Emma Butcher, ‘Strong, Active and Hardy as Bears’: The Mountain Men of the ‘Wild West’

This man, known through the Territories and beyond them as ‘Rocky Mountain Jim’, or, more briefly, as ‘Mountain Jim’, is one of the famous scouts of the Plains, and is the original of some daring portraits in fiction concerning Indian Frontier warfare. So far as I have at present heard, he is a man for whom there is now no room, for the time for blows and blood in the part of Colorado is past, and the fame of many daring exploits is sullied by crimes which are not easily forgiven here. He now has a ‘squatter’s claim’, but makes his living as a trapper, and is a complete child of the mountains. Of his genius and chivalry to women there does not appear to be any doubt; but he is a desperate character, and is subject to ‘ugly fits’, when people think it best to avoid him. It is here regarded as an evil that he has located himself at the mouth of the only entrance to the park, for he is dangerous with his pistols, and it would be safer if he were not here. His besetting sin is indicated in the verdict pronounced on him by my host: ‘When he’s sober Jim’s a perfect gentleman; but when he’s had liquor he’s the most awful ruffian in Colarado’. [i]

Isabella Bird’s brief encounter with Jim is a fascinating read, and one that truly captures the romantic imagination. A highly amusing account of their relationship has been written on the bizarrevictoria blog, documenting that, after becoming acquainted with one another, Isabella and Jim upheld a non-sexual relationship, indulging in emotionally and intellectually charged conversations over a month or so. In fact, Jim is revealed to be much like a Byronic stereotype, with his troubled back-story, paired with his noble profile, golden curls and magnificent brow. One side of his face was disfigured after being mauled in a bear attack: in the assault he lost his left eye, nose, ear and was scalped. Eventually, long after his encounter with Isabella, his rival, Griffith J. Evans, shot him; he later died from his injuries.

‘Mountain Jim’ is just one example of many mountain men that populated the North American Rocky Mountains during the nineteenth century. Although mountain men still exist today, the years between 1810-1880 saw the golden age of this group, their presence in the mountains instrumental in the ‘Manifest Destiny’ dream, opening up the emigrant trails that many Americans used to colonise the West-coast of America. Mountain men were, effectively, trappers and explorers, initially make their living through the fur trade, then, when this collapsed, earning a living as guides and hunters for wagon parties. Collectively, this group embody the romanticism of the ‘wild west’. Although they were bound by the economics of the fur trade, their free way of living did not place them in any specific stereotypical group. They did not conform to religious practises, often forming their own codes of chivalry, liaised with both white settlers and Native American tribes, and acted as their own nurses and cooks. When in want of a wife, many would take Native American women as brides: this painting by Alfred Jacob Miller exposes a deal in which a trapper pays $600 in trade goods in exchange for one of the tribe’s women.

"The Trappers Bride", by Alfred Jacob Miller - Walters Art Museum.

Back in ‘civilised’ society, the mountain man was a debated figure in the popular press. In the Chamber’s Journal, a contributor noted:

I have met honest mountain-men. Their animal qualities, however, are undeniable. Strong, active, hardy as bears, daring, expert in the use of their weapons, they were just what uncivilised white man might be supposed to be in a brute state, depending upon his instinct for the support of life. [ii]

Like other anxiety-inducing non-Western ‘others’ that needed to be civilised, publications emerged that attempted to tame the mountain man, such as Ellen Huntley Mason’s Civilizing Mountain Men: Or, Sketches of Mission Work Among the Karens (1862). Many notable figures, however, have achieved their legendary status by others promoting and celebrating their ‘wild’ way of life, and the contributions their non-conformity offered to contemporary American society: Jim Beckwourth (1800-1866) became a war chief of the Crow and led the first wagon settlers through a self-discovered mountain trail in 1851; Seth Kinman (1815-1888) claimed to have shot over 800 grizzly bears, made chairs, and performed the fiddle for Abraham Lincoln using the skull of a mule; Jim Bridger (1804-1881) stories of the natural world and Indian skirmishes spread far and wide, even years after this death ; and Kit Carson (1809-1868) became immortalised in dime novels, which were mass-produced as cheap, romance and adventure stories.

Mountain man, Seth Kinman in 1864.

Although modern day mountain men still live and hunt in the Rockies, the romance of the period is encapsulated throughout the Victorian era, the men of the mountains becoming bound up in the legend of the Wild West. The nineteenth-century mountain man was an economic and culturally significant figure in colonial America, their part in expansionism and the ‘American Dream’ an important contribution to Western history. The legend, however, may be different from the reality; as this post has shown, the mountain man was a controversial, often feared figure. I leave you now with this article from 2012, which still demonstrates the fear extended towards the modern-day mountain man. It appears that, over a century later, there is still an indistinct boundary between the mountain man as folk hero and criminal, recent reports showing that this roaming way of life has appealed to criminals, extremists and outlaws.

[i]Isabella Bird, ‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879)’, in 1900, ed. By Mike Jay and Michael Neve. London: Penguin, 1999, pp. 245-6.

[ii]‘The Trappers of the Rocky Mountains’, Chambers Edinburgh Journal, January 1848. Edinburgh: William and Robert Chambers, 1848, p. 41.

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