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Mountains of Stone


Winds of Change

   Fur Trade Facts of the American and Canadian Fur Trade
by
O. Ned Eddins

Canadian Fur Trade

Prime beaver pelts were taken October thru November and from late February into April. Fur Trappers waded in the water to set the traps, so the beaver would not smell the Mountain Man's scent near the trap. Surprisingly, many mountain men went to the mountains to regain their health. 


                                                        Late Fall Trapping

A question often asked is who was the first mountain man? My choice for the first person to be considered a mountain man in the Rocky Mountains would be John Colter. Discharged early from the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Colter spent the winter of 1806-07 trapping Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone. If you consider Canadian trappers, Peter Pond was earlier, the later part of the 1700s, and Radisson and Grosseilliers were in the mid 1600's.

The first trading post in the Rocky Mountains was on the left bank of the Bighorn River where it entered the Yellowstone River. Built in 1807 by Manuel Lisa, the post was called Fort Raymond (Fort Ramon, Manuel’s Fort).
 

A quote from Manuel Lisa: I put into my operation great activity. I go great distance, while some are considering whether they will start today or tomorrow.

 

Soon after arriving at the mouth of the Bighorn River, Lisa sent John Colter to the Crow villages on the Stinkingwater (Shoshone) River, George Drouillard to Stinkingwater and Powder river villages, and Edward Rose to the Tongue River villages. The three men carried word a trading post was at the mouth of the Bighorn for the Crow spring trade.                                      

During his travels, John Colter entered what would become Yellowstone National Park, but mountain men did not refer to the Yellowstone area as Colter's Hell. The mountain man's Colter's Hell was a thermal mud pot area at the junction of the North and South Stinkingwater rivers near Cody, Wyoming...not Yellowstone National Park.

The first trappers to trap the Jackson Hole area were four Astorians in 1811. At the junction of the Hoback and Snake rivers, Hunt left Alexander Carson (Kit Carson's brother), Louis St. Michel, Pierre Detaye, and Pierre Delaunay to trap the Jackson Hole and upper Snake River area, and then continue on to the mouth of the Columbia River.

The trail Robert Stuart and six Astorians pioneered from Cauldron Linn in Idaho, over South Pass, and on to St. Louis was the basic route used by Americans to reach the Oregon Territory. Called the Oregon Trail, it was the route leading to America’s Manifest Destiny for several hundred thousand Oregon and Mormon pioneers and the California gold seekers.

South Pass and the Oregon Trail were the only major route across the North American Continent discovered by a west to east journey...The vast majority of the time, mountain men and explorers traveled  well-beaten Indian trails they were guided over or told about by Indians. Native Americans were the true discovers of South Pass.

Within in a two-year period, the Astorians established trading posts on the Columbia, Willamette, Okanogan, Spokane, and Snake rivers. These fur trading posts, especially Okanogan, were a major factor in the State of Washington being part of the United States.

David Stuart and John Clarke returned to Astoria in June of 1813 with one hundred and forty packs of furs. The furs were obtained from two-years of trading at the Okanogan posts and one year at Spokane Post (Franchère). These two Astorian posts produced forty more packs of furs than William Ashley took from the 1825 rendezvous in the Rocky Mountains. Ashley’s one hundred packs of furs came from two years of trapping by his own men, furs from nineteen deserters from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and over twenty Taos trappers under Etienne Provost.  In addition to the furs from Okanogan and Spokane post, the Astorians were also trading for beaver and sea otter skins at Fort Astoria, along the Pacific coast, and for beaver at Fort Boise in Idaho and at Wallace House in the Willamette Valley near Salem, Oregon. The 1826 Rendezvous produced one hundred and twenty-five packs. Based on these comparisons, the Astorians were highly successful in their trapping ventures.

A dried beaver pelt was folded and pressed into a ninety pound pack. On average it took sixty pelts to make a pack.

 

Many historians claim Astor suppressed the discovery of South Pass. An article outlining the journey of Robert Stuart and an account of Wilson Price Hunt's journey appeared in the Missouri Gazette, in June 1813.  Robert Stuart did not meet with Astor until the 23rd of July 1813.

...By information received from these gentlemen, it appears that a journey across the continent of North America might be performed with a waggon, there being no obstruction in the whole route that any person would dare to call a mountain, in addition to its being much the most direct and short one to go from this place to the mouth of the Columbia river....

The Treaty of Ghent in 1814 restored all captured territories in the War of 1812 to the previous owners, but the question with Fort Astoria become, was it sold or was it captured. The haggling and bickering over the fate of Astoria dragged on until October 8th, 1818. On that date, Fort George was returned to Astor, and the American flag once again flew over Fort Astoria. From 1818 to 1846 the British and Americans shared joint occupancy to the Oregon Country.

Astor's comment on the return of Fort Astoria was: If I was a young man,” he lamented, “I would again resume the trade—as it is I am too old and I am withdrawing from all business as fast as I can.
 

Astor sold his interest in the American Fur Company in 1834. Ramsey Cooks bought the Missouri River-Great Lakes trade and kept the name American Fur Company. Pratte, Chouteau, and Company of St. Louis acquired the Western Department of the American Fur Company.

A Northwest Company fur trade brigade led by Donald Mackenzie in 1818 to 1821 are considered to be the first trappers into the Yellowstone Park Area and in the Green River Valley.
 


                                       Firehole Elk - Yellowstone National Park

William Ashley was not a mountain man; he went to the Rocky Mountains twice. Ashley had no interest in the mountains, or the fur trade, except as a way of making money to further his political career. Ashley is credited with the innovation of the Rendezvous System, and in terms of the Rocky Mountains, this is true. However, Ashley was not the first to use a rendezvous for the exchange of pelts and to re-supply the trappers. The North West Company had held an annually rendezvous at Grand Portage and later at Fort William from 1778 to 1821.

Ashley’s rendezvous scheme enabled him to retire from the mountains after two years, but he held a contract to supply his predecessors Smith Jackson and Sublette, which Ashley did until l830. The rendezvous supplies were marked up, sometimes a thousand percent; it was the lucrative part of the fur trade. Even though Ashley had the supply contract, he hired people to take the supplies to the rendezvous. One of these men was Hyrum Scott.

Many writer refer to the Ashley men as the more romanticized "free trapper", not salaried employees like the French-Canadian “engages”. This is hard to understand based on the add in Missouri Gazette & Public Advertiser Feb. 13, 1822 and in the St. Louis Enquirer two weeks later.      

TO: Enterprising Young Men

The subscriber wishes to engage ONE HUNDRED MEN, to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be "employed" [my quote marks] for one, two, or three years. For particulars enquire of Major Andrew Henry, near the Lead Mines, in the County of Washington, (who will ascend with, and command party) or to the subscriber at St. Louis.

Supplying Indians with alcohol was not the only laws broken at the mountain man rendezvous. Mountain men were trespassing on Indian Territory, which was prohibited by the Trade and Intercourse Acts, and the majority of the mountain man rendezvous were held west of the Continental Divide and south of the forty-second parallel which was Mexican territory.

Jackson Hole was named for David Jackson. In 1826, Jackson joined with Jedediah Smith and William Sublette to buy out William Ashley's interest in the fur trade. While the partnership lasted, Jackson ran the field operations, Smith was the explorer, and Sublette ran the supply trains from St. Louis. Smith Jackson and Sublette sold out to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1830. 

All the rendezvous were held west of the Continental Divide with the exception of the 1828 (Lander), 1830 (Riverton), and 1838 (Riverton) rendezvous. These three rendezvous were the only ones held in United States territory.  Except for one sites in Utah, two sites on the Utah-Idaho border, and one in the Teton Valley of Idaho, all of the rendezvous were held in Wyoming; six of the sixteen rendezvous were held on Horse Creek in the Green River Valley near present-day Daniel, Wyoming.

The largest tributary of the Colorado, Columbia, and Missouri rivers head within a sixty-eight mile radius of the Grand Teton peak on the western Wyoming border. Another circle with a radius of one hundred and ninety-one miles covers all of the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous sites and the Three Forks area of Montana. With the Grand Teton at its center, this area covers the richest beaver country in the Rocky Mountains.


                                                                Grand Teton

The Tetons have had various names. The Astorians referred to them as the Pilots Knobs, Donald Mackenzie named them the Trois Tetons (Three Breasts), Indians referred to them as the Teewinots, or the Hoary-Headed-Fathers.
 

The first wheel tracks over South Pass were made by a small cannon pulled to the 1826 rendezvous.

 

William L. Sublette took the first wagons along the Oregon Trail to the Rocky Mountains in 1830. Sublette left the future Oregon Train at South Pass and went to the site of the 1830 rendezvous at the junction of the Popo Agie (Little Wind River, Popoasia) and the Wind River near present day Riverton, Wyoming. The 1830 supply caravan, consisted of eighty-one men on mules, ten wagons drawn by five mules each, two Deerborn carriages, twelve head of cattle, and a milk cow.

Moses "Black" Harris was a frequent companion of William Sublette on the journeys back to St. Louis for the next year's rendezvous supplies. Harris has been described on several internet sites as a black man, but there is no evidence to support this other than his nickname "Black".

At the 1830 rendezvous, Smith Jackson and Sublette sold out to Thomas Fitzpatrick, Jim Bridger, Milton Sublette, Henry Fraeb, and Jean Gervias. The new company was named the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
 

The only time there was an actual company named the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was between 1830 and 1833. Many writers erroneously substitute Rocky Mountain Fur Company for Rocky Mountain Fur Trade.
 

Timeline of the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade companies:
1822-1824 Ashley Henry
1825-1826 Ashley Smith
1826-1830 Smith Jackson and Sublette
               1830-1833 Rocky Mountain Fur Company
               1833-1834 Rocky Mountain Fur Company and Christy
               1834-1840
Fontenelle and Fitzpatrick under a St. Louis company

In July of 1832, Captain B. L. E. Bonneville and Joseph R. Walker led one hundred and ten men with twenty-wagon loads of provisions through South Pass into the Green River Valley. These were the first wagons to cross the Continental Divide at South Pass on what would be the Oregon Trail.

After the 1834 Rendezvous, the major supplier of the rendezvous was Pratte, Chouteau, and Company of St. Louis. 

 

In 1835, William Sublette sold Fort William (Fort John, Fort Laramie) to the Fontenelle and Fitzpatrick partnership and agreed to leave the mountains. Thus ended the major influence of the "Ashley men” on the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade.

The two greatest Rocky Mountain men-explorers were Jedediah Smith and Joseph Walker.

 

Walker's greatest achievement was the trail he blazed to California in 1833. Despite some claims, Bonneville was not with Walker. Hundreds of thousands of pioneers and the transcontinental railroad followed the major portion of the trail Walker used to reach California.

Jedediah Smith's party were the first Americans to cross East to West over the Continental Divide at South Pass. He was the first to cross overland to California, the first to traverse the Sierra Nevada; and the first to cross the Great Basin Desert. In his travels, Jedediah Smith crossed Utah from East to West and North to South.

Jedediah Smith's explorations gained the distinction of losing the most men in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade years. Jedediah Smith was killed by Comanche on the 27th of May 1831 on the Cimarron River .
 

The North American fur trader-explorers were Joseph WalkerJedediah Smith, David Thompson, and Alexander Mackenzie of the Canadian North West Company.
 

The two most overblown, overrated mountain men-fur trader-trappers in the Rocky Mountains were Jim Bridger, and Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville. Except for bringing the first wagons over South Pass and for the speculation he was a government agent, Bonneville was a failure at everything he did in the fur trade. Jim Bridger was employed by Ashley in 1822, and there is nothing to indicate he was anymore than an employee of a fur company until 1830...Bridger left Hugh Glass to die after Glass was mauled by a bear...on a bet, he and a companion floated thirty, or so, miles down Bear River, and upon returning to Cache Valley, Bridger claimed he had discovered an arm of the Pacific Ocean [for this, he is given credit for discovering Great Salt Lake]...from 1830 to 1834, he was a partner in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company which never had a successful year in its four years of operation...he had little to do with Fort Bridger after it was built in 1843...as a guide, Bridger told the Reynolds Expedition of 1859-60 you could not get from the head of the Wind River to the Yellowstone River [After crossing Togwotee Pass, you can lope a horse most of the way from Turpin Meadows (on south fork of the Buffalo River) over Two Ocean Pass and on to the Yellowstone]...the only positive thing about Bridger is he was a teller of tall tales, a successful fur trade brigade leader [unless he was being paid why was he always leading brigades], survived the era of the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade, and was used as an army guide. 

Bridger and Bonneville did not contribute any more to western history than a great many others, i.e. George Drouillard, Moses "Black" Harris, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Manuel Lisa, and yet, these men are basically unknown to most people. You could not begin to count everything with Bridger and Bonneville's name on it in the western states, including a fenced off rock with Bridger's name written on it? [Bridger signed his name with an X]. Bridger is not mentioned in any of the Battle of Pierre's Hole journals, and yet his is the first name on the Pierre's Hole Monument Plaque and Kit Carson is second [Carson was trapping on the Arkansas at the time]. The best thing to be said for Bridger and Bonneville is they had good biographers.

Another Astorian-Mountain Man with a great number of things named after him is John Day. His only claim to fame is he became mentally ill and was sent back to Fort Astoria by Robert Stuart.
 

The first trappers to mention the Great Salt Lake were Edward Robinson, John Hoback,  Jacob Rezner, and Joseph Miller in 1812. whether they actually saw Great Salt Lake is open to conjecture.
 

The first probable fur trapper to see Great Salt Lake was Etienne Provost, a Taos trapper, in 1824. Jim Bridger did not "discover" the Great Salt Lake until a year later.
 

People in St. Louis laughed at Jim Bridger for saying a fish could swim from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. One place this occurs in North America is at the Parting of the Waters on Two Ocean Pass in the Teton Wilderness. Parting of the Waters is on the National Registry of Natural Landmarks.


                             Parting of Waters - Two Ocean Pass, Teton Wilderness

Located in the Teton Wilderness area, Two Ocean Pass separates the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean drainage. North Two Oceans Creek runs down the Continental Divide a short distance then splits into two branches.  Depending on the time of year, each branch is three- to six-feet wide. Atlantic Creek flows 3,348 miles to the Gulf of Mexico via. the Yellowstone, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers. Pacific Creek flows 1,353 miles to the Pacific Ocean via. the Snake and Columbia Rivers.

Canadian Fur Trade

 

In 1534, Jacques Cartier set sail from France hoping to find the Northwest Passage. At the Gulf of St. Lawrence River, he claimed the land for France.
 

Samuel de Champlain made his first trip to North America in 1603. Champlain returned several years later to establish a permanent settlement. The King of France had given him permission to establish settlements and to develop a fur trade.

On May 6, 1670, Hudson's Bay Company was formed, making it the oldest corporation in the world. It was given all the land whose rivers drained into the Hudson Bay, which became known as Rupert's Land. Traders competing against Hudson’s Bay claimed the initials HBC stood for “Here Before Christ”. The Hudson’s Bay charter gave the company control over what was at the time the tenth largest country in the world.

Hudson’s Bay Company controlled most of the land in modern day Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, and as far south as South Dakota. Not only was Hudson’s Bay Company in charge of the land, they also made and enforced many of the laws. This continued until 1870, when the Hudson's Bay Company gave up its control under the Deed of Surrender.

Whenever a ruling king or queen of Britain visited Rupert's Land, the Hudson's Bay Company Charter required the Company pay them: two black beavers and one elk. This tradition continued until 1970, when the Charter was moved from Britain to Canada.

A process for making beaver plews more suitable for felt was developed in England between 1720 and 1740. The process  used a chemical mixture including mercuric oxide to make the hairs rougher so they would stick together. It was called carroting because it turned the tips of the fur orange. The term “Mad as a Hatter” comes from the effect of the mercuric acid fumes on the workers.

 In 1793, accompanied by Alexander McKay, six French Canadians, two Indians, and a Newfoundland dog, Alexander Mackenzie made the first successful crossing of North America. At Dean’s Inlet on the Pacific Coast, Mackenzie wrote on  rock:

…Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by Land, the twenty-fecond of July, one thoufand feven hundred and ninety-three.

The Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company were bitter rivals, until the British Government forced them to merge under the name of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821. However, the dominate members of the new Hudson's Bay Company were from the North West Company.

The Fur Trade article was written by O. Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming. Permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.

Citation: Eddins, Ned. (article name) Mountainsofstone.com. Afton, Wyoming. 2002.

Related Articles: Mountain Men    Fur Trappers      Rendezvous Sites Jedediah Smith     Joseph R. Walker    Fort Bonneville    Indian Trade Gun    Indian Trade Beads     Astorians     Mormon Trail        Oregon Trail     Oregon Country    Historical Landmarks     David Thompson