The free trapper, unbeholden to any company, looked with condescension from the pinnacle of the social pyramid. He equipped and supplied himself, traveled with a company brigade or not as he wished, and sold his catch to whoever offered the highest price. He was the aristocrat, the "cock of the walk" as Washington Irving termed him, and in his attire and outfit he flaunted the crest and plumage of the cock of the walk.
Joe Meek's amanuensis, putting the old trapper's words into proper English, described the free trappers thus:
They prided themselves on their hardihood and courage; even on their recklessness and profligacy. Each claimed to own the best horse; to have had the wildest adventures; to have made the most narrow escapes; to have killed the greatest number of bears and Indians; to be the greatest favorite with the Indian belles, the greatest consumer of alcohol, and to have the most money to spend, i.e. the largest credit on the books of the company. If his hearers [sic] did not believe him, he was ready to run a race with him, to beat him at "old sledge," or to fight, if fighting was preferred. . . . The only authority which the free trapper acknowledged was that of his Indian spouse, who generally ruled in the lodge, however her lord blustered outside.
Meek did not exaggerate the influence of Indian women, as he had reason to know from personal experience. The Flathead or Shoshone woman who could gain a free trapper as a husband enjoyed high stature in her tribe and truly, as Meek declared, "ruled in the lodge." That was her role with a man or [sic] her own tribe, and she asserted it equally with a white spouse. The role combined authority in domestic matters with responsibility for housekeeping—moving and setting up camp, cooking, preparing skins, making and mending garments and footwear, and other household chores. The pleasures of the nighttime robes followed the daytime drudge. Indian wives expected and received lavish gifts, for husbands strove to exhibit them as the most brilliantly clothed and ornamented of the women at rendezvous. Such unions might last for weeks, months, years, or a lifetime. Some trappers reared mixed-blood families, acquired political influence in the tribe, and acted as mediators between two cultures, interpreting each to the other. Women and children traveled with trapping brigades, or returned to their tribal origins when it was inconvenient to accompany their husbands, or simply camped near a trading post until their husbands returned from a hunt.
Trappers intent on sex without the encumbrance of marriage found that when Flathead, Shoshone, or Nez Perce bands congregated at rendezvous to trade and share in the fun. Indian standards of sexual propriety were high, but not so high that compliant women could not be found to gratify the lust of men long deprived.
(Robert M. Utley, After Lewis and Clark: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific [Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2004], 87-8 [ellipsis in original; endnotes omitted])