The Rocky Mountain Fur Trade

In September 1806, the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery returned to the frontier town of St. Louis from their epic journey across the Rocky Mountains to the coast of the Pacific Ocean. The primary mission of this U.S. government sponsored expedition was to establish the “most direct and practicable water communication across the continent, for the purposes of commerce.” In addition to this geographical component, the explorers had been instructed by President Thomas Jefferson to make note of fur-bearing animals and to ascertain the attitudes of the native occupants toward the fur trade. They brought news of massive bison and elk herds, and described the upper Missouri River basin as “richer in beaver and otter than any country.”  News of abundant fur resources in this untapped area offered promise of financial gain at a time when the United States was experiencing tough economic times. The opportunity to obtain valuable fur stimulated the formation of several St. Louis-based fur companies and resulted in trading ventures into the region. These early ventures were based primarily on trading with Indians at fixed locations along major rivers which provided an easy supply route.

One of the expectant capitalists was Manuel Lisa. Operating under the banner of the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company, Lisa led an expedition in 1807, which established a fort near the junction of the Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers. Andrew Henry, a principle of the company, accompanied Lisa’s party. In April 1810, Henry led a trapping brigade from Lisa’s Fort Remon into the fur rich Three Forks area of the Missouri River. Constantly harassed by Blackfeet Indians and grizzly bears, and plagued with the loss of lives, equipment, and horses, Henry divided his men into two groups, sending the smaller one to St. Louis to deliver the furs they had managed to harvest. He led the larger group south from Three Forks, up the Madison River and into the valley of a branch of the Snake River that would eventually be called “Henry’s Fork.” In July 1810, these men constructed some make-shift buildings called “Fort Henry,” but only stayed in the area for a year. By the following spring, Henry embarked for St. Louis leaving only a few men to trap the mountains on their own.

The withdrawal of Lisa’s fur men and the news of Henry’s losses to Blackfeet depredation marked a general decline of the western fur trade. The failure of John Astor’s 1812 enterprise to establish a foothold at the mouth of the Columbia River, combined with the disruption of commerce brought on by the War of 1812, led to the abandonment of the upper Missouri River region by the St. Louis based fur companies.

It would be a decade before another large-scale trapping expedition would attempt to tap into the rich fur resources of the Upper Missouri region. This new venture would be based upon Andrew Henry’s knowledge of the fur trade business and the financial backing of General William Henry Ashley.

On March 6, 1822 the “Missouri Republican” carried an advertisement addressed “To Enterprising Young Men,” stating “The subscriber wishes to engage one hundred men to ascend the river Missouri to its sources, there to be employed, for one, two, or three years.” Interested parties were to inquire of “Major Andrew Henry,” near the lead mines in Washington County. By April, both Ashley and Henry received trading licenses for the upper Missouri Indian country and on May 8, a fully equipped party of 100 men, under Henry’s command, headed up the Missouri River.

The innovative Henry-Ashley Company contracted their fur trappers to be paid “on halves.” With this new approach, the company paid to outfit trappers with a horse, saddle and tack, a rifle, six traps, and a camp axe. In return, each trapper would receive half of the fur taken but would be obligated to sell his entire harvest to the company at a contracted price per pound. He would also be required to purchase all supplies from the employer’s stores. When word of this incentive-driven compensation arrangement reached rival St. Louis fur companies, many prominent traders predicted a quick demise of the Henry-Ashley Company. This prophecy was based on their belief that maintaining control of trappers in the field under such an arrangement would be impossible.

By autumn 1824, the Henry-Ashley venture had encountered several disastrous events including the loss of two keelboats full of supplies and an attack by the Arikara Indians resulting in 14 men killed and 10 wounded. These costly mishaps and the resulting poor returns caused Andrew Henry to quit the fur business in 1824. Ashley selected Jedediah Smith to replace Henry as a partner in his firm. 

The quest for less hostile beaver grounds pushed the Ashley-Smith trapping brigades into the fur rich streams of the upper Green River in present day Wyoming in the spring of 1824. By July 1825, highly successful trapping brigades congregated on Henry’s Fork of the Green River to meet Ashley and his overland supply caravan to replenish supplies and trade in their cache of furs. Held at a location that had been pre-selected by Ashley, the first Rocky Mountain “rendezvous” only lasted one day. This initial rendezvous lacked the revelry that would become a legendary characteristic of future fur trade rendezvous.

Under this new plan of operation, Ashley was no longer dependent on trade with Indians to procure pelts, but rather could leave trapping parties year-round in the Rocky Mountains. Furthermore, there was no need to construct trading posts since the annual supply caravans and rendezvous managed the distribution of goods as well as the procurement and return of valuable furs to St. Louis. These trade rendezvous, started by Ashley in 1825, were held each summer in various locations throughout the beaver country, for the next fifteen years.

Ashley’s methods resulted in such financial success that by 1827 he sold his remaining interest in the fur company to Jedediah Smith, David Jackson, and William Sublette. Operating under the moniker of “Smith, Jackson & Sublette,” the newly formed company executed an agreement in which Ashley would market all of the firm’s fur and supply all of their trade goods and supplies. Despite the large fur sales made by his company in 1825 and 1826, Ashley knew that there were profits to be realized, with much less risk, in brokering furs and supplies. Taking heed of the lessons from their mentor, the firm of Smith, Jackson & Sublette operated successfully until the company was sold to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, which had organized at the Wind River valley rendezvous in 1830.

The decade of the 1830s saw an increase in the number of trappers and Indians at rendezvous and a concurrent increase in competition for Rocky Mountain beaver. In addition to long- established St. Louis firms such as the Bernard Pratte Company, Stone & Bostwick Co., Joshua Pilcher’s Missouri Fur Company, and John Astor’s mighty American Fur Company, numerous small traders such as Nathaniel Wyeth, Captain Benjamin Bonneville, and Gant & Blackwell competed for trade at the summertime gatherings.

When artist Alfred Jacob Miller reached the Green River valley for the 1837 rendezvous, the Rocky Mountain fur trade was in decline and the rendezvous era was near its end. Despite this poor historical timing, Miller met many of the men who started as “Ashley’s enterprising young men” and learned about their lives as mountaineers. With 300-400 trappers, around 3,000 Indians from five tribes, and several fur companies in attendance, the rendezvous that Miller witnessed in 1837 lasted for several weeks. This gathering was markedly different from the one-day event in 1825 that included only 120 trappers and was the sole economic domain of the Henry-Ashley company.

Miller’s ability to capture the day-to-day flavor of this independent life in the sketches and paintings, which he produced at the rendezvous and later, has proven to be a cultural treasure trove. Many ethnologists credit Miller’s field sketches, water colors, and written notes as important resources for the study of early nineteenth century Plains Indian culture. As the only Euro-American artist to meet and draw the mountain men during the fur trade era, Miller’s art is crucial to understanding this unique historical period.


Gowans, Fred, Rocky Mountain Rendezvous

Hafen, Leroy, ed., Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West

James, Thomas, Three Years among the Indians and Mexicans

Jackson, Donald, The Letters of the Lewis & Clark Expedition

Moulton, Gary E., The Journals of Lewis and Clark

Morgan, Dale, ed,, The West of William H. Ashley, 1822 to 1838