Mountain men were trappers and explorers who roamed the North American Rocky Mountains from about 1810 to the early 1840s. Although primarily of Canadian or American origin, mountain men were of many ethnic, social and religious backgrounds. These men were primarily motivated by profit, trapping beaver and selling the skins, although some were more interested in exploring the West.
Historical reenactment of the dress and lifestyle of a mountain man, sometimes known as Buckskinning allows participants to recreate aspects of this historical period. Rendezvous and other reenacted events are both history oriented and social occasions. However, some modern men choose a lifestyle similar to that of historic mountain men, and may live and roam in the mountains of the west or the swamps in the southern United States.
An approximate 3,000 men ranged the mountains in the window between 1820 and 1840, the peak beaver harvesting period. While there were many free trappers, most mountain men were employed by fur companies. The life of a company man was almost militarized. The men had mess groups, hunted and trapped in brigades and always reported to the head of the trapping party. This man was called a "boosway", a bastardization of the term bourgeois. He was the leader of the brigade, the head trader and overall CEO.
In 1824, the rendezvous system was invented by William Henry Ashley. Companies would haul supplies to specific mountain locations in the spring, engage in trading with trappers, and bring pelts back to communities on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in the fall. Major William Henry Ashley started this system through the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. He sold this business to the outfit of Smith, Jackson and Sublette, while still making a profit by selling that firm their supplies. This system continued when other firms, particularly the American Fur Company, entered the field.
The annual Rendezvous was often held at Horse Creek on the Green River, now called the Upper Green River Rendezvous Site, near present-day Pinedale, Wyoming. By the mid-1830s it attracted 450-500 men, essentially all the American trappers and traders working in the Rockies, as well as large numbers of Native Americans. In the late 1830s the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) began a policy aimed at destroying the American fur trade. The HBC's annual Snake River Expedition was transformed from a trapping to a trading enterprise and visited the American Rendezvous to buy furs at low prices, beginning in 1834. The HBC was able to offer manufactured trade goods at prices far below that which American fur companies could compete with. By 1840 the HBC had effectively destroyed the American system, and the last Rendezvous was held in 1840. By 1841 the American Fur Company and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company were in ruins. And by 1846 there were only about 50 American trappers working in the Snake River country, compared to 500-600 in 1826. Soon after this strategic victory for the HBC, the Snake River route began the Oregon Trail, which brought a new form of competition.
A second trading and supply center grew up in Taos, in what is today New Mexico. This trade attracted, besides Anglo Americans, a large number of French Americans from Louisiana and some French Canadian trappers. Some New Mexicans also pursued the beaver trade, as Mexican citizens initially had some legal advantages. Trappers and traders in the Southwest covered territory that was generally inaccessible to the large fur companies, including New Mexico, Nevada, California and central and southern Utah.
Beaver pelts had been needed to make the beaver hats, initially popular in England. Fashions changed in the early 1840s, making beaver less valuable at the same time they became harder to find due to over trapping. The opening of the Oregon Trail and the use of the Mormon Trail provided trappers who wished to stay in the West opportunities for employment as guides and hunters.
After the short-lived American Pacific Fur Company was sold, the British controlled the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest, under first the North West Company and then the Hudson's Bay Company. To prevent American fur traders from competing, the British companies adopted a policy of destroying fur resources west of the Rocky Mountains, especially in the upper Snake River country. After the Hudson's Bay Company took over operations in the Pacific Northwest in 1821 the Snake River country was rapidly trapped out, which effectively halted American expansion into the region. After 1825 few American trappers worked west of the Rocky Mountains, and those that did generally found it unprofitable. According to historian Richard Mackie, this policy of the Hudson's Bay Company forced American trappers to remain in the Rocky Mountains, which gave rise to the term "mountain men".
Most trappers traveled and worked in companies and their dress combined woolen hats and cloaks with serviceable Indian style leather breeches and shirts. Mountain men often wore moccasins, but generally carried a pair of heavy boots. Each mountain man also carried basic gear, which could include arms, powder horns and a shot pouch, knives and hatchets, canteens, cooking utensils, and supplies of tobacco, coffee, salt and pemmican. Horses or mules were essential, a riding horse for each man and at least one for carrying supplies and furs.
With the exception of coffee, food supplies duplicated the diet of native tribes in various locations. Fresh red meat, fowl, and fish were generally available. Some plant foods, such as fruit and berries, were easy for the men to harvest. But foods which required time for preparation, such as roots, dried meat and pemmican, were generally obtained from tribes through trading. However, in times of crisis and bad weather, mountain men were known to slaughter and eat their horses and mules.