The early history of Utah is intimately tied to the history of the fur trade. Drawn to the mountains by the beaver, trappers and traders opened trails that would be followed by succeeding generations of adventurers and settlers. Overall, the mountain men had a positive impact upon the native inhabitants of this region, creating an improved climate for those who would come later.
Years before the first mountain men came to Utah and the surrounding region, the fur trade was beginning to indirectly affect this area. Trading activity in the Pacific Northwest, on the Upper Missouri River, in New Mexico, and in Canada had some impact on Utah.
There are indications of Americans or Europeans having been in Utah as early as the 1700s. Julius Remy, a visitor to Salt Lake City in 1855, wrote of having seen an inscription in a cave at the south end of the Great Salt Lake. The inscription was in French and included the name “Lecarne.” Also inscribed was a date: 17xx, the last two digits being illegible. It may never be known who “Lecarne” was, but it is possible that he was a French trader operating out of southern Canada, where the French were actively trading in the 1790s.
A map engraved in 1811 for “Guthrie’s New System of Geography” includes a large lake at nearly the same latitude and longitude as the Great Salt Lake. The lake and is properly drawn with no outlets but is not named. A notation on the map states that the information concerning that region had been given by a “Mr. Lawrence” who supposedly passed through the region on his way to California in 1790 and 1791.
An 1808 map drawn by George Drouilliard, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition and an employee of Manuel Lisa’s St. Louis Missouri Fur Company, bears a notation that the Indians were able to travel with their families from the mouth of the Shoshone River to the Spanish settlements in fourteen days. Other members of the Lewis and Clark expedition also made mention in their journals concerning Spanish settlements to the south of their route. Their notations about Spanish horses and tack confirm that trade had been established with Spanish settlements in the Southwest. Spanish traders very likely followed the 1776 route of Dominguez and Escalante through Colorado and into Utah, although there is very little documentation of this since their activities were illegal under Spanish law.
Americans trying to establish fur trading activities on the upper Missouri River and in the Pacific Northwest also had an early impact upon Utah. After Manuel Lisa situated his post at the mouth of the Bighorn River, he attempted to establish contact with people in New Mexico. Ezekial Williams, who was sent south for this purpose, went as far as the Arkansas Rive, and may have traveled near Utah’s borders.
When John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company ventured to establish operations in the Pacific Northwest, its overland expeditions also reached into the Great Basin. Five of his men–Robinson, Resner, Hoback, Miller, and Cass–who started out with Wilson Price Hunt, stayed in the Snake River area and apparently were on the Bear River sometime in 1811 or 1812. Their wanderings may have taken them into Utah. Robert Stuart found these men on his way back to St. Louis from Fort Astoria. They had suffered greatly but after receiving supplies from Stuart all except Miller chose to remain in the mountains.
British traders from the Northwest also found their way into Utah Territory before the coming of the mountain men. Donald MacKenzie’s journal indicates that Northwest Fur Company men may have trapped in the vicinity of Bear River and Bear Lake in 1811. MacKenzie himself was on Black Bear Lake (Bear Lake) in 1819.
The Anglo-American Convention of 1818 had defined the 49th parallel as the boundary between British and American holdings only as far west as the Continental Divide. Therefore the entire Oregon country was left open for joint occupation with the hope that a division would be possible after a period originally intended to last ten years. Nationals of both countries enjoyed unrestricted access to the area south of Russian-owned Alaska, and both countries made efforts to maintain control over the area.
In 1821 the British government forced a merger of the Northwest Fur Company with the Hudson’s Bay Company with the idea that the latter would be better able to handle the task of maintaining British interests in the Northwest. Governor George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company, alarmed by the presence of Americans in the Oregon country, issued orders for the Snake River trapping brigades to deplete the supply of beaver in the Snake River region, on the mistaken assumption that the single attraction of the region to the Americans was the lure of the beaver. This British policy remained unchanged during the fur trade era. Thus, rather than carefully conserving the supply of beaver, the British “scorched stream” policy mandated the creation of a “fur desert” in an area including northern Utah. This policy was evidenced in the actions of Donald MacKenzie’s and Alexander Ross’s brigades, which trapped on the Snake River and into northern Utah in 1823 and 1824.
The fur trade in the area that would become Utah began in earnest in 1824. The movement was represented by three main thrusts: traders out of Taos and Santa Fe licensed by the Mexican government; Hudson’s Bay Company expeditions ordered by John McLoughlin out of Oregon under the direction of Peter Skene Ogden; and American interests out of St. Louis.
On 20 March 1822 William H. Ashley, then Lieutenant governor of Missouri, placed a notice in the Missouri Republican of St. Louis requesting the services of one hundred “enterprising young men” to be employed in the fur trade on the upper Missouri River. Among those who signed on with Ashley were several whose names became famous in history and legend as “mountain men,” including Jim Bridger, David Jackson, Jedediah Smith, Thomas Fitzpatrick, John Weber, Hugh Glass, James Clyman, Daniel T. Potts, and the Sublette brothers, Milton and William. The “Ashley men” were the first trappers who arrived in the Rockies out of St. Louis. These employees of the Ashley-Henry Fur Company had arrived in northern Utah by the spring of 1824 after having failed in their attempts to compete on the upper Missouri River because of their loss of men and supplies.
The Ashley-Henry Company turned desperately to the Rocky Mountains in a final attempt to survive. Early in 1824 Smith’s detachment of “Ashley men” crossed South Pass on their way to the Green River and northern Utah, followed later by Weber’s group. Upon arrival they found an abundance of beaver and no competition from the American Fur Company, which was controlling the upper Missouri River. It was quickly decided that the men would remain in the mountains year round, doing their own trapping, for this was Shoshone and Ute country and these Indians were not trappers. Thus, out of necessity, the famous “mountain man” was born. Thomas Fitzpatrick was immediately sent to St. Louis to notify Ashley that supplies should be brought to the mountains by the following summer, and the mountain men would meet at a designated location to trade their furs in exchange for the supplies needed for the coming year. The pack train would replace the river as the mode of transportation, and the rendezvous would take the place of the trading post.
After Jedediah Smith led his party across South Pass in the spring of 1824, he went north, accompanied by six men, to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Flathead House to observe the activities of the British. He left his men to trap in the Uinta Mountains, on Ham’s and Black’s Forks of the Green River and in Cache Valley, known to them as Willow Valley. These men set up “winter quarters” of 1824-25 in Cache Valley. The trappers commonly met at a designated location in order to spend the winter months together. It was late in the fall of 1824 that Jim Bridger descended the Bear River to its mouth and first encountered the Great Salt Lake, which he initially mistook for an arm of the Pacific Ocean.
Etienne Provost, a Frenchman operating out of Santa Fe under Mexican license, entered Utah in 1824 by way of the Green River country. He made his way to the Wasatch Front and very possibly may have entered the Salt Lake Valley. If this is so, he would have seen the lake before Jim Bridger. Provost’s party was attacked by a band of Snake Indians in the fall of 1824 and most of the men were killed. Provost and the other survivors escaped and made their way to the Green River in eastern Utah, where they spent the winter at the mouth of the White River. The actual location of this attack remains unknown but is thought by most historians to have been on the Provo, Jordan, or Weber rivers. If it occurred on the Jordan River or on the Weber River, it could be maintained that Provost discovered the Great Salt Lake that fall, before Bridger.
Provost made two other recorded trips to the Wasatch Front from the Green River country in the spring of 1825. On each occasion he chose to travel directly to the Great Salt Lake by way of Weber Canyon, not through Utah Valley. This suggests the possibility that he was familiar with the Weber Canyon route because he had taken it on his first trip in 1824.
The discovery of Warren A. Ferris’s Map of the Northwest Fur Country(drawn in 1836) has shed new light on the topic and adds considerable, although not conclusive, support to the argument that the Indian attack occurred on the Jordan River. Ferris’s narrative states that Provost was attacked on “a stream flowing into the Big Lake that now bears his name.” This would be the “Provo” River. The Ferris map clearly indicates that the river known to the mountain men as the “Proveau” is the modern-day Jordan River. The fact that the attack occurred on the Jordan River, combined with Provost’s apparent familiarity with the route through Weber Canyon to the Great Salt Lake, points strongly to the probability that he was at the Great Salt Lake in the fall of 1824, well before Jim Bridger tasted its salty waters.
In the spring of 1825 extensive trapping was done in northern Utah and southwestern Wyoming, around the area where the Ashley’s men had wintered. By May, Peter Skene Ogden and his brigade which left Flathead House in December had also arrived in Utah and were trapping on the upper Ogden and Weber Rivers when a significant event occurred.
Ogden was camped on the Weber River at the place now known as Mountain Green when a group of American trappers led by Johnson Gardner arrived. Gardner’s men camped close to the British camp and an argument ensued over which group had the legal right to trap in the area. Gardner insisted that they were in United States territory. Ogden countered that the ground that they were on was under joint occupation. Etienne Provost was also present, and, being licensed by the Mexican government, had the best claim to trapping rights; but he apparently did not become involved in the debate. Tension was high for two days before Ogden backed down, being faced with the desertion of a large number of his men. In the end he lost some of his men, including a number of Iroquois Indians (commonly used by the Hudson’s Bay Company as trappers), to the Americans, who offered them a better price for their pelts. Ogden remained bitter towards the Americans for many years.
Ashley, who, after receiving word from Thomas Fitzpatrick, had left St. Louis in November 1824, finally arrived in the mountains with supplies in the spring and designated a rendezvous site at the mouth of Randavouse Creek (Henry’s Fork of the Green River), while making an excursion by boat down the river into the Uinta Basin. Traveling back north after having floated down the river, he met Provost, who accompanied him across Strawberry Valley to the Weber River. At that point Provost took his leave and went down to the Salt Lake Valley to trade. Provost and Ashley were reunited on Chalk Creek; they traveled from there to the Green River in time to meet the trappers coming in for the rendezvous. Ashley chose to move the rendezvous site twenty miles up Randavouze Creek to a location which he felt was better suited. This first summer gathering, held in what would become Utah, lasted one day. At its conclusion Ashley returned to St. Louis by way of the Bighorn, Yellowstone, and Missouri rivers, and the trappers went their way to prepare for the fall hunt, much of which was held in Utah.
According to several sources, winter quarters of 1825-26 was designated to be in Cache Valley. Severe weather forced the trappers to relocate to the mouths of the Weber and Bear rivers. There they were joined by Shoshone Indians who remained with them throughout the winter for the first time; an indication of the good relationship with the Native Americans being fostered by the mountain men. This was critical to the success of the fur trade and was also of benefit to succeeding parties who came to the region for purposes unrelated to the fur trade.
During the winter encampment the men found time to explore the surrounding areas. Four men made a trip around the Great Salt Lake in the early spring of 1826 and discovered that it had no outlet. A notation on the Ferris map described this venture.
Andrew Henry, who had returned to St. Louis in 1824, notified Ashley that he wanted out of the business. This resulted in Ashley looking for a new partner. On the return trip to St. Louis in 1825 he selected Jedediah Smith, and the Ashley-Smith Fur Company was formed.
According to the diary of Robert Campbell, who accompanied Ashley to the mountains, the majority of the spring hunt in 1826 was held in northern Utah. Consequently, the rendezvous site had been designated at the close of the 1825 gathering to be in Cache Valley. Jedediah Smith, who had left St. Louis with the supply caravan late in 1825, had become snowbound and Ashley was forced to rescue him and then accompany him to the rendezvous. This was Ashley’s last trip to the mountains, for at the close of the gathering he sold out his interest to Jedediah Smith, David Jackson, and William Sublette. The contract designated Ashley as the supplier for the new company.
At the close of the rendezvous of 1826, Jackson and Sublette took their brigades north into Idaho, Wyoming, and the Yellowstone Country, but most of the fall hunt was again held in northern Utah, Idaho, and southern Wyoming. The rendezvous site for the following year had been designated as the south end of Sweet (Bear) Lake, and most of the trappers remained in the region.
Traveling south from the 1826 rendezvous, Jedediah Smith set out for the southwest with sixteen companions, searching for new fur country and economic opportunities. He covered the entire length of what is now Utah, following essentially the same route as modern Interstate 15, and blazed the trail that would later become known as the “Mormon Corridor.” His journal of this expedition shows that the actual location of the Cache Valley rendezvous was at the mouth of Blacksmith’s Fork (Hyrum, Utah) and that he also made a short side excursion into Sanpete Valley to trade with the Utes. Smith found his way to the missions of southern California, but was not well received. Ignoring the orders of Mexican officials that he leave Mexican soil, he went north through the San Joaquin Valley. After spending the winter of 1826-27 with his men near the San Francisco Bay area, he and two of his men crossed the Sierra Nevada and traveled back to Utah for the 1827 rendezvous at Sweet Lake.
The trappers in Utah chose to once again establish the winter quarters of 1826-27 in Cache Valley, a favorite location because of the abundance of water and grasses. The men again were able to spend some time exploring. Daniel T. Potts went with five men to Utah Valley where they traded as far south as the Sevier River; they then traveled over the Wasatch Range to a tributary of the Green River. They traded extensively with the Utes before returning to winter quarters. It was also from this site that William Sublette, who had taken over the responsibility for bringing supplies to the mountains, left with Moses “Black” Harris on 1 January 1827 for St. Louis to purchase supplies and conduct the trade caravan to the summer gathering.
The rendezvous of 1827 was held as planned at the south end of Sweet Lake. The beginning of the rendezvous was marked by a skirmish with a group of Blackfoot Indians. A party of Shoshone Indians out digging roots was attacked by the Blackfoot. When word reached the camp, the mountain men went out to battle on behalf of their allies. The event was also marked by the return of Jedediah Smith from California. He had crossed the Mojave Desert and the Sierra Nevada, becoming the first white man known to have done so. Immediately following the rendezvous, the intrepid traveler set out once again for the San Gabriel Mission with new recruits and supplies for his men who were waiting for him in the San Joaquin Valley.
On this journey, Smith encountered the treachery of the Mojave Indians at the crossing of the Colorado River, where he lost several of his men and nearly all of his supplies. Upon his arrival at San Gabriel he was imprisoned by Mexican officials before being reunited with his men. In the spring of 1828, while traveling north toward the Oregon country, he also survived his second encounter with a grizzly bear and lost all but two of his men in an Indian attack near the Umpqua River in Oregon. Smith was taken in by John McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver, where he spent the winter of 1828-29. He accompanied Peter Skene Ogden’s Snake River brigade to Flathead House and then south to the Snake River country in the spring of 1829. At Flathead Lake he encountered his partner David Jackson, who had presumed him to be dead after his long absence. Together they arrived at the rendezvous of 1829 at Pierre’s Hole, a beautiful valley on the west side of the Tetons, along the Idaho-Wyoming border.
While Smith was making his long trek, the trappers continued business as usual in the mountains. Winter quarters of 1827-28 were held in three separate locations, one being Cache Valley.
By 1828 trapping activity in Utah had declined considerably due to the depletion of beaver. Even so, because of the beauty of the area, Sweet Lake was again the site for the rendezvous. And, also as in the previous year, the beginning of the annual gathering was punctuated by a battle with a band of Blackfoot Indians. This time a group of trappers, on their way to the rendezvous site, was attacked by the Blackfoot. Several hours into the battle, two men managed to break through the Indians’ line and bring reinforcements of mountain men from the rendezvous site.
Winter quarters was again held at different locations. Trapping operations had spread out over such a large area that it was not feasible for the men to gather in one location. Furthermore, the large number of men who were in the mountains by this time could not be supported by the natural resources available at any single location, and the trappers were forced to separate into smaller groups for the winter.
In 1829 the American Fur Company made its first expedition to the area mountains. Having no intention to trap, they brought only supplies for trade and were hoping do business at the rendezvous. They were unable to find the rendezvous, which was held at Pierre’s Hole, where they would have witnessed Jed Smith’s joyful reunion with his partners. Despite this setback, within five years they had completely taken over the fur trade in the Rockies.
Peter Skene Ogden also returned to Utah in 1829. He came by way of Nevada and discovered the Mary’s (Humboldt) River. Skirting the north end of the Great Salt Lake, he made his way to the Bear River and then departed by a similar route.
Undaunted by the failure of the previous year, and with the realization that they had to make a move in the mountains, the American Fur Company returned again in 1830. A company of thirty men under the command of Pierre Choteau, Jr., was sent out from St. Louis to bring supplies for trade and also to participate in trapping. Like their colleagues of the previous year, they were unable to locate the summer rendezvous held on the Wind River, but, unlike the previous group, they remained in the mountains with every intention of competing directly in the trapping of beaver. During the fall they trapped the northern slope of the Uinta Mountains and worked their way in to Bear Lake and Cache Valley. Among this group was Warren A. Ferris, who spent the next five years in the mountains and kept a detailed journal of his experiences. In 1836 Ferris also drew a detailed map of the fur country which remained unpublished until 1940 and which has since proved to be a valuable aid in the study of fur trade history in Utah and the West.
In August, Smith, Jackson, and William Sublette sold their interest to five partners who formed the Rocky Mountain Fur Company: Jim Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Milton Sublette, Henry Fraeb, and Jean Gervais. Feeling that the days of the fur trade in the Rockies were coming to a close, Smith, Jackson, and Sublette went to St. Louis where they planned to engage in trade with Santa Fe and Taos. As had Ashley before them, they maintained a measure of interest by contracting to provide supplies for the new company.
The rendezvous of 1831 was slated to be held in Cache Valley, but due to the inexperience of the new partners it was never held. Thomas Fitzpatrick, upon whom the responsibility for the supply caravan now fell, was to go to St. Louis to get the supplies but did not leave the mountains until March. By the time he arrived in St. Louis, Smith, Jackson, and Sublette had already left for New Mexico. Fitzpatrick was forced to follow them and arrange for supplies in Santa Fe. The trappers who had gathered for the summer rendezvous in Cache Valley waited for the supplies, but when Fitzpatrick did not arrive they had to leave in order to make preparations for the fall hunt. Henry Fraeb headed east to look for Fitzpatrick, and, finding him on the Platte River near the mouth of Laramie Creek in eastern Wyoming, got the supplies and then distributed them to the trappers. Fitzpatrick left immediately for St. Louis, determined not to encounter the same difficulty the following year.
Although the fur trade continued in the Rockies, after 1832 it had moved so far north that its impact upon Utah was greatly reduced. Still some events effected Utah.
In 1832 Capt. B.L.E. Bonneville took leave from the army to go to the mountains to attend the rendezvous held at Pierre’s Hole. Unable to find it, he built Fort Bonneville near the confluence of the Green River and Horse Creek in western Wyoming. The mountain men often referred to this post as “Fort Nonsense,” revealing their views on the probability of the endeavor’s success.
At the end of the 1833 rendezvous, which was held near Bonneville’s fort, Joseph Walker was sent by Bonneville to California with the hope of recouping losses incurred in the Rockies. According to George Nidever, Walker’s route took him across Utah by way of the northern end of the Great Salt Lake. Like Ogden in 1829, Walker was a precursor of succeeding travelers who would make their way across the Great Basin to the valleys and gold fields of California.
Members of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, the American Fur Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Captain Bonneville were all present at the 1834 rendezvous on Ham’s Fork of the Green River. Bonneville’s man, Walker, was also at this assembly, having traveled across northern Utah, again by way of the north end of the Great Salt Lake, on his return trip from California. This was the last of the summer events held in what became Utah Territory. At this gathering, the five partners and most of those who remained of the original Ashley men became employees of the American Fur Company, which bought out the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. The cutthroat underpricing and business tactics of the larger company had effectively forced this transaction.
At the conclusion of the 1834 rendezvous, Warren Ferris, acting as an independent trapper/trader backed by the Hudson’s Bay Company since the spring of that year, went south along the Green River into the Uinta Basin of eastern Utah, continuing into Sanpete Valley and then over to Utah Valley. He was accompanied by twenty-one men and their families. The men were mostly French and were probably American Fur Company employees. By fall they made their way back to the Uinta Basin, where they established a winter camp at the junction of the Green and White Rivers. Ferris and his party left Utah by way of western Colorado in the spring of 1835.
In the spring of 1841 Osborne Russell’s trek from Fort Hall on the Snake River to Utah Lake represented the last major penetration of the fur trade into Utah. Although Russell spent several months in Utah, he was there mainly for the purpose of trading with the Utes and did very little trapping himself.
Due to changes in fashion and economic trends in the East and in Europe, the Rocky Mountain fur trade came to a close by 1841. The last few years of the era had little impact upon the area that would become Utah; however, during those years another aspect of the fur trade, the trading post, emerged on the scene. Utah’s trading post activity was centered in the Uinta Basin and focused on trade with the free trappers and the Ute Indians. Most of the activity in eastern Utah originated out of New Mexico and documentation about it is often unavailable or incomplete.
The first post, called Reed’s Post, was established in 1828 by William Reed and Denis Julien at the junction of the Whiterocks and Uinta rivers. Operations there were apparently somewhat successful. Antoine Robidoux purchased the Reed post in the fall of 1831 or the spring of 1832. After the purchase, the post was called Fort Robidoux or sometimes Fort Uinta. It appears that Robidoux then established another post in 1837, also called Fort Robidoux, this time on the Green River.
In 1833 Kit Carson established a post on the Green River at the mouth of the White River. The establishment consisted of three cabins and was named Fort Kit Carson. He did not remain long; he sold his furs to Robidoux in the spring of 1834 and went into Wyoming.
William Craig, Philip Thompson, and Previtt Sinclair established a fort in Brown’s Hole on the Green River near the Utah-Colorado border in 1836. They named this post in honor of the late hero of the Alamo, Davy Crockett. This establishment did quite well for some time, but the decline of the fur trade led to its closing in the late summer of 1840.
The posts in the Uinta Basin were faced with the problem of isolation. They had little contact with the rendezvous trade, although some of the mountain men occasionally wintered in the basin. Being completely removed from the emigrant trade, these posts were not able to survive the decline of the fur trade and were forced out of business with its passing.