Hard to believe that there could ever be another man like “Buckskin Bill” who’d be 112 next month if he were still alive. He was as scruffy as “Liver Eating” Jeremiah Johnson; knew the wilderness like Jim Bridger and lived off the land for half a century without regret.
He hunted his supper with rifles he made himself, using one-of-a-kind specialized tools he created for every conceivable use — just as long as they didn’t need electricity — his favorite being a pair of huge Bowie knives.
He loved America, though not the government, and was a charming host to the rare visitor to his rugged world of mountains, valleys and rivers where Indians once roamed for thousands of years — though gone when he arrived.
“Oh, I’m patriotic,” Buckskin would say. “Ever’ time a bald eagle flies by, I take off my hat.”
He could tell you the best place to sew the seam on buckskin trousers and why there are fringes on animal hide jacket sleeves. “Know what those fringes are for? Not for decoration. They let water run off faster, and they make you a poorer target by breaking up the outline.”
He also knew about Hannibal crossing the Swiss Alps with three dozen elephants 200 years before Christ, and that the Great Wall of China was being built about that same time. And he was proud to be descended from John Hart, who signed the Declaration of Independence.
Buckskin Bill’s real name was Sylvan Ambrose Hart, born the eldest of six children in Camargo in western Oklahoma. He attended several colleges, including the University of Idaho. He worked a while in the Texas oilfields, and then in 1932 at age 26 made a career decision to head for the wilderness.
He bought 50 acres for a dollar at Five-Mile Bar on the banks of the Salmon River in Frank Church-River-of-No-Return Wilderness in central Idaho.
His father, Oliver “Artie” Hart (who was divorced) went with him, but stayed only a short time, returning to civilization to work as a carpenter. He never came back.
Single-handedly, Buckskin Bill built a two-story house and blacksmith shop. Ever distrustful of the government, he also built a stone turret mini-fortress.
In a well-tended 10,000-square-foot garden, he grew apples and apricots, rows of regular vegetables as well as exotics like purple potatoes “Just like the Incas used to have;” Oregon grapes, squaw cabbage, dandelion, shadbush berries, currants, rose hips, gooseberries, brodiaea roots and oyster plant roots.
He fertilized all this uniquely with a buried deer carcass, two bear heads and one cougar skeleton.
He even occasionally ate mountain lions. “The meat tastes like turkey,” Buckskin explained. “And of course it’s light. Animals that eat other animals always have light meat. Animals that eat grass have dark meat.”
“Lots of people live a whole lifetime without having a mountain lion in their garden,” he joked.
Buckskin counted his blessings far from civilization, noting that he didn’t have to put up with mosquitoes, gnats, flies and vermin, blaming outsiders for bringing them in. There were however plenty of rattlesnakes to take care of possible vermin.
Though the grizzled mountain man didn’t booze very much, he did like to gargle every day with 151-proof Hudson’s Bay Company rum.
When Sports Illustrated writer Harold Peterson visited him in 1966, their first meal together was mince pie made with whiskey, plum preserves, raisins, dried apples, treacle and some unidentified gamey meat.
“Like the crust?” Buckskin asked his visitor. “I make it with special pastry flour and bear grease. Bear grease doesn’t have the objectionable qualities of any other grease.
“I generally get 25 quarts of grease per bear,” he said.
Buckskin loved tea and stocked up with boxes of exotic brands. Writer Peterson tells about it: “Besides a native variety that Hart claims the Indians once picked, mint, Keemun, lapsang souchong, South American maté, gunpowder, jasmine, India, Russian, ningchow, Japan pan-fried, Irish, oolong, Darjeeling, Earl Grey’s and English Breakfast.”
His favorite tea however was blended and packed by Davison Newman & Co., Ltd., 14 Creechurch Lane, London E.C. 3 — the same company whose 342 cases of tea were tossed overboard from British ships in 1773 at the Boston Tea Party, triggering the American Revolution.
Going to town was arduous and rare and usually meant going to Burgdorf with its population of six in those days — zero in winter. Buckskin made his money panning for gold, and would buy only a few things — coffee, flour, sugar, oatmeal, rice, raisins, gunpowder and books.
Despite his appearance and dress, Buckskin was no mountain man like Bridger, Jedediah Smith, Grizzly Adams or Kit Carson. He had an engineering degree from Oklahoma University, studied petroleum engineering in grad school, and studied Latin, Greek, French, German, Russian, Swahili, Portuguese, Spanish and Norwegian.
Like the other early frontiersmen, he could survive in the wilderness — fish, trap, hunt, make his own food, clothing and wine. But in addition, he could make his own guns, ammunition, knives and tools and raise crops. He also enjoyed making helmets and swords.
He even mined, melted and refined copper to make utensils — some quite fancy. One of them was a decorated Russian-style samovar to make tea, decorated with squirrels scampering across the top.
“No mountaineer is worth anything unless he has at least 15 guns in the house,” he said.
One of his most spectacular pieces was a beautifully hand-bored flintlock .45-caliber hand-rifled barrel made with fine Swedish steel, with a double cock and double-set trigger and an ornately carved mountain mahogany stock. The ramrod was made of East Texas hickory.
An L.A. businessman offered him $1,000 for the rifle, but Buckskin turned him down. Then the man offered him a blank check — which he also refused. Frustrated, the man growled, “Damn it, you need the money. You do use money, don’t you?”
“No, not where I live,” Buckskin replied.
He made everything he needed from whatever materials he could find, such as from abandoned moonshine stills and mining machinery — even an aircraft window. His hand-crafted household utensils included bowls, ladles, kettles, griddles, skillets, lanterns, candle holders, coffeepots and tea balls.
He made hundreds of specialized tools for woodworking, silver and copper-smithing and blacksmithing — such as awls, adzes, gouges, chisels, scrapers, dies, taps and punches.
“He was loudly dramatic,” writer Harold Peterson said, “but everybody who studied what he did, came away impressed by his survival skills, his frontier craftsmanship, and his artistic flair.”
If Buckskin had been a Boy Scout, his remarkable multi-talented capabilities would have covered his uniform with merit badges.
During the Cold War between 1947 and 1991, when bomb shelters were all the rage, he blasted his own bunker out of solid rock. But it wasn’t the Soviets who worried him the most. It was the federal government.
In 1956 when Buckskin was 50, Wilderness Society activist Howard Zahniser pushed Congress to pass the Wilderness Act which could have made Buckskin’s Shangri La a non-habitable Primitive Area, possibly tossing him out. The legislation bounced around Congress for eight years and finally became law signed by President LBJ in 1964.
Much to his relief, they didn’t evict him. The Forest Service mercifully agreed that one individual living as an authentic frontiersman deserved to continue to live there — like a living museum artifact.
The only time he left his wilderness lair — apart from the occasional supply runs — was when he volunteered in World War II. Rejected by the Army because of an enlarged heart, he could only contribute on the home front and went to Kansas to work on the Norden bombsight for Boeing.
After the war, he returned to the Idaho wilderness for the rest of his life.
He lived at Five-Mile Bar for nearly 50 years.
Sylvan Ambrose “Buckskin Bill” Hart died on April 29, 1980, at age 73. He never married and may indeed have been the West’s last mountain man — even though he was born in the 20th century, never battled Indians or trapped beaver.
About those seams in buckskin trousers:
“The great mistake in making pants,” he said, “is putting the seam on the inside of the leg. If it gets wet when you have to walk somewhere, it can take the skin right off.”
Gotta remember that.
Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org
The mountain man…
“Clad in furs and leathers, rifle at his side and knife in his belt, the popular image of the mountain man is the picture of quintessential masculinity, an image which readily symbolizes the virtues of self-reliance, solitude, and bravery.”
— The Art of Manliness
Words from Buckskin…
“People from Manhattan, say, don’t see how anyone can learn and do and make all the things I do. What they don’t realize is that in New York, where it’s so hard just to live, all their energy is spent trying to exist. Then they hurry and rush all the really important things. ... They’re so anxious to complete anything that they never plan it out properly or enjoy it right when it’s finished.”
— Sylvan Ambrose “Buckskin Bill” Hart
Watching his diet…
“And I buy one or two salt cod a year for iodine,” he adds. “The trouble with this water is that it’s too clean. No minerals. All the old mountaineers had goiter: the beard concealed that. Same way in Switzerland. One group of Swiss live so far up in the mountains they still speak Latin. There, if you don’t speak Latin or have a goiter, you’re a barbarian.”
— Buckskin Bill
What else did he make?
Apart from a rocking chair that came around Cape Horn in the Gold Rush, and a table made from oak flooring of a building in the ghost town of Dixie, virtually everything else at Buckskin’s corner of the world was made by him. He even turned local trees and rocks into structures. Other items he crafted besides guns, knives, tools and utensils included bows, arrows, (he called them “arrahs”), crossbows, pack frames, wicker fishing creels, fly rods, snow-shoes, canoe and elk hide covered kayak.
He even made a coat out of combined hides from bear, beaver, wolf, badger, calfskin, skunk and pheasant.