Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Winter Camp:

Winter for the Mountain Men tended to be a time for relaxation.  The beaver ponds were iced over and inaccessible, travel was difficult and dangerous, and game was often scarce.  The fur brigades that wintered over in the mountains tended to "Hole-up" at some favorable location chosen for plentiful game, firewood, easy access to water, and with plenty of fodder for the livestock.  During the winter months, the men would spend time reading, hunting for recreation as well as food, repairing their equipment, telling stories, chatting, debating, and even educating each other.  


Warren Ferris records the following (Life in The Rocky Mountains) regarding their Winter Encampment 1834-35 while in the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company:  "The season having become far advanced, we pitched quarters in a large grove of aspen trees, at the brink of an excellent spring that supplied us with the purest water, and resolved to pass the winter here.  Our hunters made daily excursions in the mountains, by which we were half surrounded, and always returned with the flesh of several black tail deer; an animal almost as numerous as the pines and cedars among which they were found.  They frequently killed seven or eight individually, in the course of a day; and consequently our encampment, or at least the trees within it, were soon decorated with several thousand pounds of venison.  We passed the time by visiting, feasting, and chatting with each other, or by hunting occasionally, for exercise and amusement.  Our camp presented eight leathern lodges, and two constructed of poles covered with cane grass, which grows in dense patches to the height of eight or ten feet, along the river.  They were all completely sheltered from the wind by the surrounding trees.  Within, the bottoms [of the lodges] were covered with reeds, upon which our blankets and robes were spread, leaving a small place in the centre for the fire.  Our baggage was placed around at the bottom of the lodge, on the inside, to exclude the cold from beneath it, and each one of the inmates had his own particular place assigned him.  One who has never lived in a lodge, would scarcely think it possible for seven or eight persons to pass a long winter agreeably, in a circular room, ten feet in diameter, having a considerable portion of it occupied by the fire in the centre; but could they see us seated around the fire, cross legged like Turks, upon our beds, each one employed in cleaning guns, repairing moccasins, smoking, and lolling at ease on our elbows, without interfering with each other, they would exclaim,  Indeed they are as comfortable as they could wish to be! Which is the case in reality.  I moved from a lodge into a comfortable log house, but again returned to the lodge, which I found much more pleasant than the other.  These convenient and portable dwellings, are partially transparent, and when closed at the wings above, which answers the double purpose of windows and chimneys, still admit sufficient light, to read the smallest print without inconvenience.  At night a good fire of dry aspen wood, which burns clear without smoke, affording a brilliant light, obviates the necessity of using candles.  Our little village numbers twenty-two men, nine women and twenty children; and a different language is spoken in every lodge, the women being of different nations, and the children invariably learn their mothers tongue before any other.  There were ten distinct dialects spoken in our camp, each of which was the native idiom of one or more of us, though French was the language predominant among the men, and Flatt-head among the women; yet there were both males and females, who understood neither. One would imagine that where such a multiplicity of tongues are spoken, a confusion, little short of that of Babel, would naturally ensue.  However, it is not the case.  Men who find it difficult to convey their ideas to each other, through ignorance of their opposing dialect, readily make themselves understood by avoiding difficult or abstract expressions, and accompanying their simple speech with explanatory gestures."


Osborne Russell describes (Journal of a Trapper) a winter encampment while during the winter of 1836-37 while part of a fur brigade led by Jim Bridger:  "11th [November] The weather commenced cold the streams froze over again and we started for Camp which we found on Clarks fork about a mile above "Howells encampment" The Camp stopped at this place until Christmas then moved down about 4 Mls onto the Yellowstone. The bottoms along these rivers are heavily timbered with sweet cottonwood and our horses and mules are very fond of the bark which we strip from the limbs and give them every night as the Buffaloe have entirely destroyed the grass throughout this part of the country We passed away the time very agreeably our only employment being to feed our horses kill Buffaloe and eat that is to say the The camp keepers' business in winter quarters is to guard the horses cook and keep fires. We all had snug lodges made of dressed Buffaloe skins in the center of which we built a fire and generally comprised about six men to the lodge The long winter evenings were passed away by collecting in some of the most spacious lodges and entering into debates arguments or spinning long yarns until midnight in perfect good humour and I for one will cheerfully confess that I have derived no little benefit from the frequent arguments and debates held in what we termed The Rocky Mountain College and I doubt not but some of my comrades who considered themselves Classical Scholars have had some little added to their wisdom in these assemblies however rude they might appear."

While in this winter encampment, in February 1837, the brigade first skirmished with small parties of Blackfoot Indians and by luck avoided a major confrontation with a very large war party of Blackfeet.  This winter adventure is described in biography of Marcelino Baca.  The fur brigade must have inadvertently set up their winter encampment fairly near the winter location of a large Blackfoot Indian village, because warring during the winter was unusual.

Russell also records an encampment and activities near Fort Hall during the winter of 1839-40.  "20th of Octr. we started to hunt Buffaloe and make meat for the winter. The party consisted of 15 men. We travelled to the head of the Jefferson fork of the Missouri where we Killed and dried our meat from there we proceeded over the mountain thro. "Cammas prarie" to the forks of Snake river where most of the party concluded to spend the winter 4 of us however (who were the only Americans in the party) returned to Fort Hall on the 10th of Decr. We encamped near the Fort and turned our horses among the springs and timber to hunt their living during the winter whilst ourselves were snugly arranged in our Skin lodge which was pitched among the large Cotton wood trees and in it provisions to serve us till the Month of April. There were 4 of us in the mess One was from Missouri one from Mass. one from Vermont and myself from Maine We passed an agreeable winter We had nothing to do but to eat attend to the horses and procure fire wood We had some few Books to read such as Byrons Shakespeares and Scotts works the Bible and Clarks Commentary on it and other small works on Geology Chemistry and Philosophy."

Although Russell doesn't state this, many of the books were loaned to the men from a small library at Fort Hall.  By this time Nathaniel Wyeth had sold Fort Hall to the Hudson's Bay Company.  


Rufus Sage described a hunter's Winter Camp (Rocky Mountain Life) circa 1842 as follows:  "The winter-camp of a hunter of the Rocky Mountains would doubtless prove an object of interest to the unsophisticated.  It is usually located in some spot sheltered by hills or rocks, for the double purpose of securing the full warmth of the sun's rays, and screening it from the notice of strolling Indians that may happen in its vicinity.  Within a convenient proximity to it stands some grove, from which an abundance of dry fuel is procurable when needed; and equally close, the ripplings of a watercourse salute the ear with their music.  

His shantee faces a huge fire, and is formed of skins carefully extended over an arched frame-work of slender poles, which are bent in the form of a semicircle and kept to their places by inserting their extremities in the ground.  Near this is his "graining block," planted aslope, for the ease of the operative in preparing his skins for the finishing process in the art of dressing; and not far removed is a stout frame, contrived from four pieces of timber, so tied together as to leave a square of sufficient  dimensions for the required purpose, in which, perchance, a skin is stretched to its fullest extension, and the hardy mountaineer is busily engaged in rubbing it with a rough stone or "scraper," to fit it for the manufacture of clothing.

Facing his shantee upon the opposite side of the fire, a pole is reared upon crotches five or six feet high, across which reposes a choice selection of the dainties of his range, to wit: the "side ribs," shoulders, heads and "rump-cuts" of deer and sheep, or the "dèpouille" and "fleeces" of buffalo.  The camp-fire finds busy employ in fitting for the demands of appetite such dainty bits of hissing roasts as en appolas may grace its sides.

Carefully hung in some fitting place, are seen his "riding" and "pack saddles,"  with his halters, "cavraces," "larrietts," "apishamores," and all the needed material for camp and traveling service; and, adjoining him at no great distance, his animals are allowed to graze, or, if suitable nourishment of other kind be lacking, are fed from the bark of cottonwood trees levelled for that purpose; and, leaning close at hand, his rifle awaits his use, and by it his powder-horn, bullet-pouch and tomahawk."  

Bonneville (Reference page 350) provides a brief description of procuring supplies and shelter from the Shoshoni Indians: “He now remained several days encamped near the caches, and having discovered a small band of Shoshonies in his neighborhood, purchased from them lodges, furs, and other articles of winter comfort, and arranged with them to encamp together during the winter.”  

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