About six years ago I was lucky enough to meet Mark Loader, Bill Gantic, and Ken Smith and through them get to know the AMM. I have been studying the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade since high school, and giving living history presentations portraying the western trade for a dozen years. I had accumulated a fair amount of book knowledge, but what I had not done much of was taking the western trapper's life out of the books and onto the ground. My time as a pilgrim has been in the company and with the encouragement of a great group who are all drawn to the rendezvous years as a historical period. The Rocky Mountain Outfit has become more to me than people with a shared interest. They have become my brothers, and through them my circle of brothers includes the Baker Party, the Wind River Party and those I've met from other parties. I've been able to watch people who are much better woodsmen and learn ways to be better myself. I've benefited from the fact that every one of us has slightly different interests and slightly different takes on things. Our online discussions of the history, gear and guns of the rendezvous period have expanded my knowledge and made me question and rethink things I believed to be fact. I think I understand the period much better for this ongoing discussion among people passionate about this period of American history.
I respectfully submit this description of my requirements for Bossloper in the AMM.
I have tried to assemble an outfit that would be familiar to mountaineers or the 1830s. I have used the mid 1830s as a target date, and a typical American trapper or camp keeper as my portrayal. As a general guide to clothing I used Osborne Russell's description of a trapper's outfit, and Warren Ferris' description of mountaineer's clothing in Ute country in 1835. I also used three Alfred Jacob Miller images for particular guidance: Old Bill Burrows, Rocky Mountain Trapper; The earlier versions of The Lost Green Horn; and the early versions of The Trapper's Bride. Each of these images showed the use of both cloth and leather in mountaineer clothing. In the future, I plan to continue to evolve an outfit to reflect the Appalachian connection of mountaineers such as Joe Walker (no relation, darn it), George Nidever, and Alexander Sinclair. This is a nod to my family coming from the Smoky Mountains in both East Tennessee, and Western North Carolina.
My clothing, all of which, save the hat, I've hand sewn, is a mix of cloth and buckskin. It includes a calico and/or a wool flannel square cut shirt, or both as needs be; Low crown felt hat from Clearwater Hats; A "double nightcap" knitted wool cap I made to be similar to the one shown in Hanson's Voyager's Sketchbook for winter; A sinew-sewn buckskin hunting coat modeled after Miller's "Lost Greenhorn"; A blue wool blanket capote modeled after the groom in Miller's "Trapper's Bride"; Either hand sewn wool twill small fall trousers, or leather pantaloons, hand sewn with linen thread, and cut off below the knee (as described by Joe Meek in River of the West, vol. 1, and Osborne Russell in Journal of a Trapper) worn with fringed leggins in the summer and Stroud leggins in the winter; Either side seam or pucker toe moccasins; Most of the year I wear a leather belt with a simple sheath held together with a single row of tacks for my Sheffield butcher knife. The sheath is held in place with a length of whang. In the winter I add a red worsted wool sash for my capote.
In addition, I often wear a wool and cotton roll collar vest, using John Townsend's 1834 account, and Warren Ferris' Hudson's Bay Company trade outfit inventory as documentation that these garments were at least available in the mountains. I also tend to wear wool socks, using trading post inventories as my documentation.
My rifle is an iron mounted, southern influenced flintlock, with the characteristics of longrifles from 1820s/30s Western North Carolina. It has a heavy, tapered barrel, recreating a rifle originating back east that has been bored out to 28 balls to the pound, and with the barrel cut down to 40" for western use. It has a dark maple stock and 1820s English import lock. The rifle is heavy, but it's no chunk gun, and is in line with existing original Western North Carolina hunter's longrifles of the period as described on the "American Longrifles" online forum.
I also sometimes carry a Northstar West trade gun, flintlock, in 24 bore with a 36 inch barrel. When I am packing my gear for much more than a mile, I tend to carry this musket because of its lighter weight and shorter length. Based on Stewart's Edward Warren, and Ferris' Life in the Rocky Mountains, American trappers did sometimes carry trade muskets instead of rifles, using them for "running guns" for hunting buffalo from horseback, and in Ferris' case, as a more portable long arm for a snowshoe journey.
My rifle pouch, which I made, is a simple, heart-shaped, single bag, made of vegetable tan cowhide, and linen-stitched. It has a Southern influence, gleaned from Madison Grant's Kentucky Rifle Pouch book. I limit what I carry in it to what is necessary to shoot and clean my rifle. I carry twenty-five balls, ticking for patches, spare flints, turn screw, bag mold, worm and jag. Attached to the rifle bag, so that they ride inside but are tethered to the bag, are an adjustable powder measure, and a fixed horn tip powder measure which throws the ideal load for my rifle, cleaning pick, and pan brush. Included in the pouch is a small tinderbox containing char cloth, an old rifle flint and a small steel. I prefer using a dedicated fire kit rather than using my rifle lock as a fire starter, although that would be a workable backup. The idea is to have the basics for fire and firearm available if I have nothing but rifle, bag and horn.
I made my powder horn, which is a plain buffalo horn with a flat pine plug. It holds just under a pound of powder when full.
In addition to my rifle pouch I carry a possibles bag which I made of red and white striped ticking, inspired by one of the earlier versions of Miller's, "The Trapper's Bride." This is slightly larger than my rifle pouch and holds things that are important but not critical: Linen thread, needle and awl, a small ball of beeswax, some sinew, ladle, clasp knife, fire making gear including tinder, traveler's Bible, and deck of cards (ready for either devotion or dissipation as the moment requires).
Shelter is a tarp made of cotton drill, waterproofed with a turpentine and beeswax solution. Often I just roll this around my blankets. I made up some oil cloth using the boiled linseed oil and iron oxide method described in the Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly, and by Mark Baker in his Longhunter videos. Gene Hickman's Lewis and Clark articles gave me an easy and affordable source of the iron oxide from a potter's supply in Montana. This home-made oil cloth is completely waterproof, but in cold weather becomes as stiff as horn.
My bedding is made up of two 3 1/2 point blankets, and, depending on the weather and situation, a traditionally tanned buffalo robe. On winter camps I wear my capote and mittens to sleep in. Also for cold camps I include a simple square of light wool cloth, roughly 50" square, to use as a sort of shawl. Shawls are mentioned as being worn under capotes in R. M. Ballantyne's accounts of winters at Norway House, in what's now Manitoba. I've found this detail, borrowed from the Canadian trade, makes a capote more weatherproof in the day and can be used to stop up cold spots at night.
For cooking I use a simple tin kettle and large tin cup. During my time as a pilgrim my cooking gear has become simpler, to the point that I don't always bother with a spoon. I do include a large kettle for a shared mess when I'm camping with a group.
Spring #1: June 1 – 5, 2011
Spent four nights and five days camped along the Arkansas River at Bent's Old Fort for their living history encampment and training event. My role for the event was as a trapper/hunter and I was able to benefit from the experience of old hands from both Baker Party and Rocky Mountain Outfit. Bill Gwaltney oversaw the training at the trapper/hunter's camp along with instructors including Jim Sebastian, Tom Karnuta, Bill Bailey and John Carson. We had to present ourselves to the Fort clerks and ask for employment, and sign our contracts with Bent and St. Vrain. As hunters were able to sit at the second table when we did eat at the fort, and in addition we were able to beg a meal or two of great New Mexican food from the cook fire in the plaza. In camp it was too hot and dry for fires so we lived on biscuits down there. We spent our days setting traps, skinning beaver, packing horses and mules, stalking for deer in the willows, and trading information about the mountain and prairie trade. A high point was a trading session conducted entirely in sign. It was the first time I had ever had a 360 degree experience of the mountaineer's life at a trading post, including taking a turn at night guard, cradling a company scattergun. It was a great experience.
Summer: August 18 – 19, 2012
In preparation for a Robert Stuart event up at the Museum of the Mountain Man, Brad Bailey and I decided to walk five miles into this camp at Lynch Creek in the Buffalo Peaks area of Colorado. We modified our usually 1830s gear to come closer to the 1812 Stuart period, and also carried a single beaver trap in commemoration of the trap that helped the original Stuart party attempt to stay fed. The best part of the walk was a bushwhack up and over a low ridge and into the spot where we rendezvoused with the other brothers. We picked our way over deadfall and spooked up some elk, all of which made me picture what it must have been like for Stuart and his party making their way on foot. We met up with Tom Karnuta, Vic Barkin, Nathan Blanchard, at the rendezvous point, and later met Darko and Gabe Hanratty as we made camp. I let myself get dehydrated on the hike — trying too hard to replicate Stuart's experience — and sure enjoyed cup after cup of tea once we got the fire going. It was a beautiful spot.
View sketches from this camp.
Fall: December 2 – 4, 2011
I took part in the Bent's Old Fort Winter Celebration, and attended a joint meeting of the Baker and RMO Parties in the hunter's quarter in Bent's Fort. We arrived just as a prairie snow storm moved in, and after an evening program during which AMM brothers helped make the fort come alive for visitors, we retired to our camp by the river to hunker down against the wind and blowing snow. I got warm during the night when a few inches of snow drifted up on my upwind side. Bill Gantic, Tom Karnuta, and Nathan Blanchard and I walked near the fort's adobe walls in visibility so bad it was hard to tell if there was a fort. The joint meeting of the Colorado Parties was a good time and started the planning for a Colorado hosted rendezvous. Harsh weather makes camps memorable and good company makes them a pleasure.
Winter: January 20 – 22, 2012
Brad Bailey and I had been talking for some time about making a snowshoe camp up by the headwaters of the Laramie River in Northern Colorado. In windy conditions and off and on snowfall, we pulled our gear up to Lost Lake and set up a camp near there. I used a wooden toboggan and Brad a toboggan made of elk rawhide. It was a learning experience for our winter skills. We arrived fairly late the first day and had to rush to get a basic camp set up, and a fire going with small wood. With the many beetle kill trees in this area, we were able to find a still-green tree that had been knocked down by a falling beetle kill. This gave us the luxury of a bough bed, and went a long way to provide a more comfortable camp. Our tarp lean-to shelter blocked some of the wind but didn't keep the snow from drifting around at night. Blankets, buffalo robe and bedding tarp were all needed on this trip. I slept in my capote and mittens as well. Once we had a couple of inches of snow settled on us, it actually helped keep us warmer. It was a challenge to keep enough water melted. We did manage a hike the second day, but we cut it short in the face of increasing winds. After two nights and two and a half days, we came back with many ideas on how to do it better next time.
View sketches from this camp.
Colorado banned traditional trapping a few years ago severely limiting the opportunities here. Luckily, I received instruction in trapping methods from Bill Gwaltney and Tom Karnuta at Bent's Fort during the training event there in spring of 2011. Even though I had been doing traditional trapping and steel trap setting demos for my volunteer work at Fort Laramie since 2001, the training at Bent's was much more thorough and the steel trap setting hands on experience was demanding. The spring rise was on the Arkansas, and we had to do much of our set by feel. We also had to check our traps in silty water which meant CAREFULLY figuring the position of the trap in water we couldn't see through. Bill arranged for one of the traps to have a beaver in it when we checked our traps, adding the realism of dragging the animal out of the water, up the bank and carrying it back to camp — something the old accounts couldn't give me the true feel for.
While I did a lot of riding in my younger days, my current life doesn't leave much room for horse trips. I was able to learn a lot from Jim Sebastian and Bill Bailey at Bent's Fort during the training program here in spring of 2011. Steve Chin of the RMO is a horseman and packer and a valuable resource. My concentration, though, has been on trying to get better at using a tumpline/burden strap in the warmer months and a toboggan on snow. With each camp I've carried gear into I've tried to simplify and tighten my bundle up. Before I began my journey with the RMO, my camps were interpretive camps for the public — drive and dump camps, with the idea of having as many examples of as many fur trade related items as possible, in order to make as complete a presentation as possible. With the help, advice and experience of the RMO brothers I reached the point where I could set off for a five mile walk into a camp, or carry a complete winter load of gear on a toboggan. They've watched me go from a walking jumble, needing two trips, through the period where I would make it into camp in one load but it was a killer, to point where packing up feels natural, and the gear I need is with me in a manageable load. It's a work in progress, and my goal is less each trip.
Brother Bill Gantic got me to swear off matches. Until I got to know him, the Boy Scout in me had me carrying a small cache of matches in a waterproof container "just in case." Bill got me to trust the skills I was building and work with period methods without the modern backup. Brad Bailey got me experimenting with other ways to char cloth, and other materials to char. Being on the lookout for tinder as it changes in different terrain, and being prepared for the next fire before this fire goes out have all been part of the process. I now carry a small fire bag that I now trust more than matches.
Brother Ken Smith helped me through dressing my first deer hide. The process was a success, although my fleshing left more holes than I would have liked. I enjoyed the actual dressing and working the hide. I smoked it heavily using cottonwood punk and it turned out a beautiful butterscotch color. I plan to make a few bags and outer mittens from it.
As an outgrowth of Brad Bailey and my two day snowshoe trip, Steve Chin,
Brad and I returned to the headwaters of the Laramie River for a five day
trip. We used snowshoes and toboggans and moved camp each day, covering
just under 10 miles. We camped at Lost Lake, Laramie Lake, East Twin
Lake, and Lost Lake again on the way out. The elevation in that area kept
us above 9,000 feet during the trip. We learned to feed deadfall lodge
pole into our fire in such a way as to let the fire, rather than our axe,
do the work. We did a better job staying hydrated than Brad and I had
done the year before. Our toboggan packing had become fairly routine by
the time we headed back out. I carried my NW gun with shot, and Sheffield
butcher knife. Got a shot at a squirrel but only got the tree. The
weather was perfect, the company was perfect, and in the five days we were
out we saw only a half a dozen people — two of them near the road
head on the last day.
View more sketches from this camp.
I've done this many times over the years, but at Lynch Creek in the summer of 2012, I had plenty of witnesses. I used my belt knife and sticks found around camp to roast a couple of pounds of meat I packed in with me on the camp fire. It's a great way to cook. The best meat I've ever eaten was some elk that Nathan Blanchard brought to a 2011 winter camp on the old AMM land in Western Colorado. It stayed on a spit and we just crowded around slicing off pieces as they were done — just like the old journals talk about.
My volunteer work at Fort Laramie has included my cutting and making willow hoops, and lacing beaver skins into them, but I didn't do the knife work there. At the instructional camp at Bent's Fort in spring of 2011, once we struggled the beaver Bill Gwaltney arrange to be in our trap to the bank, we carried it into camp and under the watchful eye of Tom Karnuta; we took to skinning it out and fleshing it. I learned that what I thought were sharp knives were actually too dull. I got to see how a beaver was put together. It was a great lesson in what the mountaineer's life was really about. I have also made up demonstration beaver packs with Ken Smith and his friend Dwain Thompson. We cut "beaver plews" in several sizes out of carpet, built a simple pole press, and made up three bales wrapped in canvas and lashed with strips of buffalo hide. While our carpet "plews" were simulations, it let us go through the final process of packing skins for shipment to market. The trick turned out to be the challenge of lashing the "plews" while they were compressed and not allowing much spring back — having six hands working it sure helped.
I submitted an unpublished article I wrote about the changes in Alfred Jacob Miller's portrayal of the Rocky Mountain Mountaineers over Miller's working life. I believe that Miller is an important primary source of material culture information about the mountaineers, but his work needs to be viewed critically with an eye to when in Miller's career individual images were made. This is the same attention we pay to written accounts: was it written in the mountains, after the return from the mountains or decades later by an old mountaineer remembering the mountains? I strongly feel that for those of us trying to recreate the rendezvous years that we can assess Miller as a recorder of history, separate from his importance to the history of American art.
June 28th, 2013