So what were MMGTOW? That’s my ad hoc acronym for Mountain Men Going Their Own Way. Having coined it, I now abandon it, as Mountain Men Going Their Own Way is a redundancy. By definition, mountain men always went their own way.
The mountain man was a peculiarly American phenomenon (though some were Canadian and a few were European-born), and their golden age lasted only a couple of decades (roughly 1820 to 1840). Though of humble birth, the mountain man was the point man of the American nation as it marched westward across the continent. The famed phrase “Manifest Destiny,” however, did not become popular till after the mountain man’s heyday.
Historian Frederick Jackson Turner emphasized the importance of the frontier not just as a place but as a concept in American culture. Even today, we often hear of some luminary described as a pioneer in one pursuit or another. Famously, the brief administration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was popularly known as the New Frontier.
Keep in mind that the geographical west was a moving line. Today it’s difficult to think of Pittsburgh as a western city, but at the time of the Declaration of Independence, anything west of the Appalachians was considered the west. Most of the explorers and settlers who ventured into this wilderness were Scots-Irish (Protestants from Northern Ireland), who had emigrated to the young republic only to find that the Eastern seaboard was pretty well full up. The immense continent beyond was wide open, however. (Your manosphere reading list should definitely include James Webb’s Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, a history that traces how the American character largely was shaped by an ethnic group whose rugged mores had been forged through centuries of hardship and conflict in the old country, making them ideal shock troops for the push into unsettled realms.)
Of course, westward movement did not begin with the mountain men. There were famed frontiersmen who were kindred spirits. Best known was Daniel Boone, who died in 1820, more or less the beginning of the mountain man era, and went no further west than Missouri. Another was Davy Crockett, who died at the Alamo in 1836, and never went any further west than San Antonio, Texas. These men spent most of their lives east of the Mississippi, and never got anywhere near the Rocky Mountains, where the mountain men became legends. The famed French-Canadian voyageurs also predated the mountain men and had much in common with them, though they worked in crews, not alone.
The first iteration of the mountain man is usually considered to be John Colter (1774-1813). A Virginian by birth, he was a member of the renowned Lewis & Clark expedition of 1804-1806. A later claim to fame is that he is considered to be the first white men to set foot in the Yellowstone/Grand Tetons region of present-day Wyoming. Today, thanks to innumerable landscape photographers, the region is an iconic American landscape, but in Colter’s day it was inhospitable – especially since Colter chose to do his exploring in the winter.
All of the above would be impressive enough on any mountain man’s resume. But there is more. In 1808 he was captured by Blackfoot Indians in what is now Montana, and given a chance to literally run for his life – naked. Thanks to his life on the frontier, he was in good shape, good enough to outpace 500 warriors (except for one, whom he killed) in his “run for life” after a head start of roughly 400-yards. After eluding his pursuers by hiding in a beaver house till dark, he walked another 11 days till he reached a trader’s fort. As a result, his feat captured the imagination of many a tenderfoot. The basic storyline of a man running for his life while pursued by savages is a natural for movies. The first was a 1912 offering called John Colter’s Escape. A number of later movies (e.g., Run of the Arrow in 1957 and The Naked Prey in 1965) took the basics of the chase and reworked them.
Colter, however, was not the first “professional” mountain man. In a sense, the typical mountain man was as much a corporate employee as a lone wolf. A number of them worked indirectly for John Jacob Astor, the richest man in America, and the first multi-millionaire. The genesis of Astor’s wealth was his American Fur Company, which was heavily dependent on the labors of the mountain men. Beaver hats were all the rage and you couldn’t ask for a better material to fashion a winter coat. Beavers were able to withstand icy mountain streams because of the density of their fur.
So the mountain man wasn’t just living off the land, he was exploiting it to put more money in John Jacob Astor’s pocket. Imagine the irony of a contemporary MGTOW going to work for Microsoft to make Bill Gates richer.
Another important nabob was William Ashley (1778-1838), Lt. Governor of the newly minted State of Missouri (admitted August 10, 1821). In 1822 Ashley placed an advertisement for “enterprising young men” (i.e., fur trappers) in St. Louis newspapers. Being a fur trapper did not mean just trapping critters. The job duties also included skinning them, stretching the skins over frames to dry, and scraping them.
Response to Ashley’s ad was robust, and he was able to put together an elite corps of 100 men for his Rocky Mountain Fur Company. After his stint in politics, Ashley himself became a mountain man and, unlike John Jacob Astor, did his fair share of Indian fighting and exploring.
By 1825 the mountain men were well established, so Ashley inaugurated the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, an annual summer get-together of hundreds of mountain men and traders in the Green River country of northeast Utah and southwest Wyoming. The traders brought supplies, the mountain men their furs.
The Rendezvous also afforded the mountain men a chance to exchange information (networking!) with their peers. Since mountain men lived solitary lives, they relished the chance to actually socialize with their own kind. The amusements at hand included drinking, brawling, gambling, bullshit artistry (or tall tale telling), and other forms of roistering, sort of like a combination swap meet and Las Vegas convention.
As the fur trade declined in prominence, so too did the Rendezvous. The last was held in 1840. Afterwards, the mountain men capitalized on their encyclopedic knowledge of the west by serving as guides for wagon trains and military expeditions.
If John Colter was the first mountain man, the consummate mountain man was often considered to be Jim Bridger (1804-1881), who had done it all. He had responded to John Ashley’s 1822 newspaper ad for fur trappers, and he also served as an explorer, hunter, scout, and guide. Over the years his reputation as a teller of tall tales embellished his image, though he remained illiterate all his life. Consequently, any number of schools, forts, mountain ranges, lakes, and streets were named after him, and he was portrayed by numerous actors in assorted movies and TV shows.
Another man who responded to Ashley’s ad was Hugh Glass (1783-1833) a trapper/trader/hunter/explorer, who is best known for an incident when he was mauled by a grizzly bear (something of a rite of passage or occupational hazard for mountain men) while on an expedition Though severely injured, he was still alive but not expected to remain so for long. Two volunteers remained behind to wait for him to die so they could bury him. When the two men were beset by Arikara Indians, they fled. But Glass was not done for. Despite his injuries (infected wounds, a broken leg, deep lacerations on his back) he lived off the land and traveled 200 miles to Fort Kiowa in present-day South Dakota. As with John Colter, his against-all-odds struggle to survive has provided fodder for various short stores, novels, TV shows, and movies.
Naturalist John Muir and photographer Ansel Adams played key roles in popularizing the Yosemite Valley before its wonders were widely available to the public. Joseph Reddeford Walker (1798-1876), however, got there first. Five years before Muir was born (in 1838) Walker got a good look at it while blazing a trail through Northern California. He was so taken by his experience that he instructed that the epitaph on his tombstone read “Camped at Yosemite, Nov. 13, 1833.”
Another mountain man of note was William Sublette (1799-1845) who was the first to take wagons through the Rocky Mountains and played a key part in the blazing of the Oregon Trail. Sublette was more family-oriented than most of his fellow mountain men, as four of his brothers were also involved in the fur trade.
They had Guinness beer in those days (though not in America) but they did not have a Guinness Book of World Records. If they’d had one in 1825, it would have shown that Jedediah Strong Smith (1799-1831) amassed a record 668 beaver pelts that year. Smith also goes into the history books as the first American to reach California by an overland route (the California coast had been visited by American sailors many times). On his way back east, he was the first to cross the Sierra Nevadas. He too was mauled by a grizzly. Unlike his cohorts, however, he did not drink, brawl, or fornicate with Indian women. Though a mountain man, he was also the dutiful son of a Methodist minister.
If you’ve ever seen the Bonneville Salt Flats west of Salt Lake City, bear in mind that it was named after Benjamin Bonneville (1796-1878), a mountain man who managed to achieve a fair amount of fame during his long life. Canadian Peter Skene Ogden (1794-1854) is usually credited as the first white man to see the Great Salt Lake. This was well before the Mormons arrived in 1847.
One name still famous today is Kit Carson. Carson not only touched all the bases during his mountain man career, he also achieved fame through dime novels exploiting his public image. One famous incident occurred in 1849 when Carson was serving as a scout for a cavalry regiment that had been sent to rescue a woman who had been captured by the Apaches. In the aftermath of the conflict (the woman did not survive) he came across a dime novel extolling and exaggerating his exploits as an Indian-fighter and suspected the woman had been reading about him before the Indian trouble started. It was the first time he encountered himself in a dime novel.
John Johnson (1824-1900) was stuck with a forgettable moniker, but he found fame as Liver-Eating Johnson due to the fact that he ate the livers (great source of Vitamin A, among other nutrients) of the Crow Indians he killed. The Crow Indians had killed his wife, so he killed them…roughly 200 of them. That’s a lot of liver, that’s a lot of payback. There’s a horror film plot in there somewhere, but to date the best-known film about him was Jeremiah Johnson (his middle name was Jeremiah) a 1972 opus with Robert Redford, which included no cannibalism. At any rate, eating all that cholesterol-rich liver didn’t hurt Johnson, as he lived to age 76 – a very good span in his day. Born in 1824, he died on January 21, 1900. Perhaps after three weeks of the 20th Century, he’d seen enough.
Irish-born Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick (1799-1854) emigrated to the United States in 1817. The colorful nickname was due to his loss of three fingers after a rifle exploded. Fitzpatrick led the first Ashley expedition and formed the Rocky Mountain Fur Company with Jim Bridger and William Sublette in the 1830’s. One good nickname deserves another, so Fitzpatrick was also dubbed “White Hair,” when his hair lost its pigmentation after a particularly ferocious Indian battle. Guess we could call that a virtual scalping.
Not surprisingly, when it comes to mountain man exploits it is often difficult to tell where the truth ends and exaggeration begins. For example, Seth Kinman (1815-1886) boasted of shooting more than 800 grizzly bears. Well, there were more grizzlies around in those days, but this would seem to be an inflated number. Of course, there was no one there to witness his feats, so we’ll have to take his word for it…or not. He also claimed he once shot 50 elk in a one-month period. Appropriately enough, he died after accidentally shooting himself in the leg. Poetic justice, PETA might opine.
Well, there isn’t enough space here to list all the mountain men (Wikipedia has a chart of 85 known mountain men with links to their bios). Each had a physical and mental toughness that we can only marvel at today. For the diversity buffs out there, included among the mountain men are a former slave (Jim Beckwourth), an Iroquois Indian (Pierre Tevanitagon), and a sprinkling of Hispanics (Mariano Medina, Lou Vasquez, and Andrew Garcia). Sad to say, no women. Yes, when all’s said and done, the mountain men were just another boys’ club. They were, after all, mountain men, not mountain persons.
Mountain men were not hermits, who exist in other cultures and historical eras. They played a key role in the economy. Demand for beaver skins was high, so they supplied them. Yes, mountain men were (gasp!) capitalists. Of course, to sustain themselves as trappers, mountain men were also by necessity hunters and traders. Pretty much laissez-faire all the way.
Grizzly bears, by the way, were known to maul and kill men but not to eat them. So much for the popular saying of “Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes he eats you.” Today you would have to shop around to find bear meat, though it would surely be free of artificial hormones if you could find it. Mountain men probably took it – or any other wild game – when they were hungry. I think I know what happened to all that beaver meat after the animals were skinned. If it was good enough for the Indians, it was good enough for the mountain men!
While the mountain man might seem like some sort of romantic noble savage straight out of James Fenimore Cooper of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there are some intriguing contradictions in his way of life.
To what extent were the mountain men bringing the ways of the white man to the wilderness, and to what extent were they fleeing the ways of the white man? Their way of life was made possible by the fashion dictates of more civilized easterners. The mountain men might have been lacking in social graces, but countless settlers benefited from the maps they created, the wagon trains they led, and their knowledge of local flora and fauna, as well as the mores of the various Indian tribes.
Another conflict is the mountain man’s attitude towards Indians (of course, this would depend on which tribes he encountered). Due to the absence of white women, mountain men regularly married Indian women, frequently more than one. They learned a lot of their survival skills from Indians. They traded with them and even dressed like them. Yet they killed their share of Indians in skirmishes, battles, and mano a mano conflicts. Even worse, from the Indian perspective, once the fur trade dried up, the mountain men served as guides for wagon trains of settlers who would domesticate the open spaces.
I don’t know how contemporary history books treat the mountain men (if they mention them at all), but given their role in abetting the white man’s takeover of the west, they would probably be demonized. If toxic masculinity is your bête noire, then anyone who traps, skins, and eats animals, while killing Indians on the side, would probably be persona non grata at your dinner party.
At any rate, the west ain’t wild any more. It’s all been explored and mapped, not to mention dammed, mined, logged, and (in the desert) irrigated. Trains, planes, and interstate highways bring outlanders from the more densely populated regions to goggle at the natural wonders of flyover country.
Today a modern-day mountain man, or a reasonable approximation of same, would not be useful to society. In fact, almost everywhere he went, he might be trespassing. Even if he’s not breaking any laws, anyone living like a mountain man would be highly suspect. You never know – he might be a scout for some sort of white supremacist militia! He might be a Unabomber in training! He may not be on the list of registered sex offenders, but keep the kids away from him just in case.
Even if he doesn’t have a rap sheet, his personality profile might fit some sort of domestic terrorist computer model! Government surveillance would be called for. If he doesn’t have any electronic gadgets that can be monitored, he can’t hide from the satellites.
At the very least, he would be condemned as a kook or a nut case. He was way ahead of the curve on social distancing, however, and maybe that’s what it’s really all about: The ability to urinate, defecate, belch, or break wind anywhere any time without having to worry about anyone being offended
I wouldn’t claim that as the definitive meaning of freedom, but it does count for something.