Mountain men were an assortment of trappers and explorers who lived, died, thrived, and went destitute in the mountains and plains of North America. This collective went to the far-reaching wilderness areas, of the time, to acquire and sell animal fur. Some may have left the population centers east of the Mississippi River just to live out their lives in isolation and challenge the limits of their strength and determination. The “Mountain Man Era” was relatively short in terms of American history. Mountain men inhabited and plied their trade in the Rocky Mountains from about 1810 to 1850 (peaking in 1830-1840).
Inspired by the published accounts of the Lewis and Clark expedition from 1803-1806, big fur companies sought to increase their lucrative holdings by hiring enterprising individuals and free spirits. Applicants and free-lancers, whether driven by greed or adventure, had to be willing to live off of the land and survive in harsh conditions. They were going where few, or none, had ever been. Many would succumb to weather exposure, illness, and starvation. Some would be injured or killed by Native Americans, or other mountain men, who already considered this part of the world home. Facing unfathomable circumstance and uncertain odds, still they went.
Most were indebted to fur companies. They needed a big cache of supplies to get them through the year. The fur companies charged them exorbitant prices for much-needed supplies and kept detailed records of the debt. The trappers were obligated to bring in a large supply of pelts to pay off their debt. Many mountain men traded their supplies with Native American tribes for fur. This was a way they could acquire more fur than they could get by trapping it themselves. Needless to say, most mountain men did not reach the plus side of the ledger.
The goal for most mountain men was to obtain as much fur (mostly beaver plews) as possible. Mountain men would use fur as currency in exchange for money, horses, and other supplies (possibles). This exchange usually occurred at rendezvous. Rendezvous would take place, annually, in a pre-determined location. Mountain men and Native Americans would travel from all over to reap the rewards of their year’s work. For many, it was a time of celebration and socializing. For some, this would be the only time of year they would see another human being. At rendezvous, friendships were formed and enemies were made.
The mountain men would be instrumental in forging and developing the trails and routes that bridged the eastern to western United States. Some helped set up establishments and outposts along the way. Mountain men established many of the routes that would be used by the multitude of setters and pioneers who ventured west in subsequent years.
By the mid 1800s, the days of the mountain men dwindled. The fur industry was waning due to reduced demand. Much of the reduced demand was due to the rise of the silk trade. Large portions of the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains, at this point in time, had become over-trapped and over-hunted. The number of fur-bearing animals became alarmingly decimated. For many, the risk was no longer worth the reward.
Some mountain men became legendary-Jim Bridger, Jedediah Strong Smith, John “Liver Eating” Johnson, and Kit Carson. Most were never known. History is kind to some and cruel to others. The stories of mountain men, whether factual or fictional, live in the infamy of American folklore.