Road to Rendezvous: The Rocky Mountain Fur Trade in 1834
On the first of June 1834, about 60 men and a caravan of horses and pack mules splashed across the Laramie River. They were headed for rendezvous in the mountains — the big summer fur-trading fair — and they were late. This mattered most to their leader, a Massachusetts merchant named Nathaniel Wyeth. He had outfitted this caravan with beaver traps, pots, pans, awls, axes, needles, knives, guns, cloth, beads, mirrors, and luxuries like coffee, sugar, whiskey, and ribbons.
These he planned to trade to Indians and to white trappers for their furs. He had thought he had a contract that guaranteed he would be the only seller of trade goods at the fair. But on the way west from Missouri, a second caravan had passed him. Wyeth knew that the caravan that got to rendezvous first would get the business. If he was late, he might be unable to pay all these men who were working for him, and might lose all his pofits too.
As they crossed the river and came up the far bank, they found to their surprise about a dozen men building a fort — cutting cottonwood logs, dragging them into position with horses, and digging holes to set the logs in to make a stockade. The other caravan had left these men behind with a smaller load of trade goods, to build a fort and start trading out of it with the Indians. In coming years, this post would come to be known as Fort Laramie. The route they were following would come to be known as the Oregon Trail. But none of this mattered to Wyeth. Now he had even more reason to worry. The trade goods left behind here meant the caravan ahead of him could travel that much faster. Now it would be even harder to catch.
As soon as Europeans came to the coasts of North America, they began trading for furs with the people who already lived here. Eventually they built trading posts where rivers joined lakes, or joined other rivers. Trade goods were shipped upriver from the coasts by canoe or keelboat. Furs were shipped back down the same way. Trappers, mostly Indians, brought furs to the posts and traded them for the goods the storekeepers had to offer. It was big business. River cities like New York, Montreal, and St. Louis grew rich on it. France and England fought a long war for it in the mid 1700s. Later, the big fur companies fought small wars with each other to control the trade.
By 1800, the business reached worldwide. Trade goods from factories in England, France, or Italy were shipped to North America by sea. Furs were shipped back the same way. In Europe, the furs sold for high prices. Soon, factories in New England were making trade goods, too. Merchants in Boston and New York sent ships all the way around Cape Horn at the tip of South America to the mouth of the Columbia River on North America’s west coast. The crews traded there for furs, and then sailed for China. In China they traded the furs for silks, then sailed home around the southern tip of Africa. When things went right, the profits were huge.
By now, most of the trade depended on a single animal, the beaver. Beaver fur is coarse on top, but a second layer underneath is soft and velvety. The fibers were pressed together to make felt, and the felt shaped into a tough, comfortable, waterproof hat. No man of style in Europe or the United States was without a beaver hat.
When President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark out to explore the Louisiana Purchase, he wanted the Indians along the way to know they could now trade with Americans for furs. A few years later, a New York fur merchant, John Jacob Astor, sent a ship filled with trade goods to the mouth of the Columbia, and a second party overland to meet the ship. On the coast they built a post, called Astoria, and planned to establish many more in the interior. But the War of 1812 broke out. Astor lost the post to the British, who turned it over to the Hudson’s Bay Company of Canada.
After the war, Astor’s American Fur Company quickly came to dominate all the American fur trade south of Canada. Astor’s company and the Canadian companies continued to work the old way, with posts along rivers and lake shores to which Indians would bring the furs, and with everything shipped in and out by water. But he old system left a fur-trade vacuum in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Two Missourians, William Ashley and Andrew Henry, figured they could make money by hiring beaver trappers to live in the mountains year round.
Every spring they sent the men the supplies they needed, overland, on the backs of pack mules. Every summer, the trappers would gather and trade their furs for tools, supplies, and luxuries at rendezvous.
The rendezvous in general were pretty wild. Most were held in the valley of the Green River, in what’s now southwestern Wyoming, and lasted about two weeks. Besides the trading, there was a lot of socializing to do. Traders, trappers, and their Indian customers, friends, and families, ate, drank, gambled, staged horse and foot races, quarreled, fought, and made love. Confined to his tent with a fever, John Kirk Townsend, a scientist traveling with Wyeth, called it “bedlam”— something like craziness.
There is … a great variety of personages amongst us, most of them calling themselves white men, French-Canadians, half-breeds, &c., their color nearly as dark, and their manners wholly as wild, as the Indians with whom they constantly associate. These people, with their obstreperous mirth, their whooping and howling, and quarrelling, added to the mounted Indians, who are constantly dashing into and through our camp, yelling like fiends, the barking and baying of savage wolf-dogs, and the incessant cracking of rifles and carbines, render our camp a perfect bedlam. I . . . am compelled all day to listen to the hiccoughing jargon of drunken traders, the sacré and foutre [French swear words; many more of the traders and trappers spoke French than English] of Frenchmen run wild, and the swearing and screaming of our own men, who are scarcely less savage than the rest, being heated by the detestable liquor which circulates freely among them.” [Townsend, 83-84.]
After rendezvous, the fur-loaded pack trains headed back to Missouri. The furs were so valuable that it must have felt like carrying a load of money to the bank.
Having a few hundred men in the mountains who did nothing but kill beaver assured Ashley and Henry a steady supply of furs to sell. At the same time the trappers, because they didn’t have to make the long trip in from the mountains, were willing to pay high prices for the supplies the company delivered. So Ashley and Henry made money on both ends of the deal.
For a while, Ashley and Henry and their partners had the Rocky Mountain rendezvous business to themselves. Soon, Astor’s company, the American Fur Company, much bigger and much richer, realized it was losing business to the new system. So Astor’s men in St. Louis also started sending trade-goods caravans to rendezvous. They were willing to offer the trappers higher prices for their furs, and sell them their supplies at lower rates. One or two smaller companies tried the trade, too; and one or two others specialized in just the pack-train part of the business.
About that time, the trappers began finding that on stream after stream, the beaver were no longer repairing their dams, and beaver ponds were drying up. They were disappearing. Trappers had been killing them too fast. And in Europe, stylish men were starting to like silk hats.
Still, the trade continued to draw newcomers like Wyeth. In 1832, he had hired a ship, filled it with trade goods, and sent it around Cape Horn to the mouth of the Columbia. With a group of young men he’d recruited in Boston, Wyeth headed overland from St. Louis with one of the regular fur-trade caravans. The plan was to trap and trade for beaver on the way through the mountains, meet the ship on the west coast, load it with furs to send home, and use the rest of the trade goods to establish new posts on the coast and in the interior. Shipping furs by water, even all the way around South America, was so much cheaper than shipping overland that Wyeth was confident he could take customers away from the big companies by selling the furs at lower prices in the eastern markets.
At the 1832 rendezvous, the bigger companies made it hard for him. Most of his employees got discouraged and headed back east. Wyeth kept going west. When he arrived at the mouth of the Columbia, he found his ship had been lost at sea, and all its trade goods with it. He spent the winter there, and then stopped at the 1833 rendezvous on his way back east again. He signed an agreement to deliver $3,000 worth of trade goods at rendezvous the following year to the company owned by some of Ashley and Henry’s former partners—the Rocky Mountain Fur company, it was called.
Back in Boston, still confident, he raised more money. Again he hired a ship for the mouth of the Columbia. This time, it carried equipment for drying salmon as well as goods for the fur trade. He figured he could make enough in the dried fish business to pay for sending the ship around Cape Horn. The rest, from the fur trade, would be pure profit.
But when he got to St. Louis, he found another caravan also setting out, also loaded with goods for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company men. Wyeth never did catch up. The other caravan beat him to rendezvous by just two days. When Wyeth arrived, the men who had signed the agreement with him dissolved their company on the spot. They refused to pay him for the goods he’d brought. So he sold some to independent trappers, and continued west with the rest. On the Snake River in what’s now southeast Idaho, he used the trade goods to start Fort Hall. He left 12 men there to build and run the post, and continued on to the mouth of the Columbia.
There, even more bad news waited. The ship had been struck by lightning, and had been forced in to Valparaiso, on the coast of Chile, for three months of repairs. The ship missed the salmon season on the Columbia, and so yet another pillar of Wyeth’s business plan had crumbled. His company owned Fort Hall for two more years, and finally sold it to the Hudson’s Bay Company at a low, low price.
That was about it for Nathaniel Wyeth. Soon the end came to the Rocky Mountain beaver trade, too. Beaver were nearly wiped out and silk was the fashion, now. Hard to believe that such a rich, big business had been built on so unpredictable a thing as what people like to wear. There were no more rendezvous after 1840. The trappers found other ways to make a living — hunting buffalo for example — or guiding wagon trains.
- Unlike other caravans, Wyeth’s in 1834 had missionaries along, who hoped to convert the Indians of the Northwest to Christianity. Also along was a pair of scientists, Thomas Nuttall, specializing in identifying plants, and John Kirk Townsend, specializing in identifying birds. Wyeth wrote many letters, a trapper traveling with Wyeth named Osborne Russell kept a journal, the missionary Jason Lee kept a journal, and Townsend, the young ornithologist (bird specialist) who got sick at rendezvous, kept a journal too. Traveling with William Sublette’s caravan, which beat Wyeth’s to rendezvous, was William Marshall Anderson, a greenhorn from Ohio who also kept a journal. So the Rocky Mountain fur-trade summer of 1834 is rich in first-hand accounts:
- Lee, Jason, “Diary of Rev. Jason Lee," Oregon Historical Quarterly 17:3 (September 1916)
- Morgan, Dale L. and Eleanor Towles Harris. The Rocky Mountain Journals of William Marshall Anderson: The West in 1834. San Marino, California: The Huntington Library, 1967.
- Russell, Osborne. Journal of a Trapper. Aubrey L. Haines, editor. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.
- Townsend, John Kirk. Across the Rockies to the Columbia. Introduction by Donald Jackson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.
- Wyeth, Nathaniel J. The Correspondence of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth, 1831-36. New York: Arno Press, (1973. Reprint of 1899 edition.) Wyeth's correspondence and journals are also online.
- DeVoto, Bernard. Across the Wide Missouri. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947. Reprinted by Bonanza Books, 1970. There are many, many books about the mountain fur trade, but this may still be the best. DeVoto is a vivid writer with a big scope and strong opinions. This book gives a great overview of the 1830s Rocky Mountains, during the last years of the beaver trade. Wyeth is the central figure in chapter VIII, pp. 178-210.
- Hafen, Leroy, and Ann Hafen, eds. The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West. Glendale, CA.: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1965-72. The ten volumes include 292 short biographies of the mountain men. Indispensable to any student of the mountain fur trade. These are in most Wyoming libraries, and there is a detailed guide online.
- The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade website is a great place to browse, rich in links to primary sources.
- See also Jefferson’s clear, thoughtful instructions to Meriwether Lewis.