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  • Notes From The Frontier

The Mountain Man: An American Original

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.

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