Coarse-frocked Spanish friars from Santa Fe, New Mexico, penetrating the Great Basin in 1776—year of the nation’s Declaration of Independence—were Utah’s first tourists of written record. The Spanish Fathers came not to see the scenery—though they made the first written account of it in their journals and maps–but were trailblazers seeking a suitable shorter route between two Catholic frontier mission outposts; one at Santa Fe and the other at Monterey, California. Though they failed in their initial objective to find a course that would avoid hostile Indian tribes, the Arizona desert regions and the sculptured, rugged Grand Canyon area, their exploration left the first records of experience in, and eyewitness descriptions of, much of present-day Utah.
In the early 1800s search continued for the best route between the Spanish strongholds in New Mexico and the mission outposts in southern California. During the earlier periods and on well into that century one particular trail emerged as the most prominent. This was the Old Spanish Trail. With its several offshoots, it opened up various areas of Utah for first visits by white men, though the Indians knew well most of the mountainous trails and valleys.
During the period 1776 to 1820 the Utah area was claimed by the Spanish and after 1822 by Mexico following a successful revolt to win independence from Spain. But the Spanish only traveled across Utah; they established no permanent settlements. So their hold was tenuous. And while they were roaming the deserts and valleys of the southern half of the state, the vanguard of an infinitely stronger—and ultimately successful—force was beginning to infiltrate from the north.
These were the Mountain Men—those daring independent, carefree adventurers who became as familiar with the rivers, streams, mountain valleys, and desert lands, as were the Indians whose home it had been for so many centuries. Jedediah Smith, Peter Ogden, Etienne Provost, Jim Bridger, Miles Goodyear, John Weber, to name a few of the Mountain Men who roamed the Utah area, were authentic American heroes.
Though he fit no single mold, the Mountain Man was one whose face was constantly turned toward new horizons; not that exploration was his primary purpose. The openings of new trails, traveling along unknown streams, discovering mountain passes and lakes, fording swift rivers, were but incidental to his main objective—making travel pay its way in beaver furs. He was unaware he was making history. Mountain Man was a businessman. He made few maps. The country he traversed was a living map existing mostly in his mind. But his travels represented the most significant exploration of much of Utah and the west.
Mountain Men entered the Utah area in the 1820s from three directions. From the northwest came the British; Americans, the most numerous, came from the east out of St. Louis or the southwest out of Santa Fe by the Old Spanish Trail which they helped create.
Trading posts and the rendezvous also developed from the fur trade. Trading posts were established mostly in the Missouri River Valley, but the rendezvous was more suitable for such exchange in the Rocky Mountains. It could be held at a different place each year as the fur hunters moved from one area to another. Meeting places were pre-determined or signs placed along main trails would notify the trappers. Sixteen rendezvous were held from 1825 to 1840 in the Rockies, the first four in present-day Utah.