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.

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.


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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Understanding the Mountain Man Possibles Bag

Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia

The mountain man possibles bag was an essential piece of equipment those mountain adventurers simply could not live without.

Mountain man possibles bag
The mountain man possibles bag is a piece of historic gear that can still suit your needs today.

“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.

The History

Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia
Lewis and Clark would have carried possibles bags. Photo via wikicommons.

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.

The bulk of the buckskin I cut to make my mountain man possibles bag.

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.

Possibles sack
This bag hangs just below my elbow and is a very convenient way to carry things whether on a traditional hunt or just tromping around.

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.

If you liked this brief how-to on making a mountain man possibles bag, you might enjoy another article I put together titled 18th century fire starting with a Twist.

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.