Mountain Men and Trappers

"To Enterprising Young Men: The Subscriber wishes to engage One Hundred men to ascend the River Missouri to its source to be employed for one, two, or three years..."

- William Ashley, Trader

This advertisement offered a life of excitement, danger, and a means to earn a living. The purpose of the journey would be to serve as trappers for an organized fur trading company. The prize: the beaver.

In the 1820s and 1830s, fashion dictated in Europe and the United States the felt hat trend. The hats were created using the waterproof and soft under fur of the beaver pelt. Hatters purchased 100,000 pelts a year and the trappers or mountain men received $6.00 to $9.00 per pelt. The beaver was also used for castoreum, a musk used for a perfume base.

The mountain men led a lonely life and met extreme conditions. The freezing temperatures, dangerous geographical navigation, attacks by hostile Indians, a chance meeting with a grizzly bear, or possible starvation produced men who were not led by convention. They survived by various means. Many took Indian brides to help with the day-to-day necessities, although some were loners with an appearance that the time would claim unacceptable. They sported shoulder length hair, scraggly beards, and sun-beaten faces. They wore buckskin clothes and were armed with pistols, knives and beaver traps.

The only contact they had with society was at a rendezvous for an annual trading event. St. Louis merchants would meet with the trappers at a midway point and exchange goods for pelts. The prices were often marked up anywhere between 200 to 1000 percent. The trappers needed salt, sugar, tobacco, traps, and liquor. The Indians were also invited to trade and wanted knives, guns and blankets. The rendezvous was also a party that included drinking, gambling, fighting, and mayhem. The rendezvous could last for two weeks or until all trading was accomplished.

Famous mountain men included James Beckwourth, Kit Carson, and Jedediah Smith. Smith was perhaps one of the most legendary mountain men. He was a daring and religious man who met with a grizzly bear on his first expedition and in the process had his men sew his ear and part of his scalp back on after the attack. Smith explored passages to the Southwest and was on the first overland expedition to reach California. He reached the Great Salt Lake by crossing the Sierra and the Great Basin; a feat probably no Indian or white man had accomplished previously. Smith passed through the Yellowstone National Park area to the Big Horn Basin. His geographical knowledge was recorded and his knowledge of Indian tribes was part of a published book.

By 1840, the fashion winds changed direction and silk was the preferred material for hats. In turn, the mountainman's roles changed. Since beaver were no longer in demand and nearly trapped to extinction, mountain men looked elsewhere to earn a living. Often they were guides for wagon trains, military scouts, or buffalo hunters. These mountain men, unique to America's culture, opened the West and gave people knowledge of its value.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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