Mountain Men Still Live
The Tradition of John Colter and Jim Bridger Survives
By Molly Brown
Ever wonder what black powder smells like, what life would have been for men like Jim Bridger, John Colter, or Liver Eating Johnson? Plenty of people have and make it their life’s passion to reenact and re-create the time period of what is the most widely known and romanticized icon of the Rocky Mountain West: the mountain man.
This summer, the Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous will be held near Lewistown, Mont. Aficionados of the time period, when mountain men flourished in this very area, will celebrate and recreate the gatherings that took place during the heyday of fur trapping and trading in the Rocky Mountains. Clothed in period dress, they will gather, pitch authentic canvas tents, shoot black powder rifles and pistols—and, according to one member, just have a lot of good clean fun.
And this month, June 16, local mountain men and women gather in the Shields Valley, clothed in period costume, for the dedication of Thunder Jack, a life size (and true to life) bronze sculpture of a mountain man created by Wilsall artist Gary Kerby (see page 11), an event titled Welcome to the Shields, which honors the early pioneers of the area.
The Mountain Men Era
Before the Lewis and Clark expedition opened Montana to the fur trade in 1805-1806, the Plains Indians were the major supplier of beaver pelts, furs and buffalo hides for the Hudson Bay and North West trading companies. This changed in 1807, when Manuel Lisa built a fur trading post at the junction of the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers. The Lisa, Menard and Morrison Fur Company hired and traded directly with the trappers. This opened up the opportunity for a new breed of men to leave town life for the open spaces, mountains and rivers of the West.
Mountain men flourished in the Rocky Mountains from 1805 to 1835, when beaver was plentiful and in high demand for the top hats that were the fashion. In Europe, the beaver was nearly driven to extinction by 1850 after 300 years of being trapped and turned into hats. This depletion drove demand for pelts in the New World. By 1835, the beaver had nearly been trapped out of the West. European fashion adjusted, and in 1850 the silk hat came into vogue. Demand for beaver pelts dropped, and along with it the economic life blood of the mountain men.
The Mountain Men rendezvous happened west of the continental divide between 1820 and 1840. They were held in large verdant valleys with enough open land for the camps of hundreds of mountain men, several thousand Native Americans, sufficient grazing and water for thousands of horses, and access to supply trains. They would take place in summer, between spring and fall trapping seasons when beaver pelts were most plentiful. It was a time for the trappers to trade their furs, stock up on supplies and have fun.
James Beckwourth, an early mountain man and horse trader, described the rendezvous in his memoir, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation.
“It may well be supposed that the arrival of such a vast amount of luxuries did not pass off without a general celebration. Mirth, song, dancing, shooting, trading, running, jumping, singing, racing, target shooting, yarns, frolic with all sorts of extravagances that white men or Indians could invent were freely indulged. The unpacking of the medicine water contributed not a little to the heightening of our festivities.”
Today’s Mountain Men
“The mountain man is a lonely man, leaving a life behind…” This lyric plays in the movie Jeremiah Johnson as the iconic character played by Robert Redford (loosely based on Liver Eating Johnson) rides off with his newly purchased supplies and horse, westward in search of the beaver. But for all the romance and dreams of making it on ones own skills, the life of the mountain man was difficult, dangerous and, well—lonely.
Some, though, are driven to re-create that life. One such person is Bert “Mouse Tail” Bryson, a member of the Bozeman-based Bridger Mountain Men.
I asked Bryson if the depiction of the mountain men in Jeremiah Johnson was accurate.
“Redford did a good job in the telling the story,” Bryson said, “but there were some inaccuracies–its Hollywood after all, but the clothing was right on target and the lifestyle portrayed was accurate too.”
The Bridger Mountain Men, a club formed in the late ‘70’s, is a reenactment and black powder group dedicated to preserving the history of mountain men and the use of black powder guns. Their major event of the year is a rendezvous where they reenact actual gatherings of mountain men, traders and Native Americans. The Bridger Mountain Men is one of several related organizations throughout the country that have memberships in the thousands.
Reenactment and muzzle loading groups across the United States rendezvous frequently across the country at various times of year, mostly in summer. In July, the Bridger Mountain Men have their own in the Crazy Mountain area and also camp outs on weekends in June, August, and September. It is a family affair with wives and children in attendance.
But why do they do it?
“History,” Bryson laughs. “We are all history buffs.”
Members spend hours reading about the history of the mountain men, researching and making the costumes, tents, black powder rifles and accessories. Many of the men use hides from deer they have hunted, tan them, and sew them into buckskin costumes. Bryson told us that he tanned the hide for his pants but had the skin to make his shirt tanned by someone else. Linen and calico shirts round out the costume. Women sew pre-1840 outfits for themselves and the children.
There is a scene in Jeremiah Johnson where Swan, Johnson’s Flathead wife, is making him a coat out of buffalo skin. It seems arduous, sewing with blunt slivers of bone and using sinew and leather thread. I ask Bryson about it.
“Many of our members do use sinew for the stitching; some don’t. It can take about 8 to 10 hours for a buckskin outfit,” Bryson said. “To make the rifle, up to four months.”
Emily Lundberg, Bryson’s wife, jumps in. “It’s fun to try to recreate as accurately as we can the costumes, the camp site, and cooking utensils.”
I ask if they try to recreate the meals. “We don’t exactly eat the same kind of food,” Lundberg says. “The mountain men ate mostly meat with no variety in the diet except in summer when they could trade for supplies at the rendezvous. Those supplies didn’t last long. We’ll cook stews and such.”
Groups like the Bridger Mountain Men are moveable living museums. But black powder? Isn’t it a lot of work for just one shot?
Here’s the process: first you place the powder from your powder horn or measure in the barrel, then place your lead ball, push the ball down with your wiping stick (ramrod), place the flint between the barrel and the hammer, aim and fire.
I placed a call to my son, Chris Brown, who lives in Iowa and has started hunting with black powder. I told him that Bryson said it was initially the smell that hooked him on black powder. “Yeah, it’s that and the cloud of smoke that comes out” Chris said. “There is a moment of anxiety and suspense until the cloud clears. You don’t know whether or not you’ve hit your target.”
Mountain men usually carried a rifle, a throwing knife and a tomahawk. The Hawken was the most popular rifle, typically in the 50-54 caliber range and could bring down a buffalo. The mountain man typically packed two knives, a throwing knife and a butcher knife. There was a reason for this combination: With black powder, you only had one shot. The next weapon the mountain man would use was the tomahawk, and then his knife.
A Spirit of Community
Bryson says today’s mountain men have developed a wonderful sense of community and camaraderie. The Bridger Mountain Men spend time with children, teaching them basic survival skills. They learn how to find and identify edible plants, collect firewood, light a fire by striking flint with steel, dig a hole in the ground, spread coals in it and lay a blanket over it to sleep out in the cold.
Bryson laughs and says “Yes, just like in the movie. I love that part when Bear Claw says to Jeremiah ‘didn’t put enough dirt down, seen it right off.’ We teach the children the right way to do it.”
All members of the reenactment groups are given camp names, generally associated with some story relating to that person. For example, Bryson tells how he earned his camp name, “Mouse Tail.”
“Well, it was during a pack trip to Hell Roaring Canyon. We hadn’t shot anything all day so I wandered down to the creek. I saw all these trout swimming’ around, so I looked around for something to fish with. Spotted a mouse, grabbed it and cut its tail off, put a snowberry and the mouse tail on a willow branch and caught thirteen trout. Fed the entire camp.”
“Now, Molly, the one thing you’ve got to remember about mountain men…they tell stories,” said Bryson with a chuckle.
Living and Playing History
When the demand for beaver pelts died out, many mountain men became guides for the increasing number of pioneers coming westward. Many led pack trains of supplies. Some left and went back to “the town,” as Jeremiah Johnson called city life. Some stayed and became the legends and icons of Montana history, like Jim Bridger.
History is written, spoken and lived. The Bridger Mountain Men are keeping this piece of it alive.
What is the magic that draws them back each year to camp out and rough it? What is the lure of the rendezvous and the long hours spent constructing the costume, the four months it takes to build a rifle?
Bryson laughs again, “Well, I guess we’re just a bunch of grown-ups playin’ around in the past.”
This year, from July 6-15, as many as 2000 people are expected to gather outside Lewistown in the Snowies for the Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous. Bryson tells us that “flatlanders” (non-members) are welcome. “Nearly every one of them comes up to us and says “Did you see the movie Jeremiah Johnson?” I laugh, but I know what he’s saying is true. That movie inspired countless young men to move westward, lured by the beauty and adventure portrayed in the story.
Lundberg speaks fondly of the rendezvous. “You should see it with all the white canvas tents stretched out and the people there…it’s really something. It’s beautiful.”
I close my eyes and try to imagine the wide fertile river valleys that surround us here in south central Montana. I can see it. I can see the mountain men, the tall peaks that drew them, the abundant wildlife, the solitude and open spaces. I can feel the sense of being one’s own person, living a self-determined life, without interference—by your own wits, instincts and preparedness. The same fierce indepen-dence infuses the people who walk the same trails, fish the same rivers, and hunt the same mountains as the men who went before them.
Near the end of the film, Jeremiah runs into the tough trapper Del Gue for the last time. They visit, share stories and part, knowing they will not meet again. Before they separate, Del Gue looks at the mountains in the distance and says “the Rocky Mountains is the marrow of the world.” The Bridger Mountain Men would probably agree.