The mountain men were a lonely breed. But when they had fun, they really had fun.
After Lewis and Clark’s 1804-1806 exploration of the West, fur trading posts opened up all around this harsh land and attracted men who weren’t afraid to brave the isolation and danger of the wilderness. These mountain men had some of the most demanding lifestyles of the era.
Rendezvous would take place in large valleys with enough room for the tents and camps of hundreds of mountain men, thousands of Native Americans, and which had enough open space for their horses to graze. At the rendezvous, a mountain man could sell his furs and stock up on supplies; food items like beans and vegetables were for sale, which was a welcome change from the usual diet of nothing but meat. Once he had stocked up on supplies and sold a pelt or two, he could also dance, drink, and have fun.
Today, people everywhere celebrate the intrepid mountain men by hosting rendezvous just like the ones that took place 200 years ago. Usually, participants are already in a historical group but anyone whose interest is piqued by history can host or participate in a rendezvous in their own backyard.
It doesn’t really matter how you orchestrate the gathering as the objective is simple: recreate the life of an 1830’s-40’s fur trapper as well as possible, involve games and contests, and have fun!
So how can you have your own mountain man rendezvous?
Let’s start with the clothes.
It’s very important that all participants don period-appropriate attire. You could wear modern clothing, but not without seriously tarnishing the atmosphere. Encourage all of the participants to try their best at compiling an authentic outfit. It’s part of the fun! What’s more, you can pull together a mountain man or woman outfit without spending a single dime.
- Women can wear long skirts or a dress from the thrift store. Etsy has a treasure trove of affordable pioneer-style clothing. You can find fantastic Gunne Sax dresses from the 70’s that look perfectly Victorian and are priced cheaply because they’re not that old. Most people in that time would wear hats since they didn’t have sunscreen, so wear a soft felt hat or a bonnet if you can find one.
- Men wear buckskins or any kind of fringy jacket. Hunting frocks can be found sold by specialty dealers online or you can make your own. If you’re hosting your rendezvous on a shoestring, try purchasing a button up shirt with a pinstriped design in a neutral color and slightly puffy sleeves. A long sleeved henley shirt will also look appropriate to the era. Buckskin pants are most common, but any drop front pants will also do. If you want to be extremely authentic, get a capote. Capotes were made out of blankets, were cheap, and kept the mountain men toasty. A felt hat will complete the look.
- Both sexes can wear moccasins as shoes. I usually wear tan hiking boots since they’re somewhat inconspicuous and functional, albeit not authentic to period whatsoever.
Now that you have your fabulous 1830’s outfit, it’s time to gather your supplies.
- If you’ll be shooting blackpowder guns, everyone participating will need a possibles bag. This is an over the shoulder bag that would contain your powder, balls, caps, and patches.
- Black powder guns, if desired. Remember that even though these weapons are old, they are just as accurate and deadly as modern guns, so ensure that everyone handling the guns is safe and responsible.
- Logs with flatly cut surfaces that can be used as targets when throwing tomahawks and knives.
- Tomahawks and knives. These can be purchased from dealers of antique-style weapons and would be used at a rendezvous in throwing competitions. These objects are sharp, heavy, sturdy, and can cause serious injury. Use caution when handling them.
- Flint and steel with kindling and charcloth. Like many of the other supplies, you can get flint and steel at country stores or online. If you don’t get a full kit and only have flint and steel, you can make both kindling and charcloth by yourself.
- To make charcloth: Tear an old 100% cotton sheet into uniform strips, about 1.5″ wide and then snip the strips into 1.5″x 1.5″ squares. Once that’s done, find an airtight can like one used to contain Altoids. Using a nail, puncture the lid. The hole should be no larger than 1 centimeter in diameter. Place your cotton squares into the can and bring it with you to your rendezvous camp. Use a match to start a small fire and gently place the can into it. Eventually, smoke will begin to billow out from the can and it may start on fire. This means that everything is working correctly. Wait until the fire burns itself out and then cautiously remove the can. There is no fire inside of the can as it doesn’t have enough oxygen for one to light. However, the inside of the can is extremely hot and if oxygen rushes in while it’s still that hot, your charcloth may simply burn away. For this reason, patiently let the can cool down before opening it up to see your gorgeous black charcloth. After the can has cooled down, open it up and check the color. If the cloth is brown, then it is undercooked and needs to go back into the fire for a little while. If the cloth is too brittle to pick up, then you need to start over.
- To make kindling: A lot of things can be used as kindling, like shredded dry wood or cotton balls. Shredded up manila rope used for hanging baskets is easy to find and make. Just use your pocket knife and shred, shred, shred!
- Pans, rolling pins, and tin cups/bowling pins for the women’s games.
- Beads, bobby pins, and string for the points. To record points, take a sturdy piece of string and fold it in half. Make a knot in one end and slide a bobby pin onto the looped end. When a point is scored, simply slide a bead over the bobby pin and onto the string.
- Various cheap 1800’s style items and a large blanket.
- Cast iron pots, canned beans, game, etc. for a stew or chili that will cook for hours over the fireplace and will keep the participants warm and full.
Let’s find a place and set it up!
It’s highly likely that you’re a history aficionado who lives in the city. In this case, you can still have a rendezvous in your backyard. It won’t be authentic, but as long as you have enough space to throw things and start a fire, the rendezvous can go on. Better still, head to a park or other public green space with more room to romp for your rendezvous.
If you’re lucky enough to live in the forest or country, just find a place with plenty of room for activity and go!
- For added authenticity, use a canvas tent and spend the night in the great outdoors. If you don’t have a canvas tent, challenge participants to create a shelter from their 1800’s era supplies and natural resources nearby. If a mountain man was without a tent and lacked the ingenuity or resources to construct his own shelter, he’d be in trouble.
- Using sturdy paper and paint, make a sign reading X Rendezvous- X being your family name or chosen title for the rendezvous.
- If the event will continue into the evening, use stones to create a firepit in a central location.
What to do, what to do?
At a rendezvous, participants compete in activities and receive beads to designate points. The beads are color coded so it’s obvious which activities the participant excelled in. At the end of the day or the next morning, everyone gathers around the blanket to receive their prizes. Those with the most beads receive first pick, then the one with the second most beads, and so on. Everyone receives a prize, but since it’s on a “less beads, less options” basis, there is incentive to do well.
- Black powder shoot– Using muzzleloaders, participants shoot at targets and receive a bead each time that they hit the target. If you already have the guns, all that you need to do is set up a safe range with targets that aren’t too close or far away from the shooters. Someone needs to watch and listen to ensure that hits or misses are accurately recorded.
- Hawk and Knife competition– Participants try their hand at throwing hawks and knives at logs. Every time that the blade sticks in the log, a point is collected.
- Ladies’ games– The frying pan and rolling pan toss. Mark off a clear path that’s about ten feet long. At the end of the path, set up a bowling pin, tin cup, or other period-appropriate object that can be toppled with relative ease. To play: All participants line up at the starting line and the first person throws the frying pan. She is given three attempts to hit the pin. If the pin is toppled, that participant remains in the contest. The next person attempts to hit the pin. If she does not hit any pins, she is eliminated from the game. Once all participants have had a round, they repeat the game until there is only one contestant. She is the winner and will receive a special gift at that time. The rolling pin game is played the same way but is done with three pins instead of one. Baskets of homemade cookies, a knitted scarf or shawl, and other items that would suit an 1800’s woman are all great prizes.
- Firestarting contest– Participants use flint, steel, charcloth, and kindling to start a fire. Those who finish in less than 30 seconds receive five beads.
Remember, it’s not your props or your outfits that make the mountain man rendezvous. A passion for history is all that you need to create a rendezvous that will be treasured in the memories of all who participate.
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