Maine Mountain Man
By Mark McCollough
He had just one shot, and he had to make it count. The wounded grizzly roared out of the willows. His enormous jaws extended and eyes flashing fire. Oh Heavens! Was ever anything so hideous? We could not retain sufficient presence of mind to shoot at him but took to our heels separating as we ran the Bear taking after me…I could go no further without jumping into a large quagmire which hemmed me in on three sides, I was obliged to turn about and face him he came within about 10 paces of me then suddenly stopped and raised his ponderous body erect, his mouth wide open, gazing at me with a beastly laugh at this moment I pulled trigger and I knew not what else to do and hardly knew that I did this but it accidentally happened that my Rifle was pointed toward the Bear when I pulled and the ball piercing his heart, he gave one bound from me uttered a deathly howl and fell dead: but I trembled as if I had an ague fit.”
So reads 20-year-old Osborne Russell’s journal entry of August 12, 1834. The run-on sentences and occasional misspelled words perfectly relay Russell’s breeches-wetting terror.
Here along the Snake River, in what would become Wyoming, Russell found himself a world apart from his childhood home on the Kennebec River at Bowdoinham, Maine. The massive Teton Mountains were stupendous crags compared to the shaggy, low hills of Maine. The Crow and Blackfoot Indians were far more dangerous than the Wabanaki. The beaver looked the same.
Osborne Russell ran away to sea at the age of 16. He deserted the ship at New York and signed up for adventure in the service of the Northwest Fur Trapping and Trading Company. They operated in Wisconsin and Minnesota territories. But the beavers there were on their way out, and Osborne heard tales of adventure and wealth in the mysterious West. He signed with a passing expedition led by Nathaniel Wyeth intended for the Oregon country. There they would meet a ship at the mouth of Columbia River to supply the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
When the overland expedition arrived at the trapper’s rendezvous on Ham’s Fork of the Green River, they found the Rocky Mountain Fur Company dissolved and defaulted on their business agreements. Russell remained at Fort Hall where he joined Jim Bridger’s brigade. Later he would become a “free trapper,” an independent soul roaming the Rockies in search of beaver and attempting to keep his topknot out of the hands of the Crow and Blackfoot Indians. Like many mountain men, Russell fell in love with the Rockies and was reluctant to give up the carefree life among the peaks. He eventually moved on to Oregon, then to the California gold fields in 1848 where he studied law and became a judge. He was injured in a mining explosion and suffered poor health until his death in 1892.
Russell was well-read and kept a journal of his travels and experiences as a trapper from 1834-1843. It is one of the few surviving records concerning the life of the mountain men. He read other fanciful and inaccurate accounts of the trapping era and decided to write his Journal of a Trapper. He sent the manuscript to his sisters in Maine, who long gave him up for dead. They could not find a publisher. Disappointed, Russell asked his sisters at least have his manuscript bound. Eventually it was published in 1914 after Russell’s death, but it never received much notoriety.
Russell’s factual, unembellished narrative is perhaps the best account of the life of the fur trapper in the Rocky Mountains when the beaver trade, rendezvous, and life in the pristine ramparts were at their peak. He describes in detail the equipment and manor of trapping. A Trappers equipments in such cases is generally one Animal upon which is placed one or two Epishemores [saddle blankets] a riding Saddle and bridle a sack containing six Beaver traps a blanket with an extra pair of Mocasins his powder horn and a bullet pouch with a belt to which is attached a butcher Knife a small wooden box containing bait for Beaver a Tobacco sack with a pipe and implements for making fire with sometimes a hatchet fastened to the Pommel of his saddle…He then mounts and places his rifle before him on the Saddle.
He describes several trips through the bubbling and steaming Yellowstone country. Our horses sounded like travelling on a plank platform covering an immense cavity in the earth whilst the hot water and steam were spouting and hissing around us in all directions. The mountain men frequented the wonders of the Shoshone geyser basin. After surveying these natural wonders for sometime my comrade conducted me to what he called the hour Spring…it begins to boil and bubble violently and water commences raising and shooting upward until the column arises to the hight of sixty feet…
Russell and his occasional comrades lived hand-to-mouth from the land. Buffalo, elk, bighorn sheep, and mule deer were so abundant that they shot an animal or two whenever they needed meat. They would dry meat for the occasional lean times. He acknowledged the waste; it is a shame to kill one of those large fat Cows merely for two mens suppers.
The Snake Indians were friendly around Fort Hall, but Russell describes many skirmishes and a surprise attack by 60 Blackfoot Indians along the shores of Yellowstone Lake. He was struck by arrows in his hip and knee. The Indians left after taking their horses, pelts, and gear. One trapper was never seen again. Russell and his companions treated their wounds with salt and beaver fat and limped and crawled 150 miles back to Fort Hall.
The mountain man led a difficult life, but there were leisure times as well. Osborne Russell had access to books at Fort Hall that he read over and again on expeditions. He witnessed the great herds of bison and elk that would soon be gone. In 1843, he sadly accepted the beaver were trapped out when he penned a farewell poem to the Rockies. Ye rugged mounts ye vales ye streams and trees, To you a hunter bids his last farewell…The herds are dwindling very fast, The numerous trails so deep by Bisons worn, Now teem with weeds or over grown with grass…
Mark McCollough lives in Hampden, Maine. He can be reached at [email protected]