The Legend of Wendigo: The Trapper’s Demon

Wendigo

The legend of Wendigo is one that has frightened trappers and hunters for centuries.

The trapper’s attention snapped into focus. He scanned his surrounding for imminent danger. Surely his mind wasn’t playing tricks on him. Wind howled through the black night, sweeping snow through the endless silhouettes of black spruce. It was hard to tell for sure, but he swore he had seen it. Gripping the smooth stock of his trusty flintlock had always given him comfort, but this night was different. Would his gun even be up to the test?

Suddenly he caught a slight movement through the torrent of gusting snow. His eyes squinted hard to focus on the area. Being only as thick as a piece of birch bark, his adversary was near impossible to see. Though, with dagger-like fangs and ripping claws, it could sure enough kill him. His pulse quickened with the thought. How do you fight such a beast? Could it even be killed?

Hearing a noise behind him, he wheeled around to see it’s source. Now facing the wind, his capote hood was ripped from his head. Stinging snow pelted his face as he strained to see into the night. His heart was racing now, his chest rising and falling with every terrified breath. Bringing the butt of his rifle to his shoulder, he stared down the barrel aiming into the empty night.

Movement to his left. He swung the gun to fix his aim. Nothing there.

Now he caught motion to his right. Instinctively he swung the rifle and his finger squeezed the trigger. BOOM! The shot echoed through the black, sending a plume of blackpowder into gale. As it cleared he swore he saw a creature running to his left, circling his current position. Now, with his gun empty, he realized how defenseless he was. His only option was to bolt into the forrest.

He ran into the night, floundering through knee deep snow. Dodging through the maze of trees he lifted his legs high to gain extra ground. Suddenly he felt something grab at the sleeve of this blanket coat. Screaming, he tore his arm away and continued his mad dash through the woods. His legs pulsed with the effort, and his lungs filled with breath that was never enough. Keep going, he thought to himself.

Unexpectedly, he tripped on a branch that had been covered by the snow. His momentum carried him forward, and he fell hard on his chest. Instantly he rolled to his back, and then he saw it.

Through the blackness approached the yellowish figure. At least 15 feet tall, saliva dripped down its fangs from its open mouth. Heartless tawny eyes froze the man to the ground. The trapper knew his fate. Wendigo was always hungry. Hungry for human flesh. Slowly, stepping deliberately, the creature moved in on his fallen prey. The trapper slowly tried to grab for his knife. Wendigo moved closer. He felt his finger grasp the worn handle of his trusty knife. I may still have a chance, he thought.

Wendigo trudged one step closer.

The trapper waited.

Another step.

Just as he was beginning to draw his knife, the creature leapt at him with lightening speed. The force of the blow was like being kicked by an elk. Something ripped into his flesh, and he felt warm blood running down his chest. Pinned to the ground he saw the ghoulish head of his foe rise up till they were face to face. Blood dripped from the fangs onto the dying trapper. Then;

blackness.

Coming from the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain region, I never heard the legend of Wendigo until reading a book called The Beaver Men by Mari Sandoz. In the book she describes how the early French Voyagers of the North Woods told stories about this great demon of the forrest. Perhaps their fears were based on real events they saw in their lives. It could also be a few skittish men were influenced by the tales of the Native people they were staying with. Historically, the legend of Wendigo is likely Pre-Columbian, though we will never know for sure.

Legend has it, Wendigo were once human. Their transformation occurred as a result of their choice to turn cannibalistic. In fact, according to tradition, Wendigo aren’t a race of beings like Sasquatch, rather their ranks are constantly being renewed as people become Wendigo. What’s more, is that Wendigo are apparently easier to kill while in transitional form, which leads to another remarkable story. That of Jack Fiddler.

Jack Fiddler was a Cree who made a name for himself by killing Wendigo. By the early 1900’s, Fiddler had claimed to have killed 14 of the beasts during his life. Time has neglected to record much of his first 13 kills, but reports show his last was against an 87 year old woman who was “in transformation.” By this time the Canadian Mounties were establishing a real presence among the Cree, and when they found out about the murder Fiddler and his son were taken into custody. He revealed that oftentimes tribesmen asked him to kill their family members when they showed signs of change. If done according to ritual, the human would be saved, albeit killed, from becoming a Wendigo. Fiddler escaped the jail only to hang himself the next day.

There are those out there who still believe Wendigo is prowling the North Woods in search of their next meal. Others pass it off as hog wash, along with all the other stories of unexplainable beasts. In the end, the legend of Wendigo is a classic ghost story that has been spun countless times across the generations. It is part of the folk lore of the outdoors and may be a good way to make your new camping companions a bit uneasy.

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I’d love to hear your thoughts on the legend of Wendigo, or any other great ghost stories told by outdoorsman, in the comments section below.

Also, thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you like the content you may enjoy this article showcasing a poem written by mountain man Rufus Sage.

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Primitive Tanning Techniques from Mountain Man Zenas Leonard

Buffalo Hunt painting.

People interested in primitive skills and history might appreciate Zenas Leonard’s account of primitive tanning used by the Crow.

One of the primitive skills I find most useful in daily life is tanning. Tanning not only allows you to use more of each animal you harvest, but can help you to create useful products. Over the past few years I’ve made moccasins, quivers, pouches, and plenty of hunting equipment. Few things are softer and have a more comfortable feel that good brain tanned buckskin. It is a process that I enjoy and it also has real world application.

Raccoon fur mittens.
Primitive tanning can be useful to make beautiful products like these fur mittens.

Usually while brain tanning, I often wonder about how people of the past did primitive tanning. With the luxury of steel fleshing knives, plastic buckets, and other specially made tools for the job, I think about how Paleo people would have done it. I imagine the process certainly would be more difficult. As luck would have it, while reading the journal of mountain man Zenas Leonard I came across an entry that described in detail the process used to brain tan buffalo hides.

The entry comes on page 57 of his 59 page journal. Near the end of his time in the mountains, Leonard takes the opportunity to live with a band of Crows. One interesting dimension of Leonard was his fairly good eye for, and interest in, anthropology. He not only enjoyed living with the Crow, but he was eager to learn about their lives, and record it as well. His journal begins by describing the buffalo hunting process and all the rituals that surrounded it. One who wonders about bygone days can get a clear picture of what a buffalo hunt may have looked like from reading the journal.

Leonard next records how buffalo hides were cared for after several had been killed. He records;

“The Indians would go out in large companies and kill a great number of these animals (buffalo), when it would be the duty of the women to follow after and gather up the hides, which they would convey to the camp, and dress them ready for market. It is the duty of the squaws to dress the buffalo robes alone, which is done by stretching the hide tight on the ground and there let it dry, when they have a piece of iron or sharp stone, fixed in a stick, making a tool similar to a foot-adze, with which the cut and scrape the fleshy side until it becomes thin and smooth—after this they have a mixture composed of the brains and liver of the animal mixed together, in which they soak the hide a couple of days, when it is taken out and again stretched on the ground, where it is beat and rubbed with a paddle until in becomes perfectly soft and dry.”

If you are interested in primitive tanning you no doubt find the passage interesting at least. Still though, this passage raises a few questions in my mind.

First off, he says they “soak the hide a couple of days” in the brain and liver mixture. I have to wonder what is it soaking in? They didn’t have plastic buckets? I wonder if the hide was saturated and then folded upon itself to retain the moisture. That would make sense, and would be similar to the way I tan fur-on garments, except only one side is being covered in the tanning agent. Secondly I wonder if the paddle method is better, or worse, than the regular breaking method I normally use? Breaking is no doubt the most difficult step in the process and this method could be useful.This may be one of those questions I’ll have to answer by experimenting on a small hide.

Again, tanning is a great primitive skill to understand. It has utility and extends the bounty of the hunt. People have tanned differently all across the world to meet the same goal; material for clothing and gear. This particular primitive tanning method is laid out in plain fashion by mountain man who witnessed the process firsthand. For those folks interested in such things, we are fortunate he took the time to record it.

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If you have experience with this primitive tanning method, I’d appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

Also, thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you like the content you may enjoy this article about the Mountain Man Possibles Bag.

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27 Foods Eaten by Mountain Man Zenas Leonard

Black bear.

Whether you appreciate wild food or history, you might find this list of foods eaten by mountain man Zenas Leonard interesting.

For one reason or another, the foods eaten by mountain men are something I find intriguing. Perhaps it is because of the self-reliance it highlights. It could be because of what we can learn about our food from learning about theirs. It also could be because every so often you come across something so disgusting you just can’t seem to forget it. In reality, all three of these factors likely add to my fixation on learning about the foods of the mountain men and others who were/are self-reliant. Recently one primary source I read and learned from was the diary of mountain man Zenas Leonard.

Zenas Leonard left Missouri in 1831 during the height of the Rocky Mountain Fur trade era. His journals describe not only his experience with other mountain men, but the great adventure he joined with Capt. Joe Walker to California. If you read the journal (at this link) you will notice that Leonard was not only an expert outdoorsman, but he also had an eye for culture as well. On several occasions he takes the time to learn about different people of an area. Near the end of the journal (starting on pg. 51) he describes his desire to live with the Crow and learn about “their internal mode of living.” After reading the journal you get the impression that he was looking to make some money, but was just as much concerned with learning, experiencing, and adventure. It is a good read if you enjoy the subject.

As with several other journals, the Zenas Leonard journal devotes some attention to the foods he ate. This seems to be the case for several reasons. One, many of the foods were unique to him, and two, many times food was a huge issue in his life. While we sit down and eat 3 squares everyday, he and the other mountain men were never truly certain when their next meal would be. You can imagine how this would heighten your appreciation for a good meal.

If you are interested, here are the 27 foods that mountain man Zenas Leonard enjoyed, or otherwise ate, while living as a mountain man.

Corn (PG 1) – In trade from both the Kanza and Oto tribes.

Wild Turnips (PG 1) – From a band of Oto’s.

Muscles and Small Fish (PG 1) – Leonard mentions fishing on several occasions, more than the other journals I have read.

Horse.
Horses were commonly eaten during times of extreme hunger. Image via pixabay.

Horse (PG 1) – Leonard wasn’t in the West long before he had his first taste of horseflesh. Later during his time in the mountains (PG +26) he describes this practice on many occasions when the men were close to starvation. He also describes the painful feeling of killing a horse this way (PG 29); “It seemed to be the greatest cruelty to take your rifle, when your horse sinks to the ground from starvation, but still manifests a desire and a willingness to follow you, to shoot him in the head and then cut him up & take such parts of their flesh as extreme hunger along will render it possible for a human being to eat.” Certainly a somber tone to that entry. It also shows a side not often recognized in the mountaineers.

Wolves (PG 2) – In order to keep from starving.

Wild Cats (PG 2) – Leonard is unclear as to what kind of cat, but you would likely assume a bobcat.

Antelope (PG 2) – A staple food of the plains.

Elk (PG 2) – His first mentioned elk was enjoyed after an extended period of near starvation. In the next sentence he mentions the party was “refreshed” and “set out with unusual fine spirits.” One can only imagine how good that elk must have tasted.

Buffalo (PG 2) – First mention of killing a buffalo, the favorite meat of the mountaineers. He set out in late April from St. Louis and recalls this meal was ate in late July after arriving in buffalo country. He recorded “the flesh of the Buffaloe is the wholesomest and most palatable of meat kind.” Later in the journal he describes killing great numbers of bison especially before his first winter in the mountains set in.

Deer (PG 2) – Killed nearly every day for a portion of the trip.

Bighorn Sheep (PG 4) – Noted killing bighorn sheep while putting up meat for the winter, and to use the hides in order to make moccasins.

Beaver Skins (PG 6) – During his first winter Zenas Leonard and a few comrades made a desperate attempt to reach Santa Fe in mid-winter. They set out from camp with few provisions and just a few beaver skins for trade. After a short time flogging about the mountains in incredible amounts of snow, the men were starving. He recorded they roasted and ate the beaver skins at this point in order to keep from starving to death. After killing a buffalo later, he notes in the journal the bull was killed after eating nothing but beaver skin for 9 days.

Black bear.
Most mention of bear comes once he made it to California. Image via Pixabay.

Bear (PG 9) – There are a few mentions of eating bear, but page 9 is the first reference. Later, once he got to California (PG 29), the party regularly killed and ate bear.

Beaver (PG 17) – During a strenuous trip across the Great Basin, Leonard mentions eating beaver. You would imagine this was common practice for mountain men.

Fish (PG 18) – Here Leonard mentions several specific fish species of trout and catfish. He also noted “others suitable for hook and line.” Again, Leonard mentions fishing on multiple occasions.

Rabbits (PG 23) – Also noted during his trek through the Great Basin.

Acorns (PG 28) – A welcomed meal after starving on the mountains. Later in the journal he would explain this is the principle food of the native people of the area. Folks who have read the story of Ishi no doubt remember this fact well.

Bread and cheese
While in California, Leonard got the chance to enjoy bread and cheese. Image via Pixabay.

Bread, Butter, and Cheese (PG 33) – When the party of mountain men reached the shores of the Pacific, in a stroke of good luck they met an American ship. After exchanging greetings the men were invited aboard the ship for a feast. In exchange for fresh meat, which the sailors were delighted to indulge in, the mountaineers enjoyed these three foods. Leonard notes it had been more than 2 years since he had eaten this sort of civilized food.

Flour, Corn, Beans, &c (PG 41) – Before embarking eastward back across the mountains and the desert, Capt. Joe Walker outfitted his men with these provisions to eat on the journey.

Beef (PG 43) – For the same reason as the above mentioned staples were purchased, a herd of cattle were brought along as portable provisions. Within a short time nearly all of these animals would be killed or die from the extremes of the desert.

Dog (PG 43) – Dogs were brought along for the same purpose as cattle. While moving across the desert it is recorded (PG 46); “The pitiful lamentations of our dogs were sufficient to melt the hardest heart.” Once again you can see that although dogs were used for food, it certainly wasn’t something the men enjoyed. It was simply about survival.

Blood (PG 47) – While in the desert Leonard noted that thirst was the major want of the men and that; “… it became so intense, that whenever one of our cattle or horses would die the men would immediately catch the blood and greedily swallow it down.” This particular desert crossing (from California back to the trapping grounds) also put Jed Smith and his men into similarly trying times.

Good Old Brandy (PG 48) – Sort of a humorous entry at this point. He notes the men enjoy a small portion of brandy, which they drank in a few minutes, “deeply regretting that we had not a small portion of what was that day destroyed by the millions of freemen in the states.”

As you can see, it wasn’t always pretty, but the men did what they needed to do in order to stay alive. The diet not only included an ample amount of wild food, but on occasion he enjoyed some staples of civilization as well. All in all these 27 foods can teach us a good deal about what life was like as a mountain man, and perhaps a good deal about what our diets should look like as well.

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I’d love to hear what you think about these mountain man foods, and Zenas Leonard in the comments section below.

Also, thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you like the content you may enjoy this article 28 Wild Foods Eaten by Mountain Man Rufus Sage.

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Making the Mountain Man Wolf Ears Style Hood

Painting.

The mountain man wolf ears style hood is a good example of how resourceful the men were.

One of the biggest challenges when doing historical research is sorting through the evidence to find truth. Oftentimes this means disregarding incorrect information we have learned from well-meaning teachers, friends, relatives, movies, and authors. Oftentimes out of no ill will, we learn things that have been passed down as true, but ultimately prove untrue. When doing research, it is best to stick with sources that are reliable, withstood the test of time, and have multiple sources of confirmation. Recently, one area of research I’ve been spending some time is looking at the head gear of mountain men.

While trying to learn more about the lives and skills of traditional hunters, you will invariably start to learn about their clothing. Personally, I feel a much stronger desire to learn and practice traditional skills, than I do to learn about what people wore. It just seems more important. That being said, I feel like I understand the idea that if you really want to accurately understand a time period, the clothing is important. Especially when it comes to the outdoors, clothing is gear. If you want to understand how a mountain man really lived, you have to use their gear.

During the process of preparing my mountain man camp, I came upon the problem of head gear. I was having trouble locating a wool felt hat that I liked. Also, rather than just buying everything, I like to take the approach of learning how to actually make things rather than just buying them. That being the case, I decided to build a wolf ears mountain man hat out of some brain tan I had lying around.

Historically speaking, the wolf ears hat seem to be fairly well recorded. It makes sense, as if a man lost his hat, or it was worn out, he would have been forced to reconstruct one by his own hands. There is evidence that various Native American tribes wore hoods made from natural materials. And although it was written nearly a century later, in his book Wildwood Wisdom, Ellsworth Jaeger also mentions Native’s wearing the Penobscot hunting hood, which is very similar in design. For people interested in mountain man clothing specifically, the paintings of Alfred Jacob Miller offer up some very good resources. 

The Trappers Bride.
The Trapper’s Bride. Image via Wikicommons.

Miller was an artist from the east who jumped at the chance to head west and document the wilds of the west. Several of A.J. Miller’s paintings depict mountain men with these, or similar style, hoods worn. These hoods seem to be both liberty style and wolf ear style. In The Trapper’s Bride for example, you can clearly see the companion wearing a wolf ears style cap. This is just one example, and anyone looking for more examples can find them easily by browsing A.J. Miller’s works online

Another source that I used when creating my mountain man style wolf ears hat was James Hanson’s Mountain Man Sketchbook Volume 1. In this book they are described as being frequently worn, but generally being made out of blanketing material. This book also offered up a rough pattern for the hat which I used when constructing my own.

Making your own mountain man wolf ears style hood is very easy if you have the material. They are composed of 2 pieces of material, one that drapes down the back of the head, and one that goes over the top from shoulder to shoulder. The dimensions of these pieces will depend on your specific body and how you would like the hood to fit. Each piece also has matching “ears”. From what I can tell, the ears generally were somewhat small, and unpronounced.

Pattern
Here are the two pieces you will need to cut. The longer piece is the back, while the wider piece drapes over your head.

Once you have the pieces cut, you simply begin sewing at the top in order to match the ears up. As with most sewing projects, work on the hood inside out, so when you wear it the stitching will be invisible. Next, begin sewing down the sides as long as you see fit. At that point you have a simple, unadorned, and historically accurate mountain man hat.

Here is the my completed hood. The extra section at the bottom was added due to the dimensions of the buckskin I had available.

Personally, at first I didn’t like the idea of a wolf ears style hood. It didn’t match up with what I thought a mountain man was supposed to wear. Eventually though, I realized that my perception of what mountain men wore, and what they actually dressed in, were different. Although it may not look “cool”, this type of garment really symbolizes what the mountain men were about. They needed solutions for when their head gear wore out, and those solutions needed to be available in the mountains. The wolf ears style hood is just one example of the answers they had for living disconnected from general society.

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I’d love to hear what you think about the mountain man wolf ears style hood in the comments section below.

Also, thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you like the content you may enjoy this article Understanding the Mountain Man Possibles Bag.

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Andrew Drips: A Brief Biography of a Noteworthy Mountain Man

Although not a commonly known historical figure, Andrew Drips proved his mettle throughout the the height of the western fur trade.

When you think of famous mountain men, who comes to mind? You’d likely recognize the names of Jim Bridger, Hugh Glass, and Kit Carson. If you’ve spent a little more time in your history book you’ll easily recall names like Joe Meek, Manuel Lisa, and William Ashley. Even more studious historians instantly know the names and stories of men like Osborne Russell, Robert Campbell, and David Jackson. These names are some of the most well known mountain men to enter the Rocky Mountain fur trade and their contributions are well recorded. However, as you scroll through your list of mountain men names, you may be missing one important name. Andrew Drips is a fellow whose name could easily fall into the category of the most prominent names, but one who has largely been passed over.

Andrew Drips was born in Ireland sometime in 1789. Very early in his life, his parent’s immigrated to the US and settled in western Pennsylvania. At this time the region was still considered the frontier and Drips would likely have had a rough and tumble upbringing. History doesn’t record much of Drip’s youth, and the fact he participated in the War of 1812 is about the extent of what we know of his young life.

The next time Drips shows up in records is 1817 in St. Louis. You can only imagine the type of man young Drips was if this lively frontier town attracted him. Like many of the mountain men, odds are he was a little rough around the edges and could certainly hold his own. Drips doesn’t get involved in the fur trade until 1819, and joins the prominent Missouri Fur Company in 1820. After joining the Missouri Fur Company, Drips falls into the crowd that he will spend the rest of his life with. He starts rubbing shoulder with influential men of the fur trade, and proves himself from the very start. In fact, by 1822 he becomes a partner in the company.

During this time Drips headed to Fort Lisa near the headwaters of the Missouri and experienced a genuine western fur expedition. He would have seen the Missouri, mingled with Native tribes of the plains, climbed the mountains, and trapped valuable beaver. By 1824 though, Drips had found his way east to operate trading posts near what now is Nebraska’s eastern border. Much of his business involved trading with the Pawnee on the plains. During the mid 1820’s he also took an Oto wife and began growing his family. It’s hard to say for sure, but you may assume Drips was settling into a fairly stable life as a trader. With a Native wife, and given his isolation on the plains, it’s easy to imagine Drips also led a life very much influenced by the Native people around him.

By 1830, Drips had likely heard about the success of the Rocky Mountain fur traders and wished to return for his share of the fortune. Using some old contacts he was able to pitch in with the American Fur Company. In 1830 he headed up river to once again see the vastness of the Rockies. This journey would be the start of Drips second tour in the Rockies, and his most successful venture.

Life of a Mountain Man

Over the course of the next 10 years Drips would come to experience the entire gamut of mountain man life. He was in Indian fights, led trapping brigades, suffered extreme hardships, and led supply caravans to rendezvous. He rode all over the northern Rockies and developed a reputation as a steadfast leader and consummate man of the wilderness. He also began leading a few early pioneers west and was responsible for guiding the famous Father Pierre deSmet on his first journey west. Primary sources record Drips as “very popular with the people of (the mountains)”, polite, very kind, and “a good, honest, old beaver trapper.” To say he impressed his peers would have been an understatement.

Mountain Business Man

Jim Bridger
While in the mountains, Andrew Drips worked closely with the famous mountain man pictures; Jim Bridger. Photo via wikicommons.

As a businessman Drips also appears to have excelled. After entering the American Fur Company in 1830, he had gained enough influence to negotiate trapping agreements with the well-known Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Not only that, but a year later, in 1834, Drips along with Lucien Fontenelle, actually arranged for the American Fur Company to buy and absorb the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. This responsibility shows us what his business associates thought of the man.

In 1837 he began leading the pack caravans back to St. Louis and trade goods out to rendezvous. Under his guidance, pack trains of goods headed out of St. Louis in 1838, 1839, and 1840. When you consider the responsibilities involved with this aspect of the fur trade, it really shows how versatile a fur trader Drips had become.

Post Mountain Career

By the end of the rendezvous period, 1840, Andrew Drips would have been nearly 50 years old. He had proven himself a capable trader, trapper, brigade leader, and business man. He had guided hardened men through the mountains, and led some of the first “civilized” men west. He not only lived during the heart of the Rocky Mountain fur trade, he had risen as the cream of the crop of a hardened fraternity of men. By 1840 though, even Drips realized the mountain fur trade was coming to an end.

In 1841 he returned to what would become Kansas City. Over the next two decades of his life, Andrew Drips would be engaged as a guide, Indian Agent, and trading post administrator. He eventually ended up operating a trading post near the historic Fort Laramie near Torrington, Wyoming. Although his time as a wild mountain man had expired, he was able to put his reputation and experience to use in those last few decades. By 1860, his trail in this life met its end. He died in Kansas City in his home surrounded by his family.

Although the name of Andrew Drips doesn’t generally pop up when names of famous mountain men are discussed, it seems he deserves mention. Not only was he capable as a trapper, but the men we remember so fondly respected him as a peer. Not only had he mastered the ways of the wilderness, but he blended those skills with a business savvy that made him one of the most coveted employees of any fur company. Hopefully more folks will come to mention the name of Andrew Drips as they discuss historic mountain men.

Works Cited: Carter, H. L. (1982). Mountain Men and Fur Traders. Lincoln, NE, USA: University of Nebraska Press.

 

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I’d love to hear your thoughts on historic mountain men and the place of Andrew Drips among them.

Also, thanks for taking the time to read this article about the life of Andrew Drips.If you like the content, I’d encourage you to follow the blog by subscribing at the bottom of the page. You may also enjoy this article I wrote on the 28 wild foods eaten by mountain man Rufus Sage.

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28 Wild Foods Eaten By Mountain Man Rufus Sage

Buffalo

If you’ve ever wondered what wild food the mountain men ate, you’ll surely appreciate this list from Rufus Sage’s journal.

Food in America today is atypical from its historical place in people’s lives. Very few people reading this, if any, will wake up and ask the question, “Will I eat today?” Most folks will wake up secure in the fact they’ll have at least a few meals. Most of them will have snacks, fruits, and vegetables, all within arms length if they desire to. The biggest challenge we tend to have is batting away bad calories and trying to get just the good. As normal as this might be to the average American, it certainly hasn’t been the norm in our history.

One of the more interesting aspects of history to me personally, is how people were able to forge a living from the land. Be it pioneers, mountain men, or Stone Age hunters, just thinking about how much food they had to consume is a little mind blowing. Men on the Lewis and Clark expedition would consume up to 9 pounds of meat in a day. 9 pounds! I’ve never met anyone that could eat 9 pounds of meat in a day and still be worth a darn. It’s stories like this that stoke my fascination about how people of the past lived.

Recently while reading mountain man Rufus Sage’s journal, I started searching for the food he ate. Albeit, he doesn’t spend an extraordinary amount of time on the subject, he does address it occasionally. You see, Sage was not an experienced mountain man. He headed west in 1841 after the Rendezvous period had come to a close. He had bounced around the frontier states for a while, and eventually decided to see the great west while it remained unsettled. As he was new to mountain man life, he recorded it from a perspective of observation. As such, he could point out unique things seasoned mountain men took for granted. He sheds some light on the wild foods eaten by the mountain men because they were an oddity in his life. Just as they would be new experiences for us, they were likely the same for him.

After reading the journals I was able to nail down these 28 wild foods he ate while on his adventure. This list may be incomplete, and other food may have been included. At times the journal hints that other foods were eaten, but never directly states the fact. Those food were intentionally left out. He also apparently ate farmed food, but that has been omitted as well. These foods are the wild foods that Sage directly states he had eaten.

If you’d like to read his account of the food, you can click this link and follow along in his journal. It has graciously been provided by the Mountain Men and the Fur Trade website.

Without further delay, here are the 28 wild foods eaten by mountain man Rufus Sage.

Buffalo
Buffalo were a staple food of mountain men. Image via Pixabay.

Buffalo (PG 43)
Buffalo was one of the mainstays in the mountain man diet. They consumed many parts of the animal from meat, to intestine, to organs. There are many cases where Sage records hunting the animals and enjoying their meat. This entry records his first taste of what would become his staple food.

Sage was impressed by the impact a diet of wild meat had on human health. Later in his journal (PG 280) he would write:

“Sickness of any kind is rarely known to the various Indian tribes confined exclusively to its use. These people almost invariably live to an extraordinary age, unless cut off by the ravages or war or some unforeseen event. Consumption, dyspepsy, colds, and fevers, are alike strangers to them. The same observation holds good in regard to the whites who reside in this country and subsist in a similar manner.”

Dog (PG 111)
Sage comments that Indian dog was not inferior to pork. He also notes that the thought of eating dog would have made people of the mid-1800’s “squamish”.

Elk (PG 122)
Of course elk was on the menu. Sage mentions hunting elk on several occasions.

Pomme Blanc (White Apple)(PG 122)
A root eaten by the mountain men. Noted to taste like turnip and look like sheep sorrel.

Commote (PG 123)
Another root. Like radish with leaves like a carrot.

Wild Cherry Bark Tea (PG 123)
Apparently very common and use for purifying blood. Sage notes it as, “Effective and necessary to general health.”

Deer would certainly have been enjoyed. Image via Pixabay.

Deer (PG 124)
Of course many deer were eaten. This is barely mentioned in the journal though, likely because it wasn’t that out of the ordinary in his life.

Prairie Dog (PG 126)
Sage describes them as tender and quite palatable.

Serviceberry (PG 131)
Highly esteemed for its superior flavor.

Box-Elder Sap (PG 132)
Noted as “Not inferior to that of maple.”

Bear (PG 133)
At several points in his journal Sage mentioned eating bear. He specifically mentions the liver, heart, kidney, fat, fleece and ribs as portions they ate.

Mountain Sheep (PG 139)
Described as good, tender and sweet.

Mountain Fowl (PG 144)
By the description, I’d wager a ptarmigan, though could be some other grouse as well.

Bilters (PG 153)
Buffalo gut-juice drink. Directions are to mix one pint water with 1/4 gill of buffalo gall. “A wholesome and exhilarating drink.” Sage also notes that on the first drink it “may cause vomiting,” though on the second or third trial the stomach accepts it. He also goes into depth about how the drink is believed to be very beneficial for overall health.

Bald eagle
Even bald eagles contributed to the diet. Image via Pixabay.

Bald Eagle Fledglings (PG 164)
Made “a fine meal.”

Waterfowl Eggs (PG 164)

Antelope (PG 175)

“Greens” (PG 175)
He doesn’t go into much depth here. You can imagine he had learned a variety of wild greens available, though as far as I can tell this is the only instance where he mentions “greens”.

Prickly Pear Cactus (PG 196)
Eaten after boiling. Described the practice as “not uncommon”.

Turkey (PG 203)
Killed by the dozens out of the roost. Sage gives an entertaining and descriptive account of hunting turkeys from the roost. On several occasions he talks about shooting multiple birds after discovering their roost tree.

Salmon (PG 248)
While spending time in Oregon, Sage notes the abundance of fish and other marine life in the area. Though many types of marine animals are noted, only the salmon are described as “delicious”. One could likely assume he ate other species noted as well.

Oftentimes in his journal Sage gives advice on what future settlers should do. For example, he says some areas should be used for farming and mining. In the case of Oregon, he rightly assumes that fishing will become a major industry of that region.

Wild Fruits (PG 259)
Cherries, gooseberries, serviceberries, currants, plums and grapes.

Wolf.
Even predator meat was occasionally on the mountain man menu. Image via Pixabay.

Wolf (PG 296)
Interesting to read that mountaineers occasionally dined on predator meat. In this case it was for breakfast. One should note it was only after 2 days and 3 nights of not eating. Foods like this seem to be reserved for “survival” purposes.

Horse (PG 305)
Again, more of a “survival” food. There are many stories from this time period of men eating horse and mule. In this case a colt was slaughtered for being “unmanageable” and presented “an opportunity too tempting not to be improved in replenishing our stock, which induced us to encamp for that purpose.” An entertaining story follows with the owner of the horse showing up shortly after the colt was killed.

Crow’s Eggs (PG 320)
Six to ten dozen in an hour.

Catfish (PG 347)
Caught in great number. He also mentions that east of the Rockies there were few good places to fish.

Prairie potato (PG 355)
Prairie turnip in today’s nomenclature.

Nothing (PG 291)
Maybe the biggest aspect of the mountain man diet that stands out when you read their journals, is the fact they often went hungry. In this case Sage went 5 days and nights without eating. It certainly wasn’t uncommon and Sage often notes not eating for days at a time. In a world where 3 hots at predetermined times  is the norm, it’s hard to imagine being constantly half starved.

While there are many takeaways from this list of wild food the mountain men ate, a few stand out. One, the idea that mountain men simply ate large animals like buffalo, elk, and deer is just not the case. Although buffalo supplied a large amount of meat, and was coveted, they ate a variety of food. Two, in a pinch they’d eat about anything. Three, their level of activity and diet of wild food had a positive impact on health that was not lost to men at the time. This shouldn’t be earth shattering for anyone to hear. Eat right, stay active, and you’ll feel good.

Finally, mountain men really seem to have enjoyed eating. Sage describes legitimate feasts in his journals. You can imagine that after not eating for several days, then finally laying down a cow buffalo, you’d fully appreciate your food. In our world of easy food access, this may be something we’ve lost.

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Did the Romans Colonize America? One Mountain Man Thought so.

Rufus Sage, a bonafide mountain man, felt strongly about a Roman colony in America. Does his argument persuade you?

Prehistory, or history before it was written down, is mysterious stuff. All we can definitively know is what we can find and prove. Sure there are lots of interesting theories out there, but unless you have the evidence, it doesn’t stand. It is wild to think that well over 97% of our history isn’t even really understood. Lots of mysteries abound from this period, and proving them true or false is the arduous work of archeologists and historians. One entertaining theory from America’s pre-history, is of an ancient Roman colony in America.

It is little known today, that in the early 1800’s there was some support for the hypothesis that the Roman’s had colonized America at some point in the past. Personally, I first came across this theory while reading Rufus Sage’s Rocky Mountain Life. Needless to say, it caught my eye.

Sage was a mountain man who headed west in 1841 after the fur trade had passed its apex. While in the west he recorded his adventures, observations, and experiences for readers to enjoy. Most of the journal is what you’d expect from a mountain man’s life. Much of it covers description of the country he saw, the people he met, and how his life played out. However, at a few junctures, Sage expounds upon a theory of a Roman colony in America.

He first postulates this theory by comparing Sioux language to Latin on page 158. According to Sage:

“… enough, I trust, has already been said to fortify the position so largely warranted by the premises, to wit; that in former ages the Romans maintained a foothold upon the American continent, and had intercourse with this nation, either by arms or by commerce.”

Sage also goes on to state:

“It is by no means a conjecture of recent origin, that the ancient Romans did actually colonies portions of the American continent. The industrious researches of antiquarians have long since brought to light many items which prove and strengthen it, though none of them so tangible and obvious as those previously noticed.”

Following this in his journal, Sage goes on to note several pieces of evidence he feels backs up his claim that Romans colonized America.

Later in the journal, Sage once again picks up this hypothesis, only this time while spending time further west. His story begins on page 234 of the journal.

He recounts meeting a trapping party coming out from the Gila country of the present day Southwest. They have a friendly discourse with the trappers and discuss activity in the region. He then relates a tale the trappers told him about the Munchies, a tribe of white indians in the extreme northwestern part of Sonora. The wandering group of trappers even told Sage they had stayed with the Munchies for four weeks.

Sage recounts their tale of staying with this group of white aborigines, and how their skin was more fair than the whites. They reportedly subsisted through agriculture, and raised cattle, horses, and sheep. The Munchies had what would have amounted to a republican government, “arts and comforts of a civilized life”, and had a religion similar to other Native people of the region. Sage goes on once again to say:

“…are they not the remote descendants of some colony of ancient Romans? That such colonies did here exist in former ages, there is good reason for believing. The great lapse of time and other operative causes combined, may have transformed the Munchies from the habits, customs, character, religion, arts, civilization, and language of the Romans, to the condition in which they are at present found.”

It is there Rufus Sage ends the conversation on a Roman colony in America.

The Colosseum
Was there a Roman colony in America? Odds are, probably not.

What are we to make of this? Sage is providing us with a primary source from the time period. These are supposed to be our most accurate widows into the past. Did the Romans colonize America? Did trappers stay with a group of white Indians? Sorry to say, the answer to these entertaining theories is likely NO, at least in my mind.

Fist off, try researching the relationship between Lakota and Latin today. There simply isn’t anything out there on the subject. Today there are linguists who do nothing but study language, and they haven’t been producing volumes of work on the connection. In fact, I couldn’t find a single shred of modern evidence to back up a relationship between the two languages. That’s not to say there might not be any, I certainly couldn’t find it.

Secondly, Sage’s second report on the theory of a group of white Indians is second hand. It also came from trappers, a group with a hard-earned reputation for telling tall tales. There may be little doubt that trappers did in fact tell Sage this story. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was true. I’d wager that the closer Sage leaned in, the wilder the tale actually became. My guess would this would be one of those instances where Sage got duped by an entertaining tale. He then felt compelled to either dupe more people, or he bought it hook, line, and sinker. That of course, is speculation on my part.

Although there are still modern attempts to claim Roman colonization of America, the claims are generally disputed. As with many aspects of prehistory, we may never know the answer to question of Roman colonization in America. It can be fun to think about though.

More than anything, the Rufus Sage journals can teach us about the life and thoughts of an American mountain man. We can learn about the theories of the time, their lives, and more about the world they lived in. When you read the journals you certainly get a better feel for the mystery the world still held at the time. Everything was new, much had not been documented, and people still lived vastly different lives depending on where you went.

Sage was gracious enough to have recorded his experiences, and reading them is a real treat. They certainly do offer up a great deal of knowledge about the lives of mountain men. If you have the time, and are interested in western history, they certainly are worth a read. When you read them, enjoy them for what they are; the wonderful adventures of a rambling mountain man.

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Thanks for taking the time to read this article on a mountain man’s theory of a Roman colony in America. If you enjoyed it, please follow this blog by clicking the button near the bottom of the page. You may also enjoy this post on a mountain man poem he penned in the same journal.

Rufus Sage’s Authentic Mountain Man Poem Opens a Window to the Past.

This mountain man poem opens a window to the heart and mind of someone who lived the life of a mountaineer.

Primary sources are invaluable for learning about the past. From them, we can learn about the past most accurately and get a real sense of a time period. Journals, newspapers, artifacts, and photos all can offer up tidbits of insight about human life in a different time. Art is another category of primary source that can teach us a considerable amount. Art, such as poetry and song, can not only teach us about life in the past, but also about what was going in the mind of the people. In addition we can imagine how they saw themselves, the world, and the people around them.

One era of history where the use of primary sources is widely practiced for research, is the mountain man era of the western fur trade. During this era, many diaries were penned, inventories kept, and a generally plentiful supply of primary sources exist. While reading the journals of Rufus Sage, I happened upon a bit of a gem within its pages. During his time out west, Sage penned a poem he titled, The Wanderer’s Grave. From it we can learn not only about his life, but perhaps the thoughts that coursed through the mind of a mountaineer.

His authentic mountain man poem goes like this:

A Wanderer’s Grave

Away from friends, away from home
and all the heart holds dear,
A weary wand’rer laid him down,
Nor kindly aid was near.

And sickness prey’d upon his frame
And told its tale of woe,
While sorrow mark’d his pallid cheeks
And sank his spirit low.

Nor waiting friends stood round his couch
A healing to impart,-
Nor human voice spoke sympathy,
To sooth his aching heart.

The stars of night his watchers were,
His fan the rude winds’ breath,
And while they sigh’d their hollow moans,
He closed his eyes in death.

Upon the prairie’s vast expanse
This weary wand’rer lay;
And far from friends, and far from home,
He breath’d his life away!

A lovely valley marks the spot
That claims his lowly bed;
But o’er the wand’re’s hapless fate
No friendly tear was shed.

No willing grave received the corpse
Of this poor lonely one;
He bones, alas, were left to bleach
And moulder ‘neath the sun!

The night-wolf howl’d his requiem,
The rude winds danced his dirge;
And e’er anon, in mournful chime,
Sigh’d forth the mellow surge!

The Spring shall teach the rising grass
To twine for him a tomb;
And, o’er the spot where he doth lie,
Shall bid the wild flowers bloom.

But, far from friends, and far from home,
Ah, dismal thought, to die!
Oh, let me ‘mid my friends expire,
And with my fathers lie.

Rufus Sage.
Rufus Sage’s authentic mountain man poem allows us a deep look at his life and thoughts.

The author of this poem, Rufus Sage, was a greenhorn by all accounts. He had traveled west to chase adventure and see The West in its splendor. In his journal, this poem marks the end of his time at Scottsbluff. Most western Nebraskans know the story of how a trapper named Hiram Scott died at the spot in 1830. While encamped at the same location 11 years later,  Sage looked around and reflected on the circumstances of the man’s death. All alone. Prairie in all directions. Nothing but the prairie wolves and wind for a burial party. While standing there, enveloped in isolation, Rufus Sage appears to have stood in Scott’s moccasins for a time, and contemplated his final moments.

As you can tell from the poem, Rufus Scott had no romantic desire to die on the plains. While envisioning his own death on the prairie, he noted he would long for one thing; his family. This brief exposure of his psyche can help possibly break a few of the old sterotypes we are sometimes fed about America’s wild mountain men.

For starters, most mountaineers weren’t traipsing around the mountains with no hopes of ever returning home. Mountaineers streamed to the Rockies for lots of reasons; adventure, allure of money, curiosity, intrigue, and a host of others. Like Sage, most of the men didn’t have plans to die a glorious death on the windswept plains. This seems like a no brainer, but sometimes is seems we cast these men as having some wish to vanish forever into the mountains. While possibly true for some, unlikely the wish of many.

Secondly, it can possibly reveal the breathtaking, yet fearsome, scope of the prairie. The huge grassland of our nation seemed to really engulf him for a moment, and intimidated him to a degree. You can imagine the feeling of standing in over a half million square miles of prairie with no lifeline to the world you came from. For Sage, he seemed to realize the reality of the vastness of the plains. When paired with his thoughts of death, you can tell it sort of rattled him.

Rufus Sage’s authentic mountain man poem is not only a good read, but, like other primary sources, it offers a glimpse into the past. As art, rather than fact, it also opens up another layer in the story of his life. We not only can learn about his experiences, but what he was thinking and feeling on a deeper level. When you take the time to read his words, think about the context. You might be surprised at where your own thoughts wander if you look at it from his moccasins.

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Thanks for taking the time to read this essay on an authentic mountain man poem. If you find this sort of thing interesting, you might enjoy reading this essay on Rufus Sage’s thought on Scottsbluff in 1841.

Scottsbluff Circa 1841 was God’s Country.

According to Rufus Sage, Scottsbluff, Nebraska was heaven on earth in 1841.

Do you ever find yourself gazing at our Nebraska prairies, dreaming of what they looked like in the days of old? Before civilization, before telephone poles, and before fences, what was it all like? For some of us, that dreaming is near constant. These days, the search for unadulterated landscapes can seem a bit like catching the wind with a net, hopeless. Although the land has changed, it still lies beneath our feet and retains the bulk of its original features. We can better see through the shroud of modernity if we understand what it looked like in the past. One man who gave a vivid account of the native Nebraska landscape was Rufus Sage.

Rufus Sage was an adventurous soul, who drifted west in 1841. He pitched in with a group of mountaineers who departed out of Westport, Missouri headed for the Rocky Mountains. Sage left with only one purpose in mind, the slate his “innate curiosity, and fondness for things strange and new.” Fortunately for us, Sage documented his three year expedition through The West of the early 1840’s in his journal.

By this time the first wagons had already passed over South Pass, the blessed gap in the Rockies that made mass migration possible. Not only that, but the height of the mountain man rendezvous period had passed. True enough, missionaries and families had passed over the land before Rufus Sage laid eyes on it. Even so, he gives us a glimpse into what the world looked like in days long ago.

Within his journal Sage notes many of the amusements and amazements The West of 1841 still had to offer. He notes giant herds of buffalo, unmolested rivers meandering across a vast grassland, and unforgiving elements of Mother Nature. Sage had a keen eye for beauty, and his words still convey the sense of breathlessness he must have felt when traveling under the grand skies of The West. He notes early and often about various flora and fauna, displaying his keen awareness of the subtitles of life. One place Rufus Sage left no doubt as to his feelings of awe, was his camp at Scottsbluff.

In his journal he describes Scottsbluff as, “a most romantic and picturesque scenery.” He goes on the describe the area as such.

“The spectacle was grand and imposing beyond description. It seemed as if Nature, in mere sportiveness, had thought to excel the noblest works of art, and rear up a mimic city as the grand metropolis of her empire.”

He goes on to describe the rock formations around Scottsbluff as if it were a small city. Stones were work-shops and ware-houses. Parks and pleasure grounds abounded in this venue shaped by heat, rain, and incessant wind. While on Scottsbluff’s summit, he describes the vista still afforded from this tower of the prairie as, “Command(ing) a view of the whole country, lending enchantment to the neighboring scenes”. You can still get this same commanding view from the summit today.

One point of interest Sage notes in his journal, is the wildlife that abounded in and around the bluff. He describes the area at “the favorite home of the mountain sheep, where she breeds and rears her young, secure in her inaccessible fastnesses.” Not long after he notes:

“Most of the varieties of wild fruits indigenous to the mountains are found in this vicinity, and also numerous bands of buffalo, elk, deer, sheep, and antelope, with the grizzly bear. In the summer months the prospect is most delightful, and affords to the admiring beholder an Eden of fruits and flowers.”

Near the end of his entry on the Scottsbluff area, he records the feeling of one voyageur of his party.

“I could die here, then, -certain of being not far from heaven!”

As you can see, the men were certainly impressed with this unique landscape of western Nebraska.

These days it can be hard to visualize the wild land Sage is documenting. Today this landscape is concealed beneath the varnish of civilization. Roads, buildings, farms, and railroads now dominate the scene. Even in the mostly unknown region of western Nebraska, human development now reigns supreme over the wildness that once was. We have overcome the obstacles Rufus Sage thought impossible, and settled the prairie.

Gone are the sheep in great numbers. Gone are the elk and the blackening herds of buffalo. Gone too are the grizzly bears, for bad or for good. People are now the omnipresent force shaping the land, also for bad or for good. Where once bands of sheep reared their young, we now have bustling communities where children are raised. Where once an Eden of fruits and flowers sprang up, we have fields of abundant grain and family gardens. Herds of wild buffalo have been replaced by herds of relatively tranquil cattle. The once hushed and timeless prairie, has transformed into a bustling and busy locale. These changes have improved our lives, but make envisioning the world it was seem impossible.

Although our impact has greatly shaped the land Rufus Sage witness, its has not buried it. Those equipped with a keen eye and a sense of history, may still be able to tease out a vision of the past. You can still see the bluff rising above the surrounding prairie. Many of the same native plants set their roots in its soil. A sunrise today still sets the white sandstone ablaze along with the golden prairie grasses. Mule deer today still perk their ears with the alertness they have for thousands of years. In fact, the wildness of the past may not be as far gone as we think.

Those of us who seek a window into the past may find traces of it still around. It may require some digging, some sifting, and some imagination, but the core of what Rufus Sage recorded still remains. For all of us in western Nebraska, we can learn from his journals that our lands were as inspiring as any to the adventurers of the past. Although they stayed only temporarily, their fondness for the region stuck with them. In a world where men were free to trespass across the expanse of The West and explore the lofty mountains, clear streams, and grassy meadows, the rising bluffs of western Nebraska were as much God’s Country as any of it.

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Thanks for taking the time to read this essay on western Nebraska and Rufus Sage. If you enjoy learning about the past and the mountain men, you might enjoy this article with video of a vintage mountain man journey that is sure to impress.