The story of the Old American Frontier is totally entwined with the legendary figures of the Mountain Men, also called Trappers, as their primary business was coming across the territory of Missouri toward the Rocky Mountains in search of beaver furs to sell.
Below you can find an interesting extract from “Trappers, Traders, and Trailblazers:
Mountain Men in the Rocky Mountain West – Buffalo Bill Center of the West”:
“The words mountain men bring to mind the strong, rugged, independent adventurers of the vast Rocky Mountain wilderness. Mountain men lived a hard life, often struggling for survival. The story of the mountain men began in 1804 when the Lewis and Clark Expedition set out. TheUnited States had recently acquired the Louisiana Purchase. This territory was 800,000 square miles of mostly uncharted land west of the Mississippi River. President Thomas Jefferson named Captain Merriweather Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark the leaders of a Corps of Discovery.
Their mission was to explore the portion of this territory along the Missouri River, looking for a navigable course to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis and Clark made careful notes about the plants and animals in the territory. They recorded information about the furbearers’ valuable coats.
In the summer of 1806, the Lewis and Clark expedition headed home. John Colter, one of the members of the expedition, asked for and received an early discharge from the Corps of Discovery.
He returned to the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains in what is now Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho to trap beaver for four more years. Colter explored country no white man had ever set foot upon and brought back stories of steamy geysers and boiling mud. Colter’s contemporaries called this land “Colter’s Hell”. They did not believe such a place existed. More than fifteen years later, mountain man, Jim Bridger, also colorfully described this region, but many thought he was telling tales.
There were many hardships and dangers when traveling through this wilderness – the threat of attacks from Native Americans, the hazards of grizzly bears and quickly changing mountain weather, and the rugged mountain terrain.
Early reports indicated that this wilderness was literally crawling with furbearing
animals, especially beaver. These furs equaled money in the civilized world. For hundreds of years, well-to-do Europeans had made furs a part of their attire. Examples include: fur coats, cloaks, and robes; fur trim on dresses, collars, and bonnets; and men’s top hats made from beaver fur. When Old World supplies of these furs depleted, Europeans looked to the North American continent for new sources. The French, and later the British, trapped beaver through areas of North America beginning in the 1600s. Their travels included:
the northeast coast, into Hudson’s Bay and the Great Lakes area; and
across what is now the northern United States and southern Canada to the Pacific Ocean.
During this time, the Spanish ventured north from Mexico into what is now Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. The Russians crossed the Bering Strait to Alaska. The abundance of furs in these accessible areas left the more inaccessible center of the continent untapped until the United States acquired the land. American entrepreneurs were determined to capitalize on the furbearers.
Rumors of plentiful beaver, combined with initial reports by Lewis and Clark and the stories of John Colter, enticed more adventurers into the area. These early mountain men were self-sufficient for the following reasons:
They could only take essential items that they were able to carry, and sometimes a packhorse or mule.
They had to hunt for their food, build shelter, and repair their guns and traps.
They had to mend and make their own clothes.
They had to check their traps, prepare pelts daily, and haul the pelts out of the mountains.
Mountain men brought their pelts to St. Louis or one of the few trading posts along the Missouri River. Here they tried to sell enough pelts to outfit themselves for another year. However, all of this depended on their surviving the elements, the rugged terrain, wild animals, and relations with the American Indians. As many as one-fourth of the men who went into the mountains did not come out.
In 1822, the American fur trade changed drastically with the appearance of this advertisement in the
February 13 Missouri Gazette:
To Enterprising Young Men. The subscriber wishes to engage ONE HUNDRED MEN, to
ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two, or three years.—
For particulars, enquire of Major Andrew Henry, near the Lead Mines, in the County of
Washington, (who will ascend with, and command the party) or to the subscriber at St.
Wm. H. Ashley.
Ashley and Henry brought the first large groups of trappers into the Rocky Mountains. They established forts for mountain men to sit out the winter months. The mountain men picked up supplies for each season’s trapping and sold the previous season’s pelts at these forts.
In 1825, Ashley and Henry revolutionized the fur trade by bringing the market to the mountain men. That July, mountain men attended the first rendezvous on the Green River (Wyoming) in the heart of mountain man country. Trappers sold their furs, stocked up on the clothing, traded stories of adventures and new trapping grounds, and relaxed with their comrades. American Indians who had furs and hides to trade were also welcome at the rendezvous.
The year 1830 marked the decline of the mountain men. That summer William Sublette brought supplies to the rendezvous in wagons. These wagons had travelled into the supposedly impassable Rocky Mountains. Until this time, settlers made long sea voyages around the southern tip of South
America to get to what is now Washington, Oregon, and California. If Sublette could get wagons
through, so could settlers. Additionally, by the mid-1830s, silk top hats were replacing beaver felt
top hats. Then, in 1837, a depression hit the nation. Most people were reluctant to spend money on
luxury items like furs. Ultimately, the last rendezvous was in 1840.
The Rocky Mountain west was changing. A few mountain men stayed in the mountains and
continued trapping. Others found new ways to earn a living by:
hunting bigger game, such as buffalo, for hide coats and carriage robes;
working as guides for scientific and military expeditions exploring and mapping the country
where mountain men once trapped beaver;
leading the wagon trains going West;
establishing forts along the wagon roads, where they sold supplies, made repairs to damaged
equipment, and provided safe shelter; and
settling their own land and becoming farmers and ranchers.
The era of the mountain men lasted thirty-four years, with John Colter leading the way. In that time, the United States established its claim to nearly all land west of the Mississippi River. […]