Give Your Heart to the Hawks: A Tribute to the Mountain Men
by Win Blevins, Forge (trademark of Tom Doherty Associates), New York, 2005, $19.95 paperback.
Although it’s not exactly a history of the mountain men and was originally published in 1973 (Nash Publishing Corp., Los Angeles), this 336-page book is highly recommended to anyone who appreciates those Westerners who roamed the vast Plains and Rockies after Lewis and Clark and before the emigrants and gold seekers hit the westward trails. Win Blevins, best known for his vivid, well-researched frontier novels as well as his Dictionary of the American West, assures the readers in his 2005 introduction that all the stories in Give Your Heart to the Hawks are known to be true. He adds, “They come from the journals of men who were there, from newspapers of the day, from books written or told by participants. Though I’ve dramatized them, I haven’t made them up.” While a chronology, a glossary and a bibliography are included, this book is not meant to be a thorough examination of the fur trade. Instead, it celebrates such free-ranging characters as John Colter, Jed Smith, Jim Bridger, Tom Fitzpatrick and Bill Williams and provides a flavor of their thrilling era. Instead of looking back at the early 19th century and providing dates, comprehensive coverage and analysis, Blevins tries to take the mountain men’s perspective. He reminds the reader that “while we might think of the trappers as agents of Manifest Destiny in a west-warding nation, they certainly did not.”
The stories are told mostly in chronological fashion, beginning with the so-called first mountain man, John Colter, who in 1806 chose to return to the Rockies to trap beaver rather than continue to St. Louis with the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Next up is the most amazing mountain man tale of them all, and Blevins tells it well. The bare facts: In 1823 a grizzly mauled Hugh Glass, and a couple of his fellow mountain men left the old boy for dead, but Glass somehow pulled through and met those fellows again down the wilderness road. One of those shaky comrades was 19-yearold Jim Bridger, who is the subject of his own chapter near the end of the book, for in 1843 the fur trade veteran Bridger finally made the shift from trapping to trading with emigrants. “Fort Bridger was the first post ever constructed in the Rockies, not to trade with the Indians or the trappers, but as a way-station for emigrants,” Blevins writes. For all intents and purposes that marked the end of the mountain man era.
The title of his book doesn’t lie—this is a tribute to those mountain men. In between the stories, Blevins provides essays, which he calls “interludes,” and in his ninth interlude, he lets us know that these daring young men in their crazy furs were not responsible for “civilizing” the West. Like the Indians, the mountain men gave their hearts to the hawks rather than to permanent homes and institutions. “The conquistadores [i.e., destroyers] in the West were not the mountain men, but the settlers and the missionaries,” Blevins writes. In contrast, the mountain men had developed a spiritual brotherhood with the Indians, whose ways they often adopted. “The emigrants defeated the mountain men as surely as they defeated the Indians,” he suggests. Of course one can debate just how noble the mountain men (let alone the Indians) were, but one thing is as clear now as it was 30 years ago: Blevins gives more of his heart to the hawks than most of us.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.