I have spent more than a little time reading about the Rocky Mountains and the mountain men eras. I first got interested in the California-Oregon trail, reading most of the published dairies, and some of the unpublished ones in the Bancroft Library in UC Berkeley. Fascinating stories and it almost led me to attempt the walk myself, from Independence to Sacramento. Another time, another blog.
What I noticed was, that nearly every train had a retired mountain man as their guide. Made sense, they knew most of the native trails, had a sense of where water was available, and how to avoid the Native Americans. So I started reading about the Mountain Men. I read lots, and lots. Who knew there were so many published books on the American Fur trade.
I drove to many of the Rendezvous sites and explored the various Holes. The American fur trade was organized differently than the Canadian. In Canada a fur outpost, or fort, would be established and then the various tribes would be encouraged to bring in furs in exchange for iron pots, rifles, knives, blankets and trinkets. In the American system, the traders would send men into the mountains, where they would live all year long, trapping beaver three seasons out of four, hole up for the winter somewhere, then meet the Company wagon supply at the pre-arranged Rendezvous. Each year a different place was chosen, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, was named such because of the Rendezvous there.
Jedidiah Smith was often the most prominent trapper mentioned in the books. Half his face ripped off by a grizzly bear, Bible reading, soft spoken man, a natural leader. He eventually became an owner and retired from the Rockies, only to start up a trade route from St. Louis to Taos, and somewhere in the Staked Plains was surrounded by Comanches and killed. I did admire the man, but I never would have joined any of his companies. He led the first Americans west across the high desert to California, then up to Washington and back to Rendezvous in Wyoming. What is not often mentioned is that he was very nearly the only survivor. While scouting the next day’s trail, the Umqua tribe wiped out his party and stole the furs. Smith managed to get the British factor in Vancouver to get some of the furs back, but the men were still dead.
On another expedition to the Mojave, there was another attack, where Smith was the survivor. I’d say it was dangerous times and unlucky to be with Smith. That’s when I started reading about Joseph Walker. He led a group of thirty plus trappers from the Green River to the Sierras, then climbed the Sierras and marched south down the ridge until he found Walker Pass. Along the way he was among the first Americans to look down into the Yosemite Valley, he couldn’t see a route down, but marked it on the map. Walker Lake, Prescott, Arizona, and dozens of other places in the West had Walker as their source. What I found interesting was that he brought nearly everybody back safely.
There was a time when his troop was surrounded by almost a thousand desert Utes, they were looking at the horses as meat for the winter. Walker’s men were heavily armed, and the standard had been to use the weapons to inflict harm and scare off the tribes. Instead, Walker had his men display a beaver pelt, then they laid it against the hillside. Half his men discharged their rifles at the pelt. The sound caused many of the Utes to back away, some left. Others remarked that the thunder sticks were scary but did no harm. That’s when Walker’s men showed the Utes the fifteen holes in the hide. They had a little conference, then left to hunt rabbits and the stray buffalo. No unnecessary blood lost. That was typical of Walker. A few days later was a different story, as many as thirty-nine were killed, but Walker was never quick on the trigger, and his men knew that he was the one who decided.
After years in the mountains, and being paid by mining companies to find silver, Walker retired to his daughter’s ranch in Martinez, Ca. In a very beautiful cemetery above the town, is the family plots and Walker’s tombstone. Back east, Daniel Boone has several gravesites, a fort, and a dozen parks named for him. Walker traveled three times the distance, and the entire West was his backyard. Very few know where he is buried.
I would have loved to be in his company.