Osborne Russell's Journal of a Trapper and Maps of His Travels in the Rocky Mountains
Aubrey Haines, editor
Review is by Molly
Trappers were the first to blaze a trail across the wild frontier west of the Mississippi. Osborne Russell's Journal of a Trapper edited by Aubrey L Haines is a first-person must have account for fur trade enthusiasts whether those who read of the era or those who re-enact.
Russell's first hand comments, descriptions and discourse concerning the time, the topography, the wildlife and life in general provide a peek into the area we know as Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Oregon long before settlement took place by the pioneers. Russell's book provides much information regarding many of the events in the Rockies during this time. Russell was a discriminating observer who was careful to mention distances, directions, who he was with and names of physical locations, as well as animals, topography and the like in his writing. He describes other fur traders, including some of the "big" names we know from history, as well as providing description of many Native People in the area; particularly Snake also known as the Shoshones, the Blackfeet and Crow.
The hardships faced by the first whites into the country far from the "civilized" East Coast is documented, as Russell provides insight into the Native people already living in the area, and the mountain men who made their way to the Rockies.
Russell lived the time of the 1830's and 40's as a fur trapper/trader in the Rocky Mountains he set down a journal to record his thoughts, impressions and what he saw, in doing so he has provided a realistic depiction for those who have interest, but no first hand knowledge. He was not one of the lauded of history, rather he was a simple man, who described in detail the day to day life, survival, excitement and events of the time.
Joining an expedition heading into the Mountains during the mid-1800's acquired the skills essential for survival in the mountains, and kept his journal recounting the last days of the beaver trapping era of the Mountain Men who have appeared in movies, stories and books.
Rather than the romanticizing of events as is prone in Hollywooded up movies Russell listed the typical commonplace tasks of cooking, cleaning, and other camp chores which all Mountain Men performed while on trapping expeditions and in doing so he offers true insight into what it was that made these men leave the comfort and safety offered in the towns and homes of the Eastern Coastline to tramp out into untried, little known areas where privations were many and ease was hard to come by. He told of laying traps and hunting for game, of scouting the country, and problems that came from weather and terrain, and he described the rendezvous which was the highlight of the fur trapper year as men carried their furs to be traded or sold, re-supplied their food stores, enjoyed the company of others for a short time before returning to the mountains. Russell himself attended six rendezvous before he left the mountains for good.
He told of the travels and the exhilarating episodes of the life experienced by the fur trappers. Trapping for beaver in the Northern Rockies between 1834-1943 Osborne took part in a number of expeditions in addition to battles with the Blackfeet who were less than thrilled to find the white men on their hunting grounds.
At times it takes a little digging to figure exactly where or when an event is taking place. On the other hand, a true devotee of the era should have no trouble muddling through, as is done when reading the originals of many of the old journals of the time. Leaving the journal pretty much intact in the newer edition provides the reader a better feel for the man and his writing than might be accomplished were the text cleaned up- with modern paragraph breaks and the like.
The landscape of the area changed so much during the decade Osborne describes. Disease, in particular small pox, alcohol, and loss of lifestyle are the depressing legacy left for the Native People. Reading of the decline of populations of Native Americans, beaver in particular, but all fur bearing critters and the near disappearance of buffalo leads the reader on to the last journal entries as the reader follows Osborne. He grimly describes the plunge in buffalo populations and the approaching finish of the fur quest as beaver populations dwindled, the European desire for the fur declined and other furbearers were becoming more profitable.
Born in Maine in 1814, Osborne Russell left home at sixteen, and became a fur trapper when he was seventeen. He spent eight years as a trapper working for several of the big fur companies before becoming an independent trapper working out of Fort Hall on the Snake River. Opportunely for us, when Osborne first went to the mountains with Nathaniel Wyeth's expedition in 1834 at age twenty, he began keeping his journal.
After leaving the mountains in 1843 to settle in the Willamette Valley in Oregon Osborne used his journal to compile a manuscript for publication. From that manuscript the present book has been built. Osborne wrote in the fashion of the day, despite Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary; spelling rules had not yet been standarized as hard and fast, and writers often used a variety of spelling in the same text. Osborne had a tendency to run sentences together and to present unusual language usage, plus, Osborne as journalists then and now tended to abbreviate and use his own form of shorthand, all of which editor Aubrey Haines has kept in this text. Readers quickly gets used to it Osborne's style and his style is what makes the text such interesting reading.
These reviews are personal opinions only and in no way reflect other readers' opinions of the books discussed.
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