A wild, daring, irresponsible class of men they were, those forerunners of the pale face's civilization. They little resembled heralds of civilization. More savage in dress, actions and habits were many of them than the very Indians among whom they wandered to wrest their precarious livelihood from the wilderness. Yet they sowed the seeds from which were to spring the beginnings of the new era.
These trappers and traders fared forth with a hardihood and resource absolutely amazing, braved the peril of death by torture, and filtered among the wild tribes of the plains and mountains in search of beaver and other peltries. In this search they penetrated to the uttermost corners of the present United States. They went in search of furs; but they acquired something more important to the nation than that — a priceless knowledge of the geography, people and characteristics of the great unknown hinterland, which, disseminated in the East, probably had greater influence on the quick settlement of the West than any other one factor.
To this period belong men like Kit Carson, the Bent brothers and their partner, Ceran St. Vrain, "Old Bill" Williams, Jim Bridger, "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick, Jim Beckwourth, Ezekial Williams and others. These were but the better-known typical examples of the hundreds who were cut out of the same piece of cloth, and who could shoot "plumb-center," trail a moccasin track over a bare rock, battle a grizzly bear with a bowie knife, and live off anything in hunger time, from their own leggins to "raw buzzart," as occurred in one traditional case.
They did not go forth as conquerors of the soil, these forerunners of their race. The land meant no more to them than it did to the Indians. They made friends with the red men whenever it suited their capricious purpose; often took wives from among them; and many times took part in their tribal wars. In some cases they wrought remarkable changes in the relations of the tribes.
In 1822 William Henry Ashley and business partner Andrew Henry -- a bullet maker whom he met through his gunpowder business -- posted famous advertisements in St. Louis newspapers seeking one hundred "enterprising young men . . . to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two, or three years." The men who responded to this call became known as "Ashley's Hundred." Between 1822 and 1825, Ashley and Henry's Rocky Mountain Fur Company, did several large scale fur trapping expeditions in the mountain west. Ashley's men are officially credited with the American discovery of South Pass in the winter of 1824. Ashley devised the rendezvous system in which trappers, Indians and traders would meet annually in a predetermined location to exchange furs, goods and money. His innovations in the fur trade earned Ashley a great deal of money and recognition, and helped open the western part of the continent to American expansion.
In November of 1824, Ashley headed west with the first supply train to the Rockies, to meet the trappers by mid summer. On July 1, 1825, with about 120 trappers in attendance at the rendezvous site, a new system of business was born. No more depending on native trade, no more down time, no more supplying trading posts. For now rendezvous could distribute supplies AND procure the beaver pelts. The fur companies from St. Louis made a handsome profit on the goods sold to the trappers, bought the furs for less than they had been paying in St. Louis, and the trappers could stay in the mountains.
Between 1825 and 1840, once each summer, hundreds of trappers, along with many natives, came from all over the western continent, to a pre-destined rendezvous location. There they traded furs for whiskey, traps, guns, horses, tobacco, salt, sugar, beads, lead, cloth, knives, coffee, mirrors and more. They exchanged information about who "went under", new beaver areas, and what natives were not so friendly to their encroachment. They held competitions of shooting, horsemanship. They told lies and tall tales. It was a blow out of pure freedom in the finest sense of the word. 1836 they saw the first white women at rendezvous, wives of missionaries heading to Oregon. This brought a chill to many mountaineers because it meant civilization was encroaching on them much of it due to the exploration and mapping they had done over the past 20 years. In fact, some former trappers were serving as guides to these immigrants. In 1840, with almost no demand for beaver because of the popularity of silk hats, the last official rendezvous was held. Less than 100 mountain men attended. (Down from a high of nearly 1000 participants including natives).
When Captains Meriweather Lewis' and William Clark's Corps of Discovery neared the Mandan villages on their return trip in 1806, most of the men were good and ready for the comforts of home. Not John Colter (1773?-1813). When two trappers headed up the Missouri invited him to join them, he accepted and received his discharge. John Colter was the prototypical mountain man. By 1806, he had already crossed the continent twice with Lewis and Clark, gaining valuable experience in the rigors of wilderness life. Colter was also not a stranger to dealing with the Indians; he had been involved in Captain Lewis' conflict with the Blackfeet on the return trip from the Pacific.
In 1807, Colter joined Manuel Lisa's newly formed Missouri Fur Company on an expedition to the Rocky Mountains. The party was successful in getting up the Missouri and establishing Fort Raymond. That winter, Lisa sent Colter out to all the winter Indian camps to alert them of his presence and desire to trade. Alone, with only his rifle and a 30lb pack, Colter traveled an estimated 500 miles that winter with the help of Indian guides. His route has been disputed, but general consensus is that he was the first white man to see Jackson's Hole and Yellowstone Lake. He also saw part of the thermal wonders of Yellowstone and through the tales he told it would come to be called "Colter's Hell."
The next year, while trapping beaver he and a partner were attacked by Blackfeet Indians. The attackers swarmed on Colter, stripping him naked and taking all his possessions. They killed his partner and Colter awaited his own execution. To his puzzlement, they set him free and told him to run. He took off and soon realized this was a game of "human hunt". After running a couple of miles, Colter turned around and killed the only Indian that was close with his own spear. He stole his blanket and continued to run until he came to a river. By hiding in the river under a pile of logs, Colter was able to evade his pursuers. He walked the 200 miles back to Fort Raymond with only a blanket for warmth and bark and roots to eat. After eleven days, he stumbled into the stockade, more dead than alive.
The Blackfeet would not leave Colter alone, however, and eventually they would drive him to leave the mountains for good. After gaining strength at Fort Raymond, he returned to the site of the attack to retrieve the traps he had thrown in the river. Again he was attacked, but this time he escaped unscathed.
Shaken, but not ready to give up his exciting and dangerous life, Colter signed on to lead another Missouri Fur Company party in 1810. True to past experience, the group was attacked by the Blackfeet and Colter finally vowed to leave the west. He did just that, using his fur trade profits to buy a plot of land in Missouri and build a cabin. There he married a woman remembered by history simply as "Sally" and had a son. It was jaundice, not the Blackfeet that killed John Colter in 1813.
Colter left no records of his journeys, what we do know about him came from the random writings of others. He also left no map of his own, but he did have a conversation with his former leader, William Clark, in 1810. It is assumed Colter told Clark of the things he had seen in his years of travel as a trapper, as the map that appeared in Nicholas Biddle's 1814 version of the Lewis and Clark journals reflects Colter's knowledge.
James Bridger (Old Gabe 1804-1881) was in good company when he signed on with Hugh Glass, Jedediah Smith, and Thomas Fitzpatrick to be a member of General Ashley's Upper Missouri expedition. At the age of 17, he was the youngest member of the expedition. This was beginning of a long and colorful career in the mountains for Jim Bridger.
Bridger rose to the status of the quintessential mountain man. Biographer Grenville Dodge described him as: a very companionable man. In person he was over six feet tall, spare, straight as an arrow, agile, rawboned and of powerful frame, eyes gray, hair brown and abundant even in old age, expression mild and manners agreeable. He was hospitable and generous, and was always trusted and respected.
Bridger had a remarkable sense of humor and he especially loved to shock tenderfeet and easterners with his tall tales. He would tell of glass mountains, "peetrified" birds singing "peetrified" songs, and reminisce about the days when Pikes Peak was just a hole in the ground. These stories were related in such a serious manner as to fool even skeptics into believing them, making Jim's laughter all the louder when his ruse was revealed.
All of these attributes served Bridger well, and made him adaptable to just about every situation he found himself in. By the end of his lifetime, Bridger could claim the titles of trapper, trader, guide, merchant, Indian interpreter and army officer. After working for Ashley, Bridger trapped the Rocky Mountains with various companies and partnerships. Renowned by his peers, Bridger was an able brigade leader and an excellent trapper. Year after year he was able to avoid Indian attack and turn a profit from his trapping.
One particular discovery early on in Bridger's career brought him lasting celebrity. To settle a bet in the winter camp of his trapping party of 1824, Bridger set out to find the exact course of the Bear River from the Cache Valley. He returned and reported that it emptied into a vast lake of salt water. The men were convinced he had found an arm of the Pacific Ocean. In reality, he was the first white man to view The Great Salt Lake.
Bridger's most important discovery would come years later, in 1850. Captain Howard Stanbury stopped at Fort Bridger and inquired about the possibility of a shorter route across the Rockies than the South Pass. Bridger guided him through a pass that ran south from the Great Basin. This pass would soon be rightfully called Bridger's Pass and would be the route for overland mail, The Union Pacific Railroad line and finally Interstate 80.
Although he would remain a trapper, Bridger easily turned to other means of income after the softening of the beaver market in the 1840's. In the summer of 1841, Bridger and Henry Fraeb began building a crude structure on the west bank of the Green River. They intended it as a trapping and trading base. Later that summer, the first wagon load of overland missionaries and emigrants rolled up and Fort Bridger was born. Jim did not recognize the significance of that moment, but in the coming years he realized the potential of his crude building. Years later he described it: I have established a small store, with a Black Smith Shop, and a supply of Iron on the road of the Emigrants on Black's fork Green River, which promises fairly, they in coming out are generally well supplied with money, but by the time they get there are in want of all kinds of supplies. Horses, Provisions, Smith work &c brings ready Cash from them and should I receive the goods hereby ordered will do a considerable business in that way with them. The same establishment trades with the Indians in the neighborhood, who have mostly a good number of Beaver amongst them.
In 1864, he blazed the Bridger Trail, an alternate route from Wyoming to the gold fields of Montana that avoided the dangerous Bozeman Trail. Later, he served as guide and army scout during the first Powder River Expedition against the Sioux and Cheyenne that were blocking the Bozeman Trail (Red Cloud's War). In 1865 he was discharged at Fort Laramie. Suffering from goiter, arthritis, rheumatism and other health problems, he returned to Westport, Missouri in 1868. He was unsuccessful in collecting back rent from the government for its use of Fort Bridger. He died on his farm near Kansas City, Missouri on July 17, 1881. At 77, he was one of the last living mountain men.
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