Thursday, June 14, 2007

A mountain man is an amazing man

A casual perusal at the history of the early 19th century might lead one to conclude that “The Pathfinder” John Charles Fremont, first explored the West and led to its settlement by his travels in the 1840s.

Yet in reading about Fremont it is realized quickly that despite his important trips and his books which help lead to the population of the West by Americans, he was merely a Johnny come lately. Many earlier pathfinders, not as famous as Fremont, had been treading paths, boating, exploring, setting traps, catching beaver, fighting, mixing with Indians and drinking what they could find, pretty much ever since Lewis and Clark came home in 1806.

Much of this invasion of the West by the mountain men or fur trappers took place in the 20s, but they so thoroughly depopulated the county of furs that they worked their own demise. Those of them who did not die in a fight with the Indians or a grizzly bear anyway.

One of these men was Edward Rose, who enjoys no reputation in the 21st century, unlike, say, Kit Carson, who was made famous by Fremont and dime novels, but came much later, and really wasn’t nearly as impressive. Rose’s name seems to keep popping up, no matter which mountain man you are researching, but somehow gained little fame outside the small circle of mountain men researchers. He was seemingly everywhere in the West, and almost impossibly durable and brave, beyond most of our reckoning of what brave means.

Rose, a black man or at least partially so, did not have a biographer publish his story in book form until 1967, during the heyday of the civil rights movement. The title alone almost makes it collectable. It is actually entitled “Edward Rose, Negro Trail Blazer”.  I am not sure how old the author, Harold Felton, was at the time it was published, but “negro” was long out and “black” well in by 1967. Since the biography is favorable, it’s hard to believe he meant it derogatorily. But information from Rose can be found in many other sources, mostly from mountain men who recorded their own stories, and old newspaper or magazine articles.

Rose in fact was in the mountains and plains of the West so early, that he served as a guide and taught many of the more famous mountain men who started their careers in the 1820s. For Rose, sometimes rumored to have been an escaped slave, went up the Missouri River in 1807, right after the Lewis and Clark expedition, and was one of only a few men who were not Indians in the West.

In that first year, he went with another early legend whom also deserves more recognition, Manuel Lisa, an early entrepreneur, in what was the first organized fur expedition. Keep in mind how early this was in our history - Thomas Jefferson was still president.

After a dangerous trip which they survived partially by frightening angry Indians with two small cannons they brought with them, they built Fort Lisa, or sometimes, Fort Manuel, on the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers. It was there that Rose made a connection that would stay with him for all of his days. He began spending a great amount of time with the local Indian tribe, the Crows, an English corruption of the French Corruption of the tribe’s name for itself, Absaroka, meaning “sparrow hawk.”

Lisa and Rose had a falling out over Rose giving too many presents to the Indians and it led to a physical fight broken up by Potts, a Lewis and Clark expedition alumni. When Lisa got in a boat to leave, Rose ran to one of the cannons and fired a hail of bullets at the boat. Apparently, a tall man was walking past the canon at the time and the bullets passed between his legs causing him to leap in the air and inaccurately announce his own death. The story was not retold to an author until nearly two decades later, and sounds fishy, particularly as when Lisa saw Rose a few years later, he was overjoyed.

Two years later, after serving in another expedition that returned to his tribe a Mandan Indian chief, Big White, who had accompanied Lewis and Clark to Washington, Rose not only became a member of the Crow tribe, he became a chief, and was able to easily walk across the line between white men and Indians. It seems though, that despite his many years with the Crows, his loyalty, sometimes suspected, was with the whites. Undoubtedly, part of his usefulness to the white men was his facility with Indian languages. But that, along with his color, was probably enough to make some of them doubt him.

During his Crow years he obtained a number of names, including Cut Nose, for a scar, but also had a more virile one. This latter name came during after a fight with the Minnataree tribe, when a war party killed a Crow warrior. The Crow’s wife made it back to the camp with an arrow protruding from her robe, and Crow warriors went for revenge, oddly led by a black man named Ed Rose.

After a several hour chase, the Crows caught up with their prey. The Minnatarees were headed for a natural fort of trees and rocks when Rose caught up with one of the warriors. Grabbing his enemy’s horse’s mane, he threw them both to the ground and killed the warrior. When he could not get the warriors with him to storm the “fort,” he grabbed two shields, and with a knife and battle axe attacked himself. He slaughtered the stunned Minnatarees.

Of course, Rose himself may be the source of this story, and its authenticity may be doubted. However, many years later, when Lieutenant Reuben Holmes, who first wrote down this tale, visited a Crow village with Rose, he saw him celebrated and addressed by his other Indian name -- Chee Ho Carte -- Five Scalps.

In 1811 a greenhorn named William Price Hunt led an expedition on behalf of the wealthy John Jacob Astor who hoped to be the second group to cross the continent and rendezvous in California (which was reachable by water) in the aptly named Astoria. Hunt had met up with the impressive Manuel Lisa, but was filled with fears and not happy with his three guides, none of whom had actually been into the Rockies. In fact, they were planning to desert.

At that point Rose appeared with some Crow. For whatever reason, Hunt was also fearful of Rose and upon being told that Rose was going to give them over to the offered him a large salary, some beaver traps and a horse. This makes little sense, If Rose was planning treachery, he would be much better off going through it and getting all of Hunt’s horses, equipments and guns. Besides, all of Rose’s actions throughout his life show that he preferred living with the Indians, but when push came to shove, sided with the white man. It is not farfetched to suggest that this was for sexual reasons. The sole black man, a slave, who had traveled with Lewis and Clark was greatly sought after by Indian woman who were mesmerized by his skin color.

During the march across the country, Rose again showed his courage and experience. Coming upon moccasin prints, Rose was able to identify them as of Crow make, indicating that they were nearby. Shortly thereafter two Indians on horseback appeared in the distance. While everyone else hung back, Rose mounted a horse to greet them in spite of the possibility of ambush. He turned out all right though, and returned to the group with the Crow. Soon they came upon a large group of Crows who swarmed out on horseback in a rush to welcome back Rose. Trade between the two groups was greatly beneficial to the Astorians.

Leaving Rose with the Crow, Hunt and company struggled onward but soon got lost and were almost sure to starve without a way to get over the mountains. Once again Rose appeared with some Crow and led them through the mountains.

At that point Rose dropped out of the white man’s records for a dozen years, which he spent mostly with the Crow, and some with a tribe known as the Arikaras. In 1823 he walked into the camp of William Ashley who was the partner with Andrew Henry, the first man to hire Rose.

Visiting an Arikara village, Ashley was appreciative of their friendliness. Rose warned him that there was trouble brewing, but Ashley wouldn’t listen. Rose advised him to spend the night on the other side of the river and his advice was again rejected. The men slept on a sand bar with the horses.

The next morning the Arikara attacked. They called for Rose to come to their side but he refused. Men were leaping into the water to try to swim to safety as the boatmen refused to come close enough to pick them up. Finally, two boats made it to shore. Rose and many others refused to leave, preferring to fight it out. Many were killed, as were the horses.

Two men were left to cover the retreat for the others.  One was Rose and the other a fascinating former pirate named Hugh Glass, as tough as Rose. Finally Glass swam for the boats while Rose covered him. Only when everyone was clear did Rose swim for safety with rifle in hand, Indiana Jones’ style, with arrows and spears landing all around him.

Shortly thereafter, bolstered by other soldiers (who made Rose a nominal ensign) and trappers and some 500 Indians hostile to the Arikaras, the Ashley party returned and fought back. This time the Indians called for a parley. Only one man, rifle in hand and knife in his belt, went into the fort. Rose. He came back sometime later and said the Arikaras had completely surrendered. Actually, Rose warned Ashley and his men that they were planning an escape, and was right again.

Ashley wrote that he had heard bad things about Rose, but could find no fault with him. What was it that made men like Hunt and Rose fear or mistrust him? Perhaps his color, or his scarred face, his reportedly humorless demeanor, perhaps his facility with Indians and their languages. Difficult to say.

Rose then left with a group of men to trap and explore. This group included some of the most famous mountain men who ever lived, including Jedediah Smith, Hugh Glass, David Jackson (Jackson’s Hole), Tom Fitzpatrick, Jim Bridger, James Clyman (whose memoirs aid us in the story) and William Sublette. Nevertheless, they soon found themselves in trouble. They turned to Rose for help, and he set off alone to find the Crow and get it.

When everything looked black, Rose reappeared with aid. He saved the men and the merchandise. How many times can one man come to the rescue?

Two years later, 1825, Rose was hired on to guide soldiers to some Indian tribes in order that treaties be signed. Rose was successful in getting a number of tribes to cooperate. During this tour, Rose put on a show of his wilderness prowess when they came upon buffalo. Disguising himself as a bush, Rose crept forward and fired 5 times, taking down a buffalo each time. Finally they ran for it, but as they did, Rose brought down another on the run.

When it came time for the Crow to appear at the council, an altercation arose when they refused to let free two Iroquois prisoners. As tempers heated, an Indian chief was struck by a soldier with a gun. The Crow rose as one and a massacre seemed likely, the Crows having the foresight to spike the soldiers’ cannon. Rose stepped forward against his own adopted people, grabbed a musket, stepped on the pile of the rest of them and swung the barrel around his head, hitting a number of braves. Despite the overwhelming odds, it worked. The Crow backed down, perhaps cowed by one of their own chiefs, whom they trusted.

Years later a trapper named Zenas Leonard, destined to write a classic on his travels, wrote of a black man who lived with the Crow who could only be Rose. While visiting, the Crow found themselves under attack by their enemy, the Blackfeet, who were hold up in a makeshift fort. Although the Crow attacked, they could make no headway. On the verge of giving up, Rose stood up and chastised them for cowardness. He told them he would show them what a black man could do. He set off to attack the Blackfeet themselves. Not surprisingly, he was quickly followed and victory ensued.

A few years later, Rose was dead along with Hugh Glass, the man who had stood by his side battling the Arikaras. And it was the Arikaras who killed them, possibly by shooting a barrel of gun powder they were standing near. Everybody dies. Even heroes like Rose.

We sit in our houses with the doors locked and fear even our neighbors. Rose, and men like him braved weather, wild animals, angry Indians, starvation and the unknown all the time, outside, with no roads to walk upon or hotels to sleep in. Rose was undoubtedly one of the bravest, even recklessly so. It would be nice to think he made it to the happy hunting ground.


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  2. Anonymous3:27 PM

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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .