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Publisher's Summary

Includes accounts of both men

Includes online resources and a bibliography

Includes a table of contents

Exploration of the early American West, beginning with Lewis and Clark's transcontinental trek at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson, was not accomplished by standing armies, the era's new steam train technology, or by way of land grabs. These came later, but not until pathways known only to a few of the land's indigenous people were discovered, carved out, and charted in an area stretching from the eastern Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, and the present-day borders of Mexico and Canada. Even the great survey parties, such as Colonel William Powell's exploration of the Colorado River, came decades later. The first views of Western America's enormity by white Americans were seen by individuals of an entirely different personality, in an era that could only exist apart from its home civilization. The American mountain man, with his myriad of practical skills, could endure isolation in a way most could not. He lived in constant peril from the extremes of nature and from the hostilities of cultures unlike his own. In an emergency, assistance was rarely available, and he rarely stayed in one place long enough to build even a simple shelter.

Travel in the American West relied upon a specific calendar, and to ignore it could be fatal, as many discovered, to their misfortune. Winter in the mountainous regions of the Rocky Mountains and Cascades was lethally cold to explorer and settler alike, but desert areas and grass plains presented difficulties as well. The network of rivers flowing west of the Mississippi on both sides of the continental divide served as early highways to the Wyoming and Montana regions, the Oregon Territory, Utah and Colorado, and the California southwest. Some were placidly tranquil, while others raged through the extreme elevations, all but defying navigation. Contact with indigenous tribes was problematic enough with linguistic and cultural barriers, but to survive, there required a sensitivity to tribal food sources and sacred areas when traveling. The profession of trapping was, in itself, a trespass on Native American resources, and yet the mountain man's existence was fueled, in part, by the tangible rewards of the fur trapping trade.

A small group of individuals have come down to us as famous figures from the fur trapping era of the 19th century, but explorer and guide Jim Bridger is the most distinguished of the lot. This is because he remained in a dangerous and vast Western wilderness long after the fur trade's demise in addition to powers of observation enabling him to create accurate maps decades after passing through any terrain. Blessed with a rare gift for mentally recording every landscape through which he passed in minute detail, many modern transportation routes have sprung from what was first etched in sand with the point of Bridger's stick, including major interstate highways and railroad lines. As a pathfinder, guide, and map-maker of uncanny accuracy despite the primitive nature of his easel, he personally escorted settlers, gold-seekers, religious bands, adventurers, and military expeditions into the West, venturing further into virgin territory as the expanding population encroached on his privacy.

Given the illiteracy rates of the day, few tangible accounts of such journeys have survived, but one glaring exception is that of James Pierson Beckwourth, the only known African American mountain man to leave behind a detailed, if somewhat sensationalistic, account of his travels. In a journey spanning over half a century, Beckwourth tried his hand at virtually every line of work related to Western life. He served as a soldier, explored a vast range of territory as a mountain man, and worked as a scout and guide. In later years, he lived as an entrepreneurial merchant, professional card player, and as a skilled horse thief.

©2017 Charles River Editors (P)2017 Charles River Editors

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