Breeches in the Fur Trade

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Breeches in the Fur Trade

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Mariano Medina and his leather breeches.​

I read an article entitled "The Well-Dressed Explorer" by Jeff Gottfred of the NWBC located in Calgary, Canada; in the article he mentions David Thompson's leather trousers and long wool socks, along with Samuel Johnson's dictionary's remarks of trousers used in outposts and common wear on the frontier.

NOTE

I have always felt that one of the problems found in living history has been the dating of men's clothing, especially civilian clothing, seems to be volumes on the subject - but for women's clothing. After years of research on what is correct and what is questionable, I have found that knowing military clothing is extremely helpful in dating civilian wares. A good example, the British Army went from the fly front to the fall front knee breeches in the Clothing Warrent of 1768. Thus, military usually changes fashion late, the front fly was probably going out of civilian style in the early 1790's. If portraying a fashionable gentlemen from Philadelphia, Annapolis or St. Louis, you would be wearing fall front breeches or trousers. But if you were a farmer in the same period you would likely have fly front's. Fly front breeches were developed around 1650 and in a hundred and fifty years, change was the tightness and size of the waistband going from 4 - 6 inches in 1730 - 1750, to 2 - 2 1/2 inch range found on late 1830 - 1850 fall fronts.

This article reminded me of an item I found twenty-five years ago when living in northern Colorado, northwest of the town of Loveland in a small valley called the Buckhorn Canyon (named by Mariano Medina, the Colorado Mountainman). Medina was reported to have shot and killed several young Utes that had stolen horses from his place of business west of Loveland and had rode them a few miles up this canyon when Medina caught up with them. This same canyon was where it was reported that his daughter was buried.

My wife at the time and her family had several hundred acres of which only half was farm-able, the rest was used for pasture and a small sandstone quarry, it was narrow in width and followed the Buckhorn Canyon ridge down into the valley. Only a few miles from the Big Thompson River that Mariano Medina had his toll bridge on for years, charging from as little as $ .25 a wagon on a busy day to as high as $ 10.00 a wagon on a slow day to cross this river. According to the local paper, these charges helped newcomers make up their mind about settling on one side or the other of the Thompson, with small settlements springing up in the area like Berthoud, Campeon and Medina Flat's.

My father-in-law told me as a young boy growing up in the valley he could remember when the Utes would come to town and everyone would gather their tools and vegetables and store them inside until they passed, he said they were looked at as gypsies and known to steal loose items laying around and sell those items in town for booze. This seemed to be the only problem as he recalls was ever present with these people that lived at the northern end of the canyon.

Around 1935 the local college - CSU, in Fort Collins was called to look at a grave site that was uncovered in the sandstone quarry on the family property, it was decided to be possibly Native American, a women buried sitting up. The college would return in a week to remove the body and look for additional clues at the site. In the remaining time the local farmers feared that removing these remains of this person could bring a curse on their valley and decided to cover the grave and not give permission to anyone to touch the site. My father-in-law had the pre-mix concrete company pour an 8" slab on top of the grave and then pushed 3 to 4 feet of dirt and riff-raff (broken rock from the quarry) on the slab. When the college showed up a few days later they wanted the court to issue an order to remove the body (believed to be Medina's daughter, Lena) after several meetings with the valley farmers, the subject was dropped.

Now that you have a little history of this valley we'll get back to the trousers, forty years later I was building fence on this property in the hills above the farm ground and found a small pocket, not really a cave per say. A friend says we were looking for rattlesnakes, not building fence, can't remember, spent a lot of time in these hills year around hunting and just looking around. This was a large flat rolling area that runs for 6-7 miles; not bad walking, with lots of game - rabbits, turkey, mule and whitetail deer, and a local herd of elk. Anyway whatever we were doing we could see something in this loaf shaped hole and after several hours of probing with long sticks we removed some of the larger rocks to a point where we could see there were no snakes in our pocket under this opening in the side of the hill. Still not really comfortable I crawled inside with a flashlight and a small shovel and started scraping the ground looking for anything that could have been drug into this natural living quarters that appeared to have housed some local coyotes. Most of the items were clean bones, a few pieces of skull of small animals, three old beads and a hard ball of leather that looked like an old shirt, torn but it looked like it was all there. We figured the beads came from the activities of a local mountainman club that ran monthly shoots on the property, other items were the gathering of the local residents of this den, the coyotes.

I soaked the hard ball of leather for several days in a 5 gallon bucket of water, once soft the ball was stretched on a plywood surface and tacked down, the possible leather shirt turns out to be leather breeches that were manufactured by there appearance. Much of the construction was of the early style of machine sewing, commercial type brass buttons, small drop front design with the adjustable waist band tie in the back. The waist band is whip stitched, about 15-16 stitches to the inch with a canvas type material sandwiched between the leather for extra support. The brass button are of the dished style with crude lettering of the manufacturer, now white with mineral deposits. the legs are slightly tapered to the knee with the usual buttoned cuff below the knee and the bulky butt area like the military ones of the early 1800's.

After showing the breeches to the local museum in Loveland, I was sent to the library in search of a Mrs. Zethyl Gates - librarian and local historian. At the time she was still working on a book about local mountain man Marino Medina (since that time she has done several books, articles and papers about this man). She has spent most of her working life researching Medina and others of the late fur trade in Colorado and Wyoming, even went to Spain to research Medina's family history.

When walking into the library I was sent to her office at once with my old beat-up leather trousers and found a very excited Mrs. Gates, she had been called by the museum about these breeches. She showed me a late picture of Marino wearing breeches like the ones I have found and another picture of Louie Papa (Medina's step-son) wearing the same breeches, taken in a parade in Loveland after the turn of the century. Interesting, but questionable as to whether they were his or someone else's and how did the trousers get on this hill?

A few years later I was visiting an old friend in Chadron, NE; Charles E. Hanson, Jr., may have heard of him, showed him the old breeches and told him the story and Mrs. Gates interest. He said, " let's go to my study, and the museum (Museum of the Fur Trade) want to show you something". Charles points out a leather coat with similar brass buttons and similar construction, had been purchased from a family in northern Colorado at a gun show and traded around for a period before finding its new home at the museum. The next thing out of Charles mouth was "how much".

According to Mr. Hanson this type of coat and pants (trousers) were made commercially in California during the late fur trade and still available after the Indian Wars. Much of this style of garment saw sales in the traders tents and posts across the Rockies during this period, along with long wool and cotton socks. Interesting how the article about David Thompson's leather breeches brought about this story for your reading pleasure.

Then just 6-8 months ago Wes Housler of Rocky Mountain College Productions mentioned the idea of breeches or short pantaloons over the phone as we were talking about what supplies would be needed from Clark & Sons Mercantile for their next adventure in the Rockies, that will be filmed making number #2 in a series of items covering the Fur Trade. I told Wes of what you had just read and we both thought this would be very interesting to anyone working as a trapper or doing fur trade re-enactments.

Wes, like our old friend of the fur trade that has now passed to the other side - Charles E. Hanson, Jr, both have found countless sources of information on the subject in journals as well as reference to the use in of breeches in many accounts of life on the frontier. Wes has also found reference to the use of these garments in supply lists from a number of suppliers, trading posts and forts. I have had similar experiences; as well as having a late fur trade period pair of breeches, believed to have possibility belonged to Marino Medina.

Using pictures from Colorado Historical Society, photo's from the Zethyl Gates's collection, photo's from the Loveland Reporter Herald that has run accounts of the local mountain man's adventures; plus with the knowledge of Mr. Hanson on the style - cut - manufacture and material used in these short pants and the location of their storage for years has helped to bring ownership closer.

I have found reference to "short trousers", "pantaloons" and "breeches" by gentlemen that were there, like Osborn Russell in his journal, comments by John K. Townsend at the 1834 rendezvous, field sketches by Miller at the 1837 Green River Rendezvous to name just a few of many remarks about their use in journals, trade lists. etc. At Fort Hall they carried "fall front fly" breeches on their list of supplies, more complicated in their construction and largely commercially made as the talents of a tailor was usually required. Most homemade short trousers, pantaloons or breeches were constructed with a simpler way of closing the front area of the pants.

Using pictures from Colorado Historical Society, photo's from the Zethyl Gates's collection, photo's from the Loveland Reporter Herald that has run accounts of the local mountain man's adventures; plus with the knowledge of Mr. Hanson on the style - cut - manufacture and material used in these short pants and the location of their storage for years has helped to bring ownership closer.

NOTE

There are several good patterns available for this style of covering from several suppliers as well as an excellent article that explains the construction of a pair of breeches by Jeff Hengesbaugh and Wes Housler in their book "Dress and Equipage of the Mountain Man 1820-1840" produced by Rocky Mountain College Productions

Both Wes and Charlie have agreed that if your in freezing water up to your knees, that the breeches or short pantaloons are by far the most practical. They will dry faster and be less of a problem than a pair of long pants in cloth or leather, plus its easier to slip on wool socks, leggings or wrap your lower leg area once on shore, than wear wet clothing that would freeze before getting dry in trapping weather.

I have read of trappers, travelers and adventures stopping to remove their leg coverings to cross streams and creeks in their daily routines as they worked or moved across this country. One account tells of several travelers being way laid as they were putting on their wool socks and footwear after crossing a stream, the robbers took those items along with their other goods leaving them to suffer with bare skin and freezing conditions. Read another account of trappers using leather uppers coming down to the knee with blanket sewed on at this point to cover the lower leg and calf area, several of the re-enactors and brothers of the AMM have worn this arrangement for years and claim the blanket dries very quickly.

Personally I have changed to breeches as my main covering of the lower part of the body about 8-10 years ago, in extremely warm weather leggings and a clout is used. For trapping the breeches are hard to beat, as mentioned with heavy wool sock that go about 1 1/2 to 2 inches above the knee and fastened with a military style leather garter for mild winter conditions, with the addition of brain tanned leggings for colder temperatures. When traveling in cool weather the use of lighter socks and leggings or leggings alone with cloth breeches works very nicely.

Seems the more one experiments with their clothing, staying within the chosen time frame, one will get to a point that what works with the least amount of effort and care is usually what is best suited for that person. I'm sure as others are too, that this theory was true in the F & I War, Rev. War, Fur Trade or the Civil War; don't get sold on that Remington mountain man look; old trapper with long hair, beard and fringe, would like to have seen him travel a 100 yards with that long beard and fringe in the Rockies, he would be hog tied to the ground cover by his own makings.

As written before, trial and error of your clothing is by far the best way to find what works for you, and consider a pair of breeches in your kit, think you'll be surprised at the benefits of this garment.

When the cold and snow starts later this year, I am planning on making leather breeches, similiar to the ones that Marion Medina wore, may have to learn how to knit those long wool socks that were so popular also. Research, research and more research a never ending process for those's interested in living history.

NOTE

When originally writing about Mariano Medina and his breeches I left an important fact out by accident or just so use to looking at these pants I didn't even think about it. Several years ago an AMM Brother was visiting and asked about these breeches, upon him looking at them he remarked "look someone got hurt and these short pants have been cut off of them". A very important fact that I had failed to mention originally, "knew this" just passed over thanks Pat Surrina for reminding me. I checked all my original sources with no reference to an accident and then found that Louis Papin (Papa) was recovering from a fall in the Buckhorn Canyon earlier this year according to an article in the Loveland Register dated August 10, 1911, could this have been when these "short pants" had received there now present slit openings ? We can only guess from this time on if this was the case or was it at another time the wearer had these leather breeches removed in such a manner.

Sources:

* Ball, Clara, ed. Loveland-Big Thompson Valley 1877-1977 Centennial, 1975.
* Camp, Charles L., ed. "James Clyman Frontiersman. Portland: Champoeg Press, 1960.
* Gates, Zethyl, "Mariano Medina Colorado Mountain Man" Johnson Publishing Co., 1981
* Magazine 12 (November 1935): 201-214.
* Hengesbaugh, Jeff & Housler, Wes, "Dress and Equipage of the Mountain Man 1820-1840" Rocky Mountain College Productions, 1997.
* Kephart, Bruce, "Hawken Rifle" Saturday Evening Post, 21 February 1920, p.65.

Newspaper articles:
* Berthoud, Colorado; Berthoud Bulletin.
* Denver, Colorado; Colorado Prospector.
* Colorado Tribune.
* Denver Daily Times.
* Denver Post.
* Denver Republican
* Fort Collins, Colorado; Fort Collins Coloradoan
* Fort Collins Express
* Fort Collins Standard
* Pueblo, Colorado; Pueblo Chieftan
* Loveland, Colorado; Loveland Register
* Loveland Reporter
* Loveland Reporter Herald
 

beardedhorse

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There are three generations of Wes Houslers who brain tan. Wild Bill was at a Texas rendezvous this spring and very much alive. I worked a table at a gun show for Jeff Hengesbaugh weeks ago and there was no mention of the demise of Wes Jr. I hope you heard wrong. I belonged to the Buckhorn Skinners club outside of Masonville on property owned by the family you mentioned. There is a historical marker, graves, etc. south of the Big Thompson River and a memorial park. There is a photo of Mariano's breeches in Zethyl Gates book on him, seeated and holding a pipe. My brain tanned front fall knee breeches are worn with wool socks and moccassins wading in beaver streams. I have wool leggings and spare wool socks and extra moccasins too but you don't get to change them each time you hope out after setting your traps and bait. I'm guessing the guest writer's name begins with a B.
 
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