Fur Trappers Settle the West

Written by on February 18, 2013 in Southwest Characters - Comments Off on Fur Trappers Settle the West

Before the miners and the shopkeepers, before the trains and settlers, the first intrepid souls to visit the West were the fur trappers. Their life was as solitary and as dangerous as it got in those days. These men explored the West where few others besides the Native Americans dared to tread. Their trails helped blaze the way for the wagon roads that brought pioneers to settle the plains and mountain valleys.

The life of a trapper was hard, with the danger on all side … rough terrain, wild animals, dangerous storms, raging rivers, disease, deprivation and sometimes hostile Native tribes. The romantic image of the trapper dressed in a buckskin coat and pants and sporting a coon skin cap is just that, a romantic image. The men actually wore woolen hats and cloaks, Indian-style leather breeches and shirts and more often than not, moccasins, although they did use heavy boots in rough terrain. Each man carried his supplies including guns, knives, hatchet, canteen, cooking utensils and food supplies. Each trapper had at least one horse or mule to carrying his supplies and furs.

Trappers were most common in the Rocky Mountains from about 1810 through the 1880s (with a peak population in the early 1840s). Approximately 3,000 mountain men ranged the Colorado Rockies between 1820 and 1840, which was the peak of the beaver-harvesting period. You’ll probably recognize some of the most famous names like Kit Carson, John Colter, Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith and John “Liver-Eating” Johnson (elements of his story were portrayed in the film Jeremiah Johnson). The men scouted for fur animals during the summer months, but waited until late fall or winter, when the animal fur was thickest, to trap, skin and cure the hides.

Our image of the solitary trapper, living free without a care in the world, is slightly inaccurate. A large percent of trappers were in the employ of the large fur companies like the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and the North West Company. In fact, the men grouped together, hunted and trapped in brigades and always reported to the head of the trapping party. These groups had a quota to make and they were determined to make it, come hell or high water.

Every summer, the trappers would gather at a Rendezvous. Deep in a canyon concealed by high walls, with a passage wide enough only for a man and his mule, the Native Americans and the trappers would gather in a place called Brown’s Hole in northwestern Colorado. The green valley made an ideal rendezvous spot for trappers to bring their wares, to trade to the big fur companies or with the Native Americans, and to pick up supplies for another year. The largest and most famous rendezvous spot was just outside Pinedale, Wyoming. But smaller rendezvous spots were scattered all over the Southwest and up into Canada, from the Boise River Valley, to the Upper Green River Rendezvous site and many more.

Sadly, mountain men and trappers all but disappeared by 1850. The Hudson Bay Company of Canada set out to destroy the American fur market. They offered manufactured goods to the trappers at prices far lower than the American fur companies and literally wiped out the competition. At the same time, the fashion in Europe shifted away from beaver hats. The last American rendezvous was held in 1840.

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