review by CJ Williams
Trapping has a rich, nostalgic history that most modern trappers appreciate. I have become something of a trapping history buff, and I have found that a knowledge of trapping history gives me a greater sense of what I’m doing out on my trapline. I’m not just trapping animals; I’m standing within a long tradition that is literally intertwined with American history. I think all trappers should be aware of our past to some degree. It gives us a notion of our own place in history and the great legacy in which we stand. It gives us heroes to look up to (a rare thing in today’s world) and a sense of pride in what we do. Ultimately, I think, a historically informed trapper is a better trapper. That’s why I’ve taken to reading about the great “Mountain Men” of the early 19th century, who represent the apex of trapping history.
There’s no shortage of books on the Mountain Men. Some books paint them as heroes while others paint them as villains who began the American encroachment upon the Indian lands of the West. History is almost always interpreted through the political lens of the historian. Animal rights wackos and leftists will interpret this history in terms of “American Imperialism” and/or animal cruelty. What else would you expect? Leftists find nothing good in the past, and all good within themselves.
A more objective historian is George Laycock, whose book The Mountain Men I recently finished. Laycock does not over-idealize the Mountain Men, but he does present them as the tough, intrepid explorers that they were. He brings out the rightful claims of the Mountain Men and the fur industry as driving forces in American history, and gives a good sense of the rare skills of woodsmanship that the Mountain Men possessed.
What makes Laycock’s book stand out among many is how readable it is. Each short chapter focuses on one narrow topic or one particular person, and the historical details are not overly technical. It’s meant for a popular audience rather than research historians. Laycock covers some general topics of interest about the structure of the fur trade and the methods of trapping in the early 19th century, but the book gets really exciting when he gets to the stories of individual Mountain Men. The stories of Jim Bridger, Jed Smith, Tom Fitzpatrick, Bill Williams and others are told in concise, readable chapters. These men amaze me. They possessed such toughness and skill that are rarely seen almost two centuries later. Another interesting aspect of this book is the illustrated descriptions of the guns, traps and equipment of the Mountain Men. They did a lot with a little.
Even if you’re not much of a reader, this book is a breeze. And if you’ve always wanted to know a little about trapping history and the Mountain Men this book is a good place to start.
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