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trapper rendezvous
Annual rendezvous of Rocky Mountain trappers.
Original sketch in Oregon Trail Museum.

The Rocky Mountain Fur Trade

Ashley was impressed by Fitzpatrick's report on the success of his employees in locating rich beaver territory. Late in the autumn of 1824, he hurried westward up the Platte River, sending his brigades out to trap while he personally led an exploration of the lower canyons of the Green River. In 1825, reunited with his men at Henry's Fork of the Green, he led them to the head of Wind River where they constructed boats and floated their cargo to St. Louis via the Bighorn, Yellowstone, and Missouri Rivers.

Ashley is credited with conceiving a new scheme of handling the mountain fur trade which became known as the rendezvous system. Instead of building expensive fixed trading posts in the wilderness, dependent upon the Indian trade, the idea was to send white trappers to camp out all winter, trapping while the beaver were in prime fur, then all to foregather at some prearranged mountain valley where they would meet traders bringing pack trains of equipment and trade goods from St. Louis. Casks of whisky, standard trade items, insured that the annual mountain carnival or rendezvous would see not only a rapid exchange of trade goods for beaver pelts, but also carousing and roistering on a scale suitable to compensate the trappers for their long lonely winter vigils. For 15 years Scotts Bluff would witness traders' caravans, going mountainward in early summer, and returning in the autumn laden with their harvest of furs.

In the summer of 1826 the first of the colorful traders' caravans, led by Ashley, Sublette, and Smith, and probably including young Hiram Scott, passed the yet unnamed bluff en route to the first big rendezvous, on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The swarthy, colorfully garbed trappers escorted 300 pack-laden mules on this trip. At Salt Lake there were two notable events. Ashley, who had now become comfortably rich from skimming the cream of the beaver trade, sold his interests to a partnership which became known as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and Smith embarked on the first of his notable expeditions across the Great Basin to California, becoming the first American to reach that Mexican province by this route.

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