Gateway to the Classics: Fur Trappers of the Old West by A. M. Anderson
Fur Trappers of the Old West by  A. M. Anderson


"Up To Beaver"

T HE TRAPPERS finally reached the Yellowstone River late in September. General Ashley and a small party of men, including Wolf Andrews and Bill Sublette, soon left on the return trip to St. Louis.

Henry and the rest of the men set to work to fort up for the winter. They built several log cabins for themselves and a strong corral for the horses they hoped to buy from the Indians. They made a high stockade of sharpened poles to enclose the buildings. The men named the little post "Fort Henry" in honor of their well-liked leader.

When the fort was completed the men visited the nearby Indian villages and bought many horses from the braves. The trappers explored the surrounding country and went on hunting trips.

Frequently the Indians came to the fort. Sometimes they made camp near by and remained several days. Major Henry was always courteous, but he was ever on the alert. He kept his men on constant guard duty. He entouraged the greenhorns to spend as much time as they could with the Indians. He warned them, however, not to trust the braves of even the friendly tribes.

This was young Jim Bridger's first chance to learn all he could about the Indians, and he made the most of it. When his work was finished he hurried to an Indian camp. He made friends with the braves, and in a short time he was their favorite trapper.

Jim's first attempts to talk to the braves of the different tribes made the Indians howl with laughter. When they saw that he really wanted to learn, however, they helped him. They spent hours teaching him not only their tribal language but the sign language used by all the Plains Indians.

Jim's best friend was Tall Bear, the son of a Sioux war chief. Slim and straight as a bright-feathered arrow, he was already looked upon by the people of his tribe as their next war chief.

Tall Bear was proud and haughty. He seldom spoke to any white man, but when he was with Jim he laughed and talked. They had good times together.

One day while they were out hunting Tail Bear said to Jim, "You like my people. I can tell. You talk like friend. I trust you."

"I hope we can always be friends," replied Jim, remembering Henry's warning not to trust even the friendly braves.

"We break camp tomorow," said Tall Bear. "We go back to Sioux country."

"Some day we will meet again," said Jim.

Tall Bear nodded. "We meet again some day."

The winter on the Yellowstone was long and cold. Howling blizzards from the northwest swept across the country and often sent the temperature tumbling down to fifty degrees below zero. Ice blocked the rivers and streams. Snowstorms raged and the snow covered the earth like a great white blanket.

All winter the men were busy, especially the greenhorns. Major Henry saw to that. He organized them into groups and changed them from one job to another so that they would learn how to do every job in camp. They learned to cook, to make and mend their equipment, to mold bullets, and to sew their own buckskin clothes. Some trappers stood guard and tended the horses while others hunted and scouted.

At last the first signs of spring came to the beautiful Yellowstone country. The trapping season was on and the trappers were ready. Leaving a few men to guard the fort and supplies, Major Henry and the rest of the men started up the Missouri River. They were headed for the rich beaver streams around Three Forks. Jim was one of the young greenhorns included in the trapping party.

Day after day the men pushed on. This was Indian territory, and the men were alert. Scouts rode on ahead keeping a sharp lookout for hostile Indians. Guards rode with the pack horses carrying the supplies needed for the trip. In camp each night double guards were always on duty. Every man slept with his rifle beside him.

The party was still many miles from Three Forks, but already beaver signs were becoming more and more plentiful. Major Henry decided it was time to begin trapping and the men agreed with him.

Camp was made early that afternoon. The pack horses were unloaded and turned out to graze under the watchful eyes of their guards. The big leather sacks of beaver traps were unpacked. Each man was given six or eight traps. He was to use them for the entire season. Henry kept a record in the company's books of the traps given each man.

Although some of the old-timers preferred to trap alone most of them chose partners. An experienced trapper usually picked the greenhorn he thought would be one of the first "up to beaver."

When Major Henry handed six traps to Jim he asked, "Who picked you for a partner, Jim?"

"Tom Fitzpatrick."

The major laughed, "If you aren't 'up to beaver' it will be your own fault, not Tom's."

"I know it," grinned Jim.

"Here, take Tom's traps to him. I'm giving him eight. Good luck to you, Jim."

Jim took the traps and hurried away. He looked about and saw Tom talking to Bruce Bastian.

As Jim joined them Bruce said, "I was telling Tom that I wanted you for my partner and so did several of the old-timers."

"Thanks, Bastian," said Jim, "but Tom and I decided long ago that we would trap together. But if I'm not 'up to beaver' he may change his mind. Maybe then—"

"Oh no," broke in Bastian with a laugh. "If you aren't 'up to beaver' after trapping with Tom, I certainly don't want you as a partner."

"Jim won't have any trouble," spoke up Tom. "I'm giving him some of my bait to use until he makes his own and you know my bait is the best."

"It is good," admitted Bastian. "In fact it's almost as good as mine."

Castor, the bait used in trapping beaver, was the liquid from two small glands found in the beaver's body. A stick dipped into the castor was placed just above the trap. Unable to resist the strong scent of the bait the beaver was drawn to the spot. As he reached for the stick the steel jaws of the hidden trap snapped shut.

Each trapper made his own bait by adding a secret mixture to the castor. He loudly boasted that his bait was best. To question a trapper about his secret mixture was almost as great an offense as to be caught sleeping on guard duty. Only the greenest of greenhorns ever asked a mountain man what his secret was and he never asked but once.

"You're all alike," laughed Jim. "Every trapper claims his bait is the best, But you wait until I make mine. Now I really have a secret. An old Indian chief told me what to use."

Laughing and talking, Jim and Tom loaded their traps onto their horses and left the camp. They rode northward. The clinking of the traps was like music to Jim's ears. They came to a small stream and followed it looking for beaver signs.

"There are some signs around here," said Tom, "but not enough to suit me."

"We have time to find another stream," said Jim. "It's still an hour before sunset."

"Yes, and the best time to set our traps is after sunset anyway," said Tom. "Come on."

They rode on until they came to a place in the woods where a number of trees had been cut down and carried away. It looked as if it had been done by expert woodsmen. But one quick glance was proof that it was the work of many beavers. The stumps were pointed and all about the same height. On each stump were the telltale broad tooth marks of the busy beaver. Piles of chips were scattered about showing where the beavers had gnawed the trees into shorter lengths to take down to the nearby stream. The path over which they had dragged the logs to the stream was cut with ruts.

"There's a beaver dam here all right," said Tom, "and that means a beaver colony. Come on."

They hobbled their horses and ran down to the stream. "There it is," said Tom pointing to the dam.

"Take a look at the beaver lodges," grinned Jim. "There must be a dozen or more of them."

The beavers had built their dam where a tree had fallen into the stream. They used the tree as a foundation. Against it they had piled logs, stones, and branches of all sizes and in every direction. The tangled mass was held together by a plaster of mud. The lodges, too, were made of logs, sticks, and branches.

"The lodges look like big and little brush piles," said Jim.

"They do," agreed Tom. "They don't look well built but they are. They are covered with a heavy plaster of mud which is many inches thick. The thick plaster helps keep the lodges warm and it's also fine protection from wild animals. I once saw a bear trying to tear a lodge apart, but with all his strength he could not do it."

"The beavers are smart little fellows."

"Smart!" exclaimed Tom. "Why, I have seen the rascals do things that are almost human. I remember once when I found all my traps had been snapped shut with sticks. I thought some trapper had played a joke on me. But, no sir, it was a couple of old beavers."

"How do you know?"

"I set my traps again in the same places and waited. After hours of waiting those two old

beavers came swimming along with sticks in their mouths. What did they do?" Tom shook his head. "Well, just as nice as you please, they swam over to my first trap. One beaver put a stick in the trap and it snapped shut. You may not believe me, Jim, but the sly old rascals winked at each other before they swam on to my next trap."

"What did you do?" laughed Jim.

"Do? What could I do? I was no longer 'up to beaver.' The beaver were up to me. I took my traps and went on to another stream."

Tom studied the dam, the lodges, and the stream. His keen eyes took in every detail. "We're in luck, Jim," he said. "This is where we set our traps."

They hurried to get their traps. As they came back through the woods, Tom asked, "Do you have your castor, Jim?"

Jim touched the pocket of his buckskin shirt. "The bottle is right here."

"We need some bait sticks," said Tom, "and some long poles to fasten to the chains on our traps. We can get them here. We must not walk around the stream any more than necessary. If we move about too much the beaver will smell our tracks and that will be the end of our trapping."

At sunset they were ready. They hurried back to the little creek.

Jim waded out into the stream. Tom followed. Jim shivered for the water was freezing cold. But in his excitement he soon forgot it. He was about to set his first beaver trap and that was all that mattered. They waded upstream searching for the runways, or slides, used by the beaver when they went ashore.

"There's one!" Jim almost shouted. "There on the left bank."

Tom nodded. "All right, Jim. Now remember there are three important things to do in setting a beaver trap."

"I remember," replied Jim. "The trap must be the right distance from the bank and it must be washed carefully so that it won't smell of human hands. The bait stick must be placed just above the trap."

"That's right. Now go ahead." Tom slapped Jim on the shoulder. "Good luck, old fellow."

To set a beaver trap was a tricky job, and Jim took his time to do it correctly. He examined the trap carefully. It was a good steel trap weighing about five pounds. The spring was strong and the jaws worked easily. He tested the five-foot chain to see that it was securely fastened to the trap. He tied a long leather cord to the trap. On the end of the cord was a float, or marker.

Jim waded close to the bank. For a minute or two he stood still looking in the muddy water for the bottom of the beaver slide. He found it and with the toe of his moccasin, dug a hole directly in the middle of the slide where the water was about four inches deep. The shallow hole would hold his trap in place. He washed the trap carefully in the icy water. Tom, watching him, laughed as Jim jokingly smelled the trap and washed it over and over again. He opened the steel jaws and carefully placed the set trap in the hole.


He ran a long pole through the ring at the end of the five-foot chain. He placed the pole farther out in the stream and pushed it into the muddy bottom to anchor it securely.

"Now for the bait," he said, pulling a stick and the bottle of castor from his pocket. He removed the cork from the horn bottle and dipped the stick into the strong-smelling bait. Holding the stick ha one hand, he put the cork back in the bottle and slipped it into his pocket.

He leaned forward and stuck the bait stick over the trap. It was within easy reach of the beaver he hoped to find in his trap the next morning.

Laughing, Jim waded back to Tom.

"You did a good job," said Tom. He pointed to the marker floating on the water near the bait stick. "Now when a trapper tells you that you can 'float your stick' with his, you will know what he means. He rates you as an equal."

They made their way upstream to another beaver slide. Tom stayed with Jim until he had set two more traps. Tom was satisfied that Jim did not need any more help so he went on alone to set his own traps a little farther upstream.

It was dark when they returned to camp. And it was still dark when they left camp early the next morning to bring in their catch.

As they neared the beaver slide where Jim had set his first trap, Jim touched his horse lightly and raced on ahead. He came to the slide and, jumping from his horse, ran down to the water's edge.

"Tom," he called, "here's my first beaver."

The trap was not where Jim had set it, but the float on the water made it easy to spot. It had

been carried out into the stream when the trapped beaver had tried to swim back to his lodge. The trap chain fastened to the pole, however, had held the trap securely and the beaver was drowned.

Jim plunged into the icy water.

When Tom rode down to the stream, Jim, dripping wet, held up his catch.

"That's a big one," called Tom. "One of the biggest I ever saw. He must weigh fifty pounds."

"How much will the pelt weigh?" asked Jim.

"Two or three pounds. The pelt will bring about eight dollars in St. Louis. Get your knife ready," Tom added as he dismounted, "and I'll show you how to skin a beaver."

Jim pulled his Green River knife from his belt. "This one is for Old John," he said.

"The castor glands and the tail are for you, Jim."

"That's right," agreed Jim. "Is roasted beaver tail as good as the old-timers say it is?"

"It's better. But none ever tastes as good as your first one. There's something about the thrill of trapping your first beaver that you never forget."

They skinned the beaver, cut off the broad, scaly tail, and removed the castor glands. Jim poured the yellow liquid from the glands into his horn bottle. He would use it to make his own bait.

Jim and Tom went on to their other traps. Tom had a beaver in each of his eight traps. Jim had only three more. His fifth trap had just the hind leg of a beaver and the sixth had not been touched.

"You placed your bait stick too high in your fifth trap, Jim," said Tom. "That's why the beaver

was caught by one hind foot. If the bait stick had been placed too low, one of the beaver's front feet would have been caught."

"I'll remember that next time," replied Jim.

When they reached camp they dressed the skins of their beaver. In a big camp regular workers took care of all the skins brought in each day. Major Henry's men, however, were anxious to keep on the move and, in order to save time, each man was responsible for his own catch.

Tom showed Jim how to stretch his pelts on the willow frames. The edges of the beaver skins were carefully sewed to the frames to keep the skins flat. Later when the pelts were dry they were made into fur packs. Each pack contained some sixty skins and weighed about one hundred pounds.

Day after day Major Henry's men pushed on toward Three Forks. They made camp each afternoon allowing themselves enough time to set their traps in the nearby streams.

As the men moved deeper into the land of the Blackfeet they were more and more on guard. Although they often passed bands of roving Indians they were not molested. But that did not mean that they would reach Three Forks without trouble.

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