Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Transportation - Horses and Pirogues, Keelboats, Bullboats, Canoes, Steamboats and Dogsleds

Horses:  The rivers of the Rocky Mountain west were not nearly so suitable for transportation of men, goods and furs as were the eastern and mid-continental rivers. Western rivers were given to destroying all types of water craft and drowning their crews.  Horses and mules were needed to pack supplies overland, and a continuous supply of horses were required to replace those that were worked to death, drowned, stolen, lost, starved, eaten, fallen off cliffs, or met their ends in numerous other ways. Eventually, nearly all aspects of life for the mountain men were structured to exploit the services of the horse in pursuit of beaver. 

Canoes: From the earliest 1600’s to the 1820’s rivers were to be the highways of the beaver men throughout North America.  Canoes were the earliest form of transportation of goods and supplies into the wilderness and furs back to the trading centers.  These craft ranged from small canoes which could be easily handled by one or two men to the “canots du maître” monstrous craft holding up to 16 voyageurs and five tons of goods and equipment.  Generally mountain men did not use canoes.  

Keelboats:  The Missouri River, with its wild currents, snags and shifting sandbars generally demanded a more durable craft than canoes.  The keelboat, with its rugged construction was a partial answer, but even still the Missouri River was capable of smashing a keelboat to pieces, or over turning it in an instant.   

The Missouri River also became a gauntlet, available to the Arikaree Indians or any other hostiles, through which upriver traders and trappers would have to pass. Keelboats, which had to be dragged upstream were particularly vulnerable to these Indians.  

Bullboats:  These small, unwieldy craft were used primarily for emergency transportation generally to cross a river, or travel in a down river direction.  Bull boats were simply constructed, using buffalo skin and supple green branches.  A bull boat could be built in a day or so.  

Pirogues:  This is a type of dug-out canoe constructed from the trunk of a large tree. The interior space of the  pirogue was hollowed out by axe and by charring with fire. The ends of the pirogue were rounded or brought to a point.  Provided a suitable tree was available, a pirogue could be constructed in just a couple of days.  Sometimes a catamaran-like structure was created by constructing a platform across two pirogues, providing two covered cargo spaces and platform space.  Some of the larger variations were fifty or more feet long and five feet across, and were able to hold thirty men and forty or fifty tons of freight.  

Steamboats were introduced to the fur trade on the Missouri River, starting in the 1830's.  The use of steamboats was to be as revolutionary to the fur trade as the introduction of the Mountain Rendezvous system was in the 1820's.  Shallow draft vessels were capable of proceeding upriver as far as Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone River, and later as far as Fort Benton.  Steamboats were able to cover the distance in a fraction of the time that keelboats or barges could be hauled upriver, and could carry a much larger cargo with far fewer men required to do the work. Steamboats would affect the fur trade in two major ways:  a drastic reduction in shipping costs; and the ability to rapidly transport relatively huge quantities of merchandise far up the Missouri River.  This allowed the American Fur Company, owner of the steamboats, to establish a far flung network of fixed trading posts throughout the Northern Rocky Mountain region.  These posts would remain open for trade year-round, accepting skins and furs from mountain men and Indians alike.  

Dogs:  Dogs could be fitted with a pack or travois for carrying goods and when winter travel was necessary, the dog sled was often used in place of horses.

Back to the Top