SI Vault
 
'Thar Was Old Grit In Him'
Bil Gilbert
January 17, 1983
When the West was young a Scottish nobleman beat the mountain men at their own rough games
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
January 17, 1983

'thar Was Old Grit In Him'

When the West was young a Scottish nobleman beat the mountain men at their own rough games

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5

In trying to imagine these free-form happenings, it's important to keep in mind that nearly all the participants were roaring drunk from beginning to end. In truth, the mountain men may not have had a greater weakness for booze, or drunk more of it, than their contemporaries back East. (As a matter of statistical record, the average whiskey consumption in 1830 was half a pint a day per man in America, a tippling rate about three times our current one.) However, for logistical reasons the trappers generally had to ingest all of theirs during the few weeks of rendezvous. And the quality of what they drank was as formidable as the quantity. The traders always packed in exceedingly young whiskey, which upon reaching the rendezvous was often fortified with gunpowder, pepper and salt. One thoughtful entrepreneur improved his hooch with rattlesnake heads, but when the boys saw them at the bottom of the first barrel, they were less than pleased. The trader was stripped, thrashed and put out of business.

Gambling was nearly as integral to the rendezvous as drinking, and for much the same reason. These were men who lived a lonesome, perilous existence except for the one summer month when they came together. Old sledge, euchre and backgammon games, some operated by Missouri sharks, were played on blankets around the camp, but the big draw was an Indian favorite, the hand game. Somewhat like Chihuahua red dog or Australian two-up, the hand game was simple, but the passion and handle were impressive. A man held a small piece of bone (usually a polished and intricately carved section of the femur of a fox) overhead between cupped hands. After certain gyrations and incantations, he extended his two closed fists toward the players, who wagered against him and each other as to which hand held the bone. Whites played it somewhat like craps, fading, betting among themselves on single turns and sequences, say two lefts and a right. The Indians, whose fondness for gambling was perhaps even greater than their taste for whiskey, often played in teams. They would throw virtually all their communal possessions—from horses to children—into the pool.

The stakes and intensity impressed even Stewart, who, it seems, had at times helped support himself as a gambler. One day, in a howling crowd of bone players, he (or more precisely, the clearly autobiographical hero in one of the two novels he subsequently wrote) was ogling a Ute girl who was having a bad run of luck. She had put literally everything she owned—domestic wares, jewelry and clothes—into the pot, retaining only a short doeskin undershirt that scarcely covered her upper body. She lost. Stewart, a longtime nether man, reported her "wistfully looking on, her small hands clasped over her beautifully formed limbs, crossed one over the other."

Also observing was Kit Carson, one of the great gallants among the trappers. Carson was on a hot streak and tossed the stripped Ute girl a string of beads. These were more or less legal tender in the mountains and would have been at least sufficient for her to have reclaimed a skirt. However, "with an almost imperceptible look of thanks for the gift, she flung them down again to be risked in the chances of the game."

Field sports, so to speak, included steeplechases, shooting matches, knife and hatchet duels, catch-as-catch-can wrestling and team rumbles. "The acme of accomplishment," wrote a commentator on these forms of wrestling and brawling, "was to throw one's antagonist down and, catching the fingers under the jaw or in the hair, use this fulcrum to gouge the eyeball out onto the cheek with the thumb. If this could not be done, the fighter tried to bite off a nose or ear." It was a rare rendezvous that didn't produce a fatality or two.

Stewart was a conspicuous and well-regarded figure at the festivities of 1833, but he behaved with circumspection, apparently realizing that it wouldn't be good form for a newcomer to be too pushy in this wild society. However, he was involved in one incident that summarized as well as any the spirit of the rendezvous. Along with a typical assortment of thrills—a card sharp was lynched, and there were several eyegougings—the 1833 party had to contend with rabid wolves. A pack of these diseased animals harassed the camp, adding a kind of Russian-roulette flavor to the proceedings. Having made earlier arrangements with an attractive Indian girl, Stewart kicked Beauty Holmes out of the tent the two of them shared. While trying to sleep in the grass, Holmes was attacked by one of the crazed wolves. His screams created more hilarity than sympathy, and someone suggested it would be amusing to stage a midnight mad-wolf hunt. Preparations for it were squelched by Stewart, who, interrupting his own recreation, emerged from the tent and convinced the trappers that the casualties that would almost certainly result from this drunken sport wouldn't be worth whatever drolleries it might provide.

Strolling around the camp the next morning, Stewart came upon a mountaineer by the name of Joe Meek, who was groggily trying to rise from where the whiskey had felled him the night before. (Meek had come to the mountains in 1829 after beating up an instructor at a school in Virginia at which he was enrolled.) Stewart suggested that, given his condition, Meek was lucky not to have been munched by a wolf. Even with a terrible hangover, Meek had a snappy comeback: "It would of cured him sure—if it hadn't killed him." But whiskey didn't preserve the unfortunate Holmes. He died of rabies a few weeks later and was buried in an unmarked grave along an unnamed stream.

Following his first rendezvous, Stewart stayed in the Western wilderness for nearly three years, usually in the company of either Tom Fitzpatrick or Jim Bridger, the two most able partners of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. The precise route of their travels was never recorded, but it's known that Stewart roamed from the smugglers' town of Taos in what is now New Mexico to the outposts of the British at the mouth of the Columbia River in what is now British Columbia. He saw country and had experiences that previously had been known only to mountain men.

In 1836 Stewart showed up in New Orleans, where he took rooms on Bourbon Street. Again he dazzled local society and improved his finances. He and some British compatriots began exporting cotton to English mills. His journals don't spell out the business details, probably with good reason, but Stewart's commissions were apparently substantial because the next year he was able to go back to the mountains in fairly grand style. He left from St. Louis in the spring of 1837 with Fitzpatrick, who was taking the supply caravan that year to the rendezvous. Stewart brought along a considerable private entourage—10 men employed to look after his comfort and two freight wagons. Along with conventional supplies, his wagons carried chests stocked with wines, brandies, hams, sardines, marmalades, dried fruits and other delicacies that had never been seen West of the Mississippi River.

From the standpoint of future generations, Stewart's 1837 trip was his most important because he took with him a young Baltimore-born, Paris-trained artist, Alfred Jacob Miller, to record their experiences. (Well-financed expeditions today invariably take along a photographer or film crew.) If there was ever a painter who earned his commissions it was Miller, because Stewart was a demanding, often cantankerous employer. Fitzpatrick had made Stewart the second-in-command of the entire supply caravan, and Stewart began shaping up the frontier irregulars as though they were a regiment of Wellington's hussars. He took special pains to make certain that his own artist Johnny would hold up his end. Miller was expected to take a regular turn at night guard and other camp duties and also to sketch from dawn to dusk. On one occasion, having been ragged persistently about the quantity of his output, the artist, who was no toady, turned on his patron and said, "I would be glad to paint more sketches—if I had six pairs of hands."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5