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nd the Mountain Men

Lived: in the 1800s
Explored California in: 1829-1848
Exploring for: United States
Explored: by land throughout California

Americans in the United States in the 1820s knew little about what lay beyond the towering Rocky Mountains and the desert areas of the Great Basin. They knew even less about the Mexican province of Alta (Upper) Californi a further west, on the other side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. A few Americans had gone to California by a sea route, and some reports had come back to the east coast. This raised American’s interest in California.

In 1826 Jedediah Smith found routes across the Mohave Desert in the southern part of California and across the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the north. He was followed by other fur trappers and traders. They were known as Mountain Men because they spent years exploring and living in wilderness areas.


Ewing Young was born about 1792 in Tennessee. He was one of the first American fur trappers to enter California across the southern overland route from Arizona. Before this, Young had been a trapper and trader in New Mexico.

Young’s exploration of California began in 1829 when he and a party of about 40 trappers left Taos (New Mexico) to hunt for beaver. This party included young Christopher “Kit” Carson, who became a famous scout. Young’s group crossed the Colorado River and followed the dry bed of the Mohave River to the San Bernardino Mountains. From Mission San Gabriel near Los Angeles Young traveled up the San Joaquin Valley, exploring and trapping.

Young sold his furs to a ship captain on the California coast. He then bought a herd of horses and mules and drove them back to New Mexico to sell. He tried this again in 1831-32, trapping in the San Joaquin Valley while his partner, David Jackson, took the horses to New Mexico.

After a try at hunting sea otters off the California coast, Young journeyed north through central California and settled in Oregon, where he became a successful wheat farmer. He died in 1841. Young’s contribution to the exploration of California was his improvement of part of the Old Spanish Trail and the trail north into Oregon.


James Ohio Pattie was born in Kentucky about 1804, and moved to Missouri when he was young. His father, Sylvester, was a fur trapper and James went with him on trapping expeditions in the southwest. In 1828, the Patties and a group of trappers made a journey into California.

The route taken by Pattie’s party was across the Colorado River into southwestern California. They then circled down into Baja (Lower) California, coming back north to San Diego. This was a difficult route through harsh deserts where finding water was a constant problem.

In San Diego, James Pattie was put in jail by the Mexican officials. According to the story he told later, he was released when a smallpox epidemic hit the area. He said he had vaccine with which he inoculated people to protect them from the disease. Historians doubt that this was true. However, James Pattie then traveled by land from San Diego to Santa Barbara, visiting the Spanish missions. From there he took a ship to Monterey and went on through San Francisco to Fort Ross, on the northern California coast.

Pattie left California in 1830 and went back to Kentucky. He wrote about his adventures in The Personal Narrative of James O. Pattie, published in 1831. While much of the book was not true, it did awaken many people’s interest in California.


Peter Skene Ogden was born in 1790 in Quebec City, Canada. The Ogdens had moved from New York to Canada during the American Revolution.

Ogden worked for the North West Company and later the Hudson’s Bay Company as a trapper and leader of expeditions. Much of his travel was in the Pacific Northwest. He first entered California in 1826, coming from Oregon into the lava beds of northeastern California. From here he saw Mount Shasta, the first recorded sighting.

In 1829-30, Ogden traveled south from Oregon through Nevada, along the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada. His party reached the Colorado River at the southern tip of Nevada. They then turned west into California and the Mohave Desert, crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains through what is now Tehachapi Pass.

Now Ogden and his men made their way up the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, exploring and mapping rivers and mountains all the way to Oregon. This was Ogden’s last trip to California. He spent the next years in Alaska and the Northwest, and died in Oregon in 1854. The trails he opened into California were used by many who came to hunt for gold in 1849.


James Beckwourth was probably born in Virginia in 1798, the son of a Revolutionary War officer and slave owner. It is likely that James’ mother was a slave woman. The family moved west and James grew up along the Missouri River. In 1823 he joined the Rocky Mountain Fur Company as a hunter and trapper.

For the next twenty years, Beckwourth spent most of his time in the mountains as a trapper and scout. He lived for some years with the Crow Indians, who made him their chief. Beckwourth first came to California in 1835 with Thomas “Peg-Leg” Smith on a raid to steal horses from the ranchos. He was there again in 1839-40 and from 1844-46.

When the California gold rush began in 1848, Beckwourth joined the crowd. He was looking for gold in what is now Plumas County when he discovered a pass through the Sierra Nevada. He built a road through the pass and led a wagon train of immigrants into California in August 1851. Now called Beckwourth Pass, this route is a California highway.

Beckwourth left California in 1859. He lived in Colorado until his death in 1866.

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