Mountain Men of the 1838 Rendezvous
Osborne Russell is perhaps the most underrated (as compared to others such as Jim Bridger, Kit Carson or Jedediah Smith) mountain man and trapper that was around and survived the perils of the Rocky Mountains in the earlier to the later years of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. Because of the journal that he kept, we are able to see through to the past of what it took to be a trapper and remain a living resident of the mountains of the west. It is because of his journal that I think he is perhaps the one of the greatest sources of the history of the fur trade era that we have to date. His book, Journal of a Trapper edited by Aubrey L. Haines, is maybe a little hard to read by some but I find it absolutely fascinating. Not only was Mr. Russell a very tough and resourceful man but he was also extremely lucky. Mr. Russell was also able to make notes of his adventures all the while he was in deep peril of going under (dying).
How many of you could survive a trip from Pelican Creek in present day Yellowstone Park to Fort Hall Idaho with a Blackfoot arrow wound through your thigh with your only route being over the Tetons? Not only did Osborne and his companion White (White also suffered from an arrow through his thigh) make the trip over the Tetons to Fort Hall but his other companion Elbridge showed up a few days later. This is just one example of the toughness of these men of the mountains and their unbelievable ability to navigate to a place they need to get to. Elbridge actually took a totally different route to reach Fort Hall than Russell & White. It was a bit longer but he still made the journey. Elbridge was probably the one trapper with the least knowledge of the area than his companions but his common sense told where he needed to go to survive. This is only one of many adventures (incidences) that Mr. Russell had. As I said, his journal is kind of hard to read to some but it is a great way to get to know of the hardships and the abilities of these men to survive in a land of wonder, danger and adventure.
Most of the time that you read a book about the mountain men, their favorite meat is buffalo. Well, Osborne Russell was an avid hunter of the big horn sheep. He liked buffalo a lot but his favorite was the big horn sheep. He would go out of his way to hunt them if he saw them. He didn’t care about the horns as we modern hunters do but he loved the taste of the meat. Can you imagine getting into range that was close enough to down one of these animals of the western mountains that had the eye sight of an eight power scope with a muzzleloader that shot a patched round ball? Mr. Russell achieved this feat many times to enjoy his favorite meal.
Mr. Russell also claimed to be educated in the “Rocky Mountain College. He was an avid reader and always had a book (always a copy of the Bible) or two in his possession (from Fort Hall or where ever he could obtain one). He was appointed in his later years as a judge in the Oregon territory due to his ability to read and the fact that he also studied law. Mr. Russell was also a very religious man and studied the bible most of his life. He was raised in the Baptist faith but in his later life in Oregon became a member of the Presbyterians and Congregationalists under the church of the Reverend Harvey Clark. Mr. Russell avoided what he considered “noisy religion.
I think that Mr. Osborne Russell and the journal he kept is one of our nation`s great treasures. Mr. Russell lived to see the age of 78 years which was most uncommon for the fur trappers of the Rocky Mountains. Most of the trappers or employees of the Rocky Mountain fur trade either went under to grizzly bear, Indians or the elements. Mr. Russell survived all he encountered in his journeys as a mountain man but was finally undone in his undertakings as a miner in the Oregon territory. An explosion in a mine left him blind in one eye and affected his health for the remainder of his life. Mr. Russell also suffered in his later years from an ailment termed as miner’s rheumatism. At the end of his lifetime, he was paralyzed from the waist down and he died on August 26, 1892. As most of the early mountain men were destined though, he ended up in an unmarked grave and unfortunately his likeness was never recorded because the only picture of him was destroyed in a fire set by “youthful vandals to a house he owned but sold to Mr. Albert Tozier in Portland.
Perhaps he should have died as so many of his comrades did in the wilds of the Rockies as many of his comrades such as like Jim Bridger desired to do (Ol Gabe also died of old age in Missouri blind and destitute). Fortunately for us though, Osborne was able to produce his journal for publication before his demise and it is with great fortune for all of us to be able to peruse through this journal and discover the past of those hardy men of the mountains.
There is so much more that I could say or write about this remarkable man but perhaps I would spoil it for you as you venture with him and his comrades as you read through his “Journal of a Trapper.
The trails made and landmarks explored are still here and ready for you of this new generation to explore. I hope you have as much fun exploring the past as much as I have and I hope you enjoy your journey with Osborne as he travels through the great Rocky Mountains.
Dave (He Who) Lehto
Moses "Black" Harris
Almost nothing is known of Moses “Black Harris prior to his entry into the fur trade. Harris was probably a native of Union County, South Carolina. The nickname “Black was given to Harris because of the dark coloration of his skin. Harris “was wiry of frame, made up of bone and muscle with a face composed of tan leather and whipcord finished up with a peculiar blue black tint, as if gun powder had been burnt into his face." Harris was famous as a man of “great leg able to walk great distances alone and for extended periods (James Beckwourth reference).
Harris probably was a member of William Ashley’s first brigade to the mountains in 1822. In 1823 Harris accompanied Ashley’s second expedition up the Missouri River to the mountains. Passing the Arikara villages was always difficult and this year it would prove disastrous for Ashley.
On June 1, 1823 Ashley along with Jedediah Smith, James Clyman, Moses "Black" Harris and others fought in a ruinous engagement on the beach below the fortified Arikara Indian village. The trappers were routed with great loss of life.
William Ashley soon had enough of the uncertainties of fur trade and hardships of life in the mountains. At the 1826 Rendezvous Ashley sold out his interests in the company to Jedediah Smith, David Jackson, and William Sublette, the new company being known as the Smith, Jackson and Sublette. At the breakup of rendezvous, the three partners each took out a separate brigade of trappers out for the fall hunt. Harris apparently accompanied Sublette’s brigade.
It was at this time that Sublette’s brigade passed through the area now included in Yellowstone Park, and observed the geysers, mudpots, and petrified forests in the area. Based on his observations, Harris stretched and embellished the truth till he had established his reputation as a storyteller.
In 1834 Harris was one of the men with Sublette taking a supply train to the mountains. The caravan stopped at the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers, where Sublette left behind a contingent of men and supplies to establish Fort William (Laramie). While at rendezvous, Sublette called in debts owed by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to Sublette and Campbell, forcing the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to dissolve.
The rendezvous` continued to be held, however, the mountain trade was now dominated by the American Fur Company and its affiliated organizations. In 1836 Harris was acting as guide for the supply train going to rendezvous under the leadership of Thomas Fitzpatrick (1836 Rendezvous).
1838 was the year of the “secret rendezvous. The business environment in the mountains had become increasingly cut-throat, and the American Fur Company decided to keep the location of the rendezvous as quiet as possible in hopes the other companies would not show up. Of course word of the location had to be spread, or the hunters, trappers and Indians wouldn’t have known where to assemble. The ploy wasn’t successful as a brigade of Hudson’s Bay Company under Francis Ermatinger also arrived at the rendezvous.
Andrew Drips was leader of the supply caravan this year with Harris again acting as guide. The caravan also included another party of missionary couples, the Grays, Eells, Walkers, and Smiths.
A more fractious group of people purporting to share a goal would be hard to imagine. The individuals and couples of the missionary party, by turns hated and quarreled with each other, but were united only in their disgust for the unspeakable and appalling sin they were forced to witness and even participate in. Imagine being forced to travel on a Sunday! Andrew Drips at one point offered (threatened) to leave the missionaries behind, however, even they had enough sense to realize their chances of survival were slim without the protection provided by the supply train.
The caravan arrived at Fort William (Laramie) on June 2, 1838. Shortly thereafter, Drips sent Harris on ahead to spread word of the location of the rendezvous. At a rundown log structure at the site of the Green River rendezvous Harris posted a note scrawled in charcoal on the door. The note read “Come on to the Popoasia, plenty of whiskey and white women. The note demonstrates a definite sense of humor on the part of Harris, because at this time he well knew from traveling with the missionaries that any trapper expecting to have a good time, friendly conversation, or to even receive a warm greeting and smile from this particular group of white women was likely to be greatly disappointed.
In 1840 Andrew Drips lead another small supply train to rendezvous (1840 Rendezvous). This year would be the last of the mountain rendezvous. Missionaries, including Father De Smet, again accompanied the pack train, with the ultimate goal of the Oregon Country. Harris offered to guide the missionaries from the rendezvous site to as far as Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Hall. It’s not known what his charge was to be, but the missionaries considered his price to high. Instead they hired Robert “Doc Newell. Apparently Harris considered this interfering in business negotiations and he took a shot at Newell with his rifle but missed.
With the decline of the trade in beaver fur and the end of the rendezvous system, Harris chose to utilize his knowledge of the mountains and west as a guide to emigrant trains heading to Oregon. In 1844, Harris guided west one of the largest immigrant companies formed in that year. James Clyman, who was also part of Ashley’s company in the mid 1820`s, and who also must have known Harris since that time, was traveling the Oregon Trail that summer. Of Harris, Clyman notes “all of us seated ourselves around our camp fire and listened to the hair-breadth escapes of Mr. Harris and other Mountaineers.
Harris spent the next couple of years in Oregon at times searching for a wagon friendly route through the Cascade Mountains, and at other times rescuing immigrant parties. In 1847 he returned to Missouri and to guiding immigrant companies west.
In the spring of 1849 he had accepted a contracted as guide with an immigrant party and had lead them as far west as Independence, Missouri. While at Independence he contracted cholera, and within a few hours died.
Shoshone interpreter, member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Born around 1788. Much about Sacagawea, the only woman on the Lewis and Clark expedition into the American West, is a mystery. Daughter of a Shoshone chief, it is not known exactly when she was born. Some sources say 1788 while others say 1787 and 1786. Around the age of 12, Sacagawea was captured by Hidatsa Indians, an enemy of the Shoshones. She was then sold to a French-Canadian trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau who made her one of his wives.
Sacagawea and her husband lived among the Hidatsa and Mandan Indians in the upper Missouri River area (present-day North Dakota). In November 1804, an expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark entered the area. Often called the Corps of Discovery, the expedition planned to explore newly acquired western lands and find a route to the Pacific Ocean. The group built Fort Mandan, and elected to stay there for the winter. Lewis and Clark met Charbonneau and quickly hired him to serve as interpreter on their expedition. Even though she was pregnant with her first child, Sacagawea was chosen to accompany them on their mission. Lewis and Clark believed that her knowledge of the Shoshone language would help them later in their journey.
In February 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to a son named Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Despite traveling with a newborn child during the trek, Sacagawea proved to be helpful in many ways. She was skilled at finding edible plants. When a boat she was riding on capsized, she was able to save some of its cargo, including important documents and supplies. She also served as a symbol of peace a group traveling with a woman and a child were treated with less suspicion than a group of men alone.
Sacagawea also made a miraculous discovery of her own during the trip west. When the corps encountered a group of Shoshone Indians, she soon realized that its leader was actually her brother Cameahwait. It was through her that the expedition was able to buy horses from the Shoshone to cross the Rocky Mountains. Despite this joyous family reunion, Sacagawea remained with the explorers for the trip west.
After reaching the Pacific coast in November 1805, Sacagawea was allowed to cast her vote along with the other members of the expedition for where they would build a fort to stay for the winter. They built Fort Clatsop near present-day Astoria, Oregon, and they remained there until March of the following year. Sacagawea, her husband, and her son remained with the expedition on the return trip east until they reached the Mandan villages. During the journey, Clark had become fond of her son Jean Baptiste, nicknaming him "Pomp" or "Pompey." And he even offered to help him get an education.
Once Sacagawea left the expedition, the details of her life become more elusive. In 1809, it is believed that she and her husband or just her husband according to some accounts traveled with their son to St. Louis to see Clark. Pomp was left in Clark`s care.