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Definition: mountain man from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1839) : an American frontiersman (as a trapper) at home in the wilderness


Summary Article: mountain man from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Name given to beaver trappers working in the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountains of the USA, between the Great Plains, California, and Oregon, in the 1820s and 1830s. Their travels were crucial to the future development of the USA. They were the first Americans to describe the fertile valleys of California and Oregon and find the mountain passes later used by gold miners and settlers, and the first to map the area. By 1840 beaver hats had become unfashionable among the rich of Europe and America, silk gaining preference, and the era of the mountain men collapsed along with the demand for beaver fur. Many, however, remained as guides, profiting from their local knowledge and survival skills.

The impact of the mountain men was fully realized in the 1840s as westward expansion began. Americans in the East, hit by overcrowding and the increasing shortage of farmland, falling prices for farm produce, and the economic collapse of 1837, were willing to believe the men's often exaggerated stories about the fertile lands of California and Oregon, where fence posts reputedly sprouted roots. The published journals and sketches of mountain men such as Jim Bridger and Joseph Meek supplied Americans with vital information for travelling west. Mountain men first described the Yellowstone Plateau and the South Pass through the Rocky Mountains, a crucial route that allowed the wagon trains of the 1840s and 1850s to cross through the otherwise impassable mountains.

After the passage of the Pre-Emption Act (1841), allowing settlers to buy 65 ha/160 acres of land for a minimum fee after 14 months' residence, and miners proved it possible to cross the Great Plains in a wagon during the California gold rush, thousands of settlers began to go West.

Lifestyle Mountain men led dangerous and lonely lives; many died from the cold or attack by grizzly bears and were never seen again. Most were young single Americans from the East, attracted by the adventure offered by life in an unknown area. There were also large numbers from France, as well as American Indians from the peoples expelled from the eastern USA or from Oregon. The men lived on their own up in the mountains for the whole year, only meeting up at the annual rendezvous to sell their furs. Here they would buy supplies of guns, ammunition, clothes, and food. They also swapped stories of their exploits, which ended up in the newspapers of the East and helped to inform Americans of the West. Most mountain men would spend their entire year's profits at the rendezvous, engaging in gambling and drinking, and visiting prostitutes before returning to the mountains for another year.

The men had much in common with the American Indians of the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountains, such as the Shoshone and Blackfeet, and learned many of the survival skills that they had developed over the centuries. They copied their clothing, dressing in the furs of the animals abundant in the area, and learned how to hunt in the streams from friendly peoples such as the Shoshone. The Indians also taught them about herbal medicines available in the mountains, as well as the foods that could be harvested from nature. Many mountain men married Indian women to provide themselves with companionship on the mountains. Such family connections also gave them a safe haven during the freezing winters, and doubtless saved many lives after injury or attack.

essays

Settlers in American West

Homesteaders on Great Plains

© RM, 2016. All rights reserved.

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