Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole


Funerals and burials were more often informal and done as quickly as possible and with a minimum of effort.  Sometimes the body would be tossed in a river, but more often a shallow grave was dug using the tools at hand, sometimes only butcher knives.  If any extra effort was taken, it was to bury tree limbs or rocks with the body to prevent (or at least make it more difficult) the wolves from disinterring the bodies.  Indians would sometimes also disinter bodies to steal blankets or items of clothing.  Below are given some examples of wilderness and trail funerals and burials. 

Funerals along the Santa Fe Trail in the early 1840's are described by Josiah Gregg (Reference) "These funerals are usually performed in a very summary manner.  A grave is dug in a convenient spot and the corpse, with no other shroud than its own clothes, and only a blanket for a coffin, is consigned to the earth.  The grave is then usually filled up with stones or poles, as a safeguard against the voracious wolves of the prairies."  

Lewis Garrard reported this in his journal regarding funerals along the Santa Fe Trail in 1847. "A man who had for some weeks been sick with the scurvy died while the train was in motion-the hot sun and want of proper attention hastened his death.  Our mess was detailed to bury him, and on a knoll overlooking camp, we dug a grave, not quite three feet in depth, the sun broiling us the meanwhile.  Taking hold of the blanket in which he died, we laid him on the ground, searched his clothing for papers and money, and, rolling him up as we found him and without ceremony, deposited him in his last home on earth.  The burial was mere form, for the wolves scratch up the bodies again, and often before we were out of sight, the prairie ghouls were at their horrid work."  

In 1834 one of the French-Canadian employees of the Hudson's Bay Company was involved in a horse accident while at Fort Hall.  The man died of severe head injuries the following morning.   John Kirk Townsend records the following regarding the funeral:  "At  noon the body was interred. It was wrapped in a piece of coarse linen, over which was sewed a buffalo robe. The spot selected, was about a hundred yards south of the fort, and the funeral was attended by the greater part of the men of both camps. Mr. Lee [a missionary who was traveling with Nathaniel Wyeth] officiated in performing the ordinary church ceremony, after which a hymn for the repose of the soul of the departed, was sung by the Canadians present. The grave is surrounded by a neat palisade of willows, with a black cross erected at the head, on which is carved the name 'Casseau.'"  

In the spring of 1842 one of the four men traveling with Rufus Sage (Rocky Mountain Life) by keelboat down the North Platte River accidentally shot himself with his own rifle (For a Description of the Accident)  "We commenced digging a grave in which to deposit all that remained of our friend and companion.  The task was a sad one, and as tedious as it was sorrowful.  We had neither shovel nor pick-axe, and were compelled to dig it with our butcher knives and hands.  The pale-moon, new-risen, shed her sombre light over the dismal realms of solitude, and an intervening cloud cast its pall-like shadow upon the scene of sepulture, as we laid low the corpse in mother dust.  No shroud covered-no useless coffin enclosed it, - a grave was the only gift within the power of friendship to bestow!  A thin coating of earth succeeded by a layer of stones and drift-wood, and another earth-coat, was its covering, -then the mournful task was done."  Later Rufus Sage past by the area again where he learned that the body had been "disinterred by wolves and devoured."

John Ball (reference) describes the efforts the men were willing to take at times to prevent a body from being despoiled.  "The man who died in our camp we buried in the horse pen where the ground was so trodden that the enemy could not find the body to scalp it."  The man was wounded during the Battle of Pierre's Hole after the Rendezvous of 1832.  

The return march was by the way of Pryor's Gap, and up the Bighorn, to Wind River, where the cache was made in the previous December. The furs were now taken out and pressed, ready for transportation across the plains. A party was also dispatched, under Mr. Tullock, to raise the cache on the  Bighorn River . Among this party was Meek, and a Frenchman named Ponto. While digging to come at the fur, the bank above caved in, falling upon Meek and Ponto, killing the latter almost instantly. Meek, though severely hurt, was taken out alive: while poor Ponto was 'rolled in a blanket, and pitched into the river.'  So rude were the burial services of the trapper of the  Rocky Mountains."  Related by Joe Meek in The River of the West.

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