Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Cold Weather Sleeping:

Rudolf Freiderich Kurz, in his journal, describes how the men would stay warm on cold nights.  "We spread our apischimos on the ground out on the open prairie and covered ourselves with riding cloaks and buffalo robes.... We called to our dogs to lie on top of us, as usual, for the purposes of keeping guard and also of imparting warmth.  But those canines were every instant scenting nearby wolves, bounding off with great outcry to fight the beasts or drive them away, then lying down on top of us again, scratching themselves and contesting one another's places.  Under such restless, disquieting conditions, especially in our overexcited state, we were unable to sleep at all."  


Charles Larpenteur in Forty Years a Fur Trader describes using a kind of snow shelter or snow cave (January 1840).  "The mules were soon harnessed up, and into the hard storm we started, with but one Indian, who was my guide.  It was an awful day; we could see no distance in any direction, floundered in deep snowdrifts, and knew not where to go for timber.  But our guide was a good one, who brought us to a small cluster of scrubby elms. The snow had drifted so deep that we could find no dry wood and had to go to bed without a fire. We made ourselves as comfortable as we could by digging holes in the snow for shelter."


During cold times it was not at all unusual for the men to share robes, and blankets to conserve body heat (spooning).  Lewis Gerrard describes how he and Drinker (two greenhorns) learned the practice from the experienced men in 1846 (Reference): 

"We awoke on the morning of the 16th [October] with a Norther penetrating our blankets.  The river Arkansas, almost dry, and on whose north bank we were encamped, was covered with floating particles of thin ice.  Drinker had but two blankets, and on awakening we found him lying near the remains of the bois de vache fire, the light ashes of which, on his clothing, gave the appearance of snow.  We wore extra clothing during the morning’s ride, and Drinker looked bad from the effects of last night’s wakefulness.  We rode in silence for a time, somewhat in advance of the party, in vain attempts to encourage conversation.  At length, after a long pause, he said, “St. Vrain and Folger sleep together;  Chad and Bransford do too.  Hadn’t we better?”  I acquiesced with pleasure.  With saddles and over coats, we had good pillows-the other clothing remained on us. Wherever camp was made, a place was selected by each couple for sleeping before dismounting (mountaineer custom); and, ere dark, the pallet of robes was always spread.  We huddled around the miserable “cow wood” fires, chilled by the cold winds."


Frederick Ayer in an article  published in the Oberlin Evangelist in 1843 (reference) describes overnighting while traveling with dog sleds:  

“We generally stopped for the night about sundown.  In the winter, it is of the first importance, to find a place for encamping where there is the best fuel for a fire.  The second item of encampment, is the balsam tree, the branches of which are generally used for the foundation of a bed.    On stopping for the night, the collars are stripped from the necks of the dogs-one man plies the axe in chopping wood for the night, cutting it from eight to ten feet long; another carries it on his shoulders to the camp; another, if there is a third, with a snow shoe, clears away the snow for a place for a bed and a fire, and a sufficient distance around for the baggage and dogs.  We then break off the twigs of the balsam to prepare for a bed: or if these cannot be obtained, we search for dry grass or rushes.  Sometimes pine boughs, and even little bushes a half inch in diameter are used, when nothing better can be obtained.   When the foundation of our bed is laid, a fire is kindled, and one hangs on a kettle of snow or water for cooking our supper.  We now gather before a cheerful fire, pull off our leggings and moccasons, and hang them by the fire to dry, putting on dry socks and moccasons.  The cook urges forward the supper, which when ready is eaten with a keen relish.  

Supper ended, and dogs fed, preparations are made for lying down.  Having spread our skins and blankets upon our foundation of boughs, with a bag of rice or meal, or our folded coats for a pillow, we  sing a hymn, unite in prayer, and lie down, all in one bed, with all our clothes on except our coats; and even them, and caps and mittens too, sometimes.  We lie at right angles with the fire, and put our feet as near it as we can and not burn them.  When the weather is very cold, we are obliged to get up two or three times during the night, and renew our fire.  When the wind blows cold we stick up bushes, or branches of the balsam, to break off the force of it. Traveling under the circumstances we do, it is impossible to carry bedding enough to make us comfortable in extreme cold weather-we consequently occasionally suffer much during the night.”


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