Sunday, December 19, 2010

Yet Another Mountainy Man Blog?

Why another “mountain man blog?” Well first, you won’t find a rehash of history here in the terms of chronological data. Nor, do I intend to write solely about what is in my pack, where I got my rifle, etc.  Sure, I may do just that, but this primarily is my attempt to open the minds of many out there to the reality, that the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade and the people associated with it, simply didn’t vanish at the end of the last renedezvous on Horse Creek in July, of 1840.

Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, there remained plenty of work for these men. People new to the region, willing to exploit their talents, hired them to fill numerous frontier jobs which often expanded their roles in pioneer communities. By the mid-1830s the “Trade” itself was shifting east and towards the Upper Missouri buffalo robe trade, and the overland trail was becoming more traveled as people trickled and then flooded into Oregon territory and eventually, into California. Many forget that within our own nation’s borders the British Hudson’s Bay Company, was still thriving in the west for another 20 years!

The reenacting hobby which I and many others embrace has done many disservices in the name of establishing “authenticity guidelines” for “historic” events, many with good intentions.  These in a innocent way, rob history of its’ full story and have been assumed to be indicative of the period.  The idea that in 1840 the mountaineers simply packed up their stuff and went home is a complete fallacy. As a professional historian this, for me, violates the holistic nature of research.

I have observed that most enthusiasts only seem to focus on one kind of gun, rifle, trap, buckskin clothing, etc. as defined by popular research or even what their buddy has been using.  Work in the museum field long enough and you come to realize there are many “non-typical” artifacts in collections all over the world. While artwork of the time defines many choices for clothing and equipment, the artifact record shows there were many more choices and variables than the average reenactor pays attention to.

I am not trying to get anyone’s “pantaloons in a wad.”  To the contrary, I enjoy my fellow reenactor’s efforts thoroughly.  We all love this hobby for what it gives back to us in camaraderie and hours of fun and enthrallment. Neither am I trying to justify the use of a revolver in my kit or other items too “cowboy” for the hobby prior to 1840.  There are plenty of years between this and the rise of “cowboy culture,” and colt’s revolver to justify doing so for me.

Therefore, rather than subscribe solely to the guidelines of  “Rondyvoo culture” I will investigate the material culture of the “mountain men” as the era of the western fur trade’s closure, which started to show signs of diminishing returns in the 1830s, through the opening of the west in 1860. This is simply a benchmark date range, which I may violate as necessary. Some will say “But Bill, that ain’t classic mountain man stuff.” Yet, I whole-heartedly disagree. Besides there are plenty of folk writing about A.J. Miller paintings and ledger books.

Until the end of the 1850’s the mountain man was very much clinging to his way of life. Many remained in the wilderness or became citizens of frontier communities or made a living by leading others overland to them. There is much knowledge tied into the art and artifact that can be gleaned from the period of the post rendezvous era. All one need do is read emigrant accounts of trappers and realize these guys kept going with what they new best or some semblance of it. Yet, they also diversified into other pursuits in order to adapt and survive.

Hopefully you will see that the reality is much more fascinating than the popular depictions of bearded, pelt clad codgers climbing mountains in search of pelts and living alone in the wilderness.

For the real “mountaineer” was much more than a hero of the west. He was an “average Joe” in his own mind, trying to make a living in what could be likened to the first “gold rush.” His way of life had become mythologized back home and abroad. But make no mistake; the average trapper was just that, average. He wanted to make a living and find or go “home” once he made enough cash, wherever he determined “home” to be.  This was the job of resilient men with at least some sense of industry, who were not hunkered up with rheumatism but, were in good physical shape and relatively young. 

There was little romance to being a trapper. The job was dirty, cold, and often involved taxing labor and constant vigilance.  Few in numbers as they were (perhaps a couple of thousand during the hwole period), it is with little effort that one can see why those who truly succeeded became famous. Trapping on the shoulder seasons of winter, wading into frozen water to check traps and then across the snow back to camp, all the while adapting to the environment, evading tribes hostile to their presence, and competing with wild animals makes it abundantly obvious. No one would do this job if it didn’t at least have the potential to pay well and possibly gain greater fortune.

So what will you find here? I intend to write posts about my ramblings through research and the mountains themselves. This site is for educational purposes and if I find new art, information, or artifacts associated to the period, I will post them here.

I may also write about my fictitious persona I use in first-person Living History work for museums and interpretive centers.  He’s an “average Joe” who hails from “Missourah,” and is my alter-ego in this period. Like so many of his kin, a workaday “plainsman” who has joined the Rocky Mountain fur trade a tad too late.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the posts. Hopefully, I can shed some new light on an era still shrouded in mythology.
Detail of William Tylee Ranney's  "Advice on the Prairie" 1853,  for which this blog is named.

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