Truly learning to live off the land is a big challenge even with some simple modern gear.
The first of this December found me marching beneath a canopy of ponderosa pine and surrounded by the skeletal figures of barren cottonwood and ash trees. A small stream meandered lazily by, ice clinging stubbornly to the edges. Songbirds flitted between naked stems of wild rose above green grass daring to rise from the prairie beneath my boots. Mother Nature seemed unable to make up her mind whether it should be winter was beginning. With my pack strapped to my back, temperatures in the low 40’s seemed about as ideal as you could ask for. With plans for a primitive tarp shelter in my future, I was thankful nighttime temperatures would be staying in the 20’s. My timing on this trip was seemingly just right.
As I pushed deeper into the tract of public land, my mind wandered here and there. It drifted from things that have popped up in my life, to days gone by, to more philosophical thoughts as well. Like many folks, I find my thoughts grow more clear and focused the further I can get from the road. Eventually my thinking returned back to the task at hand.
I had set aside this weekend to try and learn more about what it takes to provide for myself each day. Stories of ancient hunter-gatherers, longhunters, and mountain men have always captured my imagination. The more I’ve learned about them, and experimented with their style of living, the more my appreciation has grown for their accomplishments. Over time though, I’ve realized comparisons between our modern lives, and their past lives, are near impossible. With modern hunting laws, we are unable to operate with the world in the same way they did. On the other hand, when I pitch my camp for the night, I give no thought to choosing locations that could avoid a war party of enemies. Each generation of people heading to the woods faces their own challenges, and can’t be truly replicated thereafter.
That being said, by heading into the woods to live on the nourishment of the land, even for a spell, we can share some common threads of experience with past people. Hunger is hunger, no matter what year you were born or where you live. Cold is cold, and the heat from a campfire warms the bones in the same way. It also takes many of the same skills to try and forge a living from the wild. Knowing where to camp, where to hunt, and knowing how to stay warm and dry still are important skills. Those of us who want to keep this old way of life alive, breath life into it by getting out and living it as best we can.
One thing that really stands out to me about those ancient hunters was their ability to stay alive in the wilds. It takes more effort than most folks imagine to actually provide for yourself completely. It is also important to understand we’re talking about really providing, not just extended starvation. Learning to capture your calories in ways you are expending less than you are consuming is no small task. It is easy to tough out being hungry for a few days in comparison to actually feeding yourself. People interested in this concept may appreciate this popular Youtuber who delves into the topic pretty thoroughly.
Realizing such, I decided to hedge the odds in my favor and pack along modern gear with me on this trip. I also decided to drag along a half dozen body gripping traps to try and improve my odds at landing some food for the belly. Trapping is a great passive activity to secure food, and modern steel traps are superior in almost every regard to any sort of primitive trap. Their one downside is their overall weight, a fact my legs and shoulders fully realized on the hike in. My hope was the effort it took to pack them in, and make my sets, would be offset by the increased chance of landing a decent sized animal each night. In addition to my traps I packed a pump action Remington 870 and a pocketful of shells.
As I tramped further from the pickup, I eventually came across an ideal campsite. With running water close, lots of small firewood handy, and some protection from the wind, I dropped my pack and started to setup camp. Since I was trying to stay as light as possible, and have a camp that could last for an extended period, I had packed a tarp to help make my shelter. In addition to using the modern tarp, I also decided incorporate the concepts of a debris shelter into the shelter. The tarp made the construction go much faster, and the debris made the shelter much warmer. By blending ancient knowledge with modern gear, I was able to construct a pretty comfortable shelter. It would keep me comfortable as the nighttime temperatures dipped just below freezing.
Once I had my shelter built, it was time to get my traps out. Simply showing up to an area you’ve never trapped before, and setting your traps within walking distance, isn’t necessarily the greatest recipe for success. Add to that I’d only be out two nights, and I wasn’t entirely confident I’d catch anything at all. Regardless, the first day I was able to get four leaning tree sets out before the sun sank behind the horizon.
The Successful Hunt
Fortunately while I was returning to camp, my dog Huck winded a cottontail in some brush. As he darted out into the open I was able to draw a bead on him and connect with the shot. Thankful I’d have something to eat for the night, I butchered him on the spot then headed back to camp.
I started my fire with a ferro rod and charred punk wood, and soon had a decent blaze going. First off, I boiled my water, and then turned my attention to cooking the rabbit. The hot meat tasted good on an empty stomach, and the full moon cast a bright light around my camp as I admired my view. If I’ve learned one thing from my primitive camping it is that the experience increases your sense of gratitude for the little things in life. A paltry rabbit seemed like quite a gift. A warm fire made me feel just right. The simple song of the coyote capped the moment and I was content. I was thankful for the cold air in my lungs and the warm wool blanket waiting for me in the shelter. Learning to be thankful is probably the biggest benefit from these sorts of trips. With hopes for a productive night, I tucked myself into the shelter and got cozy.
The next morning found my empty stomach urging me from sleep. Within just a few minutes I stepped into the frosty morning and headed out to check my line. If you’ve trapped long enough, you may realize the odds of success on such a short line, in the middle of wild lands, is slim. That being said, you can’t catch anything if you don’t have them out. Unfortunately for me, the traps turned up empty and I returned to camp having expended a good deal of energy for no reward. Was the trapline going to be a bust?
Unwilling to admit it wasn’t a good idea; I got my final two traps out and hoped for the best. In truth, these two sets appeared to be the most promising. I had some time to scout around and was able to setup on good sign. It had only been a few hours and most of my days work was done, the problem was I hadn’t eaten a thing yet.
After returning to camp, I decided to break out an age-old woodsman cuisine; parched corn. My goal was to spend my time “living off the land”, and I had mixed feelings about the corn. Sure, I had grown it myself, and parched it as well, but I wasn’t gathering it during my stay. In the end, I swallowed a handful and decided that should last me for the day. If Daniel Boone used it as part of his diet, I supposed I wasn’t less of a woodsman for using a handful.
The rest of the day found me tending to camp chores. Beefing up my shelter, sharpening my axes and knives, and boiling water all made the minutes turn to hours. I also took the time to roast some cattail root, but found the rhizomes were not yet full of the starches they will have in several months. Before long, it was time to head out on an afternoon hunt. I again faced the dilemma that my activities needed to have a positive caloric return.
My dog and I hunt for several hours and saw only two cottontail rabbits. Fortunately one of them fell victim to my 870 again, and I would once again have warm meat in my belly to end the day. It was another great day to give thanks.
Snow moved in the second night and the traps were once again empty. Unfortunately I had to pull out early in the morning to meet a family obligation, so my 2-night expedition had run its course. Packing along the traps had proved fruitless, but I still have to imagine over time their benefits would outweigh their cons. Still, on this particular venture they cost me much more energy than they provided.
Overall the modern gear expedition was enjoyable and scratched my ever-present itch to be in the quiet places. Not long ago men and women roamed these exact same lands, completely independent from the trappings that bind us to civilization. Things have certainly changed, but the same basic challenges remain. While Mother Nature provides, she certainly can be a bit stubborn. The energy it takes is not always repaid, and a single hunter on his own is put to the test. Even with modern gear, meeting your daily needs is a worthy challenge.
Living off the Land 2-Day Diet: Modern Gear
While reading a classic Mari Sandoz book, I came across a frontier whiskey recipe that was too intriguing to pass up.
For good or bad, alcohol plays a substantial role in American history and culture. When Europeans first colonized Jamestown they were carrying a good deal of beer with them when they landed. It should be no surprise that beer was drank in celebration at the very first meal ever eaten at our initial colony. Also, it may not be a well-known fact, the Pilgrims at Plymouth also brought and drank beer. In fact, journal entries from the colony mention beer on several occasions, perhaps showing its general use by those folks. Another era where alcohol was noticeably prevalent was the fur trade.
The fur trade in America has a rich history and is important to understand. Most folks educated in history understand the significant role the fur trade played in encouraging European settlement of the new land. It started with the French Voyageurs in the east, and would culminate with the American mountain men of the west. Although culturally the groups were different, they both had some similarities. For one, both groups liked their drink. Voyageurs were noted as bringing copious amounts of booze in their canoes, and the frolics of the mountain man rendezvous have been well noted.
In addition to the use by the French and Americans, there has also been much written about the dubious use of frontier whiskey in trade with Native people. The use of frontier whiskey in trade was a hotly debated issue during the fur trade era. On one hand, traders wanted to use it in trade with Native people as this helped profits. On the other hand, the ethical dilemma of saturating those people with alcohol to essentially steal from them and debase their societies was not lost on people of the time. Using alcohol in frontier trade was certainly a hot issue in the 1800’s.
Again, for good or bad, the use of frontier whiskey was widespread during the fur trade era. What was it made of though? While there likely were numerous recipes out there, I came across two frontier whiskey recipes while reading Mari Sandoz’s book The Beaver Men that really grabbed my attention.
In her book, Sandoz is recounting a story in which William Clark had authorized Narcisse Leclerc to take 250 gallons of alcohol up the Missouri river. At the same time he had denied Pierre Chouteau Jr the same privilege. Once upriver, Leclerc turned the alcohol into frontier whiskey for use in trade. At this point Sandoz cites two frontier whiskey recipes Leclerc could have used.
Montana blend: 1 qt. alcohol 1 lb. rank black chewing tobacco 1 bottle Jamaica ginger 1 handful red pepper 1 qt. molasses, black Missouri water as required
Boil the pepper and tobacco together. When cool, other ingredients were added and stirred. As the whiskey was drank, more river water was added.
Upper Platte recipe: 1 gal. alcohol 1 lb. plug or black twist tobacco 1 lb. black sugar or molasses 1 handful red Spanish peppers 10 gal. river water (in flood) 2 rattlesnake heads per barrel
After the Upper Platte recipe Sandoz goes on to note,
Variations in flavor might be a “brush” of vermout, wormwood of the Plains or, for an occasional real beaver man, a castoreum, for the musky perfumish odor.
As you can see, frontier whiskey was nothing to be played around with. Rank tobacco. A handful of red pepper. Beaver castoreum. Rattlesnake heads? One ingredient that is easy to gloss over is Missouri river water. In the same book, Sandoz recounts the complaint at the time the Missouri was, “Too thick for soup and too thin to plow.” Imagine the grime and grit that found its way into the whisky concoctions. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t try to make, or drink, this stuff at home.
Frontier whiskey was not for those with a weak constitution. It was for rough and tumble frontiersmen and was used to debilitate entire nations. These recipes can shed some light on how rough the frontier actually was. It wasn’t a place where the faint of heart lasted very darn long. While not all men of the time partook in its drinking, frontier whiskey did play a major role in the fur trade and settlement of The West. In conclusion, as much as I like to experiment with historical skills, this is one area where I’ll have to pass.
Thanks for reading this brief dialog on frontier whiskey. It seemed too rich to pass up. If you enjoyed it, please follow this blog by clicking the button near the bottom of the page. Also, if you are interested in the mountain men, you might enjoy this article on the mountain man’s possibles bag.
A recent overnight gave me the opportunity to experiment with a primitive shelter in mildly cold weather. The results were eye opening.
Time sure does fly. Days that seemed endless as a boy, now slip by in the blink of an eye. Weeks slide into months, and entire seasons pass by in what seems like a breath. Maybe it’s my middle-age starting to catch up with me, but the fleeting nature of life is beginning to sink in. Time wasted is just that; wasted. That doesn’t necessarily mean wasting time isn’t good for the soul every now and then. It just recognizes time is not something you get back, and you must strike while the iron is hot.
With that being the case, I recently decided now was the best time to practice living outside in the cold. I’ve always been curious as to how people of the past felt, adapted, and handled primitive cold weather camping. These day, most people, myself included, are getting further and further away from these types of trips. I’ve done a few cold weather trips, but all of them had been with modern gear. If I ever wanted to experience a semi-primitive cold weather camp, I needed to take advantage of the winter I was living in. I didn’t want to have to wait again until next year.
With a cold weather camping trip as the goal, I just needed to find a good weekend. I didn’t want my first trip to be in ultra cold temperatures of below zero temps. Call me timid I guess. I also wanted it to be cold enough to actually put me to the test. It happened to work out that my wife was taking our girls to her parent’s house one weekend in February. As luck would have it, the night temps were going to be right at 20˚. This fell smack dab into a Goldie Locks zone for me. Not so cold I might get in over my head, but still plenty cold enough to figure out if my approach was working. With everything coming together, I kissed my girls adios and got my limited gear in order.
I headed toward my favorite camping spot with high hopes. Although my primitive shelter building experience is certainly what you’d call limited, I had what I thought would be a good design in mind. I was actually going to steal my design from a bushcrafter on YouTube. The design was simple and I really felt like it would be a suitable shelter for the conditions. For the cold temps I was bringing along a Hudson Bay wool blanket and an oilcloth I made myself. Both of these were items used by longhunters of the 18th century and mountain men of the 19th century. I figured the trip would offer me a better understanding of their lives.
Once I arrived at my camp, I began straight away with construction. The structure used a tripod design with an extended rear leg. The rope that lashed together my blanket pack also held my tripod together. I figured this was a way to make what little gear I brought more versatile.
With the tripod made, it was time to start putting the shelter up. It started with a row of sticks up the rear of the tripod. I started with very small sticks and gradually they got longer and longer. When it was all done, the original tripod looked like it had a ribcage. At that point I started to fill the structure with bedding. For this task I gathered dead cottonwood leaves that were lying all around. I filled the interior of the structure with dead leaves about two feet deep. These leaves not only gave me a soft bed to lie on, but insulated me from the worst heat-thief out there; the cold ground.
With the interior filled, it was time to start piling dead leaves on the structure’s exterior. I aimed for a depth of 2 to 3 feet covering the entire shelter. This provided obvious protection from the outside, but also served as a good way to trap heat on the inside. As I piled the leaves on, I was thankful there was no wind. I didn’t figure the leaf shelter would stand up very good against high winds. Before long that theory would be put to the test.
Gathering the leaves for the structure took quite a while. This chore consumed the bulk of the time it took to build my structure. However, it wasn’t the last task I needed to complete. I built a little tunnel off the front of the tripod. This tunnel would trap in more heat, and allow me to somewhat close the gap at the front of the tripod. I used more small sticks for the tunnel frame, and then once again blanketed them with leaves. All told, the structure took me around 3 hours to build. I put my oilcloth and blanket inside while I still had some light. My other camp gear went inside as well.
With the structure complete I made a quick and unsuccessful hunt with my longbow. As dark descended I turned back toward camp. I was looking forward to spending the night tucked away in my night’s home. As I returned, I started to get worried as the wind picked up at dusk. Soon, the air was rushing all around me and stirring things up. Not only that, but I had faced my tunnel entrance to the east, doing my best to avoid a direct wind coming in my hut. Wouldn’t you know it, the wind not only picked up, but was dead out of the east. I guess it was just putting my experiment to the test.
Although the wind was high, I didn’t notice too much damage to my leaf exterior. Sure enough, it was holding up adequately to the wind. Also, it was still cozy enough with the blowing wind. As the night marched on, I eventually climbed into my shelter and wrapped myself in the wool blanket and oilcloth. I was anxious to see how the night would go in the fairly cold temperatures.
I got an adequate night’s sleep under the brilliant full moon. As morning approached, and gray light shone in the east. I emerged from my lodging to start my day. At this point, I was a little disappointed. I had hoped to test out the shelter and blanket/oilcloth combination in cold weather. It was hard to say for sure, but I didn’t think it had even dropped below freezing during the night. Thinking I had lost an opportunity to test my gear, I crawled out into the awakening world.
After emerging, I checked my water. To my surprise it had frozen almost solid during the night. I guess my setup had proven more than adequate for the cool February night. My pickup was close at hand, and curiosity was now getting the better of me. I opened the door, and turned the key to check the thermometer. Sure enough, it clicked on and 20˚ appeared on the glowing green lights. It had actually gotten much cooler than I had thought. The overall test was a success to me and was a pleasant surprise.
In truth, I did have a bit more than just the shelter, blanket, and oilcloth for warmth. Under my regular clothes I had knee high wool socks and a full set of long underwear. Not only that, but my young pup Huck accompanied me all night. He crawled right in the blanket with me and cuddled up. I’m sure the extra heat had something to do with my comfortable sleep.
All in all, I was satisfied with how my overnight primitive camp went. I had showed up with much less gear then I’ve taken on summer trips, but I had managed to stay comfortable. It helped teach me a little about staying warm in the winter, and put some of my historically proven gear to use. Although I couldn’t call the trip an accurate historical recreation, I can say it taught me a little more about ways of the past.
More than anything, I’m glad I made the trip because I capitalized on the moment I had. Had I let the opportunity slide past, I could have gone another winter without actually experimenting and learning. I know I’ve let plenty of learning experiences slip by in my life, but hopefully I’ll grab ahold of more as they come. I’ll look forward to doing some more primitive camping should I catch a free weekend.
The mountain man possibles bag was an essential piece of equipment those mountain adventurers simply could not live without.
“It kind of looks like a purse,” I commented after I had completed it. I had just put the final few stitches through my first mountain man possibles bag and was admiring my creation. My wife just smirked as she tends to do when one of my projects is complete. As I ran my fingers over the supple brain tanned buckskin, I couldn’t help but a bit of pride creep in. About a year ago that particular piece of deer hide had been wandering the quiet land it inhabited before my well-placed arrow laid it down. Now it would help tote along gear I needed close at hand on my next hunt. Completing these kinds of full circle projects is always deeply satisfying.
The mountain man possibles bag was one of the trapper’s most necessary pieces of equipment. Besides his knife, and his rifle, it may likely his next most essential belonging. In actuality, without his possibles bag his rifle would likely have been almost near useless. Almost.
A possibles bag carried what mountain men referred to as their possibles. Possibles were all things the man might possibly need while out traveling. Things like shooting tools, fire starting materials, and bullets could be carried in this pouch. Oftentimes an interior pocket was sewn to the inside to allow for more organization to the bag. The possibles bag is a good representation of how resourceful the mountain men were. All of the basics tools they needed to survive in their rugged landscape was what they could carry on their person. It helps to prove that if you can take more knowledge with you as you travel, you don’t need nearly as many tools.
For my possibles bag I chose to blend a few bits of historic resources I had at my disposal. There was a photograph of an Lakota shooting bag in James Hanson’s book titled Little Chief Gatherings that caught my eye while reviewing the artifacts. Although I didn’t copy this shooting bag completely, it served as the guide for dimensions and basic structure. I also examined a few of Alfred Jacob Miller’s paintings and the possibles bags of the American Mountain Men Rocky Mountain Outfit. After viewing the historical examples I came across, I created my own unique bag to fit my taste.
Making the Bag
As mentioned the bag I designed was created from buckskin I tanned from last year’s deer. I hand sewed the entire project and used artificial sinew as my thread. My bag ended up being around 22 cm wide and 25 cm deep. The strap is 4 cm wide and 110 cm long also made of buckskin. One little accessory I wanted to include was a bullet pouch I noticed on the Lakota example. This pouch was 7 cm wide by 14 cm deep. Whether it is historically accurate for mountain men, it’s hard to say. I’m sure certain men had their own preferences when they constructed their gear. Either way I thought it would be a handy extra pocket to have to carry bullets, shells, or even extra arrow components.
When it came to putting the bag together the process unfolded pretty straightforward. I cut my front flap to the dimensions I desired. I then traced around that pattern and left extra material at the top that would become the flap of the bag. Next I needed to cut a piece of fringe material I would welt into the bottom seam. With that, most of my material was cut to size and ready for stitching.
Attaching this fringe was the biggest challenge I faced. When putting the project together I wanted to sew the project inside out to conceal the stitching. The problem was the fringe would have been trapped if I just sewed all the way around the edge. This was due to the fact I cut my fringe as a U shape. Looking back if I had simply cut the fringe straight it would have been much easier. I decided that if I started by sewing the bottom edge first I could manipulate the fringe piece easier as I sewed.
Once the stitching started it went pretty quickly. I first punched holes with my awl, widened them to size, then threaded the bag using a whip stitch. With the bag complete, I just needed to cut and attach my shoulder strap. Fellas used to wear this generally just below the elbow near the waistline. It just made it easy to access. Rather than sew the strap on, I attached it with a bit of buckskin so it would have the ability to “float”. I got this concept from the Lakota bag I saw. The bullet bag is connected in much the same way.
With the mountain man possibles bag complete I now have a major component of my gear complete. The bag accomplishes a few important things. One, it gives me a handy bag for lots of things I need while out and about. Secondly though, the possibles bag gives me some boundaries to work with. In today’s world we are so used to loading up bags, and pickups, and campers with gear that we think we have to pack along everything but the kitchen sink. It’s just not the case. The possibles bag gives me some real dimensions to work with when it comes to limiting my gear. It’s true that mountain men used packhorses extensively and they had much more gear than their possibles. It is also true however that with their knife, rifle, and possibles, they could stay alive for extended periods of time.
The mountain man possibles bag is a great piece of gear. Not only it is a historically accurate aspect of gear, but it can force you to really scrutinize your gear. Finally, the possibles bag is a very functional piece of gear. Even just the first few times I wore it, it became apparent how convenient it would be on hunting and trapping trips. All that being said…I still think it looks like a purse.
Using this 19th century fire starting technique with a modern twist might make you understand the past more than you’d think.
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
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.
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.
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.
What’s the best way to learn about a historical time period. Go to the source. Such is the case with Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper.
Primary sources are a researcher’s, or historian’s, best friend. For those unfamiliar with the term primary source it refers to any historical artifact created during a period of study. Cave paintings, for example, are an example of a primary source for the Stone Age. Cave paintings were made during the time period by the people we want to study. From those paintings we can not only learn about the paintings, but their lives, something of their world view, and can gain insights into their world. If you really want to learn what a time period was like, a primary source is the best place to go. Another example of a primary source, this time of the mountain man era, is Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper.
Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper is just what is sounds like, a mountain man’s journal. This journal is generally regarded as standard reading material for those of us interested in the ways of mountain men and the time period. Like the cave paintings, this journal lets us know what trappers did, what they thought, and opens up a true window into their world. Combined with other sources of the time it can really shed light on historical skills needed to survive in the mountains. Not only is this journal academically enlightening, but its entertainment value shouldn’t be underestimated. Although I wouldn’t recommended the journal to everyone, to the right person Osborne Russell’s journal contains some truly entertaining stories.
One story you can’t help but laugh at is contained in the first few pages. It unfolds when Russell initially arrived to the mountains and was green as tender spring grass. He and some fellow trappers were on one of their first hunts when they bumped into a grizzly bear. Full of a dangerous mix of energy and inexperience the men take after the bear, shooting several balls through her while she’s in the open. Next, they proceed to trail the wounded grizz into a thick patch of nearby willows. What ensues is a story of how one man learned NOT to follow a wounded grizzly anywhere. It is one of the stories that highlights the fact these men were not mountain men when they hit the mountains. They were mountain men when they left the mountains. That can teach us a good deal about the type of men attracted to the western fur trade. These men were wildcards, with a sense of supreme self-confidence.
Russell’s hunting exploits while in the mountains also offer some great insight. He talks of numerous sheep hunts in the high country of The West. His tales of trudging up steep mountain sides, sweating all-the-while, and spooking groups of seemingly unsuspecting groups of sheep, are great tales for hunters and mountaineers alike. Although Russell appears to have favored sheep hunting, he also describes numerous hunts of a variety of other creatures. Elk, deer, buffalo, sheep, and bear are all animals he hunted while in the mountains. At times the men diligently preserved the meat from their harvest, and at time they took only what would satisfy them for the day. Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper brings on a yearning to see the herds of the past.
Not all of Russell’s tales are of adventure though. Many of his entries discuss the dangers trappers faced. One of the most exciting moments in the journal describes the time he a two fellow trappers were ambushed by a war party of Blackfoot. After taking several “fuse balls” to the leg, Russell somehow manages to find refugee in the forest. He describes his feelings from hiding as the attackers come within mere feet of him on several occasions. Picture the scene in your mind and you can almost feel the perilous situation he was in. The sand certainly seemed to be running out on his hourglass.
This particular tale is made complete as the wounded mountain man describes his journey after the attack. He, and another companion he managed to locate, began a trek through the mountains and across the sage to the closest fort. Because the men were caught unsuspecting for the attack, Russell was near naked on the trip. With night temperatures dipping into freezing he notes how cold and miserable they were. Functioning on little to no sleep, very little food, and wounded to boot, to say the trip drained the men is an understatement.
One interesting thing that stood out to me though, was how little time he spent discussing the hardships. When you read the journal, Russell spends much more effort describing hunts, the beauty of the mountains, and his travels, rather than how tired, cold, and hungry he was. If you really take the time to imagine how miserable his post-attack trip would have been, and how little he describes it, you can learn an awful lot about his character. I don’t suppose the mountains catered to whiners.
Inside the Mind of a Trapper
My favorite tale in Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper, opens a window the distant past we seldom get. While traveling throughout the mountains as part of a trapping brigade, Russell bumps into a small group of Native people in a remote river valley. He describes the people as isolated and living a life that seemed relatively untouched the first few whites into the mountains. Lacking the horse, the group had a sizable pack of dogs (30 according to Russell) to transport their camp. Many dogs also appear to have been loaded with fur. The men of the band were still using obsidian tipped arrows for their hunting needs and started their fires by friction. Friction fire seems to have impressed the trapper, and he appears to have had no prior knowledge of friction fire. According to Russell, it seems the only item of post-Stone Age modernity that had reached the group was one worn out butcher knife. Other than that, the group seemed to have been a perfect example of how people lived prior to European contact.
In the journal Osborne himself notes, “they seemed to be perfectly contended and happy.” Upon his departure he also opens up and describes his feelings.
“I almost wished I could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this where happiness and contentment seemed to reign in wild romantic splendor surrounded by majestic battlements which seemed to support the heavens and shut out all hostile intruders.”
It seems the romance of the Stone Age is not some New Age idealism, but something that has captivated the imagination of people across the ages.
One final note in the journal which caught my attention was a simple entry near the conclusion. In the early 1840’s Russell describes riding over country he was quite familiar with. He and several other trappers note the bones of buffalo on the land, and how age-old buffalo trails had become overgrown with grass. Even in his brief tenure in the mountains Osborne witnessed the beginning of the end of wild buffalo. It was at this time Russell recorded the following;
“The trappers often remarked to each other as they rode over these lonely plains that it was time for the White man to leave the mountains as Beaver and game had nearly disappeared.”
There is an awful lot loaded into one simple sentence.
Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper is simply a must read for anyone interested in learning more about the lives of our mountain men. Although it only briefly describes aspects such as clothing and equipment, it offers fantastic insight into the everyday lives of these men. It was a life where danger seemingly popped up unexpected. It was a life with brief periods of extreme hardship and bitter weather. It was also a life where you had better like the view from horseback because these men traveled an awful lot. Given all the hardships it also was a life the men truly enjoyed. Osborne Russell seems to have appreciated the beauty of The West as much as anything. Oddly enough, I don’t recall him mentioning money one time throughout the writing.
Although it wasn’t for everyone, the life of a mountain man suited certain men to a T. For some of us, this kind of life shouldn’t be simply relegated to a bit of text left to read. Rather, the text can help us better understand how to keep the ways, knowledge, and spirit of the mountain men alive and well.
“Arghhh,” Gideon Chase moaned as he awoke from his slumber. Pulsing beats throbbed in his head, exerting forces near the point of explosion. He shut his bloodshot blue eyes and focused on the pain in his head. After several minutes he realized the methodic aches would not be going away anytime soon. About this time he began to notice the dryness of his mouth. Not a drop of moisture remained. His tongue stuck dryly to the roof of his mouth. Licking his lips was much the same. What a morning, he thought.
Arising fully from sleep he rolled over and let the mid morning sun beam down onto his face and bare chest. His lean body soaked up the rays, cherishing the pleasant heat they provided. Too much dern whiskey, he reasoned. He was too old for drinking like that, but this far from the settlements a man can tend to get carried away. It had also been awhile since he had been able to catch up with some old comrades. William Stuffins and Hobbins Traffegen were solid men, and he appreciated their company. Gideon was wary of their new companion though, a half-breed named James Nighthand. The two never did warm up in their short acquaintance. It wasn’t his breeding that Gideon distrusted, he had known many half-breeds, it was something subtle. Something in his dark eyes that hinted toward evil.
Propping himself up Gideon began to search for some water. He was a short distance from the creek but slowly ambled that direction . Once he reached the moist bank he dropped to his knees and drank life-giving mouthfuls straight from the icy waters. Somewhat satiated he turned his aching body back towards camp; and that is when he noticed it. Something was amiss. Stuffins and Traffegen lay in blanketed heaps around the smoldering fire, but where was Nighthand? A second look told Gideon all he needed to know.
“Arrrrgh!” he growled storming back to camp. “Get up! Both of you get up! That dern no-good, stealing, rotten half breed cleaned us out during the night.” Gideon kicked at a stirring bundle on the ground. “Get up Stuffins! You brought that thief into camp, I reckon you can help me track him down.”
William Stuffins groaned from his pathetic posture on the ground “What d’ya mean that thief?” He asked, a bit of annoyance in his voice with eyes blurred from sleep. “James is always up early. Anyway he’s probably out hunting up some vittles for the camp.”
“Well I suppose that could be the answer,” Gideon shot back, “but he’d have a might better luck with only one horse than all six he’s took with him. Better luck sneaking around you sees.”
“Huh?!” Hobbins retorted . As he sat up his red checks lightly toasted by the sun seemed to glow. “Took the horses? James? Why that no account take our horses?”
“Probably figured to trade a mite for em.” Gideon reasoned, his initial anger diminishing. “I guess he headed south, away from the blackfeet and to the Crow. No Crow would ever turn down a good mount, even if he knowns it was stolen.”
“Well heck,”Stuffins remarked, pulling himself up to standing position now, ”might as well have sentenced us to the gallows! A man without horseflesh is as good as dead this close to them bug boys.”
“Now settle down Stuffins” Gideon has reclaimed a sense of calm he tried to restore to the situation. Times like this called for clear thinking. “Them Blackfeet ain’t in this country this time of year. Probably down on the flats chasing buffs. Nope, we ain’t gotta worry bout no bug boys. We will have a dern hard time staying alive if we can’t find those horses. Had quite a few possibles on that pony. Be hard to stay alive long without em.”
The trio picked up the remains of their makeshift camp. Each took a trip to the clear creek to whet their gullet before heading out. Searching the area they soon found Nighthand’s tracks leading straight out the mouth of the valley. He made no attempt to cover his tracks, probably guessing with the head start and the horses there would be no need. What he didn’t figure on, was the type of man who was trailing him. Nighthand was raised between worlds . He had a spell of the whiteman’s world, and a bit of the Indians. Although he knew some of the trappers in the mountains, he knew not their determination. These men would trail him day and night as long as they had a trail to follow.
“As well as I can figure he’s got a half day head start on us. Grab your possibles boys, we got some horseflesh to find.” With that, Gideon’s long strides carried him off down the valley in pursuit of his outfit.
After several days the trio of travelers was still hard on the trail of James Nighthand. Although the trail was easy enough to follow for the seasoned veterans, they pursued at a distance. Gideon often times led the group, but by no means was in a leadership position. In the mountains, men had learned to fend for themselves and developed an independent spirit. Each man was free to go his own direction at his own time. This particular situation called for teamwork, and Gideon was the best tracker. It was understood by all, that while Gideon Chase was in the lead, he only worked to save his own outfit.
It was high noon when they came upon a small rushing creek surrounding by towering pines. Stiff winds swayed the large boughs of the lofty sentinels. Stopping for water, Gideon examined the tracks in the muddy banks. “How old do y’spose them track are?” Hobbins asked scratching his scruffy red beard.
“Well Hobbs,” Gideon answered while thoughtfully examining the tracks “I spose he passed this a way bout, oh… three hours ago.”
“Three hours!” Stuffins lit up. “That no account horse thief will be sleeping good tonight when I send him under. No place in these mountains for a horse thief. Half breed or not.”
“I reckon that with any luck we’ll be riding tomorrow boys.” Gideon posited staring intently at the trail leading away. “Better move slow though. He ain’t likely to go quiet.”
Starting off again, they moved uphill. Nighthand had stuck to deer trails for most of the journey so the going was easy. Even with the easy travel Gideon had a nagging feeling something was wrong. The trail was just too good. Not even the slightest effort was made to conceal the passing. Wet spots in the trail, which easily identify tracks, were taken rather than going around. It’s almost as if he wants us to catch him, Gideon’s mind reasoned. Still, they pushed on in search of their stolen stock.
As they climbed the gentle slope of the mountainside Gideon could see where they were headed through breaks in the trees. Up ahead lay a pass over the mountains Gideon figured the thief would head to pass over. To his left rose a towering snow covered peak with a scree field of loose rock half way down culminating in a chaotic boulder field. To his right lay the spine of the ridge they had been paralleling for some time. As they gained elevation Gideon could see the timber thin out close to the top of the ridge. They soon came to a small clearing Gideon stopped to examine the lay of the land before him.
“No good,” he said. “I’m guessing that horse thief is a sitting up on that pass, jist waitin fer us to step out into that clearin at the bottom. We’d sure be easy pickens, what with the last quarter mile wide open. Anyways if’n a body got close, there’s no way you could climb to the top o that pass without him punching holes clear through you. He’s a smart one. Even with one rifle he could take down the lot of us.”
He continued, “If’n you want my mind fellers, I’d be for cuttin up through this spotty timber to the top of this spine off to our right. We’d be wise to head up after dark. I’m a guessing he’s got a fine view from where he’s waitin.”
“Ach! I can’t hardly stand the thought of that dern louse spendin another night with them horses,” Stuffin’s tone was serious. “What makes you think he’s up thar anyways Gideon? That flatlander ain’t got no mountain sense. Why he’s probably thinking we’re clear on the trail floundering around looking for him. He don’t know mountain folk near as well as he figures.”
“That’s whats got me worried hoss” Gideon replied. “It just seems a bit too easy. Ever since camp we jist follered the trail right easy. Never has he made a bit of work to hide the trail. I spect hes a thinkin we’ll walk right into his trap.”
“Sounds like fine reasoning to me” Hobbins spoke up. “Even a yearling could hide a trail better n that. Anyways, whats the worst could happen? We hit that pass and everything looks good, we’ll jist keep on after him and make up time the next few days.”
“I don’t know fellers.” William Stuffins eyes were hard beneath the shadow of his wide brimmed hat. “I’ve knowed that breed for a spell. Long enough to sleep heavy when camped with him at least. Never seemed like the type to do no purposeful killing. If’n I had to guess, I’d wager he rolled over that pass just afore we could see, and kept right on a going. He’s like that you know. Probably jist heading fer some injun camp to trade them horses then quit the country for a bit. He don’t seem like no killer.”
“Well Will, I won’t doubt your judgement, seemin as I jist met the man, but I don’t suppose you’d been sleepin so heavy if’n you know your horses would git lifted by the man” Gideon said. “Maybe thars more to him than you think.”
“I don’t suppose youd been sleepin so sound either, ceptin that whiskey was a mite stout!” Will retorted, a bit peeved by the comment. “I guess we all shoulda laid off the fire jug a bit. Just got caught up a bit I spose.”
“I guess we all did Will” Chase recognized his mistake. “My plan stands either way. I’m headed up the side o this here spine come dark. You fellers are welcome to come along if’n you want.”
“Heck Gideon, I’ll throw in with you” Hobbins confirmed. “Seems a safe bet against a reckless one. Sides, we can catch some rest fore the climb. That feller will be plumb tuckered out by now. He’s had to be workin to keep that string of horses cared for. What about you Will, you pitchin in?”
Hands on his hips Stuffins shook his head in frustration. “I guess a coon ought to take the smart bet here, much as I hate to. Feels too much like I’m runnin from that coyote. I’ll wait with you boys on one condition. If’n he aint up thar we travel like red devils to catch him. I hate the thought of losing another pony for sum injun chief’s daughter.”
“Agreed,” Gideon’s steely blue eyes stared at the pass, “we’ll wait here till closer to sunset, then we’ll make our move.”
Hours later, the sun dipped behind the pass west of the travelers. Dark shadows stretched across the mountainside, and a dull light lingered in the drainage. Like wisps of smoke the three companions scaled the steep ground. Moving stealthy from tree to tree, clad in their buckskins they knew they would be near impossible to see in the fading light. Drawing nearer to the top of the spine Gideon gazed up from behind a small tree. Nothing but a scree field covered the final twenty yards to the top of the spine and safety. Searching the surrounding area, Gideon realized this thin strip of loose rock lined nearly the entire spine. Examining the possibilities he weighed their options.
“Wha’d ya think Gideon?” Hobbins asked, his red face bright from exertion.
“Well, the way I have it figured, bout the only option we got is to make a bit of a dash up this here scree field. Once we clear it, we are up and over the other side.” Gideon rubbed his silver beard as he spoke.
“Seems a mite risky Gideon,” Will said “be like sitting ducks stumbling up that rock field.”
“Probably so, but I don’t see no other way. If’n I’m gonna get my horseflesh back an save my scalp, I guess it’s a chance I’ll have to take.”
The three men stared thoughtfully at the loose rock above them for several minutes. As they considered their choice darkness continued to creep over the land.
Gideon spoke up, “Well boys, its now or never I guess. I reckon we should make one big run across here, so as the first one across don’t tip him off about the others. Should be our best bet. You fellers ready?”
“Sure,” Hobbins answered “If’n that breed is up thar, I’m bettin he’ll be looking down the trail. We go quick, he might not have much of a chance. Only problem is, we’ll have to streak down upon him like cracking lightening fore he quits the country with them horses.”
“Right you are Hobbs,” Gideon replied. “Keep them rifles ready. We hit the top o’ this and we’ll charge right down on him like Satan hiself. If we get lucky the surprise will catch him off guard and he’ll hesitate. We’ll only need a short minute to be on top of him. No mercy for a horse thief fellas. You ready Will?”
“Dern you Gideon!” Will’s temper had boiled over. “I guess I ain’t got no choice at the moment.” And with that he let out a war whoop and charged head long up the scree field. Not wanting to be left behind, the other two travelers shot up the scree field.
As they climbed the small rocks gave way beneath their feet and made progress difficult. Scrambling on all fours the men desperately climbed toward the top of the spine and the safety it offered. As they neared the top a shot erupted from the still evening air. At the same moment a rock exploded near Gideon’s midsection. Fragments shot in every direction, some small shards embedding themselves into his skin. A jolt ran through his body and his adrenaline overtook him. He clawed like a madman toward the top of the ridge.
Hobbins cleared the rocks first and swung his Hawkens to his shoulder looking for his target. “I can’t see him!” He cried. At that moment Gideon hit the crest of the ridge and without a hesitation took off sprinting toward the pass. He swung his rifle off his back and into his hands without missing a beat. Longs strides carried him swiftly over the remaining ground between him and his attacker. He was running across open country now toward the lightly timbered pass ahead. If he could close the distance fast enough, he could be upon him before he had a chance to reload.
Gideon ran for all he was worth, his eyes focused intently on the pass now less than one hundred yards away. Through the dusky light he saw unclear movement up ahead. Although he could not discern the figure, he knew without a doubt he had found the thief.
The shadow darted through the trees away from him. Gideon pushed hard, his strong legs chewing up the ground in front of him. His buckskin fringes whipped haphazardly in the whistling air around him. Reaching the edge of the trees he could barely make out a shape less than twenty paces in front of him. The figure was astride a horse and was wheeling it quickly for his getaway. With too little light for shooting, Gideon tossed his rifled aside and careened headlong for the rider. Closing in he sprang up and buried his shoulder in the man’s midsection. The horses reared and whinnied in alarm, but Gideon would not let go. In the ensuing tussle he managed to drag his enemy off the horse to the ground.
Crashing hard into the pine needles, the pair tossed about on the forest floor. Gideon’s strength allowed him to roll atop the struggling man. He began to rain devastating blows down upon his foe. The sick thud of his fists against the man’s face drove Gideon to a greater level of fervor. His normally clear vision had clouded in red, and revenge was being extracted one punch at a time. Each punch found his mark and his fists moved like stinging wasps, stabbing in and out in quick succession. Anger had overtaken him and rage fueled his thoughts. This man had left you for dead. The thought broke into his mind. Gideon raised a bleeding right hand high above his head toward the dark sky and prepared to smash it down upon his enemy. Suddenly, he was jerked backwards off of the limp figure beneath him.
“Stop Gideon!” Hobbin’s voice called out through the cloud of rage in his head. “Stop it Gideon! The man is near dead. You whooped him a good one child. I can make out the horses up ahead. Looks like we got em back. Every one of em.”
Gideon’s adrenaline rush subsided as he sat on the pine needles staring fiercely at the bloody pulp of a man on the ground. His lungs breathed deep breaths as he tried to calm enough to think. Gideon looked into the bright eyes of Hobbins Traffegan. Traffegan smiled as said“Relax a bit you old coon. This cussed horsethief ain’t going nowheres for a while.”
The next day found the travelers camped at the top of the pass tending to the broken man. It was the way of the mountains. Even though enemies, they would not leave a man in his condition wasting away. Several minutes after regaining consciousness James realized his situation and turned his gaze down, buried in shame.
“If’n I was you, I don’t spose I could look at me neither” Will Stuffins chided the man. “Left us to die out thar is what you did. In these mountains a man’s as good as dead without horseflesh under him.”
They sat in silence around a crackling campfire waiting for the coffee to boil and listening to Jame’s pitiful groans. “Water” James croaked hoarsely after nearly an hour. “Please. I know I don’t deserve any, but I’m mighty thirsty.”
Gideon lifted himself from his seat and fetched his bladder. The water up this high trickled slowly from its source, but was cold and clear and tasted a like something you would have to pay for back in the states. He ambled over to the dreadful looking man. As he approached he noticed the man’s eyes were near swollen shut, and his nose had a wicked bend in it. A drizzle of dried blood clung to the corners of his mouth. Gideon squatted down and handed him the water.
“Your head hurtn bad son?”
“Sure. Feels like its gonna crack right down the middle.”
“Good” Gideon replied curtly. Staring intensely at the man he continued “You ever go stealin my stock again, and that Hawkins rifle will really make your skull feel broke.” With that he turned his back and returned to his seat by the campfire. The coffee was just finishing up and Hobbins handed him a cup with a thick freckled hand. “What’s your plans now Gideon?” he asked.
“I reckon I’ll head south till I hit the Yellowstone. Then probably swing west till I can find some good beaver.”
“What do you reckon we do with him?” Hobbins asked, gesturing toward the low moaning heap of blankets.
“Tomorrow I’m pullin out” Gideon said without hesitation. “That man will be just fine by mornin. I figure with any luck he’ll be able to walk east out of here and catch a keelboat back to the settlements. I don’t reckon he’ll last long in these mountains.”
Time passed and as night approached they bound their captive, not wanting to offer a foolhardy chance at an escape. The next morning the sun rose slowly over the eastern horizon, casting warm rays into the cold thin air. After a quick breakfast and a bit of coffee, the men each gathered their respective stock and got their outfits ready. Within the hour they each sat astride their mounts and turned to face Nighthand. The poor man had managed to pull himself into a fairly upright position, knowing his aide was about to head out.
“James,” Gideon spoke sharply “Ifn I was you, I’d head straight east into the rising sun and pray to whatever god you wish that you’ll meet a keelboat on the Missoura fore you meet a party of bloodthirsty bug boys. You had no account for leaving us high and dry like you did. Afore you leave yore gonna do one more thing for us.” Gideon’s stone blue eyes stared straight into the man as he leaned forward in his saddle. “Take off yore mocsins and bring em over to me.”
Stiffly, James obeyed the command and hobbled over with his moccasins in hand. He scowled as he handed them up to Gideon. “What’s this all about? Ain’t you got yer revenge yet?”
“Not quite yet” Gideon smirked. “Boy, John Colter outrun a village of blackfeet warriors fer three hundred miles with nothing but the clothes God give him. I spose you can manage without this here pair of mocs.” Then Gideon glared at the man and said “I spose it goes without sayin what’ll happen ifn we catch you back in these mountains. You’d do best to stay back in the settlements. After word gets out about your stealin hide, won’t nobody have a friendly campfire for you.” With that Gideon spun his horse and trotted south.
Hobbins and Will soon caught up with him. “Chase, what do you figure on stealing the man’s shoes fer? We jist spent a day patchin the man back together, then you go and steal his only shoes” Will declared.
“Well, I figure that young man will make the settlements and have quite a tale to tell. I also figure he’ll fall into a crowd you’d expect a horse thief to run with. Maybe after a long walk through prickly pear country he’ll advise those fellers to stay east of the Missouri and steal their horses.”
The three men’s hearty laughter echoed back to James just as he cut his foot open on a sharp rock. It was going to be a long way to St. Louis.