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The Wild Freedom Of The Mountain Men

May 2024
10min read

The imagined liberty of Rousseau’s primitive individual was actually attained by the free trappers who helped America gain a continent

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.

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.”

The free trapper who owned to the most unrestrained reputation in the mountains and was proud of it, and was therefore in certain literal respects at least the freest of them all, was one William Sherley Williams, known as Old Bill. He lived more than forty years withdrawn from civilization. The last 23 or 24 were spent in the Rocky Mountains. As a young man he had been for a time a preacher in backwoods Missouri; in his old age he was famous even among the mountain men for his rugged individualism.

Old Bill carried free self-determination a step farther than most of his colleagues. Generally, the trappers liked to move and camp together in small parties. This meant added protection against Indians, help in case of injury or accident, more hunters to bring in meat, and the human satisfaction of companionship. But Old Bill went much alone, especially as he grew older, so much so that one of his many titles came to be Old Solitaire. He frequently spent the winters living with Indians, most often with the Utes, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, but through the long hunting seasons he walked by himself. Companies of other trappers occasionally came across him in deserts or mountains, far from a base, and wholly alone.

He was secretive about his trapping grounds. If Bill Williams was the envy of the shaggy, independent mountain men because among them he was the most independent, the shaggiest, the dirtiest, and could go on the biggest sprees, he was also envied for the rich loads of furs he brought to rendezvous or Bent’s Fort. But only he knew where he had trapped them, and so an air of mystery was added. Stories were told of his mountain knowledge and trail wisdom, his witchery at trapping, his supernatural skill in hunting, at which he outrivaled the predatory beasts of the forests; his uncanny instinct for danger, his boldness and ferocity in a fight, and the scalps he had taken, and the wounds he had received; his pranks and his hell-roaring Taos drunks; and his solitudes, and it was this last that impressed the mountain men more solemnly than all the rest.

Stories were told of his unbelievable strength and endurance. Stories were told that pictured him as rabid and treacherous, or as compassionate, generous, warmhearted and true.

Ruxton made of Old Bill a character typed so strikingly that he has lived ever since in western fiction—the old man of the mountains, the past master frontiersman who has seen more things with his faded eyes than can be dreamed of in tenderfoot philosophies, the eccentric old-timer, full of hard liquor and ancient reputation, who saves the wagon train in between comical jets of tobacco juice.

“Do’ee hyar now,” Ruxton has him say, as a constant expression. “Do’ee hyar now, boys, thar’s sign about? this hos feels like câching.” And “Do’ee hyar now, boys? thar’s Injuns knocking round, and Blackfoot at that; but thar’s plenty of beaver too, and this child means trapping anyhow.” And the trappers, scattered at work on the streams, are attacked, and one of the boys staggers into camp, dripping blood, with a Blackfoot arrow in his back. Old Bill, graining a skin, looks up to say, “Do’ee feel bad, now, boy? Whar away you see them darned Blackfoot?” The wounded trapper not unreasonably tells him first to pull the arrow out of his back and then he’ll feel like talking, and Old Bill, going on with his work, says, “Do’ee hyar now!” And Old Bill, all alone in the mountains, makes himself known to a startled trapping party by rising out of the brush six feet away and saying, “Do’ee hyar now? I was nigh upon gut shootin’ some of e’e—I was now; thought e’e was darned Rapahos, I did …”

But Old Bill Williams was more enigmatic than comic, and toiling, godless, worn Ishmaelite, he was essentially more pathetic than either.

When he was 61 years old he betrayed his friends, the Utes, while on an extended Taos binge, and led a detachment of soldiers against them. In the ensuing fight his arm was shattered by a bullet “most horribly.” (He kept on fighting until the battle was over.) A few months later he joined John Charles Frémont’s fourth expedition as guide. The expedition ended in disaster in a Rocky Mountain winter, nearly a third of the men died of cold or starvation, and Old Bill, after desperate efforts to save the expedition, was brought into Taos unable to walk, nearly sightless, frozen, according to one report, as high as his hips, and so emaciated as to be unrecognizable. And accused, incidentally, of cannibalism. Only a few weeks later he returned to the mountains alter the expedition’s baggage. He and his companion, another survivor of the expedition, disappeared and were never heard of again. It is presumed they were killed by Indians.

Schopenhauer parabled the social structure in his story of the porcupines, who huddled together for warmth, in spite of being pricked and tormented by each other’s sharp quills: it was better to suffer the annoyances of the crowd than to be cold and alone. They fell into a pattern, these porcupines, a tight little knot of the coldest and most dependent in the center, surrounded by somewhat more independent porcupines not quite so close together, and on the outermost fringes those few individuals, proud and strong, who could stand the cold best of all. These might represent the mountain men. And the one farthest apart from all the rest was Old Bill Williams.

Curious parallels can be found between the compulsive, unmuzzled life of such a man as Old Bill Williams and the riotous lives of some of the men of the early Renaissance. Perhaps a line could be drawn from Renaissance humanism to the American idea—the idea of revolutionary America, supporting human dignity by placing authority on the side of individual liberty and the pursuit of happiness—and the line continued to the mountain men.

It is eminently suitable that they were instrumental (all unknowing, while they hunted beaver) in accomplishing a continental America before they vanished.

Copyright, 1955, by William Brandon.

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