Fur Traders and Mountain Men

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Fur Traders and Mountain Men

After explorers Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838) led the first expedition of white explorers across the western half of North America in 1804–6, a large group of hardy adventurers prepared to head west. (See Lewis and Clark Expedition .) From Lewis and Clark's reports they had learned that the West was teeming with beavers, and they wished to make their fortune. After forging routes through the wilderness, the mountain men played a large role in the westward migration of American settlers.

The beaver trade

At that time, beaver hats were all the rage in Europe, providing an excellent market for the plentiful American beaver. But hunting for beaver in the American West was difficult and very dangerous. It required a very rugged type of individual to forge pathways through the western wilderness in search of beavers.

In 1822, businessman William Henry Ashley (c. 1778–1838), the lieutenant governor of Missouri , placed a newspaper advertisement calling for one hundred “Enterprising Young Men … to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two, or three years.” The men who responded to this ad became known as mountain men. Only about fifteen hundred men ever held this position.

Most mountain men worked for Ashley. Most received only a portion of the proceeds of their catch, but in turn, Ashly supplied them with the equipment necessary to trap beaver. Another group, Ashley's “free trappers,” received no wages and had no obligation to Ashley. He guaranteed to meet these hunters in the mountains and buy their furs at fixed prices. Ashley established a meeting, called the rendezvous (French for

“get-together”), as a means to collect furs and resupply the trappers. The rendezvous system allowed the mountain men to remain in the beaver-rich country year-round.

Every summer from 1825 to 1840, a four- to six-week rendezvous was held in a carnival-like atmosphere, combining trade with recreation. Supply trains of mules and wagons came from Missouri, and a year's trading was accomplished efficiently. However, many mountain men spent most of the money they received for the whole year's take of furs on drinking and entertainment at the rendezvous.

The mountain life

Mountain men's work took them far away from most European American settlements. Many mountain men married Native American women and learned Native American life and customs. Generally mountain men were rough and looked it. They wore their hair long, grew beards, and had weathered features. Their clothes were usually made of buckskin. The work was dangerous; Indians killed some five hundred mountain men over the three decades when the trade was booming. Others died in accidents or severe weather.

Mountain men were so good at what they did that the American beaver had nearly disappeared by 1840. By that time, beaver hats went out of style and the fur trade was finished. But the mountain men continued to work in the wilderness. They were very familiar with paths through the West and when people began to migrate to Oregon and California in the early 1840s, the mountain men became their guides. Leading pioneers over roads they had created themselves, they were instrumental in opening up the West for U.S. settlement.

Legendary mountain men

Mountain men captured the American imagination. To some they symbolized the rugged freedom of the frontier. In American novelist James Fenimore Cooper ‘s (1789–1851) The Prairie (1827), fur trapper Leatherstocking is possessed of natural virtue like the wilderness that surrounds him. Some writers, on the other hand, viewed the trappers as savages.

The most legendary of mountain men was Christopher “Kit” Carson (1809–1868), who gained fame first as John Frémont 's (1813–1890) scout during his expeditions into the Far West. In Frémont's reports of his expeditions into the Rocky Mountains, Oregon, and northern California, Carson appears as a real-life Leatherstocking figure, a brave but humble man of the wilderness. Carson soon became the subject of a number of biographies, novels, and sketches, and these accounts of his daring and skill became the model for many western heroes to come. Later, historians challenged this heroic image of Carson, arguing that he took part in monstrous brutality committed against the Navajo and others.

Jedediah Strong Smith (1799–1831) was twenty-two years old when he was hired by Ashley to go West with the first large group of mountain men. Smith later led the first party of white explorers to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California. He was killed by Comanches in 1831.

Jim Beckwourth (1798–1866), who was born a slave, joined one of Ashley's expeditions to the Rocky Mountains and the Far West in 1824. He lived for several years with the Crow Indians and opened a pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Beckwourth later narrated his autobiography to Thomas D. Bonner. The book, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation (1856), was an astonishing chronicle of adventure and of life among the Crow. Some, however, noted Beckwourth's tendency to glorify his own deeds.

Another teller of tall tales, Jim Bridger (1804–1881), went on his first Ashley expedition at the age of seventeen in 1822. He is considered the first white man to have seen Yellowstone Park and its geysers. During his long career as a mountain man, he married Flathead, Snake, and Ute wives and was highly respected as a master of Native American ways and a walking atlas of the northern Rockies.