Malachite’s Big Hole
As a Mountain Man, Osborne Russell was quite ordinary. He was not a leader, he did not become wealthy, nor did he add to the geographic knowledge of Western North America. What does make Russell unique is that he was a keen observer, and he kept, and managed to preserve a journal, which documents his experience in the mountains from 1834 to 1843. Except for a few comments, the journal does not describe the economic and political upheavals through which the fur trade was passing during this period. The journal does, however, provide us with a glimpse into the everyday life of the Mountain Man, the foods they ate, the types of shelter they used, how a fur brigade traveled and operated, and how life changed with the seasons.
From his journal, we can see the human who was the mountain man. We see that Russell truly appreciated the beauty of the places through which he passed. More than once he notes that he climbed a mountain or other high place to be able to view a special scene at sunrise or sunset. He observes the decimation of beaver and buffalo populations and remarks “…that it is time for the white man to leave the mountains…” We see a man who cared for, and was loyal to his comrades, but could also be irritated by their decisions. We see a man who held a grudge against one of his comrades, but healed it before leaving the mountains. We experience his fear when attacked by Blackfoot Indians near the shore of Yellowstone Lake, and the enmity carried between the mountain men and the Blackfoot Indians. But we also see compassion towards these same enemies as a planned attack against a party of Blackfoot Indians is turned into a trading session when it becomes apparent that the Indians have already suffered greatly from small pox.
Osborne Russell was born June 12, 1814, in the village of Bowdoinham, Maine. He was one of nine children in farming family. As a child, he did receive sufficient education that he could easily read and became a proficient writer.
At age 16, Russell ran away for a life at sea, but quickly gave up that career by deserting his ship at New York. After that he spent three years in the employ of the Northwest Fur Trapping and Trading Company, which operated in what would become Wisconsin and Minnesota. After this, Russell joined Nathaniel Wyeth’s Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1834.
The company was contracted to deliver $3,000 worth of supplies and trade goods to Milton Sublette and Thomas Fitzpatrick of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company for the 1834 Rendezvous at Ham’s Fork. Men for this venture were recruited on the frontier at St Louis and Independence, Missouri. It was here that Osborne Russell joined the company. The term of service was for eighteen months at a wage of $250 ($13.89/month).
In spite of his previous experience with the Northwest Fur Trapping and Trading Company, Russell was still inexperienced in the ways of the wilderness when he joined Wyeth’s company. Through his journal we see Russell develop into a seasoned veteran of the mountains and a Free Trapper.
When Wyeth’s party arrived at the Rendezvous at Ham’s Fork, he found that the Rocky Mountain Fur Company had been dissolved and a new company formed. The new company defaulted on its contract with Wyeth, who was then left with a surplus of goods and supplies that he had transported to the mountains.
By necessity, Wyeth had to alter his own plans to salvage his company from financial ruin. He and his party pushed on to the Snake River plain, (near what would become Pocatello, Idaho) where he established Fort Hall, named after one of the partners in the company. Here Wyeth would trade his remaining goods with the local Indians. The fort was quickly completed, and trade with the Indians was started by the autumn of 1834.
It was not until the spring of 1835 that Wyeth fielded trapping parties operating out of the fort. These trapping parties were poorly managed, and Russell through his journal often expresses his contempt for the brigade leader (Joseph Gale). Unlike many others, Russell did not desert, although we can see that his enthusiasm was definitely impacted.
After his release from the Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company in late 1835, Russell joined with Jim Bridger’s brigade of former Rocky Mountain Fur Company men. He continued with them even after the merger with the American Fur Company leaving it in complete control of the fur trade in the Rocky Mountains.
With low prices, scarcity of beaver and declining demand for furs, rumors at the 1838 rendezvous indicated the American Fur Company was soon to abandon the Rocky Mountains. Russell would not attend the 1839 Rendezvous, as he had left the employ of the company to become a Free Trapper, once again operating out of Fort Hall. Fort Hall was now owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and had been since 1837 when it was purchased from Wyeth’s company.
Even with the passing of the great fur companies, Russell, like so many others was reluctant to give up his life in the mountains. As a Free Trapper, Russell continued to trap and travel through the region centering on the Yellowstone country during the period 1838-1842. Although no longer possible to become wealthy through the fur trade, enough could be earned to easily supply all of the requirements for life in the mountains, with time to enjoy hunting, fellowship with other trappers and Indians, and reading.
Through reading the Bible, Russell came to a religious conversion that led him to abandon the life of a Mountain Man. In 1842 he joined a wagon train of emigrants destined for the Willamette Valley of Oregon. There on June 6, 1843 he lost his right eye and suffered other injuries in an accident while blasting rock for a millrace at Oregon City. While convalescing he studied law. Later Russell became a judge and was also active in politics in the Oregon Territory.
In 1848 with news of gold in California, Russell joined in the rush. Due to poor health from his previous injuries, he was unable to prospect and became a merchant. Later Russell was ruined by a dishonest partner and is said to have spent the remainder of his life trying to pay off creditors. Russell never married. As he got older, his health continued to deteriorate, and toward the end of his life he was paralyzed below the waist. He died August 26, 1892 at Placerville, California.