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The North American fur trade started from the first time Europeans made contact with native peoples in North America. It ran out of steam around the time of the mid 19th century, although aspects of it would continue on well past that. Many fine books have been written on the history of the fur trade, and even an outline of that history is beyond the scope of this article.
The mountain men who trapped in the Rocky Mountains for beaver operated from about 1810-1840, although there is no hard and fast edge for those dates. These trappers relied on the supplies they carried with them or foraged, or that they traded for with local native people. Living very much “off the grid”, they played an important role in the early exploration of North America.
Part myth, part reality, the exploits of the mountain men still make for fascinating reading today, and aspects of their culture still live on, particularly among the black powder muzzleloading community. These men lived hard lives in the wilderness, largely disconnected from any supply lines or civilization, and we can still apply survival lessons they learned to modern living.
Survival Lessons of the Mountain Men
Keep Your Powder Dry
Most of us aren’t using flintlock muskets anymore. And those who do, generally do so as a hobby, rather than as a life or death hunting and defensive tool. However, keeping your powder dry shouldn’t be taken literally (although if you are running around in the woods with a flintlock, it is still a really good idea), but should be applied to all your important survival gear.
To the mountain man, wet gunpowder could be lethal, but so could wet clothing, blankets, or other equipment. Keeping yourself and your survival tools dry whenever possible makes it easier to stay alive.
It is, of course, impossible to stay dry all the time in a survival situation, but prioritizing what stays dry, and working to dry yourself and the rest of your gear off as quickly as possible is important. Today, we wouldn’t let our electronics get soaked, and I’m sure you can think of other things in your emergency kit that have to stay dry whenever possible.
Keeping yourself dry is vitally important. Mountain men wore waterproofed and water repellent clothing in the form of leather and tightly woven wool blankets. Today we have more advanced material, but the lesson remains the same.
Now That’s A Knife
One of the more romantic images of the mountain man includes his prowess in hand-to-hand fighting with a knife or tomahawk. It is true that mountain men would have to be prepared to engage in hand-to-hand combat, and many were skillful at it. It is something of a lost art today – thanks to advances in personal defense technology, but it is easy to forget that the mountain men weren’t carrying some sort of advanced tactical combat knife, but rather a utilitarian blade.
Modern preppers are spoiled. We have access to more gear at higher qualities and lower prices than at any point in history. Our premium quality gear is amazing, and even our low-cost entry-level gear can exceed in quality that mountain men would have carried. Which brings us to knives.
Variants of the popular Green River style knife were likely the most common utilitarian blade they carried, as it was suitabittle le for skinning, butchering and other related tasks. But it is unlikely they were used for defensive purposes, unless nothing else was available. Bowie knives and similar weapons would have been chosen for personal protection, but what does all this have to do with the modern prepper or homesteader?
Today, when shopping for survival knives, we are bombarded with ads for the latest and greatest knives. Advanced designs, fancy steel alloys, handles and sheaths made of advanced synthetic materials or exotic natural wood and leather. Regardless of if they are billed as tactical or some artistic handcrafted tool, the most important lesson is missed.
Gear snobs would scoff at the blades carried by mountain men. But you know what? They survived the harsh wilderness with them, while your modern knife snob needs a safe place to cry in if their hand-forged by a virgin blacksmith knife gets a scratch on it.
You don’t need fancy, exotic knives, you need knives that are simple and effective. If they are pretty or high end, that’s fine. If not, just get ones that work The important thing is that you know how to use them properly.
Keep It Simple Stupid
The KISS principle is something that is easily forgotten when making survival plans. Of course, we want our creature comforts and the advantages of modern society. So did mountain men, but they operated at the end of a very thin, unreliable supply line, so they had to bring everything they needed with them or try to acquire them locally through trade with natives.
That means they chose what would work, not what was most expensive or fashionable. In the harsh wilderness, you don’t want to find out that your equipment won’t hold up to hard use, or is prone to getting out of order. As a general rule, simple things tend to be both reliable and easy to maintain.
Your prepper supplies are no place for delicate tools. Mountain men chose simple, reliable equipment because it would keep working far away from civilization. While it probably isn’t advisable to operate with an early 19th century level of technology today, “simple” doesn’t have to mean primitive. A mountain man was as well equipped as his contemporaries in settled areas, he simply chose tools and supplies for function, which is a timeless lesson we can all learn from.
Mountain man conflicts with natives are legendary and are part of the complex geopolitical power plays that were going on between natives and encroaching Europeans. While epic fights make for great stories, we need to look at the other side of the coin. Many mountain men made friends with various tribes in the areas they were operating in.
Some mountain men took native wives, and there was extensive trade between fur trappers and natives, not only for fur but also for food, clothing and other locally sourced supplies. Many mountain men favored native-made clothing and valued the well-made leather goods they produced.
The lesson here is that it’s good to be on friendly terms with the people around you, and for all of the same reasons the mountain men made friends when they could. No matter how rugged and hardcore of an individual you are, you simply can’t do everything by yourself.
Not only is having a support group important, but it is equally important to understand and be friendly (or at least on even terms) with those around you. In an emergency, it’s better to have good neighbors rather than hostile ones.
Oh The Possibilities
Mountain men carried what is called a possibles bag. Looking very much like a large leather purse, the contents of these bags varied but adhered to the basic idea that they carried small items needed for day to day living.
A possibles bag might have carried eating utensils, spices, spectacles, a pocket knife, fire starting kit, sewing kit, all the tools for a flintlock musket, along with bullets and bullet mold, game calls for hunting, and whatever small sundry items the individual would have chosen to carry. There is no hard and fast list, and discussing the contents of a possibles bag is a great way to spark a lively discussion about what didn’t get mentioned.
The modern prepper might see a correlation to a bugout bag, or get home bag, but I think a possibles bag in the modern day is more like a basic everyday carry or EDC kit. Modern life has moved a lot of stuff from a possibles bag to our pockets, briefcases, backpacks, and glove compartments.
While we aren’t carrying musket tools in our bags anymore, we have plenty of other things that take up that space, typically personal electronics. In the present day, we can make our own possibles bag by considering the tools, personal effects and small pleasantries that we regularly carry with us – along with some basic survival tools and putting them in a backpack or other similar item.
Sometimes it is the little things that make or break a survival situation, and your modern possibles bag will provide those little tools and small comforts that really make the difference.
More Survival Lessons
There are more lessons we can glean from the mountain men that are applicable today. While it might sound new age and hippie-like, the mountain men lived close to nature. They used the natural materials they found around them; hunted, fished and trapped for food and revenue. However, they also failed to practice conservation techniques and destroyed huge populations of fur-bearing animals for short term economic gain.
We can learn lessons in harmony and conservation here. Live with nature, and don’t take too much from the land around you, or you’ll lose the resource altogether.
Mountain men adapted their lifestyle and equipment to the world around them. They dressed for the seasons and weather, replaced worn out manufactured clothing with native made or inspired substitutes, and often lived and died hard.
The distance of time has dimmed some of the harsher realities of mountain man life or framed it as a time of romance and excitement, but the truth is, living an isolated, primitive off-grid life is hard, regardless of the era in which you are living. It gets even harder if you are engaged in an extractive resource economy with boom and bust cycles. Adventure was counterbalanced with poverty and the excitement of the rendezvous which drove the cycle for another season.
Today it is easy to look to the next paycheck or next economic boom, or plan only for the next season of ups and downs. It is harder to make concrete long term plans, which is important if you plan to make use of any gains you might make in the short term. Live in the moment, but plan for the future.
We can look to the mountain man and early fur traders as examples of highly self-sufficient people who operated in an interconnected world of trade that spanned an entire continent. The fur trade played an important role in developing westward expansion in North America and was responsible for some of the earliest fortunes developed in the United States.
Defining mountain man is somewhat nebulous. It generally is taken to be fur traders who operated in and around the Rocky Mountains trapping and trading for beaver and other valuable hides to sell for use in manufacturing in the eastern United States or Great Britain. Changes in fashion and the dwindling beaver population spelled an end to the mountain men, but they often went on to continue other forms of trapping or became guides, or settled down somewhere in the western territories.
Reading some of their stories takes us back to a time and place where people were tested and forged in the wilderness while chasing profit and adventure. It is easy to look fondly on that distant time as something simpler and better. But it was punctuated by violence, substance abuse, hideous disease, and great physical suffering. The people who took part in the Rocky Mountain fur trade were a mixed group, ranging from the noble to the scoundrel. They represented a slice of society that preferred to operate away from civilization while providing the raw materials for the material pleasures of high society.
It is unlikely modern people will ever be called to live the kind of life the mountain men did. It is simply unsustainable on a large scale and relies on some form of civilization at the other end to function. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be inspired by their strength and deeds. We can take hints from their life on how to better plan for emergencies or simply live our lives a bit better.
Steve Coffman is a freelance writer and consulting historian. He has a BA in US history from The Evergreen State College and lives near Tacoma, Washington. He collects antique telephone insulators and is presently researching labor union relations in Washington State during WWI.