Once upon a time, there was a generation of men who trapped beaver. Some did so for wealth, others for the mountain life. This generation cut its teeth in the Rocky Mountains and slowly expanded westward. When the trapping industry came to its end, these men continued their explorations and helped bring the American west into focus. The aided cartographers, fought in wars of expansion, and guided settlers further and further west to Oregon and ultimately California.
Utley’s book is expansive. It covers a vast array of individual trappers, explorers, and military men – including Jedidiah Smith, Joe Walker, Kit Carson, and John Fremont. He traces the history of the fur industry, from early private expeditions to powerful commercial conglomerates such as the American Fur and Hudson Bay companies. Conflicts with (and the ensuing tragedies of) the native American tribes are well covered.
Utley writes at the level of the individual rather than historical trend. Because of the subject’s breadth and his detailed handling, the book can be a slow read at times, but it is well worth it. In truth, a number of individual histories run through his book.
One such history is that of cartography in the American West. He chronicles a history of proto-maps, including the Bonneville Map, which appeared in Washington Irving’s book in 1837 (http://user.xmission.com/~drudy/mtman/html/bville/), Ferris’ lost map of 1836 (finally published in 1940), Emory’s map of the Southwest from the 1840s, and the Parke/Laroux map of 1851 (leading from Zuni to California). Jim Bridger’s 1850 map for the Stansbury expedition established a route later followed by the Overland Stage, Union Pacific, and I80.
Utley also explores the early overland crossings into California. Some examples include Jedidiah Smith’s California trips (starting in 1826), Bonneville and Walker’s crossing of the Sierra Nevada in the 1830s, the Bartleson–Bidwell Party, cattle drivers on the Siskiyou Trail (lead by Ewing Young), and the Cooke Wagon Road.
A highlight of the book, Utley brings the Rocky Mountain “Rendezvous” tradition to life. In these annual gatherings (1820s and 30s), fur trappers – year-round mountain residents – congregated to sell their furs, socialize, and make merry. It must have been quite a party.
A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific
Robert M. Utley
Published October 1998