What’s the best way to learn about a historical time period. Go to the source. Such is the case with Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper.
Primary sources are a researcher’s, or historian’s, best friend. For those unfamiliar with the term primary source it refers to any historical artifact created during a period of study. Cave paintings, for example, are an example of a primary source for the Stone Age. Cave paintings were made during the time period by the people we want to study. From those paintings we can not only learn about the paintings, but their lives, something of their world view, and can gain insights into their world. If you really want to learn what a time period was like, a primary source is the best place to go. Another example of a primary source, this time of the mountain man era, is Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper.
Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper is just what is sounds like, a mountain man’s journal. This journal is generally regarded as standard reading material for those of us interested in the ways of mountain men and the time period. Like the cave paintings, this journal lets us know what trappers did, what they thought, and opens up a true window into their world. Combined with other sources of the time it can really shed light on historical skills needed to survive in the mountains. Not only is this journal academically enlightening, but its entertainment value shouldn’t be underestimated. Although I wouldn’t recommended the journal to everyone, to the right person Osborne Russell’s journal contains some truly entertaining stories.
One story you can’t help but laugh at is contained in the first few pages. It unfolds when Russell initially arrived to the mountains and was green as tender spring grass. He and some fellow trappers were on one of their first hunts when they bumped into a grizzly bear. Full of a dangerous mix of energy and inexperience the men take after the bear, shooting several balls through her while she’s in the open. Next, they proceed to trail the wounded grizz into a thick patch of nearby willows. What ensues is a story of how one man learned NOT to follow a wounded grizzly anywhere. It is one of the stories that highlights the fact these men were not mountain men when they hit the mountains. They were mountain men when they left the mountains. That can teach us a good deal about the type of men attracted to the western fur trade. These men were wildcards, with a sense of supreme self-confidence.
Russell’s hunting exploits while in the mountains also offer some great insight. He talks of numerous sheep hunts in the high country of The West. His tales of trudging up steep mountain sides, sweating all-the-while, and spooking groups of seemingly unsuspecting groups of sheep, are great tales for hunters and mountaineers alike. Although Russell appears to have favored sheep hunting, he also describes numerous hunts of a variety of other creatures. Elk, deer, buffalo, sheep, and bear are all animals he hunted while in the mountains. At times the men diligently preserved the meat from their harvest, and at time they took only what would satisfy them for the day. Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper brings on a yearning to see the herds of the past.
Not all of Russell’s tales are of adventure though. Many of his entries discuss the dangers trappers faced. One of the most exciting moments in the journal describes the time he a two fellow trappers were ambushed by a war party of Blackfoot. After taking several “fuse balls” to the leg, Russell somehow manages to find refugee in the forest. He describes his feelings from hiding as the attackers come within mere feet of him on several occasions. Picture the scene in your mind and you can almost feel the perilous situation he was in. The sand certainly seemed to be running out on his hourglass.
This particular tale is made complete as the wounded mountain man describes his journey after the attack. He, and another companion he managed to locate, began a trek through the mountains and across the sage to the closest fort. Because the men were caught unsuspecting for the attack, Russell was near naked on the trip. With night temperatures dipping into freezing he notes how cold and miserable they were. Functioning on little to no sleep, very little food, and wounded to boot, to say the trip drained the men is an understatement.
One interesting thing that stood out to me though, was how little time he spent discussing the hardships. When you read the journal, Russell spends much more effort describing hunts, the beauty of the mountains, and his travels, rather than how tired, cold, and hungry he was. If you really take the time to imagine how miserable his post-attack trip would have been, and how little he describes it, you can learn an awful lot about his character. I don’t suppose the mountains catered to whiners.
Inside the Mind of a Trapper
My favorite tale in Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper, opens a window the distant past we seldom get. While traveling throughout the mountains as part of a trapping brigade, Russell bumps into a small group of Native people in a remote river valley. He describes the people as isolated and living a life that seemed relatively untouched the first few whites into the mountains. Lacking the horse, the group had a sizable pack of dogs (30 according to Russell) to transport their camp. Many dogs also appear to have been loaded with fur. The men of the band were still using obsidian tipped arrows for their hunting needs and started their fires by friction. Friction fire seems to have impressed the trapper, and he appears to have had no prior knowledge of friction fire. According to Russell, it seems the only item of post-Stone Age modernity that had reached the group was one worn out butcher knife. Other than that, the group seemed to have been a perfect example of how people lived prior to European contact.
In the journal Osborne himself notes, “they seemed to be perfectly contended and happy.” Upon his departure he also opens up and describes his feelings.
“I almost wished I could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this where happiness and contentment seemed to reign in wild romantic splendor surrounded by majestic battlements which seemed to support the heavens and shut out all hostile intruders.”
It seems the romance of the Stone Age is not some New Age idealism, but something that has captivated the imagination of people across the ages.
One final note in the journal which caught my attention was a simple entry near the conclusion. In the early 1840’s Russell describes riding over country he was quite familiar with. He and several other trappers note the bones of buffalo on the land, and how age-old buffalo trails had become overgrown with grass. Even in his brief tenure in the mountains Osborne witnessed the beginning of the end of wild buffalo. It was at this time Russell recorded the following;
“The trappers often remarked to each other as they rode over these lonely plains that it was time for the White man to leave the mountains as Beaver and game had nearly disappeared.”
There is an awful lot loaded into one simple sentence.
Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper is simply a must read for anyone interested in learning more about the lives of our mountain men. Although it only briefly describes aspects such as clothing and equipment, it offers fantastic insight into the everyday lives of these men. It was a life where danger seemingly popped up unexpected. It was a life with brief periods of extreme hardship and bitter weather. It was also a life where you had better like the view from horseback because these men traveled an awful lot. Given all the hardships it also was a life the men truly enjoyed. Osborne Russell seems to have appreciated the beauty of The West as much as anything. Oddly enough, I don’t recall him mentioning money one time throughout the writing.
Although it wasn’t for everyone, the life of a mountain man suited certain men to a T. For some of us, this kind of life shouldn’t be simply relegated to a bit of text left to read. Rather, the text can help us better understand how to keep the ways, knowledge, and spirit of the mountain men alive and well.