Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole


Horse’s hooves are vulnerable to wear and if not properly cared for and protected under hard use will lead to the sore feet and lameness.  The Indians didn’t use shoes for their horses, but they generally had multiple horses available to use.

From comments in journals, it appears that the trappers favored horses shod with iron shoes, however available evidence from inventories suggests that most horses used in the trapping parties were unshod.  Some parties traveled with the supplies and equipment necessary to shoe horses, and others apparently did not.  It should be noted that a horse will need to be re shod about every six weeks.  Rendezvous inventories do list horse-shoes and nails but there were never sufficient quantities to provide for re-shoeing the numbers of horses apparently in possession of the trapping parties much less those horses traded from Indians which would have come without shoes. Horses can be used without shoeing, with proper care.  Should a horse become tender-footed a temporary solution in some cases was to protect the hooves of an animal with rawhide “moccasins.”  The most unique solution was a horse shod with copper shoes while at the “Copper Mines” in the Mexican territory of New Mexico.    

Below are given a series of journal entries which gives provides some descriptions of horse shoes.



Here we remained, to rest and recruit ourselves, until the 2d of May [1825]. My father then advised me to travel to Santa Fe, to get some of our goods, and purchase a new supply of horses, with which to return, and bring in our furs. I had a horse, which we had taken from the Indians, shod with copper shoes, and in company with four of my companions, and the superintendent of the mines [what most contemporaries referred to as the “copper mines’], I started for Santa Fe.”

These copper mines were located in the vicinity of Santa Rita, New Mexico. At the time Pattie was working for Sylvestre Pratt out of Santa Fe.  

And entry from a year later while a party of men were out in the wilderness trapping.

“On the 25th [March 1826] we reached a small stream, emptying into Red river through the east bank, up which we detached three men, each carrying a trap, to discover if beavers abounded in that stream. They were to return the next day, while we were engaged in shoeing our horses.”


From Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies.  1831

“The inferiority of oxen as regards endurance is partially owing to the tenderness of their feet; for there are very few among the thousands who have travelled on the Prairies that ever knew how to shoe them properly. Many have resorted to the curious expedient of shoeing their animals with 'moccasins' made of raw buffalo skin, which does remarkably well as long as the weather remains dry; but when wet, they are soon worn through. Even mules, for the most part, perform the entire trip without being shod at all, unless the hoofs become very smooth, which sometimes renders all their movements on the dry grassy surface as laborious as if they were treading upon ice.”

At the present I can’t find the reference, but I remember reading a similar description of “moccasins” for horses.  Gregg again refers to shoeing while in the city of Aguascalientes, Mexico

That my mules might be in condition for the hard travel before me, it was necessary to have them shod: a precaution, however, which is seldom used in the north of Mexico, either with mules or horses. Owing a little to the peculiar breed, but more still no doubt to the dryness of the climate, Mexican animals have unusually hard hoofs. Many will travel for weeks, and even months, over the firm and often rocky roads of the interior (the pack mules carrying their huge loads), without any protection whatever to the feet, save that which nature has provided. But most of mine being a little tender-footed, I engaged Mexican herreros to fit them out in their own peculiar style. Like almost everything else of their manufacturing, their mule-shoes are of a rather primitive model — broad thin plates, tacked on with large club-headed nails. But the expertness of the shoers compensated in some degree for the defects of the herraduras. It made but little odds how wild and vicious the mule — an assistant would draw up his foot in an instant, and soon place him hors de combat; and then fixing a nail, the shoer”

At that time the “north of Mexico” would have included southern Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California, as well as New Mexico and Arizona.  Herreros is blacksmith in Spanish.  


Jedediah Smith’s Journal - First Expedition to California August 7, 1826 - July 3 1827

“the fathers had given me some Iron and my Smith had made in the shop of the Mission as many horse shoes as I wanted. He had also given me some saddles and the leather for rigging them. It was on the 10th of January 1827 that I returned from St Diego.”

This was written while at the mission of San Gabriel.  And then somewhere further north in the Imperial Valley on the 28th of February.  This would have been when Smith was preparing to return to rendezvous so they would have been unsupported by any town or fixed facility.  

“I then moved up the Appelaminy a few miles to a place where I found a suitable place and encamped with the intention of remaining several days in order to make the necessary preparations for my journey across the Mt to the Depo. The time was employed in pressing and cacheing my furs killing Game and drying meat shoeing some horses and making some hay to feed them in the Mt”


Three Years Among the Indians and Mexicans, by Thomas James.  

This passage relates to a temporary trading post set up in 1822 in what I believe is now Oklahoma.  

“A scouting war party on one occasion, brought in seven American horses, shod and branded, a tent, a kettle, an axe, and some other articles, which I knew must have belonged to a trading party. They brought up the horses to the Fort to have the shoes taken off by our blacksmith, when I charged them with the robbery of my countrymen. They denied the charge, and said that they had taken this spoil from a party of Osages with whom they had had a battle, and exhibited, in proof of their operations, two scalps as those of their deadly enemies, the Osages.”

What is interesting to me in the above passage is that the Indians brought in their horses to have their shoes removed.  


A Journey to the Rocky Mountains in 1839 by F. A. Wislizenus. Wislizenus was a medical doctor from Europe (either Germany or Switzerland).  He traveled up to the mountains with the pack train bound for rendezvous.  After rendezvous broke up he toured with a small party men through Wyoming and Colorado. The following passage was written in the vicinity of present day Fort Lupton, Colorado. From the passage below, it is clear that Wislizenus didn’t have access to shoes until he arrived at the forts.   

On September 3rd [1839] we came quite unexpectedly to the left bank of the South Fork and crossed the river. On the right bank there are here three forts, only some miles apart. Penn's [Bent's] and St. Vrain's fort, Vasquez and Sublett's [Fort Vasquez] and Lobdon's fort [Fort Lupton]. The construction is the customary one; the outer walls are of half-baked brick. There is much rivalry and enmity between the three forts. In the first fort we found part of the scattered Columbia party from Peoria. In the second I met the well-known Fitzpatrick, who has passed through many an adventure during his life in the mountains. He has a spare, bony figure, a face full of expression, and white hair; his whole demeanor reveals strong passions. We remained in the neighborhood of the forts for about three days. In the meanwhile I had my horse shod. For want of shoes it had become quite lame.”


Nathaniel Wyeth, 1833.  This is a portion of a letter written by Nathaniel Wyeth to Captain Bonneville.  I believe Bonneville had a fort at this time for storing supplies, but Wyeth did not.

To Captain Bonneville of Salmon River June 22d 1833.


I send you the following proposition for a mutual hunt in the country south of the Columbia river which I visited last autumn and winter. As to the prospect of Beaver there I will only say that I have no doubt of taking 300 skins fall and spring. As much sign as would give me this I have seen. I have little doubt much more might be found, but in that country a hunt cannot be made with horses alone, boats must be used. I have obtained some maps of the country beside my own observations in it, and I have little doubt but I can make my way through it without guides, who cannot be procured. As this country is distant an immediate answer is required. As it regards the mules Horses would do but are by no means so good for grass in some places is very bad. If the number required is a very great objection 9 would do but goods enough to buy 3 more must be given in their stead. The men that are wanted must be good, peaceable and industrious, but need not be trappers. I would prefer good men who have not been more than one year in the country. In case of agreement being made you are to engage to deliver what letters I wish to send home, a boy about 13 years old and about 25 lbs. sundrys. The expenses of the boy in the States my brother in N. York will pay to whom he is delivered. The boy will have a mule to carry him. With so many animals as I have and so few men I cannot come to the forks [Henry's Fork and Snake River] and I think these Indians will go no further than where in your route to Green River you strike the plain of the Three Butes. There I hope to see you and in case you acceed to the proposal, with all the things required in it, this hunt to be for one year to meet you at your rendezvous of next year the furs to be equally divided between us and I to have the right to take mine at any time during the year yourself to have the right to send a man to see to your interests -


9 men, armed, clothed for the year with saddles &c
12 mules
9 skins dressed for making boats
40 good traps
1 doz files
4 doz knives
20 lbs tobacco
200 lbs grease, if possible
3 bales Indian meat
a few small tools
3 axes
12 pair Horse shoes (if you have them.)
4 pack saddles and Harness.
6 pair of lashes
25$ for cost of sundrys
25 lbs. powder and lead with it.

19 horses
3 mules
20 traps
3 men with myself
2 doz knives
1 Lodge
Cooking apparatus
fish Hooks a few sundrys.
10 lbs powder and lead.
14 pr. Horse shoes.
4 pack saddles and Harness. “


From the Adventures of Captain B.L.E. Bonneville (Reference) Washington Irving page 204 1961 printing)while attempting to pass through difficult terrain in the Wind River country in September 1832 had horses that were lamed from not having horseshoes.  “The feet of his horses had by this time become so worn and wounded by the rocks, that he had to make moccasons for them of buffalo hide.”  


Journal of Captain Nathniel J. Wyeth's Expeditions to the Oregon Country-Second Expedition – 1834.

14th [August]. After shoeing some horses that were lamed yesterday started and made 9 miles S.S.W. at 2 of which got a small creek from the N.E. at the end of the 9 miles got a fork of about equal size to the one I came down from the S.W. then made S.E. by S. 10 miles and camped got a creek from the N.E. at 2 miles of it and at 7 one from the S.W. Saw no game today the dusky grouse plenty for three days past Horses much knocked up with sore feet. “

This would have been after Wyeth had set up Fort Hall, and then moved several hundred miles onward into eastern Idaho, or western Washington.

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