• June 15, 2015

Photographing the Revival of the American Mountain Man

Jeremy Berlin

Each year around the Fourth of July, in a vale in the Rocky Mountains, a scene from another century plays out. Dozens of rugged-looking men mill around an encampment. They tether their horses and mules to trees. They wear animal skins. And as they roast slabs of buffalo meat over a fire sparked with flint and steel, they share tips on how best to trap beavers and load a flintlock rifle. Who are these guys?

Picture of an American Mountain Man
Larry Hanson, 74, used to be a sonar technician in the U.S. Navy. At the national rendezvous and other AMM events—like this wilderness ride in Canton, Kansas—he’s a mule skinner.

They’re American mountain men—reenactors of the fur trade that flourished in North America from roughly 1800 to 1840. Like the better known reenactors of the Civil War, they’re dentists or lawyers or mailmen in real life. But for a week each year they shake off the yoke of civilization and return to a time when survival meant self-reliance.

Picture of an American Mountain Man
After riding 35 miles that day, Rik “Hawk” Hurt (standing) and three other reenactors rest as their horses graze in Lima, Montana. Riders and steeds alike have to be in top shape to follow the original trails of 19th-century Western mountain men such as Jedediah Smith.

Photographer David Burnett recently spent two years among them. He found “a welcoming bunch who are really curious about what it took to live before the conveniences of modern life. They love knowing the old stuff, the authentic stuff—things that are no longer taught. And they love to share that knowledge.”

Indeed, the American Mountain Men (AMM) association strives to preserve “the traditions and ways of this nation’s most fearless pioneers and daring explorers” and “share the fraternal concept to teach, share, and learn the skills needed and required to survive and live as the great American mountain men did.” For most reenactors, interest in the bygone era began at a young age.

Picture of an American Mountain Man
Scott Olsen is a dentist from Dillon, Montana. When he’s in mountain man mode, his camp name is Doc Ivory. Here Doc sets out with his dog, Ume, to check beaver traps in the icy creeks of Montana’s Ruby Valley.
Picture of an American Mountain Man
In Snowcrest Ranch, Montana, Doc Ivory stands next to a fresh beaver pelt that he’ll dry and preserve.

“When I grew up, I read books on Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, and Daniel Boone,” says Scott “Doc Ivory” Olsen, a dentist in Dillon, Montana, and a 25-year AMM member. “And I realized I’d been born too late.”

The Western fur trade began after the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805–06. In 1825 the first annual trappers’ gathering was held near McKinnon, Wyoming. Called the Rendavouze Creek Rendezvous, it was a boisterous, multiday affair—a chance for mountain men to sell their furs, replenish their supplies, and socialize again after months alone in the wild.

Picture of an American Mountain Man
Mike “Tio Miguel” Morgan, now a trapper in Laurin, Montana, was a Navy captain for 30 years before joining the American Mountain Men.

The fur trade died out in the middle of the 19th century, as fashions changed and fur prices plunged. But in 1968 its legacy was revived. That’s when a man named Walt Hayward founded the AMM with six other avid outdoorsmen and history buffs.

Today it’s a nationwide organization, with local brigades and gatherings in each state and a national rendezvous each year. They all follow the same mountain man code. But regional differences matter, says Mike “Tio Miguel” Morgan, a trapper and ex-Navy captain who joined his friend Olsen’s Montana Brigade in 1998.

Picture of an American Mountain Man
At the national rendezvous in Lima Peaks, Montana, mountain men and women gather near Hans Asmussen’s tepee to sing 19th-century songs and tell stories about the region.
Picture of an American Mountain Woman
Gail Asmussen helps run her husband Hans’s acupuncture practice when she’s not being a mountain woman.

“East of the Mississippi,” he says, “mountain men were called long hunters. They’d wear cloth and woolens. Out West, we emulate the fur trade as it existed in the Rocky Mountains. That means we wear hides and skins and learn Western skills”—how to skin a muskrat, ride a horse, throw a knife, pilot a bull boat.

Getting the gear right is its own challenge. “I tried to fit in,” says Burnett. “I ordered white cotton, double button-front britches, a shirt, and moccasins. But when I put it all on, I looked like Little Lord Fauntleroy. So I put everything in a plastic bucket, added red-brown dye, and let it sit for four days. When I took it out, it looked like a 19th-century tie-dye.”

Picture of an American Mountain Man
On a beaver-trapping expedition in Snowcrest Ranch, Montana, Richard “Spirit Horse Hunter” Ashburn shaves carefully using a 185-year-old straight razor.
Picture of an American Mountain Man
As twilight settles over Green River Lakes, Wyoming, Richard “Spirit Horse Hunter” Ashburn builds a fire in a shelter he erected. His campsite is about 50 miles northwest of Pinedale, near where many 19th-century rendezvous were held. Today the town is home to the Museum of the Mountain Man.

To join the AMM, a “pilgrim” needs a member to sponsor and mentor him through a score of requirements and a couple of levels: “bossloper” and “hiveranno.” But regardless of rank, the goal is always the same.

“We want to document history in as complete a way as we can,” says Morgan, “and pass along valuable, forgotten skills, so that future generations will have access to the past.”

See more of David Burnett’s photos from this story at ngm.nationalgeographic.com

There are 18 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Todd ‘coyote’ Cooper
    January 21, 2016

    The feller with the guitar, singing, is my buddy Burnt Spoon. I’ve been going to rendezvous for 34 years, and have close friends in AMM, though I’m not a member.

  2. Gunnar Anderson
    January 14, 2016

    I know Doc Ivory! I’ve met Gail and Hans as well, at a doin’s up at Livingston, MT. There was a horse race, I came in 3rd when I was 12 or 13 about. (There was only 3 of us, but I omit that part usually!) Great bunch of people, it makes me happy that Nat Geo chose them to talk to, hopefully I’ll see them this summer. I need to bring my grandfather’s ashes to the mountains, where he should be. RIP “Bloody” Bill Anderson

  3. Landon
    January 4, 2016

    Wow awesome. I would love to see a much longer in-depth docu on mountain men of present and past done of NatGeo tv or something. I’m just recently interested in the trapper lifestyle of the 19th century, and with the movie The Revenant just coming out, I think a lot of interest will be raised around the world about it. I love studying about this stuff but not sure if i’m man enough to get in to it as much as these folks. I would like to attend one of the rendezvous events some day.

  4. Clayguy
    December 18, 2015

    These folks are the real deal…very impressive. Clearly not for wimps!

  5. A.J. McCaslin
    December 18, 2015

    Finding a sponsor to join the AMM has been one of the hardest challenges yet. But I cant wait to become a pilgrim one day!

  6. Jeff McIntire
    December 8, 2015

    As a member of the AMM I can relay to you that the only reason the gas grill is present is because of the fire bans out west. So the guys can still cook.

  7. Teri L. Hucker
    November 28, 2015

    Wonderful video…..where do I find one of those single mountain men? Lol, seriously…

  8. Mac Dwyer
    November 25, 2015

    FYI, The grill is in the video. That being said, I been to some of the doin’s these fellers put on. 99 % of the time, it’s as historically correct as man can research. Sometimes, the gents will host a camp, or participate in another groups activities where those who feel the need for, let’s call them creature comforts, are also present. To answer Susan Gill, the AMM will often give presentations to school groups as well as the general public. If you’ve visited Fort Bridger during the Labor Day weekend, you may have seen a “Rocky Mountain College” being given. If you’d like them to demonstrate something for a particular group, it’s best to just ask. It’s my experience that they will bend over backwards to help out. Great pics!

  9. Tim
    November 21, 2015

    Troy, I’m curious where you’re seeing a “gas grill” ? Which photo & where?

  10. susan gill
    November 19, 2015

    I agree with Troy that the gas grill ruins the essence of that particular scene. I wish the photographer had more sense before the photo was taken. That being said, this was a fascinating look at re-enactors who engage in the long forgotten skills of the past. I am curious as to how they go about educating young people on this?

  11. Troy “Pailface” Upshaw
    November 17, 2015

    Good video and article but disappointed to see propane tank and stove in AMM camp. You all make such a big deal about your purist requirements. And no, I ‘m not trying to be petty, I just never expected to see that. Must not have been a true AMM campout.

  12. Anthony
    September 8, 2015

    Great video. Would anyone happen to know the song name being sung in the background?

  13. sivakumaran
    July 9, 2015

    best and simple life

  14. Robyn
    July 1, 2015

    I enjoyed reading this article in the digital magazine. The portraits for the Mountain Men piece are stunning. It was interesting to find that in the portrait captions, the men are described by their talents and professions. There is no mention of their spouses or children. The women who were photographed have captions where they are first described by their relationships to a husband and/or son. In an article about sustaining a fading part of our history, it is interesting to see that this aspect of how we define who a woman is has not been abandoned with time.

  15. Neil Garrison
    June 27, 2015

    I did not realize that there would be more color pics on the on-line version of the article….vs. the print version of the article.
    I enjoyed seeing the extra pics.

  16. bpmaiti
    June 18, 2015

    Unique subject cemented in great phots

  17. Peter Mayer
    June 17, 2015

    great pictures of a great time

  18. Eric Rudd
    June 17, 2015

    David, beautiful work as usual. I love the portraits.

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