If you’ve ever wondered what wild food the mountain men ate, you’ll surely appreciate this list from Rufus Sage’s journal.
Food in America today is atypical from its historical place in people’s lives. Very few people reading this, if any, will wake up and ask the question, “Will I eat today?” Most folks will wake up secure in the fact they’ll have at least a few meals. Most of them will have snacks, fruits, and vegetables, all within arms length if they desire to. The biggest challenge we tend to have is batting away bad calories and trying to get just the good. As normal as this might be to the average American, it certainly hasn’t been the norm in our history.
One of the more interesting aspects of history to me personally, is how people were able to forge a living from the land. Be it pioneers, mountain men, or Stone Age hunters, just thinking about how much food they had to consume is a little mind blowing. Men on the Lewis and Clark expedition would consume up to 9 pounds of meat in a day. 9 pounds! I’ve never met anyone that could eat 9 pounds of meat in a day and still be worth a darn. It’s stories like this that stoke my fascination about how people of the past lived.
Recently while reading mountain man Rufus Sage’s journal, I started searching for the food he ate. Albeit, he doesn’t spend an extraordinary amount of time on the subject, he does address it occasionally. You see, Sage was not an experienced mountain man. He headed west in 1841 after the Rendezvous period had come to a close. He had bounced around the frontier states for a while, and eventually decided to see the great west while it remained unsettled. As he was new to mountain man life, he recorded it from a perspective of observation. As such, he could point out unique things seasoned mountain men took for granted. He sheds some light on the wild foods eaten by the mountain men because they were an oddity in his life. Just as they would be new experiences for us, they were likely the same for him.
After reading the journals I was able to nail down these 28 wild foods he ate while on his adventure. This list may be incomplete, and other food may have been included. At times the journal hints that other foods were eaten, but never directly states the fact. Those food were intentionally left out. He also apparently ate farmed food, but that has been omitted as well. These foods are the wild foods that Sage directly states he had eaten.
If you’d like to read his account of the food, you can click this link and follow along in his journal. It has graciously been provided by the Mountain Men and the Fur Trade website.
Without further delay, here are the 28 wild foods eaten by mountain man Rufus Sage.
Buffalo (PG 43)
Buffalo was one of the mainstays in the mountain man diet. They consumed many parts of the animal from meat, to intestine, to organs. There are many cases where Sage records hunting the animals and enjoying their meat. This entry records his first taste of what would become his staple food.
Sage was impressed by the impact a diet of wild meat had on human health. Later in his journal (PG 280) he would write:
“Sickness of any kind is rarely known to the various Indian tribes confined exclusively to its use. These people almost invariably live to an extraordinary age, unless cut off by the ravages or war or some unforeseen event. Consumption, dyspepsy, colds, and fevers, are alike strangers to them. The same observation holds good in regard to the whites who reside in this country and subsist in a similar manner.”
Dog (PG 111)
Sage comments that Indian dog was not inferior to pork. He also notes that the thought of eating dog would have made people of the mid-1800’s “squamish”.
Elk (PG 122)
Of course elk was on the menu. Sage mentions hunting elk on several occasions.
Pomme Blanc (White Apple)(PG 122)
A root eaten by the mountain men. Noted to taste like turnip and look like sheep sorrel.
Commote (PG 123)
Another root. Like radish with leaves like a carrot.
Wild Cherry Bark Tea (PG 123)
Apparently very common and use for purifying blood. Sage notes it as, “Effective and necessary to general health.”
Deer (PG 124)
Of course many deer were eaten. This is barely mentioned in the journal though, likely because it wasn’t that out of the ordinary in his life.
Prairie Dog (PG 126)
Sage describes them as tender and quite palatable.
Serviceberry (PG 131)
Highly esteemed for its superior flavor.
Box-Elder Sap (PG 132)
Noted as “Not inferior to that of maple.”
Bear (PG 133)
At several points in his journal Sage mentioned eating bear. He specifically mentions the liver, heart, kidney, fat, fleece and ribs as portions they ate.
Mountain Sheep (PG 139)
Described as good, tender and sweet.
Mountain Fowl (PG 144)
By the description, I’d wager a ptarmigan, though could be some other grouse as well.
Bilters (PG 153)
Buffalo gut-juice drink. Directions are to mix one pint water with 1/4 gill of buffalo gall. “A wholesome and exhilarating drink.” Sage also notes that on the first drink it “may cause vomiting,” though on the second or third trial the stomach accepts it. He also goes into depth about how the drink is believed to be very beneficial for overall health.
Bald Eagle Fledglings (PG 164)
Made “a fine meal.”
Waterfowl Eggs (PG 164)
Antelope (PG 175)
“Greens” (PG 175)
He doesn’t go into much depth here. You can imagine he had learned a variety of wild greens available, though as far as I can tell this is the only instance where he mentions “greens”.
Prickly Pear Cactus (PG 196)
Eaten after boiling. Described the practice as “not uncommon”.
Turkey (PG 203)
Killed by the dozens out of the roost. Sage gives an entertaining and descriptive account of hunting turkeys from the roost. On several occasions he talks about shooting multiple birds after discovering their roost tree.
Salmon (PG 248)
While spending time in Oregon, Sage notes the abundance of fish and other marine life in the area. Though many types of marine animals are noted, only the salmon are described as “delicious”. One could likely assume he ate other species noted as well.
Oftentimes in his journal Sage gives advice on what future settlers should do. For example, he says some areas should be used for farming and mining. In the case of Oregon, he rightly assumes that fishing will become a major industry of that region.
Wild Fruits (PG 259)
Cherries, gooseberries, serviceberries, currants, plums and grapes.
Wolf (PG 296)
Interesting to read that mountaineers occasionally dined on predator meat. In this case it was for breakfast. One should note it was only after 2 days and 3 nights of not eating. Foods like this seem to be reserved for “survival” purposes.
Horse (PG 305)
Again, more of a “survival” food. There are many stories from this time period of men eating horse and mule. In this case a colt was slaughtered for being “unmanageable” and presented “an opportunity too tempting not to be improved in replenishing our stock, which induced us to encamp for that purpose.” An entertaining story follows with the owner of the horse showing up shortly after the colt was killed.
Crow’s Eggs (PG 320)
Six to ten dozen in an hour.
Catfish (PG 347)
Caught in great number. He also mentions that east of the Rockies there were few good places to fish.
Prairie potato (PG 355)
Prairie turnip in today’s nomenclature.
Nothing (PG 291)
Maybe the biggest aspect of the mountain man diet that stands out when you read their journals, is the fact they often went hungry. In this case Sage went 5 days and nights without eating. It certainly wasn’t uncommon and Sage often notes not eating for days at a time. In a world where 3 hots at predetermined times is the norm, it’s hard to imagine being constantly half starved.
While there are many takeaways from this list of wild food the mountain men ate, a few stand out. One, the idea that mountain men simply ate large animals like buffalo, elk, and deer is just not the case. Although buffalo supplied a large amount of meat, and was coveted, they ate a variety of food. Two, in a pinch they’d eat about anything. Three, their level of activity and diet of wild food had a positive impact on health that was not lost to men at the time. This shouldn’t be earth shattering for anyone to hear. Eat right, stay active, and you’ll feel good.
Finally, mountain men really seem to have enjoyed eating. Sage describes legitimate feasts in his journals. You can imagine that after not eating for several days, then finally laying down a cow buffalo, you’d fully appreciate your food. In our world of easy food access, this may be something we’ve lost.
Thanks for taking the time to read this list of mountain man foods eaten by Rufus Sage. If you like the content, I’d encourage you to follow the blog by clicking the Follow button near the bottom of this page. You may also enjoy this article I wrote about a frontier whiskey recipe that may open your eyes.
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