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


Keelboats on the Missouri

C AMP was quiet early that evening. The men were tired after a hard day. Although they had traveled only twenty miles it had been a struggle against the swift current of the river all the way.

Some of the trappers went back to the boats to spend the night. Most of them, however, spread their blankets on the ground and fell asleep near the dying campfires.

Jim and Tom were tired, too, but they laughed and talked in low voices beside their campfire. They were joined by an old trapper.

"I'm looking for Jim Bridger," he said.

"I'm Jim Bridger."

The old trapper studied Jim for a minute. "I like your spirit," he said as he sat down beside Jim. "Any man who can stand up against Wolf Andrews will get along."

"Let's forget about him," said Jim. "I'd rather talk about the West. You've been out there. Tell me about the country. What's it like and what about the Indians?"

"Well, the rivers and streams are full of beaver and there is an Indian behind every tree. I went out there the first time with Major Henry. That was thirteen years ago, back in 1809. We made Three Forks on the Missouri River, but the Black-feet Indians drove us out in a hurry. Yes, sir, Henry is quite a man. He was the first American trader to take the fur trade across the Rocky Mountains and I was with him. He knows all there is to know about trapping and fighting Indians."

"Why did Major Henry choose General Ashley as a partner?" asked Tom. "The general isn't a trapper."

"That's true," laughed the old trapper. "Ashley doesn't know any more about trapping than a Mississippi steamboat captain. But his business ability and common sense will make up for his lack of experience. He is an honest man. His word is good. That counts in the West.

"Ashley loves the West," the old trapper continued. "At heart he is an explorer. And that is one reason why he will be a good leader. You see, boys, there is a lot more to this business than setting traps. You have to find new valleys, rivers, and streams, and then remember how to get back to them in a land where there are no roads. Ashley and Henry are a good team. One likes to explore and the other likes to trap. I certainly hope this new idea of theirs in trapping succeeds."

"New?" questioned Jim. "What's new about it?"

"Did you ever hear of a fur company taking a hundred men out to trap?"

"No, but many small parties go out each year."

"Sure, sure," the old trapper agreed. "Small parties of trappers and a few traders go out every year. The trappers bring their furs back to St. Louis and the traders buy most of their fur packs from the Indians. That's the way it has always been done. Now, of course, Ashley and Henry will buy all the furs they can from the Indians, but they will not depend upon the Indians. That's why they hired us."

"I understand," said Jim. "Our party of one hundred men will do the trapping."

"Right, and in one year we will have more fur packs than a small party can bring back in five years."

"Ashley and Henry should make a lot of money," said Tom. "I went out with a small party two years ago and we came back with twenty thousand dollars' worth of furs."

Jim whistled.

"You had a streak of luck," said the old trapper. "What did you do with your share of the money? I'll bet you spent every cent of it.'

Tom shook his head. "No, I saved most of it."

The old trapper roared with laughter. "Saved most of it! You'll never be a mountain man, Tom. A real mountain man can't spend his money fast enough. What are you going to do with it?"

"Well, some day Ashley and Henry will retire from the fur business. More than likely they will sell this company to some of their trappers. I want to be one of the men who will buy it."

"If that is what you want I hope you get it."

"I've already decided on a good partner."


"Jim Bridger."

"Me!" exclaimed Jim. "I'm not going to be a business man and worry about the price of furs. I'm going to trap and see the country."

The old trapper rose to his feet. "Well, I think I'll get some sleep," he said. "If you fellows buy the Rocky Mountain Fur Company tonight be sure to let Ashley and Henry know about it. We're only twenty miles from St. Louis and they might want to go back if this company doesn't belong to them any longer."

He spread his blanket on the ground and wrapped himself in it. "Jim," he laughed, "don't let Tom's plans for your future upset you. You'll have time to enjoy yourself, and plenty of chance to see the country. He'll wait until you are 'up to beaver' before he makes you a partner."

"Up to beaver? What do you mean?"

"Tell him, Tom. I'm going to sleep."

"If a man is 'up to beaver,' Jim, it means that he is better than a good trapper," Tom explained.

"He is an expert. Trapping all animals is hard work. You have to know their habits so well that they can't fool you. You have to know how and where they live, what they eat, and how to follow their trails. You have to know, from one quick look at a footprint, what kind of animal made it and how long ago it was made. You have to tell at a glance whether the animal was running or walking and how big the animal is and how old. And of all animals the beaver is the hardest to trap. He is a smart rascal and it takes plenty of sense to get him in your trap."

"Does it take long to become an expert trapper?"

"You mean 'up to beaver?' " laughed Tom. "Lots of men have trapped for years and are good trappers but have never been 'up to beaver.' But there are men who make it in one season. Sometimes even these men are fooled by the beavers. Then instead of being 'up to beaver' they say the beaver is 'up to the trapper.' Come on," he added, "it's getting late. Let's roll in."

Before sunrise the sleeping men were awakened by the loud notes of a bugle. At once the camp came to life. Fires were started and as the men cooked breakfast they were given their orders for the day. In the hurry of breaking camp the laughter and story-telling of the night before were forgotten. This was a new day with hard work ahead and none of the precious daylight hours could be wasted.

Within an hour the men were on their way. Slowly the polers pushed the keelboats up the river. The mounted land party followed along the bank.

The land party was made up of two sections, one for each keelboat. As Jim and Tom had helped pole the first boat yesterday, they were now riding with the first section of the land party.

"Jim," said Tom as they rode along, "Wolf Andrews was looking for you before we left camp. Did you see him?"

"Yes," answered Jim. "He seems to think that if he tells me often enough that he's a good Indian fighter, I'll forget how he treated Old John."

"If Wolf makes any trouble for you, you can count on me to help."

"I know I can depend upon you for help, Tom. But I must make my own way in the West. No one can do it for me, not even you, and you are my best friend."

"You're right, Jim."

They rode on in silence watching their boat in the river. The party was nearing the mouth of the Missouri River. The polers were making slow progress because the water was getting deeper.


"When we start up the Missouri," said Jim, "I'll know we're really on our way."

Tom grinned, "You'll know it before then because we'll soon be pulling the boat. The current is getting too swift. The polers won't be able to make any headway so we'll have to take over and tow the boat."

"How many miles will we make today?"

"As long as the river remains at flood stage we should make about twenty miles a day," answered Tom. "But before the summer is over we'll be lucky if we make five miles on some days."

"Is that another trapper's yarn?"

"No," laughed Tom, "you'll know I'm telling the truth when we spend a few hours trying to tow a boat off a sand bar or a snag."

Just then a call came from the leading keelboat. The long cordelle, or towing rope, fastened to the high mast on the boat, was brought ashore. Amid cheers and shouts the first section of the land party went into action.

The men raced their horses into position. They formed in single file along the bank of the river. The last rider grabbed the cordelle and passed it along to the rider in front of him. The cordelle was more than a thousand feet long. Each man tied a short rope from his saddle to the cordelle. When they were ready the leading rider gave the signal. The men pushed their feet into their stirrups and leaned forward in their saddles.

"All together!"

The horses plunged forward. The cordelle straightened out like a steel rope from the boat to the shore. The boat did not move and the sudden shock jerked the horses to a dead stop. Men were thrown to the ground. Horses slipped on the wet bank and fell with their riders into the river. Men shouted to one another as they tried to hold the half-wild horses.

The commands of the leading rider finally brought order. The men were again in position and the signal was repeated. Again the riders were jerked to a sudden stop.

Three times—four times the riders charged forward. But they were unable to move the boat.

"Have your men pull toward the left," the captain shouted to the leader of the land party.

"I'll tell them what to do," the leader replied. "This isn't the first boat I've towed up the Missouri."

"The Missouri!" Jim shouted. His heart leaped for now the West was before him. The muddy, yellow waters of the Missouri had come from the snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

At last the boat was pulled off the sand bar.

Slowly the land party towed the boat up the first mile of the Missouri. Then the polers took over again. They had gone only a short distance, however, when the keelboat hit a snag.

Again the cordelle was brought ashore and the land party formed their line.

One hour—two hours passed and then at last the men cheered. The boat was moving. Slowly the land party towed it to deeper water. The delay was over and once again Ashley's men were on their way.

The land party towed the boats most of the day. The men guided their horses over the path close to the bank of the river. At times the bank was too narrow and slippery for the horses. The men dismounted and, throwing the cordelle over their shoulders, pulled the boat by hand. In places where the bank was covered with trees and shrubs a path had to be cut before they could proceed. If the leader decided it would take too long to cut a trail he ordered the men to swim with their horses across the river to the opposite bank. Then as quickly as they could the men reformed their long, single file and struggled on.

Late in the afternoon it began to rain. Lightning flashed across the dull gray April sky. Sharp claps of thunder rose above the roar of the rushing waters. But the men pushed on through the downpour until Ashley ordered a halt.

Camp was made. The men ate a supper of cold meat as there was no dry wood for fires. That night they slept in wet clothing.

"Well, Jim, this is the life of a mountain man," said Tom. "What do you think of it?"

Jim laughed, but instead of answering he asked, "We're on our way to the West, aren't we?"

"That's right."

"Well, then I like it," answered Jim. "I don't care how long it takes or how hard I have to work. I'm headed the right way. I'm headed for the land of the beaver."

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