Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Tobacco in the Mountains:

One of the gifts given to Columbus by the Indians in 1492 were leaves of the tobacco plant.  Tobacco had been in use by the Indians for thousands of years prior to Columbus’ visit and the plant was widely cultivated from northern Mexico to southern Canada.  Columbus' men misunderstood that the Indian name tabaco was for the pipe or tube in which the leaves were smoked, not for the plant.  Thus tobacco was introduced to Europeans. 

Initially, the use of tobacco with the Europeans, as it was with the Indians, was for medicinal and religious purposes.  In 1571 Nicolas Monardes, a leading Spanish physician declared the "virtues" and "greatness" of the "holy herb", going on to state that it was capable of curing ailments, and driving out evil, that "this herb is so general a human need, not only for the sick, but for the healthy." However, by the end of the 1500's, smoking tobacco had become fashionable, and by the middle 1600's cultivation of the plant had spread throughout Europe to Siberia, Africa, Java and even Tibet.  Tobacco had gone from being a medicinal herb to a daily necessity indulged in by all classes and all genders. 

The prime method of nicotine intake was by use of a pipe, or tightly rolled leaves (similar to a cigar) until the 1700's at which time snuff became the fashionable method of delivery.  However, by the early 1800's pipes, and cigars had again regained the top preference for nicotine delivery but with a gender difference. Smoking had become a symbol of masculinity and was now associated with male bonding rituals.  Women did continue to smoke, but only in private, never or very seldom in public.  In 1846, Charles Dickens made the following comment when he found himself in hotel where a number of women proceed to light up: "in five minutes the room was a cloud of smoke...I never was so surprised...for in all my experience of ladies of one kind and another, I never saw...not a basket woman or a gypsy smoke before."  In the early 1800's women smokers were popularly portrayed as deviants, dangerous and deceitful, poor mothers and bad wives.  

In the fur trade, the use of tobacco became an essential part of the brutally hard lifestyle most men had to live.  From the voyageurs, who marked each portage by the number of pipes required to cross, to the mountain men, whose after-dinner and campfire smokes were indispensable to relaxing, to a symbolic part of friendship and trade ceremonies with Indians the presence of tobacco was ubiquitous.  George Frederick Ruxton (Reference) provides a statement showing the casual use of tobacco merely for pleasure.  "On awakening, feeling inclined for a smoke, I drew from my pouch a pipe, and flint and steel, and began leisurely to cut a charge of tobacco."

The pipe seems to have been the delivery method of choice for most mountain men in the early 1800's.  Chewing tobacco was a common item on the trade inventories of the day, however, I've only found a single reference to tobacco chewing by Rufus Sage in describing an incident in the early 1840's when the men of his party had been without tobacco for an extended time:  "Our smokers and tobacco-chewers, who had been for sometime without the sina qua non of the mountaineer, now procured a re-supply for the indulgence of their filthy and unnatural taste." (Reference).  From this statement it is clear that there were multiple "chewers" in Sage's party, and I suspect that chewing was far more common then has been recorded.  Also from this statement it is apparent that Rufus Sage was a non-smoker, and that non-smokers attitudes regarding smoking have not greatly changed in the last 170 years.

Cigarettes were generally unknown in the United States until they were introduced from France in the 1850's.  However, in Mexico, cigarettes and shuck cigarillos were the prefered nicotine delivery method from at least the earliest 1800's. American trappers, hunters and merchants whose occupations took them to Mexican Taos or Santa Fe were all exposed to cigarettes, and many took up this form of smoking.

Tobacco products classed as "Chewing" might not have been used exclusively for purposes of chewing.  Frederick Wislizenus in 1839 records the following in describing trade goods at rendezvous  "...a piece of chewing tobacco of the commonest sort, which is usually smoked, Indian fashion, mixed with herbs" (Reference).  What Wislizenus is describing is more commonly known as Kinnickinnic. 

Kinnickinnic (originally an Ojibwe word) literally means "what is mixed," and refers to plant materials that Indian people mixed with tobacco for smoking. Use of Kinnickinnic was widespread in North America but the ingredients varied regionally. In the Woodlands, the favorite ingredients were the inner bark of certain willows, dogwoods, or sumac leaves. The final mixture usually only contained about one third tobacco.

Even on the Western Plains, there are numerous descriptions of the use of Kinnickinnic by the Indians.  On June 1, 1809, John Bradbury, a naturalist accompanying Wilson Price Hunt's Overland Astorians made the following observation (Reference): "I observed that, as before, in smoking the pipe they did not make use of tobacco, but the bark of cornus sanguinea, or red dog wood, mixed with the leaves of rhus glabrum, or smooth sumach. This mixture they call kinnikineck. After we had smoked, they spoke of the poverty of their tribes, and concluded by saying they expected a present. A few carrottes of tobacco and bags of corn were laid at their feet, with which they appeared satisfied. As these were the last of the Sioux tribes we expected to meet, I now determined to walk all day." 

Here is another description of Kinnickinnic from Wislizenus (Reference) in which he also provides a description of the pipes; "Often the tomahawk is made so as to serve also as a pipe for smoking [a pipe tomahawk]. But commonly they use for this purpose special long pipes, which they esteem as great articles of luxury, and from which the owners will part at no price. The bowl of such pipes is made of a red clay [now known as Catlinite] which is found on the Upper Missouri, and which forms an article of commerce between eastern and western tribes. Smoking is a conventional ceremonial of salutation. He who has been admitted to smoke the so-called pipe of peace is in no danger. Ordinarily the Indians smoke only chewing tobacco mixed with various herbs; but if no tobacco is to be had, they smoke sumach and other stupifying herbs.

Catlin (Reference) in 1832 provides yet another description of kinnickinnic and the ritual for preparing and smoking it.  "For this ceremony I observed he was making unusual preparation, and I observed as I ate, that after he had taken enough of the k'nick-k'neck or bark of the red willow, from his pouch, he rolled out of it also a piece of the "castor," which it is customary amongst these folks to carry in their tobacco-sack to give it a flavor; and, shaving off a small quantity of it, mixed it with the bark, with which he charged his pipe. This done, he drew also from his sack a small parcel containing a fine powder, which was made of dried buffalo dung, a little of which he spread over the top, (according also to custom,) which was like tinder, having no other effect than that of lighting the pipe with ease and satisfaction. My appetite satiated, I straightened up, and with a whiff the pipe was lit, and we enjoyed together for a quarter of an hour the most delightful exchange of good feelings, amid clouds of smoke and pantomimic signs and gesticulations."

The use of Kinnickinnic or tobacco was part of Indian ceremony integral to declaring friendship, or for the commencement of trading activities.  Here is a description from Robert Campbell (Reference) "After we had lighted a few pipes of tobacco mixed with kinekinuk, and had each taken a few ambrossial whiffs in dead silence, I commenced and made them a speech, the substance of which was, that we came here to build a fort and trade with them - the sole object we had in view was benefitting them (I had almost said ourselves): yes, that we came here, our sole object to better their condition - that we had a large quantity of merchandise in our boat, and hoped we would find them disposed to trade with us, and reciprocate our good feelings. I then presented them with 300 charges ammunition, 60 plugs tobacco, a doz. knives, and other kick-shaws."

Below are given some additional, more-detailed descriptions of the ceremonial rituals which  accompanied Indian ceremonies.

"...the Chief and his retinue, who came as customary to smoke a pipe with us, and enquire our business.  We seated ourselves in a ring on the grass, with our guests, and a pipe was immediately produced, and presented to a little hardy old veteran, the Chief.  He placed it in his mouth, when his attendant applied to it a coal, and the Chief taking two or three whiffs, passed it to the person on his right, who in turn took a few puffs, and returned it to the Chief; he again inhaled through it a few inspirations, and passed to the one on his left, and it continued then regularly round, until it was extinguished.  One of the company prepared with tobacco and weed, cut and mixed in proper proportions, and a stick for cleaning the ashes out of the pipe, replenished it, and the same ceremony was repeated."  Warren Ferris 1830 (Reference).


"Some show their reverence in the peculiar manner of receiving the pipe and passing it to another; —others by certain ceremonies before smoking, — thus, pointing the pipe-stem to the zenith, then towards the ground, then horizontally upon either side, as if saying, "Oh thou, whose habitation is immensity, accept this as the willing tribute of homage from thy child." Rufus Sage (Reference).


"In smoking, they send the first whiff upwards in honor of the Great Spirit, the second downward as a tribute to their great mother, the third to the right and the fourth to the left, in thanks to the Great Spirit for the game. "  Thomas James, 1809  (Reference)


"The overture being accepted, the chiefs and principals of each band meet in council, sometimes in a wigwam, if there be a suitable one, else in the open air, taking their seats, as usual, upon their haunches in a circle proportioned to the number. If there be presents — and these are an indispensable earnest of friendship from the whites — the essence, the seal of the treaty, without which negotiation is vain — these are laid in the centre. A personage in the capacity of an orderly sergeant then lights the calumet, which he hands to a principal chief, who, before smoking, usually points the stem towards the four cardinal points, and towards the heavens and the earth — then takes a certain number of whiffs (generally about three), and passing it to the next, who draws an equal number of whiffs, it thus continues around the circle, in the direction of the sun, each sending fumid currents upward from the nozzle. It seems looked upon as sacrilege for a person to pass before the pipe while the chiefs are smoking; and the heedless or impudent are sometimes severely punished for the act. The ‘big talk’ follows, and the presents are distributed by a chief who exercises the office of commissary. But in the petty truces among each other, presents are scarcely expected, except they be claimed by the more powerful party as a matter of tribute."  Josiah Gregg, 1831 (Reference)


"On all solemn occasions they offer up a short prayer to the good spirit for his assistance and help. They have no places of worship, public or private. The god whom they adore is invincible. In all their religious ceremonies the great pipe of peace is smoked as a peace-offering to the Elemehum-kill-an-waist, and also on all occasions of peace or war, or other matters of state; and this is done by holding the pipe (when filled and lighted) first to the east, or rising sun, and drawing three whiffs; then to the west or setting sun; next to the heavens above; and, lastly, to the earth beneath — in each case taking care to draw three whiffs. This religious part of the ceremony is gone through only by the chief when the first pipe is filled, before entering upon business. Then the chief hands the pipe to his next neighbour, who smokes without any ceremony, and he to the next, and so on. At the conclusion of the business there is no ceremony observed."  Alexander Ross, 1810 (Reference


"The Mandan chiefs and doctors, in all their feasts, where the pipe is lit and about to be passed around, deliberately propitiate the good-will and favour of the Great Spirit, by extending the stem of the pipe upwards before they smoke it themselves; and also as deliberately and as strictly offering the stem to the four cardinal points in succession, and then drawing a whiff through it, passing it around amongst the group."  Catlin, 1832 (Reference)

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