Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A FINE SENSE OF HISTORY with Clay Landry

Guest post by Clay Landry--researcher, author and speaker on the history of the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade  

Clay will be one of the presenters at the Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference, scheduled June 2 - 4, 2017 in Gillette. For more information on the conference,
visit https://www.wyowriters.org/conference/



Photo provided by Clay Landry

“The lack of a sense of history is the damnation of the modern world.” 
― Robert Penn Warren 

The question that I get asked most often is “why do you have such a deep interest in the mountain men and the Rocky Mountain Fur trade era?” This is usually followed by the half comment and half question “hasn’t the story of this historical era been fully studied and published?

My introduction to the history of the Rocky Mountain Trade was made in the 1970’s when I purchased a custom made muzzle loading rifle and attended the 1975 Fort Bridger Wyoming rendezvous in 1975. The campfire speaker one evening was Dr. Fred Gowans, a BYU history professor and author of the several books on the Fur Trade Rendezvous era. Dr. Gowans presentation gave such realism and texture to events and men of the fur trade that I was inspired to learn more about their history.

As I read and researched western Fur Trade history I discovered that the geographical and wildlife resources of the Rocky Mountain States provided distinctive influences on the men and events of the time period. The fur trade history of the Upper Missouri River region was a unique chapter in the history of America and the West. The mountain men were among the first Euro-Americans to see and experience the natural wonders of the Rocky Mountain country when it still belonged to the Natives and Mother Nature.


The William Ashley and Andrew Henry Fur Company did not build trading posts but chose to harvest fur by keeping parties of trappers in the field year around and resupplying them by means of an annual gathering called “Rendezvous.” The first rendezvous, held in July of 1825, was located on a fork of Burnt Creek near present day McKennon, Wyoming. These annual gatherings would occur every year from 1825 to 1840. Of these seventeen rendezvous twelve were located in the state of Wyoming. Consequently the history of the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous is an important part of Wyoming’s history.

In regard to the question of the history of the western fur trade being fully researched and published I would offer that the majority of my research and writings are focused on the “material and social culture” of the Fur Trade era. More specifically I research the tools, weapons, clothing, and food used by the fur men as well social class system, business ethics and lifestyles exhibited in the early 1800’s. Because my research relies on primary original documents such as newspapers, journals, personal letters and business records I occasionally find tidbits of overlooked information which actually changes or corrects some previously published history.
Photo provided by Clay Landry

The underlying principle for emphasizing material culture studies is to provide insight into the challenges of daily life which illuminates personal beliefs and mores of the people during an historical era. This level of generational familiarity provides a perceptive interpretation of our ancestors’ approach to the historic challenges of their era. I, like many other contemporary historians, attribute “the lack of a sense of history” in this modern world to the dry and droll approach used in the educational system for teaching national and local history. The story of American history when presented with the texture and realism provided by underscoring the lifestyles and personalities of the past has been shown to intrigue, educate and even entertain all ages of students. The current educational system tends to propagate a generational arrogance based on the precept “what can modern civilization possibly learn from archaic ancestors.”

Material culture research however cannot be performed in a “historical” vacuum because an overall chronological view of the period is required to place weapons, tools, clothing and equipment in proper context. In some instances the life of an artifact can be used to relate an interesting chapter in history. A case study of using an 1830 artifact to provide remarkable information about the lives of two fur trappers will be presented during one of my sessions at the Wyoming Writers Inc. Annual Conference.

Not all material culture research efforts take place in museums, historical archives or in front of a microfilm reader pondering original documents or artifacts. There is an applied or field work aspect to this kind of study and for me this aspect manifests itself through my membership in the American Mountain Men.

The American Mountain Men is a 501(C)3 not for profit Wyoming Corporation dedicated to the preservation of and teaching the traditions, skills and lifestyles of the Mountain Men. It is a national organization with 625 members, conducts three annual rendezvous gatherings and publishes a bi-monthly magazine.
Photo provided by Clay Landry

AMM members are required to complete wilderness trips of several days, either horseback, canoe or foot, using only the food, tools, weapons, camp equipment and accoutrements available to the original mountain men. While the AMM members refer to this as “getting out on the ground” others have categorize it as “experimental archaeology.” Membership in the AMM is by invitation only and each new member must be sponsored by the member who invited him to join.

A central tenant of the AMM’s creed to preserve the traditions and ways of the fur men is a dedication to authenticity by using only the methods, tools, equipment, guns and weapons available to the original mountain men. When I became a member of the American Mountain Men in 1991 my quest to relate the history of Rocky Mountain Fur Trade via material culture studies took on a new dimension.


Both I and the American Mountain Men also have a supportive association with the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale, Wyoming. Members of the AMM conduct demonstrations of Mountain Man skills and lifestyle annually for the Museum’s school days and Rendezvous Days programs. I serve as a member of the Museum’s Historical Advisory Board and have also authored articles in seven issues of the Museum’s peer reviewed annual publication –The Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Journal. 

The recommendations of both the AMM and the Museum of the Mountain Man were instrumental in my selection as the Technical and Historical Advisor on the major motion picture about the life of mountain man Hugh Glass titled The Revenant.

My role in the production of The Revenant was to train the nine actors in the operation and maintenance of black powder flintlock rifles and other trapper skills such as making fire from flint and steel, setting traps, trapper jargon, and horse packing. I also worked with the props department and set decorators to ensure that only period correct items were used by the actors and on the set. I also provided some input and corrections to the script and consultations with the director.

For the Wyoming Writers Inc. annual conference in early June 2017 I will participate in panel discussions and conduct three different workshops on:

1) the “three legged stool approach” to researching a specific historical topic,

2) the challenges of researching and writing in each of the three areas of historical authorship-biographies, events & places and material culture and

3) finding viable and interesting western history topics.

I look forward to meeting and working with the members of this stellar organization.


2 comments:

  1. Very interesting blog by Clay. As I read his explanation of why the study of "experimental archeology" is important, I was reminded of something I think I read in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. She compared the narrowness of some scientific studies to a crack in a wall. The closer one's eye gets to the crack, the more that eye sees, until it expands to a very wide angle that runs to the horizon. And one never knows what something discovered in pure research will become useful to modern man, especially as we are faced with more challenges because of our changing climate. Another home run, Lynn.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's been so long since I read Silent Spring. I didn't remember that analogy, but it's a very insightful one. I'm a big believer in research!

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