A Condensed History of the North American Fur Trade

A Condensed History of the North American Fur Trade

The evolution of cooking has come a long way since since the heydays of eating when possible of the French Canadian Voyageurs and the American Mountain Men who served as the early work horses who bore both the burdens and the dangers of the early Canadian and American fur trades to eating when convenient made possible by contemporary, well equipped high tech kitchens. 

In popular folklore, the fur trade of the American Far West generally is viewed to have begun with John Colter, a member of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition. As they were returning to St Louis, Missouri from their winter quarters at Ft Clatsop on the south shore at the mouth of the Columbia River, their nearly two year sojourn into the unknown western wilderness close to its end, they arrived in the spring of 1806 at the Mandan Villages near present day Mandan, North Dakota. 

There, they encountered two frontiersmen who were traveling to the upper Missouri River to hunt furs, Forest Hancock and Joseph Dickson. Colter approached the captains, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and asked permission to join Hancock and Dickson as the only man allowed to leave the expedition before its completion. Due to his exemplary service throughout the ordeal, the captains granted his request and thus began two extraordinary years of adventures and wanderings during which, among other accomplishments, Colter “discovered” Jackson Hole in present day Grand Teton National Park and “Colter’s Hell”, commonly believed to be the geysers basin of what now is Yellowstone National Park. In fact, it more likely was an area later referred to as the “Stinkin’ Hole”, a similarly geothermally active region of the Shoshone River just east of Yellowstone Park near today’s Cody, Wyoming.

But Cody’s most well known, some might say misadventure, occurred in 1808 as he and his trapping partner at the time, a man named John Potts (also a Lewis & Clark Expedition veteran), were canoeing up the Jefferson River in what now is southern Montana south of Three Forks, when they encountered a large band of the hostile, notoriously ferocious Blackfoot tribe. The Blackfeet demanded they come ashore. Colter complied and as he did so, was disarmed and stripped of his clothes. But Potter refused and was shot and wounded. Potter returned fire and promptly was dispatched after being riddled with Blackfoot bullets and his body hacked apart.

The Blackfeet then held a council to determine Colter’s fate, after which Colter was summoned and told in Crow to begin running. Thus began a most remarkable sequence of events. Stark naked and realizing he literally was running for his life, pursued by a pack of young braves, each eager to capture the honor of claiming his scalp, after several miles of very fast running (note this, all you marathoners!) Colter, utterly exhausted and nose bleeding profusely, turned his head to see all but a lone brave had dropped far back in the race. The remaining would be assailant soon overcame Colter. What happened next best is described in the immortal 1817 words of John Bradbury, a Scottish botanist who traveled extensively throughout the American West in the early 19th Century:

“Again he turned his head, and saw the savage not twenty yards from him. Determined if possible to avoid the expected blow, he suddenly stopped, turned round, and spread out his arms. The Indian, surprised by the suddenness of the action, and perhaps at the bloody appearance of Colter, also attempted to stop; but exhausted with running, he fell whilst endeavouring (sic) to throw his spear, which stuck in the ground, and broke in his hand. Colter instantly snatched up the pointed part, with which he pinned him to the earth, and then continued his flight.”

Colter also grabbed the unfortunate aspiring hero’s blanket and continued his flight toward ultimate escape and freedom until he reached the Madison River whereupon, with incredible presence of mind, he jumped in, spied a nearby raft of fallen trees caught against the far bank, grabbed one of the reeds growing alongside, then dove and hid beneath the raft, using the hollow reed as a straw through which he could breath as he felt the vibrations of the Blackfoot braves as they scampered to and fro across the raft searching for him the rest of the day (note this, all you snorkelers!).

As night fell, the Blackfeet, believing he had escaped, withdrew to their encampment at the beginning of that improbable foot race many miles away, and Colter cautiously emerged, alive but cold and sore, from his hiding spot and began his long trek across the intervening mountains and plains back to the Missouri River and on to St Louis. Soon after retreating to St Louis, young (but by then considerably aged!) Mr Colter found himself besmitten by a lovely young lass and before long was bound by the bonds of wedded bliss which entrapped him just as surely as his own traps had ensnared unsuspecting beavers in his previous life. Within a few short years of his betrothal and new life as a farmer on nearby land he had purchased with what remained of the proceeds from selling his pelts of fur, John Colter passed into Eternity. It never has been determined whether John’s premature demise was the result of shock caused by the sudden transition from his storied wanderings through uncharted and unknown lands to a life of domesticity or whether the extreme hardships of that strenuous life finally caught up with him and exacted their ultimate toll in the form of his succumbing to an unexpectedly premature expiration.

In truth, the North American fur trade was founded early in the 17th Century  (1608) by New World French Canadian settlers who initially were bonded indentured servants who served at their sponsor’s pleasure for a fixed period of time in return for their passage from Europe to North American shores. In effect, they were slaves to their masters until their commitments had been satisfied and their masters were financially astute businessmen. (There actually existed a small number of equally astute businesswomen in French Canada back then who were no less conversant with the riches to be gained by exploiting the high European demand for the vast wealth of fine furs that the Interior was known to produce and leveraging the labor of their indentured “servants”, ie slaves).

These incredibly strong and hardy men (many of the more legendary ones today would be labeled as “Super Men”) bore the back breaking work and long, arduous days of carrying trade goods from Montreal via canoe upon first breakup in the spring to places as far flung as the Northern Canadian Rockies (think Edmonton and Jasper), before returning with hundreds of 90 lb bales of fur at the end of the summer, reaching Montreal just before freezeup. Throughout the extensive lake routes of the Quetico in Southern Ontario and the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota, many grueling portages were required in which each man, who generally was of small stature, carried two 90 lb packs on his back for the duration of the portage. Documented instances of some men carrying three such packs exist in the literature of the times and traditional tales speak of at least one 6′ 8″ giant who reputedly once carried seven of those packs.

In practice, few of these Voyageurs, as they generically have been known through the ages, made the entire journey from Montreal to their cargo’s destination, and those who did wintered there. Before long, that custom spread to include some who chose to brave the demanding winters of the intermediate country. (Temperatures at Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods weather station occasionally have been known to plunge to -60âÂ�Â� comparable to today’s deep freezes at Fairbanks, Alaska at the bottom of the Cheena River Basin, where the average temperatures have warmed measurably over the past several decades). The standard practice was to break the journey in half, with the western and eastern crews meeting to exchange hundreds of tons of cargo at the annual rendezvous in Grand Portage on the shore of a small bay on the north side of Lake Superior in the far corner of Northeast Minnesota. Those who chose to withstand the harsh rigors of Canada’s Interior winters were referred to as hommes du nord (northern men) or hivernants (winterers). They often took native wives, had children and raised families with them, in the process spawning an historically underprivileged, unrecognized class of citizens called Metìs who tended to congregate in their own small settlements along Manitoba’s Red River. They eventually were destined to play a significant role in expanding the western fur trade south to the Louisiana Territory of the United States.

The eastern crews were called mangeurs de lard (pork eaters) because their diets consisted primarily of salted pork, which was produced in Montreal and provided to them by their masters. The western crews tended to rely mostly on pemmican, the drawn and dried meat of fresh game that initially also came from Montreal but as the trade matured, began to be manufactured In Grand Portage for distribution to the western crews. The rendezvous served a dual purpose – providing at the same time a venue for the formal exchange of cargoes and the occasion for a couple days of raucous, bawdy debauchery before resuming the arduous treks of the oppositely departing canoe fleets powered by the once again sober Voyageurs. 

In 1670, the King of France granted an exclusive royal charter for the North American fur trade to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Over the next twenty years, policies changed and restrictions eased, allowing the formation of its new arch rival, the North West Company. The two companies engaged in a vicious, cut throat competition for men, resources and native alliances to lock down their sources of furs since, unlike the later American Mountain Men, the Voyageurs rarely engaged in the practice of hunting and trapping themselves, preferring to leave that task to the native peoples they encountered and to barter with the natives for their furs. The appearance of the Hudson’s Bay Company on the scene in 1770 imposed organization and structure upon an industry which until then mainly had been composed of a relatively informal, loose confederation of individual masters and their indentured servants. With the advent of the severe competition heralded by the rise of the North West Company, all semblance of independent fur operations was extinguished and the two companies battled it out until the toll grew so great after twenty years of fighting and stealing each other’s resources, they finally were forced to merge in 1821.

The merger also signaled the end of the Voyageur as a generic waterborne adventurer. In reality, these men actually formed a ranked class of specialized adventurers. Voyageurs occupied the highest pecking order and specifically were employees of the combined HBC/NWC venture who possessed the highly prized skills and physical abilities of traditional Voyageurs. As such, they rarely strayed far from their water craft and routes. The original, independent (after satisfying any prior indenture obligations) Voyageurs became known as coureur des bois who generally traveled about New France unimpeded and at will. Their numbers diminished as HBC/NWC business flourished. Finally, there were the engagés, roughly common laborers accustomed to outdoor living and skilled in frontier craft who put themselves at the disposal of whomever needed their services to do whatever was asked of them.

The birth and subsequent growth of the American West Fur Trade followed quite a different path. Its nascent beginnings, certainly when formalized organization and structure are considered, can be found in the establishment, under the consent of Thomas Jefferson, then US President, of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company in the spring of 1808, even before the triumphant return to St Louis of the pioneering Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition. and it was a trader named Manual Lisa who, in that same spring of 1808, fostered the fateful encounter of John Colter with two of his men, Forest Hancock and Joseph Dickson, on his way upriver to establish the first American trading post west of the Mississippi River at the mouth of the fabled Yellowstone River where it empties into the Missouri near what now is Williston, North Dakota.

In 1810, Astor mounted an overland expedition to Fort Astoria, which he founded in 1811 with a group of men he had sent around Cape Horn on the American merchant ship Tonquin to compete against the NWC interior posts. By 1813 he had enough and, alarmed by the unexpected appearance of the British warship HMS Racoon during the War of 1812, in 1813 agreed to sell his Astoria assets to NWC, which renamed the outpost Fort George. 

The following years were up and down for Astor’s American Fur Company until 1822, when William Henry Ashely, in partnership with Andrew Henry, formed the very successful Rocky Mountain Fur, Inc to compete with Astor’s AFC. The intense competition which followed paralleled in ferocity, though later in time, that of the earlier HBC/NWC contest for power in the fur trade. The discipline it imposed on the up to that time fiercely independent streak of American Mountain Men resulted in a system of scheduled rendezvous’s at specified places and times each summer, when trappers who wintered in the remote wilderness, both independently and under the direct employment of one of the two companies harvesting furs would meet at the appointed time and place to exchange their furs for the next year’s supplies they required to see them through the winter. 

The annual supply train of pack mules which returned after each rendezvous was organized every spring in St Louis by a famous Great Plains trader named Bill Sublette and his four brothers. The timing was intricate for its day, as that entire distance had to be traveled at a pace carefully calculated to arrive at the agreed time and place of that year’s rendezvous. As they began to pour in from every corner of Americas vast western wilderness, The Mountain Men would dispatch riders to the east until they spotted the distant dust cloud of Sublette’s slowly approaching mule train, upon which they would wheel the mounts around and make a headlong dash for a camp desperate to hear the first sounds of whooping and hollering “He’s almost here, he’s almost here!” For in addition to the multiple grains and various tools of the trade they would need, plus the varied assortments of gadgets which each Mountain Man chose to fill his “possibles pouch” and vital gunpowder, musket balls and beaver traps, Bill was known to pack prodigious quantities of whiskey of which no canister ever was known to leave the rendezvous with so much as a drop of fire water left in it, meaning the next fifty weeks would be dry as a bone teetotaling weeks for the Mountain Men.

The result was a colorfully raucous, bawdy, brawling event which consistently exceeded even the exaggerated standards of the infamous Voyageurs’ Grand Portage rendezvous’s. The rendezvous’s usually were held in locations convenient to Sublette traversing South Pass, the great, relatively easy passage across the Continental Divide at the southern end of Wyoming’s rugged Wind River Range which later facilitated the passage of most of the West’s pioneer wagon trains first to Oregon, then to California, beginning in earnest in 1840. Places like Ham’s Fork on the Green River running through the valley on the west side of the Wind Rivers, or Bear Lake in Utah. 

Many of the Mountain Men who were the American version of the French Canadian hivernants, like their counterparts took native wives and raised families with them, often holing up in remote Native villages while trapping streams in the vicinity and moving with them as they migrated whenever conditions demanded. They typically would bring their spouses with them to the rendezvous’s, then carry on as they rowdily pleased. The rendezvous’s frequently also were attended by many braves, warriors and young, unattached native maidens, the maidens mostly for the beads and trinkets they knew Sublette to pack along, the braves and warriors mostly for the whiskey and games of strength and agility which characterized those gatherings. For the most part, enmities were sidelined for the duration of those celebrations, but not always. There is a little known term of the Old West called “Up to the Green River”. Legend has it that this term was coined during an incident, possibly at a Ham’s Fork rendezvous. Green River knives were highly prized, heavily sought Sublette specialties for their unusual sharpness and toughness. The story goes that one night, after draining the contents of a jug of “Green River Whiskey” (ie whiskey that Sublette, seeking more profitable returns, often watered down with Green River water before selling it to the trappers), two trappers who supposedly were not on the friendliest of terms outside of rendezvous, became quarrelsome and one stuck his Green River knife into the other up to its hilt, killing him instantly. Such drunken violence hardly being uncommon among those gatherings, the term “Up to the Green River” stuck.

There exists evidence that, even prior to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Metìs traders had blazed trails south from Canada into the United States, initially following the Red River south as it ran along the border between present day Minnesota and North Dakota to its source at the confluence of the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail rivers between Minnesota and North Dakota. There is some indication that they may have made it as far as the Yellowstone and Teton areas of Wyoming’s northwest corner and possibly over Teton Pass at the southern end of the Teton Range into Idaho’s Snake River Valley.  The latter claim appears to be based primarily on speculation that the Grant Teton derives its name, at least in part, from the striking resemblance of its skyline to an exceptionally well endowed woman’s breast, or “teton” in colloquial French, when viewed from the west.

Out of this unique period of American history emerged some of the larger than life figures of uniquely American legend and mythology. Men like Jim Bridger, universally considered by his peers of that special time and place to be the Ultimate Mountain Man among many truly great mountain men. Kit Carson, Joe Meeker, Mike Fink, Hugh Glass, Jed Smith, California Joe Walker, Tom “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick, “Old” Bill Williams, Jim Beckwourth (who, it might be noted, was unique as being part Cherokee and part African American) to name but a few. Let’s have a look look at one of their most outstanding leaders.

Jedediah Strong Smith was born to Jed Smith and Sally Strong in 1798, one of the foremost of the mountain men of his era. Known as a fearsome but strict God fearing, teetotaling exception to the otherwise universal code of mountain men, Jed was as widely respected as he was feared. He usually was depicted as riding through the wilds toting a bible in one hand and his musket in the other, equally ready to employ either as the situation demanded. Rough and tumble trappers quickly learned to mind their tongues when in Jed’s presence.

In early August of 1826, Smith and a party of fifteen trappers departed the second rendezvous at Bear Lake in the corner junction of North Central Utah with Southeast Idaho, bent upon finding a route around the forbidding Sierra Nevada Range between California and Nevada to what at the time was known as Spanish Alta California. Traversing through present day Utah and Nevada, they eventually found their way to a crossing of the Colorado River between Southern California and Central Arizona. Fording it, they sheltered and recuperated for a couple days in a friendly Mojave village near what today is Needles, CA, before being guided across the Mojave Desert via the Mojave Trail by two errant mission deserters. Upon reaching the San Bernardino Valley, Smith and his interpreter left for the local mission, whereupon he presented himself to its padre. The next day the rest of Smith’s men arrived, at which point all of their weapons were confiscated by the garrison. Smith soon was summoned to present himself before the Governor of Alta California in San Diego who expressed alarm at his unauthorized entry to the Spanish Territories and ordered his detention while demanding that Smith remand his map and journal. Smith responded by asking permission to travel north along the coast to the Columbia River, where there was an established outpost and access to a well known route back to the United States Territories. The Governor replied, ordering Smith and his party to leave California the same way they had come while giving ground in allowing them to purchase the necessary supplies for their return to American held lands.

In early 1827 Smith finally obtained his exit visa, but upon clearing the settlements he turned north, exploring and trapping his way up California’s San Joaquin Valley as far as the American River, which joined the Sacramento River near present day Sacramento. Upon reaching it, his party attempted to find a route across the Sierra Nevada by following its canyon upstream but was forced back. Realizing it was too late in the year to make it to the Columbia River, Smith led his party pack to the Stanislaus River, where they established a winter encampment. Smith then picked two men an forced a difficult crossing of the Sierra Nevada Range, eventually descending to the vicinity of present day Walker Lake from which they took the quickest possible route to make the third Rendezvous at Bear Lake. After a terrifying crossing of the Great Basin Desert during which they nearly expired from dehydration under the merciless sun of an early summer onset, they made Bear Lake in early July just as rendezvous was beginning. Long given up as hopelessly lost in their meanderings or dead by then, the men were overjoyed at the apparition of the three trappers and explorers which had unexpectedly descended upon them and greeted them with cannon fire.

Smith immediately left with eighteen men and two French Canadian women, traveling the same route as the previous year in order to pick up the men he had left behind. This time, however, the Mojave had turned hostile after a clash with Taos trappers and a firefight ensued when Smith attempted to cross the river during the course of which ten of Smith’s men were killed, one was badly wounded and the two women were captured. The eight surviving men retreated and crossed the Mojave desert on foot before reaching the San Bernardino Valley, where they were well received. Smith then proceeded up the San Joaquin Valley until he found his previous year’s group and together they traveled to Mission San Jose, where they were received with reserve and suspicion, before proceeding to Yerba Buena (now San Francisco) and finally Monterey, then the capital of Alta California where the Governor happened to be residing at the time.

The Governor again arrested Smith, together with his men, and held them until several English speaking residents vouched for him, whereupon they were released and again ordered immediately to leave Alta California by the most expeditious route possible. Once again out of sight, Smith and his party instead lingered around the Sacramento Valley trapping and hunting for several months. Upon reaching its head, after scouting it they determined the northeast route afforded by the Pit River was impassable, so they struck northwest toward the Pacific coast, renewing their commitment to find a way to the Columbia River for their salvation and along the way became the first men to cross into Oregon Territory along the coastal route, reach the Columbia River and return to the Rocky Mountains.

Under the Treaty of 1818, Oregon Country was under joint British and American occupation. Smith and his men soon encountered the Umpqua Tribe which was wary of their presence. When one of them stole an ax from Smith’s party, he and his men treated them quite harshly in order to force its return. In mid July, on a night when Smith had taken two men to scout a trail leading north the group left behind was attacked while encamped on the banks of the Umpqua. At the end of the first week in August, one of them showed up at Fort Vancouver on the mouth of the Columbia badly wounded and in tatters. He reported to the Factor that he believed himself to be the sole survivor but did not know the fate of Smith and his two men. Two days later, they also showed up, reporting that having become aware of the attack, had returned, climbed a nearby hill and witnessed it. A relief expedition was organized and dispatched to the scene but all were found dead and decomposing, and were buried on the spot. Smith remained at Fort Vancouver until 1829, during which time the Factor, Dr. John McLoughlin, treated the survivors, replenished their supplies in exchange for the furs that were retrieved from the massacre site and restored their health to where they were fit for the long journey back to Bear Lake, which they completed without incident.

Smith returned to St Louis in 1830 and decided to abandon the northern fur trade, which already had begun to taper off due to a combination of beaver depletion caused by heavy over trapping and a slackening demand for beaver fur caused by fashion changes in Europe that spread to North America, and try his hand at the Santa Fe and Taos trade. In late May of 1831, Smith was traveling with a supply train to trade in Santa Fe when he left the train to scout for water and never returned. The train continued, believing Smith would catch up with them. He never did. After reaching Santa Fe, they encountered a comanchero who was in possession of Smith’s personal belongings. Upon interrogation, the comanchero confessed that Smith had encountered a band of Comanche warriors and after being surrounded, he attempted to negotiate with them and talk his way out of it unsuccessfully. The Comanches then attacked Smith and dispatched him, but not before he had killed their chief. It was an ignominious end for such a bold and courageous trail blazer.

The Pierre’s Hole (in Southeast Idaho jest west of the Tetons) Rendezvous of 1832 widely is regarded as having marked the pinnacle of the American West fur trade era. As previously noted, already the fur trade was beginning to taper off. By 1838, the last great rendezvous was held near present day Riverton, Wyoming. In 1840 the first outliers of the Oregon Migration appeared at Jim Bridger’s Fort Bridger near today’s Laramie, Wyoming and most of the active Mountain Men by then had read the inevitable handwriting on the wall. One by one, they abandoned the free wheeling Trapper’s life which they so long had led and hired their badly needed skills, knowledge and services to the hordes of greenhorns bent upon crossing the vast barren wastelands between South Pass after traversing the formidable Great Plains for the lush Willamette Valley with its fantastic soil of Oregon Territory before the onset of the winter snows.

In 1837, a talented young American artist named Alfred Jacob Miller, while visiting New Orleans, attached himself to the exploring/sporting expedition of the Scottish Nobleman, Sir William Drummond Stewart, who had hired Miller to accompany his expedition to the Rocky Mountains as his official artist, charged with creating accurate renditions of everything they encountered along the way. Together with the German artist Karl Bodmer, who preceded Miller while accompanying the German Prince Maximilian’s exploratory expedition to the Upper Missouri during 1832-1834, they are the only two artists known to have competently depicted the daily activities and environments of the various Plains tribes before massive corruption was introduced by fulfillment of America’s Manifest Destiny doctrine.

Of the two, Bodmer only made it within eyesight beyond the horizon of the peaks of the “Shining Mountains”, as the easternmost chain of Montana’s Northern Rockies was known to its early penetrants. Miller, in contrast, penetrated the Rockies, enough so to attend and record the 1837 Green River (Siskeedee-Agie) Rendezvous near present day Daniel, Wyoming. While both left priceless sketches and paintings of great historical interest to the American Fur Trade Era, Miller’s were more accurate, detailed and better defined. Furthermore, Miller’s are the only on the scene recordings we have of Mountain Men in action. In 1838, he returned with Stewart, paintings and sketches in hand, to Stewart’s Scottish estate, Murthy Castle, where Stewart took possession of Miller’s precious recordings and stored them there. They never were heard of again until shortly after Word War II ended, when they were discovered hidden in a Dutch attic to keep them from the plundering hands of their Nazi conquerors. Returned to the United States, most now are preserved in a carefully controlled environment of the Smithsonian where they remain as one of our greatest American treasures.

This, then, is a brief history of the backdrop against which modern cooking and eating practices can be assessed. Replacing the black kettles, iron skillets, fresh shoot skewers and open camp fires that characterized the earliest explorers’ and entrepreneurs’ outdoor kitchens which traveled wherever they wandered and were set up whenever conditions permitted are today’s marvels of high tech home kitchens featuring electric grinders, choppers, slicers, graters, blenders, grillers, deep fryers, pressure cookers, food warmers, casserole pots, broilers, convection ovens, griddles, frying pans, microwave ovens, coffee/espresso/latte makers, bottle coolers, ice makers, refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, garbage disposals, trash compactors, and yes, even home breweries.

In the coming weeks we’ll begin discussions of these, dissecting their various uses and capabilities plus throw in some novel recipe ideas as well via our blog series. We’ll transform the art of cooking from a necessary chore into an exciting and enjoyable hobby with everyone’s participation.