Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Law and Justice:

In the wilderness, justice was what you and your companions determined it to be, and law was enforced at the muzzle end of a rifle or the tip of a knife. Where large groups of men were living and traveling together, packing supplies to the mountains or in fur brigades, often times a set of rules regarding common situations might be communicated and enforced.  The Bourgeois or Captain would generally have the final say in enforcing the rules though.

Rudolph Kurz writes in his journal "One can easily understand why people in these wilds rarely resort to process of law.  Among the promiscuous white inhabitants of this region there are many rough and vicious characters, in dealing with whom one recognizes the need of promoting peace and harmony just as in an Indian camp.  Every man is armed; every man protects his own house and his property; with knife or shotgun he requites every insult.  One who loves his life guards against giving offense.  It is not their idea of honor to challenge the offender and give him still another chance to commit an outrage by killing an innocent person.  Fighting duels is no means of obtaining divine judgment.  One hears among white people hereabouts, therefore, fewer violent disputes, and witnesses fisticuff fights less frequently than in civilized States, for the reason that, knowing the deadly consequences, people guard against giving cause for strife.”    


"The wolf could have been shot, but orders were not to shoot in camp, for fear of accidentally killing some one, and so Mr. Wolf again escaped."

The above statement was written July, 1833 by Charles Larpenteur in Forty Years a Fur Trader.  The setting is during the the 1833 Rendezvous.  At this years rendezvous a wolf infected with hydrophobia was running rampant through the camps at night biting both men and livestock.  Larpenteur through his description shows that there were basic, established health and safety rules in camp, which were strong enough that no-one broke the rules in spite of the obvious hazard to life and health that the sick wolf represented.  


"At the height of the spree the tailor and one of the carpenters had a fight in the shop, while others took theirs outside, and toward evening I was informed that Marseillais, our hunter, had been killed and thrown into the fireplace.  We immediately ran in, and sure enough, there he was, badly burned and senseless, but not dead yet.  We were not at first sure whether this was the mere effect of liquor, or had happened from fighting; but we learned that a fight had taken place, and on examination we found that he had been stabbed in several places with a small dirk. Knowing that the tailor had such a weapon, we suspected him and demanded it.  He was at that time standing behind his table; I saw him jerk the dirk out of his pocket and throw it under the table. I immediately picked it up; it was bloody, and from its size we judged it to be the weapon with which the wounds had been inflicted.  Having learned that the carpenter had also been in the fight, they both were placed in irons and confined to await their trial.  As such Christmas frolics could not be brought to a head much under three days, the trial took place on the fourth day, when a regular court was held. Everything being ready, the criminals were sent for, the witnesses were well examined, and after a short session the jury returned a verdict, "Guilty of murder." The judge then pronounced sentence on the convicted murderers, which was that they be hanged by the neck, until they were "dead, dead, dead!"  But, not considering it entirely safe to have this sentence executed, he changed it to thirty-nine lashes apiece.  John Brazo was appointed executioner.  Always ready for such sport, he immediately went in quest of his large ox-whip, and, not making any difference between men and oxen, he applied it at such a rate that Mr. Mitchell, the judge, had now and then to say, "Moderate, John, moderate"; for had John been suffered to keep on, it is very likely that the first sentence would have been executed."

Written around Christmas 1838 by Charles Larpenteur in Forty Years a Fur Trader.  The crime, trial and punishment took place over a period of several days at Fort Union.   

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