The American Mountain Men of the early 19th century are one of our country’s enduring heroes. Men like Jim Bridger, Hugh Glass, Jedediah Smith, Andrew Henry and Kit Carson were the first people of European descent to explore our western regions.
They drew maps, discovered travel routes, and offered input on economic activities settlers should pursue in different regions. Clad in buckskin clothing of their own manufacturing, they traversed the continent using only the store-bought goods they obtained once a year. Everything they couldn’t obtain at a rendezvous came aux aliments du pays, or from “the nourishment of the land.” These days, we would say they were living off the land.
One fascinating area of the mountain men life is their diet. Obviously, finding food was a major issue these men faced each day. They couldn’t just amble down to the supermarket and pick up what they needed. These weathered men generally had to glean their sustenance from natural sources they found in the wild.
At times, the land offered periods of abundance, and at others it would appear to be a wasteland. Today we have grown accustomed to three meals a day. We likely would have a hard time adjusting to this cycle of feast and famine. This cycle was a way of life for the trappers.
One Mountain Man worth studying is Rufus Sage. Rufus Sage was a Mountain Man who headed west in the early 1840s. For three years, he crisscrossed the American West on a grand adventure certainly deserving a place in history. After his journey was complete, he compiled his deeds, experiences and thoughts into a journal titled “Rocky Mountain Life.” This journal provides us with a great insight into his life.
One area Sage detailed was his diet. Although the journal doesn’t dedicate tremendous energy to the topic, he is thorough enough to give us some insight into his diet. He records many of the wild foods he enjoyed as a Mountain Man.
The following list is a record of the foods eaten by Rufus Sage, as noted in his journal. They are listed in the order they appear in the journal.
Buffalo. This was a mainstay, as the large majority of his meals consisted of this grand prairie grazer. As tradition teaches, when time permitted, the men ate all parts of the buffalo, including the meat, tongue, liver and intestines.
Dog. He noted the taste was not inferior to pork.
Elk. During his time, many elk were still living on prairie regions.
Pomme Blanc (White Apple): This root was eaten by the men. He mentioned that at times the root gatherers were better at providing sustenance than the meat hunters.
Commote: Another root they gathered.
Wild Cherry Bark Tea: Very common drink by the sound of the journal. He noted the positive effect the drink had on health.
Deer: Another common meat eaten. Deer were speedily consumed by a band of hungry hunters.
Prairie Dog: This small rodent also made the journal and was described as tender and palatable.
Serviceberry: Gathered when ripe.
Box-Elder Sap: Noted as “not inferior to that of maple.”
Bear: Mentioned several times. Bear also provided men with fat which they rendered.
Mountain Sheep: Seemed to be a favorite of certain mountain men.
Mountain Fowl: Difficult to discern from the description, but possibly a ptarmigan.
Bilters: Juice made from the gut juice of a buffalo. Sage described it as “exhilarating.” He also mentions that the drink caused vomiting, but after a few attempts the stomach would accept it.
Bald Eagle Fledgling: Noted they made “a fine meal.”
Waterfowl Eggs: Enjoyed while on a river.
Antelope: Another bountiful prairie meat supply.
Greens: Although not much description is given, the notation of greens is another indication of how much gathering the Mountain Men did.
Prickly Pear Cactus: He described the practice of eating boiled prickly pear as not uncommon.
Turkey: On several occasions Sage noted they hunted turkey on the roost. In this manner, they shot them by the dozens.
Salmon: One of the few fish he notes having eaten. These were consumed while spending time in Oregon.
Wolf: A man named “Chance” threw Sage and his companions a wolf while they were starving. The writing makes it seem like predator meat was saved for extreme situations.
Horse/Mule: It was not uncommon for Mountain Men to eat their pack, or riding, animals when faced with starvation.
Crow’s Eggs: He gathered and ate six to 10 dozen!
Catfish: On one occasion Sage notes having caught many catfish. Besides for this, and the one entry about salmon, fish do not have appeared to have been regularly eaten.
Prairie Potato: Better known today as the prairie turnip.
Nothing: One item too often on the menu for Sage was nothing at all. Throughout his journal he notes stretches of three, four and five days without food. Hunger was an enemy he was certainly familiar with.
As you can see from this list of wild foods, the Mountain Men would have had a very diverse diet. They not only consumed huge quantities of meat, but also gathered wild roots and berries along the way. In order to survive, they had to take what Mother Nature threw their way. At times, that was a hearty meal of buffalo ribs, and at others it was a straggling wolf.
It is tempting to view these American heroes clad in clean buckskins and riding into the sunset. However, we shouldn’t over-romanticize their lives if we are to truly appreciate their accomplishments. Their hardships paved the way for waves of settlers that were to come. It was the nourishment of the land that kept them going – and that can keep us alive, too.
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