America’s Fur Business Part I – The Mountain Men

This first of a three-part series on the history of America’s fur business describes the social backgrounds, business strategies, and economic paths of the men who traveled west from St. Louis to trade and trap for fur. The second part describes the activities of several of the smaller and the two largest and most important American fur companies. Part three describes what happened to those companies, and the men who worked for them, as the West settled, the game thinned, and other economic opportunities loomed.

Flip through cable TV channels and you’re likely to encounter the frozen faces of modern fur trappers like “Sasquatch” Miller or Heimo and Edna Korth. Yet fewer than 175,000 Americans (.05% of the population) report income from fur trapping, and only one in five of those reporting (i.e., .01% of the population) claim trapping as an important source of income. TV trappers earn more from fees than furs. Total revenue from hunting and trapping in 2018 was less than $700 million, a rounding error in America’s $20.9 trillion economy.

Unsurprisingly, no major business corporations today are directly involved in the harvesting of wild furbearers. Such was not always the case. Before development of synthetic insulators, people donned bird plumage and animal fur to stay warm. Domesticated ducks and geese provided down and sheep and alpacas provided wool for cold weather clothing, while the hides of badgers, bears, bison, caribou, camelids, cattle, deer, elk, horses, and moose were used to cushion and cover sleigh, stage, and wagon passengers. Before the rise of farmed fur, harvesting wild furbearers like beaver, bobcat, fisher, fox, lynx, marten (sable), mink, muskrat, nutria, otter, rabbit, raccoon, seal, skunk, wolf, and wolverine was an important line of economic activity that enabled the production of winter coats and accessories, like gloves and hats, for Asian, European, and American markets, part of an early wave of globalization that put goods, pelts, information, and people to their most highly valued uses.

Harvesting wild furbearers was difficult, so a variety of strategies arose to satiate demand. In Siberia and Alaska, Russia’s Tsar dominated the lucrative trade and used his military to demand fur tribute from indigenous groups, with rapacious results. Spanish-Americans were subjected to draconian top-down trade controls, while in the French-controlled areas of North America trappers leased territories. Britain, by contrast, established a legal monopoly, a joint-stock corporation called the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), that employed tiers of managers, supervisors, and employees (“servants”), some of whom, like Irishman John Wark (Work), brought their families along despite the dangers. The Northwest Company (NWC), a Montreal-based monopoly established on a permanent basis in 1785 to open up trade to the Pacific, merged with HBC in 1821 after competition for the rich but contested Athabascan country grew too heated. The “Leviathan of the North,” as the enlarged HBC was rightly nicknamed, employed about 1,300 men, many of whom were active in California and the Oregon and Missouri territories before giving way to the Americans’ superior territorial claims, competitive practices, and transportation routes in the 1820s, 30s, and 40s.

After its own fur “factories” floundered for the usual reasons that plague public enterprises, the U.S. government allowed private corporations to engage in the fur trade. It did not, however, grant them monopoly privileges, thus spawning competition between the corporations, a dizzying array of small companies, and numerous sole proprietors, the legendary “mountain men.” And men they were. Although native and Euroamerican women long took part in eastern North America’s fur trade, few were involved in the West on their own account. Mountaineers were also “men” in the masculine sense, individuals, like “Uncle Dick” Wootton, who performed feats of courage before they reached the median age of today’s college graduate.

Half a century ago, historians rancorously debated whether the mountaineers active in the Rocky Mountains in the first half of the nineteenth century, who numbered about 3,000 during the core 1810-1845 period, were entrepreneurial Jacksonian men-on-the-make, servile Shakespearean Calibans, or wild-eyed recluses. They were all those things, and more. Of the mountain men who left traces in the historical record, most were born prior to 1815 and half were American-born, mostly in Kentucky, Virginia, or Missouri. Most of the rest were French Canadian or métis (Euro-Indian, like the infamous The Bird) but a few, like Edward Rose and James Beckwourth (Beckwith), claimed African ancestry. Some Hispanics were also engaged in the trade, especially in the southwest, although a few, like Loretto (Loretta) and Manuel Lisa, eventually made their way to the upper Missouri.

Americans, Brits, French-Canadians, Indians, Scots, and Russians frequently crossed borders, such as they were, and often worked for former competitors and enemies when opportunity presented, as it did to American William Wallace Matthews in 1814 when he signed on as a foreman for NWC. Then from 1818 until 1828 he switched sides again, recruiting French-Canadians out of Montreal for John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company (AFC). Even Hawaiians were engaged in the fur trade, primarily on the west coast but as far east as Lake Superior, as sailors, soldiers, and trappers. Mountaineers typically started in the business in their twenties or early thirties but some, like Jim Bridger, Auguste Archambeau, Jimmy Reed, and Wootton, headed into the mountains while in their teens.

A majority of the mountain men married and sired three children on average. Most married only once but a dozen of the rascals married four or more times. They often spoke to each other and their spouses in a pidgin trade language comprised of hand signals and English, French, Indian, and Spanish words and phrases, like “cache” to signify a hiding place for arms, furs, or provisions. Nevertheless, good translators were always highly prized, especially during high stakes encounters like treaty and trade gatherings. Many mountain men married Indians to forge connections with the leaders of Indian companies (a.k.a. “tribes”), like the Arapaho chief Bear Tooth, who could provide protection and furs.

Mountaineers had four major ways of “making a living” and chose the mix that made the most sense for them depending on their education, work experience, family situations, personalities, and market conditions. Many, like Etienne Provost — who worked for Auguste Chouteau and AFC, partnered with François LeClerc, and led his own Green River brigade — changed roles numerous times throughout their careers.

Trapping could be a purely subsistence activity, where trappers fashioned their own clothes and filled their own bellies from their own trap lines and hunting trails. The financial risks of subsistence trapping were minimal but the physical risks of starvation, unexpected bear encounters, snow blindness so severe its victims begged to be shot, and Indian attacks ran high. For decades, blood feuds raged across the west as trappers and Indians sought vengeance, or recompense, for brutal slayings and the theft of horses and furs. To allow death or theft to go unpunished, men of all nations agreed, would be to invite further depredations and murders. Every year, scores to hundreds of men on both sides died in numerous raids and skirmishes.

Trapping could also take the form of proprietorship, where the trapper supplied his own capital (ammunition and guns, pack animals, traps, and other accoutrements of the trade) reaping all of the financial reward during successful expeditions, which could last for years, but suffering all of the loss when struck by the misfortune of low prices or a small harvest. In 1831, for example, Antoine Robidoux sold in Santa Fe $3,806.50 worth of furs he had caught in Utah’s Uintah Basin. He used the profits to buy the Reed Trade Post which had been established in 1828 by William Reed of Kentucky and veteran fur trader Denis Julien. From that post, and another he built himself, Robidoux staved off much larger competitors seeking to control the isolated basin’s fur trade.

Trapping could also be just a job, where a man put up no capital of his own and earned a known wage. Employment reduced financial risks for the trapper but did little to alleviate physical threats, even when trappers traveled in packs, as they often did for mutual self-protection. At the Horse Creek (Wyoming) rendezvous in 1833, for example, men died horrible deaths after a rabid wolf sneaked past guards into camp and commenced chomping on as many as a dozen of them.

Most employees left little trace in the historical record if they did not later become proprietors. Some moved on after a season or two while others perished from disease, Indian raids, or at their own hands. An old ship rigger and caulker named Joseph Ashton, for example, deliberately drowned himself rather than continue toiling on behalf of various Russian, British, and American fur companies on the Pacific coast. (Of the over 400 ships to ply the eastern Pacific for furs between 1785 and 1825, 65 percent were American and most of the rest Russian or British.)

Trapping could also generate income through investment in partnerships or joint-stock corporations, which supplied capital to a group of men who did the actual work of trapping furbearers in dangerous climes requiring dangerous climbs. By pooling the capital of many investors, corporations could afford sail and steam-powered ships and strings of fortified trading posts equipped with cannon, and the men to fire them. During the 1820-40 period, most companies trapped fur with their own employees but also traded with sole proprietors or Indians for furs whenever possible. Some even hired smiths to modify iron goods to meet exacting Indian standards. One such smith, John Rodgers Jewitt, became enslaved to Maquinna, a powerful Nootka chief who massacred most of the crew of the Boston in 1803.