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 Odds Are Against You

J ED SMITH'S new partners were Bill Sublette and Davy Jackson. The trappers were pleased. Although they respected General Ashley and Major Henry, the new owners were men from their own ranks.

"This is the chance we need to prove what we young men can do in the West," said Tom.

"We'll prove that we can get along by ourselves," spoke up Jim, "and we'll have the time of our lives doing it."

Only Provot and a few men did not remain with the old group of trappers. The rest of the men, however, formed their parties and set out to trap and explore.

During the next few years they trapped in almost every region of the West. They were proud of the many fine furs, the Ashley Beaver, they brought back with them.

Jed Smith, always eager to see new lands, spent most of his time exploring. He blazed two trails to the Pacific. His northwest route over the mountains was easier and more central than the route mapped out by earlier explorers.

Jed made two trips to California, the almost unknown land belonging to Mexico. He made both trips by traveling southwest in order to avoid the terrible strain of crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains. But the southwestern trips were just as difficult for he had to cross the Mohave Desert.

Jed's explorations did not open new trapping territory and at first little value was placed upon them. His discoveries were not fully appreciated until the California gold rush in 1849. Then thousands of gold seekers swept into golden, sunny California. Jed Smith, the pathfinder, had blazed the trails for them.

Of more value to the trappers were their own explorations in search of beaver streams. Jim's discovery of Great Salt Lake had opened up the Great Salt Lake Valley. The valley to the west was a barren wasteland which was unimportant to the trappers. But in the eastern part of the valley they found many beaver streams.

Following the streams, the men pushed on searching—ever searching for richer fields. Far and wide they roamed, and soon the new lands held no secrets from them.

The years passed quickly and the men shared many exciting adventures. Early each summer they held a rendezvous. Several thousand Indians and trappers attended the annual meetings. Rival fur traders came, too. But when the trading was over most of the fur packs belonged to the Smith, Jackson, and Sublette Company.

The rendezvous in 1830 was held on the eastern side of the Rockies in a valley near South Pass. Although the trappers and Indians started coming to the valley early in July, the trading did not begin until the middle of the month. The men had to wait for Bill Sublette to arrive from St. Louis with the trading goods.

When he finally reached the rendezvous the white men were almost as surprised as the Indians. Bill had brought the goods in ten covered wagons, each drawn by ten mules. It was the first time wagons had crossed the plains over the familiar trail used by the trappers. This trail was to become the famous Oregon Trail.

Few Indians had seen wheels or anything on wheels before. They stared in wonder at the big wagons. And days later, the trading and feasting over, they left, still shaking their heads at the strange ways of the white men.

The 1830 rendezvous was important for another reason. Having made a fortune in the fur trade, Smith, Jackson, and Sublette sold their company to five of the best trappers in the outfit. The new owners were Jim, Tom, Milton, and two older men.

"You and your friends earned this break, Jim," said an old-timer, slapping Jim on the back. "We're all for you. Say, Tom," he called, "come here."

As Tom joined them, the old-timer asked, "Do you remember when Jim didn't even know what 'up to beaver' meant?"

Jim and Tom roared with laughter.

"Let's see. That was eight years ago, back in 1822. You boys have come a long way since then, and you have had a lot of hard times, too."

"Yes, we have," Torn agreed, "but it's been worth it, hasn't it, Jim?"

"Worth it!" Jim exclaimed. "I wouldn't trade places with anyone in the world."

Later that evening the men were seated around a campfire.

"Where are you planning to trap this fall?" asked Jed turning to Torn.

"We're going back to Three Forks."

"Stay away from the Blackfeet," warned Bill. "They will only make trouble for you."

"No, this time we're going back fully prepared," spoke up Jim. "I've never forgotten the fur packs those redskins took from us."

"Well, all right, boys," laughed Bill. "It's your company. By the way, what are you naming the company?"

"The Rocky Mountain Fur Company," answered Jim. "Remember that was the name Ashley and Henry used when we were all greenhorns."

"Well, fellows, what are your plans?" asked Tom. "Are you planning to retire?"

"Indeed not!" exclaimed Jed. "We're going to try our luck as traders in the Mexican territory of the Southwest. We're going to follow the Santa Fe Trail."

"We should make a lot of money," spoke up Bill. "The Mexicans are eager to buy all kinds of American goods and they will pay high prices to get them. This coming spring we're taking a wagon train of supplies to Santa Fe, New Mexico. We'll sell silks and velvets and—"

"Silks and velvets!" exclaimed Jim.

The men roared with laughter.

"We'll have other supplies, too," said Davy. "Traps, guns, and ammunition for the trappers who use Santa Fe and Taos as their headquarters."

"It's big business," said Jed, "but the best thing about it is that the Southwest is new country to me."

Jim laughed. "And that's what made you decide to go into the Santa Fe trade."

"I'll admit it helped," grinned Jed.

A few days later Jed, Bill, and Davy left for St. Louis with almost two hundred fur packs. As the wagons disappeared over the top of a hill Jim said, "They can have the Santa Fe Trail and their silks and velvets. This is where I belong—here in the Rocky Mountains."

With Tom as captain and Jim second-in-command, the trappers headed for Three Forks. Nearing the land of the bloody Blackfeet the scouts reported many hostile signs. Brave as the trappers were many of them wanted to turn back. Only when Jim took over the scouting duties were they willing to go on.

Jim, riding Wasaka, was happy to be scouting again. It was the job he loved best. Everywhere he found signs of the Blackfeet. He knew they were watching, waiting to hurl a surprise attack against his party.

But for once the Blackfeet were cautious. They did not attack. Two hundred well-armed trappers were not easy to surprise. In time the Indians gave up hope of catching the white men off guard.

Nevertheless, they followed every move of the party. They began to leave false signs along the trail to trick the white men's scout. Lying in wait, they watched to see if Jim would race back to his men.

At first the Indians were angry when Jim spotted the signs and, after examining them, rode on. Then, although they hated him, they could not help but admire him. In spite of themselves the cool courage of the lone scout won their respect.

The trapping around Three Forks was excellent. The men had many fur packs before they started southward again. Following a stream they came to South Pass, crossed it and traveled on to the Great Salt Lake Valley. After trapping here for several weeks they returned to the pass and headed for the Powder River Valley where they planned to spend the winter. During the fall season the men had ridden more than a thousand miles.

The winter months passed much too slowly to suit the men. But at last the first signs of spring came to the valley. The trappers with Jim again as their scout made for the mountains.

In April, Tom turned the command of the party over to Milton. Tom and another trapper left at once for St. Louis. Tom was to buy the trading goods needed for the summer rendezvous.

After days of steady travel Tom and his companion reached St. Louis. Almost the first men Tom saw were his three friends, Jed, Bill, and Davy. They urged him to go with them to Santa Fe.

"I can't," Tom said. "I'm here to buy supplies for our rendezvous in the Green River Valley."

"Come with us and we'll sell you all the supplies you need," said Bill.

"It's out of my way. I'd be almost as far from the Green in Santa Fe as I am now in St. Louis."

Jed laughed. "What difference does it make? Come on, Tom. We'll get you to your rendezvous on time and we'll haul the supplies for nothing."

"Well, I could stop at Taos and sign up some good men to trap for the company," said Tom. "All right, boys, go. By the way, what do you know about the Santa Fe Trail?"

Jed shook his head. "We don't know very much about it. The traders tell me that the trip across the Cimarron Desert is the hardest part of the trail. But I've crossed the Mohave Desert and so I'm not worried about the Cimarron."

"What about the Indians?" asked Tom.

"Well, the Pawnees and the Comanches are not friendly."

Tom laughed. "We're used to that, aren't we?"

"Now that you have decided to go with us, I advise you to buy a brace of revolvers like mine," Jed said. He touched the pair of silver-mounted revolvers he wore in a belt buckled around his slim waist. "You'll need them on the Santa Fe."

"All right. I'll buy a pair," said Tom. "How soon are we getting started?"

"We're leaving for Independence, Missouri, tomorrow. That's where the Santa Fe Trail begins now. We're buying all our supplies there instead of in St. Louis as it will save us hauling the goods about three hundred miles."

It was early in May when the caravan of twenty wagons and eighty men left the trading-post town of Independence. The wagon train set out across the prairie. The trail was easy to follow. Hundreds of wagon trains had made the trip before and the wagon wheels had cut deep ruts in the ground.

The trail, some eight hundred miles long, was almost a direct route to Santa Fe. The directness of the route showed how well the explorers of the Old West had blazed their trails.

The trail was in American territory until it reached the fork of the Arkansas River. The remaining half was through land belonging to Mexico.

The caravan traveled from eighteen to twenty miles a day. Slowly the well-watered grassy prairie gave way to a dry, barren region. The trail was harder to follow and the landmarks were fewer. But the men rode on. They were confident, as all mountain men were, of their ability to cross any kind of country.


When they reached the fork of the Arkansas River the Cimarron Desert lay ahead of them—sixty miles of wasteland!

The caravan halted to rest the horses and mules. The men filled many casks with water for the trip across the desert. Then, they pushed on. They had gone only a few miles when they knew that the trip would be very difficult.

There were no landmarks and it was impossible to follow the trail. The soil was so dry and hard that only a few tracks of other wagon wheels were left to guide them.

The heat was intense. The men traveled slowly to spare their animals. The water supply was used in a few days and small parties of men went out to search for water holes. They found none. The suffering of the thirsty men and animals became almost unbearable.

The men at last broke down. "We can't go on," they said. "We must have water."

"Tom, let's try to find a water hole," said Jed. "Maybe by some miracle we'll find one."

The two men, weak and parched with thirst, mounted their horses and rode away. They followed one of the countless buffalo paths which crossed and recrossed the desert. They knew that buffalo paths at certain times of the year often led to water holes. Mile after mile they rode, urging their stumbling horses along. At last hoping that one of them would find water they decided to separate.

"I'll meet you here in an hour," said Jed. He leaned from his saddle and placed a hand on Tom's shoulder.

Without another word Jed rode southward. He came to the top of a low hill and turned in his saddle. He waved his broad-brimmed hat. Tom returned the old familiar salute of the trail. Then, with his hat still held high, Jed and his horse disappeared from view.

Tom rested his weary horse for a little while and then slowly headed westward. An hour later he returned, even more slowly, to the spot where he was to meet Jed.

"I hope he had better luck than I," Tom thought.

At first he waited quietly. When Jed did not return, however, Tom became alarmed. He rode south to meet him. There was no trace of Jed or his horse.

"Maybe he found a water hole and has ridden back to the caravan," Tom said to himself as he turned his horse around. When he reached the caravan he learned that Jed had not returned.

"He's lost!" exclaimed Bill.

"Not Jed," said Tom. "Something has happened to him. Come, men, we must find him."

Forgetting their thirst and thinking now only of Jed, the men spread out to search for him. Hours later they met again. None had found any trace of Jed nor of his horse.

"I found a water hole," one man reported. "It's almost dry but by digging into the earth we can get enough water to survive while we search for Jed."

For three days the men searched, but they found no trace of Jed. Finally they gave up hope. Slowly, sadly the caravan traveled on to Santa Fe.

The day after their arrival Tom went with Bill and Davy to a trading post. While Bill and Davy were talking to the merchant, Tom looked over the goods on display. He stopped beside a case filled with revolvers.

His eyes widened and he felt the blood drain from his face. With trembling hands he reached for a pair of silver-mounted revolvers.

"They're Jed's!" he cried. "Where did you get them?" he demanded of the merchant.

Before the man could answer Bill and Davy saw the revolvers. "Jed's!" they exclaimed in one voice.

"Where did you get them?" Tom asked again.

"A trader sold them to me," answered the merchant. "He got them from a band of Comanche Indians. They killed a white man on the Cimarron Desert. Why?" he asked as the three men turned quickly away.

"The white man was our friend," said Tom.

"What was his name?" asked the merchant.

"Jed Smith."

"Jed Smith, the mountain man?"

Tom nodded.

"I have already promised to sell them to someone, but as you were a friend of Jed Smith's," said the merchant, "I'm glad to give them to you."

"Thanks, thanks a lot," replied Tom. He turned to Bill and Davy. "We'll give them to Jim. Jed would like that, wouldn't he?"

"Yes," they answered, "Jed would like that."

1. Why did the trappers spend so much time exploring?

2. How did the discoveries help the settlers?

3. Tell about the Santa Fe Trail.

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