Williams is referring to his trusty .50 caliber Hawken, which mountaineers were partial to back in the days of yore. Jeremiah Johnson, a real-life mountain man portrayed by Robert Redford in a 1972 movie, packed a Hawken 50, but only about 200 were made.
“Probably the best rifle you could have had back in that time,” Williams said.
A ranger at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, he has fired his formidable Hawken at National Park Service historic weapons training. The big-bore rifle didn’t kick too hard, he said.
Most other mountain men were stuck with Northwest Trade Guns, the same muzzle-loaders they traded to Native Americans for goods, Williams said. At Bighorn Canyon, Williams delivers mountain man campfire talks. Folks come to see him fire his Hawken, he said.
The rifles played an important role, since the life of a mountain man was fraught with danger.
Of course there were grizzly bears to contend with and some tribes didn’t cotton to white intruders, especially the Blackfoot, who were staunch defenders of their territory, Williams said.
A buck-naked John Colter, of Lewis and Clark fame, ran for his life when hundreds of raging Blackfoot pursued him in 1806. Colter made a hasty retreat.
Later, he visited Yellowstone. He reported finding boiling hot springs and other geothermal wonders only to be scorned. His claims were lampooned as “Colter’s Hell,” Williams said.
An area of hot springs and fumarole dubbed Colter’s Hell, located north of U.S. Highway 14-16-20 on the west side of Cody, commemorates the old mountaineer. In addition, Powell named one of its main thoroughfares for Colter, although it added a “u” to his name for some reason.
Jim Bridger, another famous mountain man, was the first white man to survive and document floating the perilous Big Horn Canyon in 1825. “They had to be pretty tough,” Williams said.
Mountain men were a scruffy-looking lot living off the land.
“You had to be an outdoor dog more than an indoor dog,” Williams said.
Some mountain men simply vanished in the thin mountain air.
“Bill Williams disappeared and they never did see him again,” Williams said.
Many mountain men hailed from Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri, while some came from Canada. The fur trading glory years were 1807-30. Many worked for little more than minimum wage while the fur companies pocketed prodigious profits. “They raked in all the money,” Williams said.
The mountaineers attended rendezvous, where fur companies marked up equipment by 2,000 percent. There was much gambling and drinking at the gatherings, and Williams said the 10 biggest were held in what is now Wyoming every year.
The mountain men lived for the moment, often trading their hard-earned furs for items they didn’t really need. Mountain men didn’t get rich, but were partial to their vocation.
“I guess they were unique individuals,” Williams said.