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Pinedale Online > News > December 2017 > Happy Holidays from the Mountains!

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Happy Holidays from the Mountains!
A bit of history from the Mountain Men in Winter Quarters
by Clint Gilchrist, Executive Director, Museum of the Mountain Man
December 24, 2017

When the rivers and lakes froze over, the mountain men (who were here in the early 1800s) would usually hole up in winter quarters. While you enjoy your holiday meals, here is some of what they were tasting in the mountains.

Jim Bridger, Blackfoot Creek, March 1836
Jim Bridger's brigade wintered near Fort Hall in what is now southeastern Idaho in 1835-36. Osborne Russell had just joined the group and was not impressed with their preparations or winter meals. While not Christmas dinner, he describes an unfortunately typical winter meal:

"Mr. Bridger's men lived very poor and it was their own fault for the valley was crowded with fat Cows when they arrived in Novr. but instead of approaching and killing their meat for the winter they began to Kill by running on horse back which bad driven the Buffaloe all over the Mountain to the head of the Missouri and the snow falling deep they could not return during the winter

They killed plenty of Bulls but they were so poor that their meat was perfectly blue yet this was their only article of food as bread or vegetables were out of the question in the Rocky Mountains except a few kinds of roots of spontaneous growth which the Indians dig and prepare for food.

It would doubtless be amusing to a disinter[est]ed spectator to witness the process of cooking poor Bull meat as practiced by this camp during the winter of 1835-6 On going thro. the camp at any time in the day heaps of ashes might be seen with the fire burning on the summit and an independent looking individual who is termed a Camp Keeper sitting with a "two year old club" in his hand watching the pile with as much seeming impatience as Philoctete did the burning of Hercules at length poking over the ashes with his club he rolls out a ponderous mass of Bull beef and hitting it a rap with his club it bounds 5 or 8 feet from the ground like a huge ball of gum elastic: this operation frequently repeated divests [it] of the ashes adhering to it and prepares it for carving

He then drops his club and draws his butcher knife calling to his comrades "Come Major, Judge, Squire, Dollar Pike, Cotton, and Gabe wont you take a lunch of Simon?" each of whom acts according to the dictates of his appetite in accepting or refusing the invitation. I have often witnessed these Philosophical and independent dignitaries collected round a Bulls ham just torn from a pile of embers good humoredly observing as they hacked the hugh slices from the lean mass that this was tough eating but that it was tougher where there was none and consoling themselves with a promise to make the fat cows suffer before the year rolled round."

Osborne Russell , Journal of a Trapper

Warren Ferris, near Flathead Post, December 1833
Wintering with Hudson's Bay Company trader Nicholas Montour near the Flathead Post in what is now northwestern Montana, American trapper Warren Ferris had a much better Christmas dinner in 1833:

"Christmas was passed agreeably with the family of mine host, and we were rather more sumptuously entertained than on ordinary occasions. Our "bill of fare" consisted of buffalo tongues, dry buffalo meat, fresh venison, wheat flour cakes, buffalo marrow, (for butter,) sugar, coffee, and rum, with which we drank a variety of appropriate toasts, suited to the occasion, and our enlarged and elevated sentiments, respecting universal benevolence and prosperity, while our hearts were warmed, our prejudices banished, and our affections refined, by the enlivening contents of the flowing bowl. Our bosoms glowed with the kindling emotions, peculiar to the occasion."

Warren Ferris, Life in the Rocky Mountains

Benjamin Bonneville, Salmon River, December 1832
Captain Bonneville set up 1832 winter quarters on the Salmon River in what is now northern Idaho with the Nez Perces. His biographer, Washington Irving, details his first Christmas Dinner in the mountains as a guest of the chief:

"On Christmas eve, accordingly, they began their rude fetes and rejoicings. In the course of the night the free trappers surrounded the lodge of the Pierced-nose chief and in lieu of Christmas carols, saluted him with a feude joie.

Kowsoter received it in a truly Christian spirit, and after a speech, in which he expressed his high gratification at the honor done him, invited the whole company to a feast on the following day. His invitation was gladly accepted. A Christmas dinner in the wigwam of an Indian chief! There was novelty in the idea. Not one failed to be present. The banquet was served up in primitive style: skins of various kinds, nicely dressed for the occasion, were spread upon the ground; upon these were heaped up abundance of venison, elk meat, and mountain mutton, with various bitter roots which the Indians use as condiments.

After a short prayer, the company all seated themselves cross-legged, in Turkish fashion, to the banquet, which passed off with great hilarity. After which various games of strength and agility by both white men and Indians closed the Christmas festivities."

Washington Irving, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville
Gant & Blackwell, Laramie River, New Years Days 1832
Gant & Blackwell did not make it back to their intended winter quarters at the mouth of the Laramie River. Instead they were bogged down in deep snow further up the Laramie River on the west side of the Laramie range in what is now southeastern Wyoming. With their horses almost all dead, but buffalo plenty, they had a feast on New Year's day:

On new-years day, notwithstanding our horses were nearly all dead, as being fully satisfied that the few that were yet living must die soon, we concluded to have a feast in our best style; for which purpose we made preparation by sending out four of our best hunters, to get a choice piece of meat for the occasion. These men killed ten Buffaloe, from which they selected one of the fattest humps they could find and brought in, and after roasting it handsomely before the fire, we all seated ourselves upon the ground, encircling, what we there called a splendid repast to dine upon. Feasting sumptuously, cracking a few jokes, taking a few rounds with our rifles, and wishing heartily for some liquor, having none at that place we spent the day.

Zenas Leonard, Adventures of a Mountain Man

The Museum would like to thank the following businesses and organizations for sponsoring the Museum's living history programs: Rocky Mountain Power, Jonah Energy LLC, 1st Bank, Sublette County Museum Bard, Sublette BOCES, Ultra Petroleum

Related Links
  • - Museum of the Mountain Man, Sublette County Historical Society, Pinedale, Wyoming
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