The American Rocky Mountain Fur Trade


From 1824 to 1846 the Pacific Northwest was a department of the HBC. The company hoped to discourage, if it could not prevent, Americans from getting a foothold in the region. But Americans--traders, expansionists, missionaries, settlers, and diplomats--continually reminded the company that the land was not yet Britain's.

After Astor's unsuccessful attempt, no organized American fur enterprise crossed the Rockies for nearly a decade. In 1822, General William H. Ashley and Andrew Henry tried to reinstitute trade on the Upper Missouri, using Manuel Lisa's system of permanent posts and trapping parties. When hostile natives forced them off the Upper Missouri in 1824, they led their hunters up the North Platte and into the Rockies.

For this area Ashley developed a new organization.1 Abandoning the trading house, he resorted wholly to trapping parties. In midsummer he sent out hired trappers in groups, called brigades, to hunt the rivers and streams through the winter. In the late spring the brigades came in with their packs of furs, meeting their employer at some agreed place. This yearly rendezvous, usually in July in the valley of the Green River, at Bear Lake, or in Cache Valley, soon became a gathering place not only for employees, but also for free trappers and Indians in the early 1830s, several thousand Indians assembled, and hundreds of white men came to purchase supplies and settle accounts with the "booshways" (bourgeois) or outfitters.

After business, pleasure. Sometimes two weeks were given over to lusty carousal, horse races, shooting matches, gambling. After recovering from their spree--stimulated by high-priced alcohol--the men separated for their year's assignments to the dangerous, lonely mountain country.

The Mountain Men

A mountain man had to survive both rendezvous and mountain life. Those who proudly carried the title were expert hunters and trappers, bear fighters and Indian killers. The occupational hazards were many. No fewer than ninety-four men were slain by Indians between 1823 and 1829. Few mountain men lived to retire to civilization and those who did had little more than scars to show for their years of hazardous toil.

Ashley and his successors, Smith, Jackson, and Sublette (1826-1830) and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company (1830-1834), were outfitters (and, at times, also leaders in the field) who supplied their indentured employees, free trappers, and Indian allies. Goods were priced to assure the outfitters a generous margin of profit. In 1826, gunpowder sold at $1.50 a pound; scarlet cloth, at $6 a yard; beaver traps, $9; and alcohol, illegal in the Indian trade but easy to transport and much in demand, was $13.50 a gallon. Free trappers received $3 a pound for beaver pelts. The wages paid hired trappers ranged from $120 to $600 a year, depending on the competition for their services. When accounts were settled the trapper usually was in debt for the goods he had purchased. It was estimated that from 1823 to 1827 Ashley brought in 500 packs of skins worth $250,000 at St. Louis. Figuring his annual investment (including costs of transportation) at a generous $20,000, the profit was in the neighborhood of $50,000 to $60,000 a year. The leaders, whether outfitters or partners-in-the-field, combined the talents of entrepreneurs, frontiersmen, and explorers. The names of William Ashley, Jedediah Smith, David Jackson, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jim Bridger, and the Sublette brothers, Milton, William, and Andrew, are associated with places and routes of travel as well as with sagas of adventure and commerce. They filled in the geographical details of the West and, in the process, linked the Mississippi Valley and the Rockies by well-traveled trails.

In 1824 Ashley's men crossed the Continental Divide. The next year Ashley explored the Green River, a principal tributary of the Colorado. Two years later he sent a howitzer along the North Platte route through South Pass, gateway to the West, and proved that wheels could travel to the mountains. In 1830, Smith, Jackson, and Sublette transported their supplies in a wagon caravan up to the pass. The road to Oregon was taking shape.

The Clash Of British And American Trappers

Alexander Ross was in charge of HBC's Snake River expedition in the summer of 1824 when he met Ashley's brigade leader, Jedediah Smith and six trappers, and permitted them to travel with him from the Bear River to Flathead Post. Peter Skene Ogden later referred to "that damned all cursed day" which brought Americans into the region for which the HBC had not yet prepared a defense. On the Bear River the following May, some of Ogden's men took their furs and deserted to the Americans, who insisted that Ogden was trespassing on American soil.

The presence of American trappers west of the Divide kept Ogden almost continuously in the field. His American counterpart as explorer and leader of expeditions in the transmontane West was Jedediah Smith. Only twenty-three when he entered Ashley's employment in 1822, Smith became a partner three years later. He was an outstanding field operator of the fur trade until his death in 1831.

In August, 1826, Smith led a party of men across the Mohave Desert to the California settlements. Unable to return with his full complement, he left most of them to hunt in the San Joaquin Valley, while he and two companions crossed the snow-covered Sierras, the desert Nevada plain, and survived to reach the rendezvous in Bear Valley. His 45-day exploit was followed by nine days of rest; then Smith was back on the California trail. His purpose was to join the party he had left behind and to "proceed further in examination of the country beyond . . . and along the sea coast." He was caught up in a fever of discovery. "I, of course, expected to find Beaver, which with us hunters is a primary object, but I was also led on by the love of novelty common to all. . . ."

His first venture had been a grueling one; his second was disastrous. Ten men were killed by the Mohaves. Arrived in California, Smith tasted Mexican prison fare before he was permitted to outfit and, in December (1827), to depart, presumably to return to the mountains. Gathering together the men who had survived the Mohaves and those who had remained in California the summer before, Smith headed north. His purpose was to explore and trap. He made good time until he essayed the almost impossible terrain of the Smith Fork of Trinity River and the lower Klamath. It took him six months to break out of tangled underbrush, densely forested mountains, and canyons to the coast. In late June, he crossed the 42nd. parallel into Oregon country and on July 14 he was on the Umpqua River. While Smith and two of his men were scouting the way ahead, Indians caught up with his party and massacred all but one. Arthur Black escaped and made his way to Fort Vancouver. Smith and his companions, John Turner and Richard Leland, who had returned to the shocking scene and thought themselves the sole survivors, arrived at Fort Vancouver two days later, on August 10 (1828).

John McLoughlin, who had resented "to the utmost" the Americans' treatment of Ogden in 1825, now received his enemy with kindness, even generosity. He ordered an expedition to the Umpqua to salvage Smith's goods and to punish the Indians. Sir George Simpson, arriving on a tour of inspection, agreed to buy the recovered furs. The following summer, Smith and Black rejoined their fellow Americans at Pierre's Hole.

Sir George had no high regard for the Americans. The trappers were "generally speaking, people of the worst character, run aways from Jails and outcasts from Society . . . [they] acknowledge no master, will conform to no rules or regulations. . . ." The outfitters were "merely adventurers," and the leaders of the trapping parties were men who had been "common Trappers and therefore possess[ed] no influence."

Simpson anticipated no serious consequences from Smith's invasion of the company's domain. He believed Smith's experiences had convinced him that the geography of the West was a formidable deterrent to American advance.

. . . the flattering reports which reached St. Louis of the Wilhamot [Willamette] Country, as a field for Agricultural speculation, had induced many people in the States to direct their attention to that quarter; but he has on his present journey, discovered difficulties which never occurred to their minds, and which are likely to deter his Country-men form attempting that enterprise.

In the American charts . . . [the Willamette] is laid down, as taking its rise in the Rocky Mountains . . . and the opinion was, that it would merely be necessary for Settlers with their Horses, Cattle, Agricultural implements &c. &c. to get (by the main communication from St. Louis to S[an]ta Fee) to the height of Land in about Lat. 38, there to embark on large Rafts & Batteaux and glide down current about 800 or 1000 Miles at their ease to this "Land of Promise." But it now turns out, that the Sources of the Wilhamot are not 150 Miles distant from Fort Vancouver, in Mountains which even Hunters cannot attempt to pass, beyond which, is a Sandy desert of about 200 miles, likewise impassible. . . . And the other route by Louis's River [Snake], Settlers could never think of attempting. So that I am of opinion, we have little to apprehend from Settlers in this quarter, and from Indian Traders nothing. . . .2

Simpson would have been less sanguine had he read Smith's 1830 report to the Secretary of War in which he wrote encouragingly of a passable road to Oregon. Pack horses and mules were customarily used to transport goods and furs, but that spring he and his partners had pioneered a wagon train that included two lightweight wagons, ten five-mule-team heavy wagons carrying about 1000 pounds each, twelve head of oxen, and a milk cow. They had left St. Louis April 10 and arrived without mishap at the Wind River-Popo Agie junction on July 16. Buffalo provided more food then they could use, the passes and valleys were green, and the stock was easily fed. A few "pioneers" moved ahead of the caravan to cut down the banks of creeks and ravines over which the wagons had to pass; but otherwise, the route along the North Platte was open, level prairie with no obstructions. "The ease and safety with which it was done," Smith reported, "proved the facility of communicating over land with the Pacific Ocean."

Several of Smith's other observations suggest the interest Americans were taking in the Far West. Fort Vancouver, obviously a permanent settlement, was protected only by 12-pounders. The annual value of furs shipped from there would be more than $250,000 on the New York market. Company trappers had crossed the Divide, and were employing such destructive practices that the area would soon be exhausted of its fur stock. He concluded that the Convention of 1818 had given special privileges to the British and had enabled them "to take possession of the Columbia River, and spread over the country south of it; while no Americans have ever gone, or can venture to go on the British side."

So it was that reports of profits enjoyed by an ancient enemy, and of the potentials of a practically unknown land--reports that probably lost nothing in word-of-mouth repetition--lured new adventures into the fur trade and roused a anew interest in the Oregon country. In 1833 Chief Trader Francis Heron passed along the news that "upwards of 400" Americans were in the mountains in the winter of 1832. Astor's American Fur Company had established forts on the Upper Missouri among the Blackfeet: Fort Union on the Yellowstone, Fort McKenzie on the Missouri near the mouth of the Marias, and Fort Cass near the junction of the Big Horn and the Yellowstone. Its trappers trailed the brigades of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, which succeeded Smith, Jackson, and Sublette in 1830, set up their rendezvous in the neighborhood of their rivals and paid higher wages and tariffs to entice their trappers away. The Rocky Mountain men were veterans in the trade, but the American Fur Company employees learned so quickly that by 1832 they were getting the upper hand.

Despite the decline in the trade, two new outfits appeared in the mountains that same year. Captain Benjamin Louis E. deBonneville and Nathaniel Wyeth proposed to be a rival of the HBC. A West Point graduate, Bonneville became interested in the fur trade while stationed on the frontier. He took two years' leave, ostensibly for the purpose of exploration, but actually his main purpose was to break into the fur trade. Instead, he was broken by more experienced competitors and withdrew, bankrupt, in 1836.

Bonneville has been called a "history-made" man, for Washington Irving's facile pen made his name famous. His travels were all within lands that had already been crossed and recrossed by the mountain men. But he did make a contribution to the history of the Far West. Jedediah Smith and his partners used wagons to transport goods to the mountains in 1830, but they did not go beyond South Pass, nor did they continue the practice. Bonneville, with his company of 110 to 120 men, took twenty light wagons through the pass to the Green River, thus opening another stretch of a developing western highway.

Kelley, "Prophet Of Oregon," And Nathaniel Wyeth, Colonizer

Although the West was till thought of as a fur trading country, there was increasing interest in it as a land for settlement. Wyeth became interested in settling through Hall Jackson Kelley, a Boston school-teacher with a mission to propagate "Christianity in the dark and cruel places about the shores of the Pacific." Having read the Biddle edition of Lewis' and Clarks' journals and talked with seamen and hunters, Kelley was convinced that the Oregon country must eventually become "a favorite field of modern enterprise and the abode of civilization."

Kelley devoted himself with uncommon persistence to its colonization. In 1829, he formed the American Society for Encouraging the Settlement of the Oregon Territory. Through circulars and pamphlets he preached that the Pacific Northwest was legitimately a territory of the United States, occupied by a foreign power whose grasp could be broken only by no fewer than "3,000 active sons of American freedom." Such a colony, "planned by Providence, made easy by Nature," would improve the moral condition of the Indians, open the continent to trade with the Orient, provide a refuge for the virtuous but unfortunate, and break the "bold and lawless spirit of enterprise" by which Great Britain held the land.

With few facts but fine imagination, Kelley built up an image of Oregon that became apart of common thinking:

Much of the country within two hundred miles of the ocean, is favorable to cultivation. They valley of the Multnomah [Willamette] is particularly so, being extremely fertile. . . . The Oregon is covered with heavy forests of timber. . . . The production of vegetables, grain, and cattle will require comparatively but little labor; these articles, together with the spontaneous growth of the soil, and the fruits of laborious industry, in general, will find a market, at home, and thereby comfort and enrich the settlers. Surplus staple articles may be shipped from their doors to distant ports, and return a vast profit in trade. Lumber, ship timber, &c. may be sent to the western coast of South America, the islands in the Pacific; bread stuffs, furs, salmon, and many articles of domestic manufactures, to the East Indies.3

It may have been Kelley's "flattering reports" that Simpson referred to when he spoke of American interest in the Willamette Valley, as a "field for agricultural speculation."

Although Kelley stirred a flurry of interest, particularly among New Englanders, few actually signed with him as colonists. Among those who did was Nathaniel J. Wyeth, a young entrepreneur who saw in the undeveloped West opportunity to satisfy his ambitions and repair his temporarily depleted fortune.

When Kelley's "immediate departure" had several times been postponed, Wyeth decided to form his own colonizing society. He organized the Pacific Trading Company, a joint-stock venture, whose participants could, for $40 expense money, join him in a commercial expedition to the Columbia. Wyeth planned to engage in the fur trade on so large a scale that the HBC would be forced to come to terms with him. Assuming that the joint occupation agreement with Great Britain would be terminated in 1838 and that Oregon would then fall to the Americans, he figured that his company would succeed to the monopoly. He intended to develop diverse industries to supplement the fur trade and carry some of the burden of costs. He reasoned, quite accurately, that it would be more economical to supply the fur trade west of the Divide from the coast rather than from St. Louis. Produce from the Willamette Valley, and preserved salmon, as well as valuable packs of furs, would fill the holds of his supply ships on their return to the Atlantic seaboard.

In the spring of 1832, Wyeth set out from St. Louis with a party of twenty-four, uniformed in coarse woolen jackets, pantaloons, striped cotton shirts, and cowhide boots.4 They carried muskets or rifles, but they did not march to the notes of a bugle, as Wyeth had hoped they would. Desertions along the way at Pierre's Hole, where his party witnessed mountain life at its rawest, sadly reduced its numbers. Having cached his trading goods for want of horses, Wyeth continued with his eleven remaining men to Fort Vancouver, arriving practically destitute. McLoughlin, this "civilized man," received Wyeth kindly but gave him clearly to understand that hospitality did not mean encouragement in business.

Wyeth examined the mouth of the Columbia "with a view to the salmon business" and spent a few days looking over the Willamette Valley for a farm site. "I have never seen country of equal beauty except the Kansas country," he wrote in his journal, "and I doubt not [it] will one day sustain a large population." Here he found eight or nine retired HBC employees settled with their families, their prosperous gardens confirming his opinion that, if that country was ever to be colonized, this was the place to begin.

The Pacific Trading Company having been dissolved through attrition, Wyeth rehired two of his men to accompany him back to the States. The others found temporary employment with the HBC. John Ball, a New Yorker trained in law and a successful businessman who had joined Wyeth to fulfill an old dream of western adventure, taught school at Fort Vancouver during the winter of 1832-1833. In the spring, he and John Sinclair went to the prairie near the present Salem, where they built a house, "the walls of which are the cylindrical fir and the roof thereof cyprus and yew," and with tools and seeds lent by McLoughlin, plowed and sowed. "Strawberries and other plants are in flower, and trees in leaf in April. By April 15 the camas are in bloom and plants of many kinds full grown." A month later strawberries were ripe, wild roses in bloom, deer and elk plentiful.5

But for all the richness of the valley and the grandeur of mountain peaks, Ball found strains of evil in the Garden: the natives were given to "falsehood and low cunning," and white men lived too close to the natives. "Fever and ague" burned out enthusiasm already weakened by loneliness. Ball and Sinclair sold their first crops to the HBC and left the country the following September.

Two other members of Wyeth's party, Solomon H. Smith and Calvin E. Tibbetts, a Maine stonecutter, became permanent settlers. Smith, a New Englander with some training in medicine and varied experience in business and fishing, succeeded Ball as teacher at the fort. Later he married an Indian woman and joined the Canadian settlement at French Prairie, where in 1834 he held school for his neighbors' children.

In the mountains, en route home, Wyeth made what he thought was a firm agreement with Thomas Fitzpatrick and Milton Sublette of the collapsed Rocky Mountain Fur Company, to deliver trade goods to them at their next rendezvous. He seemed to have formed a partnership with Bonneville at the same time. He returned to Boston, and organized the Columbia River Company with funds from the firm of Tucker and Williams and some financial assistance from Bonneville's backer, Alfred Seton of New York. In the summer of 1834 Wyeth was back in the mountains. But this venture was no more successful than the first. Sublette and Fitzpatrick announced that they were unable to continue in business, and refused to buy his stock. What Wyeth learned of Bonneville's dawdling winter activities did not encourage him or his men, thirty of whom were hired away from him. With 126 horses and mules, 41 remaining employees, and a large stock of goods, Wyeth had nut one alternative: to set up a trading post in the hope that it might yet save his investment.

On the Snake River, near the mouth of the Portneuf above American Falls, Wyeth built Fort Hall. To celebrate its completion his men "manufactured a magnificent flag from some unbleached sheeting a little red flannel and a few blue patches, saluted it with damaged powder and wet it in vilanous alcohol." In Wyeth's opinion, the banner made "a very respectable appearance amid the dry and desolate regions of central America."

When he reached the Columbia his supply ship had not yet arrived. When it did come the fall salmon run was about over and the half-cargo carried back to the States was not properly processed. Although his prospects were as dismal as they had been two years earlier, Wyeth put men to work on a farm at French Prairie. Another crew built Fort William on Sauvie (then called Wapato) Island at the mouth of the Willamette, which he planned to make the depot for his fishing enterprise. He had a few storehouses, some dwellings, and a blacksmith's and cooper's shop erected on October 6.

Misfortune dogged his efforts. The Sandwich Islanders he had imported as laborers deserted: "Our people are sick and dying off like rotten sheep of billious disorders," he wrote in September, 1835. In the mountains, Indians took the scalps of fourteen of his employees. In the spring of 1836 he decided to abandon the adventure. Courtney M. Walker was left in charge of Fort William which was soon abandoned, and a tenant, James O'Neill, took over the Valley farm. In June Wyeth left for the United States, having arranged to sell Fort Hall to the HBC.

Wyeth had attempted to enter the fur trade against heavy opposition and at the very time its fortunes were declining. He had neither the capital nor the experience to compete, on the one hand, with the well-entrenched HBC, or on the other, with the hardened leaders of the mountain men whom he described as scoundrels. His scheme of developing a Columbia River salmon industry for export trade was premature.

However, Wyeth helped open the road to Oregon. His ideas of outfitting the mountain men appealed to McLoughlin. When Wyeth built Fort Hall, McLoughlin sent Thomas McKay to build Fort Boise; when Wyeth offered to sell his fort, McLoughlin bought it. When immigration began to move along the Oregon Trail, the British forts Hall and Boise became important stations on this long, barren stretch. Furthermore, the eight or nine Wyeth men who chose to remain in Oregon were the beginning of an American colony.

By the time Wyeth left the mountains in 1836, the era of fur trade was rapidly drawing to a close. Beaver were about trapped out and the mountain men were forced to work harder and range farther to find them. Then, too, the market was greatly reduced when men began to wear silk instead of fur hats. The Indian trade was now securely held by the American Fur Company, which concentrated its dealings in hides and skins at forts Benton and Union on the Upper Missouri. The last rendezvous was in 1840; thereafter most of the free trappers deserted the mountains. Some drifted to California and entered the horse and cattle trade of the Southwest; others came to the Willamette Valley and reluctantly, but of necessity, took up farming.

The Mountain Men Turn To Oregon

Probably the first of these reached the Valley in 1832, when McLoughlin mentioned the arrival of a party of American hunters from California. The next group appeared in 1834, the year when McLoughlin politely welcomed Wyeth back to Vancouver. No welcome awaited Ewing Young and eight or twelve companions. Young was a tough product of the southwest frontier, whose career included beaver trapping, trading out of Santa Fe, and driving horses from California to Taos. His companions, with one exception, comprised a cross section of the "reckless breed of men," ranging from well-educated, energetic, and versatile Joseph Gale and steady Webley Hauxhurst down to roistering irresponsibles. The odd man of the party was Hall Jackson Kelley.

Having failed to launch his colonizing company in 1832, Kelley had undertaken the trip to Oregon alone, by way of New Orleans, Mexico, and California. In Mexico, it was said, he passed out religious tracts and was almost deflected from his Oregon destination by a new interest, a railroad between Vera Cruz and Mexico City. After numerous hardships he finally reached California and fell in with Ewing Young. According to his story, Kelley convinced Young and his companions of the desirability of living in Oregon. As they started for the Columbia, they were joined by some men who had horses which the governor of California claimed were stolen. The governor notified McLoughlin by way of a company ship then at Monterey that Young's party was composed of horse thieves.

At Fort Vancouver, Kelley and Young were coolly received. Kelley was obviously sick, physically and mentally. He was housed outside the fort until the next March (1835), when McLoughlin shipped him to the Hawaiian Islands. The following October Kelley returned to Boston on a whaling ship, convinced that he had been persecuted by the HBC. He became an even more zealous propagandist for American occupation of Oregon, and a bitter antagonist of the British.

Ewing Young and his companions moved into the Chehalem Valley and built cabins, the nucleus of a small community of mountain men. The arrival of these rough characters almost coincided with that of a different type of settler. With Wyeth in 1834 had come a party of Methodist missionaries, Jason and Daniel Lee and their lay workers, Cyrus Shepard and Philip Edwards. Their aim was to civilize the wilderness. They were to accomplish what Kelley and Wyeth had failed to do.

The fur trade was over. Oregon's future lay in the plowed earth, in fields of wheat ripening under the August sun.


1The West of William H. Ashley, Dale L. Morgan, ed., (1963), 4.

2Simpson's 1828 Journey, 64, 66-67.

3Hall J. Kelley on Oregon, Fred W. Powell, ed. (1932), 73-74.

4The Correspondence and Journals of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth, 1831-6, F.G. Young, ed. (1899).

5John Ball, "Across the Continent Seventy Years Ago," OHQ, March 1902, 103, 104.