The Free Life: Mountain Men and Fur Traders

“With a heavy rifle weighing from twelve to fourteen pounds, some jerked meat, and perhaps a few traps, we traveled on snowshoes for days, looking for sign, a new location for a winter camp where fur was more plentiful. When night came on we camped beneath some old spruce tree, only to go with daylight. We never suffered and were always healthy and strong.”

~ Frank Bird Linderman, Learning a Trapper's and Hunter's Art (c. 1935)
In Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Winter 2008

Unlike the later gold rush days, the mountain men and fur trappers who came to Montana in the early 1800s didn't come to get rich. They came, instead, because the mountains and the wilderness, the vast blank spaces on the map, seduced them. Although few mountain men made much money at all, the harvests from Montana-probably America's richest fur country in the 1820s and 30s-made fortunes for the big fur companies. Initially, fur companies would send bands of one hundred men-called brigades-into the wilderness to trap for a few years and then return to St. Louis. However, as the industry grew-fueled by a fashion for tall beaver skin hats-a new pattern emerged. Individual trappers or perhaps groups of two or three-called free trappers-would go into the mountains for a season, and then meet with other trappers at the Rendezvous. At the Rendezvous, the trappers would trade their furs for supplies, and head once again into the wilderness.

Mountain men roamed the Northwest, charting the mountains and streams, learning how to live and survive in the rugged wilderness. Many mountain men went on to serve the army or pioneer as scouts and guides. Men like Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Jedediah Smith, and John Colter all began as fur trappers. Although the fur trade continued for quite a while-to the extent that Frank Bird Linderman could write of his time as a free trapper in 1885-by the 1850s, much of the fur trade had died. Fashions changed, silk replaced beaver skin, fur-bearing animals became rarer, and the west filled as people came, drawn by the lure of gold and free land. In 1857, French fur trapper Johnny Grant started a cattle ranch in the Deer Lodge Valley, a symbolic end to the days of the far roaming mountain man in Southwestern Montana.

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