The Trans-Mississippi Fur Trade
The Trans-Mississippi Fur Trade
Desire for Peltry . The Trans-Mississippi commerce in animal pelts took three basic forms: the Upper Missouri River fur trade, the Rocky Mountain trapping system, and the independent trappers of the southern Rockies. Sent by President Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark journeyed up the Missouri River to, among other things, discover the potential for an American fur trade in the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase. Reports of their expedition set off a flurry of American-based excursions into the northern plains. In 1807 Manuel Lisa established the first American trading post in Montana. There, Lisa and his men traded supplies for furs with natives.
American Fur Company . By 1822 five leading fur companies worked the upper Missouri in hopes of profiting from sales in beaver skins. Only five years later John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company developed a virtual monopoly among American firms on the northern plains. It was seriously challenged only by the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company operating out of Canada. Astor’s company set up three main posts along the Missouri River. The men at these posts shuttled supplies to subsidiary depots where goods could then be transferred to temporary camps. At all of these stations the Americans exchanged manufactured goods for the furs brought in by the Indians.
Transatlantic Business . The Upper Missouri fur trade extended from the northern plains to St. Louis, Missouri, and from there to eastern cities and Europe. St. Louis was the linchpin of the system. Merchants shipped trade goods such as woolen cloth, metal items,
and guns to this city from the east. From St. Louis the Americans brought the merchandise up river, first by keelboat, and then after 1831, by steamboat to the various trading posts. Traders and their employees loaded the furs and hides obtained from the Indians onto a variety of boats and floated their parcels downriver. After reaching St. Louis, merchants shipped the beaver pelts to New York City by way of New Orleans or eastward along the Ohio River. The final destination of many pelts was in Europe, often markets in England or Germany. Trading companies transported bison hides to eastern cities in the United States, such as New York and Boston, where manufacturers turned these skins into clothing and blankets. As the number of Western beaver dwindled in the 1830s, bison robes became increasingly important to the survival of the Upper Missouri trade.
Rocky Mountain Trading System . From the point of view of the people in charge of the fur companies, the limitation of the trading post system was its reliance on Native Americans. If the Indians refused to accumulate as many furs as the Americans wanted, or if they chose to sell to the British, there was little that the St. Louis-based merchants could do. So in 1823 William Ashley created the Rocky Mountain trapping system by sending out groups of Americans to trap beavers on their own—thereby bypassing the Indians altogether. After a successful season of trapping, these mountain men gathered in a river valley during the summer, at a place called the Rendezvous, to exchange furs for supplies that Ashley, and later others, had brought upriver.
Workers . Famous mountain men such as Jedediah Smith and Jim Bridger helped build and extend the Rocky Mountain trapping system. Myths and legends built around these and other men placed a thick layer of romance over a brutally exploitative economic arrangement. Profit at almost any cost was the goal for many Americans involved in the fur trade. The “free trappers” gathered pelts and sold them at the Rendezvous while others, called engagés, worked directly as salaried employees for one of the fur companies. Another group, “skin trappers,” went out after obtaining credit from a company for their supplies. These men could easily fall into debt. In fact, most trappers made very little money; in the end the profits in this enterprise went almost exclusively
to the companies who supplied the trade goods from St. Louis.
Southwestern Fur Trade. The mountain men of the southern Rockies worked largely as free trappers. They began to rove the Southwest after Mexico declared its independence in 1821. Based in Taos and Santa Fe, men such as Kit Carson would scour the mountain streams for beaver. Less organized than the companies to the north, these trappers sold their goods (often illegally) to the merchants traveling the new Santa Fe Trail. What ended the trapping in the southern Rockies was a problem endemic to the whole trade: the depletion of resources—in this case the animals themselves.
Decline of the Trade . The entire fur trade was inherently temporary. The reckless quest for profit by competing trappers and companies ensured the rapid exhaustion of the slow-breeding furbearers. American and Indian trappers stripped streams and rivers of beavers throughout the West. As a result each year those involved in this commerce had to look harder and farther in order to gain any pelts. In the long run, the system collapsed. Prices for beaver plummeted in the 1830s, and they were saved from extinction. Changing fashions encouraged the well-dressed in America and Europe to wear silk hats. The beaver hat became a thing of the past. By 1840 the Rocky Mountain and Southwestern trapping systems had disappeared. The Upper Missouri trade only survived because entrepreneurs relied more heavily on the bison trade. Again, it was largely the Native American Indians, such as the Cheyenne, who supplied the skins to the Americans. Before 1860 the whole structure depended on Indian women to prepare the bison robes for sale to the Americans. Since these women only processed so many hides in any given year, the trade remained limited. Still, with the gradual reduction of habitat by the arrival on the Plains of settlers, the extension of the railroads westward, drought, diseases, and overhunting by Indian and American hunters, the vast bison herds of the Great Plains (numbering at least 25 million at one time) virtually vanished by the early 1880s.
David J.Wishart, The Fur Trade of the American West, 1807–1840 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979).