An Isolated Empire: A History of Northwest Colorado
BLM Cultural Resource Series (Colorado: No. 12)
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Chapter II:
man battling wolf

The fur trade in Colorado was not developed until the early 1820's, although some fur trappers were active in the area prior to that time. The Hudson's Bay Company had been continually working the northern and central Rockies and western Canada for nearly one hundred years after their charter had been granted in the mid-1700's. The fur trade boomed during the early 1800's when European demand for pelts suddenly rose. In London, Berlin, Paris, Rome and St. Petersburg the demand for furs for coats, robes and hats rose dramatically. This caused North American fur seekers to expand their areas of trapping and trade.

At the same time, the Americans were coming on the scene. In 1810 the upper Missouri River basin was swarming with American and British trappers. By 1808, the Yellowstone River country was being trapped, and by 1810 the first American company was founded. Manuel Lisa, William Clark (of Lewis and Clark), and the Chouteau brothers of St. Louis founded the Missouri Fur Company which dominated the trade until 1814, when John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company surpassed it. The companies dealt mainly with private trappers scattered all over the west. By 1819 the northwest corner of Colorado was exploited by half-breed French trappers who worked for whoever paid the best price. [1]

Several trappers were noted as having been in the Green-Yampa (Bear) River areas of Colorado prior to 1822. Jean-Baptiste Chalifoux, otherwise known as Baptiste Brown, was in the area as early as 1820.
He discovered the long valley of the Green which was subsequently named after him, Brown's Hole. [2] However, despite Baptiste Brown's knowledge of the area, there was little activity in the Hole. Possibly scattered trappers used it for wintering purposes, but little else. It was nearly twenty years later that Brown's Hole became a popular fur trade center. The only other early trapper known to be in the "Hole" was Maurice Le Duc, who claimed he had come in by 1819 or 1820. [3] 0ff and on, trappers made their way into the "Hole", but it was William Ashley who opened the area on a large scale.

In 1822 "General" Ashley advertised in a St. Louis newspaper that he needed one hundred "enterprising young men" to form a trading party he called the "company of adventurers," to exploit the Missouri River Basin. Before Ashley was finished, he had 180 recruits including most of the well-known trappers of the fur trade, such as Jim Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Milton and William Sublette, Jedediah Smith, and many others. His first expedition up the Missouri River was a financial disaster and he quickly shifted his operations to the Central Rockies. He sent Jedediah Smith with a small party into the Rockies to test the beaver potential, and when Thomas Fitzpatrick returned to St. Louis in June, 1823, every pack horse was laden with fur. Ashley knew he had won. [4]

The Ashley party then set out in 1824 to exploit this new area of the Rockies. In his journey of discovery, Ashley found his way across Wyoming down into the Yampa Valley where he viewed the Steamboat Springs, and noted the Brown's Hole area. From the Green River, he went north until he found a place for a rendezvous with his men; [5] the spot was Pierre's Hole, along the Green River. Ashley decided that it was safer not to build permanent forts among the Indians, but rather to use a system of annual "rendezvous" which would assure a steady supply of furs ready for shipment back to St. Louis. In 1825, a caravan set out for St. Louis and with it went Ashley, now a rich man. He and his partners sold out to Thomas Fitzpatrick, Milton Sublette, and Jim Bridger, who then formed the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1830. [6]


Length West side

Length East side

Width North end

Width South end

74 31/2=4

Manuscript of F. W. Cragin and Mr. J. M. Barker, September 3, 1902

Fort Robidoux
From: Original drawing in F. W. Cragin Manuscripts, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Naturally, the success of Ashley tempted others to try their luck in the field. In 1825, a party organized by Alexander Sinclair and Robert Bean moved into the North Park area to trap. They wintered at Brown's Hole and then returned to St. Louis. [7] This marked the first serious competition for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in Colorado. From that year on, Brown's Hole became a regular stopping point for most fur trappers. With the coming of the Sinclair-Bean party, other men came into North, Middle and Brown's Parks. Antoine Robidoux visited Brown's Park in 1825, but built a trading post in 1828 on the Gunnison River at its junction with the Uncompahgre. He later built a fort in Utah in the early 1830's near the White Rocks Agency (see diagram, below), which he named Fort Uintah. It was also called Fort "Winty" or Fort Robidoux, and became a major trading post for the Yampa (Bear) River area. During his visits in the region, Robidoux also worked along the White River. His men were probably the first Europeans to have worked from Trappers Lake along the White River. The area was in use as early as 1824 or 1825 and continued to be a major fur source into the 1840's. Robidoux and his men ranged from the Flattop Mountains to the Utah border and were probably the first white visitors to the Rangely, Colorado country.

trapper and pony
A Typical Fur Trapper and His Pony. Montana State Historical Society.

Other trappers made their way into North Park which was abundant with game. Thomas "Peg-Leg" Smith (so-called because he lost a leg when Milton Sublette was forced to amputate it due to gangrene), John Gantt, Christopher (Kit) Carson, Alexander Sinclair and Calvin Jones were all known to frequent North Park and Middle Park until the late 1830's. [8] Albert Gallatin Boone hunted in Middle Park as early as 1824-1825. He had moved to the Williams Fork River by the 1830's where he worked with William S. (Old Bill) Williams. Williams had trapped the Bear River area as early as 1825. [9]

While northwestern Colorado was being extensively used for trapping purposes as early as 1825, Brown's Hole was not developed until the late 1830's. It was the construction of Fort Davy Crockett to service the fur trade in 1838 or 1839 that brought Brown's Hole to the forefront. Furs trapped in New Park (North Park) were often brought to Fort Crockett for trading purposes. The Fort served as protection for the trappers against the Indians who generally confined themselves to stealing horses. Many trappers also wintered in Brown's Hole.

By 1839, Fort Crockett was in full operation. The guiding lights behind the Fort were Prewett F. Sinclair, the younger brother of Alexander Sinclair, Philip Thompson, and William Craig, who went into partnership in 1837 to try to buy and sell all furs in the area. [10] They were apparently successful, for most of the major figures in the fur trade appeared at Fort Crockett. In 1839 Kit Carson, Levin Mitchell, Bill New, Dick Owens, Joseph Walker, Tim Goodale, John Robertson (also called "Jack Robinson"), James Baker, Henry Fraeb (also called Frapp), Seth Ward, and Charles Kinney — all were known to have been in Fort Crockett in 1839 and 1840. [11]

In addition to the regular fur trade customers who appeared at Fort Crockett, there were visitors. A German, F. A. Wislizenus, discussed Fort Crockett in 1839 when he visited. He said of the fort that: "It is a low one-story building constructed of wood and clay, with three connecting wings and no enclosure. Instead of cows, the fort had only some goats. In short, the whole establishment appeared somewhat poverty stricken, for which reason it is also known to the trappers by the name of Fort Misery". [12] Thomas Jefferson Farnham also visited the fort and had little good to say about it. Obadiah Oakley and E. Willard Smith visited the area and described the fort as being miserable in appearance. [13] When John Charles Fremont passed by the area in 1844, he found the fort abandoned with only a few walls standing. [14] By 1844, the fur trade was no longer profitable in the area, and Fort Crockett had been abandoned. In 1866, all that remained of Fort Crockett was an old building a corral, and the ruins of some cobblestone chimneys. These ruins were located about two miles above the mouth of Vermillion Creek. [15]

Indians caused the fur trappers some moments of anxiety, but there were rarely fights over incursions alone, due to the fact that the whites were trading with enemy tribes. However, in 1841, Henry Fraeb, a well-known trapper, with Jim Baker and several dozen other trappers, were caught by a group of Cheyenne and Arapaho near Dixon, Wyoming, and battle ensued. Fraeb was killed while holing up his men in some rocks. Several Indians outraged by the fur trappers' incursions into Wyoming, killed Fraeb, wounded Baker, and injured a number of the other trappers. The fur men escaped, and this battle became known as the largest single battle between Indians and fur trappers in Colorado history. The location of this fight has been designated as Battle Mountain, Battle Creek, and Fraeb was buried near Savery Creek. [16]

The main fur trade in northwest Colorado came to an end in the 1840's. There were two basic causes for the decline. The first, and most obvious; was the lack of beaver pelts; most prime pelts had been trapped out. Second, a major change in fashion caused fur to lose popularity. The silk hat came into style in Europe, and soon fur pelt hats were no longer in demand.

In northwest Colorado there were a few trappers who refused to quit. Lory (Lowry) Simmons was trapping in Brown's Hole as late as the 1870's, while Gus Lankin was said to have been making his living trapping in Brown's Hole as late as 1878. He had a cabin located somewhere on Diamond Mountain, and was considered the last of the trappers. [17]

Other fur men found new employment. Jim Bridger, Charles Kinney, Bill Sublette, Jim Baker, Jack Robinson, and Tim Goodale all ran immigrant ferries on the Green River in Wyoming. Bridger sold his operation in 1859 and turned to scouting. [18] Tim Goodale was employed by Captain E. L. Berthoud in 1861 to guide him across the pass later named for the Captain, while Jim Baker was hired to guide Sir St. George Gore into North Park for his famous "hunt" of 1855. [19] He moved back along the Little Snake River in 1878 where he farmed until 1898, the year of his death; he was buried at Dixon, Wyoming. [20] Seth Ward left the fur trade, and through his connections became the post suttler at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Here he made a fortune selling goods to the army, and died peacefully in 1903. [21] Kit Carson went on to become active in New Mexican politics, and when the United States took over New Mexico in 1846, Carson was appointed Lieutenant-Governor. [22] Rufus B. Sage, who came to North Park in 1841, turned to a literary career and published his journals. [23]

Most of the fur trappers who were active in Colorado during the 1820's and 1830's had moved on by 1845. Many went south into New Mexico where a booming trade in furs was taking place. Some went into California where there were still opportunities in beaver, otter, and other pelts, not to mention a rich Mexican-American trade. The Colorado trappers took what they had come for, and then left when the resources were exhausted.

Map 2. Fur Trade Areas (click on map for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 31-Oct-2008