The Wild Freedom Of The Mountain Men

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Freedom is a word that has had many meanings. In all its disguises it has been relentlessly pursued, but perhaps it has been longest hunted under its most artless aspect—the simple notion of individual liberty and unrestraint. Jean Jacques Rousseau reduced this ancient and naive dream of individual freedom to concise statement in 1750, mistakenly choosing primitive man, the noble savage dancing in the forest primeval, as his example; but a half century later a phenomenon began to emerge in western America that in many respects brought the dream remarkably to life. This was the free trapper, the Rocky Mountain man.

The mountain man first appeared with the Lewis and Clark report of beaver swarming in the streams of the western mountains. He lived a brief uproarious generation and vanished in the early 1840’s when the market for beaver dwindled and vanished, and the beaver nearly disappeared with it, almost trapped out.

Due to the remoteness of his hunting grounds, the Shining Mountains of the Far West, the mountain man was the first inhabitant of America to find himself at ease with the familiar concept of great land distances that Europeans still remark as one of our national attributes. He was seldom a pioneer consciously clearing a way for others to follow—he was only hunting beaver. He was seldom an integrated unit of an organized company, with a big business character branded on his pack, as in the case of the hired pork-eaters of the North West Company. He was not a family man in a covered wagon, a settler. He was, at his best, defiantly independent and individual, and he forthrightly referred to himself as free—a free trapper.

He lived on his own in a neolithic world far removed from the Steel Age civilization that had bred him. He brought along only a few of its tools: traps, rifle, knife, awl, powder and lead. He traveled with small, loosely organized groups of his own kind, a handful of men swallowed in an infinity of dark forests and strange winds. His joy was the sensual animal pleasure of life lived for its moments, one by one. He hunted with glowing eyes and spilled blood on pine needles unstirred for centuries.

He owned a mule or horse or two and an Indian girl. He dressed in skins she worked up for him, and she had warm water ready for his feet when he came in to his camp from wading the icy beaver streams. In the summer, when trading caravans came from St. Louis, he packed the spoils of his year’s plunder to the great trappers’ rendezvous in the mountains, bartered it for a whoop and a holler and a howling hangover, and set out on the next long hunt.

He floated on the rolling rivers in boats of skin or bark or rafts of logs. He probed out trails that are railroads and highways today, and learned the way from the plains of Kansas to California and from the deserts of New Mexico and Utah to the fern-grown rain forests of Oregon.

Probably the mountain men surpassed the Indians in at least a number of the necessary skills of reading sign, hunting, living off a wild and ominous land, fighting and hiding and running like agile beasts, lying concealed in brush and rocks throughout a thirsty day if necessary, starving, stealing horses, going dirty, enduring sun and cold and cracking alkali. In some of these things they must have surpassed the Indians to survive, for the Indians were living at home, cushioned by the web of their established society, and the mountain men were interlopers with no support to back them up other than what they carried in their hands, so far in time and space from the established society from which they had sprung that they had all but forgotten its existence.

They were a variegated, highly individualistic bunch, much more so than any vocational group in the confines of civilization. Their lonely, self-sufficient lives developed separatist tendencies, and they were apt at any moment to be subjected to unique experiences for which the group had provided no adjustment, thus inducing bizarre modifications in individuals—which is to say each man lived in his own hide, hair side out and plenty of it.

There were men from what are called good homes among them and scrapings from the muddy waterfronts of the big rivers from New Orleans to the Yellowstone; intelligent men and mental defectives from backwoods slums, heroes and victims and villains and clowns and all the shades between in sunburst colors, heightened and brightened to the wearer’s pleasure.

They had in common only a constant insecurity and a boundless freedom, both of such dimensions as to be appalling to those sheltered by a civilized world. In their brief time, and it is noteworthy that it was without intention on their part—they were only hunting beaver—the mountain men created a vector of force that was an important factor in extending the sovereignty of the United States over the whole enormous western half of the continent. And coincidentally in their brief time they approached, in a very literal sense, the status of exalted freedom which Rousseau’s fantasy portrayed.