Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Pack Train Life - Food:

Between the settlements and buffalo country it was necessary for the men in the pack train to bring along their own provisions because there wasn't enough wild game in this country to supply such large groups of men.  


"Our fare consisted of bacon and hard-tack — no sugar nor coffee — for three or four days, after which we each received a small piece of sheep meat, as we had a drove to last us until we got into the buffalo. While the sheep lasted we had but that alone."


"I complained, as my messmates did, of the sheep meat, but they consoled me as well as themselves by speaking of the fine feast we soon would have on the buffalo, which they said they would prefer to all the good messes that could be gotten up in the States.  Three days after we had reached the Platte the hunters brought in one evening a load of meat; but the cry of "buffalo meat!" was heard long before they came in, and there was great rejoicement in camp.  Sheep meat could be had very cheap that evening, and it was amusing to see the cooks hunting their kettles — some cursing them for being too small, as though it was the poor kettle's fault for its size; but it was not long before they found the kettles were large enough.  Then came trouble — there was no wood to be found about camp, and all the fuel we could obtain was the stalks of some large dried weeds, the wild sunflower. Now and then some hungry fellow would bring in a small armful of that kind of fuel, and his first words would be, "Is the kettle boiling?"  Upon being answered in the negative a long string of bad expressions would be heard, the mildest being, " Waugh!  I believe that damned kettle won't never boil!" Thanks to the virtue of sunflower stalks, however, it boiled at last, and every countenance became pleasant at the thought of tasting that much-talked-of buffalo meat. When it was thought cooked by the old voyageurs, preparations were made to dish it out; but, as we had no pans, a clean place was looked for on the grass, and the contents of the kettle were poured out. All hands seated around the pile hauled out their long butcher knives, opened their little sacks of salt, and then began operations. But it was not long before bad expressions were again used in regard to the highly praised quality of buffalo meat. "I can't chew it" — "Tougher'n whalebone" — "If that's the stuff we've got to live on for eighteen months, God have mercy on us!"  For my part I thought about the same, but said nothing; and after I had chewed as long as I could without being able to get it in swallowing condition, I would seize an opportunity to spit it into my hand, and throw it out unseen behind me. My comrades asked me how I liked buffalo meat; I replied I thought it might be some better than it was, and they said, "Never mind, Larpenteur; wait until we get among the fat cows —then you will see the difference."  At this time of the year, in the early part of June, the cows are not fit to kill; for they have their young calves, and are very poor. For several days after this sheep meat would have kept up its price, and perhaps would have risen in value; but none was allowed to come into market, what little there was being reserved for the boss' mess. So we had to go it on buffalo alone; but, thank Providence! we soon got into fine fat cows, and fared well. My comrades had told me that we should now get a sickness called by them le mal de vache; it is a dysentery caused by eating too much fat meat alone, and some are known to have died of it.  So it was not long after we fared so well on the fat of the land that very bad expressions were used in reference to living on meat alone."

Written mid-May, 1833 by Charles Larpenteur in Forty Years a Fur Trader.  At this time Larpentuer was a young man going on his first trip up to the mountains as a hired hand with the pack train Sublette and Campbell were taking to supply the Rocky Mountain Fur Company at the Rendezvous of 1833.     

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