The Dancer

This dancer is one of “Bugs Boys”, mountain man lingo for Blackfoot warriors. In his right hand he holds a coup stick, in his left a turtle shell rattle. He has eagle feathers in his hair. So, just what is he celebrating? Did he successfully count coup on another warrior, or perhaps a mountain man. Could it be that he is just preparing himself for war?

The Dancer Gale F. Trapp, 2013 Acrylic on board

The Dancer
Gale F. Trapp, 2013
Acrylic on board

About Counting Coup
Counting coup was the greatest exploit and highest honor a warrior could earn. Demonstrated courage was the essence of a warrior’s superiority over his opponent, and even over his own tribe members. Killing may have been a part of war, but courage in the battle was more important for individual status.

Any blow struck against the enemy counted, but touching an enemy warrior with the hand, bow or coup stick and then escaping unharmed was the most prestigious form of coup. A warrior who won coup had the honor of wearing an eagle feather in his hair, but warriors wounded during the attempt had to paint the eagle feather red.

The Greatest Mountain Man (and you probably never heard of him)

Mountain men were so much more than just fur trappers, they were explorers who traversed and traveled routes previously unknown, paving the way for future generations to move westward. Today, many view manifest destiny with a jaundiced eye, ashamed of the conquering and taming of the vast wilderness that is America; however, for good or bad, these men earned their place in history with their undaunted courage and zest for exploration.

Portrait of  Captain Joseph Reddeford Walker by Alfred Miller

Portrait of
Captain Joseph Reddeford Walker
by Alfred Miller

While a trip undertaken with any one of the approximately 400 known mountain men, would have made for an exciting, dangerous journey – there is one man who stands out for his leadership and bravery. This man isn’t as well known as Kit Carson, Jedediah Smith or Jim Bridger, but for miles traversed and men lost, his record stands above them all. He may well have been the greatest mountain man of all time.

The annals of history have given little credit to Joseph Rutherford (Reddeford) Walker for his achievements, but he is one man I would have followed to the Pacific and back. Walker was a tough but fair man whose heritage included extended family ties with Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston as well as a stint as sheriff in Jackson County, Missouri, while living in Independence – a major starting point for the Santa Fe and Oregon trails.

Santa Fe Trail

Santa Fe Trail

Walker lived with the Snake Indians for about fifteen years, later married a Shoshone woman, his almost constant companion for at least ten years (it is believed she and their children died from cholera) and his ties to the Shoshone and Snake Indians may well explain why he encountered few troubles with them. Walker was never one to embellish stories or tell wild tales, to the point of not taking credit for many of his discoveries.

Bourgeois and Squaw by Alfred Miller

Bourgeois and Squaw
by Alfred Miller

Daniel Conner, a member of the Walker party in Arizona, kept a journal detailing his experiences. This is what he wrote about Joseph Walker:

“I was with him [Walker] two years of his last explorations of our mountain country under the most desperate hardships and still I could never see any change in him. Always cool, firm, and dignified. “I never heard him tell any wonderful story. He was too reticent about his certainly bleak and wild experiences and he was never given to saying foolish things under any circumstance. Brave, truthful, he was as kindly as a child, yet occasionally he was ever austere. I was but a boy and he kept me out of dangerous places without letting me know it or even know how it was done. “. . . my greatest concern is the fear that his character will never be known as well as it ought to be. His services have been great and unostentatious, unremunerated and but little understood. Modesty was his greatest fault.”

His known achievements include:
1821 – Part of the first wagon train to Santa Fe
1826 – Guide and hunter for the Santa Fe Trail Survey
1832 – Led first wagons over South Pass
1833 – Was the first to cross the Great Basin via the Humboldt River
1833 – First to see Yosemite
1833 – Explored a large portion of the California Trail
1834 – Discovered Walker Pass across the Sierra Nevada Mountains
1834 – Created the first concept and outline of the Great Basin
1834 – Led the first wagons into Owens Valley, California
1845 – Guided the third Fremont Expedition into California
1861 – Discovered the gold fields in Prescott, Arizona (As a direct result President Lincoln, et. al. created the Arizona territory)

Some believe that Walker’s greatest achievement was in blazing the trail to California, a trail followed by hundreds of thousands of pioneers. However, to my way of thinking, his greatest achievement was that in over 34 years of leading countless trapping and exploring parties, Walker lost only one man to a skirmish with Indians.

Joseph Rutherford (Reddeford) Walker

Joseph Rutherford (Reddeford) Walker

Joseph Walker was one of the few mountain men to die of old age (74 years), and fittingly, he is buried in the Alhambra Pioneer cemetery near Martinez, California.

For further reading: try “The Adventures of a Mountain Man” by Zena Leonard and “The Adventures of Captain Bonneville” by Washington Irving

Shining Times

“I defy the annals of chivalry to furnish the record of a life more wild and perilous than that of a Rocky Mountain trapper.”
–Francis Parkman

The life of a fur trapper is exhausting... and dangerous

The life of a fur trapper is exhausting… and dangerous

It’s rendezvous time and all around the West reenactment organizations or “buckskinners” are finishing preparations for a shining time around the campfire. Participating in rendezvous has been a source of inspiration, frustration and some of the best times, I’ve known.

Everyone should have their own lodge

Everyone should have their own lodge

There are those who find recreating history to be odd, silly and maybe even just plain dumb or a waste of time and money. However, at rendezvous, I have learned more about history, men and nature then could ever be taught in either a class or boardroom.

We're all on friendly terms here

We’re all on friendly terms here

The life of a mountain man or fur trapper was hard – there weren’t many that died of old age – because the very nature of their life brought them face to face with death on a regular basis. Of course for those that survived to tell the tales, these adventures became the stuff of legend.

Mountain men wear cool, handmade clothing

Mountain men wear cool, handmade clothing

The tradition of a rendezvous grew out of a need for the trappers to exchange pelts for supplies, and quickly grew into a month long revelry with trappers, travelers, women, children, Indians and company men joining in.

Yes, there are women at rendezvous

Yes, there are women at rendezvous

Mountain Man, James Beckworth, claimed there was “mirth, songs, dancing shouting, trading, running, jumping, singing, racing, target-shooting, yarns, frolic, with all sorts of extravagances that white men or Indians could invent.”

No electronics... but kids still have fun

No electronics… but kids still have fun

Today’s rendezvous are similar – we compete, we trade, we tell tall tales, we learn from each other and we have a good time. Conditions are primitive – no electronics, no RV’s, no refrigeration, no running water – and it’s easy to find yourself transported back in time, where things might have been simpler, but they certainly weren’t easier.

I'm a pretty good shot with my handcrafted black powder rifle

I’m a pretty good shot with my hand built black powder rifle

And yes, I handcrafted all my goods and clothing… from the brain tanned leather, to the beading and quillwork, along with my muzzleloader. What I didn’t make, I traded for, just as the original mountain men did.

So, are you ready for shining times around the campfire?