Mountain Men and The Path to the Pacific

Reading this book was like listening to tall tales told around the dancing flames of a faraway campfire. One can almost hear the Grizzly’s roar, the rushing river, the war cries of long forgotten warriors, and almost smell the mountain forests. Therein lies the key to the author’s approach to historical storytelling: in this book, as in his many other histories written for popular consumption on American western subjects, he vividly and impeccably writes gripping and detailed narratives about well researched colorful individuals on the frontiers of the nineteenth century.
He successfully provides the context for these narratives with an easy to understand explanation of America’s western expansion, and seamlessly bundles the entirety into a stylishly written story.
Utley focuses on the period between the Lewis and Clark Expedition in1804 and the end of the western expansion era in the 1850s. He chooses his subjects not only because they provided the critical first movement of America into it’s Far West, but because, he argues, their memoirs, maps, and knowledge of geography and the local Native Americans made future settlement possible. I found his thesis well proven.

The author provides a brief historical context in each chapter and relates his subject’s adventures from the bottom up – often quoting vivid primary sources that exposes their contradictions — their courage and illiteracy, ambition and uncouthness, their hunger for adventure and appetite for violence, and their often inevitable tragic endings. Each chapter focuses on one or two colorful personalities, men with names like Crazy Bill Williams and Jeremiah Liver-Eating Johnson. The compelling personalities may not contribute to proving the author’s thesis, but they do make the book an enjoyable read.
The author devotes more than just one chapter to his favorite, Jedediah Smith, a man as austere as his colleagues were abrasive, who carefully mapped and detailed his travels.  Smith perfectly embodies the author’s thesis, that the mountain men’s maps and journals were essential to the opening of the Far West. Utley believes that Smith was “point man in the contest for Oregon”[1], and did more to open the Far Western frontier than any other early pioneer did.  Utley notes that Smith was a man in sharp contrast to most other mountaineers, such as Jim Bridger, who were stereotypical mountain men, full of whiskey and gall and telling tall tales, as did Bridger, about petrified forests with “peetrified birds singing peetrified songs”.[2]
Utley writes a revealing key passage about President Jefferson that delineates the book’s central approach to the subject of the Mountain Men. In 1802, Jefferson read a British trapper’s memoir about his travels in the NorthWest. Alexander Mackenzie’s book inspired Jefferson to send a band of hearty men on a reconnaissance to scout the unknown Far West, “…to discover the continental passage, colonize the Pacific Coast and tap it’s fur resources, and establish commerce with the Orient.[3]  In Utley’s view, this was no mere reconnaissance, it was the first step in what was to be a century of nation building.
Utley expands the scope of his book by elevating Lewis and Clark, who Jefferson delegated to lead this expedition into the new territories of the Louisiana Purchase, and those who later continued the Western exploration, as being more than explorers and trappers, they were expansionists who guided America to its westward boundary on the Pacific. By elevating the significance of his subjects, Utley elevates the overall importance of his book.
Utley begins in 1804, with the Corps of Discovery’s expedition to survey the new lands. Frontiersmen and others familiar with the ways of the Native Americans joined Lewis and Clark’s expedition, such as John Colter, a riverboat pioneer, and George Drouillard, a hunter who was half Shawnee and fluent in Indian sign language. The Corps of Discovery mapped the new land, but they also reported a wilderness ripe for trapping and settlement.
What the Lewis and Clark Expedition reported on their return enthralled the nation and fired the imaginations of Americans hungry for opportunity. The first to start the movement west were independent entrepreneurs hoping to enrich themselves by harvesting the abundant wildlife – the hunter-trappers.
The book chronologically and geographically charts the progress of the mountaineers, always using the mountain men’s history of discovery, exploitation of resources, and mutual cooperation. Utley uses copious primary sources, including the detailed day-to-day diary of Jedediah Smith, who catalogued minutia, such as the changing beaver population, and high drama, such as having his scalp sewn back on to his head after a Grizzly clawed him. “If you have a needle and thread, git it out and sew up my wounds around my head,” he asked of a fellow trapper [4].  Utley quotes other primary sources, such as John Bradley, a naturalist who kept a detailed journal traveling with a trapping expedition to the Pacific led by John Jacob Astor. [5]
Utley addresses what motivated these early pioneers of the Far West, quoting  Warren Angus Ferris, “Westward Ho! It is the sixteenth of the second month, A.D. 1830 and I have joined a trapping, trading, hunting expedition to the Rocky Mountains. Why, I scarcely know for the motives that induced me to this step were of a mixed complexion…Curiosity, a love of wild adventure, and perhaps also a hope of profit.” [6]
Utley draws on primary sources to describe a run-in between Hugh Glass and a Grizzly with cubs: “He lay on his back, bleeding from gashes in his scalp, face, chest, back, shoulder, arm, hand, and thigh. With each gasp, blood bubbled from a puncture in his throat.” Glass’ companions, thinking him near death, left him and went ahead. But Glass was made of true mountain man grit. He rallied, and crawled back to civilization. Utley writes, “Berries and a torpid rattlesnake smashed with a stone provided his first nourishment.
The Grand River supplied water. He dug edible roots with a sharp rock. Chance turned up a dead buffalo with marrow still rich in the bones. Later wolves brought down a buffalo calf that he succeeded in seizing. In a six-week demonstration of incredible strength, fortitude, luck, and determination, Glass crawled back to Fort Kiowa, nearly two hundred miles.” This story exemplifies Utley’s dramatic flair by using colorful characters and events in writing history designed to appeal to the mass audience.
Utley addresses the social identity of the mountain men, profiling the diverse sampling of immigrants and culturally dysfunctional individuals willing to live a solitary existence, disconnected from family and community. He examines their alliances with Native tribes, occasionally even marrying into the tribe, and develops a theme that these alliances produced a significant contribution in maintaining peaceful relations, and obtaining future tribal cooperation in exploration and provisioning.
Utley also recounts the annual trapper Frolics, when mountaineers gathered to sell their furs and skins to retail traders, replenish their weapons and supplies, swapped tall tales, and threw the frontier equivalent of a modern fraternity toga party.
While Utley always presents colorful events and personalities, he always returns to his primary theme – that the detailed maps and knowledge that the mountain men recorded and shared with each other made it possible for others to later navigate the unknown and difficult mountain regions. That their information filled the vacuum of understanding about the new territories and directly prompted the great western expansion, revealing the best routes to cross rivers and mountain passes in summer and winter, as well as where there was relative safety and where danger was to found.
In a later, secondary wave of exploration, Utley relates how one veteran mountain man, Kit Carson, led several military expeditions in the early and mid-1840s to the Far West to consolidate the government’s domain and control of the new territories. Commanded by John C. Fremont, who would become known thereafter as “The Pathfinder,” the expeditions continued and completed the Western exploration started by Lewis and Clark. Utley argues that these military expeditions promoted the great waves of emigration by wagon trains across the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Oregon and California.
A note about Utley’s illustrations, mostly period artwork and primary source period maps. At first glance they seemed lifeless, but they ultimately provided something akin to a Rosetta Stone that helped this reader to comprehend the enormity what the mountain men faced and endured.
The joy the author demonstrates through-out the book reveals his almost spiritual identification with his subjects and the terrain they pioneered. His enthusiasm and command of detail serves to fully engage the reader, which to me is the gift of a great history book.
But as much as the book succeeds, its methodology raises questions about it’s limitations: the author is invested in his own formulaic pattern of popular storytelling, one wonders whether he is choosing his subjects for marketability over significance. The book is informative, engaging, and enjoyable, even inspiring, but its formulaic approach may remove the potential for revolutionary perspective or revealing interpretation. This may be an inevitable consequence of success for any historian, and I suppose one most historians would welcome, but it may limit the book’s scholarly potential.
One additional criticism: in Utley’s view, the Mountain Men pursued commerce and produced national growth, but the narrative accepts their chauvinist behavior without judgment and accepts their cruelty virtually without comment, which many could interpret as a lack of balance.
The ideal popular demographic target for this book are those who love American historical adventure: those who love John Ford’s films, or Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary, or books about Mountain Men. If one enjoyed the film about Jeremiah Johnson starring Robert Redford, this is a history book made for you. For scholars, it provides an engrossing and interesting read that doesn’t sacrifice its historical themes. For young students, it successfully presents those details that fire the imagination. In other words, its sweeping panorama deserves its sweeping audience. I enjoyed reading it, learned from it, and re
[1] P.67
[2] p.173
[3] p.3
[4] p.56
[5] p.24
[6] p.149

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