19th Century Fire Starting with a Modern Twist

19th century fire starting


Using this 19th century fire starting technique with a modern twist might make you understand the past more than you’d think.

19th century fire starting
A proven 18th century fire starting technique with a modern twist can keep your fires burning for long periods of time.

When I think about the mountain men, longhunters, and other adventurers, it’s hard not to be impressed. These men used a dash of technology, combined with a hard earned Rocky Mountain College degree, to live in the wilds for extended periods of time. For example, the mountain men of the rendezvous period only got resupplied once a year with a new outfit. These woodsmen didn’t have the luxury of forgetting something on the list and running back to the store a few weeks later. The rendezvous was it. If they didn’t buy it then they had to go without it, make it, or see if they could trade for it.

It is a time which, in my opinion, is a nice blend of technology and a working knowledge of the world. They had luxuries like steel knives, steel tomahawks, wool blankets, and metal cookware that made their lives easier.  On the other hand, even with a few pack horses you could only drag along so much stuff across the landscape. In order to survive a full year, the mountain men also needed a working knowledge of the land around them. Dressing deer hides, making clothes, finding food, and learning to barter, were all skills they needed to succeed for a year at at time. One implement pivotal to the men’s survival was an everyday 19th century fire starting tool; the flint striker.

Flint and Steel Fire Starting

Natural materials
A few natural materials for starting a primitive fire.

The flint and steel fire making method is a great long term fire starting method. Although it was not exclusive to the mountain men, it does serve as a representative symbol of their lives. With a little bit of technology (the striker), a little bit of natural material (char and tinder), and a good deal of know-how, the men could light fires all year with no problems. Although these rugged men had other methods of fire starting available, the flint and steel was most widely used and was a very easy process to learn.

Lighting a flint and steel fire takes only five ingredients. These ingredients are; a steel striker, a piece of flint, charred material, good tinder, and some knowledge. Four of these are easy to procure, and one takes a bit of experience. To make the fire you simply strike the flint against the steel to create a spark.  Your goal is to land the spark on your char. Good char will catch the spark and create a glowing ember. If you’ve got good tinder, you just drop the ember in the tinder and blow it to life. It’s a very straight forward process if you’ve got experience with primitive fire making. Learning to make a flint and steel fire is not extraordinarily difficult.

The Modern Twist

Personally I’ve found the most difficult aspect of starting a flint and steel fire to be getting my sparks to land on the char. In my own defense, most folks using this method are using char cloth. I use char cloth and can catch sparks easily with it. Lately though, I’ve been using charred punk wood to start my ember. This material would have been much more likely to have been used as a fire starter by mountain men, as cloth came at a premium. The problem with punk wood is that it doesn’t catch a spark as easily as charred cloth does. What I decided to do next may not sit well with hard core traditionalists out there.

Ferro rod and char
This fire starting kit combines the old and the new.

In order to create more sparks I sometimes employ the use of a modern ferro rod. These rods are very effective and greatly used by survival and bushcraft folks today. A ferro rod throws many sparks at a much hotter temperature than a flint and steel striker. When working with charred wood this comes in handy. I simply cast a few sparks into my char tin and get an ember going in just a few seconds. After that, the process is just the same as creating a flint and steel fire.

Blending the Old and the New

Although the ferro rod/char combination is not a traditional 19th century fire starting method it is still nice to know. Whether using a flint striker or a ferro rod, I prefer this concept for several reasons. One, it doesn’t require excessive gear. A simple steel, or ferro rod, and you can make fire all year. Two, both devices are fool proof. These tools work every time you use them and are nearly impossible to break. Lastly, although both use a bit of technology, the main ingredient is natural material and a skill set. Even though a ferro rod is pretty advanced in the chemistry department, it’s not something you can just start making fires with. You still need know how, knowledge of natural materials, and the right touch to get a fire going.

The mountain men needed tools that worked for a full year without fail. This fire starting system truly emulates what they needed.

Again, the ferro rod/char fire starting method is not a traditional 19th century fire starting technique. However, it can be a good way to get started using other char materials rather than cloth. It is also a great tool for anyone interested in long term survival. Finally, I personally don’t feel like it is a total disregard for the mountain man time period either. The mountain men were interested in traveling light, starting fires, and having all they needed for a year’s time. The ferro rod fits all of those requirements remarkably well. It may not be the 19th century fire starting method the mountain men used, but perhaps the means of making fire for the 21st century mountain man.

If you like learning about the ways of the mountain men, you might enjoy this piece about Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper.


First Taste: Smoked Raccoon is Better than You’d Guess

Raccoon in tree.

If you’ve never tried smoked raccoon you seriously don’t know what you’re missing.

Smoked raccoon
Eating smoked raccoon might seem a big unusual, but it’ll be on our menu from now on.

To be completely clear I’m probably the last person who should be eating raccoon. I never ate is growing up, though we did eat quite a bit of elk as a kid. My family doesn’t really need to eat it. We usually have other wild game in the freezer in addition to beef. And speaking of beef, my in-laws happen to operate a well-respected ranch that produces high quality beef. What in the world am I doing eating raccoon then?

Not really sure to tell you the truth. I started trapping them for their fur a few years ago and have enjoyed my time doing that. However, I was a little curious each time I would chuck away a carcass as to why I was tossing it. I also guessed that in history people would have certainly eaten the meat. I didn’t figure there was anything inherently wrong with raccoon as far as the meat goes, but yet it got tossed away. Why and what was I missing?

The History

Raccoon in tree.
Raccoon historically has been a widely enjoyed meat. Photo via Pixabay.

I was in fact missing out on a historically popular meat. Not only was raccoon meat enjoyed by Native people, but it also has deep roots in the history of European America as well. Raccoon meat was so popular in certain areas of the country that some communities even had local celebrations and cook-offs featuring the meat. A favorite on farmsteads as well, this meat is something people have been using for generations prior to the last few. If people ate it for so long, what’s been my holdup?

The best I can reckon is that raccoon has earned a bad rap for a few reasons. One reason is that coon seem to be viewed as kind of scavengers who feast mostly in garbage dumps and sewers. I guess it depends on where they are living, but I would assume the raccoons I’m trapping to get the bulk of their food from more natural sources. Most the ringtails I’m trapping are likely eating a variety of foods they natural would including fish, insects, and small critters, in addition to their diet of grains. As omnivores they can eat about anything, including the rubbish that many people associate them with. I guess I didn’t imagine my coons were eating too much refuse so I was safe there.

Safety Concerns

Another reason raccoons likely fell out of favor is their reputation for carrying diseases such as rabies. The CDC reported that in 2014 5,398 wild animals were reported to have confirmed rabies. Of those, 1,822 were raccoons. Sure, raccoons may be the #1 carrier of rabies in the United States, but that is mostly for folks east of the Appalachian mountains.   This is due to the fact rabies is mostly a species specific virus. In other words there are raccoon strains, skunk strains, bat strains, fox strains, and so on, of the virus. The CDC also reports each strain can jump species, but it’s not common. You can examine these maps and see what strain of rabies is most common to your area. It will give you a clue as to which animals would be likely carriers.

Rabid animals are said to be easily identified by their behavior. This video shows a rabid raccoon one citizen happened to catch on camera.

In reality one of your biggest concerns when consuming raccoon may be the presence of worms.  The linked source offers some good information about the worms and safety concerns. It also relates what is probably true in most cases; cook the meat and you’ll be safe. When eating all meat, it’s generally a good idea to cook it thoroughly and you’ll kill most bacteria that could potentially harm you. Knowing raccoon meat had a few strikes against it, I still decided to go all-in and give it a try.

Smoked Raccoon

The first job was to get the skin off the carcass. I skin all my own raccoons anyway, so this wasn’t a big deal to me. Once the skin was off I fleshed the pelt and hung it to dry until tanning. With that chore done I then needed to get all of the fat off the meat. Wild game fat is not like fat on domestic animals. Anyone who has hunted or trapped these fur bearers probably realizes how fatty coons are. They also probably realize that whether you’re eating deer, elk, raccoon, or goose, getting the fat off can really improve the table fare. Coons are extra greasy, so this job took some time and I wasn’t able to get the fat entirely off.

With the fat off I started to remove the big cuts of meat. These came mostly from the back end and back. The surprising thing is how little meat the carcass actually holds. Although these animals appear to be fairly full animals, they are mostly fur. Meat was not very abundant, and I would guess one raccoon would provide enough meat for one day for a semi-active hunter.

Next came the cooking. My wife mixed up a batch of our family secret; Uncle Dean’s famous rub. As you might guess it comes from Uncle Dean himself. You could smear this rub on a Goodyear and it would be palatable. The rub provides a nice blend of sweet and spicy and we put it on nearly everything we smoke. With the meat covered we put it in the fridge for a few hours to help the rub soak in.

After a few hours in the fridge the meat went on the smoker. Now, as I mentioned there wasn’t a whole lot of meat on the carcass. Not only that, but the pieces I got off had been chunked into even smaller pieces. This not only helped the rub soak in, but would also help the smoker do its thing. As mentioned, cooking the meat was to be extra important. With the smoker set at around 250˚ I let it cook and smoke for around four hours. Once the internal temperature was near 180˚ I knew we were in the money.

Smoked raccoon will certainly be on the menu in the future.

With the meat fully cooked and smoked I was ready to give it a try. I’ll fully admit I wasn’t sure what I was about to bite into when I stared down that first piece. What I found was an extremely tender, moist, and sweet meat. After the first few bites coon meat was flying off my plate and into my mouth. Compared to most other wild game I’ve eaten, this was very tender with little gamey taste. I wouldn’t say I could stand eating the meat, I would say I enjoyed eating the meat.

Eating smoked raccoon is surely a recipe I’ll add to my yearly diet. I saved the meat from the all the coons I’ve trapped so far this year, and will certainly keep their meat in the future. In fact one aspect of eating a wild game diet and growing our own food I like so well is getting to enjoy seasonal food. Whether it’s radishes in the spring, tomatoes in late summer, venison in the fall, and waterfowl in the winter, we get a good dose of it all. It circles back to one of my main goals; to recognize more of the abundance that is lying all around.

Not only that but it helps me make more use of the animals I trap and turns my trapping adventures into a full-circle endeavor. If you trap I’d encourage you to try smoked raccoon at least once. It’ll help your catch go further and you might enjoy it like I did. If you’re looking to experiment at catching some of your own food, you should give trapping a try. Catching coons is relatively easy and they are very abundant. You’ll not only procure some good food and fur, but you’ll help balance a population. I’d encourage you to give it a go. Happy eating!

If you’d like to learn more about having gratitude for your food, you might find Lessons From the First Thanksgiving a good read.