., from, Mountain Men and the Fur Trade site, courtesy members of the American Mountain Men




What do we expect to see when we look at a trapper’s journal?

We expect a journal that is going to demonstrate some sort of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.  One could say ‘A trapper has no one to depend upon beside his gun as his best friend and his knife as the only housekeeper.’  Evidence suggests Osborn Russell had neither of these.

This is probably a let down to some of the strong-hearted trappers out there who like to attend their annual meetings in Pueblo, Colorado.  But most of the evidence suggests to me that Osborne Russell had limited knowledge on what the true trapper lifestyle consisted of.  He could have been a trapper who was so tied to his household tradition that he never really removed himself from the essentials of residing in a secured dwelling, meaning he may have ventured out in the fields and woods on jaunts with the goal of roughing it for at least a night or two, or perhaps even a week or month, but never long enough to miss that soup that was cooking at home or the eggs, potatoes, corn and cooked ham and beef that sat on the table each morning and night.  That essential knowledge Russell should have had as a trapper is missing from his diary.  He makes no mention of any of the wild plants, with the exception of one using the generic title “poison roots.”   He couldn’t even tell us if it was an arum with oxalates, an ivy with an oil sheen on the leaves, a terrible heart stopper of a leaf, or a plant that looked too much like the rattles of snake, enough to scare anyone away who was a trapper with minimal experience.   It is likely that Osborne Russell had with him the essential of a rugged outdoors lifestyle, with a little extra whiskey to make the nights seem less cold, the darkest nights less fearful, the harshest storms more tolerable.   Unfortunately for Russell, he forgot to bring with him that typical field book to plants and mushrooms that others before him like Lewis and Clark dragged along during their journey.

On and off over the past several decades there have been numerous adventurers travelling westward through the rugged wilderness just to take on nature at its best and worst of states.  To engage in this you simply had to study a little bit before leaving, learn a little about the kind of journey you were going to take, even learn the route’s most important and least important geographical markers, in order to know just how far you have made it through your journey so far, and when this journey which is not as fun as you had hoped it would be was finally over.

This commentary I am composing is not with the intention of disenchanting anyone very much into trappers and trapper Russell’s adventures, it is  simply meant to set the path straight for those who are reviewing Russell as one of many lifestyles they would like to learn more about.  If you want to be a trapper, then perhaps it is best learn the life of a true trapper.  I would suggest you turn to the two-volume set composed by explorer David Douglass about 1824, or the works of any other trapper who provides us with evidence of this kind of traditional lifestyle with the types of food he ate and medicines he learned about.  Russell’s writings remind me of another trapper’s book out there deserving equal respect from experts in this field–the 1869 Trapping Book printed in New York and probably composed by someone sitting in one of the coffee houses just opened in downtown Manhattan, with Washington Irving by his side to answer any questions about the local folklore of rugged territories, and transcendentalist Emerson in order to add a few insights between the lines about just what the wilderness beheld for those who were truly out there alone, without a scout to guide you and a servant to carry your personal belongings.  In terms of west coast history, Russell’s writings are akin to the Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California by Lanford Hastings, which included details about an experience along an overland pass that did not exist, writings which resulted in the tragedy associated with the Donner’s Party.

Lansford Hastings, a lawyer and land speculator, is forever tied to the Donner Party's demise.

Lanford Hastings

To me, a trapper is someone who has a name for “poison roots”, and knows a little bit more about indigenous medicine than simply nothing.   A trapper should know how these poisons may be beneficial to you as a hunter and trapper, and how they could be used to seek revenge on a local Native American encampment who stole your last heaping of pelts.  A trapper should be able to provide details about the salve that is recommended.  Even a housewife knows how to produce a salve.  Was it composed of deer fat (hog fat and lard would most certainly not be there), or a base made of pine sap which you called ‘turpentine’?  Isn’t there more to your materia medica than just the castoreum and beaver’s oil, two medicines originating from the Baltic and therefore more likely Russian in origin?  And why the mention of issues?  This is not at all Native American in tradition, although fortunately it is one of these few things you needn’t much of anything completely local to use in producing this method of treatment.    The use of issues means that you make this little wax-like bead or ball with a resin or oil in the base, to which are added ingredients that burn your flesh and help to beep you skin open–you do this in order to flush out the rest of the pus and serum still sitting in your swollen abcess, becoming more yellow and greenish with each day you don’t apply your irritating concoction more than likely made by an apothecary back east.  The simple applciations of a warm and moist compress soaked in the basic tea of raspberry leaves and any of several dozen tree twigs or barks would have been less irritating, and less likely to expose you to more of the germs that could cause some sort of shock to set in–and kill you out there in the woods.  No wonder Russell probably had someone out there to assist him in his journey to the Far West.  He couldn’t even trust his own medicine.  He was not an Indian-like trapper at all this means.

The following is a brief listing of what few medicines I found Osborne Russell’s writings.  It is followed by a short analysis I did of this work quite a few years ago:

    • Beaver’s Oil
    • Castor[e]um.
    • Issues
    • “Poison Roots”
    • Salt Water
    • Salve

If we compare Russell’s writings with those of other trappers, in particular some of the early scouts and such associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company, we see an obvious difference between trapper medicine and the medicine of a traceller who calls himself a trapper.  Due to Russell’s later in life as a politician, we can tell this type of journeying was more vocation-related.  Russell’s plans must havebeen to improve his relations with the public by engaging in this trip, since he planned to run for some government position.  It was the “fad” for the time to engage in journey and travels through the wilderness, a popular culture that rose to its peak from 1825 to 1850, only to be replaced in the end by the growing popularity of heading west by wagon trains.  Even in the Hudson’s Bay documents we find true trappers, who can barely write a single word spelled correctly about what they are doing, versus the explorers, merchandisers, and “spys” who are more British than they should be–untrained in the survival skills of a mountain man or metis.  Russell is like these individuals.


Most of Russell’s writings about medicine suggests he had a rheumatic knee, and this may have been the only medical problem he had to deal with during his trips through the woods.

It can be assumed that trappers who say little about the French Canadian, Metis or Native American uses of plants most likely were also ignorant about their own potential uses for them.  They were therefore most likely relying upon the English prescribed health care, which consisted of the surgical blade, the bloodletting lancet, the issues, and some opium gum, cinchona bark, and colocynth, to name a few purely European remedies.  This same limited use of plant medicines is seen with Lewis and Clark, who were more comfortable using whatever Benjamin Rush had prescribed to them rather than take the opportunity to try something else.  There is mention of an edible rootstock they may have once found or the recipe they made out of local, unmistakable Pine Pitch combined with Basilicon Ointment.

Trapper Osborne Russell tries giving his readers the sense that he knew his plants and animals, as any trapper should.  But such was not the case.  Russell resembles more an employee for the North-West or Hudson Bay’s Company, hooked on those products he grew up with.  His cant towards relying upon original wildcrafted remedies is just not there.  Moreover, based on his thinking and philosophy, his writings reflect the word of someone who is more like a trader travelling about Hudson’s Bay, than a traditional trapper rich in survival knowledge about the wilderness.

Supporting my claim that Russell was too unfamiliar with his surrounding are his notes made on the flora, what few of these notes in fact exist.  This tells me that Osborne Russell was not “in touch” with the wild plants and their uses, and perhaps even that he avoided them for the most part.  For example he notes the term “poison Roots” for a plant because he is uncertain of its name.  This may have been one of two poison hemlocks growing along the water edge (Cicuta spp. and Conium spp.).  These plants are very identifiable due to their resemblances to parsley.   And there were several other toxic plants resembling Wild Parsnip, such as Aethusa, which had similar toxicities he would have had to know were he an authentic trapper.  One might easily ask: could Russell have even eaten an arum root by mistake?, not knowing that he would experience the numbness and tingling of the tongue from miscooking this “wild potato”.  Based on his lack of notes about plants, it seems Russell would have probably been the last to try and dig up a root crop or large man-of-the-earth for supper.  Doing so was too much work.  Why engage in this when your team has brought with them plenty of bags of flour or an adequate supply of grain crops and beef jerky thereby providing you with your staples?

The same goes for the use of local medicines by Osborne Russell.  HE lacked both the knowledge and the experience of using local wild plant remedies.  There are just three medicines that Russell note–Beaver’s Oil, Castoreum and Salve.  None of these are traditional domestic plant derived remedies, and could just be European medicines, which of course were of British colonial influence.

For this reason, I expect Russell to know only a little about and/or make mention of the use of some sort of compress remedy made from plant leaves or bark.  Even this simple therapy for the most common wounds at hand lack any detailed evidence about their use in Russell’s writings.  Russell possibly didn’t want to chew up some leaves or a wad of tobacco and then spit this onto his cuts or apply gunpowder to his bruises and swellings, like true trappers did.  He used the old fashioned Hudsons bay Company staple–a salve of beavers oil and castoreum (a beaver’s glands secretion associated with mating).  I expect his to use cinchona or Peruvian bark for his fevers, not experiment with Oregon Grape or even apply the most popular and renowned medicinal plant of the country due to its use as a substitute in the Revolutionary War, eastern dogwood (Cornus florida), for treating his fevers.

French Canadian trappers residing close to the Cree were familiar with Veronica.  Russell was not.  Even East Coast and Midwest trappers know and make mention of the western species of Rocky Mountain Cleome, Croton and Jacob’s Ladder.  Russell does not.

The following are Russell’s few remedies and medicines providing us with scarce bits and pieces about his limited knowledge and insights into trapper medicine.

Beaver’s Oil

Russell, p. 105

Used to bathe his sore knee in, following arrow penetration.

The exact definition is uncertain for the moment.  Presumably beaver fat cooked down to a liquid state after the floating debris and animal matter is decanted off.

Added to Castoreum and the mixed in salt water to produce a salve.

See Salve.


Russell, p. 150

Equivalent to musk obtained from Alpine Asiatic Deer (Moschus moschiferus and other spp.), a scented fluid emitted by Beaver (Castor sp.)  Collected by trappers for use in concealing body odor, and for selling to the markets for use in perfumes and medications.

See Salve.


The issues was a pea-like pill, rolled by hand, and was meant to be inserted in swollen infected areas to allow the humours to issue out (later discovered to be pus due to contagion).  See Osborn’s Materia Medica for more exact details on the issue pea.

“Poison Roots”

 Russell, p. 124

A plant from which Malade or Sick River, as noted in the Journal, got its name.  Possibly Water Hemlock (Conium maculatum) or Water Parsnip (Oenothera sp.).  Russell claims the beaver fed on this taproot.  Since Russell notes no deaths due to the root, perhaps it was not Conium but rather Cicuta maculatum or Camassia sp.  The stomachache and cramps suggest the latter.

Salt Water

Russell, p. 108

Used to bathe his sore knee in, following arrow penetration.


 Russell, pp. 103-108

Used to treat an injury and subsequent infection which set in due to a penetrating arrow injury.  He had been in direct hand-contact with raw meat just before and after.

Following this injury, he began experiencing an infection, swelling, soreness, and a stiff, swollen knee joint.

Ingredients mentioned on p. 105:  Beaver’s Oil and Castoreum, then mixed in salt water to produce a salve.

Russell notes: “I had bathed my wounds in Salt water and made a salve of Beavers Oil and Castoreum which I applied to them  This had eased the pain and drawn out the swelling in a great measure.”  With this statement he is eluding to perhaps a counterirritant-like effect and/or a reduction of swelling by drawing out excess fluid with the help of the salt water.

Since his knee joint continued to swell and became stiff suggests that an infection set in, later requiring the use of seton or issues.

He suffered “miner’s rheumatism” during his later years (around 1884), perhaps due to his history of infection of his joint space.  [see page xv of text.]

See Issues/Seton.


Around 1800-1830, infections were still poorly understood and at times a physician also trained in surgery would actually remove a scar due to its unnatural looking, granulomatous nature, rather than leave it be so it could complete the healing process.   Once the healing process was better understood, physicians developed the seton, a thread, wire, or piece of bandage material that was through the tissues just beneath the skin and/or through the nearby cyst in order to provide a route for the infection to travel through.  This resulted in the formation of a sinus or fistula, which if it did not fully heal and close-up had to be slit open again to allow the area to heal from deep inside the flesh outwards.


The following notes detail Russell’s medical experiences (p. 103-8)

Osborne Russell’s journal gives us some insight into the life of a regular trapper whose healing faith was dedicated to the beliefs of the English.  One sign of Russell’s dedication to the British medics was his lack of mention of much about the natural resources he had at hand during his expeditions.  Nearly all of the medicines he uses display a limited awareness of the surrounding flora, and the emphases placed on traditional colonial cures instead of traditional native cures.

Russell makes use of the issues, a trait borne primarily by the European healing tradition.  The purpose of the issue was to open a swollen area, usually a joint, where pus was formed, in order to allow that pus to exit the joint space.  In old-fashioned colonial thinking, this healing method took place in order to rid the boy of the bad humours contained within the infected joint capsule.  Centuries later, this healing method came to be redefined as an attempt made to rid the body of an infection.  To perform the issues, Russell and other regular healers made use of issue peas.

Russell’s other chief mention of medicine pertained to an arrow injury he had sustained.  He made use of Beaver’s Oil and Castoreum to bathe his sore knee in following this injury.  The beaver fat he refers to was cooked down to a liquid state, to which was then added Castoreum and then a little salt water mixed in to produce a salve.  The Castor or Castoreum is that part of this animal considered equivalent to musk of an Alpine Asiatic Deer (Moschus moschiferus and other spp.), and is a scented fluid emitted by Beaver (Castor sp.)  It was also collected by trappers for use in concealing body odor.  Throughout colonial history it was sold to the markets for use in perfumes and medicines.

Following his initial treatment of this injury, Russell began experiencing an infection, swelling, soreness, and a stiff, swollen knee joint, of which he remarks:

“I had bathed my wounds in Salt water and made a salve of Beavers Oil and Castoreum which I applied to them  This had eased the pain and drawn out the swelling in a great measure.”

With this statement he is eluding to perhaps a counterirritant-like effect and/or a reduction of swelling by drawing out excess fluid with the help of the salt water.

Since his knee joint continued to swell and became stiff, this suggests that an infection set in, later requiring the use of seton or issues.

Russell suffered from “miner’s rheumatism” during his later years (around 1884), perhaps due to his history of infection of his joint space.  [see page xv of text.]

Other trappers gave much more detailed renderings of their reliance on native plants.