Mountain Men and Merchants: How the West Was Explored and Tamed

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  • Topic: Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, Rocky Mountains
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Mountain Men and Merchants; How the West was Explored and Tamed

Chad D. Ramsey
Student #4101887

History 300
Professor Tracy Derks
December 15th 2011

During the beginning and throughout the 19th century, mountain men, trappers and merchants of the fur trade made a vital impact on the development of the previously uncharted West. These men came primarily from the East coast of the United States with a desire for adventure and the calling of a better life. Men like James Bridger, Jedediah Smith, Osborne Russell, Warren Ferris and numerous others left with expedition teams with what they could carry on their backs and on pack animals to explore the Western frontier. While these men appeared to be brave, and experienced some of the harshest conditions that the West had to offer, they were not alone, nor without help in the frontier. The mountain man had to forge relationships over the years with a key ally he would need to survive, the American Indian. Many members of these tribes, most notably, the Crow, Flathead, Cheyenne, and Shoshone helped these mountain men in their education and understanding of the complexities of the relatively unexplored area. These adventurers, frontiersmen, and trappers were also an industrious cross section of society, who played a vital part in the history of the United States. While American Indians helped Mountain Men to explore the rugged West and were a vital link to route exploration and survival techniques, it was the trappers’ writings, maps and fur trading that played a more important role in the development and exploration of the West. One of the most important roles that these Mountain Men played initially, was that of cartographers. The rough sketching, and understanding of the layout of the land and of cardinal direction, were key ingredients for the success of the Mountain Man. Utley described these talents in Mountain Man Warren Ferris when he observed, “By Ferris’s time, most trappers could visualize a map of the American West more accurate and comprehensive than existed anywhere on paper. Some of what they saw, and knew, leaked out through St. Louis newspapers or spread by word of mouth. Most, However, remained locked in their minds, awaiting the intermediary equipped by training and skill to lay it before the literate world.”1 During the summer of 1847, proclaimed Mountain Man Jim Bridger had already been assisting the early Mormon pioneers who had been crossing the vast stretches of the plains in search of their Zion. Bridger had conferred with Mormon leader Brigham Young about the accuracy of his on hand maps, and even spent time drawing a map of the region for him in the dirt. Stanley Vestal described this situation when he wrote, “All that Brigham had to go by were the maps prepared by Colonel John C. Fremont- and divine guidance. Old Jim had not heard of divine guidance, and said he was “ashamed of the maps of Fremont, who knew nothing about the country, only the plain travelled road, and that he (Bridger) could correct all the maps published of the western world.”2 These invaluable resources also included the ability to disseminate the information and details of the drawings and maps onto other pieces of parchment, or to communicate them verbally into written form within the pages of a journal or other medium. Within the pages of Osborne Russell’s book titled, Journal of a Trapper are some nine highly detailed maps and routes that take the reader along the many legs of his journeys from 1834-1843. His maps and drawings are an example of a man who was dedicated to the work he was undertaking, and for the detail and chronology that went into it. One such excerpt concerning these details was from Osborne’s journal from June 19, 1835 when he stated, “This country affords no timber except the quaking Asp which grows in small scrubby groves in the nooks and ravines among the hills 20th we left the waters of Gray’s Creek and crossed a low place in...
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