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Wiltz: What exactly was a mountain man?

A few weeks ago, a touch on the subject of mountain men generated much interest. I alluded to the 1972 Robert Redford movie, "Jeremiah Johnson," and mentioned that the movie was based on the novel "Mountain Man" by Vardis Fisher.

In an effort to learn more about mountain men, I read the book, thanks to our local Wagner Library, which they tracked down from the shelves of the University of South Dakota Library. This book taught me more about hunting and wilderness food preparation than any volume I've ever read and I also learned much about the Indian.

Many mountain men were well-educated. They kept journals, and these journals were Fisher's source of information. My first impression was that Fisher hated the Indians. In reality, he was probably attempting to give the reader an understanding of how the mountain man viewed these people. From reading this book, I have learned much about the Blackfeet and the Crow. If I were Native American, I would want to read this book, even though some of the material would probably repulse me.

A modest example by comparison? Fisher stated that a dog's tongue replaced dish cloths in an Indian village. While today's standards of cleanliness were difficult in those times for white and Indian, I personally won't buy into that. I do remember that as a kid, Saturday night was bath time. Can anyone today imagine bathing only once a week?

The mountain men of the Northwest, especially Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, were trappers by trade. They were intoxicated by mountain air, fresh water one drank from his belly, the music of songbirds, the wildlife and the incredible mountain vistas. The book's leading character, Sam Menard, prayed to the Almighty. He did his best at playing Beethoven on his harmonica. Though survival depended on constant vigilance, to a mountain man, the lifestyle was worth the price.

Mountain men abhorred civilization and the stench or foul air that came with it ... that of the white man or the Indian. Mountain men hated the endless chain of wagons on the Oregon Trail, referring to it as a serpent, and they hated Brigham Young and his polygamy.

Solitude was a way of life, and mountain men rarely spent more than a day with a peer. Parting words were always the same. "Watch your top knot," which was another name for scalp. It was ironic that in spite of their hatred for Indians and their desire to take scalps, some mountain men would take a "squaw" or Indian woman as a wife. When Sam's pregnant wife, Lotus, a Flathead, was murdered by the Crows, I nearly shed a tear. From that point on until the book's climax, Sam devoted himself to the extermination of the Crows.

The book makes much of the importance of scent. Sam felt that so long as he was downwind, he could smell Indians from 5 miles distance. He could even identify the tribe. This related to the particular solutions they used in tanning hides. In order to minimize the human scent, Sam often treated their buckskins in the smoke of local firewood.

Relative to scent, I don't use the spray-on stuff when I hunt, but I have hung my hunting clothes in the cedar trees out back before going deer hunting. Twice, I have bagged game because of scent I detected. I once knew pronghorn antelope were present over the next ridge because I smelled them. The same was true of elk in our own Black Hills.

In one particular scene, Sam killed a barren buffalo cow. He staked out the hide fur side down, and he and Lotus scraped all flesh from the hide. They then tanned the hide with the brain matter from the same buffalo. This was an Indian practice, and Sam admired the softness of Indian leather.

In Vardis Fisher's book, the opening scene takes place in 1846. Buffalo were abundant. Sam's horses, rifle, revolver and Bowie knife were extremely important to him. He makes his own buckskin clothing. I already alluded to the buffalo robes that keep him alive during the brutally cold winters. He often found it necessary to camp without a fire as a fire would reveal his location to hostile war parties.

In the spring, when Sam brought his fur bundles to a trading post, he procured lead balls and gunpowder, flour, raisins, coffee which was extremely important, as well as tobacco. He also checked out the latest in firearms technology as well as the news. With every spring rendezvous, it was discovered that peers were missing and presumed dead. Talk of the disappearing wilderness flowed freely. They realized that their days were numbered, and looked to Canada for a few more years of their lifestyle.

I have often wondered about the mountain man's diet. What about the necessary fruits and vegetables? Many different berries were found in the mountains, and drying them was a necessary skill. Edible roots, as well as fish, were abundant. The mountain man loved to cook, and he made luscious sausage links with deer intestine. He was a master of steak and roast preparation, and kidney fat served as butter on home-made biscuits as well as a basting oil. The mountain man had a prodigious appetite.

What did I learn about the Indian? Typically, the woman did all the work. The man lived to hunt and wage justifiable war against the white interlopers as well as other tribes. The men were highly skilled horsemen. Both the men and women were masters of extreme torture I will not venture into. For the men, counting coup was all important as well as the honor that came with the wearing of an eagle feather.

My book, "A Dakota Rod and Nimrod," will soon be available. I am in the process of lining up merchants as well as advertising. There will also be book-signing sessions. Also, a reminder that Friday is the West River deer application deadline.

See you next week.

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