Malachite’s Big Hole
The trade in alcohol represents one of the darkest aspects of the fur trade. Through use of alcohol as a trade item, the Indians, both individually and as nations and societies were debased, and many hunters and trappers were essentially enslaved through debt to the company. Warren Ferris says the following (Life in the Rocky Mountains) of the alcohol trade: “The curse of liquor has not yet visited the Indians in the mountains; but has found its way to almost all those who inhabit the plains; whose faculties are benumbed, whose energies are paralyzed, and who are rapidly sinking into insignificance and oblivion, by the living death, which their unhappy predilection for "strong water," has entailed upon them. They were gay and light hearted, but they are now moody and melancholy; they were candid and confiding, they are now jealous and sullen; they were athletic and active, they are now impotent and inert; they were just though implacable, they are now malignant and vindictive; they were honorable and dignified, they are now mean and abased; integrity and fidelity were their characteristics, now they are both dishonest and unfaithful; they were brave and courteous, they now are cowardly and abusive.They are melting away before the curse of the white man's friendship…” Similar observations were made in many journals and diaries kept by other mountain men.
Alcohol was a trade item since the very beginnings of the fur trade in the early 1600’s, and nearly as early were attempts by various governments to regulate and limit access to alcohol by the Indian populations. These attempts invariably failed due to the limited reach of the regulatory agencies into the wilderness, and the immense profits to be made, both directly from sale of alcohol and indirectly through cheating of drunken customers. (See Evading Liquor Laws) The great fur companies themselves recognized the deleterious effects of alcohol on their Indian customers/hunters, and where competition was absent, would often self-limit the availability of alcohol. This was not done in the interests of humanity - rather, crazy drunk Indians and trappers were neither productive or reliable in producing additional furs.
Alcohol in Society: The period of the Mountain Man coincides generally with one of America’s greatest drinking binges, running from about 1800-1830. During this time period average consumption of spirituous liqours by adults (fifteen years and older) is estimated to have been over seven gallons annually and more than half of that from hard liquors. (Lender, Mark Edward, and James Kirby Martin. Drinking in America: A History. New York: published by Free Press, 1982)
The types of alcohol available at rendezvous and at trading posts tended to be, at least at the time of shipping, of a very high alcohol content. After all, why transport an alcohol-water mixture, when water could be added at the destination. Ardent spirits commonly available were grain alcohols, cheap whiskeys and rum. Prior to being evicted from their North American holdings, the French used cheap brandy for their side of the fur trade. Taos whiskey was a wheat based spirit, an import from Mexico (See also the Myth of Taos Lightning and Simeon Turley-Distiller). Corn and rye whiskeys were distilled in Missouri and other border states and shipped through St. Louis. Rum, a fermented, distilled product of molasses, was a by-product of sugar production from cane. Rum was generally produced in the Caribbean basin and exported. Alcohol was also available as “fortified” wines, usually a cheap claret with grain alcohol added for extra potency. Good quality wines might also be available at some of the more successful forts and trading posts, but due to high cost, was probably only consumed by traders and clerks. At least on one occasion, champagne was used at the founding of Fort William in May 1834.
Alcoholic spirits were generally drunk either straight, or diluted with water. However, mixed drinks were known. William Drummond Stewart in his book Edward Warren mentions both mint juleps and shrub. Mint juleps were made by adding brown sugar and crushed wild mint leaves to whiskey. Shrub, a drink of the lower classes, was made by crushing berries, adding coarse sugar, vinegar and a stout percentage of grain alcohol. Shrub could also be made from lemons, cherries or plums, if available. This concentrate would keep indefinitely, due to the alcohol, and would be diluted with water to taste when drunk. Another mixed drink, metheglin, was dilute whiskey or alcohol with wild honey added.
Alcohol was commonly shipped to the mountains in ten-gallon wooden kegs. The weight of a ten-gallon keg and it’s contents would have been just about one-hundred pounds. Two such kegs would have been about the optimum weight that a pack mule or horse could carry. Larger kegs, containing as much as 30 gallons were shipped upriver by steamship where daily handling of the kegs wasn’t necessary. Glass bottles, or ceramic jugs were too fragile and delicate to survive the 1,000 plus mile trip to the mountains and don’t show up until about the time of the Civil War and railroads. Bottled wines are known to have been transported along the Santa Fe trail in wagons. After arrival at its destination, the alcohol was sold in much smaller quantities. It was the customer’s responsibility to provide a tin cup or kettle to hold the purchased alcohol.