Newhouse’s Book

The following are notes from a book published close to the final years of the traditional trapper-explorer experience.  Ironically, this book came out of one of the most urban of cities in the States, New York.   This book, S. Newhouse’s The Trappers Guide; A Manual of Instructions for Capturing all kinds of Fur-bearing animals, and curing their skins… (1869), details the life of trappers.

For those into learning about the life of trapping, Newhouse’s book is rich in details, although it is not a good reference for accuracy if required for a particular time frame.  Newhouse’s book was published during a revival period in trapper history.  With the Civil War over and people back to their traditional way of living, some of the nostalgia of the pre-war years came back due to the surviving grandparents and great grandparents in a family.  In Oregon, the post-bellum period experienced a revival in Indian doctor medicine, a form of medicine common to those not into regular medicine during the 1820s and 1830s, and perhaps earlier. 

During the late 1800s, the trapper’s way of medicine remained a rural skill and way of living, although the distance of these rural settings from society had diminished greatly.  All available wilderness settings were in some way surrounded by civilization.  It wasn’t like the early 1800s, when you could head in a single direction for days, weeks and even months, and not see a human soul if you were willing to engage in such a journey.  From 1870 onward, the remaining wilderness was being penetrated by the railroads.  Large companies willing to invest in significantly large parcels of land hoped to find the next copper, silver or even gold mine.   Other entrepreneurs looked for regions absent of civilization for the purposes of leveling any remaining forests still standing.  A few were even interested in oil.  

Newhouse’s book is perhaps the last authentic trapping book written for a profession not yet extinct.  In just a decade or two, the trapper’s life would be more a part of big business and the wilderness like behaviors of a trapper strangely merged with the industrialization of any industries that made use of trapper’s skills for hire or wares for the industry.   

According to Newhouse, an idealized impression leads us to imagine a trapper as someone who makes use of the local roots, berries and nuts for food, and the local bark, resins, roots, and sometimes entire plants for medicines.   One of the book’s co-writers, T.L. Pitt, gives a description of boat construction, and mentions bark canoes, dugouts made from Pine and Cottonwood, Spruce Bark canoes with bark joined by Pitch, and the construction of Bateaux.   For shelters, this book mentions the use of wood to make shanties, as well as lean-tos and several other kinds of abodes.   Concerning the use of traps, the authors tell us that trappers rely most heavily on the Native American traditions, recommending “a wolf trap should be well rubbed with the green leaves of the male fern or brake when they are to be had…”  This use of the fern served to give the trap an earthy smell, ridding it of the smell of trappers: “the human smell evaporates off with fern juice.”   For dedicated trappers, the Skunk Cabbage is also mentioned for similar use in hiding odors.

Other uses for plants by natives and trappers included the use of boughs of pine and other evergreens to cover the traps, the use of willow sticks to make a trap, and “Moosewood bark” is suggested to make ropes.  For natural lighting, Pitt recommended “Fat pine” or “pine that is full of pitch,”  found as the knots and roots of fallen trees, and birch bark torches for lighting the fishing grounds along mountain streams at night.  Whereas food typically consisted of common vegetables and meats like fish or pork fritters, with a potato-, wheat-, or rye-based batter, Newhouse notes “boiled Indian meal might do.”

The trapper made no use of Tannins for preparing hides, a trait shared by Native Americans in their leather treatment methods.   The writer instead suggested that the trapper “avoid putrefaction” when preparing his skins, by skinning the “critters” and drying their pelts as soon as possible.  The use of stretcher frames were recommended for this stage in preparing the hide.

A final important use for plants mentioned was to combat swarms of insects.  The author recommended that hog’s lard be blended with Oil of Pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides), although the common locally-occuring “Wild Mint” (Mentha arvensis) may have been used as well.  Of the mint oils he notes, “applied once in an hour or less, to the parts exposed, will give entire protection.”    

These are of course observations made by authors fairly late in the history of this occupation.  But they serve as examples of practices we expect to see in a decent trapper related reference, journal or diary.   This book is too brief in terms of any details of in medicine. 

All in all, very few good references exist for learning about trapper medicine.  There are some retrospective works out there worthy of review, but at times their claims are in need of authentification.  The problem with looking a medicine throughout the entire trapper period is that medicine underwent a number of major philosophical changes during this time.  The trapper was for the most part a naturalist in his way of thinking about preventing disease.  When the weather is bad retreat.  When the weather is good, stay out of the sun unless you’ve got enough water.  If there are too many mosquitoes in the swamp that you’re setting your traps in, make sure you got plenty of bear fat to put on your and perhaps some wild mint.  Whereever there are rattlers, stand clear of them, unless of course you were planning to have some for supper. 

One of the best examples of a diary or series of notes kept by a government informant and cognisance  working in Canada during the 1790s (see notes on Isham, Hudson Bay Company).

The Trappers Guide; A Manual of Instructions for Capturing all kinds of Fur-bearing animals, and curing their skins… 3ed.  Edited by Oneida Community.  New York: Oakley, Mason & Co., 1869.

Ibid.  pp. 126-130.

p. 113.   

Ibid. pp. 155 and 120.

Ibid. see “Fishing in Autumn and Winter.” T.L. Pitt. p. 108.

Ibid. p. 119.

Ibid.  Chapter III, “Curing Skins” pp. 79-83.

Ibid. Chap. IV, “Life in the Woods”, p. 91.