Best Way to Learn History? Go to the Source; Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper

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
Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper is an excellent primary source.

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.

The 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.

The Dangers

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.


Trapping Season is Off and Running


With trapping season upon us, it’s time to live history.

Trapping is an essential piece of the human story.

Cold air instantly saturates me as I step out of my pickup. Breath invisible just moments ago inside the warmth of my disheveled cab, now hovers suspended in crystals with each exhale. A fine sheen of ice covers the prairie grass set aglow by the barely rising sun in the east. With clouds seemingly on fire, and rays of sun piercing through openings, the landscape looks like something from a Charles M. Russell painting. Simply too good to believe.

I wish I had more time just to soak up the splendor, watch the ducks whistle overhead, and the deer skittishly meander across the meadow, but I’m on a strict time schedule this morning. My daily chore must be complete before heading to work. After getting my dog leashed, grabbing my gun, and bag of bait, I head off to check my short line of traps.

Traps. Just the word can cause an outburst of rage from some folks I’m sure. These efficient devices have been peddled to the public as cruel animal torture devices set by life-hating hicks like me. The thing is though, they aren’t. And I’m not life hating and neither are the trappers I know. Ok, maybe I’m a hick at heart, but that’s beside the point.

I understand most people have very little knowledge of traps and how they work. The bit they do know comes from anti-trapping groups or news articles about something negative toward trapping.The truth is up until the last few years I didn’t know that much about them either. After getting acquainted with them over the past few years my experience has contradicted the bad press.

The truth is trapping has been around since before anyone even thought about writing things down. It was a fundamental skill and knowledge set of people who lived off the land. For likely tens of thousands of years people utilized the effectiveness of traps to procure meat, food, and other resources that would allow them to live their simple existence. In fact in Osborne Russel’s Journal of a Trapper he notes a moment he encounters a band of Native people who still lived an essentially unchanged Paleo life. During their encounter he noted the numerous amounts of fur the people had. Although he doesn’t mention if the furs were trapped, it can be assumed at least some of them were.

Not coincidentally this practice has remained a part of the human story unbroken since its secret beginnings. Here in America people have always trapped. It is just a part of life for some people out there. Today people trap for all sorts of reasons, each individual in nature.

Personally I’ve only trapped for the past three years, but hope to make it an annual event. Not only does trapping get a body out of doors literally everyday, but it promotes an intimate education of the land. I also feel like the handful of reasons I trap would be difficult to promote as evil. For starters I trap to learn more about our world and the animals that we live with. After I got my trapping start I would have to sheepishly admit how little I actually knew about the nuances of animal’s habits.

Secondly I enjoy trapping because it helps procure furs I use to practice other aspects of ancestral knowledge including tanning and making my own gear. I also trap because, in a small way, it helps to preserve and pass on the body of knowledge humans have on the subject. I firmly believe this body of knowledge we would sorely miss if we let it slip from our collective knowledge.

Today I’m off to check just a half dozen traps hoping to land a coon or two. Most days I come up empty, but some days I’ll get lucky. Today is one of those empty days, where the only thing I managed to trap was a little peace of mind and some time in the great outdoors. With a little luck I’ll end up with a humble catch of animals while their pelts are in peak condition.  Not only that, but the bit of added meat I can procure is something I’m setting out to use. The truth is that historically trappers did eat meat from their furbearers. Although perhaps uncommon today, eating uncommon meats like raccoon is part of the history of trapping. I would just like to be one link in the chain of that history.

Trapping has always been part of human life. We need and use wild animals for some of our basic necessities. Not only does it promote knowledge of the natural world, but it can help families out in a variety of ways.


Lessons From the First Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving

The real story of the first Thanksgiving can teach us many things about what how much we have to be thankful for.

The First Thanksgiving
The First Thanksgiving. Image via wikicommons.

Today is Thanksgiving day here in America and what a great day it is. Contrary to most holidays, Thanksgiving is a relatively simple holiday. No gifts are exchanged, no cards distributed, no fancy fireworks to buy. For most folks Thanksgiving is a time just to get together, spend time in each other’s company, and “give thanks” for all we have. I can imagine many families across our nation will be gathering around tables of food and drink, laughter and music, friends and family. It affords us a break from work to focus on a few of the things that matter most in life.

One aspect of this holiday most folks are familiar with is the story of the first Thanksgiving in America. Part truth and part myth, the story we are taught is well known. During the early days of the English settlement in America a small settlement of Pilgrims came seeking religious freedom. Although they found this new land to be a place they could worship freely, they also found a land where their old ways wouldn’t work. They were unprepared for the challenges they faced and more than half died in their first winter. Eventually local Native people would come to the aide of the desperate settlers and show them the ways of the land. They taught them to plant corn, build adequate housing, and other skills they needed to survive.

After one season of this knowledge sharing, the Pilgrims were ready to face their second winter in America with a full larder. To show their gratitude these Englishmen invited a handful of Native people to join them in a feast of Thanksgiving. Not only were the crops of the Pilgrims used, but Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags, sent out his men to bring food from the forest. They returned burdened with deer, birds, fish, and food they could gather. The ensuing three day feast would go down in history as The First Thanksgiving.

Interestingly though, this grand celebration was not the actual first Thanksgiving in America. Taken at its core the Thanksgiving holiday is just that, a time to give thanks for the many blessings we are granted. In truth people had been giving thanks for many generations in formal ceremonies and holidays. The Wampanoags for example held six separate thanksgiving ceremonies at different times of the year. They gave thanks for various harvests, planting, and for the year itself. Rather than setting aside one day a year to profess thanks, the practice of recognizing simple blessings became an almost year round custom to those people.

Native Americans were not the only people in the world who paused to give thanks. Puritans had been performing similar rituals in the old world for much of the same reasons. So the first thanksgiving was not the first time either Europeans or Native Americans had given thanks, and certainly wouldn’t be the last. Although this first peaceful feast between nations was short lived, the core idea of the celebration is something we can take to heart.

In my eyes the great lesson of the First Thanksgiving is a guiding principle we can learn from. Give thanks for what you have and realize where all your blessings flow from. Although Thanksgiving will forever be enshrined as a national holiday we celebrate once a year, hopefully you can realize the professing of thanks can, and should, extend beyond just this one day. One part of this is recognizing all of the small gifts God leaves lying around and learning to make the most of them. Recognize and give thanks for things everyday, and you’ll also experience a myriad of benefits including better sleep habits, better health, and a decreased chance at developing syndromes like depression.

Hopefully you’ll enjoy friends, family, and good food this Thanksgiving. With luck you’ll also wake up on Black Friday with the same sense of “thank you” for the blessings you have. In a world where we are pushed more and more into believing we have less and less its times like Thanksgiving to reflect on reality.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the first Thanksgiving 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 on smoked raccoon .

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