Before There Were Cowboys, Mountain Men Explored Wyoming And The West

The annual Green River Rendezvous is a celebration all things mountain man, a celebration of the hardy, independent souls who explored Wyoming before there were cowboys.

RJ
Renée Jean

July 16, 202311 min read

Tim Tanner from the west side of the Tetons portrays Edward Robinson, one of three Kentuckians who came out West. The other two were Jacob Reznor and John Hoback.
Tim Tanner from the west side of the Tetons portrays Edward Robinson, one of three Kentuckians who came out West. The other two were Jacob Reznor and John Hoback. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

PINEDALE — Garrett MacAdams is pretty picky about where he lies down in the forest. 

“I don’t camp just anywhere,” he said. “It’s got to be pretty nice.” 

Patting the lush green grass beside him at the recent Green River Rendezvous in Pinedale, he added, “This is pretty plush, I have to say.” 

When things are not quite so plush as a manicured green lawn, there are a few tricks to a good night’s sleep in the forests as a mountain man.  

They are tricks MacAdams has learned the hard way. 

“You find a little hip hole,” he said. “Because that’s what usually gets sore first. Your hip, or your shoulder.” 

If it’s not too cold out, MacAdams might fold up his blanket and lie on top of it, for a little extra cushion.  

But if there are mosquitoes about, that changes the game.  Then it’s not so much about comfort below as protection from being bitten all night long from above. 

“A lot of times, even if it’s hot, I’ll still wear that,” he said, pointing to a scruffy, thick hide shirt made of antelope skin. 

He picked up a corner of his wool blanket, rubbing it between his fingers.  

“The mosquitoes can bite through this blanket,” he said. “But they can’t bite through that (antelope hide shirt).”   

Garret MacAdams made the pistol he is holding as well as the rifle lying on the ground below.
Garret MacAdams made the pistol he is holding as well as the rifle lying on the ground below. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

History At A Hands-on Level

MacAdams is a member of the American Mountain Man Association, dedicated to re-creating a piece of iconic American history by living it. 

The group is by invitation only, and its members all commit to the most authentic portrayal of the mountain men of old as possible during all of their events, some of which are public and some of which are private. 

Mountain men were the original trailblazers of the new world, exploring the most dangerous, unsettled western territories as they sought a fortune in fine beaver fur pelts. 

Beaver fur, the finer the better, was in great demand from 1824 to 1840 for fancy hats to supply the “carriage trade” in London, Paris, Boston, and other places where the wealthy gathered. 

At the height of this particular fashion frenzy, a bale of 50 to 60 beaver pelts, weighing about 100 pounds, would fetch a trapper between $3 to $4 a pound. That was quite a sum in those days, and it attracted many enterprising young men who hoped to strike it rich in the new world. 

Along the way, many of these men would at least find fame, if not always the fortunes they had desired. 

Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Hugh Glass, and David Jackson of Jackson Hole are just a few of the names history still remembers in ways that are almost romantic. 

There is William Sublette, too, after whom Sublette County is named, and John Hoback, who has a certain canyon named after him as well. 

The Green River Rendezvous in Pinedale is a place where people gather every year to bring the original 1800s rendezvous back to life. 

MacAdams’ portrayal — among a dozen or so at the living history event — depicts a traveling camp, rather than the more permanent situations shown by others in the group. 

“I’m not so worried about a little rain or something,” MacAdams said.  

In the event of rain, all MacAdams’ stuff bundles up neatly inside a large woolen blanket, to keep everything warm and dry. 

“I could fit all of this on one horse,” he added. “You see sometimes where they might have had only one horse. That’s kind of how I’ve got it set up, so if I was on foot, this would all be on one horse, and I’d be on foot.” 

An example of a more permanent mountain man encampment.
An example of a more permanent mountain man encampment. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

A Beaver Empire 

The upper reaches of the Green River in what is now Sublette, Wyoming was once the heart of the beaver empire.  This attracted William H. Ashley’s 100 mountain men westward. Here was a lush green land, home to so many beaver, one almost didn’t need to bother with bait and traps, according to the reports of one excited trapper.

Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company would change the whole mechanics of the fur trade system in America, largely through a series of failures. The company tried building forts, which was the traditional model, but these were attacked by Indians and ultimately abandoned in favor of an annual meeting at a predesignated location — the rendezvous system. 

Through this, Ashley was able to dramatically increase the number of furs harvested, while at the same time reducing some of the expense of keeping men in the field supplied.

Six of the16 mountain men rendezvous, were held near present-day Pinedale in 1833, 1835, 1836, 1839, and 1840, which was the last of them. 

The area near Pinedale was an attractive location for such gatherings. There was plenty of forage, water, and wood to keep the rendezvous attendees and their horses well supplied. 

It was also just a day’s ride from South Pass, one of the only passes over the Continental Divide suitable for wagon travel. Nearby Hoback Canyon, meanwhile, linked up with Jackson Hole, Teton Pass, and the western face of the Rockies. 

That made the Green River spot near Pinedale a near-perfect launching point for fall hunting, which would last into the early part of winter, when beaver fur would be at its finest and thickest. 

The Green River had long been a magnet for trade long before mountain men found it, however. The Shoshone Indians traded up and down the Green River with the Utes, Crows, Flatheads, and Nez Percé in intertribal fairs. 

The rendezvous system brought new goods into an already existing trading system —  beads, knives, guns, and more.  

  • Two pots of venison stew cook over an open campfire during the Green River Rendezvous in Pinedale, Wyoming.
    Two pots of venison stew cook over an open campfire during the Green River Rendezvous in Pinedale, Wyoming. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)
  • American Mountain Men Association had a living history encampment for the recent Green River Rendezvous in Pinedale.
    American Mountain Men Association had a living history encampment for the recent Green River Rendezvous in Pinedale. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

Hard-Knock Life 

The mountain men of old endured many hardships in the West that were considered dreadful even for the time period. 

Joseph L. Meek, for example, tells of eating things that would have sickened any well-fed man. 

“I have held my hands in an anthill until they were covered with the ants, then greedily licked them off,” one historical account records him saying. “I have taken the soles off my moccasins, crisped them in the fire, and eaten them. In our extremity, the large crickets which are found in this country were considered game. We used to take a kettle of hot water, catch the crickets and throw them in, and, when they stopped kicking, eat them. That was not what we called ‘cant tickup ko hanch,’ (good meat my friend), but it kept us alive.” 

To quench thirst, the starving men would sometimes bleed a mule, taking about a pint of its blood.  They would make the blood into a soup that records suggest, was just as disgusting as it sounds.  

The men could not really afford to lose their mules, though. Nor would this mode of subsistence work for very long.  It was a last resort, for very desperate straits. 

An example of a more permanent mountain man encampment.
An example of a more permanent mountain man encampment. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

Telling A Story Within A Story 

For about 10 years, MacAdams has been part of re-creating the Western fur trade in Wyoming. But he has been involved in history since he was about 16. 

“I used to live in Massachusetts, so I did a lot of Revolutionary War and a lot of French and Indian War (living history events),” he said.  

When he first moved to Wyoming, he didn’t have an interest in the mountain men. 

“I have to have a geographic connection to it,” he said. “So, I didn’t do anything for a couple of years when I first moved out here.” 

But it didn’t take long for history to call to him.  

“This (stuff) just lights me up,” he said.  

For him, it’s not so much who did what when, and with whom. 

It’s more about the everyday stuff of life. 

“I’m good with what they carried, what they had,” he said. “So, what really drives me is making things.” 

All of the items in his display are things MacAdams has himself made. And they’re not just accurate replicas of period items. He’s crafted each one so that it has a story. 

“The owners have left their own little marks on this,” MacAdams said, pointing to a replica of a JJ Henry pistol. 

“It’s actually got white paint on the lock right now, and I’m just finally doing the engraving on the lock,” he said.  

The adornments he’s added to his rifle, meanwhile, suggest that the firearm has likely had more than one owner. 

“It’s probably changed hands a time or two before I got it,” MacAdams said, in character. “The owners left their own little marks on it.” 

There’s a pinwheel design on the rifle that suggests at least one of those owners was of Pennsylvania Dutch or Scotts Irish origin. There’s a repair on the footplate of the gun. At some point, the toe of the gun, which is the bottom portion of the end of the stock, was broken off and repaired as well. 

“It’s not a professional gunmaker’s plate,” MacAdams said. “It’s just a piece of sheet brass that got nailed on as a repair.” 

The gun is a kind of inspiration, MacAdams said. It’s part of the overall story he’s weaving behind his portrayal of a mountain men. Each item has to have its own little story that fits in with that.

“I have a story in my head,” he said. “And (the gun) just has to come out right (for that story).”  

Garrett MacAdams portrays a mobile mountain man camp for a hunter during the recent Green River Rendezvous. Everything shown would easily fit on one horse.
Garrett MacAdams portrays a mobile mountain man camp for a hunter during the recent Green River Rendezvous. Everything shown would easily fit on one horse. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

Inspiration From Paintings 

MacAdams gets a lot of his ideas on how to re-create the items an 1800s mountain man would have had by studying paintings of the fur trade era, which ran from about 1824-25 to 1840.  

“I’m working on a new cinch that will be able to double as a breast collar, breast strap, to keep the saddle from sliding back on the horse,” McAdams said.  

Though the webbing he is using doesn’t show up in many paintings depicting the western fur trade, MacAdams has seen it in racehorse paintings of the same time period.  

“I think it’s highly under-represented,” he said.  

He’s also got a series of knives, handy for skinning beaver skin pelts — although, this particular time, he’s not really portraying a trapper, since he didn’t bring any traps. 

“I’m just a brigade hunter today,” he said. “Pretty generic. Sometimes it’s a little bit more tuned, but not what I have for today.” 

The mountain men era MacAdams and other members of the American Mountain Men Association portray ended just ahead of the great westward migration, which began in 1843. Many of the trappers pivoted to guiding pioneers west along what had been their old fur-trading routes. 

That helped to further immortalize their role in the history of the West, earning them a place of honor in movies and films, as well as stories still told around campfires to this day by men like MacAdams.  

Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.

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RJ

Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter