As soon as Europeans began exploring the North American mainland, the fur trade with Native Americans was established. It was the earliest economic enterprise pursued by Europeans in North America, and it went on to become one of the most important industries in both Canada and what was later the United States.
At the beginning, Native Americans traded the pelts of small animals with the French and English fishermen in exchange for goods such as tools for household use, weapons, and clothes. Later on, the first companies that focused exclusively on the fur trade were established and the industry began flourishing in North America.
The fur trade reached its peak during the first half of the 19th century when many mountain men began roaming through the wild areas of the Rocky Mountains in search of beaver pelts. At the time, the beaver was on the brink of extinction in Europe due to the fact that it had been used for the production of beaver hats, which were quite fashionable throughout the Old Continent, during the past several centuries. This meant that they were extremely valuable, which inspired more and more mountain men, trappers, and traders to join the hunt for beaver throughout the Rocky Mountains.
Far away from civilization, these men spent many months living and hunting in the Rockies. They would then transport the furs back to St. Louis, Missouri, where they sold or traded them in exchange for the much-needed supplies and food. Apart from this, they helped in the creation of many trails and played a crucial role in the westward expansion.
By 1825, traders, among whom was the legendary William Henry Ashley of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, realized that they could transport trade goods to the mountains, which meant that beaver trappers could live in the Rockies year round. Soon, thanks to Ashley, a system of annual summer gatherings was established, where trappers and Native Americans could sell their furs to companies. But it wasn’t all about trade. These festival-like annual events soon evolved into two-week-long wilderness parties, at which Native Americans and people of various other cultures enjoyed a wide range of delights, including fine food and considerable amounts of alcohol, target shooting, horse racing, gambling, and making love.
James Beckwourth, one of the most famous mountain men, and according to his own account a chief of the Crow Nation, describes this annual fusion of cultures in his book, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians:
“The apsent parties began to arrive, one after the other, at the rendezvous. Shortly after, General Ashley and Mr. Sublet came in, accompanied with three hundred pack mules, well laden with goods and all things necessary for the mountaineers and the Indian trade. It may well be supposed that the arrival of such a vast amount of luxuries from the East did not pass off without a general celebration. Mirth, songs, dancing, shouting, trading, running, jumping, singing, racing, target-shooting, yarns, frolic, with all sorts of extravagances that white men or Indians could invent were freely indulged in.”
Apart from being crucial in shaping the early American West, these annual gatherings proved to be quite profitable for some people. Ashley, who was the main supplier of trade goods at the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, soon made a fortune thanks to the rendezvous, and in just a couple of years was able to retire from the fur trade. In 1831, he became a Representative to the U.S. Congress from the State of Missouri and was reelected in 1832 and 1834.
The trappers apparently preferred the rendezvous over the previous practice, which included carrying their furs all the way to St. Louis. It appears that they were not the only ones and according to some accounts, at some of the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous attendance exceeded 3,000 people, among whom were many tourists that came from as far as Europe.
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Once the rendezvous was over, the new trapping season would begin and most of the trappers would go to their fall trapping grounds. However, as years passed by, beavers were brought to the brink of extinction because trappers had been killing them too fast. Additionally, beaver hats were no longer fashionable in Europe, which meant that the prices began to decline rapidly and the collapse of the American fur trade system was inevitable. The last of the glorious Rocky Mountain Rendezvous was held in 1840 on the Green River.