Traders, Trappers, and Mountain Men

Thomas G. Alexander
Utah, The Right Place

Following the Mexican Revolution in 1821, traders from Spanish and Mexican territory bartered actively in Utah. Following the reconquest of New Mexico and throughout the seventeenth century, New Mexican traders purchased elk, buffalo, beaver, and other skins from the Comanches and Utes. The reports of Rivera and Dominguez and Escalante led to the anticipation of riches on the northern fringes of Hispanic domains. With little interest in converting Indians, however, these entrepreneurs sought more tangible rewards in Utah and western Colorado by trading corn, firearms, liquor, and roses with the Utes for furs and Paiute slaves. Unfortunately, because of the gubernatorial bans, these expeditions are largely undocumented except for the trials of those caught returning with contraband furs, slaves, or the Americans and French whom the Hispanic authorities arrested and imprisoned for trading illegally.

In the wake of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Americans and British began trading in the upper Missouri and Pacific Northwest. Excitement over the potential profits from furs of the upper Missouri and Oregon Country swept the United States. Led by Spaniard Manuel Lisa, Frenchman Pierre Chouteau, and American John Colter (who had accompanied Lewis and Clark), traders departed from St. Louis for the headwaters of the Missouri, trapping on its tributaries and eventually establishing the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company to work in the region.

Not to be outdone, New York businessman and German emigrant John Jacob Astor organized the American Fur Company and its western subsidiary, the Pacific Fur Company, to trade on the Columbia. After establishing Astoria on the Oregon Coast, Astor’s partners learned of the outbreak of the War of 1812. Word of the approach of a British man-of-war gave an immediate meaning to the term “hostile takeover,” and the Astorians prudently sold out to the British-owned North West Fur Company.

In the meantime, however, a party of Astorians led by Robert Stuart returned to the United States from Oregon in 1812. Approximating the future route of the Oregon Trail over part of their journey, they discovered South Pass in south-central Wyoming. In this discovery, they found the easiest route across the Rockies leading into the Great Basin, Oregon, and California.

The competing claims of the United States and Britain to the Pacific Northwest and the inability of Spain and Mexico to control the region they actually owned promoted a cold war, with the furs of the central Rocky Mountain region as the winner’s prize. Beaver hats became the latest fashion rage, and prime pelts brought top prices. From bases at Fort Vancouver, located north across the Columbia River from present-day Portland, and St. Louis, the British and Americans sent expeditions instead of armies to fight for profits swimming in beaver ponds.

All the while, the Spanish and their Mexican successors, eliminated from the ranks of first-rate imperialist powers, played the role of third-world country and victim. Americans and British operated freely within Hispanic territory, and American and French-Canadian trappers based themselves in northern New Mexican towns. Hispanic authorities arrested some businessmen, but they tolerated the activities of the rest.

After the opening of the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to Santa Fe in 1821, Anglo- Celtic-and French-Americans flooded the streets of northern New Mexican towns and dominated the fur trade. Some Mexicans continued to trade in Utah, but interlopers tended to eclipse the locals. Mexican officials protested on occasion, as they did after the 1827 rendezvous on Bear Lake in northern Utah. The protests proved ineffective, in part because of the vaguely defined forty-second parallel and in part because of their impotence.

Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and especially Taos served as intermediate destinations since the businessmen shipped their furs over the Santa Fe Trail and on to St. Louis for transshipment to markets and manufacturers. Maintaining contacts as far as the upper Missouri, a group of businessmen, whom historian David C. Weber called the Taos Trappers, ranged into the San Juan, Colorado, Green and Duchesne River drainages of Utah, northern New Mexico, and western Colorado, eventually pressing on into the Great Basin and the Wasatch Mountains. The most famous Taos Trapper quickly became Etienne Provost, for whom Provo is named.

Since St. Louis became the gathering point for the Taos Trappers to bring their furs, American businessmen used the Mississippi River port as a convenient base for operations as well. For about a month and a half after mid-February 1822, William H. Ashley ran an advertisement for himself and his partner, Andrew Henry, inviting “Enterprising Young Men” to ascend the Missouri to work at some undisclosed occupation for several years. Signing on a mammoth party of brave and resourceful individualists willing to risk life and limb for profit and adventure, Ashley hired the likes of Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, James Beckwourth, and others.

Trade on the upper Missouri proved disastrous to Ashley’s employees, but in 1824, a party led by Jedediah S. Smith and Thomas Fitzpatrick rediscovered South Pass, gateway to the Oregon Country; the Great Basin; and enormous wealth. Sending John H. Weber south along the Bear River and into the Cache Valley area, Smith and part of the group pressed northward to Flathead Post, where they met Peter Skene Ogden.

Previously, companies of trappers and traders had come from St. Louis or Taos to spend a season in the mountains. Then, they either traveled the 1,200 to 1,500 miles to their base or reported to an outpost like those established by the Hudson’s Bay Company to deliver their furs and resupply themselves. Recognizing the imprudent waste of time and money in such a procedure, Ashley envisioned a new system of collecting the furs and bringing supplies to the trappers. In 1825, he arranged for his men to meet at Henry’s Fork of the Green River for what became the first annual rendezvous. The next three rendezvous were held in Utah–one in Cache Valley and the next two on the south end of Bear Lake. With the exception of the 1831 rendezvous in Cache Valley, the remainder were held in southwestern Wyoming and eastern Idaho until their discontinuance in 1840.

The fur trade actually reached its peak sometime between 1830 and 1832. At that time, pelts brought trappers an average of $4 to $6 per pound. A resourceful Mountain Man could trap 400 to 500 pounds per year. By 1840, the price had fallen to $1 or $2 per pound, and depletion of the beaver reduced the average trap to 150 pounds–hardly worth the time of an ambitious man who could otherwise earn $350 to $500 per year. By 1840, perhaps only 50 to 75 trappers remained in the West, a far cry from the 500 to 600 who worked in the region during the late 1820s.

By the late 1830s, however, the superior organization and vast resources of the Hudson’s Bay Company bested the other businesses. In the long run, the Hudson’s Bay Company system of closely controlled posts and monopoly power proved superior to the American rendezvous system. By 1838, as the American Fur Company prepared to leave the field, the Hudson’s Bay Company had undertaken an aggressive drive west of the Rockies, selling to the trappers for less than one-fourth the cost of American goods and beating the American businessmen at their own game.

As one might expect from a group of individualistic businessmen engaged in a cold war and willing–even anxious–to remain in the wilderness, these Mountain Men lived much like soldiers of fortune or survivalists. Many fell in love with and married Indian women. Finding the women lively, domestic, beautiful, and erotic, they willingly paid higher bride prices than competing Indian men. In turn, because of the Euro-American culture, the Indian women often found the Mountain Men more indulgent than the Indians who competed for their hands in marriage.

In addition to marrying and trapping, the Mountain Men busied themselves with other activities and with survival. Trapping in the fall and spring when they could find superior pelts that brought top dollar, the Mountain Men holed up during the winter when the streams froze over. Sharpening their survival skills, making clothes, enjoying the company of their families and other adventurers, they engaged in what Mountain Man Joe Meek called “busy idleness.” Often threatened by Indians, especially the Blackfeet who resented their encroachment into tribal lands, they also faced the possibility of death from unforgiving grizzlies or accidents from other dangers. During the summer, they often extended the rendezvous into two months of recreation and relaxation filled with mirth, games, and in Jim Beckwourth’s words, “all sorts of extravagances” and free-flowing “medicine water.”

Many of the Indians found exchanges with the trappers beneficial. The Native Americans traded their knowledge of the land, their pelts and furs, and other goods and services for horses, weapons, iron utensils, and other manufactured articles.

In many cases, however, the interchange hurt the Indians by undermining their culture, destroying their land and resource base, encouraging alcoholism, and infecting them with diseases such as smallpox and measles. During the early years, Rocky Mountain bison meat served as the main substance for the trappers. By the early 1840s, the Mountain Men and the Indians had annihilated the buffalo in the Rocky Mountains. The trappers also helped to reduce the herds of elk, moose, and deer. The communities of smaller fur-bearing animals dwindled in the same way. By the early 1840s, the beaver were almost extinct.

For the United States, however, the work of the trappers proved a godsend, especially because of the geographical information they supplied. Smith and his friends publicized the discovery of South Pass as they reported the accessibility of wagon trails to the Pacific Northwest. Exploring for future beaver streams, the Mountain Men revealed the region to other Americans. Jim Bridger rode a bullboat down the Bear River in the fall of 1824 to make the first recorded Euro-American discovery of the Great Salt Lake. Assuming that he had found an arm of the Pacific Ocean because of its salt content, Bridger compounded an error first made by Miera and repeated by Humboldt.

The Mountain Men discovered trails later used by overland migrants that were made into highways still in use today. In addition to the Oregon and California Trails, the trappers discovered such routes as the southern trail to Los Angeles, trials to the Uinta Basin, the Old Spanish Trial, and trails from the Uinta Basin to the Wasatch Front.

See: Sheri Wysong, “The Mountain Men, The Cartographers, and the Lakes,” Utah Historical Quarterly 86, no. 2 (2018),