Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Cleanliness and Sanitation:

Bathing and Cleaning Clothes: 

Mary Francis Victor while interviewing Joe Meek and was asking him questions about his clothing:  " You do not need a laundress, then ? But with such clothing how could you keep free of vermin ? "  Meek responded: "We didn't always do that.  Do you want to know how we got rid of lice in the mountains?  We just took off our clothes and laid them on an ant-hill, and you ought to see how the ants would carry off the lice! " from  River of the West.

During the late winter and spring of 1847 Lewis Garrard (Reference) and some of his messmates went for an extended period without washing or bathing.  Here is what Garrard has to say:  "The company’s mules were not in good flesh; so I lent Hatcher mine, to make the trip to Bent’s Fort, one hundred and eighty miles distant.  I commissioned him to get me three shirts, for my single one had been on my back nearly long enough.  I have read that the Turkish ladies never apply water to their faces, for it tarnishes, in their estimation, the brilliancy of the complexion: somehow, it so happened, that myself and several others, had not washed our faces, combed our Medusa-looking hair, or changed hickory shirts, since leaving Bent’s Fort – forty-one or two days.  Whether our complexions were improved or not, by the banishment of water, is not to be said; the beef grease and sand certainly excluded the browning effects of the wind.  We concluded to take the “von gran swim” in the creek; the beneficial effect of the hydropathic treatment was quite visible.  Pulling off our shirts, and dipping them in the running stream, the objections were, in some degree, removed; with  a double twist, they were wrung, and hung on bushes to dry, while we poor “sans culottes,” kept in the warm sun."   

Also from Lewis Gerrard while he was in the Cheyenne Indian village in 1846:

"One great drawback to the pleasures of an Indian village is, that the inhabitants are troubled with a persecuting little animal - a roamer through the unbroken forests of hair on children's heads - now ascending the mountain of self-esteem, or reposing in the secluded vales around about combativeness.  These creatures (the bugs), here, are white, and nearly the size of wheat grains.  They do not confine their penetrating researches to the caput alone, but traverse the immense surface of the whole body.  By being in the same lodge with les sauvages continually, it was impossible to keep clear of the insects.  Of course we came in for our share; but Buchanan, who wore a flannel shirt, was doubly visited.

We were sitting, one day, by the fire, with uncombed hair and unwashed faces (in mood,  physical and mental, to feel unpleasant), when Buck, who suspicioned not the true cause of his torment, said: 'I feel something biting, and darned bad, too; let's go and examine.  I don't know what's the matter!'

'Biting you!' ejaculated Smith [Blackfoot John Smith], 'There's nothing so mighty queer in that when you're in the village, and' added he laughingly, 'when that shirt and forfarraw of your'n comes off-Waugh!'

The sun shone out warm, and we went to the river and undressed on a clean sand deposit, hid from the view of the village by intervening weeds; uninterrupted, save by an occasional squaw on an errand for water, with her bright brass kettle. ....  When Buck pulled off his flannel he uttered an exclamation, coupled with an oath; which, to express on paper, with the proper force, would require more italicization and more exclamation points than could be given.  From the collar seams of his shirt, to those parallel to the body, the interstices were lined with ovae, the germs of future tormentors, appearing as so many miniature pearls, reposing in the rich setting of red flannel.  My clothing was alike infested.  As we passed the sentence of death, , 'Sampson and his jawbone' were brought to mind; but, according to my facetious companero, the aforesaid 'jawbone' was totally eclipsed by his thumbnails.  What he said on this occasion need not be written.  A swim in the icy element ensued, and dressing, we felt much better than before."   


Cleaning Cooking and Eating Utinsels:

"Since our Negro cook Alfred suffers from a severe rheumatic disease, we now have a filthy attendant and cook named Boileau who wears a fur cap, sits down among us and handles the cups and plates with his disgusting fists after cleaning his nose according to the manner of our peasants.  This is also exactly the manner of the clerk of the fort..."  Prince Maximilian March 11, 1834 while at Fort Clark (reference). 

"...When breakfast was served by the wife of Mr. Broken Arm, the great chief of the Crees, who had been to Washington, Pitcher would not partake. "What is the matter, Pitcher," said I, "are you sick? Why not have some of this good fat buffalo meat?"  "Not much the matter," he replied; "I will tell after a while" — fearing perhaps that the story he had to tell would not agree with my digestive organs.  Some time after that, when the things were removed, dishes washed up, and the cook had gone out, my Pitcher poured out his story.  "Mr. Larpenteur," he said, "if you please, after this I will do our cooking."  "Why so," said  I.  "Why, sir, because that enfant de garce — that old squaw is too dirty.  Sacré! She scrape the cloths of that baby of hers with her knife, give it a wipe, cut up the meat with it, and throw into the kettle. This morning I see same old crust on the knife — that what the matter — too much for me."  From Charles Larpenteur, Forty Years a Fur Trader.:

"Their culinary vessels are seldom washed or cleaned. The dog's tongue is the only dish-cloth known."  Alexander Ross in 1810 describing practices amongst the Chinook Indians.  (Reference)



"The little boy [son of James Kip] has a gap in his trouser, both in the front and in back, so that he may relieve himself quickly and without formality on the floor of the room, which happened frequently during meals.  The indolence and indifference of this otherwise commendable man [Kipp] goes so far that he eases himself near the fort in full sight of passersby, having neglected to build an outhouse for this purpose."  Prince Maximilian March 11, 1834 while at Fort Clark (reference). 

There was no means for disposing of human and animal wastes.  Thus conditions at rendezvous or an extended camp where there were large numbers of men and horses, would become odorous and hazardous for walking about.  The typical practice for remedying this was to change camp locations. 

"Our camp became old and dirty, and we moved further up the stream, where, in a grove of blighted cottonwoods, we once more settled down. McCarty’s camp was a few steps distant."  (Lewis Garrard 1847 Reference


Lemuel Ford writes on June 14th, 1835: “we moved our camp about three or four hundred yards on account of grass & polute”  (Lemuel Ford, Reference page 48.)


“Near this lake Mr. Hubbard found the nest of a ruffed grouse containing five eggs.  These our cook used in making our galette, thereby giving us quite a treat. This galette is the only form of bread used on a voyage, that is, when voyageurs are so fortunate as to have any flour at all.  It is made of a very simple style:-the flour bag is opened, and a small hollow made in the flour, into which a little water is poured, and the dough is thus mixed in the bag; nothing is added, except, perhaps some dirt from the cook’s unwashed hands, with which he kneads it into flat cakes, which are baked before the fire in a frying pan or cooked in grease.... There is no denying that voyageurs are not apt to be very cleanly, either in their persons or in their cooking.”  From observations of Robert Kennicott as published in Nute.


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