Much is said about the pioneers of the world. The ones who came first, the originals, the old-schoolers. The men and women of the past who have become legends of our culture. They were the ones who made the discoveries, who broke the barriers and led us into the future. From the seafaring Vikings of ancient times to the great artists and masons of the world, to juke joint blues players, and even the first person to take a selfie, all of them through innovation and daring defined our society and, perhaps, even shaped our humanity. When we think of pioneers in the sport of hunting, there are no better examples than those legendary outdoorsmen who made hunting what it is today: the mountain men.
Mountain men first arrived on the continent in the late 1700s. They were immigrants, brave souls from Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, and Italy, who fell into disfavor or simply resented living under the yoke of the monarchies in 18th-century Europe. In their home countries they lived hard, working as serfs, yeomen, wardens, soldiers, and servants but yearning to breathe free and stake a place of their own in the world. They were capable and experienced outdoorsmen, hunting and fishing to feed and clothe themselves and their families.
Quite often, they were marked as poachers for their efforts, for they hunted and fished in a land where everything—from the deer and grouse they hunted to the salmon and eels for which they fished—belonged solely to the king and those he favored. Eventually they fled, saving their money to buy passage on ships bound for the New World. When they arrived upon the pristine shores of New England and the Carolinas, unlike so many who came with them, these men and women didn’t seek to build a new civilization. They didn’t seek the familiarity of a fort or town, but instead embraced the untouched and wild places as they were.
They knew how to track, how to hunt, and how to fight, so to them this new world was so much more than just a place unruled by tyranny, it was a place to explore and discover. They befriended and fought against native tribes. They ventured deep into new lands. They learned new skills, adopting new and better ways to hunt, fish, and trap. These early mountain men scraped, clawed, and wrenched a living out of the wilderness. As time went on, they settled, had children, and taught them their ways, ensuring the next generation of mountain men would be able to survive and thrive as they had.
As our country evolved, mountain men remained at the forefront, leading the masses into a wilderness they already called home. They opened up the Emigrant Trails, leading parties of settlers across vast stretches of the unknown, providing meat to feed the masses and protection along the way. Mountain men became scouts for the U.S. Army. They were among the first hunters to recognize the potential of military technology and how it could be applied to the hunting world. They joined native tribes on hunts, learning the art of tracking and how to best make use of the varieties of game animals available to them. From this they became more effective hunters and began to discover ways to support themselves through the fur trade and in meat markets. In short, they took hunting from a simple way to put meat on the table and turned it into an art form and lifestyle.
By the 1820s, there were more than 3,000 mountain men living in the Rockies, Sierra Nevada, and Appalachian mountain ranges, in stretches that ranged across the American continent. They battled grizzly bears, hunted elk and deer, and trapped beaver and fox for their highly desirable furs that were in fashion at the time. Once a year across the American West, mountain men would come together in a massive gathering called the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous to trade supplies and share tales of the wild way they lived. Over time, many of these men became much more than crazy wood hermits, they became legends.
When we think of mountain men, several names stand out in our minds. Daniel Boone was among the earliest mountain men. His hunting prowess made him so famous he became a folk hero among the pioneers of Kentucky. Boone became such a legendary hunter, his name became a part of the famous Boone and Crockett hunting club, the oldest wildlife and habitat conservation organization in the United States still in existence today.
Shortly after Boone, another mountain man, Seth Kinman, lived across the country making a name for himself by stalking the mountains of Northern California. Kinman was known for his hunting of North America’s largest predator: the grizzly bear. Kinman claimed to have shot more than 800 grizzly bears and became well known for the furniture he made out of the beasts’ remains. Several of his grizzly-skin chairs even went to the White House after Kinman gave them to U.S President Abraham Lincoln.
There were dozens more mountain men who helped shape the hunting world of America as we know it today. There was Hugh Glass, Jedediah Smith, and Jim Bridger, but perhaps the most famous of them all is Jonathan Jeremiah “Liver-Eater” Johnson. His fame was largely due to the 1972 film “Jeremiah Johnson,” starring Robert Redford, which depicts Johnson mostly during his time at war with the Crow Native American tribe. In real life, he earned his nickname and became brutally famous for eating the livers of the Crow warriors he killed. What the movie does not reflect, however, is the amount of time he spent opening up what was then Montana territory for hunters and trappers. Johnson traveled higher and farther into the mountains than any who had gone before him, sharing maps and information about the territories he explored during Rendezvous. These mountain men helped to open up the wilderness for settlers, but they also—perhaps more importantly—left behind a legacy that today remains as a prominent symbol and almost spiritual guide for today’s hunters and outdoorsmen.
We consider mountain men pioneers of the hunting world not because they were the first to go hunting. No, the reason they stand on that great pedestal among such influential groups of men and women throughout history is because—like the great explorers, artists, and crafters of the world—they shaped a culture. Without their teachings and experiences, the sport of hunting wouldn’t exist as it does today. The mountain men were among the first to recognize the value of the hunt and gave us the inspiration and the motivation to follow in their footsteps.