The fur trade gets its start in America with the earliest adventurers exploring the New England Coast. The late 1500’s and early 1600’s produced the first documented commerce between the Native Americans and the European explorers mostly during early fishing ventures. The natives swapped prime furs of all types for European manufactured goods or trinkets.
With the chartering of the London and Plymouth companies in 1606 the colonization projects on the East Coast of America got started. Some of the early footholds in America survived. Others failed, but the process of advancing settlement had begun. Fishing was a major and often profitable coastal industry. Agriculture was an industry of necessity for the settler’s survival, with most of the produce consumed locally for many years. The fur trade with the Native Americans produced the best return on investment and offered the most potential to investors in Europe or debtors in the New World. Most of the early fur trade was done along the coast at the few settlements and from the fishing or exploring vessels. In 1614 Captain John Smith describing his voyage along the New England coast says,
“We got for trifles, eleven thousand beaver, and one hundred martins, and as many otters.”
Not long after the initial land based settlement, traders began to regularly travel up rivers to locate trading opportunities with the Indians. Earliest settlers in new localities chose where they settled to be in opportune locations for trade with the Indians. As the settlements expanded and fear of difficulties with the Indians developed the trading locations would be established outside the densely populated settlements and were called Truck Houses. As the fur trade moved deeper inland, truck houses became the trading posts to which we are all more familiar.
Gradually the Europeans learned the Indian methods of trapping with deadfalls and snares and began to provide a more systematic and consistent supply of fur. Early in the 1600’s some of the seaboard colonists first used steel traps to capture wolves preying on their livestock. Steel traps were produced one at a time by blacksmiths and gunsmiths at considerable effort and expense to the purchaser. At a time when the fur trade or trapping offered the most opportunity, and bounties on predatory furbearers were lucrative, the most aggressive and adventurous moved even deeper into the unknown territory to seek his fortune. With one or two traps each representing perhaps a years wages these hardy soles tramped all over North America bringing their catch back seasonally with information about what lies over the next mountain or stories about the native peoples that live along the water systems previously unknown. As the trappers moved into new territory their outposts or trading posts would follow and many would grow into settlements or great cities.
In 1804 the Lewis and Clark expedition started up the Missouri River to explore the territory, its native people, wildlife, and topography all the way to the Pacific Ocean. On their return trip a member of the expedition, John Colter, stayed behind in the Rocky Mountains and did considerable additional exploring and adventuring. Based on the reports from Lewis and Clark plus those of Colter, a businessman, John Jacob Astor, decided to go after the Western fur trade. In 1810 Astor formed the Pacific Fur Company. For the next decade a handful of Aster’s trappers would struggle in the west always with the problem of getting their furs out and finding re-supply. In 1822 William Ashley emerged as a dominant force in the Western fur trade. Ashley advertised in the Missouri Gazette for 100 enterprising young men to ascend the Missouri River and trapbeaver. Ashley provided the capital and his partner Andrew Henry led the troop of trappers which included Milton Sublette, Hugh Glass, Jim Bridger, Jed Smith, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jim Clyman and the rest of the enterprising young men. The trappers built an outpost they called Henry’s Fort on the Green River and spread out in that portion of what would become Wyoming, to catch beaver. The following spring of 1823 Ashley himself and Jed Smith led a second group of trappers into the same area with more supplies, although Indians ambushed them and fourteen trappers were killed, they persisted. Ashley directed his men to scatter in small trapping groups and look to their own care. They should all meet at Henry’s Fort in July of 1825 in order to pool their furs and get supplies for the next years trapping. The French among them called this meeting Rendezvous. This system of trappers gathering once a year for re-supply and a general frolic would continue annually until 1840. Gradually with established year round military installations and trading posts along with a decline in fur prices, the annual Rendezvous was no longer required.
The trappers and fur traders had proceeded settlement clear across the continent and up into Alaska. There would now be a long period with fur prices sometimes up and sometimes down but old frontiers revisited. Rural people everywhere would trap when the prices were right, the fur was available, and their circumstances allowed. Furbearer species everywhere were coming under stricter regulations and scientific management. In the twentieth century trappers began to write about their techniques and state-trapping organizations began to form. Out of this movement the annual gatherings of trappers to sell furs, buy supplies, keep updated on what’s happening in trapping, learn trapping skills from each other, and swap stories are once again happening.
For today’s trapper and other interested parties there are a multitude of state and national events which I would collectively call Rendezvous and which focus on one or more of the interests or activities from this long heritage of trapping, exploring, and the fur industry. There are local and national trapping events catering to the needs of modern trappers, antique trap swap meets for collectors, various Mountain Man events and reenactments for those who want to experience or keep alive the history and techniques of the past. So put on some fur or feathers, get out there and enjoy your Heritage.