Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole


For entertainment, the Mountain Men likely amused themselves with a variety of card games, dice, board games, reading, music, storytelling and games of physical skill and strength.  Of course, when alcohol was available, drinking was one of the favorite forms of entertainment.


Card Games:  Decks of cards were amongst the trade goods shipped to the mountains from St. Louis.  Games played by the Mountain Men likely included:

Whist; also known as Whisk.  This game is the ancestor of the modern game of Bridge.  Whist is a four handed game played with a standard deck of 52 cards. Unlike Bridge there is no bidding, and no exposed dummy hand on the table.

Vingt-et-Un, known today as twenty-one or blackjack, is a very ancient game and was certainly being played in the eighteen hundreds.

Loo, also known as lanterloo.  This was a high stakes game with five and three card variations.  It was suitable for any number of players but seems to work best for five to seven players.  Players who take tricks split the pool (bet) according to the number of tricks.  Players who take no tricks are looed and must make up the pool for the next hand.  

Fan-Tan is suitable for any number of players and the entire deck is dealt out. The object of the game is to play out one’s cards according to a set of rules. The player who first playsout all of his cards wins the pot.   

Draw Poker and Poker variations.  No explanation is needed for Poker.  This game may have origins that go back as far as ancient Persia.  Soldiers at Fort Pierre in 1855 attempted to teach the Indians Poker.  Due to cultural differences these attempts went badly astray.  The Indians greatly admired the Jacks, dubbing them "Chiefs" giving them place value over the Kings.  They also took a stand that any card, even the two could beat a Queen, who was a mere squaw.  The soldiers found it necessary to invent a simpler game which eliminated the face cards and their disturbing pictures (Athearn, 1967)  

Faro was an extremely popular gambling game from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries.   Many travelers on the Santa Fe Trail mention Faro along with fandangos when they reached Santa Fe or Taos.  

Spanish Monte is a Faro like gambling game but could be played more simply. The game requires a dealer or banker.  Cards are dealt out, and bets are made as to whether a card in the hand will match those turned up in the remaining deck. Monte was a favorite game for gambling in Santa Fé and Taos

Cribbage is a fast scoring game involving cards, a board and markers.  The game is played today as it was in the seventeenth century.  


Reading was one of many past-times during the long winters.  Osborne Russell writes in his journal (reference) that in the winter of 1839-1840 spent at Fort Hall “We had some few Books to read such as Byron's Shakespeares and Scott's works on the Bible and other small works on Geology, Chemistry and Philosophy”. Apparently Dr. John McLoughlin, Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company at the Vancouver Post, circulated books among his traders at the more isolated posts such as Fort Hall and that even non-company men such as Osborne Russell could access these “Libraries” and check out books.


Dice Games were undoubtedly a favorite amongst Mountain Men.  Dice could be made from ivory, wood, bone, antler and even lead balls which had been pounded square.  These games may have included:

Hazard, a popular dice game from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, this game is the forerunner of the modern game of craps.

Dominoes is a very old game which probably evolved from dice.  Each tile has marked on it one of twenty-one possible combinations that can be thrown with two dice.  The object of the game is to play out all of one’s tiles according to a set of rules before any of the other players.

Sweat-Cloth, also known as Sweat, Chuck-a-luck or Bird Cage.  The game requires a banker, and is played with three die.   


Board Games may have included familiar games such as Chess, Draughts (Checkers) and Tables (Backgammon).  Lewis Garrard (reference) reports in his journal that he spent long hours playing Backgammon with "Blackfoot" John Smith when trading was slow while the two men were out with a Cheyenne Indian village.  


Storytelling was a favorite pastime of the Mountain Men.  In his journal, Osborne Russell tells us “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 humor 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.”



Jaw Harp (also known as a Jews Harp), a  pocket sized musical instrument, has been around since the middle ages.  The remains of Jaw Harps are found at historical sites throughout North America, and were apparently popular among both Indians and Fur Trader/Trappers.  The instrument is played by touching the instrument to the teeth, and then vibrating a spring.  Tone is varied by changing the shape of the mouth behind the instrument while the spring vibrates.


Games of Physical Skill or Strength were frequent favorites at Rendezvous, where horse-racing, running, jumping, target shooting, knife and tomahawk throwing, fighting and wrestling matches produced a virtual impromptu wilderness Olympics. Physical games were not only played at rendezvous. Osborne Russell records in his journal that for a week or so in early March 1837, while waiting for the spring hunt to begin “We remained here amusing ourselves with playing ball, hoping [hopping?], wrestling, running foot races, etc until the 14th of March.”

Whiskey Cups:  This was a game of skill played amongst three friends, Mike Fink, Will Carpenter and Frank Talbeau.  I have not found any documentation that would suggest that this game was played by any others.  At a distance reported as seventy paces (approximately 200 feet) one of the friends would place a cup full of whiskey upon his head and one of the others would shoot it off with his rifle.  Late in the winter of 1822-1823 Fink and Carpenter fell to quarreling over the attentions of an Indian maiden.  Fink challenged Carpenter to their favorite sport. Carpenter, sensing Fink’s intentions, told Talbeau that should the worst occur, he was to have Carpenter’s possessions.  Carpenter stepped forward with the whiskey cup, and Fink paced off the distance.  Fink raised his rifle, took aim and fired.  The ball smashed into the center of Carpenter’s forehead.   Fink is said to have chided “Carpenter, you have spilled the whiskey.”  In one of the versions of this story, Talbeau is reported to have been so enraged that he drew his pistol and shot Fink in the heart.   

Mumblety-Peg is a simple stick-the-knife-in-the-ground game.  The challenge comes from the various ways the knife must be held or manipulated in the throws to stick it.  Any number of variations are possible, and there is no official version.  The game gets its name from the penalty imposed on the loser.  The winner drives a wooden peg into the ground as far as he can with three blows of his knife, and each loser must “mumble” it, or pull it out with his teeth.  

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