Robert M. Utley, A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific (Henry Holt 1997)
I bought this book when it first came out. I’ve been interested in mountain Men, the free trappers of the Rockies, ever since I saw Jeremiah Johnston back when it first came out. As the subtitle suggests, this book details the role of free trappers in helping open paths across the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean. The key “discovery” was South Pass, a relatively gentle crossing of the Continental Divide in Wyoming. (“South” was relative to Lewis and Clark’s far more difficult pass to the north through the Bitterroot Mountains.) South Pass became the main route of passages west through each succeeding phase of western development, from trappers, to wagon trains, stagecoaches, and telegraph. (The Transcontinental Railroad used Bridger Pass further south, named after mountain man Jim Bridger, which was opened up shortly after the demise of the Pony Express.) The book is a fun read, but the author tends to lionize his subjects. Each one ends up sounding like a cross between Daniel Boone and a California Ken. He criticizes Kit Carson at one point for the pointless execution of Mexican “spies,” under orders of John Fremont. But other than that, all deeds come across as heroic, all sufferings superhuman, etc., etc. If you can sift through the hyperbole, the book does offer a lot of information and quite a few good stories.