When I say the words “mountain man,” what’s the first mental image that comes to mind? Robert Redford as Jeremiah Johnson, or perhaps Dan Haggerty as Grizzly Adams. What about Fess Parker as Davy Crockett?
What do the first two have in common that the other one doesn’t?
Jeremiah Johnson and Grizzly Adams had scraggly hair and scraggly beards, and dressed in thick furs and animal hides. Davy Crockett was rather well-groomed for a “mountain man”, with his short hair, shaved face, and clean buckskins.
I write romance novels about mountain men, and certainly the image of a dirty, unkempt man with a bushy beard just doesn’t strike an image of a romantic hero. Was I wrong in my description of fur trapper Daniel Osborne, the first hero I ever wrote?
Her eyes poured over his clothing and appearance. He wore a dark-colored breechcloth and leather leggings with fringes on the sides. His faded red flannel shirt had been poorly patched in a few places. Several leather pouches were draped around his neck, and over one broad shoulder dangled a powder horn made from the horn of a mountain sheep.
A tomahawk and large hunting knife hung from the wide leather belt around his waist. He wore un-decorated leather moccasins. His raven black hair fell to his shoulders, with some unruly strands tumbling over his forehead.
Aimee’s eyes moved to his deeply tanned face, his square jaw line shadowed by a day’s growth of stubble, and dark brown eyes that betrayed none of his thoughts as he moved ever closer.
Her pulse quickened as she met and held his hard gaze. She couldn’t help but stare. Those penetrating dark eyes drew her in. She blinked, but couldn’t look away. Dear God, she couldn’t recall ever seeing a painting or drawing of a mountain man that looked like this guy. Images of rough looking, bearded wild men came to mind.
The man in front of her was quite simply . . . stunning. The feral, masculine virility he projected took her breath away, leaving her head spinning dizzily, and not from dehydration this time.
If you answered Fess Parker to my initial question, you were more correct than if your image of a mountain man looks like Grizzly Adams. At least when it comes to facial hair, which is the focus of this article.
Probably the most common image of a mountain man is one with a heavy beard, someone who hasn’t shaved since the day he left civilization behind to head into the mountains and trap for beaver.
George Frederick Ruxton, a British explorer and writer in the 1800’s, states in his novel, Life in the Far West, “The elder of the company was a tall gaunt man, with a face browned by a twenty years' exposure to the extreme climate of the mountains; his long black hair, as yet scarcely tinged with gray, hung almost to his shoulders, but his cheeks and chin were cleanly shaved after the fashion of the mountain men.”
While most modern paintings and images of mountain men show them with beards, the artists of the time depicted mountain men as being clean-shaven. The Swiss artist, Rudolph Friederich Kurz painted Indians and trapper/traders in the 1840’s, and only a very small number of the “white men” had any kind of facial hair. Only two men were depicted in paintings by Kurz as having unkempt hair and beards, and one of those men was a traveler on his way to California, not a fur trapper.
Artist Alfred Jacob Miller, who painted scenes from the 1837 rendezvous also portrayed the mountain men without beards.
“Typically the free trapper was young when he went to the mountains. He was single, poor, farm-reared, and he had long hair, but kept his face shaved, except perhaps for a moustache.
The items he used daily, firestarting equipment, spare flint, usually a straight razor for, contrary to common belief, most mountain men shaved”.( Quote from The Mountain Men, by George Laycock, a book I use a lot for research.)
Why would these men, so far away from civilization, decide to keep their faces clean-shaven? Why not simply let the beards grow long?
Another reason why shaving was preferable to letting a beard grow was hygiene. Although mountain men were not known for cleanliness, and didn’t bathe for months at a time (a fact I definitely left out in my romance novels), head lice were a very real and common problem in those days. Having a beard only gave those critters more room to roam.
Finally, except for when they partied it up at rendezvous, the mountain men traded with the local Indians the rest of the year. Native Americans did not have facial hair, and considered men with full beards to be barbarians, and gave a man with a beard colorful names such as “dog face.” It was advantageous to the trapper to be on good terms whenever possible with the natives, not only for trading, but also if they wanted to marry an Indian woman.
Straight razors were known from the inventory lists of the time, and were used to shave off stubbly facial hair. Using a straight razor becomes more difficult the longer the hair grows. Most likely, the trapper didn’t shave every single day, but at least regularly before a beard became too difficult to manage.
Peggy L Henderson is a laboratory technologist by night, and best-selling western historical and time travel romance author of the Yellowstone Romance Series, Second Chances Time Travel Romance Series, and Teton Romance Trilogy. When she’s not writing about Yellowstone, the Tetons, or the old west, she’s out hiking the trails, spending time with her family and pets, or catching up on much-needed sleep. She is happily married to her high school sweetheart. Along with her husband and two sons, she makes her home in Southern California.