Literature among the Mountaineers: Textbooks of the Rocky Mountain College
By Todd D. Glover
The era of the "Mountain Man" of the American West has been romanticized and glorified almost to the point of mythology. In reality, the life of the Rocky Mountain beaver trapper in the years 1820-1840 can be described for the most part as hard work. During the fall and spring hunts brigade members or free trappers kept especially busy with setting and checking traps, skinning, fleshing and hooping the catch, hunting game, cooking, mending, camp tending, etc. Even the warmer months often found trappers in pursuit of beaver. But perhaps in the evening around the night fire or during the long nights of winter camp, the trappers were allowed to relax from the regimen and enjoy some leisure time.
From journals and diaries we know that these times were often spent in conversation, storytelling and the always-popular games of chance. Another favorite past time seems to have been reading. Modern convention often has it that the trappers were a wholly illiterate bunch, happy to have escaped the confinement of formal education. But, hidden among the pages of those journals, we can find clues which prove otherwise.
In the following pages we will examine the popular literature available in the first few decades of the 19th century. By doing so we will then have an idea what the beaver trappers may have been reading around the fires long ago. And, in knowing, we will then understand what would be correct for the modern mountaineer to carry.
Before proceeding, I should specify that this study is primarily aimed at those men who made up the Rocky Mountain-based companies of trappers during the classic "Rendezvous" period who were based out of St. Louis.
I could simply give a list of book titles and authors here and be done, but it may be helpful to have a general understanding of the themes of literature of the period and the industry of publication. Let's start with the latter.
The publishing and printing industry was well established in the American states by the 1820's. Books, newspapers, pamphlets, almanacs, maps, etc. were being produced by the thousands. Printing in the English controlled colonies prior to the Revolutionary War was even then a well-established occupation. Printed matter was not in short supply and its distribution, though comparatively limited by today's standards, was widespread for the time.
In contrast, copyright laws seem to have been nearly nonexistent or at the very most not well enforced. American printers made it a common practice to pirate the works of best-selling English authors. They were reluctant to take chances on unproven American authors, preferring to supply the demand with the latest works from London. In fact, Matthew Carey, an important American publisher, hired a London-based agent to secure unbound pages or proofs of soon-to- be published work and send them to him in fast ships capable of making the trip to the colonies in 30 days. Carey's men would sail out to meet the incoming ships and speed the pirated books into print using teams of typesetters working around the clock. In this fashion, pirated English books could be reprinted in a day and made available for purchase in American bookstores nearly as fast as in England.
This practice of pirating English works had a very negative effect on American authors, as it was difficult to find a publisher willing to risk an untried commodity. Until 1825 most American writers paid printers to publish their work. Therefore, only the wealthy, like Washington Irving, could afford to produce their work. Benjamin Franklin was an exception, since being a printer by occupation, he was able to indulge his interest in writing.
The practice of copyright piracy, while tending to stagnate the progress of truly American literature, at least had the positive effect of making reading materials widely available to the American citizen. The educational benefits of such readily available printed matter are obvious.
Themes of literature of the period seem somewhat simplistic to us today but are quite understandable for the time. Literature of Exploration was wildy popular. By this period early works of English explorations in the new world were already antiques. Thomas Hariot's A Briefe and True Report of the New-Found Land of Virginia (1588) was quickly translated into Latin, French, and German; the text and pictures were made into engravings and widely republished for over 200 years. Travelers' diaries, letters and journals and even ships' logs were met with great interest. Donald Mackenzie's book on travels and explorations to the Pacific Ocean across Canada was a favorite of President Thomas Jefferson, and Biddle's editing of the Journals of Lewis and Clark was very popular reading.
Political writing then as now gained much attention. Thomas Paines' Common Sense was common reading with more than 100,000 copies sold within three months of its publication. Epics, satire, religious writings, transcendentalism and poetry were also themes popular to the period. Fiction also included a great body of works from such notables as Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, and James Fenimore Cooper, to name a few. "Titles! Give me titles," you say? More on that in a moment.
So we have seen that much literature was written and printed during the period. More newspapers, for example, were printed in America at the time than anywhere else in the world. But what of the notion that our beloved mountaineers were thought to be illiterate, uncouth ruffians from the dregs of society? Well, I don't propose to comment on their social skills but will reflect upon their literacy.
Keeping in mind the somewhat narrow scope of our subjects, it is easy for us to make a list of those mountaineers who we know were literate: Ashley, Henry, the Sublettes, Fitzpatrick, Smith, Clyman, Ferris, Russell, Leonard, Wyeth, Jackson, Provost, Ogden, Fontenelle, the Bents, Cambell, Lisa . . . need I go on? Media scholar and social critic Neil Postman (1985) cites evidence putting literacy rates as high as 90% among men in New England around 1700. High literacy rates are confirmed by scholar Harvey Graff (1999) who qualifies Postman's figures by saying that literacy patterns were erratic, ranging from very high in New England to fairly low on the South. It wasn't until the early 1800's, contends Graff, that literacy became dominant in most phases of social life.
Don't think I can't hear you screaming, "get to the point Glover, give us the names of the books!" Permit, gentle reader, one more dalliance before I regurgitate a list of books.
A lot of stuff was written, a lot of that was printed, lots of folks could read, but what evidence is there that it was being read in the Rocky Mountains by trappers? A worthy question.
Osborne Russell states in Journal of a Trapper, "We had some few Books to read such as Byrons' Shakespeare and Scotts works, the Bible and Clarks Commentary on it and other small works on Geology, Chemistry and Philosophy." The Holy Bible and works of Shakespeare seem to have been quite readily available. Imagine mountaineers reading about geology and chemistry! Philosophy, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be much of a stretch to me. Anyone who has watched a sunset on the open prairies of Wyoming or Montana or has camped along any of the big rivers of the west is naturally given to philosophical thinking. Russell later comments.
"The long winter evenings were passed away by collecting in some of the most spacious lodges and entering into debates arguments or spinning long yarns until midnight in perfect good humour and I for one will cheerfully confess that I have derived no little benefit from the frequent arguments and debates held in what we termed The Rocky Mountain College and I doubt not but some of my comrades who considered themselves Classical Scholars have had some little added to their wisdom in these assemblies however rude they might appear. "
Here we have a glimpse at that free time we spoke of earlier and how idle time was spent. Joe Meeks biographer Francis Fuller Victor in River of the West elaborates on this from Joe's reminiscing Gathered about the shining fires, groups of men in fantastic costumes told tales of marvelous adventures, or sung some old-remembered song, or were absorbed in games of chance. Some of the better educated men, who had once known and loved books, but whom some mishap in life had banished to the wilderness, recalled their favorite authors, and recited passages once treasured, now growing unfamiliar; or whispered to some chosen confrere the saddened history of his earlier years, and charged him thus and thus, should ever-ready death surprise himself in the next spring's hunt . . . It will not be thought discreditable to our young trapper, Joe, that he learned to read by the light of the campfire. Becoming sensible, even in the wilderness, of the deficiencies of his early education, he found a teacher in a comrade, named Green, and soon acquired sufficient knowledge to enjoy an old copy of Shakspeare, which, with a Bible, was carried about with the property of the camp.
Meek must have enjoyed other texts in his education for he named a daughter by his Nez Perce wife, "Helen Mar," after a heroine of Jane Porter's novel the Scottish Chiefs.
Back to Russell, we learn of the source of his reading material and perhaps the first library in the west. The next morning he packed his horses and left me My two horses were now my only companions with the exception of some books which I brot from the Fort. I staid here trapping until the 28th Then travelled up a branch about 15 Mls...on the 22d of June I started with two horses six traps and some few books intending to hunt on the waters of Snake river in the vicinity of Fort Hall.
Apparently Fort Hall maintained a small library of books available to the trappers, traders and employees there. Somewhat surprising to me is the fact that even the Astorians seem to have made books a part of their valuable cargo.
On reaching the spot, they found, to their astonishment, six of the caches open and rifled of their contents, excepting a few books which lay scattered about the vicinity . . . the three remaining caches had not been molested; they contained a few dry goods, some ammunition, and a number of beaver traps. From these Mr. Stuart took whatever was requisite for his party; he then deposited within them all his superfluous baggage, and all the books and papers scattered around; the holes were then carefully closed up, and all traces of them effaced.
From John Works journal we get this bit of info, "Gave Casmas 8 books, 1 yd Tobacco, & 10 Ball & Powder to buy provisions . . . "
We might have expected Nathaniel Wyeth, of all people, to have books, and on this account he doesn't disappoint. "Started down stream and ran a continuous rapid for about 2 miles we let our boats down about l/4 mile then crossed the river and let the boats down a few rods and finding the river was pretty much all rapids and falls concluded to abandon the boats cashed all but our blankets books amunition axe and kettles." Exactly what his "books" were may be open to speculation in this case. He may have been referring to ledgers or some other accounting records, but, as we have seen, it could just as easily have been literary works.
Another good reference is by the missionary Marcus Whitman who became well acquainted with mountaineers on his way to Oregon in 1836. Among his writings he refers to the trappers stating, "When they return from hunting they have leisure for reflection and reading if they have the means, which might result in the salvation of their souls."
Printed matter certainly does not appear to be at all scarce in the baggage of the trappers. And it was not only books. Newspapers were also available, albeit somewhat delayed from the presses to the mountains. My favorite account of the presence of a newspaper in the mountains violates the parameters I set earlier but is so entertaining I felt compelled to include it here for the enjoyment of the reader, who I fear may have become impatient. Catlin records,
"The Minatarees thought that I was mad, when they saw me for hours together, with my eyes fixed upon its pages. They had different and various conjectures about it; the most current of which was, that I was looking at it to cure my sore eyes, and they called it the "medicine cloth for sore eyes!" I at length put an end to this and several equally ignorant conjectures, by reading passages in it, which were interpreted to them, and the objects of the paper fully explained; after which, it was looked upon as much greater mystery than before; and several liberal offers were made me for it, which I was obliged to refuse, having already received a beautifully garnished robe for it, from the hands of a young son of Esculapius, who told me that if he could employ a good interpreter to explain everything in it, he could travel about amongst the Minatarees and Mandans, and Sioux, and exhibit it after I was gone; getting rich with presents, and adding greatly to the list of his medicines, as it would make him a great Medicine-Man. I left with the poor fellow his painted robe, and the newspaper; and just before I departed, I saw him unfolding it to show to some of his friends, when he took from around it, some eight or ten folds of birch bark and deer skins; all of which were carefully enclosed in a sack made of the skin of a pole cat, and undoubtedly destined to become, and to be called, his mystery or medicine-bag."
If I have made some headway toward the convincing of the skeptic concerning literature in the hands of beaver men in the mountains, permit me then to now lay out a list of possible choices of the actual books available at the time. Needless to say, this list will only begin to scratch the surface. What I mean to do here is simply give some idea of titles and authors of the period for those who are interested. Further expansion of the list I'll leave to whomever wishes.
Earlier I mentioned literary themes. I'll follow that outline in order to bring some organization to the list.
Journal of a Tour to the Ohio; August 11 - October 2, 1748. Weiser , Conrad. From Pennsylvania Colonial Records, v; with variations from Pennsylvania Historical Collections, i.
Selection of his Letters and Journals, relating to Tours into the Western Country; November 16, 1750 - November, 1765. Croghan, George. From Pennsylvania Colonial Records, v-vii; Massachusetts Historical Collections (4th series), ix; Butler's History of Kentucky (Cincinnati and Louisville, 1836), Appendix, with variations from other sources; and New York Colonial Documents, vii.
Two Journals of Western Tours: one, to the neighborhood of Fort Duquesne (July-September, 1758); the other, to the Ohio (October, 1758-January, 1759). Post, Charles F. From Proud's History of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1798), ii, Appendix.
Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, describing the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians; with an account of the Posts situated on the River Saint Laurence, Lake Ontario, &c.; to which is added, a Vocabulary of the Chippeway Language; Names of Furs and Skins, in English and French; list of words in the Iroquois, Mohegan, Shawanee, and Esquimeaux Tongues; and a Table, shewing the Analogy between the Algonkin and Chippeway Languages. John Long. Reprint of the original edition: London, 1791.
Travels to the West of the Alleghany Mountains, in the States of Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and back to Charleston by the Upper Carolines, etc.; September 24, 1801-March 26, 1803. Michaux, Francois Andre. Reprint of (second) London edition, 1805.
Travels in the Interior of America, including a description of Upper Louisiana, together with the States of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee, with the Illinois, and Western Territories; December 31, 1809-January 20, 1812. Bradbury, John Reprint of (second) London edition, 1819.
Journals of the Expedition Under the Command of Capts Lewis and Clark to the Sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the river Columbia...Two Volumes. 1813 Biddle, Nicholas ed.
Journal of a Voyage up the River Missouri; April 2-August, 1811. Brackenridge, Henry Marie Reprint of (second) Baltimore edition, 1816.
Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River: being a Narrative of the Expedition fitted out by John Jacob Astor, to establish the "Pacific Fur Company;" with an account of the Indian tribes on the Coast of the Pacific; May, 1810-April 4, 1814. Alexander Ross.
Memorable days in America: being a Journal of a Tour to the United States, principally undertaken to ascertain, by positive evidence, the condition and probable prospects of British Emigrants; including Accounts of Mr. Birkbeck's settlement in the Illinois; November 27, 1818-July 21, 1820. William Faux . Reprint of the original edition: London, 1823.
The Complete Works in Philosophy, Politics, and Morals, of the late Dr. Benjamin Franklin, now first collected and arranged with Memoirs of his early life, written by himself. In Three Volumes . London. [Ed. by Marshall.] 2d ed. 
Common Sense , The Age of Reason , The Federalist Papers by Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
Epics, Mock Epics and Satire
The Conquest of Canaan (1785) by Timothy Dwight
M'Fingal (1776-82), by John Trumbull
The Contrast (produced 1787) by Royall Tyler
Modern Chivalry by Hugh Henry Brackenridge (in installments from 1792 to 1815)
Wieland (1798), Arthur Mervyn (1799), Ormond (1799), and Edgar Huntley (1799) by
Charles Brockden Brown
Sketch Book of Geoffrye Crayon (1819-1820) by Washington Irving. Containing "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
History of New York (1809) by Diederich Knickerbocker (early pen name of Washington Irving).
The Pioneers(1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826) The Prairie (1827) by James Fenimore Cooper.
The Scottish Chiefs (1809) by Jane Porter.
Robinson Crusoe (1719), Moll Flanders (1722), by Daniel Defoe.
This is certainly a short and incomplete list. I did not list the works of William Shakespeare or the Holy Bible as I feel it should be common knowledge that these were not only available but used among mountaineers. Hopefully, what I have done here is give enough of a list to generate interest and stir your own further research. Of immediate notice is the fact that I listed only books written in English. By doing so, I may be guilty of furthering the paradigm that most of the mountaineers were of Anglo-American stock. This couldn't be further from the truth. Historian Janet Lecompte, in her introduction to French Fur Traders and Voyagers in the American West, wrote, "Frenchmen were far ahead of Englishmen in the early Far West, not only prior in time but greater in numbers and in historical importance." Why then the focus on books written only in English? Let's just call it an author's prerogative, and leave it open for others to do the research on books in French, Spanish, German or other languages. Finally I'd like to mention the carrying of time period correct books by re-enactors today. I would strongly advocate not carrying original books while on primitive outings. Damage or loss would be a shame, and such books need to be preserved for the future. I have found inexpensive printings of some of the books listed above and rebound them in a leather cover. These wear well and wouldn't be missed if accidentally lost or destroyed. I hope this has been informative and of some interest to those who seek insight into the lives of the Rocky Mountain trappers of the far west.
1. Chris Shumway-http://chris.shumway.tripod.com/freedomopportunity.htm
Catlin, George. Letters and Notes on the North American Indians. New York: Gramercy, 1975.
Hafen, Leroy R. French Fur Traders and Voyagers in te American West. Selected with an Introduction by Janet Lecompte. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press. 1997.
Jones, Nard. The Great Command: The Story of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Oregon Country Pioneers. Portland: Binsford and Morts, 1959.
Ronda, James P. Astoria and Empire. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
Russell, Osborne. Journal of a Trapper. ed. Aubrey L. Haines. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.
Victor, Francis Fuller. The River of the West Vol. I. ed. Winfred Blevins. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Co, 1983.
Work, John. The Snake Country Expedition of 1830-1831 John Work's Field Journal. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.
Wyeth, Nathaniel J. Journals of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth. Fairfield: Ye Galleon Press, 1969.