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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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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Thanks for taking the time to read this list of mountain man foods eaten by Rufus Sage. If you like the content, I’d encourage you to follow the blog by clicking the Follow button near the bottom of this page. You may also enjoy this article I wrote about a frontier whiskey recipe that may open your eyes.

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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.

dscn2853
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.