The Fur Trade in Wyoming

News spread of the trade’s potential profits. Small, relatively inconsequential firms such as those led by Robert Bean and Alexander Sinclair, Benjamin Bonneville, or Nathanial Wyeth attempted to garner a share in the take. But it was the giant American Fur Company (AFC) that offered the greatest competition. This Astor conglomerate established a series of trading posts, and put men in the field to go toe-to-toe with rival trappers—and pretty much took control of the industry. Even though Astor sold out in 1834, his successors continued to command the bulk of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. [23]

When Astor sold his interest in the AFC, one of his main partisans, Ramsay Crooks, bought the portion of the business that operated on the upper Missouri River and the Great Lakes area. Pratte, Chouteau and Company, in St. Louis, purchased the remainder, becoming known as the Western Department of the AFC. Pierre Chouteau, a French-American who had been active in the St. Louis-based fur trade for many years, would become the major supplier for most of the rendezvous after 1834. Chouteau became a dominant force in the fur trade, establishing a strong network of posts throughout the west. [24]

The growing competition brought in more and more permanent trading posts. Often called “forts,” the first of these in what’s now Wyoming was Fort Bonneville, on the upper Green near present Daniel, Wyoming, built in 1832 by Benjamin Bonneville while on leave from the U.S. military. Its use was short lived, however. Fort William, on the Laramie River, was the first permanent trading post in the state. Built in 1834 by William Sublette, it would later be renamed Fort Laramie and become a frontier base for the U.S. military. About the same time, Antonio Montero established what was familiarly known as the Portuguese Houses in the Powder River Basin near present-day Kaycee. A few years after the effective end of the fur trade, mountaineers Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez constructed Fort Bridger on the Black’s Fork of the Green, which became an integral trading post for emigrant travelers along the Oregon, California and Mormon trails. [25]

Alfred Jacob Miller, an artist employed by the Scottish nobleman Sir William Drummond Stewart, 18th Lord of Grantully and 6th Baronet of Murthly, left the only visual record of the mountain fur trade from a first-hand perspective. [26] Stewart, a former British army captain toured the west in grand style, involving himself in fur trade activities for several years. Stewart brought Miller along in 1837 to document the trip. His paintings are the only representation of life during the Rocky Mountain fur trade painted by someone who was actually there. [27]

Fashions, of course, change. The ideal hat morphed from felt to silk in the mid-1830s. Just as well, in many respects, for beaver populations throughout the Rocky Mountains had been nearly wiped out. At the same time, less expensive furs with nearly identical felting capacity, the pelts of the nutria, were being imported from South America. The demand for beaver decreased dramatically and it was difficult to maintain a living based solely on trapping beaver. The last official rendezvous was held in 1840. [28]

Meanwhile, growing traffic over the route the early trappers had found, South Pass, wore a path that eventually became the Oregon/California/Mormon Trail. Many of the routes initially developed by trappers were soon finding use by others. Wagons made their way to the rendezvous of 1830, east of the Continental Divide, and were finally brought over South Pass for the first time by Benjamin Bonneville in 1832. His wagons were followed in ensuing years by the wagons of missionaries including Marcus and Narcissa Whitman in 1836, and Cushing Eells two years later. These parties also brought the first white women into Wyoming. By 1840, the year of the last rendezvous, wagons bound further west were becoming a regular sight. [29]

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About the Author

Jim Hardee, of Teton Valley, Idaho, is editor of the “The Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Journal,” a scholarly, peer-reviewed publication, and director of the Fur Trade Research Center. He has presented research papers at symposiums and conferences across the nation, and his many books include “Pierre's Hole! The Fur Trade History of Teton Valley, Idaho.”

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