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Fur Traders Served as the Shock Troops
Will Bagley
Published: 06/02/2002 Edition: Final  Section: Utah Page: B1

The best maps of North America in 1820 showed a vast blank space between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. The worst maps pictured a variety of nonexistent lakes, rivers and mountains. Two republics--Mexico and the United States--and two empires--Britain and Russia--struggled to control the North American West. Fur traders were their shock troops.               

In 1824, Peter Skene Ogden began the first of five expeditions into the "Snake Country" that (with Jedediah Smith's explorations) put the Great Basin on the map--and caused the first international incident in Utah history.               

A Canadian working for the Hudson's Bay Company, Ogden was "short, dark, and exceedingly tough." He led a party of 131 people, including 30 women and 35 children, "all well furnished in arms, ammunition, Horses and Traps," into northern Utah in 1825 to seek a fortune in beaver fur. His freemen and Iroquois frontiersmen were a "worthless and motley crew," Ogden's boss wrote, "the very scum of the country and generally outcasts." But compared to their American competitors, they were choirboys.    

            While camped on the Weber River just west of today's Mountain Green, Ogden's men ran inttwo fur brigades, one from New Mexico led by Etienne Provost that included three Canadians, a Russian and "an old Spaniard." The second was a "party of 25 Americans with Colours flying." Johnson Gardner, leader of the Yankee trappers, claimed Ogden had "no license to trap or trade" in what Gardner insisted was U.S. territory.                

In truth, only the Americans were trespassing, since the United States had recognized Mexico's claim to the country below the 42nd parallel, while the British had not. Provost had a license from the Mexican government, but all Gardner had was gumption, grandstanding and guns. Gardner offered Ogden's men $3.50 a pound for their furs--more than their British bosses paid. Although he legally owned the pelts, Ogden realized he had been outbid. Instead of hunting beaver, his men had "been with the Americans no doubt plotting." "Thus we were overpowered by numbers [by] these Villains," he complained. That night Ogden"made all necessary preparations in Case of attack & kept Strict guard."

As historian Aubrey Haines observed, Johnson Gardner, "one of the harder characters engaged in that rough business, the fur trade," had basically stolen the Hudson's Bay furs.                

The next morning Gardner told Ogden that if he "knew what was good for himself and party he would return home."

"Remain at your peril," Gardner warned ominously. "You will See us shortly [on] the Columbia," he boasted. "We are determined you Shall no longer remain in our Territory."               

"With only 20 Trappers [and] Surrounded on all Sides by enemies," Ogden had to return to Oregon, "our expectations and hopes blasted." To stay "would merely be to trap Beaver for the Americans." 

              Ogden's confrontation had enduring consequences. American missionaries and pioneers soon opened the Oregon Trail and fulfilled Johnson's prophecy. Ogden's accounts of his explorations are Western classics.               

For unknown reasons, Provo was named after Etienne Provost. For equally mysterious reasons, in 1851 the Territorial Legislature named Utah's oldest settlement after Peter Skene Ogden, who had little use for Americans and even less regard for Mormons. And Johnson Gardner? The Arikara Indians scalped and burned him alive, but his name adorns Gardner's Hole, a remote and beautiful valley in Yellowstone National Park.

Dale Morgan tells this story and more in his classic biography, "Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West."

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