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The Last of The Mountain Men
Harold Peterson
October 03, 1966
For the past 34 years a 20th-century frontiersman named Sylvan Hart has lived an 18th-century life in the wilderness of Idaho
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October 03, 1966

The Last Of The Mountain Men

For the past 34 years a 20th-century frontiersman named Sylvan Hart has lived an 18th-century life in the wilderness of Idaho

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Later Sylvan showed me where he had lived when newly come to the Salmon in 1932, sleeping under a tree and doing his baking in a stone oven. The land was a placer mining claim then, and Hart bought 50 acres for one dollar. "You could have bought the whole Salmon River for $10,000," he says.

One of Hart's favorite occupations in those early days was to take frequent long hikes to visit the still-living pioneers of the region, his purpose being to pick their brains for every grain of information about the fast-fading frontier life. Many of the pioneers became the young man's friends, notably Pres Wilson, whose ancestors had traded with Andrew Jackson; John Moore, "an honest moonshiner" who made his likker from apples; and old Henry Smith, who used to deliver mail for the area on snowshoes and left Buckskin his treasured rifle. But in that remote country, as Sylvan says, "even if someone didn't like you very well he was still kind of glad to see you."

Polly Bemis, famed in legend as a bride won in a poker game, lived just 10 miles downriver until 1933. Her real story is perhaps more interesting. Brought to Warren as a Chinese slave girl, she became a dance-hall hostess at the place where Charles Bemis was shot in a gun-fight. Polly nursed Bemis back to health, and in gratitude he married her.

There were plenty of authentically rough characters left over from the times when there were 1,500 men at now silent Campbell's Ferry, and some carried about gold dust from the Thunder Mountain boom in quart jars.

People have always had a way of vanishing without a trace along the River of No Return. Old Campbell himself, owner of Campbell's Ferry, disappeared in a snowstorm one day and was never seen again. "Easiest country in the world to murder anyone," Hart says comfortably. "Suppose you go back East and marry someone and decide you don't want that kind of woman at all. Just bring her out here on a hunting trip and say she got lost. This is too big a country to search all of it."

The grand finale of one of Idaho's otherworldly sunsets now demanded our attention. It took me some time to see what made the sunset strangely beautiful: the air is so pellucidly clear that the sundown is never red, not even purple. There is simply not enough dust to diffract light sufficiently. Instead, tints of green, reflected from the dark forests, vary the turquoise, azure, ultramarine and purest blue of the sky. That latter blue is the poignant blue of Idaho's flowering camas prairies, and in its extraordinary depths one glimpses the very color of a pioneer woman's eyes, the very gingham of her frock.

Then it was full night. The candle flame shifted and flickered in a faint draft, rearranging the shadows. Its light now lit what appeared to be three skulls, resting in a recess over the fireplace, directly under a muzzle-loading rifle, a buffalo powder horn and a bullet mold. The death's heads on left and right were slit-eyed, fanged cougar skulls; that in the center, reposing on an ancient Greek Bible, looked all too human. This, it unfolded, was another "lost" Idahoan. Hart, who found the unholy relic washed up on the river edge, deduced that its previous owner, in life, had been a boy caught stealing provisions from early settlers, shot and thrown into the torrent.

"You see some fearful things in this country," Buckskin said. "We was up on Horse Heaven last June and I looked down in the canyon and saw a bolt of lightning begin and end below us. Some of those lightning bolts are a foot wide. If they hit a tree, the tree explodes. You see that for free. Sometimes ball lightning comes rolling down the hill, rivulets running down from it like molten gold. Saint Elmo's fire is common, and I once had some come down the stovepipe while a visitor was making coffee. I heard this screaming and yelling. 'It came right out of the coffeepot," he said.

"Then there are places down on South Fork where you can find rows of pottery set just as the Indians left them. Lucky McKinnon found a cave with baskets, too. In a good dry cave those baskets could have set there 500 years."

Old Indian signs and art—which, self-taught, he has learned to read—also captivate Hart. His favorite story in that regard is of finding an ancient sign up South Fork just as the Idaho skies were preparing to open up and let loose. "At first I thought it was a trail marker," he recalls, "but it was a 'house' sign—meaning hogan, tepee, hotel. There was nothing there but a straight, sheer cliff, but I spread my bedroll for the night anyway. Well, the drip from that pouring rain missed me by just this much all night. A message from 1,000 to 5,000 years ago had kept me dry.

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