Trappers’ Daily Lives

The fur trade west of the Mississippi River began in the mid-1700s. At first, the Europeans and Americans involved in the trade did not intend to hunt and trap the beaver and other fur-bearing animals themselves. Rather, they hoped that the Indians in the region would supply the furs in exchange for guns, knives, and traps. By the early 1800s, however, they realized that the Indians could not (or would not) produce enough furs to satisfy the demand for fur in Europe and America.

The companies involved in the fur trade began in the 1820s to employ their own hunters and trappers. These hunters and trappers lived year-round in the mountains, close to their work. The life was hard and it was dangerous. The following screens describe what the daily life of these trappers and hunters was like.

A Mountain Man

This is a drawing of a fur trapper of the early 1800s. The artist, Frederick Remington, drew this image years after these "mountain men" had passed from the scene. Remington imagined the trappers to be rugged individuals who faced hardships and dangers all alone. Trappers did live close to nature. They hunted wild game for food and wore clothing made of animal skins. Some trappers did work alone. However, most worked for fur companies that sent trappers out in small groups. Few had to face the dangers of the wilderness by themselves.

A Mountain Man

Photo: Colorado Historical Society

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The vast majority of mountain men worked directly for a large fur trading company. These companies employed hundreds of trappers and hunters at a time. These hunters and trappers worked for wages. The companies supplied the hired trappers with their food, equipment, and other supplies. The furs produced by these hunters belonged to the company.

Their Own Words

To Enterprising Young Men

The subscriber wishes to engage ONE HUNDRED MEN, to ascend [travel up-stream] the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two or three years.--For particulars enquire of Major Andrew Henry, near the Lead Mines, in the County of Washington, (who will ascend with, and command the party) or to the subscriber at St. Louis.
--Wm. H. Ashley"

Source: Missouri Gazette and Advertiser (1822) quoted in George Laycock, The Mountain Men (Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 1996): 77.

Trappers Resting

Alfred Miller drew this sketch of trappers at rest to show the kinds of clothing they wore. The store-bought clothes that trappers had worn when they traveled to the mountains soon wore out. They replaced these with clothing similar to that worn by Indians in the area. They wore outer garments made of buckskin with seams fringed with leather. They used the fringes as string or thread to repair clothing, moccasins and equipment. The trappers wore under shirts made of flannel or cotton. When those wore out, they made shirts of antelope or deer skins.

Trappers Resting

Photo: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (37.1940.29)

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The trappers quickly wore out their shoes or boots. They replaced them with Indian-style moccasins, usually made of buffalo hide. They made stockings from parts of blankets they brought with them. They used buffalo skin to make the lower part of trouser legs, as buckskin usually lost its shape or shrank in water (where trappers spent much of their time during trapper season). Buffalo robes served as blankets and heavy coats during cold winter weather. Trappers also wore fur hats with ear flaps in winter time.

Their Own Words

"The trappers in the sketch are en repose [resting], the peculiar caps on their heads are made by themselves, to replace the felt hats, long since worn out or lost,--their fringed shirts, 'leggings,' moccasins &c., are made by the Indian women, and sewed throughout with sinew instead of thread, which they do not possess."

Source: Alfred Jacob Miller, The West of Alfred Jacob Miller (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951): text for plate 29.

Camp Receiving A Supply Of Meat

Alfred Miller drew this sketch to show hunters returning to camp with a supply of meat. Trappers depended upon themselves to supply their own food and water. They lived mostly on meat from animals they killed. In the larger camps, the most skilled hunters did most of the hunting. In smaller camps, the trappers often took turns hunting for game. When hunting was good and meat plentiful, the trappers gorged themselves on the best parts of the buffalo or other game. The tongue, liver, and the hump ribs of buffalo were the choice parts. When game was less plentiful, the trappers ate even the toughest parts of the meat.

Camp Receiving A Supply Of Meat

Photo: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (37.1940.50)

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When food was scarce, as the trappers said, "meat was meat." By this they meant that in hard times they would eat just about anything. This included beaver, rabbits, and other small animals. In really hard times, the trappers ate their own pack animals, and in some cases even their own moccasins. Starving trappers even ate insects. Trapper Joe Meek, for example, was so hungry that once he held his hands over an ant hill. When his hands were covered with ants, he licked them clean.

Their Own Words

"As there are about 120 men to be provided for daily in our company, it may readily be conceived that great care was taken in selecting of hunters to the camp.    

Very often, going out alone, the hunter is apt to encounter hostile Indians, so that in addition to his being a prime marksman, courage and perseverance were requisite. Selecting the 'Buffler' (Buffalo) 'seal fat,' he takes the finest morsels, hump rib, fleece, tongue, and side ribs, packs them, and then away to camp."

Source: Alfred Jacob Miller, The West of Alfred Jacob Miller (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951): text for plate 50.

Breakast At Sunrise

Alfred Miller titled this sketch "breakfast at sunrise." The title suggests that the trappers began work early and ended it late. Even so, the trappers' daily life depended upon the time of year. Trappers' work was seasonal. They usually went on two hunts every year--one in the fall and one in the spring. At these times, the trappers fanned out searching for beaver. The camps were busiest at these times. The trappers hunted and brought back pelts. The camp-keepers, in turn, scraped, stretched, and otherwise prepared the pelts for packing. At the same time, hunters supplied meat for the busy, and hungry, workers.

Breakfast At Sunrise

Photo: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (37.1940.52)

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In the summer, the trappers were less busy. They moved about more, hunted game and fish, and otherwise relaxed more than during the hunting seasons. Summertime was also the season for the trappers' annual rendezvous. In the winter, the trappers stayed close to their camps. They built solid shelters to keep warm and dry. They did not hunt for furs in winter, but they did have to hunt for food, wood, and water. This kind of work was even more difficult to accomplish in winter.

Their Own Words

"The sketch represents 'our mess' at the morning meal. . . . The plate service of the table is of capital ["the best'] tin ware . . . and the etiquette rigid in some particulars;--for instance, nothing in the shape of a fork must be used. With the 'Bowie' [knife] you separate a large rib from the mass before you, hold firmly to the smaller end, and your outrageous appetite teaches you all the rest. . . . Indians are looking on patiently, in order to be ready for the 2d table [i.e., they were served second]."

Source: Alfred Jacob Miller, The West of Alfred Jacob Miller (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951): text for plate 52.

Camp By Moonlight

Alfred Miller titled this sketch "moonlight camp scene" and the trapper standing is "spinning a yarn." One of the chief entertainments of the mountain men was yarn-spinning or telling stories around the night camp fire. The talk around the evening camp fire was a way for trappers to amuse themselves. It also was a way to pass on important "lessons" of the trappers' life. Perhaps this was because most mountain men were young and uneducated. Many were illiterate. Unfortunately, they did not write down or preserve many of these stories.

Camp By Moonlight

Photo: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (37.1940.135)

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In his book Across the Wide Missouri, Bernard De Voto wrote that spinning yarns was one way that the mountain men passed on important craft wisdom to the "greenhorns," that is, those new to the business.
"It was shop talk, trapping, hunting, trailing, fighting Indians, escaping from Indians, the lore of animals and plants, and always the lay of the land and old friends revisited and new fields to be found, water and starvation and trickery and feasts. . . . "

Source: Bernard De Voto, Across the Wide Missouri (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947): 51.

Their Own Words

"An old trapper is up on his feet spinning a yarn wherein he is giving an account of an adventure of Markhead's with a grizzly bear. According to his account, Markhead was afraid of nothing on or under this eart, and 'was bound to shine [stand out] in the biggest sort of crowd' . . . During the recital there was a running commentary from the Trappers.--'Wagh' ' he was some'--'had old grit in him'--'could take the grissle off a darned panther's tail.' &c."

Source: Alfred Jacob Miller, The West of Alfred Jacob Miller (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951): text for plate 135.

Free Trappers In Trouble

Alfred Miller titled this drawing "free trappers in trouble." Their trouble was that they were starving when Miller's caravan found them along the trail. Mountain men lived most of the year cut off from all contacts with the east. Except for short periods at the summer rendezvous, they lived a primitive way of life. They had to adapt to the environment in which they found themselves. They faced dangers of all sorts and had to rely on one another to avoid, or deal with, these dangers.

Free Trappers In Trouble

Photo: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (37.1940.163)

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Trappers faced many hardships and dangers. They had to provide their own food, clothing and shelter. When they or their animals were injured, they had to treat the injury. They had to repair broken traps and rifles. The dangers they faced included attacks by hostile Indians and encounters with ferocious grizzly bears. Most mountain men became used to the hardships, as few of them returned to civilized society. Most chose to stay in the west.

Their Own Words

"The sketch illustrates an incident of two mountain Trappers, found near Independence Rock, in a starving condition. . . . [T]heir ammunition was completely exhausted,--but on that morning one of them had succeeded in killing two rattle snakes, which were in the process of cooking on the fire. Our Captain's question to them was, 'Good God! how can you eat such disgusting food?' One of them answered, 'This child doe'st savez [savvy--understand] what disgustin' is'--Wagh!"

Source: Alfred Jacob Miller, The West of Alfred Jacob Miller (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951): text for plate 163.

The Greeting

Alfred Miller titled this sketch "the greeting." It shows trappers greeting a caravan of supplies from the east. For most of the year, mountain men were isolated from the outside world. Once a year the mountain men made contact with that world to exchange their furs for various kinds of goods. Before 1825, these exchanges took place at trading posts owned by the fur companies. After 1825, the companies created a new system for exchanging furs for goods. Each summer the trappers and fur company agents met at an agreed upon place. This was called the yearly rendezvous, a French word that means meeting place.

The Greeting

Photo: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (37.1940.133)

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The mountain men looked forward to these meetings. They allowed them to replace broken or lost equipment, to get new supplies of powder, flints, and shot, and to get favored luxury items such tobacco and liquor. The fur trade was a global business. That is, most of the furs trappers in the Rocky Mountains produced found their way into an international market. European demand for furs gave the furs their value. It was the primary reason why trapping was a lucrative job for the mountain men. When the European demand for fur declined in the 1840s, the value of furs declined and the fur trade collapsed.

Their Own Words

"In approaching our destination . . . our ears were saluted by sounds that raised the pulse immediately . . . . It was a tremendous Indian yell of a large body of men, and we heard the clattering of their horses as they came down the valley,--as soon however as we had sight of them, we were relieved;--it was a body of Trappers, who had heard of our approach and sallied forth to give us a greeting;--this was done by a [firing] of blank cartridges and a hearty shaking of hands among the merry fellows."

Source: Alfred Jacob Miller, The West of Alfred Jacob Miller (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951): text for plate 133.

Fort Laramie

Alfred Miller drew this sketch of Fort Laramie on his way to a rendezvous. It was a large trading post in what is now Wyoming. At first, the fur trading companies tried to have Indians supply them with furs. The companies established a series of forts, or trading posts like this one, where Indians could exchange their furs for manufactured items. The companies even established smaller trading posts that moved around to be more convenient for the Indians. The companies soon gave up on this idea. The trading posts proved too expensive to maintain. The Indians produced too few furs to satisfy the demand for them.

Fort Laramie

Photo: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (37.1940.49)

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In 1825, William Ashley struck upon the idea of a yearly rendezvous to exchange goods for furs. For the next 20 years or so, the rendezvous largely replaced the trading posts as centers for these exchanges. Even so, several forts, such as Fort Laramie, survived. They continued to provide needed services and goods for many trappers. By the 1840s, Fort Laramie was a major stop for emigrants along the Oregon Trail. By this time, many former trappers served a scouts and wagon masters for the emigrant trains traveling to Oregon and California.

Their Own Words

"This post was built by the American Fur Co[mpany] situated about 800 miles West of St. Louis, is of a quadrangular form, with bastions at the diagonal corners to sweep the fronts in case of attack; over the ground entrance is a large block house, or tower, in which is placed a cannon. . . . Tribes of Indians encamp here 3 or 4 times a year, bringing with them peltries to be traded or exchanged for dry-goods, tobacco, vermillion, brass, and diluted alcohol."

Source: Alfred Jacob Miller, The West of Alfred Jacob Miller (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951): text for plate 49.