by Naomi Musch
There have always been wanderers, those curious and hardy souls who aren’t content remaining near the hearth, but find their calling in traversing the wild, in exploring the unknown, in finding their prospects in raw and solitary pursuits. In the early days of the settling of America, there were the explorers, then the trappers and fur traders, the voyageurs, and the longhunters.
I have to admit, I’m drawn to the romanticism of these types of characters. (Think Hawkeye in Last of the Mohicans.) Yet, while we enjoy visualizing the romantic hero of the woods, we ought to understand the reality of the kinds of existence the wilderness wanderers lived. While history tells us there were men with fine character, cleanliness, and noble intentions, some hunters or traders of the era were also likely brutal, vulgar, and downright uncouth. (It would be pretty tough to mind personal hygiene while meandering the wild, and so much time alone lends a man to adjusting his standard of morality, usually toward the bad.)
|The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, Simon and Schuster|
Let’s take a couple of minutes to think about the actual lifestyle of a longhunter in the late 18th century. The longhunters were mostly men who came to the frontier from Virginia and other southwest corners of the colonies and headed through the gap into Kentucky, Tennessee, and even as far as Illinois. They didn’t set out on the frontier with the purpose of settlement, but because they both preferred the lifestyle of self-rule and, mostly, because they hoped to make a profit. The name longhunter came from the fact that rather than heading into the forests for short durations to hunt or trap, they set out for periods as long as six months at a stretch, returning home with a bounty that would pay more than their farms might provide in a year’s time.
Yes, they did come home. They settled down between seasons. They might farm some, but they made the bulk of their income bringing in hides and meat--usually for the companies that hired them. While they were at it, the longhunters became well acquainted with the land west of the mountains itself—such as Daniel Boone did—and later on used this information to make land claims or to hire themselves out as guides to settlers seeking to move west.
The longhunters didn’t usually operate solo. Working for hire, they traveled in large groups for mutual protection in the face of trouble. Daniel Boone was himself robbed on three different occasions. Picture a camp of twenty or more men…each day bringing in more kills…some men having packs of hunting dogs and as many as three to eight pack horses each for carrying their meat, hides, and equipment. But these dogs and horses needed food and care besides. The hunters would flesh out their hides, salt and pack meat, and toss leftover carcasses to their dogs. The camp would be inundated with unsavory smells from souring meat to clothes, grease, and general human filth besides. Hardly the image of a romantic tale! And the men occasionally suffered great hardship too. There were times they couldn’t build a fire, and the cold and damp seeped into their bones. Sometimes the hunting was meager and so was food. Illness and injury had to be taken care of only by the skill of fellow hunters. Sometimes death met them in the woods.
|Longhunter with a Dead Deer|
Nevertheless, despite the extraordinary way they lived—or perhaps because of it—we enjoy the stories of these wanderers. Not unlike travelers returning home from a far journey today, I’m sure the longhunters made joyful preparations as they returned to their homesteads to see their families again. They likely stopped to bathe and groom themselves, and perhaps they brought their wives and children some trinkets gotten in trade. Then they would settle in for a period of domesticity before restocking their supplies and saying their goodbyes for another season.
I remain enamored of the stories of the fur traders and hunters and trappers. Of the rendezvous, the settlements, and forts in the wilderness. This coming January, my novel Song for the Hunter will release, and I hope you’ll join me living for a while as a wanderer in the wilderness…from the comfort of your home in the pages of a book. Add it to your Goodreads want-to-read list, or pre-order it today: