Primitive Tanning Techniques from Mountain Man Zenas Leonard

Buffalo Hunt painting.

People interested in primitive skills and history might appreciate Zenas Leonard’s account of primitive tanning used by the Crow.

One of the primitive skills I find most useful in daily life is tanning. Tanning not only allows you to use more of each animal you harvest, but can help you to create useful products. Over the past few years I’ve made moccasins, quivers, pouches, and plenty of hunting equipment. Few things are softer and have a more comfortable feel that good brain tanned buckskin. It is a process that I enjoy and it also has real world application.

Raccoon fur mittens.
Primitive tanning can be useful to make beautiful products like these fur mittens.

Usually while brain tanning, I often wonder about how people of the past did primitive tanning. With the luxury of steel fleshing knives, plastic buckets, and other specially made tools for the job, I think about how Paleo people would have done it. I imagine the process certainly would be more difficult. As luck would have it, while reading the journal of mountain man Zenas Leonard I came across an entry that described in detail the process used to brain tan buffalo hides.

The entry comes on page 57 of his 59 page journal. Near the end of his time in the mountains, Leonard takes the opportunity to live with a band of Crows. One interesting dimension of Leonard was his fairly good eye for, and interest in, anthropology. He not only enjoyed living with the Crow, but he was eager to learn about their lives, and record it as well. His journal begins by describing the buffalo hunting process and all the rituals that surrounded it. One who wonders about bygone days can get a clear picture of what a buffalo hunt may have looked like from reading the journal.

Leonard next records how buffalo hides were cared for after several had been killed. He records;

“The Indians would go out in large companies and kill a great number of these animals (buffalo), when it would be the duty of the women to follow after and gather up the hides, which they would convey to the camp, and dress them ready for market. It is the duty of the squaws to dress the buffalo robes alone, which is done by stretching the hide tight on the ground and there let it dry, when they have a piece of iron or sharp stone, fixed in a stick, making a tool similar to a foot-adze, with which the cut and scrape the fleshy side until it becomes thin and smooth—after this they have a mixture composed of the brains and liver of the animal mixed together, in which they soak the hide a couple of days, when it is taken out and again stretched on the ground, where it is beat and rubbed with a paddle until in becomes perfectly soft and dry.”

If you are interested in primitive tanning you no doubt find the passage interesting at least. Still though, this passage raises a few questions in my mind.

First off, he says they “soak the hide a couple of days” in the brain and liver mixture. I have to wonder what is it soaking in? They didn’t have plastic buckets? I wonder if the hide was saturated and then folded upon itself to retain the moisture. That would make sense, and would be similar to the way I tan fur-on garments, except only one side is being covered in the tanning agent. Secondly I wonder if the paddle method is better, or worse, than the regular breaking method I normally use? Breaking is no doubt the most difficult step in the process and this method could be useful.This may be one of those questions I’ll have to answer by experimenting on a small hide.

Again, tanning is a great primitive skill to understand. It has utility and extends the bounty of the hunt. People have tanned differently all across the world to meet the same goal; material for clothing and gear. This particular primitive tanning method is laid out in plain fashion by mountain man who witnessed the process firsthand. For those folks interested in such things, we are fortunate he took the time to record it.

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If you have experience with this primitive tanning method, I’d appreciate your thoughts 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 about the Mountain Man Possibles Bag.

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27 Foods Eaten by Mountain Man Zenas Leonard

Black bear.

Whether you appreciate wild food or history, you might find this list of foods eaten by mountain man Zenas Leonard interesting.

For one reason or another, the foods eaten by mountain men are something I find intriguing. Perhaps it is because of the self-reliance it highlights. It could be because of what we can learn about our food from learning about theirs. It also could be because every so often you come across something so disgusting you just can’t seem to forget it. In reality, all three of these factors likely add to my fixation on learning about the foods of the mountain men and others who were/are self-reliant. Recently one primary source I read and learned from was the diary of mountain man Zenas Leonard.

Zenas Leonard left Missouri in 1831 during the height of the Rocky Mountain Fur trade era. His journals describe not only his experience with other mountain men, but the great adventure he joined with Capt. Joe Walker to California. If you read the journal (at this link) you will notice that Leonard was not only an expert outdoorsman, but he also had an eye for culture as well. On several occasions he takes the time to learn about different people of an area. Near the end of the journal (starting on pg. 51) he describes his desire to live with the Crow and learn about “their internal mode of living.” After reading the journal you get the impression that he was looking to make some money, but was just as much concerned with learning, experiencing, and adventure. It is a good read if you enjoy the subject.

As with several other journals, the Zenas Leonard journal devotes some attention to the foods he ate. This seems to be the case for several reasons. One, many of the foods were unique to him, and two, many times food was a huge issue in his life. While we sit down and eat 3 squares everyday, he and the other mountain men were never truly certain when their next meal would be. You can imagine how this would heighten your appreciation for a good meal.

If you are interested, here are the 27 foods that mountain man Zenas Leonard enjoyed, or otherwise ate, while living as a mountain man.

Corn (PG 1) – In trade from both the Kanza and Oto tribes.

Wild Turnips (PG 1) – From a band of Oto’s.

Muscles and Small Fish (PG 1) – Leonard mentions fishing on several occasions, more than the other journals I have read.

Horse.
Horses were commonly eaten during times of extreme hunger. Image via pixabay.

Horse (PG 1) – Leonard wasn’t in the West long before he had his first taste of horseflesh. Later during his time in the mountains (PG +26) he describes this practice on many occasions when the men were close to starvation. He also describes the painful feeling of killing a horse this way (PG 29); “It seemed to be the greatest cruelty to take your rifle, when your horse sinks to the ground from starvation, but still manifests a desire and a willingness to follow you, to shoot him in the head and then cut him up & take such parts of their flesh as extreme hunger along will render it possible for a human being to eat.” Certainly a somber tone to that entry. It also shows a side not often recognized in the mountaineers.

Wolves (PG 2) – In order to keep from starving.

Wild Cats (PG 2) – Leonard is unclear as to what kind of cat, but you would likely assume a bobcat.

Antelope (PG 2) – A staple food of the plains.

Elk (PG 2) – His first mentioned elk was enjoyed after an extended period of near starvation. In the next sentence he mentions the party was “refreshed” and “set out with unusual fine spirits.” One can only imagine how good that elk must have tasted.

Buffalo (PG 2) – First mention of killing a buffalo, the favorite meat of the mountaineers. He set out in late April from St. Louis and recalls this meal was ate in late July after arriving in buffalo country. He recorded “the flesh of the Buffaloe is the wholesomest and most palatable of meat kind.” Later in the journal he describes killing great numbers of bison especially before his first winter in the mountains set in.

Deer (PG 2) – Killed nearly every day for a portion of the trip.

Bighorn Sheep (PG 4) – Noted killing bighorn sheep while putting up meat for the winter, and to use the hides in order to make moccasins.

Beaver Skins (PG 6) – During his first winter Zenas Leonard and a few comrades made a desperate attempt to reach Santa Fe in mid-winter. They set out from camp with few provisions and just a few beaver skins for trade. After a short time flogging about the mountains in incredible amounts of snow, the men were starving. He recorded they roasted and ate the beaver skins at this point in order to keep from starving to death. After killing a buffalo later, he notes in the journal the bull was killed after eating nothing but beaver skin for 9 days.

Black bear.
Most mention of bear comes once he made it to California. Image via Pixabay.

Bear (PG 9) – There are a few mentions of eating bear, but page 9 is the first reference. Later, once he got to California (PG 29), the party regularly killed and ate bear.

Beaver (PG 17) – During a strenuous trip across the Great Basin, Leonard mentions eating beaver. You would imagine this was common practice for mountain men.

Fish (PG 18) – Here Leonard mentions several specific fish species of trout and catfish. He also noted “others suitable for hook and line.” Again, Leonard mentions fishing on multiple occasions.

Rabbits (PG 23) – Also noted during his trek through the Great Basin.

Acorns (PG 28) – A welcomed meal after starving on the mountains. Later in the journal he would explain this is the principle food of the native people of the area. Folks who have read the story of Ishi no doubt remember this fact well.

Bread and cheese
While in California, Leonard got the chance to enjoy bread and cheese. Image via Pixabay.

Bread, Butter, and Cheese (PG 33) – When the party of mountain men reached the shores of the Pacific, in a stroke of good luck they met an American ship. After exchanging greetings the men were invited aboard the ship for a feast. In exchange for fresh meat, which the sailors were delighted to indulge in, the mountaineers enjoyed these three foods. Leonard notes it had been more than 2 years since he had eaten this sort of civilized food.

Flour, Corn, Beans, &c (PG 41) – Before embarking eastward back across the mountains and the desert, Capt. Joe Walker outfitted his men with these provisions to eat on the journey.

Beef (PG 43) – For the same reason as the above mentioned staples were purchased, a herd of cattle were brought along as portable provisions. Within a short time nearly all of these animals would be killed or die from the extremes of the desert.

Dog (PG 43) – Dogs were brought along for the same purpose as cattle. While moving across the desert it is recorded (PG 46); “The pitiful lamentations of our dogs were sufficient to melt the hardest heart.” Once again you can see that although dogs were used for food, it certainly wasn’t something the men enjoyed. It was simply about survival.

Blood (PG 47) – While in the desert Leonard noted that thirst was the major want of the men and that; “… it became so intense, that whenever one of our cattle or horses would die the men would immediately catch the blood and greedily swallow it down.” This particular desert crossing (from California back to the trapping grounds) also put Jed Smith and his men into similarly trying times.

Good Old Brandy (PG 48) – Sort of a humorous entry at this point. He notes the men enjoy a small portion of brandy, which they drank in a few minutes, “deeply regretting that we had not a small portion of what was that day destroyed by the millions of freemen in the states.”

As you can see, it wasn’t always pretty, but the men did what they needed to do in order to stay alive. The diet not only included an ample amount of wild food, but on occasion he enjoyed some staples of civilization as well. All in all these 27 foods can teach us a good deal about what life was like as a mountain man, and perhaps a good deal about what our diets should look like as well.

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I’d love to hear what you think about these mountain man foods, and Zenas Leonard in the comments section below.

Also, thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you like the content you may enjoy this article 28 Wild Foods Eaten by Mountain Man Rufus Sage.

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