Fur Traders and Trappers

Ancestry US

In 1823 William H. Ashley, a Virginian, who had settled in St Louis, entered the fur trade. He was commonly known as General Ashley, having gained the title in the state militia of Missouri. With him was associated a group of men whose names have become famous in western Wyoming. Andrew Henry, whose services were invaluable both as organizer and explorer, became one of the partners, and he holds a unique place in that sturdy band. He was fond of reading and a skillful performer on the violin, which was his constant companion as well as an object of great interest to his comrades. Others whose names are connected with the region embraced in our subject are David F. Jackson, the Sublette brothers, Etienne Provost, Jedediah S. Smith, James Beckworth and James Bridger, all men of ability in some line.

The first year Ashley established a trading post on the Yellowstone in what is now eastern Montana. This was soon abandoned because of the hostility of the Indians. In 1823 his men crossed to the mouth of the Big Horn and followed it to its source.1

The Interior Basin embraces the northern part of the Rocky Mountain region and was the last to be explored by the fur companies. It is cut off from easy access by the diverging chains of mountains, the Big Horn and Medicine Bow ranges to the east, the Uinta and Wasatch to the south, and the Wind River and Bitterroot ranges to the west.

In the spring of 1824 Ashley brought out the main body of his trappers to the Spanish River, which he rechristened Green River in honor of one of his St. Louis partners. Here the men separated into small companies and started out in different directions with the understanding that all were to assemble in the Green River Valley, at the mouth of the Sandy, on or before the tenth of the following July. One party of seven, headed by a man named Clement, traveled up Green River, exploring the region that was later part of the original Uinta County. Geography was in the making and we are unable to trace their course with any degree of accuracy, but it is interesting to note that on one of the small streams flowing in from the west they saw a band of wild horses near the site of the present town of Daniel, and gave the stream the name of Horse Creek, which it still bears. They had trouble with Indians, and one of the number, named LaBranch, was killed while he was separated from the main band.2

On the first of July, 1824, they gathered, according to appointment, for the first Rocky Mountain rendezvous. The place of meeting had been changed to a spot about twenty miles north of the mouth of Ham’s Fork of Green River. Success had attended the efforts of the trappers and the scene is one to stir the imagination. General Ashley had brought out a supply train of pack horses with traps, clothing, goods for Indian trade and other provisions, including whiskey. Furs were counted, experiences of the various expeditions were exchanged, notes on the topography of the country compared, and rough maps drawn which became the foundation of the geography of the future. General Ashley, accompanied by fifty men, left the following day with the furs, which were to be loaded in boats on the Big Horn en route to St. Louis.3

Some idea of the scale on which the business was conducted may be gained from the account of an Indian raid on Bovey’s Fork of the Big Horn, in which a single trapping party lost one hundred horses and forty traps.

Beckworth says that the men remaining at the rendezvous after Ashley’s departure did not separate for a week, and were joined by twenty-five of those who had left with the leader after they had loaded the furs on the boats. His accounts of their doings, as well as of many incidents of the fur traders, were gathered into a volume entitled “The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckworth, Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation,” which was published from his dictation late in his life. He was a unique character, of mixed French and negro parentage, and while he can hardly be called great in any direction save that of prevarication, his book gives us some realistic pictures of mountain conditions. He was commonly called “Jim Beckwith.” He was not without his admirers, one of whom, William F. Drannon, says : “He was a hero in his day. For bravery he was far above the average, and at the same time he was honorable and upright.”4 He entered the employ of the American Fur Company, and in his old age went to Denver, where he is said to have married a negro woman. The story goes that the Indians, who looked upon him as a sort of mascot against ill luck, induced him to return to them in the year 1867, and that as he was preparing to leave them they served him with a poisoned dish, from the effects of which he died, thus keeping his mortal remains in the tribe.5

The work of trapping requires both patience and skill. The beaver is a wise little animal and great care is necessary in its capture. Traps were usually approached by water to avoid leaving traces of the presence of man, and were baited with spice mixed with a substance of penetrating smell obtained from the loins of the beaver and called castor. The secret of its manufacture was carefully guarded and it is said that beavers as much as a mile distant would be attracted by its scent.6

The Canadian trappers traveled by canoe and on foot, and their example was followed by the first Americans in the trade, but as distances covered grew longer, horses gradually came into use. Ashley mounted all of his men and made it a point for employ expert marksmen. With all of their advantages there was danger in these innovations. A mounted horseman was not easily concealed from the sharp eye of the Indian, who was growing more and more resentful over the encroachment on his hunting grounds, and many a man was followed stealthily to his traps and killed beside his game that was then stolen. There were soon hundreds of trappers in the employ of various companies, and Coutant estimates that fully two-thirds of them met death sooner or later at the hands of the red men.

In the autumn of 1826 Ashley, now a rich man as wealth was counted in-those days, sold out to jedediah S. Smith, David Jackson and Captain William Sublette. He acted for some years as agent for his successors, but did not come to the mountains again. In 1831 he was elected to Congress, and at the expiration of his term of office, in 1837, he returned to his home in St Louis, where he died the next year.7

The Sublette brothers were Kentuckians by birth, who had made their homes in St. Louis. There were four of them who entered the fur trade. Milton was an able frontiersman, but his fame has been partially eclipsed by that of William, who was one of the most commanding figures of the day. He was six feet two inches in height, and his personality was so marked that the Indians bestowed upon him the name of “Fate.”

In 1830 Milton Sublette, James Bridger, Henry Fraeb and Jacob Fervais bought the controlling interest in their company, which was then called the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.

In the meantime the Missouri Fur Company had been attracted to the rich fields of the Interior Basin and competition grew keen. The American Fur Company, as the Astorians were now called, was also pushing its men into the Rocky Mountain region, and was ruthless in following the experienced trappers and taking advantage of their knowledge of the country. After the rendezvous of 1832 in Pierre’s Hole, James Bridger, with a companion named Fitzpatrick, tried in vain to elude two of these designing men, named Vanderbourgh and Dripps, and finally decided on the desperate course of leading them into the country of the hostile Blackfeet. Vanderbourgh was killed by the Indians, and Bridger himself was badly wounded. In spite of all strategy the American Fur Company was unsuccessful in competition. Fontenelle, one of their employes, wrote, on July 1, 1833,: “We have always been too late, and our opponents in the country make a great boast of it.”

The methods employed in competition differed but little in character from those of today. Small companies were frozen out, and while the big ones kept in the public eye by assisting government expeditions in their explorations, there was much complaint over their heartlessness toward the men who had given their best years to the work and were left to spend their old age in poverty.

The most serious indictment against the fur trade was the deliberate debauchment of the Indians by means of whiskey. Strict laws had been passed by our country prohibiting its sale to them, as the terrible effects of its use upon the Indians were well known, but the American companies claimed that without it they were powerless to compete with the English, who had no such restrictions. It was smuggled out in every possible manner, and for impurity rivaled the most poisonous bootleg product of today. The enforcement of the law was largely dependent on the character and ability of the Indian agent, who was too often chosen for purely political reasons. It was not until the appointment of Andrew Dripps, in 1842, that any degree of success was achieved. He was indefatigable in his efforts to enforce the law, and did not hesitate to cross the mountains in the dead of winter to follow up every possible clew. He held the office for four years, and while he was accused by his enemies of favoritism toward the American Fur Company, yet his disinterested loyalty to duty is a matter of history.

Major Andrew Dripps was a native of Pennsylvania. Like many of the fur traders, he married an Indian woman and was the father of several children. His papers were preserved by one of his daughters, who married a man named William Mulkey, and lived in St. Louis, where Dripps died in 1860 at the age of seventy-one. Much valuable information concerning the times has been gleaned from this source.8

With the expansion of the fur trade the rendezvous grew in importance. It was held in the summer at some point decided on the previous year. The mouth of Horse Creek was a favorite spot, and other meeting places were the Popo Agie River, Bear Lake, Cache Valley and Pierre’s Hole. Traders from the east, as well as trappers all the way from the Canadian to the Mexican border, came to these reunions, and from the names handed down we find that all nationalities that went to make up our early civilization were represented. They came from different stations of life, and while financial gain and love of adventure were, doubtless, the leading motives of the majority, yet there were among them men of larger vision who realized something of what the West was to mean to coming generations. of these none stands higher than Jedediah S. Smith, who made accurate drawings of the Hoback River and many other sections of the Interior Basin, before entering on his explorations in Southern California. He was killed by the Comanches on the Cimeron desert in 1831. His letters reveal a man of well-rounded Christian character and high aspirations as well as a conscientious student and chronicler. A geography of the Rocky Mountain region prepared by him was published after his death.9 Smith’s Fork of Green River, as well as the Snake River tributary, was named for him.

There is little doubt that the names of Henry’s Fork and Black’s Fork were derived from Andrew Henry and Daniel Black, who came here with the Ashley men. Burnt Fork is said to have been so called because of forest fires along its bank, the effects of which are still visible. The beautiful stream Fontenelle preserves for us the name of the French frontiersman, Lucian Fontenelle. He was born in New Orleans about 18o7, and was said to be of royal lineage. At an early day he entered the fur trade and worked with Dripps, and was later associated with Bridger. He was married by Father de Smet to a woman of the Omaha tribe and had four children. It is said that he committed suicide at Fort Laramie in 1837.10

At first the furs were brought to the rendezvous on horseback, but Captain Bonneville, who came out in 1832, used wagons, and to avoid the daily packing and unpacking, trappers soon adopted this method where roads permitted. The company trappers were paid in proportion to their catch. In the early days $1200 was considered a fair compensation for a year’s work, but as prices advanced a good trapper often made as much as $3000.11 The Indians brought their furs to the rendezvous, and when under the influence of liquor would sell the harvest of months for a mere song. There were few abstainers among the white men, and brawls were frequent, for it was a rough life, but the vices incident to the frontier were offset by the virtues of courage and fidelity.

Many trappers took squaw wives and fell into the ways of the red men so completely as to be taken for Indians. The “squaw man” would build a log cabin of one or two rooms in some place convenient to his traps and establish a rough home where his Indian wife would cheerfully slave for him and bear his children. There was some rude furniture and the manner of living was in some respects an improvement over that of the native Indian, but it lacked its easy method of house cleaning, which was simply to move the wickiup. It was a strange, wild life, well-nigh devoid of higher ambition or refinement, and yet there is proof that there were many happy homes, built upon the fidelity of the white man to his squaw wife. Among their descendants are some of the substantial citizens of our state. Many of the half-breed children were sent to “the states” to school, and though it is true that the majority grew up in ignorance, we must remember that most of the trappers were unlettered men, who, as a rule, did the best that they could for their offspring.

The year 1832 was the most eventful of the fur trade, for it brought to the mountains two parties of explorers who were destined to play important roles in the history of the West.

As Captain William Sublette, with a party of sixty men, was about to start for the mountains, he was overtaken at Independence, Missouri, by an expedition under the leadership of Nathaniel J. Wyeth. Mr. Wyeth was a Bostonian who, at his own expense, had fitted out twenty-two New Englanders for the mountains. All were inexperienced in mountain life, and they gladly availed themselves of the permission to join Sublette’s party, promising to obey its orders. They took the well-known route across Wyoming to the upper waters of Green River, and each day’s experience was a fresh revelation of the vastness of the stretches of travel and the difficulties under which the pioneers labored. Robert Campbell, one of Sublette’s men, tells of an unsuccessful attack made on them by a band of Blackfeet on a stream flowing west from the Wind River mountains, where they had their first taste of the dangers of Indian warfare. From here they crossed the Shoshone and Wind River ranges to ‘Pierre’s Hole. Here, on the 18th of July, they had an encounter with a large band of Blackfeet Indians, in which one white man was killed and Captain Sublette was wounded. Wyeth proved both his skill and courage, and gained the admiration of the more experienced mountaineers, but some of his men lost their zest for further adventure, and two days after the battle a party of seven set out toward the east. In it were two grandsons of the famous Daniel Boone, a New Englander named Joseph More, a man named Foy from Mississippi, Alfred K. Stephens of St. Louis, and two others. They reached Hoback Canyon July 25. As they were going down the hill a band of Blackfeet started in pursuit. More was thrown from his horse and was promptly killed by the Indians. Foy and Stevens, who had turned back to help him, were shot, and Foy died on the spot. Stevens managed to rejoin his companions, but died five days later in Sublette’s camp, to which the survivors returned.12

On the first of May of the same year the Bonneville expedition was launched. Benjamin Louis Bonneville was a Frenchman of fine education, who had obtained a commission in the United States Army. He was granted a three-year leave of absence from 1832 to 1835 “to explore the Rocky Mountains and beyond,” for the purpose of making for the war department reports on the “character and customs of Indian tribes, the condition of the fur trade, and the natural features of the country.”13 He was to bear all of the expense of the expedition.

On the first day of May, 1832, Bonneville left Fort Osage on the Missouri with one hundred and ten men and a full equipment, including twenty-eight wagons, horses, mules and oxen. His were the first wagons to go through South Pass. They reached Green River on the 27th of July and traveled up Horse Creek, where they put up a building f or the purpose of making it a fur-trading post. This was the first attempt to establish such a station in Wyoming, as Fort Laramie was not built until 1834. Some time was spent in erecting the necessary fortifications of breastworks against the Indians. Fontenelle, whom he had met on the way out, joined him here, and he put up a camp near by. Competition arose in dealing with the Indians, and their parting was less friendly than their meeting. After giving his jaded animals a rest of a few weeks, Captain Bonneville, leaving some of his supplies and his wagons at the post, proceeded northwest across Jackson’s Hole to Pierre’s Hole. In what he calls “the dark defile leading to Jackson’s Hole” he came across the bodies of More and Foy, and buried them.’

Bonneville spent the following winter in the Salmon River country and early the next spring started with thirteen men for his fort. He had left there a party under the command of a trapper named Mathieu, and three of them had been killed by Indians. The rendezvous of that year was to be held near by, but, owing to the hostility of the Indians, it was not so well attended as usual. There had been many casualties, and one man, who was leader of a party that had trapped in the Crow country, was the only survivor of his little band of men, the rest having been killed.

The life of the fur traders was too full of change to permit deep-seated grudges. At the rendezvous of 1833 Bonneville was filled with surprise over the friendly intercourse between the men of the Pacific Fur Company and those of the Rocky Mountain Company, following so quickly on the Vanderbourgh-Dripps affair, but it is only one of the many striking examples of the tolerant spirit of the wilds. The underlying rectitude of Dripps outweighed his reprehensible . methods in competition in the minds of his co-workers. To them a, tried friend was the dearest of possessions, but the enemy of the day was often the ally of the morrow, and the necessity of standing together against the red men was an ever-strengthening bond.

From the rendezvous Bonneville sent out a party of forty men to explore Salt Lake. They were under command of a man named Walker, and were instructed to meet the captain on Bear River the next July. After Walker’s departure Bonneville set out for the Big Horn with his furs. Boats were made of buffalo skin for the journey down the Yellowstone and the Missouri to St. Louis. Wyeth had been unsuccessful in the fur business, and he and some of his party returned to St. Louis with the Bonneville men. The captain, after seeing them started on their way, turned again westward. From his cache on Green River he supplied his trapping parties and sent them out, and then explored the Wind River country, taking notes and making maps. On the -4th of October we find him at Ham’s Fork. From here he crossed over to Bear River and then to the Snake. The next few months he spent in the northwest, and it was not until July that he again entered the Interior Basin. Here he was joined by Walker, whose expedition has been a complete failure, for he had squandered the money furnished him in the Mexican settlements of California, and had accomplished nothing for the cause of exploration. Bonneville was nearly at the end of his resources, and he made a desperate effort to reimburse himself, but the Indians had been influenced by the Hudson Bay Company not to trade with him, and his own men did not meet with the success that he expected. In November, 1834, he went into winter quarters on Upper Bear River, where he found game was plentiful. The following April they broke camp and set out for Ham’s Fork, and on the 22nd of June passed for the last time out of the region with which this book deals. The abandoned trading post on Horse Creek, which was named Fort Bonneville, came to be known by the fur traders as “Fort Nonsense,” and soon fell into ruin.

In spite of financial failure and many disappointments, the work of the “Bald-headed Chief,” as the Indians called Captain Bonneville, was a valuable one. His maps and reports on the wide range of subjects assigned in the government instructions under which he was sent out, were of untold value, and have given him a name among the foremost explorers of the world. Much of his work was carried on within the bounds of the region with which this book deals. Both the lake and the mountain that bear his name lie without its borders, but the site of Fort Bonneville has been definitely established within the original Uinta County. On August 9, 1915, eighty-three years after the fort was built, H. C. Nickerson and Grace Raymond Hebard, president and secretary of the Oregon Trail Commission for Wyoming, visited the spot and set up a granite marker on which was carved the following inscription:14


The Wyeth expedition was even less successful than that of Captain Bonneville, but in 1833 he came out with a second party with the purpose of establishing forts for the convenience of traders and travelers. With him were Jason and Daniel Lee, missionaries sent out by the Methodist Board, and Jason Lee preached the first sermon west of the Rockies near Fort Hall. This post remains as a monument to Nathaniel Wyeth, and well has it served its purpose.

Other Christian workers followed, and never was there a finer set of pioneers, nor men who did more for the perpetuation of American ideals. In 1825 the American Board of Foreign Mission, a union of Congregationalists and Presbyterians, sent out Rev. Samuel Parker and Dr. Marcus Whitman to look over the western field. At the rendezvous, which was held at the mouth of Horse Creek in July, there was a great gathering of white and red men, and so impressed were the missionaries that Dr. Whitman decided to go no farther before urging upon the board the need for reinforcements. The response came the following year, and on the 4th of July, 1836, a little band of Christian workers knelt on the summit of South Pass and claimed the land to the west in the name of America and the Church of Christ. The leaders were the returning Dr. Whitman and the Rev. Henry H. Spaulding, and they brought with them their brides, the first white women to make the journey to Oregon.15 With deep emotion the old trappers greeted them when they reached Green River, and the Indians, not to be outdone in hospitality, gave an exhibition of riding and lassoing that the young brides found more terrifying than entertaining. From there they traveled on through the dusty summer hills to Fort Hall, accompanied as far as Bear River by the famous scout, Jim Bridger.

A new song was breaking in on the music of the wilderness. Patriotism, education and duty were its keynotes. Try as he might to ignore it, the gentle but persistent tones pierced to the soul of the frontiersman and brought back to him memories of his childhood and a vision of the future.

  1. Chittenden. “American Fur Trade
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Drannon. “Thirty-one Years on the Plains.”
  5. Content. History of Wyoming, Volume one.
  6. Alexander Majors. “Forty Years on the Frontier
  7. Chittenden. “American Fur Trade.”
  8. Ibid
  9. Dale. “Ashley-Smith gam ?
  10. Coutant. History of Wyoming.
  11. Majors. “Forty Years on the Frontier.”
  12. 12 Chittenden’s “American Fur Trade.”
  13. Irving. “Astoria.”
  14. Dr. J. W. Montrose of Daniel was one of the leaders in marking this historic sport. Isolated though the region is a large audience gathered for the ceremony and participated in a patriotic program of great interest. The bounds of the old stockade were easily traced by logs buried to the depth of three feet or more.
  15. Eels. “Marcus Whitman.”
Ancestry US

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