William F. Atkinson is considered by some to be the last living mountain man in the U.S. He taught Rick how to brain-tan buckskin, be it mule deer, elk, moose, or griz. They made elk ivory buttons, too. Rick lived in Bill's teepee and learned to appreciate the hard work associated with the tanning process and the silouhette of an appaloosa stud as it rises up against a full moon in a winter sky.
When one thinks of mountain men, some think of an awesome skier like the Olympic champion, Tommy Moe from Alaska. Others might think of a famous Alaskan homesteader who had been an outstanding guide and had a book written about his feats and exploits. Then there are those who dress in period clothing of the Fur Trade era, play with black powder guns, throw tomahawks, and go to meetings, or rendezvous, a party which used to last several weeks in the Rockies back when these types of men roamed the West.
Despite which of these types you may imagine to define the term, "mountain man", there have been few since the passing of that extraordinary time that helped open up the West who truly fit the latter description accurately.
John Johnston, better known as "Jeremiah Johnson", lived till 1900 and had a couple military careers, was a chief of scouts for the cavalry, and was reputedly the most feared man west of the Mississippi for the last half of the 19th century.
Sylvan "Buckskin Bill" Hart lived in the caves of the Snake River valley in Idaho, loving his hermit lifestyle since the 1930s and never owing anyone a dime, often allowed a traveler to stay in one of his transformed cave "homes" free. When he died in the 1980s, many thought that his kind had ended with his passing.
Little do many know, but there is one who literally has carved out a life in the Rocky Mountains near West Glacier, Montana, ever since he left Jacksonville, Florida at the age of eighteen. Except for a tour of duty in Vietnam as a medic, William F. Atkinson has lived his dream of being a mountain man since returning to the States in 1968.
Making a name for himself in the artist community, Bill has been exalted by his peers.
"...his portraits capture a true sense of true wild animal without equal and his ability to transpose a three dimensional figure on an ivory medium that is flat is incomprehensible. His sense of proportion and depth perception achieved with crude tools that he made himself is unbelievable."
-Bob Scriver, artist, Scriver Studio, Browning, Montana.
A sampling of Bill's exemplary scrimshaw
Gaining a name for himself in the artist community along the spine of the Rockies, Bill has received accolades and respect from other artists.
"Northwest Montana can boast of one man who is not only a very unique artist, but also a true mountain man. An artist by the name of Bill Atkinson is truly both of these."
-Fred Fellows, noted Montana artist.
Clinical psychologist Alton Safford, of Wrightwood, California, stated in his letter to Wyoming Governor Sullivan in 1992 for the proposal by Atkinson for a Living History Museum:
"He has trapped and lived in the mountains for the past 20 years, and possesses all of the skills and techniques necessary to not only survive, but to live well and even comfortably in the wilderness. He has strangled a wolverine with his bare hands, brain tanned the pelt, and wears it as a coat. He makes the most beautiful and authentic brain tanned buckskin in the world."
Bill is already a living history museum all rolled into one man. He lives a life, an ideal, that few can or ever will, let alone, try.
I should know. I spent time with Bill Atkinson in February, 1981, learning the very same methods Bill uses to brain tan hides. I lived in his tipi while there. When I arrived, he showed me hides he had prepared to tan, including an elk, a moose, and several mule deer. We prepared other hides for future tanning as well. I also helped Bill finish the deer hide that eventually lined the hide of a grizzly which had been shot by inexperienced hunters and left to die, fearing a wounded bear. Bill fearlessly, but wisely, stalked after the blood trail and came out with the bear, which turned out to be less than 250 pounds, only a yearling. But what a fine coat it became! With griz teeth for buttons, it would keep the howling winds of the high Rockies from his muscular torso.
Just like Jedediah Smith, Bill is one man considered to have the "ha'r of th' b'ar" in him, meaning, he is the real article, a true mountain man. Some who play at being a mountain man on weekends or once a year at a rendezvous even speak of him in awe and respect.
Now, after living his dreams for 40-plus years, Bill is building his personal "Valhalla" high in the Rockies. He wants to retire, living out his dream on land that is entirely his. As anyone can imagine, doing all the work that is required to build such a paradise alone seems insurmountable. Seemingly an impossible task, yet Bill debarks 12-inch pines alone, making it his goal to get one done per day, weather permitting, even in winter. For somebody over 60 years of age, in our day and age, that, dear friend, is a phenomenal feat!
Let's hope he accomplishes that goal uninhibited, unharassed, and unmolested by government intervention or those foolish enough to try. The things this man used to do would be the things of legend, should the truth be known. But he is only one man who has lived a solitary life and most would NOT believe what this man has done while roaming the wild country ALONE for YEARS.
Hoka Hey, Mahqui Witco!
Do NOT ask to contact Bill unless you KNOW him and don't mind being submitted to a thorough question and answer period concerning him!
Bill's present cabin in the Wyoming high country.