The Rocky Mountain Trapping System

The Rocky Mountain fur trade was based in the gathering of beaver pelts. Men from all over the country flooded into the wilds of the American west in hopes of making a fortune by trapping animals for their valuable furs. It was into this untamed land that William Drummond Stewart sought adventure from 1833 until 1838, bringing artist Alfred J. Miller with him on his 1837 excursion. Stewart met many trappers and spent months at a time living, traveling, and working alongside them. He came to know the trapping system quite well and was recognized as a leader amongst the mountaineers. Stewart adapted to a basic scheme; a yearly cycle that started with a summer rendezvous, followed by the Fall Hunt, a wintering-over somewhere with access to game, the Spring Hunt, and then back to rendezvous.

The annual progression began with the summertime arrival of trapping brigades at a pre-determined location to acquire supplies. During this season, company traders brought a caravan of merchandise-laden pack mules to the rendezvous site. Several Indian tribes also attended these events, bringing their own furs and Native-made products to trade for Euro-American goods. Their interactions with mountain men were generally constructive and developed into positive relationships. Hides garnered by the men in the field were exchanged for any equipment needed, enabling re-outfitted trappers to return to high mountain streams where more beaver could be harvested. Most of these fur fairs lasted about a month. Folded with the fur inward, the pelts were carefully compacted into 100-pound bundles, loaded on the now-empty pack animals, and hauled eastward.

The first of these summer gatherings was initiated by William Ashley in 1825. Such was its success that similar events were held each year up until 1840, with the exception of 1831. That year, the express to St. Louis that would place an order for goods was late in arriving. Even though the men gathered in anticipation, supplies arrived after the Fall Hunt began and were distributed as the brigades could be tracked down. The Green River Valley, near modern Pinedale, Wyoming, was a popular location for rendezvous; six of the last eight were held there.

The Fall Hunt began at the close of the rendezvous and ended when streams froze solid, generally around the first weeks of November, though some years saw broad unpredictability in seasonal length. As summer came to an end, the trappers headed off for areas they hoped would be teeming with beaver to set their traps and gather fur. Colder months meant a thicker, heavier pelt, but mountaineers tended to trap when there were beaver about, regardless of the pelt’s condition. It was the hair that held value and summer hides, though thinner, were still worth money. Trapping as they traveled, typically in small groups, each brigade worked their way towards the regions in which they intended to hunt. Trapper Joseph Meek explained that:

These smaller camps were ordered to meet at certain times and places, to report progress, collect and cache their furs, and "count noses." If certain parties failed to arrive, others were sent out in search for them

Meek also described how trappers tended to work downstream as winter set in:

According to custom, the trappers commenced business on the headwaters of various rivers, following them down as the early frosts of the mountains forced them to do, until finally they wintered in the plains, at the most favored spots they could find in which to subsist themselves and animal.

Once winter set in, the mountaineers began their own hibernation, setting up a semi-permanent camp, often near an Indian village, but always where there was access to game. This was a time of keeping warm around a fire, planning the coming season, and attending the “Rocky Mountain College.” Literate trappers often read aloud to those who were unable or had no books. Arguments, debates, and story-telling were rampant. It was a life of relative leisure after a season of arduous and dangerous work. According to Joe Meek:

…the mountain-man “lived fat” and enjoyed life: a season of plenty, of relaxation, of amusement, of acquaintanceship with all the company, of gayety, and of “busy idleness.” Through the day, hunting parties were coming and going, men were cooking, drying meat, making moccasins, cleaning their arms, wrestling, playing games, and, in short, everything that an isolated community of hardy men could resort to for occupation, was resorted to by these mountaineers. Nor was there wanting, in the appearance of the camp, the variety, and that picturesque air imparted by a mingling of the native element; for what with their Indian allies, their native wives, and numerous children, the mountaineers camp was a motley assemblage.

It was not impossible to trap once the beaver were frozen into their lodge, though typically not a lot happened in that regard unless the Fall Hunt had been poor. From a purely practical standpoint, it was only during the depths of winter, when waterways were frozen solid, that trapping came to a complete halt. Even in winter, however, there were occasional episodes when men hunted for beaver using less traditional methods, such as described by Meek:

…should the hunters find it necessary to continue their work in winter, they capture the beaver by sounding on the ice until an aperture is discovered, when the ice is cut away and the opening closed up. Returning to the bank, they search for the subterranean passage, tracing its connection with the lodge; and by patient watching succeed in catching the beaver on some of its journeys between the water and the land. This, however, is not often resorted to when the hunt in the fall has been successful; or when not urged by famine to take the beaver for food.

In spring, the pattern was reversed as mountaineers followed the progress of the melting ice upstream. By the end of the season, they were often trapping beaver ponds at high altitudes, sometimes above 10,500 feet. The Spring Hunt continued until summer set in and it was time to head for the rendezvous. Beaver became much more mobile during these warmer months and were harder to catch, but it did not keep the trappers from trying. In some respects this caused greater harm to beaver populations since the mountain men trapped indiscriminately, taking new-born pups, adults, and every animal in that habitat if the creature would come to the bait.

This annual cycle of operation kept trappers in the field year-round. Taking time from their work to head east for supplies was unnecessary since company traders planned to bring the requisite gear to the mountains. Summer was the time when mountain passes were open and there was plenty of feed for livestock along the trail. This made it an ideal time to hold the rendezvous.

Alfred Miller accompanied such a supply train in 1837, traveling during the late spring and into the summer season. He probably never saw a mountaineer set a trap, never watched a trapper catch a beaver, never skinned, nor fleshed a hide. However, Miller was the only artist who ever attended a rendezvous, which he described in these terms:

At certain times during the year, the American Fur Company appoint a “Rendezvous” at particular locations (selecting the most available spots) for the purpose of trading with Indians and Trappers, and her they congregate from all quarters. The first day is devoted to “High Jinks,” a species of Saturnalia, in which feasting, drinking, and gambling form prominent parts … The following days exhibit the strongest contrast to this. The Fur Company’s great tent is raised; – the Indians erect their picturesque white lodges; – the accumulated furs of the hunting season are brought forth and the Company’s tent is a besieged and busy place.

The Rocky Mountain fur trade was but a brief, yet intense, period of American history. Fur men throughout the Rockies followed this regular pattern until permanent trading posts gradually became an alternate source of resupply.