Locals re-enact rendezvous from mountain man era


October 1st, 2013

Omaha, NE – Mountain men flourished in the Great Plains during the 1820s by trapping beavers and other fur animals for hides.


By 1850 trappers were marketing buffalo and deer hide to make up for the shortage of beavers. While some mountain men worked independently, most were hired by chief fur trading companies in Vancouver or St. Louis. Soon, rendezvous were set up to save time for fur trapping companies. Mountain men traveling from the Rockies to St. Louis every year could instead take a group of men to the mountains to trade and sell goods. It was also a time for celebration, as it marked the end of trapping seasons.

This recent rendezvous at the Western Heritage Trails Center in Council Bluffs was a reenactment of these instances. Some mountain men re-enactors, like Mike Reazer, love the gatherings because you are shot back to a simpler time.

Seth Kinman a notable mountain man from the 19th century. (Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Seth Kinman a notable mountain man from the 19th century. (Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

“(It is a) living history of the mountain era, the Lewis and Clark era,“ Reazer said. “At night time good cup of coffee, sit around with good folk talking philosophy, wide open spaces, cool breeze.”

Students from area elementary schools attended the event for rich hands on learning experience about history. John “Lizard” Wilcox said students learn practically nothing about mountain men and fur trappers in school so he has taken it upon himself to teach what he calls first-hand knowledge.

“I’ve got 25 sixth graders here right now, and another 85 fourth graders coming. These kids when you get them over here and you ask them different questions about this stuff, they know nothing. There is absolutely nothing they know about it because they aren’t taught about it in school anymore about it. I feel that the Louisiana Territory was one of the most important things that ever happened to the United States. It was over a third of our country and for the kids not to really study that, they just know what it was and what it was for and that is it.”

Wilcox worked at Roberts Dairy in Omaha for 30 years before getting into the lifestyle of a mountain man. He said if one student came away interested in the mountain man time period, than he considers his job productive.

“Why not put some of that back into our history? But they don’t do it. That is why I am out here. I am hoping these kids will get a bite, is what I call it, and hopefully down the road they will want to get into this and follow up what I do.”

Don Knudsen, a retired science teacher, has been a participant in rendezvous for more than 15 years.

Don Knudsen, a retired science teacher, has been a participant in rendezvous for more than 15 years.

Don Knudsen, retired high school science teacher is also a re-enactor. He said for some performers this is more than a hobby or pastime.

“Particularly those that are traders at these events, actually make a living,” Knudsen said. “They are a mobile store for goods from that period. And they will travel and lay out a course of rendezvous they will go to from week to week. In the middle of the week they are traveling and by Thursday they are setting up for the next weekend. For us it’s a supply of period goods that aren’t available at Wal-Mart.”

Sixth graders from Hamburg, Iowa and fourth graders from Ackerman Elementary in Bellevue took part in the festivities. Events included a blacksmith, a mule and buck skinner, and arts and crafts were available for children wanting to learn.

One student said he likes being outdoors and not cooped up in his bedroom playing videogames.

“I like their activities and the people that come together,” Wilcox said. “They can make stuff like beads. They can make all kids of different things.”

Knudsen said it’s important to him to “unwind” from a normal way of life. It helps remind him see and feel just how tough it was for trappers and mountain men to survive in the wilderness.

“What it was really like to live at those times in history, when you didn’t have the refrigerator and you didn’t go to the corner store whenever you decided you needed something. You really made do with what you had, and yes I do cook my meals by the fire and I live under that shelter at night. It really is a lifestyle for those that do that.”

Lefty Olsen, who cooked the meals at the rendezvous last weekend, said his favorite parts of the engagements are the individuals just like him.

“You know I think it’s the people,” Olsen said. “You meet a different class of people out here, they like basic stuff. The only reason you do it, is because you love it. There darn sure ain’t no money in it and it’s not a vacation, you really have to like it.”

Wilcox said there are several upcoming rendezvous scheduled in Nebraska. October 12th-13th in Cairo, Neb., October 19-20 in Lincoln, Neb., and Indian Cave State Park near Brownville, Neb., on October 26th and 27th.

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