, and properly cared for, a good supper cooked, his bed spread out, and everything made comfortable; his clothes and hunting-gear looked after, the buttons sewn on his shirt (if he has got any shirt—or any buttons) and all the little trivial incidents of life, which, if neglected, wear out one’s existence, he will find carefully attended to by a willing and affectionate slave.
They had a lot to tell us also about their travels and adventures, about the wood and water supply, and the abundance or deficiency of game. So we sat down on bales of beaver-skins and retailed all the civilized intelligence we could think of. The women came and brought us embers for our pipes, and spread out robes for us and made us at home. And the little, fat, chubby children, wild and shy as young wolves, peered at us from behind the tent out of their round, black, beady eyes.
— Text from The Great Divide by the Earl of Dunraven, 1875.
— You might also enjoy:
- “Colter’s Run” by William Bradbury.
- “Jim Bridger’s Descriptions of Yellowstone” by John Gunnison.
— To see more stories by this author, click on “Dunraven” under the “Categories” button to the left.