Mountain Men

With five days to go until the launch of The Shifting Winds, today’s post will focus on those intrepid mountain men who went out into the wilds of the Rocky Mountains to trap beaver for the American fur companies in St. Louis. From the early 1820s until 1840 these trappers worked the mountain streams and developed a lifestyle of their own. Company caravans took supplies to the Rockies for an annual summer rendezvous where they traded for beaver the mountain men had gleaned during the year. So the trappers never had to leave the mountains. Some didn’t go home to the States in all that time, maintaining a tenuous link with civilization as they had once known it.

George profile jpgPhotos courtesy of Douglas County Museum

George Abdill may not look like a mountain man in the pictures above and below, but the spirit of a mountain man lived in George’s heart.

Some years ago when I decided to write a book about the American frontier, with mountain men and pioneers and British fur traders, I went to see George Abdill, director of our local Douglas County Museum at the time. George was a man who held in his mind so much information, a person could ask him a question and he would answer with a chapter. When I told him about the setting and characters of my story, he smiled and sat back in his chair, his tone turning wistful. “If I could go back in time and choose what I would like to be, I would be a mountain man.”

George headshot jpgWow! What a great source for these stories!

He’s not wearing buckskins in the photos. He doesn’t have a powder horn and bullet pouch slung over his shoulder. And he’s not carrying a muzzleloader, but he knew how to shoot one and told me how to reload the single-shot weapon on the run while riding full tilt after buffalo. So, imagine him in buckskins, as he could have surely imagined himself.

The mountain men who trapped beaver in the Rocky Mountains generally wore buckskins because these trappers worked in rough country and the durable buckskin protected their own skin, also because they lived and worked with Native Americans who often wore deerskin clothing themselves. Fringes—or whangs—on the outer arm seams and leg seams offered more than style. The fringes helped the garment shed water by acting as wicks, an important feature for men who waded into streams to trap beaver and faced all kinds of weather.

Here’s how protagonist Jennie Haviland sees American mountain man Jake Johnston on first meeting:

“She managed to push back to arm’s length and quickly surveyed him from the smiling face down over the buckskin-covered length of him to the moccasins on his feet. He wore a buckskin shirt, much like their young Indian guide’s—fringed, embroidered, belted at the waist—but unlike the guide he wore long, trim-fitting buckskin breeches with fringes running down the outer seams. He was armed—a knife in a sheath on his belt, a pistol stuck into the belt, and powder horn and bullet pouch slung over his shoulder. With determination, she pushed back harder and he released his grip on her.

“He spoke with a drawl, still smiling. ‘Ma’am, may I have the utmost pleasure and privilege of welcoming you to the fair Willamette Valley? My name is Jacob Obadiah Johnston.’ He backed up a step, sweeping one hand before himself as he gave her a deep bow, the long fringes on his buckskin sleeve swishing with the motion. Standing straight again, he grinned wider. ‘My friends call me Jake. And you would be . . . ?’

“She could only stand and stare . . .”

The Shifting Winds is the fourth pioneer story I wrote, the fourth serious novel, and its pages are infused with the information and spirit provided by mountain man dreamer George Abdill. I wish he were still alive to thank for all the help he gave me.

NEXT: Joe Meek, Mountain Man Extraordinaire


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