Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Starving Times:

The Mountain Man survived by using a combination of his wits, skills and to a certain measure good luck.  Having enough to eat was anything but assured, and any man who spent considerable time in the mountains endured periods when insufficient food for extended periods of time might be normal. During starving times, anything and everything might be eaten, including horses, mules, badgers, polecats, insects, roots and bark, wolves, owls, moccasins, saddles, and even beaver skins.  Below are a few descriptions of starving times from the men who experienced them:

"August 20th [1834].— At about daylight this morning, having charge of the last guard of the night, I observed a beautiful, sleek little colt, of about four months old, trot into the camp, whinnying with great apparent pleasure, and dancing and curvetting gaily amongst our sober and sedate band. I had no doubt that he had strayed from Indians, who were probably in the neighborhood; but as here, every animal that comes near us is fair game, and as we were hungry, not having eaten any thing of consequence since yesterday morning, I thought the little stranger would make a good breakfast for us.  Concluding, however, that it would be best to act advisedly in the matter, I put my head into Captain W.'s  [Wyeth] tent, and telling him the news, made the proposition which had occurred to me.  The captain's reply was encouraging enough, — "Down with him, if you please, Mr. T., it is the Lord's doing; let us have him for breakfast."  In five minutes afterwards, a bullet sealed the fate of the unfortunate visitor, and my men were set to work making fires, and rummaging out the long-neglected stew-pans, while I engaged myself in flaying the little animal, and cutting up his body in readiness for the pots.  When the camp was aroused, about an hour after, the savory steam of the cookery was rising and saluting the nostrils of our hungry people with its fragrance, who, rubbing their hands with delight, sat themselves down upon the ground, waiting with what patience they might, for the unexpected repast which was preparing for them.

It was to me almost equal to a good breakfast, to witness the pleasure and satisfaction which I had been the means of diffusing through the camp. The repast was ready at length, and we did full justice to it; every man ate until he was filled, and all pronounced it one of the most delicious meals they had ever assisted in demolishing.  When our breakfast was concluded, but little of the colt remained; that little was, however, carefully packed up, and deposited on one of the horses, to furnish, at least, a portion of another meal."

Written by John Kirk Townsend in his journal while traveling through what would become western Idaho in the vicinity of the Boise River.


This place being entirely destitute of game we had to live chiefly upon roots for ten days.  On the 11th of April we swam the river with our horses and baggage and pushed our way thru. the snow accross the Valley to the foot of the mountain: here we found the ground bare and dry.  But we had to stay another night without supper.  About 4 oclk the next day the meat of two fat Grizzly Bear was brought into Camp.  Our Camp Kettles had not been greased for some time: as we were continually boiling thistle roots in them during the day”  Osborne Russell, 1835 (Reference).  


"In this plight Sublette found himself, and finally resolved to turn north, in the hope of coming upon some better and more hospitable country. The sufferings of the men now became terrible, both from hunger and thirst. In the effort to appease the former, everything was eaten that could be eaten, and many things at which the well-fed man would sicken with disgust.  "I have," says Joe Meek, " held my hands in an ant-hill until they were covered with the ants, then greedily licked them off.  I have taken the soles off my moccasins, crisped them in the fire, and eaten them.  In our extremity, the large black crickets which are found in this country were considered game. We used to take a kettle of hot water, catch the crickets and throw them in, and when they stopped kicking, eat them. That was not what we called cant tickup ko hanch, (good meat, my friend), but it kept us alive."

Joe Meek in Rivers of the West.


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