Leonard, Zenas

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Leonard, Zenas

Excerpt from Adventures of Zenas Leonard Fur Trader

Edited by John C. Ewers

Published in 1959

More than anything else, the growing fur trade attracted white men across the Mississippi River into the interior of North America. Fur traders, also called mountain men, had traveled over the Appalachian Mountains, around the Great Lakes, over the Rocky Mountains, and into the southwestern deserts in search of beaver pelts long before white settlers started to carve farms out of the wilderness. In the early 1800s, with the fur supply between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River depleted and settlements filling up the wilderness land, European fur trappers looked to the land beyond the Mississippi River. The Spanish, French, and British dominated the fur trade in this region when the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. After the Louisiana Purchase, Americans began to hope that expanding their involvement in the fur trade would be good for the American economy. Keeping the fur trade in mind as they searched for the Northwest Passage, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark reported on the abundance of beavers along the western rivers and their tributaries.

One of Lewis and Clark's traveling companions, John Colter (c. 1775–1813), became the first and one of the most famous American mountain men. Joining hunters Forest Hancock and Joseph Dickson as they explored the Rocky Mountains, Colter led a small American trapping party near present-day Yellowstone National Park. Later, in 1806, he led the first large fur-trading expedition to Yellowstone and became the first white man to see Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and the geysers and mudpots of Yellowstone National Park. Hundreds of trappers followed Colter as industrious Americans established new fur-trading companies. By 1810 Manuel Lisa, Andrew Henry, and Pierre Menard formed the Missouri Fur Company. Although Blackfoot Indians forced this company to abandon its efforts at the Three Forks of the Missouri River between the Jefferson and Madison Rivers, other trappers kept coming. In 1822 Andrew Henry and William H. Ashley established the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. The Rocky Mountain Fur Company's success in sending small parties of men to trap throughout the country and then gather once a year at a given place to sell pelts and buy supplies started the tradition of the yearly trappers' rendezvous (also sometimes called the mountain man rendezvous). The first rendezvous was held in 1825 on Henry's Fork of the Green River, where hundreds of trappers and friendly Indians gathered. Zenas Leonard left on his first trapping expedition in 1831. His narrative provides a glimpse into trappers' daily struggles and awesome adventures.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Zenas Leonard Fur Trader:

  • The fur trade dominated commerce in St. Louis when the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803.
  • In 1804 St. Louis had a population of about one thousand people.
  • Zenas Leonard began his trapping career with the Gantt and Blackwell Company in 1831, but the company dissolved within a year. Leonard was a free trapper for a little more than a year before joining Captain Benjamin L. E. de Bonneville's group, which lasted until Leonard's return home in 1835.

Excerpt from Zenas Leonard Fur Trader

Of the adventures of a company of 70 men, who left St. Louis in the spring of 1831, on an expedition to the Rocky Mountains, for the purpose of trapping for furs, and trading with the Indians, by one of the company, MR. ZENAS LEONARD, of Clearfield County, Pa.—comprising a minute description of the incidents of the adventure, and a valuable history of this immense territory—not from maps and charts, but from personal observation.


&c.: Etc.

The company under the command of Captains Gant and Blackwell, left St. Louis on the 24th of April, 1831. Each man was furnished with the necessary equipments for the expedition—such as traps, guns,&c.; also horses and goods of various descriptions, totrade with the Indians for furs and buffalo robes. We continued our journey in a western direction, in the state of Missouri, on the south side of the Missouri river, through a country thinly inhabited by the whites and friendly Indians, until we arrived at Fort Osage the extreme point of the white settlement. Here we remained several days and purchased and packed upa sufficiency of provision, as we then thought, for oursubsistence through the wilderness to what is called the buffalo country; a distance of about two hundred miles. From thence we proceeded up the Missouri until we arrived at the mouth of theKanzas river, where we again tarried two or three days, for the purpose of trading some goods to the Kanzas Indians for corn, moccasins, &c.

This tribe of Indians live in small huts, built of poles, covered with straw and dirt, and in shape similar to a potato hole. They cultivate the soil quite extensively, and raise very good corn, pumpkins, beans and other vegetables. The principal chief is called "White Ploom."—The nation is supposed to contain eight hundred warriors.

Fromthence we proceeded on our journey up the river. We found the country here beautiful indeed—abounding with the most delightful prairies, with here and there a small brook, winding its way to the river, the margins of which are adorned with the lofty pine and cedar tree. These prairies were completely covered with fine low grass, and decorated with beautiful flowers of various colors; and some of them are so extensive and clear of timber and brush that the eye might search in vain for an object to rest upon. I have seen beautiful and enchanting sceneries depicted by the artist, but never anything to equal the work ofrude nature in those prairies. In the spring of the year when the grass is green and the blossoms fresh, they present an appearance, which for beauty and charms, is beyond the art of man to depict....

A sufficiency of provision

A sufficiency of provision: Enough supplies.


Subsistence: Survival.


Kanzas: Misspelling of Kansas.


Thence: There.


Rude: Robust or rugged.

....Several scouting parties were sent out in search of beaver signs, who returned in a few days and reported that they had found beaver signs, &c. Captain Gant then gave orders to make preparations for trapping. Accordingly the company was divided into parties of fifteen to twenty men in each party, with their respective captains placed over them—and directed by Captain Gant in what direction to go. Captain Washburn ascended the Timber Fork; Captain Stephens the Laramies; Captain Gant the Sweet Water—all of which empty into the river Platte near the same place. Each of these companies were directed to ascend these rivers until they found beaver sufficiently plenty for trapping, or till the snow and cold weather

Zenas Leonard

Born March 19, 1809, at the mouth of Clearfield Creek in Pennsylvania, Zenas Leonard had the genes of an adventurer. His grandfather had immigrated to the British colonies from Ireland before the Revolutionary War. Trading with the Native Americans for a time to earn his living, he later settled into farming. Zenas's father, Abraham, carved out a farm on the frontier for his nine children and his wife Elizabeth. Zenas Leonard was uninterested in making his living "picking stones"—as he described farming—and decided to see what the city could offer. Leonard left his family's home in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, and walked to Pittsburgh in the spring of 1830, where he worked for a time as a clerk in his uncle's store. In the city, he heard stories of the fur trade. Leonard soon left for St. Louis, the central point of the fur trade, to try his luck in that adventurous industry. As a clerk for Gantt and Blackwell, a trapping company with aspirations of competing with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and the American Fur Company, Leonard got his first taste of the fur trade. He left on his first expedition on April 24, 1831. His narrative describes his adventurous four years in the Rocky Mountains as a clerk and trapper.

When Leonard returned to his family's home nearly five years after leaving, his friends and neighbors couldn't hear enough about his adventures in the West. Leonard found himself telling his story over and over. Finally, he decided to write it down for one and all to read. Though much of the narrative was written from memory and from the diaries of traveling companions, the first publisher of Leonard's narrative, D. W. Moore, noted his faith in the truthfulness of Leonard's account: "[I]ndeed, among the many who heard the narrative from his own lips, we have yet to hear the first one say they disbelieve it. At all events, in its perusal, the reader will encounter no improbabilities, much less impossibilities:—hence it is but reasonable to suppose that in traversing such a wilderness as lays west of the Rocky Mountains, such hardships, privations and dangers as those described by Mr. Leonard, must necessarily be encountered." Published in 1839, Moore's testimony highlights this narrative's usefulness to those interested in exploring or settling the West.

Engaged in secreting our merchandise

Engaged in secreting our merchandise: Busy hiding their supplies.

compelled them to stop; at which event they were to return to the mouth of the Laramies River, to pass the winter together. While at this place,engaged in secreting our merchandise, which we did by digging a hole in the ground sufficiently large to contain them, and covering them over so that the Indians might not discover them—four men (three whites and one Indian) came to our tent. This astonished us not a little, for a white man was the last of living beings that we expected to visit us in this vast wilderness—where nothing was heard from dark to daylight but the fierce and terrifying growls of wild beasts, and the more shrill cries of themerciless savages. Theprincipal of these men was a Mr. Fitzpatrick, who had been engaged in trapping along the Columbia River, on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, and was then on his way to St. Louis. He was an old hand at the business and we expected to obtain some useful information from him, but we were disappointed. The selfishness of man is often disgraceful to human nature; and I never saw more striking evidence of this fact, than was presented in the conduct of this man Fitzpatrick.Notwithstanding we had treated him with great friendship and hospitality, merely because we were to engage in the same business with him, which he knewwe never could exhaust or even impair —he refused to give us any information whatever, and appeared disposed to treat us as intruders. On the 3d of September, Captain Blackwell, with two others, joined Fitzpatrick, and started back to the state of Missouri, for an additional supply of merchandise, and were to return in the summer of 1832....

On New Years Day, notwithstanding our horses were nearly all dead, as being fully satisfied that the few that were yet living must die soon, we concluded to have a feast in our best style; for which purpose we made preparation by sending out four of our best hunters, to get a choice piece of meat for the occasion. These men killed ten buffalo, from which they selected one of the fattest humps they could find and brought in, and after roasting it handsomely before the fire, we all seated ourselves upon the ground, encircling, what we there called a splendidrepast to dine upon. Feasting sumptuously, cracking a few jokes, taking a few rounds with our rifles, and wishing heartily for some liquor, having none at that place, we spent the day....

Merciless savages

Merciless savages: Leonard is referring negatively to Native Americans.


Principal: Leader.


Notwithstanding: Although.

We never could exhaust or even impair

We never could exhaust or even impair: They couldn't use up all of the beaver; Leonard is saying there were enough beaver for all the trappers.


Repast: Meal.

....In the meantime, Smith, Fully, and myself were busily engaged in trapping on the tributary streams of the river Platte. We encountered much difficulty and danger in this excursion, from wild beasts and hostile Indians. One circumstance with a bear I must relate:—On a pleasant summer evening, when nothing seemed disposed to disturb the tranquility of our forest home, we built a fire under the cliff of a large rock, on the bank of a small creek, to roast some buffalo meat. After having cooked and eat our evening repast, I was standing close to the rock, apart from the other men ten ortwelve feet—all at once one of them jumped up and ran off, exclaiming "the bear," "the bear!" I instantly cast my eyes to the top of theprecipice, where they encountered this hideous monster seated on the rock with his mouth wide open, and his eyes sparkling like fire. My whole frame shook with agitation. I knew that to attempt to run would be certain death. My gun was standing against a tree within my reach, and after calling for the aid of my companions, I raised my rifle to my face and taking deliberate aim at the most fatal spot, fired—which broughtSir Bruin to the ground. In the meantime Smith and Fully came to my assistance, and also discharged the contents of their rifles into his head.


Precipice: A steep mass of rock, such as the face of a cliff.

Sir Bruin

Sir Bruin: The bear; bruin is another word for bear.


Secreted: Hidden.

In a few days afterwards we were joined by the rest of the company, who, havingsecreted the fur, &c., at the mouth of the Laramies River, had come in search of us. We now, for the first time, got a knowledge of the conduct of Stephens relative to our fur. The men informed us of the contract between them and Stephens. [Stephens had earlier guaranteed these men an equal share of the furs caught by Smith, Fully, and Leonard.] We answered thatwe could agree to no such contract—that the fur belonged to us, and that we intended to keep it. They then devised other means to secure their share of 150 beaver skins (the whole number we had caught). Stephens then told the men that he would not be accountable for any of the fur, and the only way to obtain any of it, was to take it by force. Seeing the folly of further resistance—18 against 3—we were obliged to surrender our earnings, which they took and divided equally among themselves. The next day we left this companyat whose hands we had received such ill treatment, and returned to the mouth of the Laramies, with the expectation of meeting Captain Gant—but we were sadly mistaken—on our arrival there no traces of Capt. G.'s company could be discovered....

....After traveling a few miles this morning, some of the men, in taking a view of the country before us, discovered something like people upon horses, who appeared to be coming toward us. After continuing in the same direction for some time we came in view with the naked eye, when we halted. They advanced towards us displaying a British flag. This we could not comprehend; but on coming closer discovered them to be hostile Indians. We immediatelydespatched a messenger back to therendezvous for reinforcements and prepared ourselves for defense. The Indians commenced building a fort in the timber on the bank of the river; but at the time we were not aware of what they were doing. After waiting here a few hours we were reinforced by two hundred whites, two hundred Flatheads, and three hundred Nez Perces Indians. The Indians with the British flag, on seeing such a number of people galloping down the plain at full speed, immediately retreated within their fort, whither they were hotly pursued. The friendly Indians soon discovered them to belong to the Blackfeet tribe, who are decidedly the most numerous and warlike tribe in the mountains, and for this reason are not disposed to have any friendlyintercourse with any other nation of an inferior number, unless they are good warriors and well armed with guns, &c. We thought we could rush right on them and drive them out of the brush into the plain and have a decisive battle at once. We advanced with all possible speed, and a full determination of success, until we discovered their fort byreceiving a most destructive fire from the enclosure . This throwed our ranks into complete confusion, and we all retreated into the plain, with the loss of five whites, eight Flatheads and ten Nez Perces Indians killed, besides a large number of whites and Indians wounded. The formation of their fort astonished all hands. We had been within a few hundred yards of them all day and did not discover that they were building it. It was large enough to contain five hundred warriors; and built strong enough to resist almost any attempt we might make toforce it . After dressing the wounded, and havingreconnoitered their fort, our forces were divided into severaldetachments , and sent in different directions with the intention of surrounding the fort and making them prisoners. This was done under thesuperintendence of Fitzpatrick, who acted as commander-in-chief.


Despatched: Spelled dispatched; sent with a specific purpose.


Rendezvous: Designated meeting place.


Intercourse: Communication.

Receiving a most destructive fire from the enclosure

Receiving a most destructive fire from the enclosure: They were being shot at by Blackfeet who were in the fort.

Force it

Force it: Penetrate the fort.


Reconnoitered: Inspected; gained more information about.


Detachments: Units or divisions.


Superintendence: Supervision, direction, or authority.

Fashion Spurs Exploration

The hunt for beaver pelts that drew so many mountain men onto the western frontier was driven primarily by the demands of the fashion industry. The beavers' underfur was prized for making waterproof felt hats. In the 1820s and 1830s, the height of the beaver pelt trade in North America, hatters would pay between $6.00 and $9.00 per pelt, while on the frontier the pelts themselves were exchanged as currency.

By the 1840s, however, overtrapping of beaver and changes in fashion put the fur trade in jeopardy; the industry was no longer profitable. Many ex-trappers remained in the western territories they knew so well, establishing farms or general trading posts in the Rocky Mountains, or helping settlers make the journey westward.


Estimation: Opinion.


Electioneering: Campaigning.


Circuitous: Roundabout.


Breastwork: Temporary fort.


Balls: Bullets.


Approbation: Approval.


Pretext: Professed purpose, excuse.

A continual fire was kept up

A continual fire was kept up: Both sides continued shooting at each other.

In a case of this kind any man not evincing the greatest degree of courage and every symptom of bravery, is treated as a coward; and the person who advances first, furthest and fastest, and makes the greatest display of animal courage, soon rises in theestimation of his companions. Accordingly with the hope of gaining a little glory while an opportunity offered, though not for anyelectioneering purpose, as a politician in the States would do—I started into the brush, in company with two acquaintances (Smith and Kean) and two Indians. We made acircuitous route and came towards the fort from a direction which we thought we would be least expected. We advanced closer and closer, crawling upon our hands and knees, with the intention of giving them a select shot; and when within about forty yards of theirbreastwork, one of our Indians was shot dead. At this we all lay still for some time, but Smith's foot happening to shake the weeds as he was laying on his belly, was shot through. I advanced a little further, but finding theballs to pass too quick and close, concluded to retreat. When I turned, I found that my companions had deserted me. In passing by, Smith asked me to carry him out, which met myapprobation precisely, for I was glad to get out of this unpleasant situation under anypretext —provided my reputation for courage would not be questioned. After getting him on my back, still crawling on my hands and knees, I came across Kean, lying near where the first Indian fell, who was mortally wounded and died soon after. I carried Smith to a place of safety and then returned to the siege.A continual fire was kept up, doing more or less execution on both sides until late in the afternoon, when we advanced to close quarters, having nothing but the thickness of their breastwork between us, and having them completely surrounded on all sides to prevent any escaping. This position we maintained until sunset, in the meantime having made preparations to set fire to the fort, which was built principally of old dry logs, as soon as night would set in, and stationed men at the point where we thought they would be most likelyto make the first break, for the purpose of taking them on the wing, in their flight. Having made all these preparations, which were to put an end to all furthermolestation on the part of the Blackfeet, our whole scheme and contemplated victory was frustrated by a most ingenious and well executed device of the enemy. A few minutes before the torch was to be applied, our captives commenced the most tremendous yells and shouts of triumph, and menaces of defiance, which seemed to move heaven and earth. Quick as thought a report spread through all quarters, that the plain was covered with Blackfeet Indians coming to reinforce thebesieged. So complete was theconsternation in our ranks, created by thisstratagem, that in five minutes afterward there was not a single white man, Flathead, or Nez Perces Indian within a hundred yards of the fort. Every man thought only of his own security and run for life without ever looking round, which would at once have convinced him of his folly. In a short time it wasascertained that it was only a stratagem, and our men began to collect together where our baggage was. I never shall forget the scene here exhibited. The rage of some was unbounded, and approached to madness. For my own part, although I felt much regret at the result after so much toil and danger, yet I could not but give the savages credit for the skill they displayed in preserving their lives, at the very moment when desperation, as we thought, had seized the mind of each of them.

By the time we weremade sensible of the full extent of our needless alarm, it had began to get dark; and on ascertaining the extent of the injury which we received (having lost 32 killed, principally Indians), it was determined not to again attempt to surround the fort, which was a sore disappointment to some of the men who were keen forchastising the Indians for their trick....

April 10th. Beaver we found in abundance—catching more or less every day, and everything seemed to promise a profitable business ...

... About the 10th of June we suspended our trapping and returned to Wind River, where we found Captain Bonneville and his men waiting for us according to appointment, at the mouth of Popoasia Creek.


Molestation: Attack.


Besieged: Those surrounded by hostile forces.


Consternation: Confusion.


Stratagem: A military maneuver designed to deceive or surprise an enemy.


Ascertained: Learned or discovered.

Made sensible of

Made sensible of: Understood.


Chastising: Punishing.


Peltries: Animal Skins.

Here we encamped for a few days, until we could collect ourpeltries together and make a divide—having sent some of our men to bring our merchandise, &c., from the place where we had deposited it, who succeeded without any difficulty.... We now set about packing and sorting our furs, &c., and making arrangements for the ensuing year—such as paying off hands, hiring them for another term, and apportioning the different companies. Captain Walker, withfifty-nine men, was to continue trapping in this country for one year from this time, and Captain Bonneville, with the remainder, taking all the peltries we had collected, and which were packed upon horses and mules, was to go to the States and return in the summer of 1836, with as strong a force as he could collect, and a large supply of merchandise, and meet Captain Walker in this neighborhood.

On parting this time, many of the men were at a loss to know what to do. Many were anxious to return to the States, but feared to do so, lest the offended law might hold them responsible for misdemeanors committed previous to their embarking in the trapping business, and others could not be persuaded to do so for any price—declaring that a civilized life had no charms for them. Although I intended to return to the mountains again, I was particularly anxious to first visit the States lest I should also forget the blessings of civilized society, and was very thankful when I found myself in Captain Bonneville's company, on the march towards the rising sun. As we traveled along we killed all the game we could, this being necessary, as provision is very scarce on the course we intended to pursue between the village of the Pawnee Indians and the white settlements. About the 25th of July we arrived on the Platte River, which we followed down until we arrived at the Pawnee Village, situated about one hundred and fifty miles from where the Platte River empties into the Missouri. After trading with these Indians for some corn, we left them and traveled rapidly every day until we arrived in Independence (Mo.), which is the extreme western white settlement, on the 29th of August, 1835—after being absent four years, four months, and five days. [Ewers, pp. 3–4, 8–9, 14, 27–28, 42–45, 58, 160–61]

What happened next . . .

By 1831 large numbers of free trappers as well as the American Fur Company competed for a share of the mountain fur trade. So many trappers combed the western rivers by 1839 that the scarcity of beavers made the mountain trappers' yearly rendezvous unprofitable. Within a few decades the American fur-trading industry had ended. Although the furs could no longer be found in sufficient abundance, the trappers' stories about the western regions continued to filter throughout the country. The U.S. government became curious about the potential for spreading settlements across the West and perhaps finding other natural sources of revenue. With their expert knowledge of the otherwise unknown reaches of the country, many of the trappers went on to act as guides for explorers who mapped the West or to lead overland wagon trains that began traveling across the Mississippi River.

The mountain men's stories had sparked the imaginations of many curious and adventurous people, but the reports of government-sponsored explorers made the seemingly impossible real. The vivid descriptions of distant places enticed many to risk leaving the security of civilization to strike out on their own.

Did you know . . .

  • In 1807 Manuel Lisa constructed the first U.S. trading post on the Upper Missouri River at Fort Raymond in Montana.
  • The rendezvous, a gathering at which trappers and Indians sold their goods and bought supplies, was the most important social and business event of the American fur trade from the 1820s to the 1830s.
  • The annual American fur trade with China surpassed $5 million in 1806.
  • John Jacob Astor chartered the American Fur Company in 1808. It became the largest U.S. fur-trading company in 1827.
  • In 1840 the U.S. fur trapping industry deteriorated due to beaver depletion and shifts in fashion toward silk hats.

Consider the following . . .

  • Did Leonard find trapping a profitable business?
  • What were Leonard's experiences with Native Americans?
  • Did Leonard find the frontier an easy place to live?
  • Was there camaraderie between trappers?
  • How did Leonard account for his bravery during the battle with the Blackfeet?

For More Information

Chittenden, Hiram Martin. The American Fur Trade of the Far West. 3 vols. New York: F. P. Harper, 1902.

Ferris, Warren Angus. Life in the Rocky Mountains; a Diary of Wanderings on the Sources of the Rivers Missouri, Columbia, and Colorado from February, 1830, to November, 1835. Edited by Paul C. Phillips. Denver: F. A. Rosenstock, Old West Pub. Co., 1940.

Leonard, Zenas. Adventures of Zenas Leonard Fur Trader. Edited by John C. Ewers. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959.

Leonard, Zenas. Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard, a Native of Clearfield County, Pa. Who Spent Five Years in Trappin for Furs, Trading with the Indians, &c., &c., of the Rocky Mountains: Written by Himself. Clearfield, PA: D.W. Moore, 1839.

O'Neil, Paul. The Frontiersmen. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1977.

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