Shout at me,
Breath in deeply, awaken me inwardly,
With faded joys longing to be touched.
Shout at me,
Breath in deeply, awaken me inwardly,
With faded joys longing to be touched.
Like barnacles on an old boat, the American Mountain Man has gathered many distinctions along the trail from fact to myth. But one thing is certain. He almost eradicated beaver from the Rocky Mountains and the high prairies along their foothills.Whether they knew it or not, the beaver trappers of the early 19th Century became the spearhead of a manifest destiny America felt entitled to achieve.
The unashamed exploitation of the resources du jour has always been an American obsession and it began with beaver fur, so ideal for making men’s hats that Stetsons and Borsalinos are to this day made with XXX Prime Beaver Felt. The Indigenous children of Scot and French fur traders had linked themselves and their British and Canadian suppliers into the spider’s web of native trading that spanned the remaining half of the continent not subjugated by European domination, disease, and displacement.
When American companies were denied entry into the Indigenous market, they smashed through it and fought off the Peoples loyal to the British who had blocked the Missouri River to traffic from the south and east. The Americans organized into ‘brigades’ and ‘companies’ and marched and fought and rowed and pulled upon the hated cordele rope up the river road. Some of the first American fortunes came from western waterways populated with beaver colonies that had never before known a predator like the spring-loaded leg-snapping iron trap.
These beaver hunters endured frost-numbed feet and legs while they waded out to set their traps and retrieve their harvests. They lived mostly with other men in militaristic social arrangements, each of them driven by hopes of making their fortunes in beaver. At the turn of the 19th Century, American coin and currency was only available in a few select locales. In places like St. Louis, common alternative payments were made in lead and molasses, Spanish silver or French gold, or pleaus, the fur trade expression for beaver pelts. And one prime Rocky Mountain pleau, dense-haired and big, was worth as much silver [or chickens or copper or iron] as a gunsmith could earn from three weeks’ hard toil. [$90/year $5/pleau]
British and Canadian and for a time French companies went to extraordinary, years-long efforts to bring the products of 18th Century Europe all the way to the foothills of the earth’s backbone, the Rocky Mountains. But the Blackfoot Peoples who had occupied the prairies surrounding the Northern Rockies for over 10,000 years refused access to traders. They bartered and gifted instead with other Indigenous Peoples who lived closer to the trading establishments sprouting out along prairies and waterways flowing from the west and north.
When the first Americans attempted their brand of industrial trapping, many of them died at the hands of Blackfoot warriors and practically all of them were forced back south and east. And in their absence, the Scots of the North West Outfit continued a more or less sustained yield approach to their trading with the Indigenous beaver hunters. When it became evident after the War of 1812 that Americans were coming back into the Rocky Mountain trade, the NorthWesters sent brigades of their own down to the Snake River plain with the intention of creating a ‘beaver desert’ between the Peoples loyal to them and the approaching American trapping companies. They had over a decade to prepare because before the Americans could get to the western-flowing Snake River, they had to pass through Blackfoot Country.
Ever since I discovered John G. Neihardt in the 1970s, I aspired to write a novel about the American mountain man. Of course over the years I discovered that Neihardt was a great poet but an inaccurate historian, which led me to various curiosities about what it was really like. Being a journalist, I went right to the source, which in 1977 meant traveling to the Jefferson Memorial Library in St. Louis.
I would check out documents one at a time to read over and copy the good stuff with a Xerox at a nickel a page (back when a nickel actually had value). Or, take notepad after notepad of notes, which I did, for seven-weeks. The point of that story is to show my devotion to seeking first-hand data and also to note that today, virtually everything I copied, every image I took back with me to Utah, each note I scribbled, is available today free of charge thanks to the Internet.
A lot of my research included hiking and four-wheeling over many intermountain passes used by both natives and beaver hunters alike. When you spend a night or two up at a lake at the very base of the highest ridgelines and wake up in a remnant of wilderness that remains, you must wonder what it was like, before Europeans sickened all the People and killed all the wildlife and cut down all the trees.
I lived in Whitefish, MT, for a few months when I returned from Alaska and drove around with this forest ranger who went to college four years so he could be temporary help “cruising timber,” which meant surveying which trees would be “harvested.” We would go back to his survey plots and look over the results of the clear cutting and honestly, words do not provide justice to the barren scorched-earth practices of removing trees at maximum efficiency. Often the “harvested” acreage is bordered by a starkly straight row of trees left behind. I could feel them gasping at the sudden sunlight burning into their needles unaccustomed to the direct intensity.
Now I live in northwest Washington where there are preciously small reserves of what we up here call “old growth.” I am miniaturized by enormous red cedars and Douglas firs, big-leaf maples. Everything around me is alive, even the rotting deadfall sprouting with their personal bonsais and beds of moss. A community of tress tall and sprawling encompass this thick conjoined mass of living matter that has been here since the glaciers receded. Where I write, a quarter-mile from my home, the ground is immersed in tangles of decomposing tree trunks so thick my hiking pole often sinks two feet deep before finding its hold.
Flat land is almost non-existent in my neighborhood and yet modern man has developed machines that can crawl up and reach out to “harvest” every tree on the slope. For some reason, places like where I write have survived the onslaught but the saw draws nearer every day. I used to write along one of the rivers surging down from Mount Baker’s glaciers. Then one day the saw moved over the ridge in front of me and the flowing river lost its serenity.
Two hundred years ago, life had complications other than robotic mechanical saws. There could be strangers with pale skin scouring up the creeks and streams for every beaver they could find.
And that was my mountain man.
I started writing about the American beaver hunters a long time ago and completed a 200,000-word entreaty on the subject but when it ended, I came to realize there was no antagonist. The only reputable antagonists in mountain man lore are the cursed Blackfeet who refused to welcome the beaver hunters with open arms as other People reputedly did. Weather and bears make for remarkable tales, but in the overall scheme of things, who were the antagonists?
And of course the answer was staring me in the face; the antagonist was my mountain man. His entry into the scene disrupted everything. The very nature of his mythological status as the lonely trapper has historical significance for his place in the North American fur trade of early 19th Century. The key to success as a fur trader west of the Missouri demanded kindling relationships among customers. Usually that meant marrying a woman and living with her family. Mountain men rarely made such attachments and instead spread out in packs like a virus. They scoured the terrain for beaver to coerce with castor-scented sticks into their iron traps or club to death after excavating into their thick homes with ice chisels and rousting them from winter’s lethargy.
No, the mountain man, the image I had revered all those decades, was the harbinger of the sickness and the killing and the logging. And perhaps their biggest damage was not the beaver they killed. Their dominance of the Intermountain West prevented British and Canadian traders from expanding south and bringing with them a more sustained-yield approach to “harvesting” beaver. In twenty years, the mountain men took them all, crashing the species toward extinction. Of course, there are some conspiracies that believe that was intentional because beaver compete with European cultural land use values. But in any event, blame all this mess on William Ashley and Jed Smith. If not for them, we’d all be part of Canada right now, and isn’t that where you want to be anyway?
My wife and I got into a bit of a discussion the other day about dates. Not the date-night kind of dates but the more ordinary days-of-the-week version. We are working on a spreadsheet and want to record when we meet certain milestones. She put in a date of May 23, 2020. I later added the date to another item, 200523. She questioned me about it and said she could not quite find the symmetry in my rendition when her depiction of the date was so much more, well, expressive. And I can’t fault her for wanting to be expressive but we’re working on a spreadsheet, and one of the advantages of such computer programmability is its ability to sort numerically. But if you give it a concept like May, well, it does the sorting alphabetically. That would work on a calendar if its months went April, August, December February, January, July, June, March, May, November, October, to September. But it doesn’t, and that makes sorting by date a real, well, difficult task. Somebody started using the date of 170520, but that is just nuts because the computer will sort this stuff by days of the month. No, if you embrace the horror of computerization, then today’s date is earth-date 200523, not 230520 or May 23, 2020. As humans, we must understand the limitations of our machinery, and computers may be able to count between zero and one 5-billion times a second, but they still cannot process May the same way as my wife.