Rocky Mountains

The Rocky Mountains in North America extends from New Mexico to Alaska. This includes the Bitterfoot Range in Idaho, the Teton Range in Wyoming, the Coeur d'Alene Mountains in Montana, the Gallantine Range, the Absaroka Range and the Bighorn Range in Montana and Wyoming, the Wasatch Range and Uinta Mountains in Utah, the Sawatch Range in Colorado and the Cristo Mountains in New Mexico. The highest peak is Mount Elbert at 14,431 feet.

The Rocky Mountains were explored by Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Zebulon Pike, Joseph Walker and John C. Fremont in the first-half of the 19th century. It was news about the abundance of beaver in the streams and rivers that attracted the mountain men into the Rocky Mountains.

Primary Sources

(1) (1) Zebulon M. Pike, An Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi (1810)

15th November, 1806: Saturday. Marched early. Passed two deep creeks and many high points of the rocks; also, large herds of buffalo. At two o'clock in the afternoon I thought I could distinguish a mountain to our right, which appeared like a small blue cloud; viewed it with the spy glass, and was still more confirmed in my conjecture, yet only communicated it to doctor Robinson, who was in front with me, but in halt an hour, they appeared in full view before us. When our small party arrived on the hill they with one accord gave three cheers to the Mexican mountains. Their appearance can easily be imagined by those who have crossed the Alleghany; but their sides were whiter as if covered with snow, or a white stone. Those were a spur of the grand western chain of mountains, which divide the waters of the Pacific from those of the Atlantic oceans, and it divided the waters which empty into the bay of the Holy Spirit, from those of the Mississippi; as the Alleghany does, those which discharge themselves into the latter river and the Atlantic. They appear to present a natural boundary between the province of Louisiana arid New Mexico and would be a defined and natural boundary. Before evening we discovered a fork on the south side bearing S. 25° W. and as the Spanish troops appear to have borne up it, we encamped on its banks, about one mile from its confluence, that we might make further discoveries on the morrow. Killed three buffalo.

27th November, 1806: Thursday. Arose hungry, dry, and extremely sore, from the inequality of the rocks, on which we had lain all night, but were amply compensated for toil by the sublimity of the prospects below. The unbounded prairie was overhung with clouds, which appeared like the ocean in a storm; wave piled on wave and foaming, whilst the sky was perfectly clear where we were. Commenced our march up the mountain, and in about one hour arrived at the summit of this chain: here we found the snow middle deep; no sign of beast or bird inhabiting this region. The thermometer which stood at 9° above 0 at the foot of the mountain, here fell to 4° below 0. The summit of the Grand Peak, which was entirely bare of vegetation and covered with snow, now appeared at the distance of 15 or 16 miles from us, and as high again as what we had ascended, and would have taken a whole day's march to have arrived at its base, when I believed no human being could have ascended to its pinical. This with the condition of my soldiers who had only light overalls on, and no stockings, and every way ill provided to endure the inclemency of the region; the bad prospect of killing any thing to subsist on, with the further detention of two or three days, which it must occasion, determined us to return.

Proceeding westwardly across the meridian above specified (ninety-fifth), the hilly country gradually subsides, giving place to a region of vast extent, spreading towards the north and south, and presenting an undulating surface, with nothing to limit the view or variegate the prospect, but here and there a hill, knob, or insulated tract of tableland. At length the Rocky Mountains break upon the view, towering abruptly from the plains, and mingling their snow-capped summits with the clouds.

On approaching the mountains, no other change is observable in the general aspect of the country, except that the isolated knobs and tablelands above alluded to become more frequent and more distinctly marked, the bluffs by which the vallies of watercourses are bounded present a greater abundance of rocks, stones lie in greater profusion upon the surface, and the soil becomes more sandy and sterile. If, to the characteristics above intimated, we add that of an almost complete destitution of woodland (for not more than one thousandth part of the section can be said to possess a timber-growth) we shall have a pretty correct idea of the general aspect of the whole country.

(2) Meriwether Lewis, journal (17th July, 1805)

These mountains have their sides and summits partially varied with little copses of pine, cedar, and balsam fir. A mile and a half beyond this creek the rocks approach the river on both sides, forming a most sublime and extraordinary spectacle. For five and three quarter miles these rocks rise perpendicularly from the water's edge to the height of nearly twelve hundred feet. They are composed of a black granite near its base, but from its lighter colour above and from the fragments we suppose the upper part to be flint of a yellowish brown and cream colour. Nothing can be imagined more tremendous than the frowning darkness of these rocks, which project over the river and menace us with destruction. The river, of one hundred and fifty yards in width, seems to have forced its channel down this solid mass, but so reluctantly has it given way that during the whole distance the water is very deep even at the edges, and for the first three miles there is not a spot except one of a few yards, in which a man could stand between the water and the towering perpendicular of the mountain: the convulsion of the passage must have been terrible, since at its outlet there are vast columns of rock torn from the mountain which are strewed on both sides of the river, the trophies as it were of the victory. Several fine springs burst out from the chasms of the rock, and contribute to increase the river, which has now a strong current, but very fortunately we are able to overcome it with our oars, since it would be impossible to use either the cord or the pole.

(3) George Ruxton, Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains (1847)

The Bayou Salade, or Salt Valley, is the most southern of three very extensive valleys, forming a series of table-lands in the very centre of the main chain of the Rocky Mountains, known to the trappers by the name of the "Parks." The numerous streams by which they are watered abound in the valuable fur-bearing beaver, whilst every species of game common to the west is found here in great abundance. The Bayou Salade especially, owing to the salitrose nature of the soil and springs, is the favourite resort of all the larger animals common to the mountains; and, in the sheltered prairies of the Bayou, the buffalo, forsaking the barren and inclement regions of the exposed plains, frequent these upland valleys in the winter months; and feeding upon the rich and nutritious buffalo grass which, on the bare prairies, at that season, is either dry and rotten or entirely exhausted, not only are enabled to sustain life, but retain a great portion of the "condition" that the abundant fall and summer pasture of the lowlands has laid upon their bones.

(4) Isabella Bird, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879)

Snowy ranges, one behind the other, extended to the distant horizon, folding in their wintry embrace the beauties of Middle Park. Pike's Peak, more than one hundred miles off, lifted that vast but shapeless summit which is the landmark of Southern Colorado. There were snow patches, snow slashes, snow abysses, snow forlorn and soiled-looking, snow pure and dazzling, snow glistening above the purple robe of pine worn by all the mountains; while away to the east, in limitless breadth, stretched the green-grey of the endless" Plains. Giants everywhere reared their splintered crests. From thence, with a single sweep, the eye takes in a distance of 300 miles - that distance to the west, north, and south being made up of mountains ten, eleven, twelve, and thirteen thousand feet in height, dominated by Long's Peak, Gray's Peak, and Pike's Peak, all nearly the height of Mont Blanc! On the Plains we traced the rivers by their fringe of cotton-woods to the distant Platte, and between us and them lay glories of mountain, canyon, and lake, sleeping in depths of blue and purple most ravishing to the eye.

As we crept from the lodge round a horn of rock, I beheld what made me perfectly sick and dizzy to look at - the terminal Peak itself - a smooth, cracked face or wall of pink granite, as nearly perpendicular as anything could well be up which it was possible to climb, well deserving the name of the "American Matterhorn"

Scaling, not climbing, is the correct term for this last ascent. It took one hour to accomplish 500 feet, pausing for breath every minute or two. The only foothold was in narrow cracks or on minute projections on the granite. To get a toe in these cracks, or here and there on a scarcely obvious projection, while crawling on hands and knees, all the while tortured with thirst and gasping and struggling for breath, this was the climb; but at last the Peak was won. A grand, well-defined mountain-top it is, a nearly level acre of boulders, with precipitous sides all round, the one we came up being the only accessible one.

We placed our names, with the date of ascent, in a tin within a crevice, and descended to the Ledge, sitting on the smooth granite, getting our feet into cracks and against projections, and letting ourselves down by our hands, Jim going before me, so that I might steady my feet against his powerful shoulders. I was no longer giddy, and faced the precipice of 3500 feet without a shiver. Repassing the Ledge and Lift, we accomplished the descent through 1500 feet of ice and snow, with many falls and bruises, but no worse mishap, and there separated, the young men taking the steepest but most direct way to the Notch, with the intention of getting ready for the march home, and Jim and I taking what he thought the safer route for me - a descent over boulders for 2000 feet, and then a tremendous ascent to the " Notch." I had various falls, and once hung by my frock, which caught on a rock, and Jim severed it with his hunting-knife, upon which I fell into a crevice full of soft snow. We were driven lower down the mountains than he had intended by impassable tracts of ice, and the ascent was tremendous. For the last 200 feet the boulders were of enormous size, and the steepness fearful. Sometimes I drew myself up on hands and knees, sometimes crawled; sometimes Jim pulled me up by my arms or a lariat, and sometimes I stood on his shoulders, or he made steps for me of his feet and hands, but at six we stood on the Notch in the splendour of the sinking sun, all colour deepening, all peaks glorifying, all shadows purpling, all peril past.

(5) Isabella Bird, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879)

The scene of the drive is at a height of 7500 feet, watered by two rapid rivers. On all sides mountains rise to an altitude of from 11,000 to 15,000 feet, their skirts shaggy with pitch-pine forests, and scarred by deep canyons, wooded and boulder-strewn, opening upon the mountain pasture previously mentioned. Two thousand head of half-wild Texan cattle are scattered in herds throughout the canyons, living on more or less suspicious terms with grizzly and brown bears, mountain lions, elk, mountain sheep, spotted deer, wolves, lynxes, wild cats, beavers, minks, skunks, chipmonks, eagles, rattlesnakes, and all the other two-legged, four-legged, vertebrate and invertebrate inhabitants of this lonely and romantic region. On the whole, they show a tendency rather to the habits of wild than of domestic cattle. They march to water in Indian file, with the bulls leading, and when threatened, take strategic advantage of ridgy ground, slinking warily along in the hollows, the bulls acting as sentinels, and bringing up the rear in case of an attack from dogs. Cows have to be regularly broken in for milking, being as wild as buffaloes in their unbroken state; but, owing to the comparative dryness of the grasses, and the system of allowing the calf to have the milk during the daytime, a dairy of 200 cows does not produce as much butter as a Devonshire dairy of fifty. Some "necessary" cruelty is involved in the stockman's business, however humane he may be. The system is one of terrorism, and from the time that the calf is bullied into the branding-pen, and the hot iron burns into his shrinking flesh, to the day when the fatted ox is driven down from his boundless pastures to be slaughtered in Chicago," the fear and dread of man " are upon him.

(6) Luzena Wilson, Memoirs (1881)

There was not time to note the great natural wonders that lay along the route. Some one would speak of a remarkable valley, a group of cathedral-like rocks, some mineral springs, a salt basin, but we never deviated from the direct route to see them. Once as we halted near the summit of the Rocky Mountains for our "nooning", digging through three or four inches of soil we found a stratum of firm, clear ice, six or eight inches in thickness, covering the whole level space for several acres where our train had stopped. I do not think even yet I have ever heard a theory accounting for the strange sheet of ice lying hard and frozen in mid-summer three inches below the surface.

(7) Jedediah Smith, letter to William Clark (11th October, 1827)

About the 22nd of August, 1826, I left the Great Salt Lake, accompanied with a party of fifteen men, for the purpose of exploring the country to the south west, which was then entirely unknown to me, and of which I could obtain no satisfactory information, from the Indians who inhabit the country on its north east borders. My general course on leaving the Lake, was S.W. and W., passing the Little Uta Lake, and ascending Ashley's River, which empties into it, where we found a nation of Indians, calling themselves Sumpatch, who were friendly disposed towards us.

After leaving the Little Uta Lake, I found no further sign of Buffalo - there were, however, a few of the Antelope and Mountain Sheep, and an abundance of Black Tailed Hares. Leaving Ashley's River, I passed over a range of mountains, S.E. and N.W., and struck a river, running SW, which I named Adams River, in compliment to our President. The water of the river is of a muddy cast, and somewhat brackish. The country is mountainous to the east, and on the west are detached rocky hills and sandy plains. Passing down this river some distance, I fell in with a nation of Indians, calling themselves Pa Utches. These Indians, as well as the Sumpatch, wear robes made of rabbet skins; they raise corn and pumpkins, on which they principally subsist - except a few hares, very little game of any description is to be found. About ten days march further down, the river turns to the SE, where, on the SW of it, there is a remarkable cave, the entrance to which is about ten or fifteen feet high, and five or six feet in width: after descending about fifteen feet, it opens into a large and spacious room, with the roof, walls and floor of solid rock salt, (a piece of which I send you, with some other articles which will be hereafter described.) I followed Adams river two days travel further, where it empties into the Seeds Keeder, which I crossed and went a south course down it, through a barren, rocky and mountainous country. In this river are many shoals and rapids. Further down, a valley opens, from five to fifteen miles in width. The land on the river bank is fertile and timbered. I here found another tribe of Indians, who call themselves Ammuchiebes. They cultivate the soil, and raise corn, beans, pumpkins and mellons in abundance, and also a little wheat and cotton. I was now nearly destitute of horses, and had learned what it was to do without food; I therefore concluded to remain here fifteen days, to recruit my men; and in the mean time, succeeded in changing my few remaining horses, and was enabled to purchase others, from a party of runaway Indians, who had stolen them from the Spaniards. I here obtained some information respecting the Spanish country - obtained two guides - recrossed the Seeds Keeder, and travelled a west course fifteen days, over a country of complete barrens, and frequently travelling from morning until night without water. Crossed a salt plain eight miles wide and twenty long. On the surface of the ground is a crust of white salt, underneath is a layer of yellow sand, and beneath the sand a few inches, the salt again appears. The river Seeds Keeder, I have since learned, empties itself into the Gulf of California, about 80 miles from the Amuchiebes and is there called the Colorado.

I afterwards arrived at a river, which I named (after a tribe of Indians residing on its banks) Wim-mel-che. I found here a few beaver and elk, deer and antelopes in abundance. I made a small hunt, and then attempted, with my party, to cross Mount Joseph, and join my partners at the Great Salt Lake. In this, however, I was disappointed. I found the snow so deep on the mountain, that my horses could not travel. Five of my horses having already perished for want of food, I was compelled to return to the valley. Here leaving my party, I set out on the 20th May, accompanied by two men, and taking with us seven horses and two mules, which were laden with hay, and provisions for ourselves, and in eight days we succeeded in crossing Mount Joseph, with the loss of only two horses and one mule. The snow on the top of this mountain, was from four to eight feet deep, but so solid that our horses only sunk into it from six to twelve inches.

After travelling twenty days from the east side of Mount Joseph, I struck the SW corner of the Great Salt Lake. The country between the mountain and this Lake, is completely barren, and entirely destitute of game. We frequently travelled two days, without water, over sandy deserts, where no sign of vegetation was to be seen. In some of the rocky hills we found water, and occasionally small bands of Indians, who appeared the most miserable of the human race. They were entirely naked, and subsisted upon grass seeds, grasshoppers, fee. On arriving at the Great Salt Lake, we had but one horse and one mule remaining, and they so poor, they could scarcely carry the little camp equipage we had with us. The balance of the horses we were compelled to eat as they gave out.

(8) Joaquin Miller and his family joined a wagon train to Oregon in the 1860s. He wrote about it in his autobiography, Overland in a Covered Wagon (1930)

The next camp was in the South Pass, so named by Fremont, who had set up a cairn of stones here; the summit of Rocky Mountains. The flying snow fell in our faces as we looked away... toward the setting sun. It seemed to us all, weary as we were, that the rest of the way must be down hill to the vast ocean. Our camp was by the Pacific Springs. We were now drinking of the waters that flowed to the mighty ocean! What exultation! What glory and achievement!

At Salt Lake, a beautiful city and the scene of honest industry, we rested long, sold some worn-out cattle, the carriage and the two horses; keeping one for mother and baby. We three little fellows had learned to walk well; and walk we did now all the time; all but Jimmy, who had to sleep some each day in the wagon. We, joined with others, built a raft of dead cottonwood logs and crossed cold, swift. Green River on a raft.

(9) Robert Louis Stevenson, Across the Plains (1899)

To cross such a plain is to grow homesick for the mountains. I longed for the Black Hills of Wyoming, which I knew we were soon to enter, like an ice-bound whaler for the spring. Alas! and it was a worse country than the other. All Sunday and Monday we travelled through these sad mountains, or over the main ridge of the Rockies, which is a fair match to them for misery of aspect. Hour after hour it was the same unhomely and unkindly world about our onward path; tumbled boulders, cliffs that drearily imitate the shape of monuments and fortifications - how drearily, how tamely, none can tell who has not seen them; not a tree, not a patch of sward, not one shapely or commanding mountain form; sage-brush, eternal sage-brush; over all, the same weariful and gloomy colouring, grays warming into brown, grays darkening into black; and for sole sign of life, here and there a few fleeing antelopes; here and there, but at incredible intervals, a creek running in a canon.

(10) Elinore Pruitt Stewart, letter to Mrs. Coney (12th September, 1914)

The air is so bracing that we all feel equal to anything. Mr. Struble has already killed a fine "spike" elk for camp eating. We camped in a bunch, and we have camp stoves so that in case of rain or snow we can stay indoors. Just now we have a huge camp fire around which we sit in the evening, telling stories, singing, and eating nuts of the pinon pine. Then too the whole country is filled with those tiny little strawberries. We have to gather all day to get as much as we can eat, but they are delicious. Yesterday we had pie made of wild currants; there are a powerful lot of them here. There is also a little blueberry that the men say is the Rocky Mountain huckleberry. The grouse are feeding on them. Altogether this is one of the most delightful places imaginable. The men are not very anxious to begin hunting. A little delay means cooler weather for the meat. It is cool up here, but going back across the desert it will be warm for a while yet. Still, when they see elk every day it is a great temptation to try a shot.