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Starving Trappers  By Alfred Jacob Miller

In the annals of the Fur Trade there are numerous accounts of men like  John Colter, Hugh Glass, Fitzpatrick, Jacques Fournoise        "Piero".
Men who for varying reasons got into situations where they were reduced to living off their will, fortitude, and to whatever Survival Skills they had.  There is one thing that is common in all  their tales of survival. They all were able to identify edible plants and roots and used them to survive.

John Colter from Bradbury's acount
Although happy in having escaped from the Indians, his situation was still dreadful; he was completely naked, under a burning sun; the soles of his feet were entirely filled with the thorns of the prickly pear; he was hungry, and had no means of killing game, although he saw abundance around him, and was at least seven days journey from Lisa's Fort, on the Bighorn branch of the Roche Jaune River. These were circumstances under which almost any man but an American hunter would have despaired. He arrived at the fort in seven days, having subsisted on  roots much esteemed by the Indians.

Hugh Glass by Ferris
After Glass was deserted, he contrived to crawl, with inexpressible anguish, a few paces to a spring, the waters of which quenched his feverish thirst, and a few overhanging bushes loaded with buffalo berries and cherries, supplied him with food for ten days. Acquiring by degrees a little strength, he set out for Fort Kiawa, a trading establishment on the Missouri, three hundred miles distant, a journey that would have appalled a healthy and hardy hunter, destitute as he was of arms and ammunition. By crawling and hobbling along short distances, resting, and resuming his march, and sustaining life with berries and the flesh of a calf, which he captured from a pack of wolves and devoured raw during his progress, he finally reached the fort and recovered his health.

Fitzpatrick by Zenas Leonard
I had no other weapon than a butcher knife to fight my way through a country swarming with savages and equally dangerous wild beasts. On my knife depended all hope of preventing starvation. The loss of my blanket was also severe, as the weather was sometimes quite cold, and I had no other clothing than a shirt and vest - having thrown the rest away when pursued by the Indians on the mountain. I followed the banks of this river for two days, subsisting upon buds, roots, weeds, &c. On the second evening whilst digging for a sweet kind of root, in a swamp,........

Pieros' tell from Ferris
Piero quietly pursued his way to the forks of Snake River, where he wandered about for some time in search of  roots and buds to support his existence.

It would seem that these skills were common to the men of the mountains, for their trail is full of sign that shows alot of them had these skills. For them it was just part of making a living, knowing what plants were good to eat. It was not all that uncomon for them to run into hard times and to be reduced down to only one food source or even down to none for periods of time. So they learned quickly to take note of what the local Natives were gathering and eating, and they would trade for these or gathered what they found to their likeing to help fill in on their meat diets and to help fill the void when meat was not to be had. Here are some quotes to back my statements.

JOHN BRADBURY 1809,1810, AND 1811
I observed in the broken banks of this island, a number of tuberous roots, which the Canadians call pommes de terre. They are eaten by them, and also by the Indians, and have much of the consistence and taste of the Jerusalem artichoke: they are the roots of glycine apios.

When some squaws came in belonging to the uppermost village of the Minetarees, with a quantity of roots to sell. Being informed that they were dug on the prairie, my curiosity was excited, and on tasting found them very palatable, even in a raw state. They were of the shape of an egg: some of them were nearly as large as those of a goose; others were smaller. Mr. Lewis obligingly caused a few to be boiled. Their taste most resembled that of a parsnip, but I thought them much better.

I found one of the places where they had dug the plants, and to my surprise discovered, from the tops broken off, that the plant was one I was well acquainted with, having found it even in the vicinity of St. Louis, where I had first discovered it, and determined it to be a new species of psoralea, which is now known as psoralea esculenta(parie turnip). On enquiry I was informed that this root is of the greatest importance, not only to the Indians, but to the hunters, who, in case of the failure of other food, from the want of success in hunting, can always support life by resorting to it; and even when not impelled by want, it cannot but be extremely grateful to those who otherwise must exist on animal food alone, without bread or salt.

It would seem by Bradburys' statments  that they were not only used as a survival food. Somtimes they were gatherd by the trappers themselves to add to their fare, which makes sense! For the most part these men lived on what they trapped or off what game came their way. Sometimes all they had was jerked meat and other times not even that. When they were in an area where they could gather things like plums, berries or some camas or prairie turnips and maybe some greens to add to the fare, they did. I know what you're thinking, that Bradbury was nothin but a green horn naturalist out on a plant expedition and his way of looking at things wasn't the same as one of them Mountaineers.
Well, lets see what some of them boys had to say.

They bring in daily horse loads of berries, and several kinds of roots, the most abundant and most prized of which, is small, white, extremely bitter of taste, and called by the Indians "Spathem;" it is found in great plenty in the plain of, and gives name to, Bitter Root river. It is prepared for food by boiling until it becomes like jelly; and is very disagreeable to the palate of one who has never before eaten it. During our stay here, we were employed in trading our goods for the only articles we wanted., namely, beaver and provisions

It seems here they were tradin for some of them roots and berries, don't it? Well maybe not too much of the bitter root. Seems Ferris didn't like it much.

Captain Bonneville
Game was scanty, and they had to eke out their scanty fare with wild roots and vegetables, such as the Indian potato, the wild onion, and the prairie tomato, and they met with quantities of "red root," from which the hunters make a very palatable beverage.

Where would they have been with out the plants; it was a good thing they knew what to look for to add to the scanty game.

Osborne gives us this next account from Joe Meek who stopped to pick plums to add to his fare. The next day when he went back he found the Blackfeet liked that same plum patch too.  

Well sir we went up there and set yesterday morning I set two traps right below the mouth of that little branch and in them old dams and Dave set his down the creek apiece, so after we had got our traps set we cruised round and eat plums a while, the best plums I ever saw is there" the trees are loaded and breaking down to the ground with the finest kind as large as Pheasants eggs and sweet as sugar they'll almost melt in yo mouth no wonder them rascally Savages like that place so well- Well sir after we had eat what plums we wanted me and Dave took down the creek and staid all night on a little branch in the hills.

Even thoe Joe and Dave had been shot at and ran off by Blackfeet at that plum patch. When they pulled camp they still went back and got some more, for Osborne leaves us this statement when they did.

Stopped at this place and gathered plums

A lot of the time if not in Buffalo country they only ate what they trapped and what they could get by other means.

From Ogden's Snake Country Journal
Sunday, June 11 This day 44 beaver, which enables us once more to feast.

Looks as tho these boys be a livin form hand to mouth; what they trap is what they eat. Until?

Thursday, June 15th. All along our route this day the plains were covered with women digging roots; at least 10 bushels were traded by our party; (camas)

This added to their fare some, I would  think when ever possible they would traded for and gathered this type of food to add to the fare.

Poison River Party Members, ya might want to take note of this entry of Ogden's. It ain't always smart to eat what ya trap.

Friday, 3d. Reached River Malade, Sickly River, and encamped on this river, a fine large stream; derives its name from the beaver living on a poisonous root. Formerly, in 1819, all who ate of the beaver taken here were seriously ill. Beaver here must subsist on roots. Saw incredible number of deer, black-tail and white, miserably poor, skin and bone but most exceptible [sic] to us all.

Tuesday, May 9th. Half the camp ill from meat of beaver fat, from eating hemlock.

They  knew better but still they got the beaver's revenge.
When it comes to native plants it's not only important to make sure of  the plants your eating, but also what the critter your eating has been eaten too. Here's one more of men living off of plants from  Osborne.

This place being entirely destitute of game we had to live chiefly upon roots for ten days. On the 11th of April we swam the river with our horses and baggage and pushed our way thru. The snow accross the Valley to the foot of the mountain: here we found the ground bare and dry. But we had to stay another night without supper. About 4 oclk the next day the meat of two fat Grizzly Bear was brought into Camp. Our Camp Kettles had not been greased for some time: as we were continually boiling thistle roots in them during the day:

What about the other Survival Skills one would need shelter, water, fire, facing days with out any food. Why them things was just ever day  to these men of the mountains.
The next three are from Ferris when he heads out from the trading  cabin where he is stayin, to go on a hunt for few days towards Flathead house his bed roll consist of two wool blankets. His gun is a trade gun that he doesn't think very highly of.  With a good horse and hunting partner; and both with high expectations they head out.  
Going with out was not all that uncommon for these men of the wilds.

During the day, I had no opportunity to kill any game, nor did I see any signs of deer. Fasting, and unrefreshed, I set out early on the morning of the 19th
This next one , who needs a canteen? Another survival skill to our way of thinking. To them it was just another day out on the hunt for meat and they didn't have to break their necks getting water. They must not of even had a pot to melt snow in with them, these boys were  travilin light!

We kindled a fire and prepared a shoulder of venison for supper; but had no water, and being some distance from the river, could not get any without descending a steep rocky bluff, at the imminent hazard of our lives. We tasked our ingenuity to devise an expedient, and succeeded. Taking the digestive ventricle of a deer, which had previously been cleaned for food, we filled it with snow, and then putting in heated stones, continued the operation until we were at length the lawful proprietors of a whole gallon of water; which auspicious event, was duly celebrated by proper rejoicings.
Having finished these important arrangements, eaten supper, and participated in the refreshing beverage so ingeniously procured; we laid down on the precise spot where we had spent three previous nights, and enjoyed an undisturbed repose.

Two more survival skill-making shelter from the elements and starting fire in wet conditions. To them just making camp for the night.

After reaching it, we constructed a shelter of fir branches, aware that it would not exclude the rain, but in hopes that it would change to snowing. Placing again, a quantity of branches on the ground, we lay down upon them "to sleep, perchance to dream," both of which paid us visits, but neither of them remained long.
Next morning, February 2d, we rose, as the "Velchman" said to his "Vife," "vell vet," being literally drenched to the skin. The rain was still falling very fast but the air was warm, and the snow rapidly diminishing. We had some trouble to kindle a fire, every thing being wet. However, with some splinters of pine full of pitch we finally succeeded, and had soon a good fire. By it we dried our clothes, and then set out in quest of game, although it was still raining.

Going out and Surviving off the land is what these men did. Sometimes the livin was good, some times it wasn't as good, and other times it was just plain hard doin's. From Captain Bonneville's count on the naming of Scott's Bluffs.
They have received the name of Scott's Bluffs, from a melancholy circumstance. A number of years since, a party were descending the upper part of the river in canoes, when their frail barks were overturned and all their powder spoiled. Their rifles being thus rendered useless, they were unable to procure food by hunting and had to depend upon roots and wild fruits for subsistence. After suffering extremely from hunger, they arrived at Laramie's Fork, a small tributary of the north branch of the Nebraska, about sixty miles above the cliffs just mentioned. Here one of the party, by the name of Scott, was taken ill; and his companions came to a halt, until he should recover health and strength sufficient to proceed. While they were searching round in quest of edible roots,

Nathaniel J. Wyeth 1832
Wyeth in 1832 was still quite green to the mountains and yet learned fast the value of the wild edible plants. Maybe that is why in 1834 on his next trip out he brought with him an ornithologist by the name of John Kirk Townsend and Thomas Nuttall, an English botanist.

Currants and service berrys are now ripe. I have been sick from indigestion for some days more so than I ever was before.

Ya shouldn't make pig of your self on them berries, Wyeth.

This day for the first time in this country saw raspberrys these Indians gave me a cake made of service berrys quite good.

Wyeth had himself a sweet tooth for them berries.

Had with me an Indian and three men and a little horse meat we camped this night in the woods without water.
13th Arose early and continued our route until 9 ock and stopped for breakfast of bad Horse meat on a creek of some size where we found the red thorn apple and a few cherries after 3 hours stop we moved on.

Must of took 3 hours for them to pick them all.

men were all out hunting they had no food but rose berrys of which we made our supper. (rose hips)

What it all comes down to is, they ate what was there at hand and was glad of it. When living like this it make sense to try and learn as much as ya can about what's out there that you can eat and when and where to get it.

This is what Bonneville had to say about  some of the plants that were used by Indians and Trappers a like.

They hunt the beaver, elk, deer, white bear, and mountain sheep. Besides the flesh of these animals, they use a number of roots for food; some of which would be well worth transplanting and cultivating in the Atlantic States. Among these is the camash, a sweet root, about the form and size of an onion, and which is really delicious. The cowish, also, or biscuit root, about the size of a walnut, which they reduce to a very palatable flour; together with the jackap, aisish, quako, and others; which they cook by steaming them in the ground.

With the exception of the falls not a ripple to be seen; a finer stream than the Willamette is not to be found; soil good; wood of all kinds in abundance; roots, elk, deer, salmon and sturgeon abundant; man could reside here and with but little industry enjoy every comfort.

Notice here that Ogden adds the abundance of roots to the list of things that were there to make the place a comfortable place to live.
It would seem both these men held some of the wild edible plants in high regard as food.

To the trappers Survival food was when they were reduced to the eating of their horses.

Ogden's Snake Country Journal, 1825-26
Saturday, March 11. My men four days without food.

What I find interesting about this brief statement is they went four days with out any thing to eat and didn't think of eating their horses yet.  The eating of horse meat was done but was something that was held off till the horses started to fail or their was no other way out for the men. I know if one looks they will find cases where this is not so, but for the most part it is. The two main reason will show up in these next two quoits. One is from Ogden's notes at the end of this expedition and the other comes from Zenas Leonard after he crossed the Sierra Nevada Mt. with Walker.

Thus ends my second trip and I am thankful for the many dangers I have escaped with all my party in safety. Had we not been obliged to kill our horses for food, the success of our expedition would have yielded handsome profits as it is fortunately no loss will be sustained.

Zenas Leonard
It was the most unwholesome as well as the most unpleasant food I ever eat or ever expect to eat - and I hope that no other person will ever be compelled to go through the same. It seemed to be the greatest cruelty to take your rifle, when your horse sinks to the ground from starvation, but still manifests a desire and willingness to follow you, to shoot him in the head and then cut him up & take such parts of their flesh as extreme hunger alone will render it possible for a human being to eat. This we done several times, and it was the only thing that saved us from death. 24 of our horses died since we arrived on top of the mountain - 17 of which we eat the best parts.

It was not good for profits and it's hard to eat the legs right out from under neath yourself. I'm sure while they were eating horse meat it wasn't as bad as Zenas makes it out to be; for when your starvin, meats meat and ya be thankful to have it.
Starvin times was no stranger to most if not to all of these men of the mountains. Why survival skills as we know them were just what they did to live and to make it another day.  

By now the reader is starting to think wait a minute, I know what them trappers ate. I've looked in all the ledgers and trade lists and have a long list of food stuff that was brought out to Rendezvous and to the Forts.
Corn, Beans. Squash, pumpkins from the Mandans and Aricaras .
Flour, corn meal, Rice, Coffee, Tea, Sugar. Oats, Raisins, Dried fruits like apples, peaches and much more. That is true they all were brought to the mountains but they were sold at mountain prices and for the numbers of men waiting for these treats from the states, it did not go far. This is what Osborne had to say about the supplies brought to rendezvous.

Some were gambling at Cards some playing the Indian game of hand and others horse racing while here and there could be seen small groups collected under shady trees relating the events of the past year all in good Spirits and health for Sickness is a Stranger seldom met with in these regions. Sheep Elk Deer Buffaloe and Bear Skins mostly supply the Mountaineers with clothing bedding and lodges while the meat of the same animals supplies them with food. They have not the misfortune to get any of the luxuries from the civilized world but once a year and then in such small quantities that they last but a few days.

July 5th a party arrived from the States with supplies The cavalcade consisting of 45 men and 20 Carts drawn by Mules under the direction of Mr. Thomas Fitzpatrick accompanied by Capt. Wm. Stewart on another tour to the Rocky Mountains. Joy now beamed in every countenance Some received letters from their friends and relations Some received the public papers and news of the day others consoled themselves with the idea of getting a blanket a Cotton Shirt or a few pints of Coffee and sugar to sweeten it just by way of a treat gratis that is to say by paying 2,000 percent on the first cost by way of accommodation for instance Sugar 2$ pr pint Coffee the same Blankets 20$ each Tobacco 2$ pr pound alcohol 4$ pr pint and Common Cotton Shirts 5$ each etc. And in return paid 4 or 5$ pr pound for Beaver. In a few days the bustle began to subside. The furs were done up in packs ready for transportation to the States and parties were formed for hunting the ensuing year One party consisting of 110 men were destined for the Blackfoot Country under the direction of L B Fontanelle as commander and James Bridger Pilot.

The men working out of or near a trading post may have eat better then the average trapper working with the brigades. But still, do to high prices and short supplies they found there diet to be limited at times and saved the treats for special occasions such as Christmas, New years or on Sundays. Ferris gives us this account of there fare while trading out of a cabin near the HBC's trading post Flat Head House.

The new year was ushered in with feasting and merriment, on dried buffalo meat, and venison, cakes and coffee; which might appear to people constantly accustomed to better fare, rather meager variety for a dinner, not to say a feast. But to us who have constantly in mind the absolute impossibility of procuring better, and the no less positive certainty, that we are often compelled to be satisfied with worse, - the repast was both agreeable and excellent; for think not, that we enjoy, daily, the same luscious luxuries of cake and coffee, that announces the advent of 1834; by no means. Our common meals consist of a piece of boiled venison, with a single addition of a piece of fat from the shoulder of the buffalo; except on Sundays, when we have in addition a kind of French dumpling, made of minced meat, rolled into little balls enveloped with dough, and fried in the marrow of buffalo; which is both rich and pleasant to the taste.

 Those working out of forts did fare better then most for
Wyeth gives us this account of Fort Union and their food supplies.

Fort Union is pleasantly situated on the N. bank of the Missouri 6 miles above the junction of Yellow stone there is no timber on a high bank above the fort I am told that there is not enough moisture here to raise vegetables potatoes grass ect, Some corn is traded from the Inds. lower down the fort is of usual construction about 220 feet square and is better furnished inside than any British fort I have ever seen at Table we have flour Bread Bacon Cheese Butter they live well

The winter of 1833-34 they did not fair as well at Fort William  just a short distance from Fort Union for Larpenteur leaves us this account.

Fortunately for us working hands a small trade was done in the early part of the fall, or we should have fared much worse than we did which was bad enough, as I will go on to explain. The jerked buffalo meat which had been traded from the Indians lasted but a little while , and after this our rations consisted of about a pint of pounded meat, which had been prepared and was brought in by squaws. This is what pemmican is made of; it has to be mixed with grease to be eaten, but the but the tallow for this purpose we had to buy. This was sold at 50 cents per bladder, in which it was put up by the squaws, and which weighed from five to eight pounds. I had a partner, a German, and we could together purchase a bladder; but as to salt and pepper, which we had also to buy - salt $1a pint, pepper $2- we were not in partnership; each had his small sack containing pepper and salt mixed, and used it as he thought proper. This was all we could get no sugar, no coffee nothing but cold water to wash the meat down. This was generally given to us for our breakfast, then lyed corn  for dinner and supper. This was pretty good, but it went hard on the salt and pepper that I began to think that I scarcely earned my salt. This kind of living lasted nearly all winter, with the exception of a deer or an elk which the hunters would now and then kill near the fort.  

Larpenteur's rations must have improved at some point for he leaves us this when he goes to leave Fort William.

Best of all, I had the means to accomplish my journey; for, out of my wages of $296 I had saved over $200, thanks to not indulging too much in pancake parties. Coffee being $1 a pint, sugar $1, and flour 25 cents, many of my poor comrades came out in debt.

Larpenteur was a working hand at Fort William working for Campbell. A working hands rations were not as good as a Clerks, or higher ups in the fort as Larpenteur finds out when he is hired  by McKenzie to work at Fort Union as a clerk .
 Most of us modern day Mountaineers when we go out to do primitive camps  tend to eat more like a Clerk or betters at a fort ; maybe one of them fat traders or a well to do or well in debt Trapper fresh out of rendezvous.  After the supplies ran out these men were livin high on the hog or eked out a livin off what the country could provide in plants and animals. The average trapper ate what he trapped and hunted for and gathered what ever came his way. They learned about plants and their many uses from the Indians who lived here off mother nature long before any of their arrivals.
We would call  this true survival skills ; they would call it just knowin how to live.
Now I'm not sayin to all you modern day Mountaineers to throw away them trade list and go out and live off the land. For one we have fish and game laws now and the plants they are not as plentiful as they once were, do to framing, grazing of cattle, and the encroachment of city's on their habitat, But I do think it is good to learn about the plants and how to identify them. Sample them and even make a meal off them when they are found in a large enough quantity that by doing so will not hurt the population of plants. But before doing so, ya better know for sure what it is your eatin, or you just might wind up bein
"Gone Beaver"
See ya on the trail of food!
Crazy Cyot
AMM #1741


Thanks to  Dean Rudy for his site an all the research that is to be found there.
Thanks Paco Solitaire (AKA) Bill Varga for being a friend and for helping to bring the picture in to focus, when it comes to plants.
And to Jill who is my best friend that I owe so much thanks!


Forty Years a Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri
By Charles Larpenter.

Journal of a Trapper
By Osborne Russell

Life in the Rocky Mountains
By W. A. Ferris

The Adventures of Captain Bonneville
By Washington Irvin

Peter Skene Ogden's Snake Country Journal, 1825-26

Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard
Written by Himself

Journal of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth's Expeditions to the Oregon Country
First Expedition - 1832

Travels in the Interior of America YEARS 1809,1810, AND 1811;