Mountain men have long been part of the lore from the American West. These men were some of the few non-natives to venture into the vast wilds of North America and survive.
Many of the grizzled, self-sufficient men were fur trappers, traders, and explorers. They helped to blaze many of the trails that were later used by the pioneers.
The stories of their larger-than-life exploits are the stuff of legends and are told around the campfire today. Here are six of these adventurers who left their mark on the American frontier.
The first mountain man of this list is John Colter. Born in Virginia, he left civilization for the wild in the year 1804 when he went on a journey to the Pacific Ocean and back as part of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. For many of the expedition’s members, two years in the wilderness was enough to last a lifetime. Colter was of a different mind, however, and as the expedition made its way home in 1806, he decided to strike out on a career as a fur trapper. He is considered one of America’s original mountain men—he may have even been the first white man to lay eyes on what would become Yellowstone National Park.
A section of Wyoming’s Shoshone River even became known as “Colter’s Hell” for his descriptions of its geothermal activity. Colter’s life was exciting—how could it not be in the wilds? For example, he was wounded while fighting alongside Crow and Flathead tribesmen. The most exciting chapter in his life occurred in 1809, however. A band of Blackfeet had managed to capture Colter while he was trapping near Three Forks, Montana. They killed his partner and stripped Colter naked. After giving him a brief head start, they chased him as if he were wild game.
Somehow ignoring the rocks and cacti that stabbed at his bare feet, Colter outran most of the warriors. When one of his pursuers did catch up with him, the mountain man disarmed and killed him. Several days and over 200 miles later, he staggered into a fort wearing only a blanket. He would recover, return to the wilderness for a few more years, and then retire to a Missouri farm 1810.
Jim Bridger was only eighteen years old when he joined with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1822. His first trapping expedition was along the Missouri River and would mark the beginning of a forty-five-year career. He would go on to discover new routes across the frontier and found a trading fort on the Oregon Trail. Over the years, he had three different wives who hailed from the Native American tribes.
Bridger was the first Anglo-American to see the Great Salt Lake, and, after he tasted the water, incorrectly identified the body of water as part of the Pacific Ocean. When the fur trade began to decline, this mountain man re branded himself as a trader and a wilderness guide. The Badger’s Pass and Bridger Trail, both well-travelled by pioneers and gold-seekers, were blazed by Bridger. The U.S. Army hired him as a scout as well. Had his health continued to hold, he probably would have continued his lifestyle.
As it was, health problems forced “Old Gabe” Bridger to retire in the late 1860s. The stories of his exploits continued to grow even after his retirement, and one historian even labelled Bridger as a walking “atlas of the West.”
Christopher “Kit” Carson
Our third mountain man is the folk hero, Christopher “Kit” Carson. Kentucky-born Carson was once a saddlemakers’s apprentice, but at the age of sixteen, he fled. Although he was illiterate and rather small in stature, Carson spend several years working as a fur trapper, teamster, and buffalo hunter out in the West. Despite not being able to read, he had a knack for languages—he learned half a dozen native languages.
Not only that, but he knew the wilderness like the back of his hand. John C Frémont, an explorer, became aware of Carson in 1842 and enlisted him to act as a guide for a mission to map the American West. Eventually, the pair teamed up on three excursions across the Rocky Mountains, California, and Oregon. After Frémont praised his skills, Carson became a frontier celebrity. This fame would grow as stories about Carson spread—such as the story when he slipped past enemy lines at the Battle of San Pasquale and walked, barefoot, thirty miles back to San Diego in order to fetch reinforcements.
After that, Carson served as a wagon train guide for a while and then became a Union army officer during the Civil War. Although he battled Confederates during the Battle of Valverde (1862) in modern day New Mexico, he spent much of the war leading a series of controversial campaigns to subdue the Navajo and other Southwestern tribes. Unlike the Bridger or Colter, Carson did not get to enjoy retired life. He passed away from an aneurysm in 1868, just a year after being mustered out of the army as a brigadier general. His last words were reportedly, “Doctor, compadre, adios!”