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“Them was shinin’ times” – re-enacting the life of the American mountain men

Chris le Roux describes the 2009 annual rendezvous of the Mountain Men, who regularly re-enact the lives of American pioneers of the early 1800s.

> Figure 1: Davey Crockett’s unique signature on his ‘coon hat. 

“Waugh, that Davey Crockett is some. He’s got the ha’r of the b’ar in him. Org’nising us a ’voo in the manner he did. Six men of great leg were we and two young beavers, all mountaineers by the look of the Big 50s we carried in our hands. And a fine hole that Davey had for us, called it Danie’s Hole in the back mountains of Harrismith. We talk’d a lot and learnt the way the stick floats, shared our fire water, keepin’ usselves warm in our capotes and fillin’ our meat bags with buffalo steaks. Waugh, them was shinin’ times.” (For more detail on the annual Mountain Man Rendezvous in Harrismith, read my article in ABH, October 2007).

 < Figure 2: Running Wolf’s entire outfit and shelter is self-made.

This is typical mountain-man lingo, a lingua franca that is difficult to re-enact by modern day mountain-man enthusiasts. Yet, a lot of detail about the life and style of the early 1800s mountain men can and still is being re-enacted today. Let me tell you something about these men who have ‘the ha’r of the b’ar in them’(an expression of supreme praise, from the Indian myth that the bravest man is he who comes so close to a bear that he can eat its hair).

> Figure 3: Two young buckskinners showing off their outfits.

You may ask: “Why would anyone want to re-enact the past?” Simply because some people’s interest in history goes beyond the dull facts on dusty pages of history text books. They want to experience the way it was during those times in which they have an interest. A mountain-man re-enactor needs to smell the smoke of a fire inside his teepee, or feel the soft caress of a buckskin shirt across his shoulder blades, or experience the satisfaction of seeing a tomahawk or knife being buried deep into a wooden target. These are doers, also called kinaesthetic learners, learning through experience. Re-enacting also brings one together with like-minded people and in sharing one’s skills and knowledge lies the satisfaction of living the past.

< Figure 4:  Running Wolf’s self-made Bowie knife.

So, if you really have the heart and the determination to live a piece of the past, you gradually develop a persona that fits the period, that someone you are when you put on your buckskins or your capote or don your self-made ’coon hat. We had them again this year during the 2009 Harrismith Mountain Man Rendezvous in the persona of Running Wolf and Davey Crockett – men of great leg, thus men who can travel a great distance in a day and are capable of enduring extreme fatigue, according to mountaineer lingo. And these men also are skilled craftsmen, who manufacture every piece of equipment they bring along to the ’voo (with a little help from the missus in some cases; “much obliged, ma’am”): capote, drop-sleeved shirt, buckskin trousers, moccasins, suspenders, ’coon hat, possibles bag, eating utensils, Bowie knife and sheath, teepee and tent, flint and steel and much, much more. Enjoy the photos on this page. Let’s say something about some of these items.

> Figure 5: Hand-made moccasins made of deer skin.

Perhaps the most striking feature of a mountain man is his clothing. Being a product of his environment, his clothing reflected the goods of his trade – a shirt, pants and footwear made of deer skin (or ‘buckskin,’ as it was called). It provided protection against biting insects and thorny bushes. The fringes along the seams were not only decorative, but also softened the wearer’s profile while he was hunting (or being hunted) in the woods. A leather belt came in handy as part of the mountaineer’s clothing to carry two of his most important ‘tools’, namely the knife and the tomahawk. It was therefore not the work of a belt to secure one’s trousers. That was the work of suspenders, as could be seen from our young mountain man standing next to his friend. Our friend Running Wolf made his own buckskin outfit (see pictures) as well as his Bowie knife and sheath. He told me his wife made his cotton shirt, which was of a simple pullover design with a large body and loose-fitting sleeves.
Davey Crockett wore his capote morning, noon and night and even used it as an extra blanket during the night. The capote is a coat of simple design, made of a wool blanket, often with a hood. It was large and loose enough to be worn over multiple layers of winter clothing. No buckskin wardrobe would be complete without a pair of moccasins. The style mostly worn in our camp was the pucker-toe moccasin with soft leather soles.
Mountain men usually wore flat-rimmed felt hats with a low crown (Running Wolf’s hat is a good example). A feather or two would usually decorate one’s hat. Fur hats are another type of headdress and each one is unique to the persona of the individual mountain man. A single feather and some beadwork fulfil the role of a signature (see Davey Crockett’s fur hat as well as the beadwork on Running Wolf’s buckskin jacket). Running Wolf’s fur hat is self-made of jackal skin and fur, and has “ears” with flaps down to the shoulder to keep out the chill of winter.
Much more could be said about these mountain men re-enactors. We haven’t even mentioned their weapons, their teepees and shelters, what they do during the ’voo or the way they start their camp fires or cook and eat their food. Maybe next time. The only thing I can think of to say to these guys is this: “Keep the past alive, because the days of the mountain men, waugh, them was shinin’ times ….”
Updated Tuesday, 09/15/2009 12:04 PM



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