It is important to note that there are many historical – and film – figures connected to the American West beyond that of just cowboys. Between the Lewis & Clark Expedition (1804-1806) and the US Civil War from 1861-1865, the famous “mountain men” were central non-Indigenous figures in the American West. Based in the Rocky Mountains, these men were fur trappers, explorers and provided much of the geographic knowledge necessary for later non-Indigenous settlers moving westward.
“The Rocky Mountain Man – Long Jakes” (Artist: Charles Deas, 1818-1867)
It has been estimated that approximately 3,000 mountain men lived in, trapped and explored the Rockies between the 1820s and the 1840s – the peak of the mountain man era had occurred by the year 1840. From 1825-1840, the mountain men would gather at a “rendezvous” in late summer to socialize, trade goods and purchase supplies. The event could last for several weeks and could be wild affairs with drinking, dancing, gambling, and impromptu competitions such as wrestling matches and tomahawk throwing competitions. Indigenous groups would also attend the rendezvous gathering to trade for goods.
One of the original motivators for the Rocky Mountain fur trade was fashion – beaver fur was used for popular beaver felt hats in Europe and the Eastern US. This fashion craze lasted for approximately fifty years – i.e. from the late 18th century to the 1840s. While some continued the mountain men lifestyle into the 1880s, by the 1840s the peak mountain man era had ended. Both the supply of beaver and demand for its fur decreased – the supply from over-trapping and the demand from a shift in fashion styles. Some mountain men would move into work as scouts, guides and hunters for settlers emigrating west.
As a tribute to the mountain man era, many people participate as historical re-enactors in the ongoing annual “Rocky Mountain Rendezvous” in the Rocky Mountain states. In terms of Western films, one of the more successful and serious treatments of the mountain man era has been Robert Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972), directed by Sydney Pollack, which grossed almost $45 million at the box office.
Will Geer and Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
Beyond re-enactment, there are a few individuals who still effectively live today as mountain men and a new show on the History Channel is showcasing such men.
Launched in 2012, Mountain Men follows three men as they seek to live in tune with nature. With locations in Montana, Alaska and the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, viewers are given a glimpse into the rewards and challenges of their chosen lifestyle “off the grid”. Here is a clip in which the men discussed necessary skills for their way of life:
For more information about the History’s Channel’s Mountain Men, including episode details, click this link: mountainmen
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)