The universal image of the Mountain Man today is that of a heavily bearded individual, appearing as if he hadn’t shaved since the day he left St. Louis. This image has been promoted by both popular fiction and by Hollywood:
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact it was the rare individual who maintained facial hair, even while living in the mountains. Ruxton, in his novel, Life in the Far West, states “The elder of the company was a tall gaunt man,with a face browned by a twenty years' exposure to the extreme climate of the mountains; his long black hair, as yet scarcely tinged with gray, hung almost to his shoulders, but his cheeks and chin were cleanly shaved after the fashion of the mountain men.” Rudolph Friederich Kurz
(Reference), a Swiss artist who depicted both Indian and white trapper/traders in the late 1840’s and earliest 1850’s shows only a small number of “whites” with any form of facial hair. Most are shown as clean shaven. Alfred Jacob Miller, an artist who accompanied William Drummond Stewart to the 1837 Rendezvous also shows clean shaven Mountain Men.
So why was it that the Mountain Men went to the trouble and effort of regularly scraping
the hair off of their face? It certainly would have been much easier just to let
nature take its course. There were three main reasons for shaving: hygiene, fashion
Hygiene: Mountain Men were not noted for their cleanliness, often not bathing for
months, or longer, at a time. Head lice were a major problem in those times, both
in civilized parts as well as in the wilderness. Beards only encouraged the nasty
little critters to expand their habitat to include the face. Besides being most
unpleasant, this could be extremely distasteful, especially when eating.
Fashion: Beards and any other type of facial hair simply weren't in fashion, either
in the United States or Europe until the middle 1850’s, and wasn’t widespread until
the 1860’s. Kurz’ drawings, based on his experience on the Upper Missouri River
from 1846 to 1851 show most “whites” from the bourgeois to the lowest engagé, as
clean shaven. Of that minority shown with facial hair, only two men are shown with
an unkempt, bushy beards, and one of those was a traveler on his way to California.
Business and Social: Except at rendezvous, most commercial contact mountain men
had was with the Indians. Indians were not only a source of furs and skins, but
also provided food, shelter, horses, clothing, and wives. Indian males had only sparse
or no facial hair. Any stray hairs which appeared would be carefully plucked. The
Indians considered any man with a full beard to be a barbarian, applying to such
individuals the insulting description “Dog Face.” When trade with the Indians was
necessary or desirable for Mountain Men, it was always advantageous to start with
the respect of the potential trade partner rather then with their condescension.
Furthermore, winning the favors of an Indian maiden would have been far more difficult
if the woman was thinking “Dog Face.”
Maintaining a clean-shaven aspect would not have been difficult. Straight razors
were known from trade inventories of the time, and it’s highly improbable these items
were intended for trade with the Indians. Straight razors are effective at removing
stubble of less than a few days growth, however, it becomes increasingly difficult
to use as the beard gets longer. It’s likely that shaving didn’t take place daily,
but was regularly performed before the beard got too difficult to manage. The photo
below shows a straight razor circa 1820-1850.