The Trails Have Been Blazed
T HE years rolled over the plains and the mountains. The men of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company continued to trap, fight Indians, and hold their annual rendezvous.
A change, however, was coming into their lives. After years of constant trapping, the beaver supply was becoming exhausted. And there were now many other fur companies in the West.
Each year the men marked fewer fur packs with their old familiar brand, "R. M. F. Co." At first they were not greatly concerned. There was no real cause for worry as long as the price of beaver pelts remained high.
But as the years passed the number of fur packs steadily decreased. And then—the prices began to fall.
The small companies were unable to pay their men and buy the supplies needed for trading with the Indians and free trappers. One by one they sold out to the rival they all hated and feared, the American Fur Company.
But with all its power and great wealth its traders could not buy the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. That was the one company its traders tried to ruin because they wanted the Rocky Mountain men to trap for their company.
In 1834, the two older trappers who owned the Rocky Mountain Fur Company with Jim, Tom, and Milton became discouraged and quit. The rest of the men were stubbornly loyal. They refused to quit. They signed up to trap for the new firm of "Fitzpatrick, Sublette, and Bridger."
From the start the odds were against the little company. Two years later the men held their last rendezvous in the mountains.
It was not the great wealth and power of their rival that finally crushed the men of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Nor was it the Indians who defeated them. It was a hat—a silk hat!
For years the men in the United States and in Europe had worn the tall hats made of beaver fur.
In some years, as many as two hundred thousand beaver skins were shipped to Europe. The fur trade had depended almost entirely upon the sale of beaver pelts.
Then in Paris, France, a man began making hats of silk. In a few years the silk hats were the accepted style.
The great days of the fur trade were ended. There was still a demand for some beaver pelts and the skins of other fur-bearing animals. But it was no longer big business. Only a wealthy company could afford to send its trappers into the wilderness.
Backed by millions of dollars the American Fur Company took over the fur trade. Its traders selected the best trappers, but hired them at lower wages. The men accepted the lower wages for they needed work and trapping was the job they understood and loved.
The traders were anxious to hire the men of the famous old Rocky Mountain Fur Company. But Jim, Tom, Milton, and their trappers had left the mountains. They had returned to their little fort on the Laramie River. They had recently purchased the fort from Bill Sublette.
The men were a discouraged lot. Their business was ruined. They had only a few supplies left. Milton was seriously ill. Tom had gone to St. Louis with Bill to sell their last fur packs. As always the men turned to Jim.
"We'll get by somehow," he said to them. "As long as there is any trapping to be done here in the West we will trap. Maybe not for ourselves," he added, "but for the American Fur Company."
"Their traders hired many men at the rendezvous," reminded a trapper. "They didn't hire us."
"They wanted to hire us," replied Jim. "I refused to accept the lower wages they offered us."
He looked at his discouraged, loyal men. Their buckskin clothes were black from the smoke of many campfires. Their faces were tanned by the wind and sun. Danger had made their eyes keen and searching. They were men—real men.
"You will all be trapping again," he said at last. "An American trader will hire you because you're the best of the mountain men."
The men crowded around him. "Thanks, Jim," they said over and over. Hard, rough hands slapped him on the shoulder. "Thanks, Jim."
A few days later an American Fur Company trader arrived at the fort. Jim greeted him in his usual friendly manner.
"I've been expecting you," he said. "You still want to hire us to trap for your company."
"You're right," the trader laughed.
"Have you changed your mind about the wages for our men?" asked Jim.
"We are hiring good trappers for less money this year. We will pay your men the same as we pay the others. But we'll pay you and Tom more—"
"Tom and I are not interested in what you will pay us," broke in Jim. "But we are both interested in what will happen to our men."
"Well, now, Bridger," protested the trader, "your men can't expect good wages in times like these. We will pay you and Tom whatever you ask. We want you, Bridger, in command of all our trapping parties. We have over six hundred men ready and waiting to follow your orders."
"What about Tom?"
"We want to buy this fort from you. We have other trading posts but this fort will be our main trading post in the West. We want Tom to be in charge of it. And when Milton is well again he can work here with Tom."
"But what about our men?" Jim asked again.
"We'll pay them the same wages as our other trappers."
"Then count us out of this deal," said Jim. "Tom and I won't work for your company unless our men are treated fairly. That's final."
The trader drew a deep breath. "All right, Bridger, you win. I was told to hire you no matter what I had to pay. It's taken us a long time to get the Rocky Mountain men."
"And all because of a silk hat," Jim sighed a little. "A silk hat!"
When Tom returned from St. Louis he took over command of the fort. Jim and the trappers were busy getting ready to leave for the mountains. But for Milton there was nothing to do.
"I'm not much help any more," he said to Jim and Tom one day. "I'm sorry, boys."
"Sorry!" exclaimed Jim trying to hide his true feelings. He knew that Milton would not get well. "Why, in no time you'll be telling Tom how to run the fort."
"Sure you will," agreed Tom quickly.
"No," Milton shook his head. "You both know better and so do I. I've used up all my luck. I didn't go back to St. Louis with Bill because this is where I want to die—here in the West I love."
The three good friends were silent. At last Milton asked, "When do you leave, Jim?"
"In the morning."
"I'll miss you, but I'm glad that Tom will be here with me."
"I'll be back," Jim promised. "As soon as I can, I'll be back."
Jim and his men met the other trappers in the mountains. Jim gave his orders to the captains and scouts. The parties spread out and the fall trapping season was on.
It was a good season even though none of the parties brought in as many fur packs as in the old days. The men cached their packs and headed for the Powder River Valley to spend the winter.
Jim hurried back to the little fort on the Laramie. There one December day, Milton died. Jim and Tom were with him.
Jim spent the rest of the winter at the fort. In the spring he rejoined his trappers. For the next few years he remained in command of the fur trapping parties of the American Fur Company.
But each summer he was free to do as he wished. Then, with Tom or an Indian friend, but more often alone, he roamed the West. He remembered everything he saw. He knew the Indians living on both sides of the Rockies.
Tom was in charge of a new and much larger trading post on the Laramie. It was known as "Fort Laramie" and it was to become one of the most famous forts in all the West. The Indians for miles around came to trade at the fort. When Tom resigned from the company and left for St. Louis, the Indians were sad. They thought he was going back there to live.
But Tom was not leaving the West. In the summer of 1841 he returned with a party of missionaries and the first settlers headed for California.
Jim was at the fort. He was glad to see Tom and to meet John Bidwell who had planned the first overland trip to California.
Later Jim said to Tom, "I wish Jed had lived to meet that fine young man." He touched the silver-mounted revolvers he always wore around his waist. "Jed said that some day the settlers would come. And here they are. Here they are."
Tom nodded. "Yes, this is the first of the thousands of settlers who will come to build the West."
"We are ready for them," smiled Jim. "The trails have been blazed."
Jim watched as the covered wagons rolled on in a cloud of dust. The march to the West had begun. And Tom Fitzpatrick, the fur trapper, was leading the way.
Jim was determined to do his share. He decided to build a fort, a trading post. It would be like the other forts in the West, a group of buildings surrounded by a high stockade. But there would be one difference. The other forts had been built as trading centers for the Indians and trappers. Jim planned to build a fort to help the settlers.
Where should he build the fort? It must be on the trail the settlers would use. Knowing the West better than any other man he decided to build his fort in the Green River Valley.
It was the valley he loved best. But more important it was where the settlers would need help. When they reached the Green they would have traveled more than a thousand miles from St. Louis. After the difficult trip across the plains and over South Pass they would need supplies and a chance to rest. Then they would push on to California or on to the Oregon country.
In the Green River Valley, Jim built his fort and welcomed the oncoming settlers. At the fort they found all the supplies they needed. But best of all there was Jim with his ready smile and friendly advice.
Year after year more settlers came to the West. They all stopped at famous "Fort Bridger." Many times they did not have enough money to pay for their supplies. It did not matter to Jim. He let them have everything they needed. He never failed them. He was their friend.
One day Tom and a party of settlers arrived at the fort. The two friends talked for hours.
"Do you still have Wasaka?" Tom asked.
"Oh, yes," Jim laughed, "and he acts as if he owned the valley. He's too old to ride any more," he added, "so I just let him graze. But Wasaka is still the best horse in the West. The settlers' children think so, too. I tell them a lot of stories about the old days when Wasaka and I followed the beaver streams."
"Have you had many settlers here this summer?"
"Well, one of my clerks is keeping a record. He has already listed the names of more than fifteen thousand men, women, and children."
"You're doing all right, aren't you, Jim?"
"Yes, but I want to get back on the trail."
"What will become of the fort, Jim? The settlers depend upon getting supplies here."
"My clerks can run the fort without me. I can do more good now by being a scout or a guide for a wagon train."
"The settlers need experienced leaders on the trip across the plains and mountains," replied Tom. "Most of them are as green as grass. They haven't the faintest idea of the dangers and hardships of the trail. At first they think they can get along by themselves. But after an Indian attack or buffalo stampede, they're very glad to carry out the orders of an old-timer."
"You know, Tom, when a wagon train nears the fort I watch it closely. If it's in good condition I know one of our men of the old Rocky Mountain Fur Company is in command."
"Our trappers were the best of the mountain men," said Tom. "They should be the best of the scouts and guides. And with you in the saddle again, Jim, it will be like the good old days." He paused. "No, those days are gone forever. But the years ahead will be even better."
Jim looked across the valley. Far away a covered wagon train rolled toward the fort. "You're right, Torn. The years ahead will be even better. The wilderness no longer belongs to us. It now belongs to the settlers—the builders of our nation."
The story of the fur trade in the Old West is a record of the brave deeds and stout courage of its men, the mountain men. There were less than a thousand men engaged in the western fur trade. But they blazed the trails for the tens of thousands of settlers who built the West.
And of all the men, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company trappers were the best. They opened up the richest trapping lands. Their discoveries and exploring trips were the most important. They were the best of the scouts and guides during the covered-wagon days. Many were killed in pitched battles with the Indians. Others sleep in lonely, unmarked graves.
High in the list of the famous old company trappers stand the names of Jim Bridger, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jed Smith, Bill and Milton Sublette. They are remembered, for they blazed their trails when the odds were against them.