Today people usually call them mountain men – the beaver trappers of the Rocky Mountain West. Popular literature and movies often portray them as crusty old coots providing comic relief in cowboy stories. But in their prime, fifty years before west of the cowboys, the mountain men lived a mythic period of American history – this was the west of Hugh Glass.
They usually called themselves mountaineers rather than mountain men. They were mostly young, in their twenties and thirties. Daring, curious or rebellious, each of them chose to leave the familiarity of the settlements to take part in the first commercial enterprise of the American West – the beaver fur trade.
Hat makers in the US and Europe made their best felt hats using beaver fur, and this demand created economic ties between remote trapping grounds and the rest of the world. Though commerce, the fur trade connected cities, frontiers, and Native Americans. This industry also needed enterprising men like Glass to live and hunt among the mountains for years at a time.
The mountaineers developed skills to live in the west of the 1820s. They gained a mental picture of the country that was much more accurate than the sketchy maps of the day. They learned to communicate with the Native people, and to recognize friends and foes. The mountaineers learned how to survive more than a thousand miles beyond the settlements with limited supplies, a rifle and a few tools. They traveled distances that dwarfed the frontiers of their grandparents’ time. The learning curve was steep and some didn’t survive their education. The story tellers among them would let you know that in the Rockies the mountain men lived a tall tale every day.
Hugh Glass’ survival against the odds – mauled by a grizzly bear, left for dead without weapons or equipment to survive or die alone – was a story so amazing that it became legend even among the mountaineers themselves. Recounted around camp fires during Glass’ own lifetime, the story made it into print a mere two years after the incident, and the drama of it still echoes today.
100 Enterprising Young Men – Ashley Enters the Fur Trade
There were frontiersmen in the Rocky Mountains before and after William Ashley’s time in the fur trade, but it was the adventures of Ashley’s men along the Missouri River and among the beaver rich western streams that marked the beginning of the classic “mountain man” period in the American West. A hard pull up the Missouri River in 1823 and a sharp fight at the Arikara villages put Hugh Glass on the historical stage with other Ashley men, and soon-to-be legends: Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, David Jackson, James Clyman, James Bridger, Moses Harris, Thomas Fitzpatrick and many more.
By the 1820, a renewed interest in the Rocky Mountain beaver fur trade prompted Saint Louis capitalists to look westward. William Ashley, Lieutenant Governor of Missouri, as well as businessman and militia general, decided to enter the fur trade in 1822. Andrew Henry was, at that time, one of few men with personal experience running trapping and trading ventures in the Rocky Mountains. As partners in a new fur company, Henry would command in the field and Ashley would handle logistics and finance.
It was the Henry-Ashley partnership that posted the 1822 advertisement in Saint Louis newspapers seeking “Enterprising Young Men” to ascend the Missouri as hunters. Among others, Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, and boatman Mike Fink heeded the call this first year. The plan was to establish a fort on the upper Missouri, supply it by keelboat, and use it as a base from which to send trappers out into the mountains. The company would primarily harvest furs directly rather than depend on Indians to bring furs in to trade.
In 1822, Ashley and Henry both made the keelboat voyage upriver, and their men built Fort Henry where the Yellowstone River meets the Missouri. Ashley returned downriver to organize and command the 1823 resupply trip. The pool of manpower was tight in Saint Louis as several trading companies competed for frontier talent, and Ashley had to scrape near the bottom of the barrel. He managed to hire Hugh Glass, William Sublette, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and James Clyman that year.
Once Ashley and the new crew got underway, the journey was weeks of poling, hauling, and only occasionally sailing heavily loaded 40 to 60-foot keelboats hundreds of miles against the current of the snag-filled Missouri. Fifteen miles was a good day. Fort Henry, at the mouth of the Yellowstone, was approximately 2,000 river miles from Saint Louis.
In what is now central South Dakota, Jedediah Smith arrived by canoe from upriver with a message for Ashley from Andrew Henry. Henry was in desperate need of horses because a raid by Assiniboine Indians ran off his herd. The rivers that led further into the mountains from Fort Henry were not suited to boat travel and Henry needed horses to get his hunters into the field with their traps. The timing of the message was good. Ashley had not yet passed the Arikara villages where horse trading was a specialty. Once he got a new herd, he would split his men, dispatching one group with the horses overland to Fort Henry while the rest of them finished hauling the boats up the Missouri to the fort.
Article by: Scott Walker
See Sources page for the original accounts of the Hugh Glass story…