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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

The Mountain Man: An American Original

Updated: Jan 12, 2022


Early frontier mountain men (and women—yes, they existed! See a future post.) were the precursors to the pioneers and settlers who came West. Mountain men in American history are generally associated with the Western mountains—the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, the Bitterroots, the Cascades. But there were also even earlier mountain men exploring the Eastern mountain ranges too—primarily the Appalachians that extended for nearly the entire eastern seaboard from the south in what would become Mississippi and Alabama up through Kentucky and Tennessee up into even Pennsylvania and New York. Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett come to mind.

Mountain men generally ventured out into the western wilderness reaches to trap and hunt for animal pelts that could bring relatively big money (for the day). Beaver were the most commonly traded pelts to supply a booming European and world market for top hats. But other pelts had value, too. Some mountain men were also hired by entrepreneurs and companies who saw opportunities to settle land for future settlers or develop the virgin land’s natural resources, primarily minerals for mining, forests for the timber industry, or water ways for trade or to build mills. Those mountain men were hired as explorers and also surveyors, who would map out the land and waterways.

The popular American legends of singular mountain men who eschewed humans and lived solely on their own is more a popular myth than reality. Although such men (and women) did exist, the truth was that most mountain men traveled in brigades for survival. Mountain men were the first whites to trade with Natives tribes and establish a rapport with the indigenous people on the continent. But, some tribes remained hostile and suspicious of the whites (often with good reason, since they not only brought disease, but other dangers to Native Americans). A surprising number of mountain men ended their lives being killed by hostile tribes.

There have been some very notable and critically acclaimed Hollywood movies that managed to “get it right” regarding the true nature of mountain men’s lives. The best three (at least in my opinion) are “The Revenant” (2015) starring Leonardo DiCaprio , “Jeremiah Johnson” (1972) starring Robert Redford, and “A Man Called Horse” (1970) starring Richard Harris. Another one that gets “honorable mention” is “The Big Sky,” (1952) starring Kirk Douglas. This movie based on A.B. Guthrie’s epic classic gets high marks for accuracy, especially for the historically correct flintlock rifles and muzzleloaders in the movie. Given that the 1950s was a time when many westerns depicted native Americans as white men with wigs riding horses with blankets draped over Western saddles, such attention to detail and accuracy in a 1952 movie was extraordinary. What are your favorite frontier movies? Please share!

Below are two wonderful short videos that will give you a flavor of what the genuine mountain man life was like and how modern-day enthusiasts have tried to capture that life.

In this NatGeo video, modern-day mountain men reenactors tell it like it was:

The story of three naïve young men in the 1970s who rode from Arizona to Canada totally roughing it—six months & 3,300 miles !

You may also enjoy these related posts:

-Daniel Boone, Frontier Icon

-Grizzly Adams


"The Mountain Man: An American Original" was originally published on Facebook on April 13, 2020.

173,231 views / 1,342 likes / 923 shares / 356 comments

©2021 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER

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Notes From The Frontier
Notes From The Frontier
Apr 13, 2020

As always, thanks Pat! Will look into this story. Sounds intriguing.👍

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Pat Cassidy
Pat Cassidy
Apr 13, 2020

A fascinating story of modern day mountain men who made a paradise in the Canadian north ... Richard Hobson and Pan Phillips ... riveting, and true: https://www.amazon.com/Grass-Beyond-Mountains-Discovering-Frontier/dp/1400026628

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular NotesfromtheFrontier.com blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook

 

Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  

 

Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on DeborahHufford.com, Facebook, and Instagram.

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