The Mountain Man Archetype

The Role of Frontier Wilderness in the American Psyche


by Laura Strudwick

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before. –Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

John Johnston, aka “Crow Killer” and “Liver-Eating” Johnson, c. 1822-1900.

Robert Redford as title character in the film Jeremiah Johnson, based on the biography of John Johnston titled Crow Killer:  The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson

            The Mountain Men, those rugged, wild individuals who stepped first into the frontier territory of the American West, live on as symbols of an important archetype still functioning in the American psyche. John Johnston’s colorful life (c. 1822-1900) serves as a prototype for the Mountain Man archetype. His legend is particularly accessible because of the meticulously researched biography Crow Killer:  The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson, researched by Raymond W. Thorp and co-written by Robert Bunker. In addition to that source, reported principally by Johnston’s partner “Del” Gue, a first-hand witness to his exploits, the historical fiction novel Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher and the 1972 film Jeremiah Johnson are based on John Johnston’s life story as told in Crow Killer. Of the approximately 990 mountain men, or free trappers, who lived in the frontier zone in the mid-nineteenth century (Slotkin 413), John Johnston’s legend is the most complete, accurate record of a mountain man’s life, with some tall tale telling, but also with corroborations from multiple eyewitnesses and historically documented sources. Through the lens of Johnston’s life legend, the Mountain Man archetype comes into vigorous focus. This archetypal figure chooses to live in the frontier zone, a physical but also psychological borderland at civilization’s edge, and through extended contact with this wilderness, he develops quite an ambivalent relationship with nature, personified by the Indians in John Johnston’s case. The contemporary American psyche has a similar relationship with frontiers, both physical and psychological, that informs its relationship with nature.

            The idea of a frontier carries multiple connotations, with widely varying definitions among scholars, perhaps because the frontier itself symbolizes simultaneous connections and open possibilities. Thomas D. Hall, in the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, discusses the concept at length. A frontier is a moveable zone, rather than a fixed boundary. Traditionally, the physical frontier “refers to a historical boundary between expanding European settlements and indigenous settlements. [. . .] This usage has often been generalized to any sort of border zone or borderland between different sets of people coming in contact” (Hall 238). A frontier is a fuzzy territory, not a sharp line; it is a liminal space. Most importantly, it is a “zone of contact” where two groups meet and form a relationship (Hall 239).

            Contact with the Other at the frontier zone affects the identities of all those involved. Hall writes that “frontiers are zones of intense interactions, often of several types at the same time” (240); these moments of contact can lead to ethnogenesis, the creation of a new ethnic group, and acculturation, the adoption of the other group’s cultural traits. Frederick Barth’s studies revealed that people crossing ethnic boundaries sometimes changed identity, assimilating that new culture. John Johnston’s identity certainly shifted, which will be discussed below. A frontier is a region full of potential, and it necessarily catalyzes change. Psychologically speaking, a frontier is an open place where the Jungian concept of the transcendent function can occur. Opposites can merge to create a new, third thing. Frederick Jackson Turner, in his seminal 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier,” discusses the European settler’s assimilation with the Indian culture at the frontier zone: 

Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe [. . .]. The fact is, that here is a new product that is American. (33-34)

            Here the pioneer settler’s relationship with the wilderness frontier leads to the creation of a third thing, the first Euro-American settlements of the West. But the Mountain Man came first, and his relationship is of a more primitive nature. Johnston’s relationship with nature and the Indians was filled with opposites and mergers. His goal, however, was not to till the land, but to trap for pelts. Hence the settler and the mountain man are different archetypes.  

            Historian Richard W. Slatta applied the metaphor of membranes to frontiers, thereby expanding the concept beyond the physical definition. Membranes are thick:  “[. . .] they are zones through which objects, people, and ideas may pass” (Hall 240). The membrane metaphor brings the frontier concept closer to a psychological application. From a depth psychological perspective, frontiers exist within each person’s psyche and also within the collective unconscious. The membrane metaphor adds a new dimension to the concept of the psychological frontier; the membrane emphasizes passing through, seeing through, and transformation. If something—even something abstract such as an idea, attitude, or emotion—passes through a membrane, then it will be changed when it emerges at the other side, with a residue or after effect. The Mountain Man’s psyche, however, transformed within the frontier zone, not because he emerged or passed through it. He came from the city, but stayed within the wilderness. The membrane in this case, then, may be an internal one; the free trapper’s extended contact with nature passed into his psyche and initiated him into a deeper identification with the Mountain Man archetype.

            The stories and images of the Wild West remain a deeply rooted, integral myth for Americans, particularly Euro-Americans. Geography, that is, physical nature, enhances the myth with the successive natural boundaries separating North American east from west:  the Appalachian and Allegheny mountains, the Mississippi and Colorado Rivers, the Rocky Mountains, the Cascade Range and Sierra Nevadas, and finally the edge, where the vast Pacific Ocean brushes the West Coast. The physical and spiritual adventure of crossing each of these physical frontiers constitutes one aspect of the myth. Intense contact with the first peoples, the Indians, is another major aspect. On a metaphorical level, though, the interior frontiers crossed, simultaneous with the physical journeys, are what keep the myth alive today. Hall expresses the attraction of the frontier as a metaphor:  “The combination of mystery and danger accompanied by promise and curiosity seem to be at the root of the popularity of the use of frontier [. . .] as a metaphor. In that sense, of course, it is singularly apt for describing or labeling a transition from the known to the unknown” (242). When applying this metaphor psychologically, the journey from known to unknown can be represented by an underworld journey with a psychopomp guide, the night-sea journey, and a trip to the unconscious by way of dreams, visions, or active imagination dialogue, all transitions full of attractive danger and mystery. Ian McCallum extends the metaphor of the wilderness to the soul and implies that Freud and Jung agreed with this metaphor:  “Between them, they tried to make sense of another space, another great wilderness—the human psyche” (70). If one takes wild nature as a symbol of the soul, then the Mountain Man immersed himself in Soul and constantly interacted with the original inhabitants of Soul, who taught him the ways of the soul. With this possibility in mind, the details of the Mountain Man archetype assume a deep psychological meaning.

            The Mountain Man, as mentioned above, plays a different role than the colonist, settler, and frontiersman. Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, for example, were frontiersmen; their intentions were to clear a path for civilization to enter the wilderness. These men were on a conscious heroic quest. The Mountain Man had no such heroic intentions; he merely wanted to trap and roam the wilderness. He was a loner, but he also had a community of other free trappers, and he sometimes had a partner, as Johnston and Gue shared a useful partnership at times. Richard Slotkin’s description of the frontiersman archetype, however, bears close resemblance to the Mountain Man’s, in my opinion:  “The figure and the myth-narrative that emerged from the early Boone literature became archetypal for the American literature that followed:  an American hero is the lover of the spirit of the wilderness, and his acts of love and sacred affirmation are acts of violence against that spirit and her avatars” (22). The Mountain Men did live violently, in order to survive the wilderness.

            Slotkin differentiates the Mountain Man from the frontiersman when he describes Mountain Men as “semibarbaric figures who cut a swath in the popular literature of the nineteenth century. They were usually viewed by the fastidious as filthy white Indians and by the romantic as an heroic, but only temporarily free, alternative to the money-and-status society of the East.” He goes on to conclude, from one study conducted, that the Mountain Men were actually symbols of the Jacksonian desire for upward mobility because many of them did not stay in the mountains through retirement but returned to civilization:  “Thus the Mountain Man was, not an alternative to the money-and-status religion of Jacksonian America, but an idiosyncratic and extreme expression of its values” (Slotkin 413). This reversal of the Mountain Man symbol is unwarranted, considering the lack of evidence for Slotkin’s interpretation and the strong historical evidence in the biography of John Johnston’s life, which also peripherally documents the stories of a network of Mountain Men with whom he was associated. Vardis Fisher, in his introduction to his novel Mountain Man, quotes W. A. Fertis’s Life in the Rocky Mountains on the Mountain Man’s propensity to remain in the wilderness:

A strange, wild, terrible, romantic, hard, and exciting life they lead [. . .] in a harsh, barren, untamed, and fearful region of desert, plain, and mountain. Yet so attached to it do [the mountain men] become that few ever leave it, and they deem themselves, nay are, with all these bars against them, far happier than the in-dwellers of towns and cities, with all the gay and giddy whirl of fashion’s mad delusions in their train . . . . (ii)

Even if the study that Slotkin cites is valid, the Mountain Man myth endures in the American psyche, perhaps romanticized, but definitely based in the actual experiences of these men.     

            The details of John Johnston’s life present an even fuller picture of the quintessential Mountain Man as historical figure, legend, and archetype. Crow Killer opens with a pithy summary of the central episode in Johnston’s life: 

One May morning in 1847, Crow Indians killed and scalped John Johnston’s pregnant [Flathead Indian] wife; for many years thereafter, he killed and scalped Crow Indians. Then he ate their livers, raw. He ate them not for hunger’s sake but upon principle—just what principle, his whole life’s history may suggest. [. . .] He was Dapiek Absaroka, the Killer of Crows. (Thorp and Bunker 21) 

Here the authors quickly explain the origin of his two monikers “Crow Killer” and “Liver-Eating Johnson,” where the “t” was, oddly, dropped from his last name. Thorp and Bunker describe Johnston as strong, surly, uncommunicative, mistrustful, and quick to learn the wilderness ways (21). Like all Mountain Men, he was a fatalist and was therefore detached in his outlook. Slotkin describes the physical and psychological influences of the wilderness on those Europeans who chose to live in it, including Mountain Men like Johnston. Physical factors include “the wildness of the land, its blending of unmitigated harshness and tremendous potential fertility; the absence of strong European cultures on the borders; and the eternal presence of the native people of the woods, dark of skin and seemingly dark of mind, mysterious, bloody, cruel, ‘devil-worshipping.’” Psychological factors correlate with the physical, with a sense of exile at the core:  “the psychological anxieties attendant on the tearing up of home roots for wide wandering outward in space and, apparently, backward in time” (Slotkin 18). Before his wife, the Flathead Indian known as “The Swan,” died, Johnston experienced some of her civilizing influence, a bit of the Hestia home archetype to balance his Ares warrior. But both before he knew her and especially after her death during his vendetta, Johnston’s life was devoid of the feminine principle that might have tamed some of his wild behavior and soul. The devastating circumstances of his wife’s murder helped to shape this wild man’s psyche, alone in the wilderness except for other wild men.

            Johnston’s love/hate relationship with the Indians is symbolic of the Mountain Man archetype’s relationship with Nature herself, particularly in the ways that this archetype functions in the contemporary collective American psyche. Slotkin describes the Indians as symbolic of nature, stating that they appeared to settlers as “the special demonic personification of the American wilderness” (4). Johnston coexisted with the Indians in an atmosphere of mutual respect; his emotional reactions to them ranged from detachment to love to rage and hatred. He loved and married The Swan, and probably would have lived out his days with her and their child in the abandoned settler’s cabin on the mountain, if not for her murder. He respectfully accepted the title of “White Chief of the Shoshoni”:  “Long ago now, some time after securing two Shoshoni scalps from their chief The Fox, Johnson himself had been voted a Shoshoni chief” (Thorp and Bunker 121).

            In contrast, he killed twenty Crow warriors who stalked him on the warpath during his vendetta. Johnston killed each Crow warrior individually, in hand to hand combat, as each one crept up to fight him at different times over fourteen years. Just after Johnston killed the twentieth and last Crow, he and Del Gue had a conversation that completed the elaborate ritual retribution between Johnston, the lone white man, and the Crow Indian community:

“Good God!” said Del. “This’n air number twenty.”

Johnson nodded.

“On yer trail fer ten y’ars!”

“Near fourteen,” Johnson told him.

Struck by the similarity of their thought, the partners fell to discussing the Crows. Even more admirable than Crow hardihood, they agreed, was Crow tenacity. For a warrior to spend so many years away from his family, on such a death trail, was marvelous indeed. The partners spoke of how many times he must surely have hidden near his village, to spy upon his family and watch his children grow. They considered, too, how as one by one the others of the chosen twenty died, loneliness must have come upon him more and more; for three years now there had been no fellow tribesman to whom he could speak. He had grown accustomed, no doubt, to warding off for himself all physical hunger and cold; but the hunger and cold in his soul must have passed all bounds.

It was Del who said, “I’m shore glad that’s over.” [. . .] Quietly [Johnson] cut the twentieth notch in the rosewood handle of his Bowie. (Thorp and Bunker 94)

Johnston respected the Indians and they respected him. Crows believed that the stronger one’s enemy, the stronger the tribe because the strong enemy forced them to fight well. They believed that Johnston’s ferocity and success as a warrior spoke well of their prowess.

And though Johnson did express the generalized contempt of his era in regard to Indians, we shall observe repeatedly his very real respect for the warriors of many tribes. Even as in his heyday he was above all the Killer of Crows, a time did arrive in his terrible vendetta when—in sheer admiration of Crow magnanimity—he ceased his dreadful feuding and became their brother-in-arms. (Thorp and Bunker 23) 

In symbolic terms, this reciprocal, ritual violence between the Nature symbol and the Mountain Man archetype illustrates a duality present in the modern American relationship with nature:  Americans tend to both revere and exploit nature. Psychologically speaking, this pendulum that swings from one extreme opposite to the other suits the psyche’s tendency to work in oppositional pairs. The Mountain Man archetype functions as a mediator between the opposites, especially considering his underlying respect for Nature. This idea is not new; John Filson’s The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke, published 1784, “formulated the myth of the hunter as archetypal American and mediator between civilization and wilderness” (Slotkin 23). Carl Jung emphasizes the need for a balance between wilderness and civilization:  “Too much of the animal distorts the civilized man, too much civilization makes sick animals (CW 7:32)” (Sabini 206). If the Indian in our mythology, as Slotkin asserts, “functions as the image or symbol of the American libido—the primitive source of sexual, conceptual, and creative energy that lies below the level of psychological consciousness and is (according to Jung) the root of creative, religious, and erotic inspiration,” then it is absolutely necessary to cultivate a connection between the wild and the civilized within the psyche, both personally and collectively (560). If the Mountain Man archetype within the psyche can play that mediator role, then it is important to know him, so that Euro-Americans can know another aspect of their myth and situate their collective identity within a historical and archetypal framework.

Author backpacking in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, Washington state Cascade range

            The Mountain Man archetype finds a wide variety of expression in American culture. Jeremiah Johnson is a classic example of the Romanticization of this figure; Robert Redford portrays Johnson as a tough, strong, beautiful hero with a romantic streak, while the soundtrack plays folk music with sentimental lyrics to evoke the nostalgia of Johnson’s legend. Washington Irving, quoted in Fisher, wrote of the free trappers with a similar sentiment, “There is, perhaps, no class of men on the face of the earth [. . .] who lead a life of more continued exertion, peril, and excitement, and who are more enamored of their occupations, than the free trappers of the West” (iii). The life and death of the young Christopher McCandless, as portrayed in the print and film biographies Into the Wild, symbolizes a classic puer longing for the purity of a natural life, far from civilization. When he went off the grid, however, he did not have the necessary survival skills and died an early death. For a more ordinary, temporary escape from civilization, many fit Americans regularly backpack into National Parks and other wilderness areas. Other contemporary examples of the Mountain Man archetype’s activation include extended road trips, Deadheads and now Phishheads, Rainbow Gatherings, Burning Man, and just aimless wandering, particularly post-college graduation. These fringe-dwellers primarily seek new internal frontiers, but in intimate connection with nature.

            The contemporary vision quest, which I have participated in, also illustrates the conjunction of psyche and nature in a frontier zone, perhaps mediated by a Mountain Man-type figure. Robert Greenway, in his paper “The Wilderness Effect and Ecopsychology,” describes his forays into the wilderness as a kind of vision quest guide for groups; the aim is reconnection with nature, healing, and psychic activation. Greenway uses the metaphorical model of a gradient scale to describe the level of connection between one’s psyche and nature during the wilderness experience:

Somewhere along this gradient is a transition point, where one’s mode of information processing switches from culture-dominated (which in the case of our culture would be dualism-producing) to nature-dominated (which presumably would be something closer to what would be called a ‘systemic communion’). Thus, this change point along the gradient is the psychological wilderness boundary, and it is my perception that not many cross it. (Greenway 132)

He describes the tipping point in terms of a fixed boundary, more of a line than a fuzzy frontier zone, and he implies that a transformation takes place that virtually erases dualism in one’s thinking. There may be a non-dualistic zone that one can access through connection with nature, but it is necessarily fleeting and temporary, for humanity is married to dualism at this point in its evolution. Animals, perhaps, live in a non-dualistic state, but intelligent, sane humans cannot sustain that state. The Mountain Men and the Indians maintained a dualistic mindset while living wholly within the wilderness, which refutes Greenway’s thesis.

Hubble Telescope image, an image of infinity, space as the "final frontier"

            Science and technology, as fields, are strongly attracted to the unknown. The space program expands our frontier of knowledge of the universe, with such technology as the Hubble and Webb Telescopes, the International Space Station, and the many probes, shuttles, satellites, and rovers launched over the years. The picture on the left shows a Hubble image of a spiral galaxy, an image of infinity for many, but the picture below illustrates the space garbage now surrounding the Earth. These two figures, juxtaposed, highlight a dual relationship with nature—reverence and exploitation. The British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or Deepwater Horizon oil spill, currently gushing oil for 74 days in a row at the time of this writing, represents another frontier pushed, this time too far, in the name of resource exploitation.

"An artist's rendering of the traceable space junk and satellites around Earth. The sizes of each piece are greatly exaggerated, but their small size doesn't make them any less dangerous to satellites or astronauts. Credit: ESA" (Wright). 

            The humanities, as well, sometimes rides the crest of the wave. Pacifica Graduate Institute is a fitting example of a school that pioneers new fields of study with its doctoral program in Mythological Studies with an emphasis in Depth Psychology. The American economic structure, it seems, also enjoys the challenge of frontier territory. The recent collapse of banks and the housing market and subsequent recession, however, provide stern warnings against inflated attitudes.

            The Mountain Man is not a Hero figure, like the Cowboy or Frontiersman. He is a rebel, but a quiet one. He does not have an agenda or ambitions. Because of his mind-your-business attitude, the Mountain Man archetype can help guard against ego inflation. When John McCain and Sarah Palin ran their presidential campaign on the “Maverick” slogan, Americans responded with extreme ambivalence. People either loved or hated their appropriation of the term. McCain and Palin’s spin doctors tried to tap into the American heroic mentality, but many Americans recognized that the kind of heroism that pushes into the (Alaskan, e. g.) frontier for exploitation of natural resources is not the archetype that they want to follow any longer. There is a real tension between Americans who subscribe to the aggressive frontier hero like the Cowboy and those who may identify with the more reserved Mountain Man archetype. Perhaps Americans can find the middle ground between Romantic worship of Nature and reckless exploitation with the help of the Mountain Man archetype as mediator:  He is one who dwells in both worlds—wild and civilized—and treats Nature with detached respect.

Works Cited 

Fisher, Vardis. Mountain Man:  A Novel of Male and Female in the Early American West. Moscow, ID:  U of ID P, 1965. Print.

Greenway, Robert. “The Wilderness Effect and Ecopsychology.” Ecopsychology:  Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. Eds. Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner. San Francisco:  Sierra Club Books, 1995. 122-135. Print.

Hall, Thomas D. "Borders, Borderlands, and Frontiers, Global." New Dictionary of the History of  Ideas. Ed. Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Vol. 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2005. 238-242. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 24 May 2010.

McCallum, Ian. Ecological Intelligence:  Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature. Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 2008. Print.

Sabini, Meredith, ed. The Earth Has a Soul:  C. G. Jung on Nature, Technology, & Modern Life. Berkeley:  North Atlantic Books, 2008. Print.

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence:  The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. New York:  Harper Perennial, 1973. Print.

Thorp, Raymond W. and Robert Bunker. Crow Killer:  The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson. Bloomington:  Indiana UP, 1969. Print.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier (1893).” Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner:  “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” and Other Essays. Ed. John Mack Faragher. New York:  Henry Holt and Co., 1994. 31-60. Print.

---. “The West and American Ideals (1914).” Rereading Frederick JacksonTurner:  “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” and Other Essays. Ed. John Mack Faragher. New York:  Henry Holt and Co., 1994. 140-158. Print.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade). New York:  Harper and Bros., 1918. Google Books. Web. 28 June 2010.

Wright, David. “Space Debris that Goes Bump in the Night.” Discovery Channel. 12 Mar. 2009. Web. 26 June 2010.