Lone Hand Western - Old West History

The Fur Trade

Jacob stepped out of his tepee into the crisp mountain air and spent a few moments watching the sunrise over the snow capped peaks in the distance. A gentle breeze flowed through his long tangled hair and beard, a breeze which stirred memories of times back home in Kentucky, of friends met deep in the mountains and all of the shining times shared at rendezvous. Some times he would lay awake at night, staring through the smoke flap of his tepee at what seemed like a million stars, and try to remember what it was like to look at another human face. A face other than that time worn, craggy reflection that stared back at him from the depths of numberless beaver ponds. He took assurance in the thought that as long as he had that reflection he was never truly alone. That aching, numbing type of alone that only a mountain man could understand. But those thoughts were best left to float through the smoke flap to meet and join the stars. Right now there were beaver to catch, skin and make ready for Rendezvous. He slipped into his beaded leather war shirt and walked toward the pond that contained his purpose, hoping that the days harvest would be as bountiful as all those other days. Knowing that he was the luckiest man on earth.

Truly a romantic vision with which we are all too familiar but one that belongs in the circular file. Perhaps no period of American history is a s vague as that of the Western fur trade of the early 1800’s and the men who played a part in that history. While biographies do exist for the more popular and famous traders and trappers, how can we as re-enactors create an accurate portrayal of the average mountain man? Who was he and what was his life really like?

It is very likely that the typical mountain man was truly average. Considering the nature of the business, surely there were many individuals who had capitalistic intentions involved with their sojourn into the mountains. Others were in fact trying to stay beyond the reach of the law for some indiscretion committed back east. Most were young men who were tired of driving a team of oxen and a plow, working the docks, or just full of wanderlust. This was the beginning of Western expansion and most of the men involved saw the opportunity to make a living in a new and mysterious land.

There were three approaches an individual could pursue as a trapper. An "Engages" was a man supplied and salaried by the company. All the furs collected belonged to the company. "Skin Trappers" were outfitted by the company on credit and paid off their debts at the end of the season. After paying for the goods at inflated mountain prices the trapper was allowed to keep the difference. More often than not they returned to the mountains once again in debt to the company. "Free Trappers" were considered the kings of the mountain. They worked for no single company and sold their furs to the highest bidder. Generally they worked alone or in small groups. By the 1830’s there were usually several hundred free trappers in the mountains at any one time. If you consider the fact that there were usually up to 3000 trappers in the mountains at any one time the "Free Trapper" was actually in the minority.

A good trapper could harvest 120 skins in a season. At the long awaited Rendezvous, the furs would be exchanged to replenish an outfit for the following year and for luxuries such as alcohol and tobacco. No currency exchanged hands at rendezvous. Any credit left over was issued as a note payable in St. Louis upon return to civilization. Most goods at rendezvous were traded to the trappers at a 600% markup. As a consequence, after a rendezvous, most trappers headed back to the mountains in debt or, at best, broke.

As for what the typical trapper’s outfit would contain, Osborne Russell provides a detailed account in his journals of the period. "A trappers equipment in such cases is generally one animal upon which is placed one or two Epishemores a riding saddle and bridle a sack containing six beaver traps a blanket with an extra pair of moccasin’s his powder horn and bullet pouch to which is attached a butcher knife a small wooden box containing bait for beaver a tobacco sack with a pipe and implements for making fire with sometimes a hatchet fastened to the pommel of his saddle". Unfortunately he makes no reference to any cooking utensils which would help to settle the never ending debate on cookware of the period.

Russell goes on to describe the dress. "His personal dress is a flannel or cotton shirt (if he is fortunate to obtain one, if not antelope skin answers the purpose of over and undershirt) a pair of leather breeches with blanket or smoked buffalo skin leggings, a coat made of blanket or buffalo robe a hat or cap of wool, buffalo or otter skin his hose are pieces of blanket lapped around his feet which are covered with a pair of moccasins made of dressed deer or elk or buffalo skins with his long hair falling loosely over his shoulders complete the uniform". Russell makes no reference to breechcloths even though leggings show up in the text. He also details the hairstyle of the period in some detail but makes no mention of any type of facial hair. More and more evidence points to the fact that a beard was not part of the mountain man persona.

The Rendezvous was the event of the year for the trappers. It was a time to see old friends, celebrate and re-supply. The William Ashley ledgers provide some details as to what was provided at Rendezvous and the prices asked for supplies.

Gunpowder $1.50 per pound
Lead $1.00 per pound
Shot $1.25 per pound
Blankets $9.00 each
Scarlet Cloth $6.00 per yard
Beaver Traps $9.00 each
Tobacco $3.00 per pound

The company inflated prices over and above that. Daniel Potts states "powder traded for $2.50 a pound, coffee at $2.00 a pound, 3 point blankets at $15.00 each, scarlet cloth at $10.00 per yard and horses cost from $150.00 to $300.00 and some as high as $500.00". Considering the fact that yearly salaries for the trappers ranged between $200.00 - $400.00 it is apparent why trapping was not necessarily a lucrative profession at least to anyone other than the company.

The location for Rendezvous was generally an expansive valley with plenty of grazing land. The number of pack animals at a Rendezvous would be immense. At the 1830 rendezvous were "ten wagons drawn by five mules each, two Dearborne carriages drawn by one mule each, and twelve head of cattle with one milch cow". This was just the supply caravan, with the addition of other pack animals and horses it would exhaust grazing land rapidly. As a consequence the Rendezvous would move around the valley to allow continued grazing. A person can only imagine what a Rendezvous location would look like after a month of festivities.

The stamina of the average trapper must have been awe-inspiring. Rendezvous was payday. July amounted a month of Friday nights. The alcohol which poured so freely was just that, alcohol diluted with water, or some ghastly variation there of. The shooting, wrestling, racing, fighting, carousing and everything imaginable was, by written account, continuous. Perhaps after nearly a month of such activity burbling streams, the slap of the beaver’s tail and quiet mountain nights were once again appealing.

After the annual rendezvous the trappers would head back into the mountains to what they called the "beaver meadows". Leaving in large groups the parties traveled along the main river valleys breaking into smaller groups of 2 to 5 trappers to work the tributary streams. This in itself helps to dispel the theory of the lone trapper. Each camp would hold up to 25 camp keepers who did the finish work on the pelts harvested during the season. This amounts to groups of around 30 trappers living and working with each other on a fairly continual basis. In all reality, any time spent staring dreamy eyed into a beaver pond included the reflection of any number of craggy faces that were all too familiar.

In the fall the harvest would begin at the headwaters of rivers and tributaries and move down toward the flat land as the waters froze over. Eventually the groups would stop and settle in to spend the winter on the plains. In the spring the pattern would reverse itself and end up back in the high country. Spring beaver was considered prime and commanded the highest price. One can safely assume there was a fair amount of competition to be the first to get to the prime harvest areas where "the beaver are as big as horses and are as many as the stars".

Joe Meek described in detail the trapping of beaver. "He has an ordinary trap weighing five pounds, attached to a chain five feet long, with a swivel ring at one end, which plays around what is called a float, a dry stick of wood, about six feet long. The trapper wades into the stream, which is shallow, and cuts with his knife a bed for the trap, five or six inches under the water. He then takes the float out the whole length of the chain in the direction of the center of the stream, and drives it into the mud, so fast that the beaver cannot draw it out; at the same time tying the other end by a thong to the bank. A small stick or twig, dipped in a mush of castor, serves as bait, and is placed so as to hang directly above the trap which is now set".

The traps were rigged at sunset and raised at dawn. It the trapper were lucky enough to have caught a beaver he would skin it on the spot and carry the pelt along with the tail and perineal gland back to the camp to be processed by the camp keepers. The furs would be fleshed out, stretched and allowed to dry for a day or two. When the pelts were dry they would be folded fur inward and marked with the company insignia then bundled into packs of 60 to 80 plews. Transporting such heavy packs was not practical so they would be cached through the winter and were picked up in the spring on the way to Rendezvous.

After freeze over in the late fall the trappers would gather to spend the winter in camp. While some trapping continued if conditions were fair or food was scarce winter would be a long drawn out affair. To the best of their ability the trappers would trade with the Indians. The more aggressive the trappers were in trading the more they could increase the year’s potential harvest. The fur companies considered any winter harvest to be very profitable. Winter was idle time and beaver accumulated through trade was valued for the fact that it did not increase operating expenses. Items used for trade by the trappers are, at best, sketchy. Considering the fact that the cost for luxury items, those of the most interest to the Indians, were exorbitant in price there must have been some truly creative trading being done. Many an hour must have been spent trying to cinch a trade worth bragging about at Rendezvous.

The trappers would try to locate their winter camps in areas with abundant game and forage for their pack animals. Numberless hours would be spent stripping bark and branches from small cottonwood trees for pack animal feed. The men relied on bison, antelope and other game, or, if times were lean, pemmican. There are accounts of times, when out of desperation, the trappers were reduced to surviving on beaver pelts, camp dogs or their moccasins. If times were truly desperate pack animals would be consumed. Considering the cost of mules and horses in the mountains this would be an action taken as a last resort. Peter Skene Ogden noted in his journals during the severe winter of 1827-1828 that he found the American trappers "starving on the Bear River". A ridiculous amount of winter snow had so limited the supply of available food that the trappers had to rely on dog and horsemeat.

Some winters were mild and full of idle time and relaxation. Osborne Russell remembered winter camps as a time the trappers lived off the fat of the land and read (if they were able). It is a misconception to think that all trappers were illiterate. There are accounts of Bibles in camps and even worn and dog-eared volumes of Shakespeare. There must have been a few trappers who went through what they considered an unbearable wait while someone slowly relished every page of a volume they wanted to read. Many an hour must have been spent listening to someone who was lucky enough to have learned how to read and was willing to share with his counterparts. Of course, it would be untruthful to assume there was any great number of books in the mountains or that reading was a predominant skill at the time. But it is just as unreasonable to assume that all trappers were borderline savages who considered culture and education to be of little or no value. It would only be natural for most of them to be home sick and to miss some of the advantages that are part of civilized society. A book would be at least a partial tie to past lives back home.

After the long winter spring would return and the trappers would once again head into the mountains to repeat the annual cycle that would culminate at the yearly Rendezvous.

Trapping was certainly a very difficult life. Scholars of the era have stated that of the 3000 or so mountain men who populated the mountains an average of 3 were lost per day to sickness, accidents, killings and attrition. We like to think that most mountain men were the likes of Jim Bridger, Hugh Glass and some of the other "hiverants" of the era but the average tenure in the mountains was only three years or less. More often than not the average mountain man grew to realize and accept the fact that the grass is the same color green on both sides of the fence. He returned home to live out his life as just another member of the masses.

We all have our heroes of the fur trade. Certainly it is worthwhile to study and to emulate their lives and careers. Bridger, Glass, Fink and others lend fascinating tales and exploits to this unique period of western history. But to serve history well and pay true honor to the mountain man we should accept the fact that, more often than not, he was a company man and not the "free trapper" so many of us love to portray. The Rendezvous, when put into context, was a period that covered only 1/12 of the time spent during the life of the average mountain man. The time that remained was spent trying to get by without becoming sick, getting lost, or going under. In all probability due to the high cost of products and accouterments the mountain mans life style was very simple and not one of flashy bead work, a huge variety of knives, bags, elaborate camps and the other trappings of modern re-enacting. There is a certain amount of fascination in simplicity and for the sake of accuracy it is well worth exploring this approach.

 

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