Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Spoken Language of the Mountain Men:

If a modern person were to overhear the conversation of mountain men, it would probably be nearly incomprehensible for a number of reasons. Certain terms, items and activities common in the early 1800's have disappeared over the last 150 years, and in the 21st century we have lost much of the terminology and knowledge of these matters.  Also the fur trade was a multicultural-multinational vocation.  In a trappers or traders camp French, English, Spanish, and other European languages as well as numerous Indian languages might be spoken.  Under these conditions a hybrid spoken language evolved.  Osborne Russell, in his Journal, described languages spoken at one winter camp: "I have already said the man who was the proprietor of the lodge in which I staid was a French man with a flat head wife and one child The inmates of the next lodge was a half breed Iowa a Nez percey wife and two children his wifes brother and another half breed next lodge was a half breed Cree his wife a Nez percey 2 children and a Snake Indian The inmates of the 3d lodge was a half breed Snake his wife (a Nex percey and two children).  The remainder was 15 lodges of Snake Indians Three of the party spoke English but very broken therefore that language was made but little use of as I was familiar with the Canadian French and Indian tongue."

And finally, the mountain men developed their own unique jargon which was peculiar to only to that small community of men who lived beyond the frontier.  To paraphrase 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.  Indeed, even contemporaries from the states or settlements found the spoken language of the mountain men nearly incomprehensible as illustrated below in a conversation between mountain men John Hatcher, Louie Simonds and a soldier:

“Him?” interrupted Hatcher, wishing to astonish the man, “that boy’s been everywhar.  He’s stole more mule flesh from the Spaniards, and ‘raised’ more Injun har, than you could tuck in your belt in a week!”

“How raise Injun hair?  Like we raise corn and hemp to Callaway county, ur  jest like raising hogs and oxens.”

“Oh! You darned fool,” retorted Louy Simonds, “a long ways the greenest Ned we see yet.”  “No!” rejoined he imperatively, “when an Injun’s a ‘gone beaver,’ we take a knife like this,” pulling out his long scalpblade, which motion caused the man to open his eyes, “an ketch hold of the topknot, an’ rip skin an’ all right off, quicker an’ a goat could jump!”  

“Whats a ‘gon beaver’ stranger?” again spoke up our verdant querist.  

“Why, whar was you brung up, not to know the meanin’ of sich terms – we’ud show you round for a curiousity up in the mountains – let’s go, fellers.”

We started to another part of the jail, but were stopped by a final question from our brave volunteer to Hatcher –“Stranger! What mout your name be, ef I might be so free-like?”

“Well, hos!”  returned the questioned.  “My name mout be Bill Williams, or it mout be Rube Herring, or it mout be John Smith, or it mout be Jim Beckwourth, but this buffler’s called John L. Hatcher, to rendevoo – wagh!”


Numerous examples of spoken language exist, preserved in journals and letters.  Some of the most extensive records of conversations that I've found include Lewis Garrard, and Frederick Ruxton, although many other examples exist.  


Rudolph Freiderich Kurz (Reference) records the following exclamation of a Mexican horse-guard on learning that a wolf had robbed his trap: "Jamme wolf dragge de carcasse way from de trappe.  No seen una pareilla chose.  Ni now putte horse's snoute on de pickette, de wolf no more carry awaye."  [And no I won’t pretend to be able to interpret that]


The following example of mountain man dialog are recorded by Lewis Garrard in "Wah-To-Yah and the Taos Trail" during his visit to the west in 1846-47.  

"Though the wind was piercingly cold, Hatcher was up early, making a fire, “for,” said he, “this hos is no b’ar to stick his nose under cover all the robe season, an’lay round camp, like a darned Ned; but,” he added, in an undertone, as he looked to see if the government men were awake, “thar’s two or three in this crowd-wagh!-howsomever, the green is ‘rubbed out’ a little.  This child hates an American what hasn’t seen Injuns skulped, or doesn’t know a Yute from a Shian mok’sin.  Sometimes he thinks of makin’ tracks for white settlements, but when he gits to Bent’s big lodge on the Arkansas, and sees the bugheways, an’ the fellers from the States, how they roll thar eyes at an Injun yell, worse ‘n if a village of Comanches was on’em, an pick up a beaver trap, to ask what it is-just shows whar the niggers had thar brungin’ up-this child says-‘a little bacca, if it’s a plew a plug, an’ Dupont’ an G’lenea, a Green River or so, and he leaves for the Bayo Salade. Darn the white diggings, while thar’s buffler in the mountains. Whoopee!” shouted he to us, “are you for Touse?  This hos is thar in one sun, wagh!  Louy, the cavyard’s out picking grass-half froze to travel.” 


“Mind the time we ‘took’ Pawnee ‘topknots’ away from the  Platte , Hatch” [Louy Simonds speaking]  “Wagh! If we didn’t,” chimed in the interrogated [John Hatcher], “an give on owgh-owgh, longside of thar darned screechin, I’m a niggur.  This child doesn’t let an Injun count a coup on his cavyard always.  They come mighty near ‘rubbin’ me ‘out,’ ‘tother side of Spanish Peaks – woke up in the mornin’ jist afore day, the devils yellin’ like mad.  I grabs my knife, ‘keels’ one, an’ made for timber, with four of thar cussed arrows in my ‘meatbag.’  The Paches [Apaches] took my beaver – five pack of the prettiest in the mountains – an’ two mules, but my traps was hid in the creek.  Sez I, hyar’s a gone coon ef they keep my gun, so I follers thar trail, an’ at night, crawls into camp, an’ socks my big knife up to the Green River, first dig.  I takes t’ other Injun by the har, an’ ‘makes meat’ of him too.  Maybe that wasn’t coups counted, an’ a big dance n hand, ef I was alone.  I got old Bullthrower, made ‘medicine’ over him, an’ no darned niggur kin draw bead with him since.”  


Louy Simonds, jumping up with his ever-ready gun, knocked the ashes from his pipe; and, depositing it in a small leather pouch strung from his neck, black and greasy with time and perspiration, exclaimed, - “This child never stuck around camp when work’s on hand – hosguard, meat huntin’ it’s all the same to him; this ‘mudhook,’ holding out his foot, ‘hasn’t a moccasin on for nuthin’, an’ that’s a fact!”


[Hatcher] “Say! My young Shian trader, you’s the chap what stayed with John Smith last winter; ef you’re for b’ar, grab your lightnin’-stick (my rifle) and make “Pimo’ tracks for yon butte.  (I had on a pair of Pimo Indian moccasins on, a present from Hatcher, who was then talking to me).  “Away down to the Pimo country, right about Heela [Gila] they make the best Injun shoe this coon ever put his foot in-well, hyar’s for meat;” and off he started, Louy and myself in his wake.


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