Though there were never more than 500 of them and they flourished for only about 25 years, the mountain men—the Rocky Mountain fur trappers of the 19th century—have had a mighty impact on the American imagination. They didn't appear until the mid-1820s, but by 1840 dozens of books and innumerable magazine and newspaper articles had publicized (and often exaggerated) their adventures in the theretofore unknown regions of the Wild West. They were known far and wide for their physical prowess, feats of derring-do and go-to-hell life-style. By 1838 there was even a kind of mountain-man hall of fame, a waxworks museum in St. Louis in which mountain manikins permanently wrestled stuffed grizzly bears, dueled with gigantic savages and pranced in their exotic finery.
Today, more than a century later, names like Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Joe Walker, Jeremiah Johnson and Tom (Broken Hand) Fitzpatrick evoke an era of American history in which freedom and the pioneering spirit seem to have blossomed most fully. In fact, thousands of would-be mountain men still get together at various spots in the West each summer—the largest of these conclaves will take place this year in mid-July in Kalispell, Mont.—to dress up in beads and buckskin, show off old muzzle-loaders and live in tepees. What these latter-day types are re-creating is the traditional rendezvous, which served the oldtime trappers as both an annual business meeting and a blowout.
The rendezvous was the social event that cemented the legend of the antisocial mountain men. Early each summer, merchant hustlers from Missouri would come out with supply caravans to meet the trappers at a prearranged site on the eastern slope of the Rockies. There the suppliers would buy furs at rock-bottom prices—a beaver pelt that brought $4 at the rendezvous would be worth more than twice that in St. Louis—and sold staples, coffee, salt, guns, shot, powder, tools, traps and other necessities, at prices marked up as much as 10 times. Essential to this commerce were the bulky kegs of very raw whiskey distilled a few weeks before the caravans started west. The result of this trade was that the merchants got rich and the trappers remained in the mountains, usually in hock for next year's catch. The other crucial ingredient to the rendezvous mix was the Indians. Those with whom the traders and trappers were not at war were invited to the festivities to sell their furs, to participate in the fun and games and, not least, to share their women.
For a month or so, which was about as long as even the hardiest could stand the pace, about a thousand red and white residents roistered about in a mountain meadow some 1,200 miles beyond the reach of the law, property owners, innocent bystanders or any other pillars of respectability and authority. The men whooped and hollered, gambled and drank, fought and sported, chased and caught women. When the bacchanal was over, they went back to the hills and the beaver, broke and crapulous but with their spirits refreshed. In the process, they set impossibly high standards for all subsequent stag parties, fraternal conventions and college reunions.
The first rendezvous was held in 1825 and the last, a dispirited affair, in 1840, when the bottom had dropped out of the fur market. According to connoisseurs of such goings-on—and there were some formidable men who attended and survived nearly all of the rendezvous—1833 was the vintage year. Participants had especial need to frolic that summer because the previous year had been the hardest in the annals of the mountain fur trade. All winter ferociously competitive companies of trappers had been breaking up each other's camps, hijacking furs and generally harassing each other in violent and ornery ways. There had been a lot of trouble with the Blackfoot Indians, as a result of which about 100 white and red men had died. Finally, the weather had been terrible. Blizzards had commenced in October and the snows did not melt until the end of May. In consequence, by late spring all hands and races were eager to let bygones be bygones and get some badly needed R & R. In June, some 300 white trappers and 600 or 700 Indians, mostly Shoshones, Nez Percé and Flat-heads, with a few Snakes mixed in, met at the designated site on the upper Green River, 60 miles southeast of the present site of Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Among those there to meet them was William Drummond Stewart, late of Murthly Castle, Perthshire, Scotland. It was his first rendezvous, and he was to remember it as his best: "It was the last good year, for with 1834 came the spoilers—the idlers, the missionaries, the hard seekers after money." Stewart himself was an early spoiler, one of the outsiders drawn by the building legend to write about, sketch, gawk at and even, as Stewart noted, pray over the mountain men. The aristocratic Stewart, who was 38 in 1833, came to the rendezvous for his own amusement. However, he was a tourist of a very special kind: he was so well equipped by temperament and experience for blood sports and violence and so handy with horses, knives and guns that he made even the trappers sit up and take notice. Later, after Stewart had cut some fairly spectacular notches for himself, one of the trappers was to muse over this strange foreigner: "an Englishman.... Well, them English are darned fools; they can't fix a rifle any ways; but that one did shoot 'some'; leastwise he made it throw plumb center. He made the buffler 'come,' he did, and fout well at Pawnee Fork too...what he wanted out thar in the mountains, I never jest rightly know'd. He was no trader, nor a trapper, and flung about his dollars right smart. Thar was old grit in him, too, and a hair of the black b'ar at that."
Just who was this William Drummond Stewart? He was the very first of a type that would become an aberrant part of the history of the American West—the hair-on-the-chest, deep-breathing, supremely adventurous (yet always slightly-slumming-it) gentleman sportsman. Think of John Wesley Powell, Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt (who founded the Boone & Crockett Club), Ernest Hemingway. All went West in search of hunting trophies and manly excitement—moments of truth and such. Few of the later thrill-seekers found more of them than this doughty Scot, and perhaps none had less tender feet.
Evelyn Waugh could have been describing Stewart when he said, "...younger sons were indelicate things...it was their plain duty to remain hidden until some disaster perchance promoted them to their brothers' places." Stewart, the second son of Sir George Stewart, 17th Lord of Grandtully, was born in 1795 at Murthly Castle. Among many other properties, the 32,000-acre estate included Birnham Wood, which some years earlier had so astonished Macbeth. William and his older (by 14 months) brother John, to whom the family lands and income were entailed, apparently despised each other from their nursery days. In 1812, having no immediate use for the high-tempered William, Sir George purchased a military commission for his 17-year-old son. William was soon posted to Spain, where he served in Wellington's Penisular campaigns. He fought very well at Waterloo, was decorated for gallantry and promoted to captain. Thereafter he and many of his well-born colleagues of the officers' corps were demobilized as half-pay pensioners. Having no skills but martial ones and an aristocratic disdain for acquiring civilian ones, many of these younger brothers began roaming the world, waiting for the lucky disaster that might bring them titles and fortunes.
In the 1820s Stewart was a mercenary in Portugal and Italy, hunted in Turkey and the Russian Caucasus and then holed up for some time amid the pleasures of the mysterious caravan city of Tashkent. Following the death of his father, he returned to Scotland and immediately stirred up family trouble. He happened on a beautiful serving girl, Christina Stewart (of no known or admitted relation) who, with her skirts tucked up above her knees, was doing the wash. Stewart, it has been reported, immediately "fell in love with her nether limbs."
Shortly, the leggy Christina became pregnant, which wasn't particularly shocking until, after the birth of a son, William married the girl. This impropriety created a great scandal. The marriage lasted for 25 years, ending only when Christina died, although Stewart kept his wife and son, who was named George, in a separate establishment. He and Christina seldom met, and though their relationship was friendly and he never disavowed her, the marriage hardly seems to have been a conjugal one.