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The Wild Freedom Of The Mountain Men
The imagined liberty of Rousseau’s primitive individual was actually attained by the free trappers who helped America gain a continent
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
Freedom apparently entails challenge and is achieved, not bestowed. The achievement of the mountain men was to go where others had not been, in the face of a constant challenge from an awesome and unbroken wilderness. They were repaid in freedom, a freedom they could accept, not being fettered by the fixed taboos and rigid life patterns of their contemporaries, the Indians. They were the freedom fantasy made flesh, even to an uncanny identity with the incidental details of Rousseau’s picture: preoccupation with savagery, violence, sensation, and megalomania. Beaver was only a reason for beginning; unconscious contempt for the tangible rewards of their achievement was demonstrated by many of them over and over again at rendezvous, when a year’s catch went for a few days of Old Sledge, aguardiente , and bells and beads for the woman in the lodge, and it was back to the mountains empty-handed. The mountain men were rewarded by their way of life.
To some, the lack of restraint and the challenge resulted in the realization of lives of monumental stature, lives which stamped their mark on the changing world, and afforded to an extraordinary degree that inner recognition of a reason for living, the feeling that here and for this one had been born, the sense of recognition and fulfillment, the intimation of immortality, for which all life strives.
Such were Jedediah Strong Smith, the triumvirate of Jim Bridger, Kit Carson and Thomas Fitzpatrick, and a number of others.
Jed Smith was a rather mystical, probably inspired young man, the greatest explorer among all the far-ranging mountain men. It seems that as a youth he dreamed of going forth and cracking the vast shell of the unknown new world of the West, and when he grew up he went and did it. It is difficult for us today to settle on a comfortable evaluation of those mightiest names of that wild, free time.
Kit Carson is still a dime novel hero, as he was during his lifetime, but his own biographer disclaims any notion that Kit may have been an orthodox great man. A great man may be a famous general or politician but scarcely someone dressed in buckskins and dirt who says “thar” and “mought be” and grunts with satisfaction over the strenuous business of ripping off an enemy’s scalp. Achilles could slit dead Hector’s ankles and lace through thongs and drag him to his chariot, while the women of Troy screamed in anguish from the walls, but that is different. Kit Carson had a profound influence on shaping the world around him, the new West, and he had, according to most contemporary accounts, an exceptional integrity and greatness of soul, being apparently equally remarkable for modesty and bravery, kindliness and honesty.
Maybe all this makes him a great man, maybe not. What is more interesting, or at least more worthy of speculation, is the thought that Kit Carson and others like him may well have attained, during their development, a high point of freedom in the career of humankind. And the spectacular results of that development, in the case of the Carsons and Jed Smiths, the outer accomplishment and inner nobility grown from small beginnings and made to flourish in the hostile environment of the farthest wilderness, give rise to their suspicion that perhaps freedom, as a French poet said of happiness, is indeed the natural and intended condition of the human character.
But the human character is an individual thing, and in the hour of the mountaineers’ leathery blue-blazing reality there were many for whom the lack of restraint led only to lives that were orgies of unrestraint, and the room they had to strive in was never recognized. They were accustomed to coming upon dismembered bodies of their companions—the head put up on a stake (with the hat on) and shot full of arrows—so they might go among wounded Indians after a battle and butcher them in grotesque fashion also. Or they might indulge the vacuum of restraint by simply yelling.
They yelled when they fought Indians and they yelled when they fought grizzlies and they yelled when they dashed to meet strangers; they sang and shouted around a nightly feast, just to fill up the infinite starry space with noise. They yelled when they stampeded and stole horses and when they chased and stole women. They killed anything that moved on the slightest provocation, including each other, and sometimes for no reason at all, as when Jim Higgins of Ewing Young’s company felt an urge while in his cups to shoot and kill Big Jim Lawrence, and did so.
A much quoted passage of Ruxton, the British author and traveler who knew the mountain men, runs: “Not a hole or corner in the vast wilderness of the ‘Far West’ but has been ransacked by these hardy men … the beaver hunter has set his traps in every creek and stream.” But this is preceded by a passage that has not been so much quoted: “Constantly exposed to perils of all kinds, they become callous to any feeling of danger, and destroy human as well as animal life with as little scruple and as freely as they expose their own. Of laws, human or divine, they neither know nor care to know.… They may have good qualities, but they are those of the animal; and people fond of giving hard names call them revengeful, bloodthirsty, drunkards [when the wherewithal is to be had], gamblers, regardless of the laws of meum and tuum .… However, there are exceptions, and I have met honest mountain men.”