Feeding the Fad for Furs


The development of the Oregon Country started with the demand for furs. The fur trade in Oregon was started in 1778 by Captain Cook trading for sea otter. The Spanish traded from California. The Russians traded the Pacific coast under the auspices of the Russian-American Company. Americans, called Bostons by the natives, entered the fur trade in 1790. Up to 18,000 skins a year were taken from Oregon as part of a ’round the world trading route called the China Circuit.

Then came the land-based fur trappers and traders known as mountain men. Operating as independent entrepreneurs, they would roam the mountains for years at a time collecting furs to trade at prearranged rendezvous with their suppliers. The mountain men traded mostly for simple supplies such as whiskey and gunpowder and for miscellaneous trade goods they could use to bargain with Indians, while their suppliers took the furs back St. Louis, where they could be sold for serious money.

The first two mountain men were members of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. Private John Colter left the expedition in 1806 as it was on its way back on the headwaters of the Missouri River. George Drouillard returned a year later for the life of furs. Both men worked for the Spaniard Manuel Lisa, who was clandestinely trading American furs out of St. Louis. Colter discovered the geyser basins of “Colter’s Hell” and Yellowstone and once escaped naked from an Indian firing squad. Drouillard was killed in 1810 by Blackfeet who cut off his head and disemboweled him.

At the same time, millionaire John Jacob Astor was also entering the fur trade. He expanded his business empire to the Pacific coast in 1810 when he started the ill-fated Pacific Fur Company. Astor’s plan was to send his ship Tonquin with trade goods around Cape Horn to the Columbia River to meet up with an overland party, load up with furs, and head across the Pacific on the next leg of the China Circuit.

The overland party under Wilson Price Hunt left St. Louis March 1811, crossed Union Pass and headed up the Snake River where they found game scarce, split up, got lost, and had to resort to eating their own moccasins and drinking their own waste fluids. Morale was poor, and by the time the last of Hunt’s party straggled into Fort Astor in February, 1812, the Tonquin had been blown up by its last surviving crew member at Nootka Sound off Vancouver Island.

Hunt’s party began trading for furs in May, hoping Astor would send another ship. However, the fur trade at Astoria would only last a year, and it never prospered. Trading houses were set up side by side with those of the British North West Company, engendering much ill will and forcing traders into ruinous competition with one another. Robert Stuart and six men left Astoria late in 1812 to return overland to St. Louis and inform his superiors of the sorry state of affairs in Oregon. En route he discovered South Pass, which would be the funnel for so many covered wagons through the Rockies on the Oregon Trail.

In the spring of 1813, John George McTavish of the North West Company arrived at Fort Astor with news of the War of 1812. The Astorians decided to sell out to the NWC before a Royal Navy ship could arrive and seize Fort Astor as a prize of war. Some Astorians joined the NWC and others went independent.

The mountain men were now the only Americans trading furs in the Oregon Country. Armed with Hawken rifles, pistols, knives, and hatchets, the mountain men carried everything they might need with them: food, tobacco, tools, traps, and bullets. These buckskin-clad fur trappers lived the life of the Indians with whom they worked so closely. They had Indian wives, and in some cases white wives back in St. Louis, as well. They included Ewing Young, Joseph Walker, and Kit Carson. Many were mentioned in passing in the diaries of Oregon Trail emigrants. Some, such as Stephen and Joseph Meek, Old Bill Williams, Tom Fitzpatrick, and William Robidoux, even guided wagon trains to Oregon as the fur trade declined.

During the peak fur trapping years, around 100,000 beaver pelts were being consumed annually for the production of men’s top hats, and in the 1830s the Hudson’s Bay Company made a concerted effort to trap out the beaver population in Montana and Idaho, the last great concentration of the animals within legal reach of Americans. The beaver may well have been driven to extinction had silk top hats not come into fashion around the same time, all but eliminating the demand for beaver pelts. The bison of the Great Plains then became the animal most commonly hunted for its skin.

The most successful mountain man was William Ashley, who in 1822 advertised in the St. Louis Gazette for men who wanted employment for up to three years. The ad was answered by Jedediah Smith, Thomas Fitzpatrick, David Jackson, William Sublette, and Jim Bridger, who made up the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Ashley earned $80,000 the first year and retired to politics after the second.

Ashley started the first Rocky Mountain Rendezvous in 1825. There were sixteen of these annual get-togethers. The site was predetermined, usually along Wyoming’s Green River. The first day was spent in drinking, gambling, ball playing, and racing. From the second day on, it was serious trading. Furs were sold or traded for traps, guns, ammunition, knives, tobacco, and liquor (at $64 a gallon!), all of which had to be brought from St. Louis. The last Rocky Mountain Rendezvous was in 1840.