Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Bull Boat:

The Bull Boat was one of the most primitive water craft used on western and plains rivers where timber was scarce or unsuitable.   A round framework of withes was constructed, ranging from about 4 feet up to 7 feet in diameter with a depth of about 15 inches to two feet..  The gunwale and lower hoop are both circular.  They are made of willow and are covered in animal hide, generally wet buffalo skin, hair side in. The hide was pitched with a mixture of tallow and ashes-an operation which had to be repeated daily.  The tail is left on so that the tails of two craft could be tied together when one was used to tow the other.  

A water-logged Bull Boat was prone to leaking, so that it was customary to prop the boat at night like a tent to dry, or even take it up alongside the camp fire.  The Bull Boat was propelled by paddles of wood, or buffalo shoulder blade, if no suitable wood was handy.  Bull boats served the mountain man primarily as an emergency means of transportation, especially if the horses had been lost or stolen, particularly in the down river direction. If several were built, they could be tied together, the second boat carrying a limited weight in furs and/or equipment and supplies.  Elongate craft, constructed of multiple buffalo hides could transport multiple men and equipment.  This awkward, ungainly craft could carry a cargo of as much as a third of a ton or more, and sometimes they performed voyages of thousands of miles, not infrequently appearing in St. Louis after floating down from the Rocky Mountains. 

For more information on Bull Boats see the following reference:

The Keelboat Age on Western Waters, by Leland D Baldwin, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1941.  

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