Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole


The equipment of the Mountain Man was by necessity rugged, durable and given the technology and materials of the times, generally heavy.  To move himself and his gear, the Mountain Man employed either pack horses, or various types of water-craft including keelboats, flat boats, pirogues, canoes or bull-boats.

Bonneville (Reference, page 336) in 1834 provides us with one description of a trappers outfit: “The outfit of a trapper is generally a rifle, a pound of powder, and four pounds of lead, with a bullet mould, seven traps, an axe, a hatchet, a knife, and awl, a camp kettle, two blankets, and, where supplies are plenty, seven pounds of flour.  He has, generally, two or three horses, to carry himself, and his baggage and peltries.”

Guns:  The gun was a mountain mans constant companion.  Many different types of firearms went to the western wilderness, including both percussion and flintlock rifles.  Smoothbore weapons were also common especially as a trade item because of their relative low cost and because they could also be used as a shot-gun for small game.  Smoothbores were especially popular amongst hunters because they could be reload on horseback while the horse was galloping (Here is a description of Buffalo hunting from horseback also known as "running" buffalo).

Knives were indispensable to living and surviving in the mountains.  A knife was so personal and intimate to the mountain man, that if lost or stolen, a very determined effort would be made to recover the knife, sometimes involving days of back-tracking, or even risking mortal combat to recover a stolen knife.  The knife was essential to the trapper, and valued no less by the Indian.  When the Indians, who had murdered Hugh Glass and his companions, joined Johnson Gardner and his party one evening around a campfire, Glass's knife was immediately recognized. Gardner's party seized the Indians, demanding to know how they came by Glass's property.

Flint and Steel:  The ability to start a fire at will could be the difference between a comfortable or miserable existence and even survival.  A fire-steel and flint was an important part of every Mountain Man’s possibles and became an item of prime importance in trade with the Indians.  During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the lightweight steel retailed for a cent or two, and was often given without charge to Indians as a token of good will.  A fort or post without a resident blacksmith to manufacture fire-steels would by necessity import this essential item. Huge quantities of fire-steels were shipped to the mountains for trade at the rendezvous.

Axes, Tomahawks and Hatchets: The axe has always been an important tool whether made of stone, bronze or iron.  The axe was indispensable to the security, comfort and general morale of every person, both white and Indian living on or beyond the frontier.

Lucifers (stick matches) were shipped up to the mountains at least as early as 1836 in extremely limited quantities, but probably more as a novelty item than as serious fire starting equipment.  

Traps;  Steel traps were an all important tool in the fur trade, especially for beaver and muskrat.  However, beaver could be taken without a trap, but a much greater level of effort was required.  Prior to the coming of white man and his steel traps, the Indians had devised numerous types of deadfalls, underwater pens, snares and devices for drowning.  Almost without exception, these devices were designed to quickly kill the beaver in a manner that would cause no breaks in the skin and no soaking of the fur with blood.  It is reported that in some places beaver were so abundant that they could be taken by clubbing.   

Six traps generally made up the complement for a trapper and his helper.  It usually took a full day to prepare the “sets”, to make the rounds of the traps, to skin the captured animals, and to flesh the pelts.  Under favorable conditions a skilled trapper could be certain of taking a beaver at each set. Under very favorable conditions, certain traps could be visited twice a day, thus improving the average of six pelts per day in favorable areas.

Needles and Awls:  The lifestyle of the Indian was dependent on utilizing natural materials such as rawhide, dressed skins, gut, bark and even thin panels of wood, rush or reed, all of which were assembled for use by sewing, lacing or binding with sinew or rawhide thongs. Prior to European contact, Indians used awls and needles constructed of bone, antler or wood.  Iron awls and needles used in Europe were brought by the fur traders to North America and were quickly seized upon by the Indians as a superior implement.  Awls and needles are listed on almost all inventories related to the fur trade.  Lewis and Clark, on their return trip, stopped with the Nez Perce at Camp Chopunnis.  The Nez Perce begged for iron awls, however, there were none remaining in the depleted expedition stocks at this point.  The expedition black smiths were put to work manufacturing awls from the links of a small chain attached to a trap.  In the early 1800’s the American Fur Company was paying approximately one cent each for “Indian Awls” which might then be sold in the mountains for two to five cents each.  Usually though, items such as this were given out freely as good-will offerings.    Awls were pointed on both ends.  One end of the awl was typically mounted in a wooden, bone or antler handle.  When one end of the awl broke off, the awl could be reversed in the handle.  French trade awls generally appear to be straight whereas English awls might be either straight or offset as shown to the above-right.  

Miscellaneous Iron Tools

Coming Soon

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