Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Absaroka: Crow Territory. The Crow word means "Land of the Sparrow-Hawk People."

Absinthe:  Wormwood.  In the Western US wormwoods are generally called sagebrush.    

a la facon du pays:  After the custom of the country, a term applied to taking an Indian wife without the benefit of a church ceremony.  

Apishemore: Saddle Pad or coarse saddle blanket (various spellings in different journals).

Arwerdenty: Liquor. A corruption of the Spanish word.   

Beeve or Beeves:  Beef.  Mountain men often described buffalo and buffalo meat as beef or beeves.  "A few beeves were killed during the chase" (Rufus Sage)

Big 50:  Fifty caliber rifle. 

Biscoche: A kind of hard Mexican bread.  The favorite way to serve and eat biscoche was to soak it in coffee.

Black Your Face Against (to): To be at war with. From the Indian custom of blacking the face to show the tribe is on the warpath.

Black Water (also Muddy Water):  Indians (Cheyenne) referred to coffee this way.  (Lewis Garrard 1846-47. Reference)

Bois de Vache:  Buffalo Chips, fuel used for cooking and heating on the prairies where wood was not available.   

Boudins: Buffalo intestines, stuffed with meat and seasonings, then roasted over a fire, a treat for the mountain gourmet.  

Buck:  From the prevalent exchange rate equating one buckskin to one dollar.

Bug’s Boys: also Children of Satan; the familiar name for the Blackfeet.  

Bourgeois: Voyageur term for the Wintering Partners or Clerks.  The word came from the French and described a "new middle class people" in Europe.  Bourgeois were usually educated men of various nationalities. Many were Scottish, French, or American.  Clerks were almost always French until the end of the era when more Americans and English held Clerk Positions.   

Bury the Hatchet:  Originally from Iroquois tradition in which weapons of war were actually buried in the earth.  The first mention of this practice in English is by Samuel Sewall in 1680 “I writt to you in one [letter] of the Mischief the Mohawks did; which occasioned Major Pynchon’s goeing to Albany, where meeting with the Sachem they came to an agreemt and buried two axes in the ground; one for English another for themselves;which ceremony to them is more significant & binding that all Articles of Peace” By the end of the 18th century the phrase had expanded from the physical act to the process of coming to a peace arrangement.   

Cache: To hide or conceal; applicable either to one's self or one's goods. Also used as a noun: the hidden goods; from the French.  

Capote: A long coat of simple design with a hood.  It was made from wool blankets and could be cut and assembled in the mountains.  Capotes were also available for trade at rendezvous and at forts and posts.  

Carcajou:  Wolverine

Cartouche Knives: were a type of table knife, they were equivalent to today's steak knives.

Cassinette: A cloth with a cotton warp, and a weft of very fine wool, or wool and silk.

Cavendish Tobacco: originated in England in the late 16th century, when Sir Thomas Cavendish, an admiral in Queen Elizabeth's fleet, discovered that by dipping tobacco leaves in sugar it produced a milder and more mellow smoke.  Subsequently the name Cavendish has been used to identify any tobacco treated with sweetners such as maple syrup, figs, rum, molasses and honey.

Child, Coon, Crittur, Beaver, Niggur: Interchangeable terms for person, either one's self or someone else. They did not necessarily carry a charge of denigration; for example the term niggur was applied freely to white, red, and black men, both friend and foe.  

Chintz:  A brightly colored and glazed cotton fabric, used as a trade item.

Cochineal:  A red dye made of the dried and pulverized bodies of female cochineal insects.

Come (To Make Someone); To kill a person or animal, as in "I made two of the varmints come that day."  

Copper Mines:  This location is mentioned in numerous accounts of Santa Fe and Taos based trappers.  Located at what is now Santa Rita N.M., the copper mines were used as a starting point or staging area for many trapping expeditions along the Gila River and into the southwest.  The attraction of this location for trappers was that it was well beyond the reach of the Mexican bureaucracy.  

Count Coup (To): To execute a coup (to do a brave deed such as killing someone, scalping him, or striking him with a coup-stick):or to relate one's brave deeds in a formal manner.  

Coureur de Bois:  French for bush loper or woods runner.  These were the French-Canadian equivalent of the Free Trapper.  Generally operating without a license or official sanction, these men lived and traded out among the Indians, often for years at a time.  They would sell their furs to whoever offered the best prices, whether they be French or English.  

Crambo Combs: A common type of comb frequently listed on fur trade inventories. According to the Museum of the Fur Trade Encyclopedia 3Tools and Utensils of the Fur Trade, a crambo comb is equivalent to a ridding comb. A ridding comb is a small, 3 1/2 inch to 5 1/2 inch comb with fine teeth intended for the removal of hair lice and their nits.

Dearborn: A four-wheeled country carriage.

Depouille: It is a fatty substance that lies along the backbone of the buffalo, next to the hide, running from the shoulder blade to the last rib, and is about as thick as one’s hand or finger. It is from seven to eleven inches broad, tapering to a feather edge on the lower side. It will weigh from five to eleven pounds, according to the size and condition of the animal. This substance is taken off and dipped in hot grease for half a minute, then is hung up inside of a lodge to dry and smoke for twelve hours. It will keep indefinitely and is used as a substitute for bread, but it is superior to any bread that ever was made. It is eaten with the lean and dried meat, and is tender and sweet and very nourishing, for it seems to satisfy the appetite. When going on the warpath, the Indians would take some dried meat and some depouille to live on, and nothing else, not even if they were to be gone for months. See also “Fleece”

Dropsy:  An abnormal accumulation of watery fluid in certain tissues of the body.  

Dudeen: A short clay tobacco pipe

Dupont: Gunpowder. From the name of the manufacturer.  Click here to see a can of "DuPont."

Dutch Nightingales:  Croaking bullfrogs in William Marshall Anderson 1834.  

Engagee: A hired hand, sometimes French-Canadian. Of lower social status than a free trapper or a trapper contracted for part of his take; from the French.  


Factory:  A major trading post or fort under the management of a Factor. A Factor was a senior field manager. 

Fall to the Kettle:  Being made into meat.  For example "During starving times our horse were made to fall to the kettle."   

Fire Water:  Whiskey with such a high alcohol content that it would cause a fire to flame-up when thrown on.  Whiskey which had been substantially diluted with water would douse the fire when thrown on.  

Fleece:  A layer of fat between the backbone and the ribs on a buffalo. Considered to be a delicacy by the mountain men.  It was often rendered in a fry pan or kettle until liquid and then quaffed.  Rufus Sage describes preparing and consuming fleece here.  

Foofooraw: Trinkets, doodads, decorative trivia fancied by women, especially Indian women. By extension, the quality of having a fancy for the same, as in, "She was a deal too foofuraw to suit me."   

Foolscap:  A sheet of writing or printing paper measuring approximately 13 by 16 inches

Froze or Freeze:  To be Froze for something was to be highly desirous: Them indians was half froze for scalps.  

Galena: Lead for casting balls.   

Gill:  Approximately one-quarter pint.  Typically voyageurs and engageés were allotted one gill of whiskey or rum at the end of a days work. 

Gimlet:  An inexpensive hand drill used as a trade item. 

Go Under (To): To die or be killed, usually the latter. 

Gone Beaver:  to have been killed or to be dead.  From Ruxton and Wislenzus

Great Leg: Used as "A man of great leg"  A great traveler; able to go a great distance in a day. and capable of enduring extreme privation and fatigue. (from Jim Beckwourth)

Green River: A knife. From the name of the manufacturer, not the name of the river. To shove it in "To the Green River" meant to shove the knife in to the hilt, where the trademark of the manufacturer was stamped.  By extension, to do anything "Up to the Green River" meant to do it to the fullest extent.  For more information regarding the "Green River Knife."

Grocer:  A “grocer” in the parlance of the 1840’s was a saloonkeeper, contrasted to a greengrocer, who sold foodstuffs. (From Fairholme, page 66 footnote 49)  

Hard Pulling (cordeling) to get a keelboat upriver. Said of anything requiring great physical effort.

Ha’r of the b’ar: To say that a man had the ha'r of the b'ar in him was a supreme form of praise. The expression probably came from the Indian belief that a man could become more brave by eating the hair of the grizzly bear. 

Hawken: A rifle. A high quality rifle produced by the Hawken brothers in Saint Louis.

Hivernant: An Experienced Voyageur.  Older men with more experience than the "Summer Men".  They were also called "Winterers" because they spent the winter months trading with the various tribes.  

Hole:  Sheltered location, such as a valley which has the four requisite necessities: food, fodder, wood and water, where a brigade or party of men would "hole up" for the winter.  A hole was generally named after some individual of distinction associated with the location.  Notable "Holes" include Pierre's Hole, Brown's Hole, Jackson's Hole and Jackson's Big Hole. 

Hoss:  Man remarkable for strength and courage (from Bartlett's Dicitonary of Americanisms 1859

Humpribs: The small ribs that support the hump of the buffalo. - a choice cut of meat.  See also meatbag.   

In: Was to go back to or be back at the settlements, as in "He was in in '38."  From Matt Field 1843.

Judy or Judy Fitzsimmons: To make a "Judy" or "Judy Fitzsimmons" of oneself was to be a fool or simpleton.  The term was common American slang by the mid 1820's.

Largie: A word of French-Canadian origin meaning to take off across country, rather than following along the course of rivers or streams.

Leve’, Leche’ Lego; wake up, turn out. Usually used in combination (Possibly a corruption of the French.)   

Lights:  Lungs.  To have the lights shot out was a lung shot.

Loco-foco:  A self lighting cigar, with a match composition at the end, invented in 1834.  It then became applied to the Lucifer match.  Later the term was applied to a radical wing of the Democrats, after an incident at a party meeting in 1835 at which opponents of the radical element within the party turned out the gas lights, but the radicals promptly produced candles which they lit with loco-focos.

Lucifer Match:  A match made of a sliver of wood tipped with a combustible substance, and ignited by friction.  Lucifer matches were invented in England in 1827.   For a history of Lucifer Matches click here.

Made Beaver:  The fur of one adult beaver, properly dressed and cured, or its equivalent in trade goods.  

Mangeur de Lard: Literally, eater of pork in French. Figuratively, an inexperienced man. Said of a man who is used to the diet of the settlements (which would include pork) and not of the mountains (almost exclusively buffalo meat) Always a term of denigration and often applied to the least experienced engageés who were responsible for camp chores, butchering and cooking, tending the animals, etc. This is equivalent to the later term “Ned” 

Martingales:  The strap of a horse's harness that connects the girth to the nose and and is designed to prevent the horse from throwing back its head.

Meatbag: Stomach, of an animal or human being. The trappers frequently applied the terms they used for buffalo anatomy (fleece, humpribs, boudins) to human beings. 

Medicine Dog:  (Also Big Dog) Many western Indian tribes referred to horses as "medicine dogs".  

Medicine Wolf: Many western Indian tribes referred to coyotes as "medicine wolf."

Melton (also Molton):  A heavy woolen cloth used chiefly for making capotes and hunting jackets.

Mind yer Hair:  To look out for ones scalp, or take care of oneself.  From George Frederick Ruxton, end of Chapter 24.  

Missouri River-Lower:  Approximately the 660 miles between St. Louis and Council Bluffs (Corbin, 2000

Missouri River-Upper:  That portion of the Missouri River above Council Bluffs upward to the headwaters.  

Mountaineers:  Term by which the mountain men typically referred to themselves.  See Rufus Sage, Ruxton, etc. 

Napper: a term describing one who was scalped but not killed.

Ned:  Farmers in the early 1800's commonly referred to pork as "Ned." Because pork and salt pork formed a principal portion of government rations, especially to the military, mountain men often also referred to the soldiers as "Neds"

New Park:  today known as North Park, Colorado.  

Nimrod: An experienced hunter.

Old Ephraim: Grizzly bear. 

On the Prairie.  Something freely given with nothing expected in return.

Osnaburgh:  A heavy plain weave cloth very popular in the Indian Trade. In colonial times it was woven from flax.  By the 1800's osnaburgh was made primarily from cotton.  

Pack:  A bundle of skins pressed and bound to facilitate loading and unloading of the pack animals.  A pack of beaver skins generally consisted of approximately 60 beaver skins and weighed about 100 pounds. According to Rufus Sage (reference) a pack of buffalo robes generally contained 10 robes and weighed about 80 pounds.  

Paletot (pal´ê tow):  A loose outer garment, as a coat or cloak, for men or women.    

Pantaloon:  Tight trousers extending from waist to ankle with straps passing under the instep, worn especially in the 19th century.  Often used in the plural.

Plew: Beaver pelt. A corruption of the French "plus".  

Pongie:  A soft thin cloth woven from Chinese or Indian raw silk or an imitation thereof.  Used as a Trade Item.

Poor Bull, Fat Cow:  Figuratively, poor eating, living, or times, as opposed to good eating, living or times. A trapper might mention that he was forced to eat crickets and comment, "That was poor bull, sure." To know poor bull from fat cow was to know what was what, what was bad and what was good, to understand mountain ways. Derived from the fact that, except at calving time, the meat of the bull would be more muscular and less fatty than the meat of a cow, therefore tougher and less enjoyable.  

Possibles, Possible Bag: sack for carrying equipment, usually small necessities such as fire steel and flint, balls, caps, etc.

Poudirie: French-Canadian for snowstorm, or blizzard.   

Quires:  A set of 24 or sometimes 25 sheets of paper of the same size and stock; one twentieth of a ream.

Riband: A brightly colored ribbon used for decoration.  Used as a trade item.  

Russian Sheeting: A light, but very strong linen fabric, often used similarly to canvas

Satinet: was a cheap trouser fabric with a cotton warp and a wool weft or fulling.  It was woven so that it had a close, smooth wool surface, with none of the the cotton warp exposed.   

Shine (To): To suffice, to be suitable or good. As in, "Red blood don't shine."  Shinin' suggested fine or splendid, as in, "Them was shinin' times."

Shot in the Lights (To be): To be shot in the lungs.   

Snaffle:  A bit for a horse, consisting of two bars joined at the center, as by a joint.

Specie:  Money in the form of coins, especially gold or silver.  The value was determined by the weight of the metal in the coinage, and thus the coins of any nation were acceptable in trade.  Specie was especially important in trade with Old Mexico and its colonies.  

Spooning:  is when one person lies on their side with their back to the other person. Usually with legs bent a little. In this position they fit together very closely with little dead air space between, maximizing body heat.  The term originated in the mid 1890's although the practice of sharing body heat this way is much older.    

Some: Remarkable, admirable. "That Jed was some, now. He had the ha'r of the b'ar in him. Wagh!"

Steelyard: a straight beam balance with arms of unequal length, and utilizing a counter weight.  Used for measuring weight of furs.

Stroud:  A large coarse blanket intended for trade with the Indians. During the 1600’s British stroud was considered superior and generally less costly than the blankets available from the French traders.

Sursingles:  A type of quick disconnect buckle for horse gear.

Taos Lighting: Mexican whiskey produced and shipped from Taos.  This term didn’t originate until the mid-1840’s.

There Goes Hoss and Beaver:  A mountain expression said about any great loss which is sustained.  (Ruxton, Chapter 27)

Vara:  Spanish yard, thirty-three inches.

Vide-Poche: Literally, empty-pocket. Usually said of French-Canadians, French speakers of Indian-white descent, etc. Figuratively, the equivalent of worthless no-good.  

Water Crackers:  A thin, dry, crispy-textured cracker that is made with flour, water and little or no salt. It is a common cracker in Europe and throughout the  U.S.  noted for its bland flavor.

WAUGH: An exclamation of surprise, greeting, admiration, etc. Sounded like a grunt.  

The Way the Stick Floats: To know which way the stick floats was to know what's up, what's what. Only an experienced mountain man would be said to know the way the stick floats. The expression came from the use of a float stick attached to a beaver trap to indicate where the trap was if the beaver swam away with it.  Its meaning was extended to suggest being wilderness wise.   

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Mountain Man Glossary:

Samuel Parker's comments from the 1835 rendezvous:  “They disdain the commonplace phrases which prevails among the civilized countries, and have many self-phrases, which they appear to have manufactured amongst themselves.“  This Glossary will aid the inhabitants of civilized parts in ciphering the language of the Mountain Man.