The mountain men were a group of explorers, fur trappers, land surveyors, trail blazers, and army scouts. They are mostly associated with the Trans-Mississippi West.
The Diversity of Mountain Men
The mountain men were a diverse group who explored the Trans-Mississippi American West.
The mountain men are generally defined as the generation that followed the Lewis and Clark Expeditions of 1803-1806. The expansion into the west through the Louisiana Purchase, Texas, the American southwest, and the Oregon Territory, lured many explorers to map out these regions. This generation played a key role as explorers, mapmakers, land surveyors, treaty negotiators as well as Indian translators, army scouts, and trail guides.
They were the first of their generation to explore these regions, and they became invaluable both to stagecoach and railroad companies, government officials, and the frontier army. In discussing their role, we will look at several individuals.
The Stephen Long Expeditions
Stephen Long was educated at Dartmouth College and then joined the army. He got his start by accompanying Henry W.
Atkinson in 1819 on his first of two Yellowstone expeditions. In 1820, Long led his own expedition on behalf of the Army Corps of Engineers that explored along the Platte River in Nebraska and fanned out in such states as Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado, where Long’s Peak is named for him. These expeditions were more than exploratory; they were also scientific. Accompanying him for example, was the painter Samuel Seymour, naturalist Titian Peale, zoologist Thomas Say, and the doctor and botanist Edwin James. Both Long and James kept extensive journals which provided detail on Native American cultures, plants, animals, and geography.
It is estimated that Long crisscrossed an incredible 26,000 miles over the course of his five expeditions.
The Fur Trade
In the fur trade, two names stand out. John Jacob Astor was a German-American who immigrated to the U.S.
in March 1785. He bought up the smaller fur trade companies and created the American Fur Company. His trade empire was enormous and even expanded sales to Europe and China. At the time of his death in 1821, his fortune was estimated at $20 million, making him the wealthiest man in America. His main rival was William Henry Ashley, a former governor of Missouri, who partnered with Andrew Henry to form the Rocky Mountain Fur Company based in St. Louis.
His team of 100 trappers, dubbed ‘Ashley’s Hundreds’, became famous as many of the most famous mountain men got their start with his company.
Virginia-born, Jim Bridger first went West in 1822 as the youngest member of Ashley’s Hundreds. Over a forty year period, Bridger traversed the West several times with various groups. Bridger and his partner Louis Vasquez founded Fort Bridger in Wyoming and Bridger was hired by stagecoach companies as a guide. Bridger formed an especially long-term relationship with Mormon groups due to his many expeditions to the Great Salt Lake region.
Another key player was the French-born Benjamin Bonneville, who was raised in America and graduated from West Point. Between 1832-1834, he teamed up with Joseph Walker and led a series of expeditions across Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and northern California. His first expedition was financed by John Jacob Astor himself. He founded Fort Bonneville in Wyoming on the Green River, and his expedition provided valuable information on the landscape, geography, and Indian tribes of the regions. Bonneville later served in the Civil War, and he became well known due to the novelist Washington Irving writing about him.
Jedediah Smith was another member of Ashley’s Hundreds. Smith traveled as far south as Arizona, north to Canada, and west to California. Smith was not the typical mountain man, though. He was deeply religious; never drank, gambled, or used tobacco; and he even survived a mauling by a grizzly bear. His main contribution was in creating detailed and accurate maps of the Pacific forests. Tragically, Smith was killed by Comanches in 1831 while on the Santa Fe Trail.
Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park in California is named in his honor.
The mountain men played a strategic role in settling the American West. The fur trade lured many individuals west and created large fortunes, as demonstrated in the American Fur Company of John Jacob Astor and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company of William Henry Ashley.
Expeditions led by Stephen Long and John C. Fremont mapped out the vast western territories and provided detail into its geographical features. Explorers such as Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, Benjamin Bonneville, and Kit Carson built trading posts and forts, learned Indian languages, created maps, and served as guides for stagecoach companies. Their services proved invaluable in helping the federal government settle the American West.