Mountain Men

Hawken WoodsmanA mountain man was a frontier explorer.  Many of these men travelled alone across the vast forested wilderness of what became the northwestern United States; a few travelled in small groups of two or three, but all these men survived by their fieldcraft, skill as a hunter/sharpshooter, and their ability to live alongside native Americans —or defeat them.  (Shown left is a 50-caliber Hawken Rifle, the preferred weapon of the mountain men).

The heaviest concentration of mountain men existed in the Rocky Mountains from around 1810 to the mid-1880s —a peak population of about 3,000 occurred between 1840-1850.  Some of these men were “free trappers,” but most were affiliated with fur companies.  Significantly, the trail-blazing of mountain men helped to facilitate migration into the western territory.  Without trails, there would have been no wagon train roads/routes.  The likely inspiration for this lifestyle was the Lewis and Clark expedition (1803-1806).  It was an exciting, adventurous time, but it only lasted a few decades.  Ultimately, it was the success of the mountain men that led to their demise.  When they realized that they had over-trapped beaver, or that eastern markets no longer demanded their furs, they took jobs as army scouts, wagon train guides, opened trading posts along the migrant path, or they settled to farm or ranch the lands that they helped to develop.

Jim Bridger 001James Bridger (1804-81) was one of the best-known of the mountain men.  Born in Richmond, Virginia, his father was an innkeeper who eventually migrated to St. Louis, Missouri.  Jim Bridger was orphaned at the age of 13.  At such a young age, being illiterate with limited prospects, he was apprenticed to a blacksmith.  He left the apprenticeship on his 18th birthday to join the fur trapping expedition of William H. Ashley along the upper Missouri River. Ashley’s party also included Jedediah Smith and Hugh Glass, who in their own time were as famous as Jim Bridger[1].

Jedediah Smith (1799-1831) was born in Jericho (present-day Bainbridge) New York.  His parents were Jedediah Smith and Sally Strong, both descendants of English puritans who arrived in the colonies between 1620-40.  Jedediah was not an illiterate man, having received an adequate education from his mother.  He could speak Latin, had a legible hand, and could talk about some of the literature classics of the day.  Around 1810, Jedediah Senior, who owned a general store, was caught up in a legal issue involving counterfeit currency.  He afterward moved his family to Erie, Pennsylvania to get a new start.

Jedediah was working as a clerk on a Lake Erie freighter, where he learned business practices and likely came into contact with hunters/trappers/traders returning from Montreal.  This was the life Smith wanted most because his love of nature and adventure was nearly unparalleled at the time.  Smith was also well aware of the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Legend tells us that Smith carried the Lewis and Clark journal with him on his travels.  In 1817, the Smith family moved to Green Township, Ohio.  As with most young men of the day who were raised in modest households, Jedediah struck out on his own at an early age.  In 1822, he was living in St. Louis.  It was in this year that he responded to a recruiting advertisement in the Missouri Gazette: General William H. Ashley was looking for “One-hundred enterprising young men” to explore and trap in the Rocky Mountains.  At age 23, Jedediah was six feet tall, had clear blue eyes, and exuded a commanding presence.  Ashley hired him immediately.  Jedediah Smith disappeared while scouting for fresh water near the lower Spring of the Cimarron river.  Owing to the fact that a Comanchero was found with Smith’s personal belongings, it is generally believed that Smith was killed by a band of Comanche.  The version of this story where Smith fought to the death against tremendous odds could be true, but since Smith “disappeared,” there are no witnesses to what actually happened to him.

Hugh Glass 001Hugh Glass (1783-1833) is best known for his story of survival (and his retribution) after being attacked by a Grizzly Bear and being left for dead by his companions[2].  Glass, born in Pennsylvania, was raised in an Irish household.  He too joined the Ashley Expedition, serving as an explorer and hunter within the watershed of the Upper Missouri River (present day Montana, the Dakotas, and the Platt River area of present-day Nebraska.  After being mauled by a Grizzly, Glass was left for dead.  Without any supplies or adequate clothing, he managed to crawl or stumble two-hundred miles to General Ashley’s headquarters at Fort Kiowa, South Dakota[3].  Hugh Glass died with two companions in the spring of 1833 near the Yellowstone River when his hunting party was overwhelmed by Arikara Indians.

John Jeremiah Johnson (1824-1900) originated in New Jersey near Union Township, born as John J. Garrison.  During the Mexican American War, Johnson lied about his age to join the US Navy.  While serving on a fighting ship, Johnson struck an officer while at sea, a serious offense (then and now), so at the first opportunity, he deserted and traveled west to try his hand at prospecting.  For his own safety, he changed his name to Johnson.  As with most prospecting, things didn’t quite work out to Johnson’s benefit.  To feed himself, he worked as a wood hawk, which was someone who supplied cord wood to steamboats.

In 1847, Johnson married a woman of the Flathead tribe.  When the woman was murdered by a Crow Indian a few years later, Johnson embarked on a vendetta against the Crow tribe.  Scholars contend that he killed and scalped more than 300 braves and, to avenge his wife, ate their livers.  This behavior terrified the Crow Indian because they believed that the liver was vital to achieving the afterlife.  According to a diarist of the time, Johnson became known as “Liver Eating Johnson.”  The vendetta lasted for 25 years, and the story of Jeremiah Johnson was well known among competing Indian tribes.  To them, Johnson was known as the Crow Killer.  Eventually, Johnson made his peace with the Crow Indian tribe.  He passed away at the age of 75 years in Santa Monica, California.  In 1974, his remains were moved to Cody, Wyoming.

Two films have been made of Johnson’s life, including Jeremiah Johnson, starring Robert Redford (1972) and Crow Killer: the Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson, starring Raymond Thorp and Robert Baker (1958).

The American frontier in the early 1800s offered adventurous times —whether a man wanted them or not.  Tough times produced tough people —both men and women.  The choice was simple: the only alternative to survival was certain death.  This wasn’t a time when metrosexuals went off on weekends to play paint-ball games or sexually confused men demanded access to the lady’s room.  It was a time when hostile Indians, desperados, carnivores, and bucking broncos were efficient in killing those weaker than themselves.  Age or gender had nothing to do with it.  In the time of the mountain men, thousands of adventurous Americans never lived to see their 25th birthday.

Tobin T 001Another of these tough hombres was a man named Thomas Tate Tobin.  Tobin was born in 1823 in St. Louis, Missouri.  St. Louis in the early 1800s looked nothing like it does today.  It was a rough and filthy little town that had but one purpose: it was a point of resupply and departure for western territories.

Thomas’ father was an Irishman named Bartholomew Tobin.  He married a widow named Sarah Autobees, a lady of mixed white/Indian blood.  Sarah had a son from a previous marriage whom she named Charles, who was known by his mother’s surname.  Thomas’ had a sister named Catherine, but beyond this, we have no information about her life.

Charles Autobee was sixteen years old when he left home in 1826 to work beaver traps.  The next time anyone saw Charles was when he returned to St. Louis with his colleague Ceran de Hault de Lassus de St. Vrain in 1837.  St. Vrain was a noted mountain man/fur trader near Taos, in the New Mexico Territory.  It was at that time that Thomas fell under the influence of his older half-brother.

When Charles returned to the wild, Thomas went with him.  Charles taught him field craft and survival skills, hunting, trapping, and scouting/tracking.  Thomas also learned how to run a business by clerking at a trading post, how to mill grain, and how to distill whiskey.  Thomas became Charles’ constant companion, even accompanying him on overland resupply missions to Rendezvous, where whiskey and other goods were traded for furs and pelts.  Through Charles, Thomas became acquainted with such men as Kit Carson, Dick Wooten, John C. Fremont, Wild Bill Hickok, and William F. Cody.  Loaded down with furs and pelts[4], Charles and Thomas transported them to St. Louis, where they were traded for more supplies.  The brothers made regular stops in such places as Fort Jackson, Fort Lupton, Bent’s Fort, and El Pueblo.

In 1846, 23-year old Thomas married a woman named Pascuala Bernal.  They lived in Arroyo Hondo near Taos.  He continued working for Simeon Turley while delivering dispatches to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for General Stephen Kearny.  After the Mexican American War, all western territories previously under the Mexican or Spanish flag became territories of the United States, including the territory of New Mexico.  In August 1848, the US Army directed General Stephen Watts Kearny[5] to lead a force to New Mexico.  His orders were simple: either accept the surrender of Mexico’s governor Manuel Amijo[6] or seize the territory by force.  Governor Amijo surrendered peacefully.  Afterward, Kearny departed for California leaving Colonel Sterling Price[7] to command American forces in New Mexico and serve as temporary military governor.  Charles Bent received an appointment as the civilian territorial governor of New Mexico in September 1846.

Governor Amijo’s willingness to surrender, along with General Kearny’s willingness to seize the New Mexico territory, alienated many of territory’s Mexican citizens.  To add to this problem, Sterling Price may not have been the most enlightened territorial administrator in his treatment of local citizens.  Governor Bent appealed to Price’s superior officer, Colonel Alexander Doniphan, “As other occupation troops have done at other times and places, they undertook to act like conquerors.  I implore you to interpose your authority to compel these soldiers to respect the rights of our inhabitants.  These outrages are becoming so frequent that I apprehend that serious consequences must result sooner or later if measures are not taken to prevent them.”

The issue affecting citizens of New Mexico involved far more than the surly behavior of soldiers; many landowners feared that the United States government would refuse to recognize their Mexican land titles.  Early on 19 January 1847 insurrectionists revolted in Don Fernando de Taos(present-day Taos, New Mexico).  The leaders of this insurrection included Pablo Montoya, Tomas Romero, and a Pueblo Indian whom everyone called Tomasito (Little Thomas).

Romero led an Indian force to the home of Governor Bent.  They broke down his door, shot him with arrows[8], and scalped him in front of his family.  Bent was not killed, however, and with the help of the wives of Kit Carson and Thomas Boggs, the Bent family escaped by digging through adobe walls and dragging the wounded Bent along with them.  When the insurgents discovered that the party had attempted escape, they killed Bent, but left the women and children unharmed.

Bent wasn’t the only official murdered that day: Stephen Lee, Acting County Sheriff, Cornelio Vigil, Prefect and Probate Judge, and J. W. Leal, a circuit attorney joined Bent in the afterlife.  Colonel Price later reported, “It appeared to be the object of the insurrectionists to put to death every man who had accepted office under the American government.”

The following day, 500 Hispanics and Pueblo Indians attacked and laid siege to Simeon Turley’s mill in Arroyo Hondo.  Charles Autobees saw the group coming and leaving eight to ten mountain men to defend the mill, rode to Santa Fe for help from the Army’s occupation force.  After a day-long battle, only two mountain men survived: John Albert, and Thomas Tobin.  Both men escaped on foot during the night.  On that same day, Hispanic insurgents killed seven white traders who were transiting through Mora.  At most, fifteen people lost their lives.

Colonel Price moved quickly to quell the revolt, deploying three-hundred US regulars from Santa Fe to Taos.  An additional force of sixty-five volunteer militia augmented Price’s men, which included a few Hispanics organized by St. Vrain, who was then a business partner of William and Charles Bent.  En route to Taos, the US force beat back 1,500 Hispanic and Pueblo Indian insurgents at Santa Cruz de la Cañada and Embudo Pass.  The insurgents retreated to Taos Pueblo and took refuge in the thick-walled adobe church.  One-hundred-fifty of these rebels died when the Army broke through the door of the church with canon fire; two hundred more received serious wounds.  Hand-to-hand fighting resulted in the capture of 400 insurgents.  Only seven of Price’s troops died in the battle.

A separate force of US troops under Captain Israel Hendley and Captain Jesse Morin assaulted the rebels at Mora.  The first attempt was a defeat for the Americans, but a subsequent attack ended resistance there.

Tobin, having made good his escape, joined up with Charles and both served as scouts for a company led by Captain St. Vrain.  Their mission was to search for, locate, and capture insurrectionists.  Insurrectionists who were not killed in actual battle ended up hanging from a rope.  Private John FitzGerald, an American dragoon, assassinated Romero while he was confined awaiting trial.

After the revolt, Tobin turned to farming in an area bordering the San Carlos River, southeast of El Pueblo.  He sold his crops to Lieutenant Colonel William Gilpin (later serving as Colorado’s first territorial governor), who camped with his troops near Bent’s Fort.  In the next year, Gilpin asked Tobin to scout for him during a planned spring campaign against Indians.  Tobin also served as a courier carrying dispatches from the Canadian River valley of Oklahoma to Brent’s Fort.

Prior to the Civil War, Major B. L. Beall hired Tobin as a scout and guide in search of land suitable for a railroad route to California.  Beall described Tobin as a man equal to Kit Carson for bravery, dexterity, and mountain skill.

Espinosa F 001America’s first serial killer was a man named Felipe Espinosa.  In 1860, Espinosa sent a letter to Governor John Evans informing him that he intended to kill 600 gringos (thus establishing him as a bona fide leftist).  Then, aided by his brother Vivian, Espinosa began his killing spree in the thinly populated area of present-day Fremont County, Colorado.  In 1863, trappers came across the body of the Espinosa brother’s first victim.  The corpse had been horribly mutilated, suggesting the possibility of torture before death; the man’s heart had been cut out of his chest.  Later that summer, the Espinosa’s killed an additional 25 people in a similar manner.

Sometime later, Felipe dispatched a second letter to Governor Evans demanding full pardons for himself, his followers, and a grant of 5,000 acres of land in Conejos County.  He also demanded an appointment in the Colorado volunteer militia.  He warned the governor of more killings should Evans ignore his demands, including the governor himself.

Evans dispatched Conejos County Sheriff Emmett Harding and Colonel Sam Tappan (Commanding Fort Garland) in search of Espinosa, but they failed to locate him.  A posse out of Park County, Colorado did manage to track the brothers southwest of Canon City where Vivian Espinosa died in a gunfight, but Felipe managed to escape and went into hiding for the rest of that summer.  After recruiting his fourteen-year old nephew, named José, Felipe’s killing spree continued.

Running out of options, Governor Evans turned to Thomas Tobin in the fall of 1863 to join in the search for Espinoza.  Evans offered Tobin $2,500 for the successful capture of Espinosa and a militia to help him achieve it.  Tobin accepted the monetary offer but declined the militia.  He and three hand-picked men accepted the task of finding Espinosa.

Using the location of Espinosa’s last murder as his starting point, Tobin tracked the killers for three days.  The trail led to the Sangre de CristoMountains.  Tobin and his party ambushed Espinosa and his nephew in that area and then decapitated them.  Tobin delivered a gunnysack containing two heads to Evans as proof that he’d earned his reward.  Tobin never received the $2,500.00 but he did receive a fine Henry Rifle and a dinner party in his honor.

In 1868, Thomas Tobin was appointed to serve as Chief Indian Scout during the western region Indian campaigns.  Serving alongside Tobin at the time was his half-brother Charles Autobees and a fellow named James Butler Hickok, who some folks called Wild Bill.

In 1878, Tobin’s daughter Pascualita married William (known as Billy) Carson.  Billy was the son of famed frontiersman Christopher Houston Carson (who was also known as Kit Carson).  Some years later, when Tobin learned that Billy had mistreated his daughter, Tobin told him, “I will see you dead Billy,” and then attempted to stab Carson.  Billy, acting in self-defense, clobbered Tobin on the side of his head with a sledgehammer, and then shot him in the side.  Over time, Tobin and his son-in-law reconciled their differences, but while his headaches finally went away, Tobin never fully recovered from the shooting.  As it turned out Tobin’s prophesy came true when Billy Carson died in 1889.  Tobin, who died in 1904 at the age of 81 years, outlived Billy Carson by 15 years.  During his lifetime, Tobin was a prosperous farmer, rancher, and Army Scout and even though he was illiterate (as were most of the mountain men), Tobin at one time served as the president of the local school board.


  1. Baird, J. D. Hawken Rifles: The Mountain Man’s Choice.  Buckskin Press, 1968.
  2. Cecil, A. J. James Bridger: Trapper, Frontiersman, Scout, and Guide: A Historical Narrative.  College Books, Inc., 1951.
  3. Hewett, E. L. Campfire and Trail.  Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
  4. LeCompte, J. Charles Autobees.  University of Nebraska Press, 1972.
  5. Morgan, D. L. Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the American West.  London: Bison Books, 1964
  6. Nash, J. R. Encyclopedia of Western Lawmen & Outlaws.  Da Capo Press, 1994.
  7. Perkins, J. E. Tom Tobin: Frontiersman.  Herodotus Press, 1999.
  8. Sides, H. Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West.  New York: Random House, 2006.
  9. Twitchell, R. E. The History of the Military Occupation of the Territory of New Mexico, 1846-51.  Denver: Smith Books, 1973 (reprint)


[1] In 1850, while guiding the Stanley Expedition out of Utah, Bridger discovered an alternative route which shortened the Oregon Trail by 62 miles; it became known as Bridger Pass and is now located in south-central Wyoming.  The Bridger Pass would later become the chosen route across the Continental Divide for both the Union Pacific Railroad and US Interstate 80.

[2] There has been some speculation that Jim Bridger was one of the men who left Hugh Glass for dead after the Grizzly attack.  There is no evidence to support this theory, however.

[3] Hugh Glass’ life story was adapted into two feature-length films: Man in the Wilderness (1971) and The Revenant (2015).  The details of his ordeal have been questioned owing to the fact that Hugh Glass never told his story to anyone, other than an accounting delivered personally to General Ashley at Fort Kiowa.  The popular (often repeated) story originated with James Hall, who wrote his version of the saga in 1825 while working for his brother’s news sheet, The Port Folio.

[4] There is a distinction between furs and pelts.  Pelts are the skin of a beast with its hair, a raw or undressed hide.  A fur is a hairy coat of various animal species.  Some of the products traded to Autobees and Tobin were dressed, which I imagine brought a higher value in trade in St. Louis.

[5]  Major General Kearny (1794-1948) served as the military governor of New Mexico (August-September 1846) and the fourth military governor of California (February-May 1847).

[6] The same Manuel Armijo (1793-1853) who put down the Revolt of 1837 and captured the Texan Santa Fe Expedition.  He served as governor of New Mexico on three separate occasions.

[7] Promoted to Brigadier General by President Polk in 1847; advanced to Major General of the Missouri State Guard in 1861 and appointed to serve as a Major General in the Confederate States Army.

[8] So much for enlightened attitudes in the western territories.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in HISTORY. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Mountain Men

  1. kidme37 says:

    Now there are some guys with a lot of bark on them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bunkerville says:

    A wonderful history… I loved the movie on Johnson with Redford.


  3. Pingback: Frontier Capitalists | Old West Tales

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