Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Literacy and Reading:

The ability to read, write and perform simple math was a great advantage to individuals in the fur trade.  Individuals with these skills were capable of performing valuable services for their companies, and were far more likely to be promoted to much higher paying positions such as clerk, or trader. Follows are some observations of literacy or lack there-of amongst the mountain men and fur companies


During the winter of 1833-34, James Kipp, factor at Fort Clark, was briefly called up to Fort Union.  During his absence, Prince Maximilian, was called on to assist in various tasks requiring the ability to read or perform simple math (Reference).  "January 7, 1834.  In the afternoon snow fell and it was less cold. Belhumeur called for me and I had to help him to weigh out several buckets of metal [probably lead] as he could neither read nor write nor differentiate between the numbers on the weights.  Among all the men who are at the fort there is not a single one who can read or write.  I have to write down everything whenever something must be recorded.  And when they receive letters, I have to read their secrets to them....".    


Sometimes it was necessary to improvise writing equipment.  In the spring of 1847 Lewis Garrard (Reference) was working for the Bent, St. Vrain & Company, and one of his tasks was to determine a count of cattle by owner on one of the ranches between Bent's Fort and Taos.  "We drove the congregated herds in the corral, and Bransford and myself, on blank pages of my journal book, and with bullets hammered out and sharpened for pencils (for I had lost the pencil procured at the fort), noted the different brands, and the number, as the cattle were permitted slowly to walk out.


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