Q: How long have you been a member of the AMM and what drew you to it?
Doc: I’ve been a member for almost 30 years, I was drawn to it basically through a desire to learn more about woodsmen ship, I’ve been involved in the woods ever since I was a little boy through camping and boy scouts and Order of the Arrow, I just wanted to take it to another level and I read about the American Mountain Men in a book I found in the library, “Black powder and Buckskins” and there was an address in the back to get a hold of some guys in the American Mountain Men and so that’s kinda what drew me to that, and then when I got involved with them of course I was able to take my woodmen ship and learning to a whole new level.
Q: That’s great. We’ve been talking to other AMM members about what initially drew the Mountain Men into this area, we know it was the Fur Trade, so do you think it was daunting for these trappers to come work and live in the mountains when most of them had probably never even been in the mountains and had to experience this rugged terrain?
Doc: You know the mountain men that came out here were all similar in the way that they all had a wanderlust, they wanted to know what was over the next hill. When general Ashley put out the call for a hundred able young men to send up the river into Indian territory and to explore and trap, he had no problem attracting young men to do that, so they all had this desire, some even had it more than others, certainly some of the notable ones like Jed Smith and Jim Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Joe Meek just to name a few, Kit Carson. They all wanted to explore and find new routes, find new country. They trapped along the way but they had a desire to know the land and explore it.
So the daunting task for them was they were going into it first, into all these new areas they found, it was all new country so they relied on their frontier skills to be able to read the Indian sign of what was around them, to get knowledge from other people and basically proceed on and hopefully make it through.
Q: Where there established routes into the mountains like there are today, or did many of them have to establish their own?
Doc: About the only established route that there was in the early days, was the route that Lewis and Clark had found. Going up the Missouri to the head waters and over the top into the Columbia base, off of that the mountaineers that came out had to find new routes. One of the stories that I remember well was about 1810 Robert Stuart found South Pass when he went back to St. Louis as a member of the Astorians, he told people about it but because communication was very limited, the newspapers didn’t report it and nobody knew about that until Jed Smith, 1824 maybe, was at the North end of the Wind Rivers was going to cross over and an Indian said “Well if you go down to the Southern end there, there’s a much gentler place to cross.” So he goes down there, find South Pass, crosses over and because the word traveled much better he gets credit with discovering South Pass. When he really wasn’t the first one to find it. So then the word was out and so that became the route for most of the caravans to come out and over the top of Green River Valley.
Q: So definitely a lot of exploring for these guys that probably wanted to do that in the first place. They probably got there fill huh?
Doc: Yeah and they would sit around the fire and they would tell each other “Hey I found this valley that’s just teeming with beaver, how do you get there? Well you get there this way.” They were able to tell each other how you can get over from Jackson Hole to Pierre’s Hole and how do you get to Pierre’s Hole over to Three Forks. So they would tell each other the routes and they would be able to follow along with brigades. The word got out and most of these trails that they followed were Indian trails that became mountaineer trails that eventually became roads and then became highways.
Q: So in talking about mountaineering, we are trying to compare historical mountaineering with modern day. Do you think any of them had any prior experience? Did these fur companies train their men? How did they learn to survive in the mountains?
Doc: A lot of these men when they came out, probably the majority of them had some woodsmen skills, what we would call long hunter skills, from living back in Tennessee, Kentucky, eventually out in Missouri. We know the Astorians were made up of guys from Kentucky. So they had some woodsmen skills, being able to go out and shoot a deer or shoot a bear, find your way in the woods. It was much flatter there with the Smoky mountains but nothing like the Rockies.
When they came out here it was much more open country there wasn’t the trees that they were used to. We call them mountain men, or mountaineers but they didn’t really try to go up over the top of mountains unless they were going over a pass. What they traveled through was most of these river valleys because there was the beaver there, there was water, there was grass, and you could cover much more ground on your horse than you could trying to go over the top. But at the same token they had to develop new skills so by associating with the Indians they learned the native plants, the medicinal plants, the edible plants.
They learned about the buffalo what they could use off of there, and their clothing changed rather dramatically from being all linen type clothes that they had back East, and wool and cotton to leather clothes that would be more durable and they could find and animal that could make their clothing without here so certainly the skill set changed on coming out here.
Q: How did many of them get through dangerous areas where there were not maps or previous knowledge about the landscape?
Doc: Most of the time when they were going through an area, if they were aware of a dangerous tribe that certainly they comported themselves differently than they would if they’d had been where a friendly tribe was, in other words they had to watch their fires to make sure their fires were small and not drawing attention. They would try to hide out during the day and go out and check the traps in the morning and at night. They would try to sneak through the country using the natural terrain to hide them somewhat. Certainly there were occasions where they didn’t know where they were going they just picked a spot and said well that looks like the right route.
To my mind comes the Fremont expedition in Northern California let by Kit Carson they nearly starved to death, nearly got hypothermia and when they descended down after crossing the Sierras they were just astonished to see these Spanish verandas, and rancheros. There was just so much there. There was cattle and green grass, and grapes and fruits, and they thought to themselves we nearly died up there trying to eat acorns when we crossed over the Sierras. This was going on and back over in the Rockies there’s guys freezing to death and here’s this civilization that no one even knows about.
Q: So were pretty spoiled then today, people that go up for fun into the mountains to have adventures and we have an abundant knowledge of trails and maps and food. Do you think that the experiences of the mountain men have paved the way for modern day mountaineers when they do try to go up into the Rockies and the Wind Rivers to explore?
Doc: Certainly. The trails you just take the Wind river mountains, a lot of those trails were found by mountain men. When the beaver became less plentiful they would go up into the mountains in extreme terrain trying to follow the beaver and get as many as they could, there’s certain areas around the Green River Valley that still have the names and paths of mountain men. You’ve got Union pass, you’ve got Togwotee pass, You’ve got south Pass those are three passes right there that were named and still carry the name the mountain men gave them.
And you have other places where the mountain men camped, such as Fremont Butte and Kit Carson led John Fremont up to Fremont Peak and that still has the same name up there. So certainly they had an influence and as the pioneers moved in, the immigrants moved in they took the knowledge that the mountain men had given them and they further named things and explored things and eventually became even better hiking trails. But most trails were game trails initially then Indian trails that mountain men had discovered, then immigrant trails then hiking trails today and there they are.
Q: So do you think there is still that need to explore and maybe find your own trails or do you think that people are pretty content sticking with what is already established?
Doc: Well you know you can go back to when the first mountain men came out, you have what was called a free trapper, a free trapper was not a company man he was on his own hook. He could go out and survive by himself and he didn’t need to work for a company. Company man was more content staying right in camp and doing the camp chores there.
Having the security of a lot of men around him and the supplies there. Today we see people that go out, people like to camp in a trailer by a lake and have other people right there that they can converse with and have a barbecue at night, there's other people that would rather go out hiking, backpacking and they may hike up a well established trail in the Wind Rivers to a lake and say “boy I wonder whats over that next rise?” and so they go over and explore that and there's certainly still lands in the West that you feel like you’re the very first person who's ever stepped foot in that area.
Q: So definitely for a younger generation who is interested in wanting to go out and explore in the mountains, the mountain men are a huge inspiration for them to do that. To carve your own path.
Doc: Absolutely and infact when I was a little boy I remember reading a book, The Other Side of the Mountain, about a little boy who ran away and lived in a log up in the mountains and so it’s still out there that spirit of adventure still lives in everybody in a different degree. Some people want to take it to that level and you certainly see that today in modern campers and hikers that come out. The adventure is still out there waiting to be found.
Q: One more question for you, what is your favorite mountain man story or who do you admire the most of these adventurous men?
Doc: One of the guys that I have always really admired was a guy by the name Joe Meek. Joe was known as the Merry Mountain Man he just always seemed in the stories to like to play practical jokes on the mountain men, always had a smile on his face. He eventually became the first sheriff in Oregon out in the Walla Walla valley. He relates a story back in 1835 at the Rendezvous in Horse Creek where it comes into the Green and it was in August that here, August 25th and I’m just going to share this it’s quite a neat story. It’s actually marked on the map, sermon point out there just south of Daniel and he says the following and this is in Joe Meek’s own words:
“On the following day religion services were held in the rocky mountain camps. The scene was unusual, more unusual could hardly have transpired than that of the company of trappers listening to the preaching of the word of God, very little pious reverence marked the countenances in that wildly and motley congregation. Curiosity, incredulity, sarcasm and mocking, levity more than once marked the scene. It was hardly perceptible in the expression in the men’s faces that neither devotion nor the longing expectancy of men habitually deprived of what they highly once valued. The Indians alone showed either eager listening that they desired to become acquainted with the mystery of the unknown God. The reverend Samuel Parker preached and the men were as politely attentive as it was in their reckless natures to be until in the midst of the discourse a band of buffalo appeared in the valley. Then the congregation incontinently broke up without staying for benediction and every man made haste at his horse, gun, and rope leaving Mr. Parker to discourse to vacant ground. Now the men went out and killed a bunch of buffalo and came back with the choicest pieces. On this noisy rejoicing Mr. Parker looked with somber aspect in following the dictates of his religious feeling he rebuked the Sabbath breakers quite severely. Better for his influence among the men if he had not done so, or had not eaten so heartily of the tenderloin afterwards, the circumstance which his critics did not fail to remark his prejudice upon the principle that the partaker is as bad as the thief. They sat down to his lecture on Sabbath breaking as nothing better as pious humbug.”
And that to me was just a hoot, in his own journal he talked about having the men in the palm of his hand, he was preaching to them, he was really making inroads and all the sudden somebody yelled buffalo and they all just scrambled and left! And so that was quite a scene because these men, these mountaineers were learned men. They passed around books, the Bible and Shakespeare, Chemistry and Physics. They were Victorian in nature they came from the settlements, but they made their own laws out here. They had the code of the mountains that they established and that’s what they lived by.
They all had a wanderlust and I think another thing that’s kind of interesting are the names that are in the West that a lot of mountain men had given names to , and a lot of those names have stayed the same.
Scott Olsen (Doc Ivory) is a member of the American Mountain Men Association. A group of men who are dedicated to preserving the history of the Fur Trade.
Scott has been an active part of the programs at the Museum of the Mountain Man including the Green River Rendezvous and children's programs during Living History Days.
Appearing in the June, 15, 2015 issue of National Geographic. He, among others portrayed the 'Revival of the American Mountain Man.'
Curious how Doc got his nickname?? He is a retired dentist.
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