June means the Little Bighorn, and you’ll find plenty in this issue related to the 1876 battle there that rates as a seminal moment in Western history— even in the minds of those who don’t wish to be custodians of the Custer legacy. But before the Little Bighorn came the Green River. Before U.S. soldiers with friendly Indian scouts pursued hostile Indians, trappers (i.e., mountain men) avoided hostile tribes and intermingled at annual rendezvous with likeminded Indian traders. Before settlers arrived to redeem and remake the West in the name of Manifest Destiny, the mountain men passed through to possess beaver pelts but not the land. And so in this issue we also sneak a peek at the rendezvous of old and the modern-day rendezvous. There are indeed men today (and women and children, to boot) who want to capture the freedom, spirit and legacy of a long-gone era and in some cases reenact a way of life from a magical, if challenging time in American history. These individuals, whether they belong to a mountain man association or not, crave something more than history books, movies and video games. They want to escape the bonds of technology to bond with nature or actual human beings. In short these folks need an outlet—and malls just won’t do the trick.
Some of us—and I can see my reflection on my computer screen as I write this—would make lousy mountain men today, just as we would have had we been wearing beaver hats in the early 1830s. Then there are the likes of Jeff Hengesbaugh, of Glorieta, N.M., now a self-described “historian who sells history, specializing in Spanish, Mexican and American frontier items.” Like me he goes back to the days of Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett, but that’s where the similarities end. He has found many outlets for what he calls his “anachronistic adventures” and explains his chosen path in life this way: “Though Manifest Destiny obliterated the mountain man trails and dammed the rivers and streams, his exploits as elemental man struck deep in my soul and beckoned. I took his tools, clothing, what was left of the wilderness and followed.”
Clad in buckskins and armed with the accouterments of the 19th-century mountain man, Hengesbaugh has gone on long horse rides—including one from Arizona to British Columbia. On another, at the invitation of the American Mountain Men association [user .xmission.com/~drudy/amm], he rode with an Arizona group to a mesa overlooking the verdant valley of the Henrys Fork in Wyoming. Below, they saw people commemorating the 150th anniversary of the first fur trappers’ rendezvous. “It had taken place in 1825 on or near the spot where we stood,” Hengesbaugh said. “The concussions from our muzzleloaders stirred the encampment as we descended the slope into a true celebration of the Old West.” He was once a research associate for the Palace of the Governors state history museum in Santa Fe, and with former director Tom Chávez he started the Mountain Man Trade Fair and Rendezvous, which ran for 28 years. In partnership with Wes Housler, he created two VHS tapes (now in DVD format)—Dress and Equipage of the Mountain Man and Challenge of the Trail. Hengesbaugh also wrote a screenplay about mountain man James Beckwourth and a mountain man musical titled Wagh! (in their lingo a gruntlike sound of surprise or admiration).
“The mountain man,” Hengesbaugh suggests, “made a choice to trap beaver that to all appearances was insane. West of the Mississippi River lay unknown land and every fatal terror known to man. He went willingly, not under subscription of a conquering nation but sovereign only to himself and with a will to survive.” It is a myth that the term “mountain man” refers to anyone involved in the Western fur trade. “Many men,” explains Hengesbaugh, “entered the fur trade as accountants, camp-keepers, horse wranglers and packers.” Another myth is that beaver tail tastes good—then or now. “I’ve tried it on the coals and boiled, and I can say nothing to recommend it from a culinary perspective,” he says. “Same can be said of fresh buffalo bile sprinkled with gunpowder.” And to that, all I can say is, “Wagh!”
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.