Mountain Men / Trappers

Mountain Men / Trappers Articles

Jim Bridger
Jim Bridger

Jim Bridger spent quite a bit of time in Grand County and has been cited as "one of the three or four most able, influential, and best known mountain men' according to historian Dan Thrapp.  Born in Virginia in 1804, he was apprenticed to a blacksmith in St Louis at the age of fourteen, and in 1822, left to join Ashley's fur trading operation in the Yellowstone area of Wyoming. He claimed to have discovered the Great Salt Lake in 1824, believing it to be an arm of the Pacific Ocean.  He was a co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, along with Tom Fitzpatrick and Milton Sublette. 

While Bridger was illiterate, he was noted for both his intimate knowledge of the Rocky Mountains and his prevarications to impress newcomers.  He was engaged in some battles with Indians, but was married to two Indian women; a Ute woman who died in childbirth, and then Shoshone women who bore him two children.

Jim's friendship with Louis Vasquez led to construction of a fort named Fort. Bridger on the Green River in Wyoming.  As a guide, he led the infamous expedition of Sir George Gore through Grand County in 1855, in which Gore killed many thousands of animals and birds.  During the excursion, he would join Gore for luxurious dinners with fine table service and discussions of Shakespeare.  Bridger hired a teenaged boy to read him some of Shakespeare's plays but thought that many of the story lines were just "too vicious or ridiculous". 

He was one of the most sought after guides of the West during his lifetime and guided American troops in the so called Mormon War of 1857-8.  In his later years, Bridger acquired a farm near Westport Missouri, gradually became blind and died in 1873.  His two sons buried him in the present Kansas City, but in 1904, his remains were moved to Mountain Washington Cemetery in Independence Missouri.    Jim Bridger is immortalized with his name being given to many places in the West.

Mountain Men / Trappers
Mountain Men / Trappers

Many noted fur trappers and traders are reported to have been familiar with the headwaters of the Grand (Colorado) River as early as the 1820s. Among them were Thomas Fitzpatrick, Jim Beckwurth, Christopher “Kit “Carson, Henry Fraeb and Peter Sarpy. Louis Vasquez built a trading fort on the South Platte River and ventured into what is now Grand County, where a pass east of Berthoud Pass is named for him.

His partner, Andrew Sublette, also came across the Divide to trade in Grand County, as well as Ceran St. Vrain, whose fort was near modern Platteville. 26 year old Tom Smith was with a group of trappers who entered the northern part of Grand County in 1827, where they were attacked by either Ute or Arapahoe Indians. Tom was hit in the leg by an arrow, splitting the bone and creating a life threatening infection. Amputation was needed but none of the party had the nerve to perform the operation. So Tom took a butcher knife and amputated his own leg. As “Pegleg Smith” Tom later became noted as one of the greatest horse thieves in the West, but was never prosecuted.

The beaver trade was essentially over by the 1840s as silk replaced beaver pelt as the stylish material for top hats. In 1842, famed traveler Rufus Sage came over Muddy Pass into Middle Park, but recorded almost no hunting activity there. On the other hand …fishing was great! His party caught over 50 pounds of trout in one morning. Noted mountain man Jim Bridger and another guide, Joseph Chatillon, let the infamous Sir George Gore on an extravagant hunting expedition in Middle Park. Despite the senseless slaughter of thousands of game animals, Gore has been immortalized with a mountain range, canyon and pass named for him.

One of the earliest of the mountain men to discover what was to become Grand County arrived in the Fraser Valley as early as 1860, soon after gold was discovered in Colorado. Charley Utter, known as “Colorado Charley”, was considered the prototype of rough trappers and traders. He was unique, though, in that he insisted on taking a bath every day, whether in the hot springs or beneath frigid waterfalls. In 1864, Charley was one of the first to make use of Berthoud Pass driving cattle that he raised at Troublesome Creek. His home was host to various adventurers who came to explore the prospects of Middle Park. He would eventually work with the famous Buffalo Bill Cody, appearing in “Wild West” shows.

When Kentuckian Beverly D. William spent some time in Grand County, he realized the Grand River was originally named the Colorado. As a Washington delegate from the newly organized “Jefferson Territory” (as this area was known at the time), he was instrumental in getting the named changed to the “Colorado Territory”, although the river was called Grand River until 1921.

The Daily Life of Mountain Men
The Daily Life of Mountain Men

Washington Irving wrote "There is, perhaps, no class of men on the face of the Earth who lead a life of more continued exertion, peril and excitement, and who are more enamored of their occupations, than the free trappers of the West".

The diet of the mountain men at times consisted of nothing more than meat. When possible. wild plants and berries supplemented needed vitamins.  Pemmican, a meat pounded with fruits and dried in flakes, was convenient to carry and lasted a long time. Mountain men made boudins, sausage made from the intestines of newly killed animals.  These sausages were packed full of undigested grasses which probably protected the mountain men from the illness of scurvy.  The mountain men also chewed on leaves and wild grasses to supplement their vitamin needs.  Potatoes soaked in vinegar supplied further balance to the diet.  Jams and orange marmalade were highly valued whenever they could be obtained. Bread consisted almost entirely of hardtack, a touch cracker usually unsalted, which would not spoil and sturdy enough not to crumble.

Beaver tail soup was considered a delicacy by most mountain men.  Another treat was called "French dumplings", made by mincing buffalo hump with marrow, rolling it into balls, and covering with flour dough and boiled.  Coffee was popular, but limited for transport.  Tea from China came in solid blocks which could be shaved off as needed. 

Normally, mountain men could not carry whiskey on the move but at rendezvous or during visits to forts, they were known as fabulous drinkers.  The most common intoxicant in those days was "Taos Lightening", a strong whiskey manufactured by Simeon Truly of Taos New Mexico.  Various writers have portrayed these men as brutes who lived from one drunken episode to the next, but the facts, and common sense contradict that image.  They could not achieve much in either trapping or trading if they did not stay focused on their outdoor skills and survival. 

Smoking pipes was a luxury, mostly at nights as only a limited amount of tobacco could be obtained.  The mountain men would stretch their tobacco supplies by mixing it with kinnick-kinnick and other plants.

While many traders and trappers dressed in buckskin shirts and trousers, wool garments were even more common and needed to be shrunk to fit.  Probably every mountain man carried what was called a "possibilities bag" that contained personal items such as a pipe, tobacco, soap, needles, and small keepsakes such as mouth-harps.

Before the Sharps "Big 50" rifle was invented, it was necessary to carry a waterproof powder horn and a bag of rifle balls weighing fifty to a pound.  A good knife was essential.  The most sought after of these was the Bowie Knife, invented by Rezin Bowie, but made famous by his brother Jim, who was adept at its use.  Jim was one of the heros killed at the Battle of the Alamo in Texas.

Some mountain men simply loved the lifestyle and had no reason to return to their original homes.  Some had wives back in St. Louis and made an annual trek there every year.  Others had Indian wives or female companions.  Some men claimed to have a wife in every tribe they visited.  Divorce within many tribes was often simple, a matter of putting one's belongings outside the lodge.

As journeys by foot or horse were lonely, mountain men were known to play their mouth harps or sing songs along the trail.  The use of profanity was common, except in the presence of white ladies.  One writer claimed the Indians called white men "Godams" because that swear word was used so frequently by the mountain men, ranch hands and mule skinners.     

Articles to Browse

Topic: Biographies

Lewis D.C. Gaskill

Lewis DeWitt Clinton Gaskill came to Colorado as a polished young mining promoter from upstate New York, where he was born in 1840. He married Miss Nellie C. Rogers in 1865, and raised three daughters born to the marriage.

By 1874 he partnered with William Cushman to build the Georgetown, Empire and Middle Park Wagon Road, which opened in November of that year, to the great surprise of locals and professionals alike.  He and his family lived at the summit of Berthoud Pass into the mid-1880s, when they built the Gaskill House in what became Fraser, CO.   For a short time he was employed as mine foreman at the Wolverine Mine in Bowen Gulch, outside of Grand Lake.  One of the mining camps, in fact, came to be known as Gaskill. Over the years there was significant competition between the different camps, and mercantiles associated with them.  Gaskill's was one of the biggest and best.  Gaskill, the camp, survived for about six years, before falling victim to the end of the mining boom.  In 1896, a county-wide passion for William Jennings Bryan and his Democratic-Populist party, helped to seat Gaskill as democratic chairman of the Board of County Commissioners for Grand County. By 1903, Gaskill came into conflict with D.H. Moffat and the Denver, Northwestern, and Pacific Railway, over property and right-of-way purchases. He, along with Nathan S. Hurd, ended up settling their dispute over property values in County Court. In 1904, upon the death of Fraser postmaster, William Z. Cozens, the Fraser post office was moved to the Gaskill House in Fraser, and L.D.C. Gaskill was appointed postmaster.  Soon after, the townsite was platted and development undertaken under the name of Eastom, but that name was soon forgotten and the area continued to be known as Fraser.

"[Gaskill] was one of those quiet, easy-tempered, efficient persons who can always be depended upon.'" Captain Gaskill (his rank came from service in the Civil War) became "a major Grand County personality."

Maggie and Jimmy Crawford

Maggie and Jimmy Crawford came to Middle Park in the summer of 1874 with their three children. They were given a piece of property and built a one room sod roofed cabin in Hot Sulphur Springs. They were probably the first family to stay the winter in Middle Park.

As they settled in for a long hard winter, Jimmy continued exploring lands to the west.  He found prime land near a spring that made a unique chugging noise.  That sound reminded him of the steamboats on the Missouri River back home.

After that winter, Maggie returned to Missouri with her family, while Jimmy built a cabin on the new filing, which would later become known as Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

By 1876, Maggie and the children were back in Colorado, and the family became founding members of that new community.
 

Ute Legend of Canyons

Major John Wesley Powell was in the first party to make a recorded climb of Pikes Peak in 1868.  Later, he would lead the first expedition of the Green and Colorado (Grand) Rivers. He was very interested in the Indian tribes that he encountered and later became head of the new U.S. Bureau of Ethnology.  He recorded this legend as told by the Utes on his first visit to the Colorado mountains, during his Pikes Peak climb.

A chief of the Utes mourned the death of his beloved wife, and his grief was so deep, that no one could console him.  Then the Great Spirit, Ta-Vwoats, appeared to him and promised to take him southwest to where he could see where his wife had gone, if he would promise to grieve no more.

Ta-Vwoats rolled a magical ball before him and it crushed mountains, earth and rocks, making a trail to the land of the afterlife.  Following the ball was a rolling globe of fire which the Great Spirit and the chief followed.  At last they were in the happy land where all was blessed with plenty and joy.  This was where the chief's wife had gone and he was glad to see it.

When they returned, Ta-Vwoats told the chief that he must never travel that trail again during life and warned all the people against it.  Knowing that those who had lost their loved ones would be tempted to make the journey, Ta-Vwoats rolled a river into the canyons so that no one could enter.

Religion

Article contributed by Betty Jo Woods

The first known white settlers came to Grand County about 1874 but there were no established churches for many years. The area even lacked circuit riders and camp meetings so typical of many other parts of the West.

The first building used exclusively for a church was probably an Episcopal church in Grand Lake, erected in 1896, but used sporadically during summers only. An Arapahoe Indian who was an Episcopal priest held occasional services in that town.

The First Congregational Church of Hot Sulphur Springs was dedicated in 1904 and other churches were also established about the same time in Kremmling and Fraser. 

Sunday School activities along with special holiday services and women’s activities seemed to be what provided continuity to worship efforts. Curiously, at one time a local newspaper carried weekly Sunday School lessons.

A Greek Orthodox church was built in Hot Sulphur Springs for the many of that faith who visit there. A major growth spurt developed during the last quarter of the 1900’s when older buildings became overcrowded and residents, long-term and recent, decided to commit time and money to new church buildings. In 2004, 28 churches were listed in the telephone directory.

Sources:
R.C. Black, Island in the Rockies. Pruett Publishing Company, 1969
Grand County Historical Association, Volume XV, Old Time Religion Early Churches, Grand County. Egan Printing Company, 2000

Topic:

Granby

Article contributed by Betty Jo Woods

Granby was settled in 1904 and incorporated the next year. The town was created along the railroad line being built by Denver, Northwestern & Pacific, and was a connection with the stage route to Grand Lake.

The Granby site was also chosen because of the dry ground and and good view of the surrounding mountains. The town was named in appreciation of the services of Denver attorney Granby Hillyer, who worked to lay out the town site.

Its central location makes it a natural trade center for east Grand County. Specialty truck farming, principally lettuce, became a major crop for Granby. At the peak of the market, the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City proudly advertised Granby Head Lettuce on its menus. Later, after WW II, Granby was called the “Dude Ranch Capital of the World.” Today the town offers a mix of recreational amenities and residential charm.

Sources:
R.C. Black, Island in the Rockies. Pruett Publishing Company, 1969

Topic: Mining

Dutch Town

When two Germans, having imbibed too liberally shot up the mining town of Lulu City, they were run out of town.  They went higher and established camp, on the side of Red Mountain near timberline.  There they found a lode of low grade gold, silver and lead.

While it lasted only two years, this encampment came to be called "Dutch Town".  Gradually the fierce winters and lower quality of ore drove the settlers out, leaving only a few empty cabins about a mile west of Lulu City. 

 

 

 

Topic: Towns

Granby

Granby was settled in 1904 and incorporated the next year. The town was created along the railroad line being built by Denver, Northwestern & Pacific, and was a connection with the stage route to Grand Lake. The Granby site was also chosen because of the dry ground and and good view of the surrounding mountains.

The town was named in appreciation of the services of Denver attorney Granby Hillyer, who worked to lay out the town site. Its central location makes it a natural trade center for east Grand County. Specialty truck farming, principally lettuce, became a major crop for Granby. At the peak of the market, the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City proudly advertised Granby Head Lettuce on its menus. Later, after WW II, Granby was called the “Dude Ranch Capital of the World.” Today the town offers a mix of recreational amenities and residential charm.

Topic: Libraries

Libraries

In 1938, Grand County decided to establish a library to act as a central reservoir of knowledge for its citizens. The community realized that few people can purchase all of the books and other materials which they may need, and so they agreed to pool their money in the library to build its central collection. At the same time they wanted to be sure that their interests would always be represented in the operations of the library, and so they formed a board of trustees from among themselves.

At about the same time, the federated women's clubs in Granby and Grand Lake, for the same reasons, set up lending libraries in those two communities. Run by the clubs for many years, both were eventually incorporated into the County Library. In 1994, the Committee to Protect the Library was established to petition the Board of Commissioners to increase funding for the library to set aside a completely separate library fund, which would be administered as a Library District. The voters approved the move on November 8, 1994, and Grand County Library District was formed on January 1, 1995. Today, the library still serves that same basic function for the community as well as new roles acquired in the intervening years.

Topic: Railroads

Train Legends of the Moffat Road

Article contributed by Abbott Fay

The railroaders graded and bridged the trails originally made by the Indians and expanded by the trappers, prospector and stage road builders that following in rapid succession. The

Moffat Road
train track has an almost endless series of wreck stories and legends.  In one, a "green clerk" was said to have piled all the mail order catalogs on the same side of a car, causing the train to leave the tracks and roll down the mountainside into Yankee Doodle Lake.

 

In another lost train story, the No. 3 westbound was seven hours late out of Denver because of a severe winter blizzard.  It crept out of the Fraser Canyon and whistled for the Granby Crossing.  The engineer parked the train intending to wait till daylight to continue on.  In the meantime, the No. 2 eastbound, 2 days late out of Craig reached Corona without passing the No. 3. In the morning, all were amazed to find the train parked "plumb center" of Granby's main street. Later investigation showed that the No. 3 train left the train tracks just east of Granby and traveled almost a mile over frozen highway.  The next day a Chinook wind came up and melted the frozen soil, sinking the train to it's axles in mud. It required the building of 1500 feet of special track to salvage the train. However, some longtime Granby residents say the locale of this incident was the Kremmling flats.

 

Sources: Roland L. Ives, Folklore of Middle Park Colorado,Journal of American Folklore, Vol. XXXIV, Nos. 211, 212, 1941; Levette J. Davidson & Forrester Blake, Rocky Mountain Tales, University of Oklahoma Press, 1947

     

 

Topic: People

The Knight Ranch and Charles Lindbergh

In Grand County during the 1920's, you might have been lucky enough to have taken a plane ride over Grand Lake with Charles Lindbergh.  It may sound preposterous, but Gordon Spitzmiller and his father, Gus, were two of the many fortunate people who got private sightseeing tours over the Grand Lake area with Charles A. Lindbergh as tour guide.

In the early 1920's, the aviation industry was a brand new field open to the adventurers, the thrill seekers and the adventurous.  Charles Lindbergh was one of those men.  In the spring of 1926, Lindbergh had the dream of flying solo over the Atlantic Ocean, from New York to Paris nonstop.  He was a determined man and was resolved to be the first man to cross the Atlantic and win the Orteig Prize.

On May 22, 1919, Raymond Orteig of New York City offered a prize of $25,000 "to be awarded to the first aviator who shall cross the Atlantic in a land or water aircraft (heavier-than-air) from Paris or the shores of France to New York, or from New York to Paris or the shores of France, without stop."

Besides Lindbergh, there were four serious contenders for the Orteig prize, one of which was Commander Richard Byrd, the first man to reach the South Pole.  Lindbergh's courage and enthusiasm for such a flight were not enough; he needed financial backing.  Lindbergh found his financial answer in Harry H. Knight, a young aviator who could usually be found bumming around the Lambert Field in St. Louis.  This was the beginning of the Knight-Lindbergh partnership that would soon change the course of aviation history. 

After being denied any financial assistance by several of St. Louis's businessmen, Lindbergh made an appointment with knight at his brokerage office.  Knight, the president of the St. Louis Air Club, was fascinated with Lindbergh's plan and called his friend, Harold M. Bixby, president of the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce.  Bixby also displayed a strong interest in the obscure stunt flyer and mail pilot.  Together Knight and Bixby formed an organization called "the Spirit of St. Louis", which was dedicated to gathering funds for the flight.  More than $10,000 was needed in order to build a single engine plane and acquire the proper equipment.

Knight went to his father, Harry F. Knight, who was a major power in the realm of finance and an equal partner in the firm Dysart, Gamble & Knight Brokerage Company.  Like his son, the senior Knight was interested in the aviation field and backed every effort to make America conscious of airplane transportation.

Without the financial aid and moral support offered by the Knight family, Charles Lindbergh may not have been able to cross the Atlantic in 1927.  Lindbergh's gratitude to these two men never ebbed.  Lindbergh and, his famous wife Ann Morrow, came often to Grand County as guests of Harry F. Knight whose ranch encompassed 1,500 acres on the South Fork of the Colorado River.  The ranch today is covered by the waters of the Granby Reservoir.

Knight, a nature lover, spent much of his time at this ranch.  It was a haven for sportsmen and adventure seekers, and Lindbergh was a natural for these two categories.  One of the largest and best airstrips in the west was added to the Knight Ranch in order to accommodate the owner and his guests.  Besides the airstrip, the ranch boasted a miniature golf course, a 28 room estate, a private guest ?cabin", a good selection of livestock and an array of entertainment that would suit all.  It was a sanctuary for the affluent.

Local people were so enthused about the handsome aviator that they named a 12,000  ft. peak in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area (east of Granby) "Lindbergh Peak". However, during the 1930's the hero was honored by Adolph Hitler and Lindbergh made a speech favoring Nazism.  This lead to a fall from grace in the eyes of the public.  Even though Lindbergh changed his mind as World War II began, it was too late to regain his former popularity. The peak was renamed "Lone Eagle Peak" which was a nickname for the famous aviator.


After Harry F. Knight died of coronary thrombosis in 1933, his son, along with ranch manager Harry Moss, turned the ranch into a major breeding and beef cattle operation.  It continued as such until 1948, when the Knights were asked to sell it to the federal government or have it condemned to make way for the reservoir.  Moss bought out the cattle operation and most of the buildings were sold, but the colorful memories of the Knight ranch were buried in the depths of Granby Reservoir.

Mountain Men / Trappers