Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Pack Train Life & Routines: 

Frederick Wislizenus was a German Doctor who traveled one year in the wilderness West as a tourist.  He arrived in Westport, Missouri in mid-April, 1839 intending to accompany the pack train to the Rendezvous to be held at Green River that year.  While in Westport he purchased a horse to ride and a mule for his baggage.  Here is his description of life and routine in the pack train as reported in his book:

On May 4th the different parties who were to join the expedition met for their first night camp at Sapling Grove, about eight miles from West Port….  My first day’s journey began under evil auspices, for I had not yet learned to pack my mule.  The usual way of doing it is this: The baggage is divided into two equal parts, each part firmly bound up, and hung by loops on either side of the yoke-shaped pack saddle.  The whole is further fastened by the

was small.  It consisted of only twenty-seven persons. Nine of them were in the service of the Fur Company of St. Louis (Chouteau, Pratte & Co.), and were to bring the merchandise to the yearly rendezvous on the Green River. Their leader was Mr. Harris [Moses “Black” Harris], a mountaineer without special education, but with five sound senses, that he well knew how to use.  All the rest joined the expedition as individuals.….  The Fur Company transported its goods on two-wheeled carts, of which there were four, each drawn by two mules, and loaded with 800 to 900 pounds.  The rest put their packs on mules or horses, of which there were fifty to sixty in the caravan. Our first camp, Sapling Grove, was in a little hickory wood, with fresh spring water.  Our animals we turned loose to graze in the vicinity.  To prevent them from straying far, either the two fore feet, or the fore foot and hind foot of one side are bound together with so-called “hobbles.”  In order that they may easily be caught, they drag a long rope of buffalo leather (trail-rope).  At night stakes (pickets) are driven into the earth at some distance from each other, and the animals are fastened to them by ropes.  After we had attended to our animals, and had eaten our supper, we sprawled around a fire, and whiled away the evening with chatting and smoking; then wrapped ourselves in our woolen blankets, -the only bed one takes with one-and slept for the first time under our little tents, of which we had seven.  At dawn, the leader rouses the camp with an inharmonious: “Get up! Get up! Get up!” Every one rises.  The first care is for the animals. They are loosed from their pickets and allowed an hour for grazing. Meanwhile we prepare our breakfast, strike our tents, and prepare for the start.  The animals are driven in again, packed and saddled.…..  We proceed at a moderate pace, in front the leader with his carts, behind him in line long drawn out the mingled riders and pack animals.  In the early days of the journey we are apt to lead the pack animals by rope; later on, we leave them free, and drive them before us.  At first packing causes novices much trouble on the way.  Here the towering pack leans to one side; there it topples under the animal’s belly.  At one time the beast stands stock still with its swaying load; at another it rushes madly off, kicking out till it is free of its burden.  But pauseless, like an army over its fallen, the train moves on.  With bottled-up wrath the older men, with raging and swearing the younger ones, gather up their belongings, load the beasts afresh, and trot after the column.  Toward  noon a rest of an hour or two is made if a suitable camp can be found, the chief requisites being fresh water, good grass, and sufficient wood.  We unload the beasts to let them graze, and prepare a mid-day meal.  Then we start off again, and march on till toward sunset.  We set up the tents, prepare our meal, lie around the fire, and then wrapped in our woolen blankets, commit ourselves to our fate till the next morning.  In this way twenty to twenty-five miles are covered daily.  The only food the animals get is grass.  For ourselves, we take with us for the first week some provisions, such as ham, ship-biscuit, tea and coffee.  Afterwards, we depend on hunting.  Such are the daily doings of the caravan.”
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The mules and horses usually needed to be broken to the harness or pack saddle at the beginning of every trip.  Below Lewis Garrard describes one way of breaking mules for the wagons prior to setting out on the Santa Fe Trail in 1846 (Reference).

"The way the mules were broken to wagon harness would have astonished the “full-blooded” animals of Kentucky and other horse-raising states exceedingly.  It is a treatment none but hardy Mexican or scrub mules could survive.  They first had to be lassoed by our expert Mexican, Blas, their heads drawn up to a wagon wheel, with scarce two inches of spare rope to relax the tight noose on their necks, and starved for twenty-four hours to subdue their fiery tempers; then harnessed to a heavy wagon, lashed unmercifully when they did not pull, whipped still harder when they ran into still faster speed, until, after an hour’s bewilderment, and plunging, and kicking, they become tractable and broken-down-a labor-saving operation, with the unflinching motto of “kill or cure.”

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My two pack mules were very gentle, but would kick off their packs sometimes. My two loads consisted of beaver traps and a small top pack — a choice load, not likely to turn over like dry goods. As I was a green hand my mates assisted me a great deal, and I was always thankful to them for it."


"Now hard times commenced. At first the mules kicking off packs and running away was amusing for those who were all right, but mighty disagreeable for the poor fellows who were out of luck. I had my share of this, but it was not to be compared with the troubles of some of my comrades. This kind of kicking up lasted three or four days in full blast; it finally subsided, yet there would be a runaway almost every day."

Written in early to mid May 1833 by Charles Larpenteur in Forty Years a Fur Trader.  The pack train had just set out from the settlements, and the mules and horses were still untrained to the pack saddles.  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.  The image below is a sketch by Alfred Jacob Miller based on his trip to the Rendezvous of 1837.

so-called “lash rope,”of stout buffalo leather, which is first wound around the barrel of the animal, and then in diamond shaped turns as firmly as possible around the pack.  My baggage weighed 150 to 200 pounds, a quite ordinary load for a mule; but I had not divided the burden properly, so that I had to repack repeatedly on the road.  It was well toward evening when I reached the camp, where the others already had arrived.  Our caravan