The Legacy of the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade and the Mountain Men

After his trip to the Rocky Mountains in 1837, Alfred J. Miller never went west again. The 1838 rendezvous was the last such event that William Drummond Stewart attended. That year, his older brother died, which left William with the responsibility of managing the family estate in Scotland. At the rendezvous, held on the Wind River near its junction with the Popo Agie, reports floated about the trapper camps claiming the fur business was so poor that Pratte, Chouteau & Company would not send a supply caravan to the mountains in the summer of 1839. Trapper Osborne Russell explained the disturbing news with this comment:

…it was rumored among the men that the Company intended to bring no more supplies to the Rocky Mountains and discontinue all further operations. This caused great deal of discontent among the Trappers and numbers left the party.

Joe Meek was so distraught at the idea that his wild and free existence might be coming to a close he tried to pickle himself with alcohol. His behavior so disgusted his Nez Perce wife that she took their two-year-old child and left Meek to return to her family.

The news that the fur trade rendezvous era was on its last legs turned out to be two years premature. Pratte & Chouteau did send resupply caravans to the Green River rendezvous the summers of 1839 and 1840, but then it was over. Trading posts had so populated the trappers’ domain that mountain men did not need the rendezvous in order to exchange their furs for supplies. Many trappers, like Kit Carson, took their furs to Fort Hall, Fort Crockett, or Fort Robidoux to obtain desired goods. Another example was Robert Newell, who left Brown’s Hole in February 1840 with 300 plews destined for Fort Hall to trade for supplies.

The early 1840s were challenging years for trappers still trying to hang on to their independent life style. There was still a market for hides and buffalo robes were growing in popularity, however both the price and demand for beaver pelts was low. For some diehard mountain men, this economic reality was hard to acknowledge. But others could “read sign,” as the old trapper saying goes, and a gradual exodus for other endeavors began.

One of the best comments on this change in the mountain man’s standard of living was attributed to Robert Newell in 1840:

“Come,” said Newell to Meek, “we are done with this life in the mountains–done with wading in beaver-dams, and freezing or starving alternately–done with Indian trading and Indian fighting. The fur trade is dead in the Rocky Mountains, and it is no place for us now, if ever it was. We are young yet, and have life before us. We cannot waste it here; we cannot or will not return to the States. Let us go down to the Wallamet and take farms.”

As indicated by Newell’s advice, many former mountaineers were positioned to be in the leading edge of western settlement. Clearly, a pioneers’ life and work were very hard and challenging, but when compared to the daily hardships experienced by most trappers, a settlement life would be quite tame. These men of the wilderness would adapt to civilized society quite well and take up a variety of occupations in both farming and trade. Many would become prominent members of frontier communities. Joe Meek was Oregon’s first sheriff, elected in 1843, and then appointed the first U.S. Marshall in 1848. His trapping partner, Robert Newell did not do so bad himself, being elected to membership in Oregon’s first territorial legislature in 1849.

Joe Walker, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Caleb Greenwood, along with many other former trappers, capitalized on their knowledge of the trails and geography of the Rocky Mountains and served as guides for emigrant wagon trains heading to the Pacific in the 1840s. While Jim Bridger continued to lead trapping brigades throughout most of the 1840s and was a partner in two trading posts, he also employed his knowledge of the mountains to become a valued guide and scout for the U.S. Army. Equally recognized for his topographical knowledge of the West, Kit Carson was conscripted by General Stephen Watts Kearny as guide for his 1846 expedition into California. Carson also gained much national acclaim as a guide for John C. Fremont’s explorations of 1842, 1843, and 1845. These expeditions enabled Fremont to map many areas of the West and to publish a “Report and Map,” which was used to guide thousands of California/Oregon bound emigrants on the overland trails.

Perhaps the best example of former mountain men’s impact on American settlement of Oregon, California, and New Mexico is a statistical analysis of 218 biographical sketches published in a ten volume series called Mountain Man and the Fur Trade of the Far West series, edited by Leroy R. Hafen. This examination showed that 90.5 % of the fur men in the study died west of the Mississippi River. While forty-one of these former mountaineers settled in the Missouri area, the rest made their homes in the states of Oregon, California, New Mexico, and Colorado.

The pursuit of “hairy bank notes” triggered initial explorations of the American West by trappers. The topographical knowledge they gained was a by-product of the search for more fruitful beaver grounds. While their approach was not as sophisticated as the government-sponsored scientific surveys of the 1840s, their knowledge provided significant information for the mapmakers of the era. However, because of the vast geographical input from the mountain men, a majority of America’s transcontinental trails had been established as well as the identification of many of the country’s significant geographic features by the 1840s.

The fur trade of the Rockies was instrumental in developing the two most important routes for early westward migration and settlement – the Oregon Trail and the Missouri River. The Missouri would afford access to eventual settlement of the northern Great Plains and the northern Rockies during the 1850s and 1860s. Leaders of the fur caravans to the summer rendezvous were the first to show that loaded wagons could accomplish the trip across the prairies west of St. Louis, crossing the Continental Divide via South Pass. Robert Stuart in 1812 and Jedediah Smith in 1824, the first fur men to use it, were the first to recognize the importance of South Pass as a viable route for possible settlement of the west. Historian William Goetzmann has stated: “Justifiably this forging of the emigrant trails has been described as the climax of the Mountain Man era of western exploration.”

By far, the most important contributions made by the mountain men and the Rocky Mountain fur trade to American westward expansion comes in two forms; many men of gumption and grit who evolved from trappers to settlers, and the compilation of their vast knowledge of the geography of the West; the timing of both turned out to be indispensable for the future of the United States of America.