whole country... was smoking with the vapor from boiling springs, and
burning with gasses, issuing from small craters, each of which was emitting
a sharp whistling sound... like that place the old Methodist preacher
used to threaten me with... But the warmth of the place was most delightful,
after the freezing cold of the mountains; so if it was hell, it was a
more agreeable climate than I had been in for some time.
One winter in the early 1830s, a cold and hungry mountain man named Joe Meek stumbled into a landscape unlike anything he had ever seen. It was the Yellowstone Plateau, and Meek was one of the first white men to see it.
Born in Washington County, Virginia, Meek -- like hundreds of other young men eager for adventure -- had run off to the West. He would spend 11 years in the mountains, trapping and trading for furs -- traveling relentlessly, pushing into corners of the West his country did not yet own, in search of easy money.
Hats was the name of the game. The carriage trade was the thing that set
the standard of fashions. The carriage trade was nothing more than the
rich driving around in their carriages in Boston or London or Paris...
and whatever they wore, everybody else wanted to wear. Well, they were
wearing beaver hats. And thus it made a demand for beaver."
Indians had been exchanging animal pelts for European trade goods for more than two centuries. Now companies representing Russia, England, Mexico and the United States were locked in fierce competition for the western fur trade, and hired the mountain men to do the work.
There were black trappers as well as white; men from Scotland, England and Mexico; even native Hawaiians. In Oregon, a third of the trappers were Iroquois and Delaware Indians from the East. French trappers outnumbered Joe Meek and his fellow Americans four-to-one. They could make thousands of dollars, but they usually squandered it all at the yearly rendezvous, where they gambled, drank, and traded stories about their exploits in the mountains.
was a very, very dangerous life. They were killed by Blackfoot Indians.
They were killed by grizzly bears. And maybe most devastating of all,
they were killed by Mother Nature. Can you imagine what it would be like...
setting a trap in November... up to your armpits in water, and working
a stream all day long in those kind of conditions? Those men died of fever,
they died of pneumonia. How many men died on some unknown stream in the
Rocky Mountains, never heard of again? You know, there was a common understanding
in the fur trade, if you didn't show up at the rendezvous, you were considered
During more than a decade in the mountains, Joe Meek struggled alongside his fellow trappers to survive . He narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Blackfeet, had touched one grizzly with his bare hand on a dare and been mauled by another. But in the end, he had no money to show for it. And suddenly, his livelihood disappeared, too.
demand ceased for beaver.... The carriage trade chose to go with silk
hats instead of beaver hats.... By the middle of the 1830s, the beaver
trade was coming to an end. There was no longer the demand."
The era of the mountain men had ended, almost as quickly as it had begun. Some guided American explorers fanning out across the West. Others led the growing stream of wagon trains that now rolled over the trails the mountain men had helped to chart.
But Joe Meek had had enough of wandering. He took his Nez PercÚ wife and their children, and went all the way West, to Oregon. There, Meek went into politics, and began to talk with other American settlers about making the Pacific Northwest, still claimed by England, part of the United States.
want to live long enough to see Oregon securely American... so I can say
that I was born in Washington County, United States, and died in Washington
County, United States.
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