Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Pack Train Life - Guard Duty:

"When we arrive in the evening at a suitable spot for an encampment, Captain W. rides round a space which he considers large enough to accommodate it, and directs where each mess shall pitch its tent.  The men immediately unload their horses, and place their bales of goods in the direction indicated, and in such manner, as in case of need, to form a sort of fortification and defence.  When all the messes are arranged in this way, the camp forms a hollow square, in the centre of which the horses are placed and staked firmly to the ground.  The guard consists of from six to eight men, and is relieved three times each night, and so arranged that each gang may serve alternate nights.  The captain of a guard [who is generally also the captain of a mess] collects his people at the appointed hour, and posts them around outside the camp in such situations that they may command a view of the environs, and be ready to give the alarm in case of danger.  The captain cries the hour regularly by a watch, and all's well, every fifteen minutes, and each man of the guard is required to repeat this call in rotation, which if any one should fail to do, it is fair to conclude that he is asleep, and he is then immediately visited and stirred up.  In case of defection of this kind, our laws adjudge to the delinquent the hard sentence of walking three days. As yet none of our poor fellows have incurred this penalty, and the probability is, that it would not at this time be enforced, as we are yet in a country where little molestation is to be apprehended; but in the course of another week's travel, when thieving and ill-designing Indians will be outlying on our trail, it will be necessary that the strictest watch be kept, and, for the preservation of our persons and property, that our laws shall be rigidly enforced."   

John Kirk Townsend recorded the above description in his Journal on April 29, while traveling with Nathaniel Wyeth's pack train to the 1834 Rendezvous.  


"About a week after we had been under march the guard was established, and I was appointed an officer.  It became the duty of the officer every third day to post his men around the camp, as soon as all the animals were brought in and picketed in the circle of the camp; those men were to remain quite still at their stations; the officer was to cry out "All's well" every 20 minutes, and the men to cry out the same, so as to find out whether they were asleep or awake.  Should any one fail to reply, it was then the duty of the officer to go the rounds to find out the individual, and if caught asleep to take his gun to the boss' tent; then in the morning he would be informed of what he had to undergo, which was a $5 fine and three walks.  The men on guard were not permitted to move from their stations, as it was considered dangerous on account of Indians being known to creep up to camp and watch to shoot someone whom they could discover strolling about; so the officer was more in danger than his men.  The usual time of guard was 2 1/2 hours. Having traveled all day, being obliged to remain quiet at one's post was very trying on the sleeping organs, and consequently there would be some poor fellow trudging along on foot almost every day."

Written by Charles Larpenteur in mid May 1833 after being on the trail for about a week 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.  


See also Joe Meek’s story about standing guard duty.


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