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


The First Rendezvous

I N the morning Jim, Provot, and the other wounded men insisted that they were able to continue the trip. Camp was broken and the trappers were on their way. As they rode past Bastian's grave each man removed his hat in tribute to the gallant captain. Then touching their horses lightly they galloped away to the West.

Days later they reached the Green River Valley. The captains formed their parties and set out to explore. The trappers of Bastian's party elected Davy Jackson, the most experienced man in their group, their new captain.

To Jim, now fully recovered, the summer was a perfect one. From the beginning he had loved the Green River Valley and now to be back was a delight. He and his men explored the river and the rushing mountain streams pouring into it.

Everywhere along the waterways they found the telltale signs of the beaver; the gnawed trees, the dams, and the still, quiet ponds where the beavers had built their lodges. They saw the slides, the countless pigeon-toed tracks of old beavers and their kittens on the muddy banks, and other signs familiar to keen-eyed trappers.

The summer months passed quickly and once again the fall trapping season began. The men knew they would have a good season, for all the parties had reported that the Green was a trapper's paradise.

"The Indians here are friendly," said one old-timer. "That is, they are friendly now."

Although the Indians did not molest them the men were taking no chances. Time and again Jim warned his party. "Where you see no Indians, that's where they are. When you think they won't attack, that's when they do attack."

The trapping was even better than the men had expected. The parties remained in the field until ice blocked the beaver streams. Then, after hiding their fur packs in caches, the men made for their winter camp.

The winter, as always, made the men restless. Life in camp was dull in comparison with the exciting adventures they shared on the trail. They were busy, however, for besides the endless duties about the camp they hunted, explored, and did some trading with the Snake Indians living in the upper part of the valley.

The winter was almost over when Jed Smith and his men joined the trappers. Jed's exploring trip to the Northwest had been worth-while. The country was rich in beaver, and he had made maps of the rivers and streams.

A few weeks later General Ashley arrived from St. Louis. He brought with him a large train of pack mules loaded with many cases of supplies. The train was guarded by a strong party of men. After the general had a long talk with Jed Smith, he called the trappers together.

"Men," he said, "I am sorry to tell you that Major Henry has retired from the fur business. He is a fine man and we shall miss him. Our repeated losses discouraged him. He sends his best wishes to all of you, however, and to my new partner in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company."

He paused. "My new partner is a man you all know and admire. I am lucky to have him as my partner. I shall let him tell you of our plans." He turned to Jed Smith. "All right, Jed," he nodded, "take over."

Jed stepped forward. "Fellow trappers," he began. The rest of his words were drowned out by the cheers of the men.

Smiling, Jed held up his hand. When the men were quiet he said, "General Ashley and I have decided to try a new method of buying fur packs. Each spring the Indians and free trappers have many fur packs. To sell them they have to travel to distant trading posts. As our company now has no trading posts, rival fur companies buy most of these packs."

"Are you planning to build a trading post here in the Green?" asked Jim.

"No, we have a better plan," answered Jed. "We will take our trading goods to places where the trapping is best. When the spring season is over we will hold a meeting."

"Oh, I understand," interrupted Provot. "It will be a—a," he hesitated trying to find the right word. "A rendezvous!" he exclaimed. "That is what we French say when we agree to meet at a certain place at a certain time."

"That's it," Jed nodded. "We will let the Indians and free trappers know when and where we will hold our rendezvous. They will come and trade with us."

"It will save time and money," spoke up Bill Sublette. "It sounds like a good business plan."

"The fur trade is an important business," replied Jed. "The general will remain in charge of selling our fur packs and in bringing supplies to us. I shall carry on Major Henry's work here in the mountains. The captains of our trapping parties will be directly responsible to me." He paused and, smiling at Bill and Milton Sublette, added, "You Sublette boys will both be captains and have your own parties this spring. Some of the men who came out with General Ashley will trap with you.

"I guess that's all, men," he added. "There is one matter, however, I want you to remember. We will spend more time exploring." He glanced toward Jim. "I thought that would please you, Jim," he laughed.

Jim grinned. He said to Tom standing next to him, "He's all right!"

"He certainly is," agreed Torn.

Spring came at last to the beautiful Green River Valley. The men brought in their fur packs from the caches. After the pelts had been aired and brushed, General Ashley examined them.

One day as he was looking over the furs he asked, "Who brought in these packs, Jed?"

"Jim Bridger's party," answered Jed checking through the company's record book. "Why?"

Ashley sat down on a pile of beaver skins. "You know," he said looking up at his young partner, "Jim's packs will bring top prices in St. Louis. We'll make more money if we sort our furs here and take only the good packs with us."

"You're right, General," said Jed. "A mule can carry only two packs and they can just as well be two good ones."

"Go get Jim. I want to talk to him."

"Here he comes now." Jed pointed to Jim striding toward them.

"You're the man I want to see," the general greeted Jim. "Your fur packs are the best we have. You must have graded them carefully."

"I did," replied Jim. "I put our plews in separate packs. The pelts which were good but not perfect I put in other packs. The rest," he hesitated, "I just threw away."

"Why did you do that?" questioned the general.

"Well, I don't see any sense in taking anything but good furs to St. Louis," explained Jim. "It's a long, hard, expensive trip. Maybe I was wrong to throw away the damaged pelts but I —"

"You did exactly the right thing," interrupted Ashley. "We are going through all the packs again and throw out the damaged pelts."

The furs were graded and made into packs. Each pack contained some sixty beaver skins and weighed about one hundred pounds. At the rate of six to eight dollars a pelt, each pack was worth from four to five hundred dollars.

When the packs were ready General Ashley and most of the men he had brought with him left for St. Louis.

Even before the general's mule-pack train disappeared from view the trappers were heading for the beaver streams. The parties moved out in different directions.

The discovery of South Pass, the "Key to the West," had given the Rocky Mountain Fur Company trappers an advantage over the trappers of other fur companies. But Ashley's men knew their rivals would soon follow them into the Green River Valley. Both General Ashley and Jed had urged their captains to explore the lands beyond the Green.

For business reasons it was wise to be ready to move on to untrapped regions. That was why Ashley's men, trapping as they went, pushed on. The discoveries they made and their long exploring trips paid them well. Rich beaver lands lured them ever on to new regions. Through the trackless wilderness they blazed their trails—north, south, and west.

Under General Ashley and Jed Smith's able leadership the Rocky Mountain Fur Company became famous throughout the West. Its captains, scouts, and trappers were the best of the mountain men. And even its fur packs were the finest.

The furs were so fine that the buyers from the East and from Europe outbid one another whenever Ashley's fur packs were on sale in St. Louis. It was not long before the buyers began to call all beaver pelts of extra beauty "Ashley Beaver." The term was used for years in the fur trade of America.

In July of 1825 the company held its first rendezvous. The news of the rendezvous in the valley of the Green had spread far and wide. The free trappers, singly or in pairs, came riding in with their fur packs.

Bands of Indians set up their tepees and made camp. The Indian squaws and their black-eyed children stared with wonder at the countless boxes of the white man's trading goods.


The rendezvous, or "The Fair of the Mountains," meant more to the trappers than a chance to trade for fur packs. It was a chance to see old friends, Indian and white again, to sing and laugh and celebrate all day and all night. The men played games, raced their favorite horses, went hunting, and spent their year's wages without a thought.

But with all the celebrating there was much work to be done. Jim and Tom were in charge of grading and sorting the furs. The Sublette boys worked with Ashley and Jed during the trading hours. Other men hunted, keeping the trappers supplied with game. Guards were ever on duty.

Late one afternoon Jim and Tom joined the men in a shooting match. The watching Indians marveled at the expert shooting of the white men. One by one the men lost out until only Jim and Tom were left in the contest.

The target, an Indian war shield, was moved farther away. Jim took his place, loaded his gun and, after taking careful aim, fired. The aim was true. The Indians and trappers cheered.

"Try to beat that shot, Tom," called a trapper.

"I hope I can," grinned Tom. "I'm almost out of gunpowder, and at two dollars a pound it's too expensive to be shooting with Jim."

Another shield was put in place. Tom raised his gun to his shoulder and sighted the center of the target. He squeezed the trigger.

With a deafening roar Tom's gun exploded. The powerful kick of the gun sent him staggering backward. He fell to the ground.

"Tom!" cried Jim rushing to him. "What happened?"

Tom tried to sit up, but fell back groaning. "It's my hand, my left hand."

Tom's left hand was shattered. The exploding gun had ripped the flesh to the bone and one finger was missing.

The torn, bleeding hand made Jim wince. But his voice was quiet as he said, "I'll take care of you, Tom. You'll be all right." He glanced up at the circle of white men and Indians around him. "Come on," he said, "help me! We must get him back to camp."

Jim and three men helped Tom back to camp. Jim dressed the wound as gently as he could. Tom made no outcry, but beads of sweat rolled down his face.

It was late in the evening when Jim joined the men at the campfires. "How is Tom?" they asked.

"He will be all right," answered Jim, "but his hand is crippled for life."

"How did it happen?"

"Tom isn't sure," replied Jim. "He knows he didn't use enough gunpowder to make the gun explode."

"Maybe the bullet in his gun rolled toward the muzzle just as he fired," spoke up a trapper.

"That could happen, and if it did Tom's lucky to be alive," said Provot. "An explosion like that could have killed him."

"That's what I tried to tell him," said Jim. "But now he's worrying about how long it will take him to get used to a new gun. You know how he was About that old rifle of his. But then we're all alike when it comes to our guns."

The men nodded. "That's right," they agreed.

Next to his horse the trapper loved his gun. Often he would travel hundreds of miles to have his gun repaired by an expert. He was so used to the weight, the length of the barrel, the feel of the wooden stock that the gun seemed a part of him. He spent hours cleaning and oiling it. He polished it to a dull finish so that in the sunlight no flashes of light would betray him to the Indians.

Tom's accident gained a new name for him among the Indians. They called him "Broken Hand," and as his fame spread throughout the West wherever the Indians, hostile or friendly, spoke of "Broken Hand," it was always with great respect.

The rendezvous was a success. General Ashley and Jed had sold or traded all their goods at high prices. They had almost two hundred packs of fine furs to take back to St. Louis.

"If we are as successful the next two years, Jed," said the general, "I plan to retire from the fur trade. I'm going back into politics. I may run for Congress. Why don't you retire, too?"

"And leave the West?" questioned Jed. "I couldn't do it. Something holds me out here."

"It's a dangerous life, Jed. Three out of five trappers lose their lives here in the West." Ashley placed a hand on Jed's shoulder. "Don't wait too long, my friend. The odds are against you."

"I know it," answered Jed, "but I'll take my chances."

* * *

In 1826 General Ashley, having made his fortune, retired from the fur trade. He became one of the most important men in Missouri. He was elected to Congress. He served the people of his state with the same fine ability that had won for him the highest praise of the fur trappers of the Old West.

1. Name some of the beaver signs that were familiar to the trappers.

2. What does "rendezvous" mean?

3. Tell about the first rendezvous.

4. Tell why Jim's fur packs were the best.

5. How many beaver skins were in a fur pack?

6. How much did a pack weigh?

7. Why did the Indians call Tom Fitzpatrick, "Broken Hand"?

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