Black Powder Men
A popular event at Fort Umpqua Days in Elkton, Oregon, is the gathering of black powder men, reenactors who come out with their muzzleloaders to exhibit their prowess at shooting these early weapons and to share stories of historic Fort Umpqua times. That’s Saturday and Sunday, September 3 and 4, and I’ll be there with my own books where you’ll find old-time black powder men, especially in The Shifting Winds. Update: See also a story in the The News-Review about a brigade of reenactors of 19th century trappers who camped at Fort Umpqua last weekend on their way to California as the Hudson’s Bay Company trapping brigades might have done back in the day.
Some of today’s black powder folks call themselves mountain men, and there may have been a few mountain men who passed by Fort Umpqua in its prime, like the man at left painted by Andy Thomas, artist, who dubbed him “The First Mountain Man.”
However, the term mountain man generally refers to the American trappers who did in fact work in the mountains, over in the Rockies.
Jed Smith was an early American mountain man who passed through the Umpqua region years before the fort’s construction, when he led an exploratory expedition of fellow trappers from the Rockies west by way of California.
Jed didn’t fare well in the Umpqua. The Umpqua Indians attacked him and his men, killing many of them, and stole all their furs. Jed ultimately made his way north to Fort Vancouver, where Dr. McLoughlin treated him hospitably.
Hudson’s Bay Company men recovered Jed’s furs and McLoughlin paid him a fair price for them. Jed so appreciated McLoughlin’s decency he swore he wouldn’t trap in the Oregon Country, leaving beaver there to the British. Although British and America trappers collided occasionally along the Continental Divide that marked the west edge of the undisputed U.S. territory of the Louisiana Purchase, the British for the most part were left alone in the Oregon Country, which was supposed to be jointly occupied by Britain and the United States.
Only when the trade died in the Rockies did American mountain men push on west. That’s when Joe Meek and my fictional Jake Johnston of The Shifting Winds headed to the Willamette to become settlers.
Mountain men typically wore buckskins as many black powder reenactors do. So did British trappers who went out with the trapping brigades. Ken Putnam of Drain, Oregon, poses with me in his mountain man garb at the 2015 Fort Umpqua Days.
Frontiersmen who hunted in the wilds found the buckskin, or deerskin, to be sturdy and protective in the rugged brush where they sought game. In the Rockies it had the added advantage of availability. American trappers worked and lived with Native American tribes who wore buckskin themselves, often beautifully crafted by the Indian women who also became wives of many mountain men.
The weapons changed over time. In the early years the muzzleloader would have been a flintlock rifle, perhaps a Kentucky long rifle, but the long barrel proved awkward for the mounted trappers. They soon opted for a shorter barreled half-stock with bigger bore. About the same time this “mountain rifle” became popular the flintlock was being replaced by the percussion rifle, which was easier to load quickly–important when you had only one shot per loading.
Then gunsmiths Jacob and Samuel Hawken came up with the clean-lined plains rifle known as the Hawken rifle, and that became the mountain man’s rifle of choice. My character Jake Johnston takes great pride in his sleek Hawken rifle he brought out of the Rockies with him.
During Fort Umpqua Days you can expect to hear the deep harrumpf of muzzleloading rifles echoing across the hills as modern-day black powder men slip into a past where expertise with those weapons could be a matter of life and death.