America’s Fur Business Part II – The Companies, Great and Small

This second of a three-part series on the history of America’s fur business describes the activities of several of the smaller and the two largest and most important American fur companies. The first part describes the social backgrounds, business strategies, and economic paths of the men who traveled west from St. Louis to trade and trap for fur. 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.

When it came to the fur business, smaller was sometimes better because it allowed investors to keep a close watch on operations to ensure that the men they hired did what they were supposed to. As Scottish political economist Adam Smith pointed out, large corporations tended to be economically inefficient because mere employees had more incentive to shirk work than men with a large stake in the outcome did.

Smaller American fur companies included the Rocky Mountain Fur Company (RMFC), which achieved fame in part because William Stewart, of Battle of Waterloo fame (later a Captain and eventually a Sir), interacted with it on the trail to the 1833 rendezvous and later chronicled his many (mis)adventures, which included pulling the trigger of his double-barreled, but unloaded, London-made rifle at an unhappy grizzly. While the bear contemplated its next move, Stewart’s military training took over and the fine rifle, now loaded, ended the affair with a double bang. Two score and four men and about 150 horses and mules comprised the company’s caravan that year. In 1837, Stewart, who like many Brits grew enamored of the American West, invited the 26-year-old painter Alfred Jacob Miller along to immortalize the fur trapping industry as it approached its zenith. The paintings captivated New Yorkers until Stewart shipped them to Scotland to adorn his Murthly Castle.

RMFC traced its roots to a company established in 1822 by politician and gun powder manufacturer William Ashley and Andrew Henry, a veteran trapper for Manuel Lisa’s and Jean-Pierre Chouteau’s St. Louis Missouri Fur Company (SLMFC) not to be confused with the Northwest Company’s (NWC) Alexander Henry (either of them). Ashley and Henry’s expeditions suffered constant attrition from theft and small raids. In 1823, Arikara warriors fought off a combined force of Sioux, trappers, and U.S. Army soldiers sent to chastise them for killing or wounding two dozen members of an Ashley expedition. Nevertheless, Ashley, who began the famous rendezvous system that brought trappers together each summer near Jackson Hole, the Teton passes, and the headwaters of the three great western river systems (Missouri, Columbia, and Colorado), eventually turned a profit. Moreover, the RMFC trained a generation of key trapping entrepreneurs, including William and Milton Sublette and Jedediah Strong Smith, the first American to reach southern California over land. Milton Sublette lost a leg in 1835 after suffering a wound in an Indian attack some years before. Smith was killed in 1831, ostensibly trying to return to California; Henry retired only to die a few years later leaving an estate of only $150. Ashley went on to amass riches in real estate and to represent Missouri in Congress before dying of pneumonia in 1838.

Due to complications with his leg, the “kind and obliging” Milton Sublette was unable to join Boston businessman Nathaniel Wyeth on his 1834 expedition to the disputed Oregon Country but he was with Wyeth for some of his 1832 adventures. By mid-June 1832, Wyeth and his about two dozen men were killing bison near the Platte River and fighting off Indians. By the first of August, they had trapped four beaver and had bellies full of trout and possibly sandhill crane, the dark meat of which is still considered excellent table fare. Other Indians his small outfit encountered were more interested in trading than raiding, but some merely pretended to trade in order to case his goods and security. By October, Wyeth and his men were eating beaver, geese, and horses (“the meat equal to any beaf”) in the shadow of the Oregon Country’s Mt. Hood. After they reached the Hudson’s Bay Company’s (HBC) Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, however, news arrived that their supply ship had sunk en route. Many of Wyeth’s men struck off on their own while Wyeth wintered over at the fort before striking out to do more hunting, trapping, trading, and gambling on his way back to Missouri by the end of September.

The following May, 1834, Wyeth mounted a second expedition as agent of Boston’s Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company (CRF&TC). Dodging scorpions and August snow on the long trek, and probably picking up caches of traps left along the way by the first expedition, his outfit established two fur trading posts, including Fort Hall, where he entertained Stewart in July. But Wyeth’s complicated trading schemes almost always suffered from snags, sharp competitors, and general lawlessness. In 1835, he sold liquor to his men to celebrate Independence Day but gave them the coffee needed to get them back to work the next day. Several then deserted, taking valuable weapons with them. Wyeth lost about $20,000 all told and, unwilling to risk any more of the CRF&TC’s capital traipsing about trapping, instructed his agent, Joseph Thing, to sell off the company’s fur trading assets to HBC and the American Fur Company (AFC) at the 1837 rendezvous. Meanwhile, Wyeth returned to Boston, where he made a small fortune in the much easier ice harvesting business.

Various other small unincorporated companies and partnerships also tried their hand at the fur trade: Bean and Sinclair; Gantt and Blackwell; and Sublette and Campbell, to name but a few. Some, like Charles Bent and Ceran St. Vrain of Bent, St. Vrain and Company, which built a formidable adobe fort that protected trappers and traders along the Santa Fe Trail on a site selected by Cheyenne chief Yellow Wolf, found success. Most, though, struggled to profit because in business, bigger is sometimes better. Employees of a big company might shirk or steal more than they would in a smaller company, as Adam Smith warned, but the cost reductions that could be realized at larger scale often more than made up for such leakages, as shown by the successes of the SLMFC and AFC.

Desperate to tap the resources described by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Lisa in 1807 built a fur trading fort, Ramon (Raymond), at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers in present day Montana. Finding success, in 1809 Lisa joined with Chouteau, Henry, and others to form SLMFC. Early the following year, Pierre Menard, Chouteau’s brother-in-law, tried to establish a second trading fort in Montana, near the three forks of the Missouri, with the aid of a ragtag band of “some French, some Spaniards, some Americans, some Gentlemen … some hired men, & some upon shares.”

Some expeditions proved profitable but the trappers proved helpless at the hands of the Blackfeet, who, perhaps encouraged by HBC, killed several of them and many of their horses and sent at least one hardened veteran, John Colter, scurrying back to St. Louis. In June, after further losses and few gains, the remaining men also retreated. In 1810-11, an expedition led by Henry returned with 40 packs of furs but few men, some of whom were gaunt and clothed only in furs. Henry suffered so badly that he eased out of the company, which he believed was being poorly led by Lisa, when it reorganized in 1812. Lisa was left off the board of directors and died in 1820 but the reorganized SLMFC employed about 300 men by 1822.

Nevertheless, SLMFC’s small trapping outfits remained vulnerable to the Blackfeet, who rightly felt their country was being unlawfully invaded and pillaged. An 1823 attack, for example, resulted in the loss of seven mountaineers and $15,000 worth of property, including some 25 packs of beaver. Friends of SLMFC alleged HBC complicity but more out of desire to induce the U.S. military to chastise the Blackfeet than any substantial evidence that the Brits egged on the Indians, who had plenty of reasons for reprisal without any outside encouragement. SLMFC failed but was succeeded in 1825 by the much smaller Pilcher and Company, which was headed by former SLMFC manager Joshua Pilcher.

John Jacob Astor also learned that bigger was better. His Pacific Fur Company (PFC), formed in 1810 and, inspired by NWC, included 7 Scots among its 11 partners. One of those Scots, Ramsay Crooks, had made his way to St. Louis by 1805 and, in partnership with Robert McClellan, to Council Bluffs by 1807. Their way upriver, however, was blocked by the Sioux, allegedly, and ironically, in cahoots with SLMFC. PFC sought to outflank and outspend the SLMFC with a flotilla of sloops and a string of fortified trading posts from Fort Astoria, near the mouth of the Columbia River, all the way to Missouri. Crooks, McClellan, and a few score men led the effort but met many misfortunes during implementation, including disease, starvation, and the refusal of the Kalapuyan Indians to trap or even trade. Meanwhile one of the over two dozen Hawaiians employed by the company drowned when its sloop capsized near Astoria. After fending off a raid that resulted in the death of two Indians, the Astorians paid blankets and tobacco in recompense to prevent retaliatory attacks. After the British seized Astoria during the War of 1812, Astor’s partners sold it to NWC. PFC dissolved in 1814 but in 1816 Astor put Crooks in charge of AFC, which purchased NWC’s American assets.

Like a modern corporation, AFC limited employee theft and shirking by managers of its various departments and outfits by giving them shares in the company. It soon came to dominate the fur trade through both organic growth and acquisition. For example, Kenneth McKenzie’s Columbia Fur Company (CFC), which formed soon after the merger of HBC and NWC, fell into American Fur’s orbit in 1827. RMFC followed in 1834, two years after one of its captains decoyed AFC trappers into a Blackfoot ambush that led to the brutal death of AFC manager Henry Vanderburgh. Competitors AFC could not buy, it partnered with, sometimes to the point of collusion. Astor also proved quite adept at controlling costs and predicting market conditions, allowing the company to concentrate on specific species and to safely store depressed furs until prices rose.

Although AFC’s operations were initially centered on the Great Lakes region, Crooks pushed for the establishment of a western department that included the Missouri valley and Dakotas. In 1830, AFC’s Upper Missouri Outfit (UMO) alone employed 300 men and the entire western department hired about 600. Survival of UMO’s complete roster means that the job, salary, and rank of most employees is known, down to his position at the dining table! Simple boatmen earned about $150 a year in cash, plus bedding, lodging, and food, such as they were, while skilled artisans earned twice that, and supervisory clerks twice the artisanal wage. Pay varied somewhat with economic conditions but was always set to be just enough to meet the company’s needs. Deserters, those who left before the date specified in their contracts, received no wages and half of the lowest paid employees ended up indebted to AFC for goods from its stores extended on credit. That was not by design as supervisors noted that those who fell into debt often began slacking at work. Some such men, labeled “good for nothing” or “A Great Skulker,” were never to be rehired. Louis Flourant and Jules Traca proved themselves so worthless on the upriver trip that they were fired on arrival and sent back to St. Louis. John Watts, François Roy, and other “excellent” workers, by contrast, saw salary increases.

AFC’s Fort Union, a palisade located at the head of steamboat navigation on the Missouri and guarded by cannon, became the main post on the upper Missouri from its establishment in 1829 until the fur trade dwindled away after the Civil War. The post was noted for the quality of liquor produced by McKenzie, until he cheated Wyeth on a trade, who retaliated by ratting out his illegal distillery. Crooks, an early prohibitionist, reprimanded the local manager, who lamely claimed the still was intended only to “promote the cause of botany.” McKenzie, styled the “King of the Missouri,” disputed the allegation and continued with the company, helping it, with aid from James Kipp, to wrest trade with the notorious Blackfeet from HBC by 1832. McKenzie and the AFC eventually parted ways over the still business, but the AFC eventually boasted four trading forts in Montana, four in the Dakotas, and four more on the lower Missouri and its tributaries.

Crooks became president of AFC when Astor retired in 1834. He soon sold off the western division, including Fort Union, to Pratte, Chouteau and Company and diversified into the Lake Superior fishing business. Thousands of barrels of pickerel, trout, and whitefish, however, could not save AFC, which failed in 1842 after unsuccessfully trying to corner the fur market in 1839-40. The classic era of the mountain man was over, but all was not lost.