Thursday, June 30, 2005

Four Mountain Man Books

John C. Jackson’s first book was “Shadow on the Tetons,” a bio of David Jackson, a fur trader “for whom Jackson Hole is named.” His second book is “Children of the Fur Trade: Forgotten Metis of the Pacific Northwest.” (Mountain Press Publishing Co., copyright 1996. ISBN 0-87842-339-7. Paperback.) 276 pages of text, plus 48 pages of notes, bibliography, index. Lots of photos. I couldn’t find the name of the artist who drew the lively little sketches here and there. This book is not so much about Montana. In fact, it appealed to me because much of it was about Portland, where I grew up. From my grade school one could see through the Douglas fir of Alberta Park, on across the Columbia to what was once Fort Vancouver. There is enough convoluted plot in Jackson’s book to supply a novelist for a lifetime. I never have figured out the relationship between James McKay, the Scots fur trader, and the McKays on the Blackft reservation. I don’t know whether they have either. Might not be one.

Perhaps Metis are neglected as a group because they did so well at assimilation. After all, they are simply the diasphora of the European countries, woven together with the webbing of indigenous peoples. Only on the great prairie of Assiniboia did they claim identity as a New People, the Red River Nation and try to start their own country. The many families described by Jackson took only a few generations to become simply American “citizens.”

James A. Crutchfield’s book “Mountain Men of the American West” is a directory to the inadvertent patriarchs of hundreds of Metis families. (Tamarack Books, Inc., PO Box 190313, Boise, ID 83719-0313. Copyright 1997. ISBN 1-886609-0701) This book is a reference book but packed with snapshot stories about Bridger, Coulter, Beckwourth, et al. Crutchfield’s bibliography is actually a third of the book, an annotated list of sources, invaluable when working through historical questions.

Crutchfield is a veteran writer, a prize-winning member of the Western Writers of America. He’s not a fancy scholar, but a “buff” which implies a more popular readership so the writing is plain and clear, but make no mistake. This is a man who knows the territory. There is art work, some of it sketches by the author.

The third book I want to mention -- and highly recommend -- is “Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870” by Sylvia Van Kirk. (University of Oklahoma Press, copyright 1980. ISBN 0-8061-1847-4. Paperback.) 242 pages of text, 56 pages of notes, references, and index. Many quite wonderful photos of Metis women in black silk dresses with hoop skirts! The daughters clearly “try harder” and appear poised, coiffed, brooched with cameos -- standing gracefully in the photographic setting of cherub and carpet. On the cover is a portrait of a beautiful dark young woman with her adorable pale child in her arms.

Western history often neglects the lives of the women, adding to the insults of their treatment. This book makes the point that some Hudson’s Bay-type men plainly took Indian women as wives “in the fashion of the country” so as to have the convenience of a cook/housekeeper/translator in the house, and cheerfully “turned them off” when they finally achieved a European wife. (Later General Custer did exactly that, although he already had the white wife when he took an Indian companion.) But some of the couples bonded in a true marriage, regardless of the ceremonies involved, and were faithful and supportive to each other throughout their lives. Nothing is so revealing of character as marriage in a time of cultural tumult.

This book is beloved by many women and quite unlike any mountain man literature written by men. Maybe Wheeler’s series about “Mister” Skye comes close, since he gives weight to Skye’s two wives, their emotions and opinions. I look forward to the day when a movie script about Metis women is shot on location with enough authenticity to make us realize what it meant to be a woman from a culture that deeply honored the self-sacrifice of mothers (I mean Indians), who has hooked up with a man from a culture that considers them somewhat subhuman -- a woman whose life will depend on his ability to separate from that opinion. Often the children make the difference, creating “Tender Ties.”

The fourth book I wanted to include in this piece is “Scottish Highlanders, Indian Peoples: Thirty Generations of a Montana Family” by James Hunter. (Montana Historical Society Press, copyright 1996. ISBN 0-917298-52-7. Paperback.) The thirty generations in question go back from Tom Branson, a contemporary forester on the Flathead Reservation, all the way to Fergus, twelve centuries ago the chief of a tribe in County Derry in northern Ireland. All the steps in between are recorded. This is a longitudinal study of a phenomenon often only looked at horizontally. The first tie in the generations between Scot and Indian was the marriage of Angus McDonald to a Nez Perce woman, Catharine, in 1842. (Her father was part Mohawk, showing a beaver-trapping migration across the continent rather than across the ocean.) The impact of this time-line is enormous, especially if one has the surname McDonald or MacDonald.

There are 198 pages of text and 25 pages of notes, bibiliography and index. This undertaking was so enormous that Hunter required help from people in Scotland as well as Americans and he seems to have gotten enthusiastic support from everyone. There is an insert of excellent photographs, including a portrait of Charlie McDonald, the grandchild of Angus and Catharine, still living at the time of the writing of this book.

People say “half-breed” or “mountain man” or “fur trapper” without much thought, using the words for categories without regard for the individual human beings and their challenges. Brief but turbulent, the cultural “surf” gave rise to many pejorative terms like “squaw man.” If a person sat down to read these four books, the stereotypes would be replaced by personalities worthy of both contempt and admiration, but individuals in real dilemmas. They made our world possible and their children are us or dwell with us in the “surf” of our own times. Some of them were heroes and some of those heroes were female.


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